Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Walker Evans in Provincetown; Gene Smith in NYC; Mary Oliver on Molly Malone Cook and the VII Photographers Gallery

Recently, on Cape Cod, I picked up a book of photography in a used bookstore and after paging through it found a photograph of Walker Evans. I had decided that the work wasn't very interesting but then figured that "at that price" I could just cut out the page with Evans on it.

When I got the book home and had time to peruse it more carefully it offered up some surprises. Turned out to be not as uninteresting as it had appeared at first glance. (One of the surprises was that there were splotches of dried blood all over the back cover. But that's not part of this story.)

The book is called Our World. It was written by Mary Oliver and was published by Beacon Press, Boston, in 2007. The photographs in the book are by Molly Malone Cook, Oliver's partner of over 40 years. The photography doesn't actually get any better with a second, third or subsequent look-see. It's not that they're bad, it's just that each clearly shows the influence of a particular "other" photographer and as a group they never cohere into a "vision." They're nice snapshots. But then, Cook isn't responsible for the edit so she may have chosen a different group.

And, though the book is meant to showcase Cook's photos, the title really says what the book is about: an attempt by the writer to explain--and probably to herself--who it was that she had spent such a large part of her life with. The narrative is incomplete--in part to shield but also because there are things, even after 40 years, that the author doesn't know. The prose tends to be more allusive than descriptive (Oliver is a poet, after all, and a pulitzer prize-winning one, at that) and is very short but in the end you actually have a good sense of what kept these two people together for over 40 years--and happily so, it seems. It's a sweet, unsentimental bohemian love story.

Mary Oliver on the left and Molly Malone Cook, no date.

But that's not why I'm writing about the book. There are a couple of items of interest to the casual photo-historian. One is that Molly Malone Cook opened one of the first galleries on the East coast that showed only photography. Here is Oliver's text (Molly is referred to throughout the book as M.):

M. first visited Cape Cod, the towns of Truro and Provincetown especially, in the late fifties. Then, in 1960 she decided to come for the summer season and to open a photographers' gallery. Her ambition and her hope were great, as was her valor. At that time--almost fifty years ago now--photography was scarcely, or at best only by a few, regarded as an art. People bought paintings certainly but had not yet begun to purchase and cherish the photographs that now cost thousands of dollars, if one can find them.

She rallied her friends and made new friends among the photographers of those years. Edward Steichen said to her when she visited him to talk over her idea, "Are you crazy or rich?" to which she replied, "Well, I'm not rich." Nevertheless he joined her enterprise. Among the photographers whose work for the next few summers was shown at the VII Photographers Gallery (seven was the number of the original group, though it grew larger) were Berenice Abbott, W. Eugene Smith, Eugene Atget, Harry Callahan, Ken Heyman, Rollie McKenna, Barbara Morgan, Minor White, Lawrence Shustak, Aaron Siskind and Ansel Adams, as well as Steichen and, on occasion, M. herself. One day in the first summer a tall boy showed up when the gallery had just opened--dusty, with the proverbial sixties knapsack, and some photographs which she accepted; the dusty boy was a young William Clift.

Ansel Adams had a show in 1964. Could it be possible that the price he put on some of his prints was thirty-five dollars? Among the papers from the Gallery I have found such a price sheet.
The Gallery's final season was the summer of 1964. Many people had come to look and to admire, but not enough people bought photographs for the Gallery to be a viable way of life. To help the situation M. had added the sale of books, opening the East End Bookshop. Photographs were still there, on all available wall space, but the predominant business in that combination was literature. In the sixties whole families came to Provincetown, with their children and their children's summer reading lists, and M.'s selection provided their needs and, for us (we had begun to live together in the Gallery's final year), a more possible life. Previously M. had gone back to New York for the winter, but that long fall we kept lingering, feeling our roots settling into that magical and beautiful town, and so we stayed on.

The bookstore is where the photo of Evans was taken. Cook's account of the meeting is included in the book:

On a fall day in 1967, Walker Evans came into my East End Bookshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with the painter Fritz Bultman.

He was seriously surprised that I had both paperback and hardback copies of his book Message from the Interior for sale.

Evans appeared like a man who expected nothing, was slightly bewildered and found it hard to smile because he knew what was about to happen around the next corner, and it wasn't necessarily good.

He wrote in my hardback copy of Message from the Interior, "Molly Malone Cook with pleasure and gratitude. Walker Evans 9/12/67." I asked him if I could take his picture, he looked puzzled and asked me why. I just took the picture.

I had been interested and curious about Walker Evans since I'd first seen Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book he and Agee did in the 1930s. Somehow I could not see Walker Evans in the middle of Alabama feeling as comfortable as James Agee did and from what I have read he wasn't.

He seemed a very sad man, but oh what a fine eye he had.

Molly Malone Cook
Provincetown, Massachusetts
November 27, 1990

Another thing that I found of interest was Oliver's description of Cook making prints. First off, the passages speak to feelings I used to have making images in the darkroom and secondly, it's a great peek at how some photographers used to work, unaware of the damage accumulating in their bodies. (I knew photographers who would not use tongs, believing that they needed to be "in touch" with a print for it's proper development. And yet, one of them would say, "Every time I stick my hand in the fix, I can taste it in my mouth.")

Happily a friend in town gave M. the use of her darkroom. The process now has changed, but then it did indeed, except for the faintest red light bulb, take place in darkness. Sometimes I went with M. and watched as she developed or printed--a careful, timed business with vats and trays and potions. I watched not as one understanding the process--I never learned it--but as an observer seeing with excitement and delight how the long slips of film became a distant city, the desert, or a face revealing its personal story. A part of the pleasure no doubt was watching M.--her exactness, her patience, her certainty. Fortunate are all who have had such an experience, in whatever discipline--watching a painter paint, or hearing music as the notes lift and dip into something that will be everlasting--they are sacred moments. Especially if the person involved is someone you know intimately, but now all is cleared from the mind except the blessing, the heaven of work. I never tired of watching. First the great, cumbersome enlarger, then the vats, then the first impressions appearing on the blank paper in its bath, the blacks deepening to M.'s approval. Maybe a touch from the bottle of ferrocyanide, maker of brightness. Then the dryer, then the decision if and how to crop, until there it was: the photograph. From that fragile film. From the camera. From the eye looking, and finding.

But there is this, too. Under that faint red light, M. all the while smoking, and sometimes checking temperatures by dipping a finger and tasting. Yes, it was a magical process and a magical time. Also, of course, it was beginning to ravage her lungs, a process that was fairly slow but, also, not reversible. When, in the seventies, she could no longer do the darkroom work and her vitality was beginning to diminish, she took fewer and fewer pictures, at least in the old, driven way. Yes, there were pictures still, developed commercially with one of the new digital cameras. But the role of maker, the seeker of faces first in the world and then coaxed onto the heavy Verigam paper, the smell of the dryer, the cropping, that was over. She gave the enlarger to a young friend just beginning to print. The enamel trays were useful in the kitchen. The negatives sat in their plastic slips; the prints, hundreds of them, went into their boxes.

In 1969 M. suffered an illness, lung-related, significant enough for us to close the bookstore. And thus fairly finished was the forwarding of her own work in photography, as well as the forwarding of the work of other photographers...

Cook died in 2005 and I include the last paragraph of Oliver's writing here, which relates to Cook's last days, because the passage not only gives us a nice feel for each of these individuals but also speaks eloquently to the idea of "end of life."

The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don't say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person's character shines or glooms. M.'s strength waned, over and over she met with some obstacle that might be called the-body-can't-do-it-anymore. She was cheerful during repetitive hospital stays; she was sometimes hilarious with visitors, wonderfully off-hand. "Oh," she would say, flipping her hand as if scooting a fly, "it's just a little tumor." Her boat was still in the harbor and once in a while she would struggle aboard and have a good time, though a brief good time. To get out of the boat she contrived the only manner possible, she flung herself overboard into the shallow water, laughing, until we all laughed with her. Finally, she gave the boat away. Good lungs we need, and hers were failing. That is the way it goes sometimes, slowly. The vitality goes somewhere else into this world. And then the life.

And finally, there are also a couple of shots of W. Eugene Smith in the book.

The first is labeled "The photographer W. Eugene Smith, New York City, 1962" and the second, "Smiling this time."


dentontay said...

nice find, and thanks for doing all that typing!

Don said...

Ahh, come on. I don't have the patience for that.

My scanner translates printed text into live text. And usually pretty well, with little need for editing.