About the Contributors #2

June 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Highlights from monograph Volumes 3 (John Dugdale) and 4 (Cy DeCosse) of The Journal of Contemporary Photography.

The Pilgrimage of Lazarus
(After the photographs of John Dugdale)

A blackbird skimmed the weeds at the field’s edge,
Dragging its shadow. But Lazarus saw beyond
Mustard and witchgrass, beyond the tattered hedge
To those shadeless, gilt-edged petals and the fronds
Of perfect palms, saw even the saxifrage
Leave heaven’s shale unbroken – then he turned
For one more look behind him. From its thicket
The blackbird sounded a last, imperfect note.

If heaven is fulfillment, think of Lazarus,
The knowledge of that blackbird in his head,
Walking the well-made fields of paradise
Where birds no longer ravish the ripe seed
Nor wasps plunder the lilac, where an gels drowse
In the languor of perfection , and discord
Is the longing for that flawed syllable
At the field ‘s edge, which no heaven can fulfill.

like a black feather dropped in a field of white
Flowers, that syllable still haunted him,
Vexing the pure petals, fierce as appetite –
So Lazarus turned away from the seraphim,
From those blossoms and the untasted fruit
That decked each gilded bough, and traced the psalm
Of the blackbird raging through the flawless air,
Backward, toward the kingdom of desire.


A Prayer for John Dugdale

Saint Ludwig, pray for me. I am going blind. Just as you went deaf. Even as the light fades around me, I see you as if for the first time. You move along a street in Bonn and it is easy for those who do not understand to say that it was all inside your head anyway, that you could hear the soaring of voices in your Ninth Symphony just as surely as if the universe had not laid this sensual martyrdom upon you. But I know that what you lost was precious and it was irreplaceable. Surely you listened with a fierce keenness to all the seemingly irrelevant sounds about you. The scuffle of hooves in the street, the barking of a dog, voices down a passageway, the turning of a wheel, the whisper of the clothes of people passing. You did not stand beneath the heavens and catch your music whole. Saint Ludwig, forgive this presumption, for my own art uses sight, not sound, but as I go blind I understand that you found your cosmic voice in the semiquavers of the commonplace. Which is never common at all. Not when we have these fierce senses. Another saint said that God is in the details. I know this is true. The whisper of the clothes: perhaps that is my own sound. Much of what I know of things resides beneath that sound. The body. These are the details of God through the eyes he gave me to see: a. naked man blurred in desire holding a flower; another holding his own arms, cut by a still expanse of water; on a wood-plank table a water glass, a scattering of cards, the sweet dimpling of deltoids; a bed in a soft chaos of covers, empty as the pictureless frame, empty from a death whose blue grace lingers here. Did you hear the body, Saint Ludwig? I think so. The music you created but never heard, the voices that rise together in joy: they sing of the body, of one body leaning gently over another and offering a hand. Touch. Like God and Adam on the ceiling. Touch. We were once one and we can be so again. I saw the visible world with a ravishing clarity. I can create images still. But now I wait upon the details again, the connection. Touch. I would touch you, Saint Ludwig. Reach to me. My fingertips await. I can see you clearly.

Flowers, Fruit, Music, and the Mystery of Beauty

Why do we love flowers? Why do they look beautiful to us? What is it that makes certain photographs of them – Cy DeCosse’s Queen of the Night, for example…For that matter, what makes a beautiful woman beautiful, and why can a song by Richard Strauss make some of us cry or the Dies Irae of Mozart’s Requiem make us shiver? (I bring music into the discussion for two reasons: first because Cy DeCosse is a passionate and accomplished musician himself, a flautist, and because the response to music seems the most enigmatic yet the most powerful of all our human responses to art and beauty.)

It is perhaps impossible to understand what we clumsily call our “aesthetic response” to the things that move us because they are beautiful; the response is certainly elicited by many different things for different people and is impossible to measure or predict. Maybe that is why, in this age of the quantifiable, it is suspect or even incorrect in critical circles to mention the beauty of a work of art. And yet I believe that our response to beauty is one of the most important qualities that we humans can have – not very far below loving kindness – in terms of the joy and meaning it can bring to our lives, so it is worthwhile to consider some of the possible or likely reasons that things might seem beautiful to us.

Perhaps at its deepest level, the appreciation of beauty is biological, something that is built into us as a species – an attraction to the things that we need to stay alive or to perpetuate the species. This is currently a very popular kind of explanation for many human tastes, and it can be quite convincing…

Addressing the idea of beauty more directly, it is quite easy to argue that certain qualities of feminine beauty – smooth, unblemished skin, glossy hair, the full and tender lips of youth – are universally admired (at least by human males) because they signal (to the males) a female who is at an optimum age and level of health for bearing children. All this possibly seems very far from the question of why flowers seem beautiful to humans, but I think that even flowers can be shown to satisfy a deep biological need…

About the Contributors #1

June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

A Series of Highlights from the Contributors of 21st Editions

Highlights from the first two volumes of The Journal of Contemporary Photography.


They are one answer to the human need
For a second life, and they exist for us
In the secular heaven of photography,
Safe in emulsion’s cloud

Through which we glimpse them, knowing them as we know
The angels, by report and parched surmise.
Like Milton’s seraphim who veil their gaze
Against the beams of God,

Often we see them handsomely asquint
When captured by a bursting photoflash,
Or dazzling and bedazzled on that beach
Where currently they sun;

And yet perhaps they seem most brilliant when,
Putting away all glamor, they appear
In their old clothes at home, with dog and child,
Projecting toward the lens

From a couch not unlike our own, a smile
Sublimely confident of mattering.
They smile, too, when we spot their avatars
Upon the actual street,

Sharing with u s the little joke that we
Have known them in a different dimension;
But since they strike u s then as subtly changed-
Pale, short, a trifle older-

It is not hard to yield them back to dream,
From which their images immutably
Bestow a flourish on our muted lives,
Even though death betray them.

Still, there are fewer sightings year by year
Of the trenchcoat carried niftily over the shoulder,
The innocent sultry look, the heaved guitar,
The charming pillbox hat,

And fewer of their dreamers left to grieve
As all those glossy selves, transcendent still,
Slip unaccountably into the morgues
And archives of this world.


A Note on the Earliest Photographs

To what unknown penetrable depths do the earliest photographs probe? The driving intensity of their actuality, the brooding textures of their scrutinizing black & whiteness, the near-hallucinatory super-reality of their stillness; one is overcome by their revelatory honesty, the stark rigidity of the sitters pushed into monumentality by the long exposures. The light seems strained, an all-revealing, irrelevancy-draining, pervading luminosity that clothes the photographed figures in an aura of obsidian-like solidity. And from their submersion in immobile daylight, the portrayed are depicted in a variety of puissant attitudes. The truculent stare of Nadar’s bewigged George Sand or the passionately self-embracing Eugene Delacroix, the stony lyricism of David Octavius Hill. The unassailability of Biow’s Alexander von Humboldt, Cameron’s remote & astral Herschel & Southworth & Hawes’ truculent Lemuel Shaw, [Melville’s father-in-law.] The near-endless gallery is wondrous, directing our eyes along the camera lens ‘s path into the hidden modalities of the time, exposing the obscured personalities & drawing the veil of nineteenth century prudery & formality.

I Awaken from the Lillies

And when did I decide to enter it,
the lily that is my name?

When I first learned it, as a child:
(Susan-Heb. a lily)
I knew only the kind that grows in water,
floats on the surface white
as a gown.

Each year in my back yard they make
a fiery circle. They are like the ones
a girl wore in my dream,
her headdress of cannas enormous,
taller than she was. Eve in the garden,
the garden already polluted.

Nearly fifteen years since we lived
in the land where weeks ago
a physician’s fingers were sliced off,
then his hand, then his arm,
for treating the wrong clan.

We were innocent.
Love was innocent,
if love is ever innocent.

All night I lay
inside a fluted blossom,
lay in a silken bunting,
in a white cradle.
I napped there,
I swayed in the lightest wind.

Contributors in Volume 1:

Leonard Baskin, Ann Beattie, John Bennette, Robert Olen Butler, Denise Bethel, A.D. Coleman, Morri Creech, Dana Gioia, Amy Fleury, Daile Kaplan, Christopher Mahony, Kevin Meaux, Duane Michels, Raul Peschiera, Rixon Reed, Thomas Southall, Lance Speer,  John Stauffer, John Stevenson, John Stilgoe, R.S. Thomas, Anne Tucker, Frederick Turner, Richard Wilbur, John Wood, and Paul Zimmer.

Contributors in Volume 2:

Ann Beattie, John Bennette, Morri Creech, Rachel Morris, Elizabeth Dewberry, Lee Fontanella, Susan Ludvigson, Raul Peschiera, Rixon Reed, Josh Russell, Lance Speer, John Stauffer, John Stevenson, Michel Tournier, Frederick Turner, Scott Whiddon, and John Wood.

Where Am I?

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