Peter van Agtmael – Seeing in the dark

There are no images of conflict in Peter van Agtmael’s new book, yet war and its mark on the societies that wage it is visible in its pages. Its mark on a Magnum photographer like van Agtmael, who has previously documented fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also keenly felt.

“It’s partly about me coming home from war and reconciling with all those complex emotions,” says the photographer. “It’s also about the imprint of all these different wars and how they’ve shaped American society.”

New Orleans, Louisiana. 2012 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. A Second Line parade. “A local African American tradition where brass bands – known as the first line – march in the streets and are joined by members of the public – called the second liners. The Second Line parades came about after the Civil War because insurance companies wouldn’t cover ex-slaves. So African Americans formed benevolent societies and clubs that helped members defray health costs. The dues included a band for funerals and a public parade every year. Over time, their popularity evolved, and now there are parades almost every Sunday in New Orleans”

Society is very much van Agtmael’s subject in Buzzing at the Sill (Kehrer Verlag). His images capture people from all walks of life – many battling at its fringes, others engaging in their own particular kind of freedom.

“I feel like the book on many levels is coming at a certain moment in our history, but I could have probably taken a lot of those pictures ten years before, twenty years before, fifty years before even,” says van Agtmael. “They’re not necessarily so much about a place and a time, even if they seem to take on a certain resonance given how things are in the country now.”

Buzzing at the Sill follows on from van Agtmael’s 2014 publication, Disco Night Sept. 11, which dealt specifically with the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and alternated the perspective between those countries and life in the US.

Maryland. 2015 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer. After a few vague excuses, the six or seven Klan members changed into their robes and began a show amongst themselves. One of the leaders started his speech. He shouted that there were ISIS training camps being created by the United Nations with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), whose fighters would then take American’s guns away. This plan was allegedly hatched by Barack Obama (or Barry Soetoro as he was called by the Klan. Soetoro was the surname of Obama’s step-father, and that he was briefly called Barry Soetoro in elementary school in Indonesia has been used as evidence that Obama was not born in America). After finishing, the hoarse-voiced Klan member burned the UN flag and stomped on it, to the tepid cheers from the small crowd”

“I started doing that work when I was about 24 [and it] gave me my first kind of really deep emotional connection to America and who it was as a country – and what its fate was,” he says. “The situation was so intense and so personal, you’d have to be living in the clouds to not be really impacted by it.”

Van Agtmael’s eye has always ranged further than just those with direct experience of warfare such as the returning soldiers.

“It’s only one perspective on things,” he says. “And so all these other questions I started having about class, about race and history couldn’t really be answered through that work. So I sort of started [Buzzing at the Sill] concurrently, about three years into Disco Night…. These are kind of chapters in one big book more than they are almost sequels one to the next.”

Brooklyn, New York. 2010 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “The Fourth of July”

The pictures in the new book are divided by van Agtmael’s own reflections on his family and some of those he has met in the course of documenting America. Texts are an important way to add context and perspective – some situations, he says, “came loaded with things that couldn’t be photographed”.

Working from an initial batch of several hundred images, van Agtmael took time to edit the final selection. The sequencing in Buzzing at the Sill, the tonal changes from page to page, the ambiguities that come in and out, creates a deft and measured narrative.

“I’ve been pretty disciplined – I like to go back and edit, it’s always been an interest of mine,” he says. “I print every few months – a big pile of small prints – and when I started I was working my way down through about 500 or 600 pictures. That was about two years ago; I just wanted to get the process going. It’s not a process I rush, I spend time with the pictures.

Louisville, Kentucky. 2015 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “Kentucky Derby aftermath”

“There’s the process of going over the pictures and constantly trying to refine the sequence,” he continues, “both the smoother flow and the disruptive and surprising as well. As you say, the pictures move in and out of different distances and perspectives, types of light and characters.

“I want it to be a very disruptive sequence, while still carrying you onward…. The death of any photobook is clumsy sequencing.”

Detroit, Michigan. 2012 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “Outside Lyniece Nelson’s house. The family was still in shock over Treasure’s death. One of her sisters said, ‘I don’t know if Treasure is asleep, or up. Because her pictures . . . every time I move around . . . they look like they are following me. She woke mama up to tell her she was leaving, she left . . . and that’s it’”

Van Agtmael explains that part of his editing process can even involve input from his fellow Magnum colleagues.

“I think Josef Koudelka was the first one to start doing it – and he still does it – at the Magnum meetings, where he’ll bring a pile of prints of what he’s working on and he’ll ask everyone just to initial the back of the print if they like it. And so I started doing that … to get a sense of what other people were relating to.

“Then I just take that back myself and work through it a lot on my own; I like to get a core idea of what people respond to, but the book really has to be, in the end, my book.”

Detroit, Michigan. 2012 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “After dinner at Lyniece’s house (detail shown at top of post)”

While the imagery is varied in Buzzing at the Sill, there are recurring themes and subjects. Lyniece Nelson and her family feature throughout the book – the photographer having originally been assigned by the New Yorker to cover their story in the wake of the murder of Nelson’s transgender daughter, Treasure, who had worked as a confidential informant.

The images of the family include several beautiful pictures, such as the one above, but also poignant and tragic glimpses of lives coming to terms with death.

“It’s one of those great mysterious things of photography – usually, like any assignment, I leave and that’s the end of it,” says van Agtmael. “But sometimes you just click with people for whatever reason – with the situation, artistically, journalistically. With Lyniece and her family it was all those things; we just got along. I liked being with them and photographing them.”

Des Moines, Iowa. 2010 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “At the annual Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner, Sarah Palin gave the keynote speech, which was seen as testing the waters for a possible presidential run. She savaged Obama, both for his pacifism (withdrawing American troops from Iraq) and his militarism (ordering the surge in Afghanistan). She praised the armed forces while attacking the press (‘people who are out there for the right of journalists to lie’)”

Van Agtmael says that Lyniece and the Nelson family became “symbolic of some of these stories in America that I was trying to tell…. The people those connections are formed with, you don’t see in the book in the end – it’s about [the] moment, really.”

Pine Ridge, South Dakota. 2011 © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos. “While on a road trip with my friend Justin, we met a couple of guys and started chatting. They invited us to check out a spot where they had a rope swing, and on the way we picked up some beer. Dusk was falling and it became a little party; we lit a fire while some of their younger cousins swung over a deep chasm, with just a thin rope around their waist to secure them to the tree. As the beer ran out and the night began to get colder, they invited us back to their home. Upon arrival, their sister (the matriarch of the family) smelled their breath and became furious. She asked us what possessed us to give them beer. She told us there was rampant alcoholism on the reservation and declared we were just another in a long line of white men exploiting the Lakota. We were filled with tremendous shame and apologised profusely. As she explained the history of the tribe she mellowed and invited us to spend the night. We awoke in the morning to a beautiful dawn and the youngest children tending to the horses”

The title of van Agtmael’s book is taken from Theodore Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time – “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly / Keeps buzzing at the sill – and relates to the startling cover image of a vulture landing at one of the windows of a Texas burns unit for rehabilitated soldiers.

“The vultures can smell the rotting flesh … [that one was] trying to get into the ward,” van Agtmael explains. “The nurses paid it no mind as apparently the vultures were there all the time.” Reading Roethke’s haunting poem, the opening line hints at the possibilities of photography – and at van Agtmael’s work in particular: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see”.

Buzzing at the Sill is published by Kehrer Verlag (€39.90), kehrerverlag.com. See also petervanagtmael.net. All caption text is taken from the book

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