Friday, March 1, 2013

Photographer Reuben Cox and "The Work of Joe Webb" (2009)

Mention "photography in the south" and a certain imagery of decay leaps to mind: steel-gray clouds in a black-and-white sky, weather-beaten clapboard, the forgotten faces of Appalachia -- as if the ghosts of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were still documenting the slow turning of the human soul south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Or perhaps it's here that William Faulkner's "the past isn't really dead" is more truth than aphorism; maybe the inexorable and ultimate reconstruction that progress brings hasn't yet removed all traces of the past that linger in the south, and which Reuben Cox is drawn to capture.

The North Carolina artist whose website offers a welcome and a request ("welcome to my mosque ... please wipe your muddy mind before entering") is a photographer, luthier, portraitist; his photo subjects range from the ephemera of the soul to whorls of river water to the graffiti-plastered walls of the now-closed CBGB's, documenting the passage of the temporal in sharply-rendered images of both beauty and clarity.
image from Record Shack collection, Reuben Cox

His human subjects challenge the camera's eye, rather than divert their attention from it. Their assurance in the captured moment is a personal statement, even in the seemingly offhand way Paul McCartney plays an upright piano and the potter Georgia Blizzard sits in window light loosely holding a carved Buddha in her lap.

image from The Work of Joe Webb, Reuben Cox (2009)

His book of photographs The Work of Joe Webb: Appalachian Master of Rustic Architecture (Jargon Books, 2009; distributed by the University of Georgia Press) is work that celebrates the craftsmanship of the Highlands, North Carolina woodworker and builder who created nearly thirty log cabins in the 1920s and 1930s. Cox's contemporary photographs -- taken with a large-format field camera -- reveal the houses in current states of repair, disuse, or unrecognizable renovation: a review in Blueprint calls the images "hallucinatory ... balustrades of thick, twisted twigs minimizing thickets; staircases constructedwith random patterns of interlocking laurel or rhododendron branches."

Though Cox's photographs of log cabins are beautiful documents of a physical past rapidly disappearing, his website offers other work showing Cox's interest in the metaphysics of belief.Everybody Wants to go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die is a series of evocative C-print photographs -- smoke evaporating into air, explosions caught in the moment of combustion, as if the human spirit had suddenly ignited and caught fire -- in settings of fall woods, in the dark of night, or against blue skies and skeletal trees.

image from "Everyone Wants to go to Heaven, But No One Wants to Die," Reuben Cox

Cox created these fleeting moments of flash and fire by experimenting with available light, gunpowder and shutter speed, and the results are unrepeatable instants captured reflexively on film. The ghostly and beautiful images can be unsettling reminders that life is momentary, that the nature of spiritual belief is a matter of individual faith and doubt, and that human nature is changeable as smoke even as the artist tries to capture man's nature against the impermanence of time.

The Jargon Society remains a valuable asset to the continuing memory of its founder (the "visionary coach and, at times, crank") Jonathan Williams, and now in the capable hands of Thomas Craven. Its stated goal is still "dedication to the care and preservation of the singular, the personal, the local, the individual. ... What other press would devote equal effort to White Trash Cooking and the collected poems of Lorine Neidecker at the same time?"' Williams's boundless energy in promoting the vast and largely unheralded wealth of American creativity was expressed in an interview with Leverett T. ("Sneaky Fast") Smith and posted at the Jargon Society website: in it, Williams declares “'There is no end to desire.' But, perhaps, there is an end to energy? I will try to go to the well as long as I think there is a drop of water in it."

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