Bookstores are a luxury these days. Can you remember the last time you were able to sit in a quiet store, browsing unhurriedly, succumbing to a random discovery in the stacks, and finally, reluctantly, departing? Sometimes, we find the thing we didn’t know we needed, just by chance.
I recently saved a thread on Facebook, via Andy Adams of Flak Photo, asking people to list their favorite small bookstores. Photo-Eye in Santa Fe, Arcana in LA, Atomic Books in Baltimore, Dashwood and Mast in NYC, and Passages in Portland were mentioned, among many others. I saved that list thinking I would use it when I travel next, to make a point to visit a new bookstore whenever the opportunity arises. Because even though we can find and view almost anything online, it is a sterile, unsatisfying experience. We lose that wonderful sense of discovery, the delight of chance. I would like to believe these stores can and will survive. But for those who are unable to make regular trips to one of these magical places, there are enterprises like the Charcoal Book Club. Subscribers receive a new photobook every month – per their website, “Sometimes, it’ll be a classic title every bibliophile should own; sometimes it’ll be a new release from an emerging artist who is poised to make big waves.” This past September, their book of the month was Halfstory Halflife by Raymond Meeks. Published in 2018 by Chose Commune, the book was selected for Charcoal by guest curator Ron Jude. Slipped into the front of the book is a small envelope containing a note card printed with a statement about the book by Jude, along with a tiny color print of his own in a 4x5 negative sleeve. It’s a nice touch, suggesting an additional level of personal investment involved in the arrangement. In his statement, he writes, “Halfstory Halflife is a wonderful book. It’s one of those rare pieces that has me scratching my head and asking, “how did he do that?” It’s both surprising and vexing (in the best possible way). It makes me feel like photography is still worth doing.”
I appreciated this point. The reassurance that there is some worth in what we do – and that we can continue to be surprised and inspired. When we look at a book of photographs, what do we expect from it? How often do we look at a photobook, and then revisit it? How many do we never pick up again? Why do many of us buy and keep them in ever increasing (and possibly unrealistic) numbers?
This is a book I was happy to receive, and to “read” several times over. For me, the best books are transportive; they carry me, not always pleasantly, to another space and time. The delicious bookstore experience I wrote about earlier is present when I look at a book – for a short time, I am able to experience something else, be someone else, to hold a new world in my hands. The first viewing is exploratory and exciting, the subsequent visits are more about discovering what I missed the first time around.
This is what happened when I opened Halfstory Halflife. The book is made up of 78 black and white images and is human-sized (8.5 x 11 inches) with a softcover. There is almost no text, just a few enigmatic sentences on the first page, and an excerpt from a poem by C.D. Wright on the back cover. The monochrome images inside the book are filled with young people – young men, boys really, a girl here and there, winding their way through a summer landscape of forest and cliff, leaping here and there into a void. From the publisher’s web site, the photographs were the work of several summers, taken a “few miles from his rural home in the Catskill Mountain region of New York, to a single-lane bridge spanning the tributaries of Bowery and Catskill Creeks. Beneath the bridge, a waterfall drops sixty-feet over moss-covered limestone toward a forbidding pond. ”
This familiar slice of Americana, the remote swimming hole, the quarry pool, the hidden and slightly dangerous place to congregate, is alive and well here, but rendered darkly, as if under an alien sun. Many of the photographs capture groups of boys climbing up a path carved deep in the trees, or clusters of them standing, waiting their turn to jump. Some show a single figure crouched at the edge, contemplative, or flying, spread-eagled, into an inky black emptiness. They remind me of some of Thomas Eakins’ paintings of young men at play – except where Eakins rendered his characters bathed in golden light, lounging in a field of grass or swimming in a picturesque river, Meek’s players inhabit the twilight of the forest, obscured at times by leaves and shadows, and their destination, the forbidding pool, is never seen. Their leaping flight is chaotic but graceful; they are both soaring and falling, about to be swallowed up by darkness while still reflecting the sun on their skin.
The majority of the photographs are in this forest space, the printing so dark at times the tones seem to reverse, but there are a few images of landscape and the detritus of man punctuating the idyll – dilapidated cars, a sagging chain-link fence, broken concrete, rusting metal invading the sylvan scenes. These seem to underscore the separateness of the space and the magical realm it becomes on these pages – it exists in between fantasy and reality. Even time is indistinct – there are no visible signs of technology here, and no real specificity of place – this could be anywhere in America, anytime. The youths (they are not children, nor are they adults) are captured in their Journey to the Special Place, by a Watcher, who remains a few steps behind them - many of the images peer through leaves, around trees, and over rocks. The Watcher is not one of them, but he remembers being them, once. It’s incredibly nostalgic. There is no real beginning or end to the narrative here – the figures are just caught in the act of doing – climbing over a dark cliff into the light, sneaking a cigarette, watching, waiting … even their lounging seems significant. The final image in the book is a single figure perched on a rock, legs dangling, arms tensed to push himself into the void, into the unknown.
Whether Meeks meant to lead me through this flight of fancy is inconsequential – it was so easy to enter his creation, and to follow the characters on their never-ending journey. Halfstory Halflife became, in that moment, a marvelous vehicle, one in which I was transported to the time in my life when summer days went on forever, and responsibilities were for other people.
All images copyright Raymond Meeks from Halfstory Halflife
Lauren Greenwald lives and works in southern California. She teaches photography at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, CA.