(© Raymond Meeks amwell | continuum)
For a long time, as I kept coming across Raymond Meeks’ work, I could never quite make up my mind about it. I was drawn to the land(scape) aspects of what he does but I wasn’t so sure about some other parts of it and how it all fit together.
One thing I wasn’t so sure about was the mixture of the portraits/people in along with the land in most of his projects. But this was quite hard to tell because although Meeks and his work seemed to turn up quite regularly it was usually only as a brief passing mention somewhere or two or three images from one of his books. And while his books seem to be the main way of presenting his work but they are quite hard to find.
With the exception of two or three books, such as A Clearing and Sound of Summer Running published by Nazraeli Press, most of his books are hand-made and/or small print runs produced very much as an artist's book (although Meeks has indicated that he experimented with deconstructing the “artists book“ I see it more as expanding the boundaries of the artist's/photographer's book). As a result these books tend to a). sell out very quickly, b). increase in value rather quickly once they are sold out and c). some of the artist's books are quite expensive (and rightly so) in the first place. In fact a. and b. also seems to apply to his books published through Nazraeli as well.
So until recently I had to rely on the overview of his work found at places like Photoeye or on viewing his website. And as the internet is basically crap for viewing this kind of work and getting anything more than the roughest, blurriest, myopic sense of what the work is about I really had to wait until I actually got some of his work in my hands.
Then a couple of months ago a friend sent me a link to Meeks’ website where I could buy a copy of his latest hand-made book project amwell | continuum. So I fired up Paypal and got in on the ground floor with this one.
(© Raymond Meeks from a gathering/topsoil)
Two or three weeks later the package arrived and I must say I was impressed. The size is about 12”x9“ and it is a hand-sewn soft covered collection with 18 pages by my count. It was printed on what Meeks describes as a ”broad format laser printer (weighing-in at a hulking 150 lbs.) I suspect the machine lacks an “energy-star rating” and have found that by shutting down the lights and music and turning down the heat, I can successfully print books without short circuiting the power“, which I think speaks to his continued exploration of the hand-made artists book. My copy also came with two signed prints - one black and white and one colour - along with a delightful little hand written card from Raymond which also has another picture on it.
So as a physical work it is very nice to handle. This particular laser-printing process (I’m thinking at least decade old technology - but maybe two??) also gives a nice and somewhat unique feel which reproduces the images well.
But what of the content? Well, I was pleased to find that my initial sense of being drawn to Meeks’ work was confirmed. The work has a very low key and gentle feel to it. It is very much about a place but it is not sentimental or nostalgic - but rather is straight forward yet maintaining something of the magic or the mystery of the everyday - that is there around us when or if we allow ourselves to notice it. There is a sense of beauty but also more than a little of the sublime.
(© Raymond Meeks from amwell | continuum)
For myself I found quiet echoes of other photographer’s work. Sally Mann - but without so much of Freud’s death-drive. John Gossage - but not quite as cool-eyed. The tiniest chord of Roger Ballen - but without the associated psychotic nightmares. As well as some resonances with Stephen Gill and Masao Yamamoto.
Overall though Meeks’ vision is very much his own. This short book moves beautifully from place to people to interiors to place and from colour to black and white and back to colour smoothly with a sense of ease and in a way which is almost unnoticed as you spend time with the pictures (one thing I have long thought is that the mixing of colour and black & white is an almost impossible thing to pull off). This is all very much in the realm of poetry.
And amwell | continuum is indeed a continuum, a continuation of Meeks’ own coming to terms with moving from Montana to Portland, Oregon - from deeply rural to urban (indeed suburban) and in good part seems to be about letting go of the former while trying to work out how to see and make sense of the latter, a process started in his earlier book Carousel.
”“amwell | continuum” is an artist book/journal which advances the narrative of my most recent artist broadside, “carousel”, while continuing to explore the construct of memory and resolve loss. it’s only now in the completion of this book, that I recognize a sustained and underlying thread of melancholy, similar to a passing glance in the mirror on your way out the door that reflects the unseemly or the shock of hearing your voice in a recording. for me, there are delicate moments of joy represented throughout this book, as well as a kind measure of hope. there are multiple pairings observed in the layout, perhaps to suggest a lingering in the landscape and to parallel my personal impulse to do so. in addition, I’ve been compelled to experience and express time beyond chronological sequencing, the absence of time in the horizontal dimension of past and future.
in the making of books, I’m drawn to the merging of contemporary materials and media with less common and impermanent results. Nazraeli publisher and friend Chris Pichler has generously offered a broad format laser printer (weighing-in at a hulking 150 lbs.) I suspect the machine lacks an “energy-star rating” and have found that by shutting down the lights and music and turning down the heat, I can successfully print books without short circuiting the power. obviously, this limits my printing operation to daylight hours. however, the printer allows for fine reproductions where toner sits on top of cotton fiber paper and is “fused” creating a wonderful merging of mediums. While my recent publishing efforts may have something to do with deconstructing the “art book” and shifting focus from the beautiful object to honoring content and subject, I am, as many, drawn to tactile experience and a clear expression of the work in book form; using inexpensive materials and common tools while subtracting nothing of quality or value from the piece.“
(© Raymond Meeks from Carousel)
Something I’ve also long held is that the book is very much the natural home for photographs and that photographs on the gallery or museum wall are really more of a secondary way of presenting or seeing photographs (My prediction is that in a few years time we’ll look back at the ever larger Stately Home/Palais sized photographs currently in vogue as something of an interesting blip in the photographic continuum. And a few years more and we may even look back at them as something a little bit quaint in the same way we look back at the Kodak Coloramas). Today, with the ever increasing options for photographers to produce their own books - from gluing and hand stitching, to varied forms of print on demand to print it yourself and more, we are already seeing an exciting growth in the photography book in all sorts of different forms. Books limited only by imagination rather than by cost and technology.
(© Raymond Meeks from watching waiting where,?)
There is an interesting interview with Meeks by Darius Himes (worth reading in full) which picks up on the artist’s/photographer’s book aspect:
”Darius Himes: Your artist books are made from appropriated books that I assume you've picked up here and there at various bookstores. When did you first start using old books as a space to work on your photographs, and what motivated you to do so.
Raymond Meeks: It’s just been within the last year that I’ve been thinking about the use of older, existing books. I’d been mounting prints to folded pages for a few years, creating small books with limited, homespun bookbinding skill. I have a sorry stack of tattered books with crusted glue, ruined in the final attempt to bind covers with pages. The use of secondhand books also seemed a decent effort towards recycling, considering the vast heap of books that rest idle on bookshelves and especially
since what I’m doing is exploratory. So little of what I do with photography and books is deliberate or intentional. Certainly, what resonates with others seems to be born out of good luck and grace.
Creatively, I thrive when I’m put in a corner and given limited resources and few options. The books I find provide portals and clues, which allow me to work with the existing title or narrative. Sometimes the dimensions are just right, or the number of pages. But I rely heavily on the inherent voice of the book and enjoy the collaboration between what the book was in its previous life and what it might become...
...DH: Could you describe for us the process of finding a book and then how you transform it? Are there clear steps along the way and does that take months? Or do you find yourself completing these objects in a weekend?
RM: Frequenting secondhand bookstores is not an obsession, but I leave myself open to discovery. I recently came across the title Minna and Myself, containing the poetry of Maxwell Bodenheim. I immediately placed my daughter in the role of Minna, and I imagined my wife using the first person voice. The book was originally published in 1918, and Bodenheim’s verse drips from the page like sap. Here are some of the lines: “Twilight pushes down your eyes, with shimmering, pregnant fingers, that leave you covered with still-born touch. With little whips of dead words”. And, “your cheeks are spent diminuendos, sheering into the rose-veiled silence of your lips”.
Needless to say, I had to use the verse sparingly, which left space for my own interpretation in pictures. This became my collaboration with Maxwell Bodenheim, who died in Manhattan in 1954. I hadn’t known of Bodenheim previous to the discovery of Minna and Myself and I imagined, in a narcissistic way perhaps, that I might renew his words. I trust that he might approve of our posthumous collaboration. I genuinely took his words to heart and spent a number of days with prints and negatives, trying to work with his pace and rhythm. In the end though, it’s just a book that’s already had a life and it’s indulgent to think about the book now in a new way. At times I feel it doesn’t exist for anyone else, really, apart from myself."
Raymond Meeks’ work has a looseness in style that I envy combined with an intriguing way of seeing. If you can't find any of his books to look at first hand at least go and hunt around his website where you can find his different books and projects (as well as the photoeye galleries)
Now I just need to find a reasonably priced copy of Carousel or Orchard or at least A Clearing somewhere...
(note: please excuse any typos or strange forms of sentence construction. My brain still isn't currently quite working as it should do and I don't always catch them...)