THE READING ROOM: Photo Book Brings Us to Places Where Music Merges
When Susan Sontag published On Photography in 1973, she raised many questions about the aesthetic and moral value of taking pictures. Sontag had already established herself as a cultural critic whose essays on science fiction (“The Imagination of Disaster”); Andy Warhol, “camp” and the entire downtown art scene (“Notes on ‘Camp’”); and pornography (“The Pornographic Imagination”) had already demonstrated her willingness to expose the intersections between high culture and popular culture. During the late ’60s, she made a trip to Vietnam, which she chronicled in her mini-memoir of an essay, “A Trip to Hanoi.” After her time in Vietnam, and especially her witness to the uses of photos to depict wartime acts, she turned her attention increasingly to photography, and to developing aesthetic criteria that engaged critics and photographers in sometimes-heated discussions.
One of Sontag’s most famous statements about photography focuses on it as an act that violates the subject of the photo. Very simply — and Sontag was prescient in this; she would have abhorred cell phone images of violent acts being broadcast on the evening news — she asked whether the person behind the camera might have an obligation to help the person who’s the victim of a violent act. Should the photographer take the picture so the world can abhor the image of violence, or should the photographer sacrifice the photo to help the victim? She writes, “ … there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” Of course, toward the end of her life, Sontag herself grew into an object of symbolic possession in the photos of her partner, Annie Leibovitz.
Yet, Sontag once told Jonathan Cott, in a lengthy, insightful 1979 interview in Rolling Stone, that photos also fascinated her. She didn’t take photos herself, but she collected them. In the same book on photography, Sontag goes on to drop little gems such as “to collect photographs is to collect the world.” She also writes, “photographs are a way of imprisoning reality … One can’t possess reality, one can possess images — one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”
Sontag never wrote about music photography, but her reflections certainly apply to such photos. What happens when we pull out our cameras — or use the cameras on our cell phones — to snap a photo at a show? Are we doing violence to the subject — the artists — representing them in ways that they’d never want to be presented? Are we preserving a moment for ourselves? Are we documenting an event? Are we stopping a moment in time? Will we be able to recall the context of the photo, what happened just before the moment we’ve captured and what happens just after? Do photos spur our memories not only of the moment in the photos but also of the events surrounding our snapping of the picture? How does the photo allow us to enter the world of the subject of the photo? In general, how does music photography capture the subject — the artist or the audience — and represent the world of the subject?
John Cohen’s stunningly beautiful new book of photographs, Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road: When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass (powerHouse Books), available Sept. 10, certainly raises some of these questions, but, in the end, his collection reflects Sontag’s insights about collecting a world. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Cohen, an original member of the New Lost City Ramblers, traveled from fiddler’s conventions, country music parks, and land auctions to the backstage of the Grand Ole Opry and to live shows on television, snapping photos of a time when old-time music was intersecting with bluegrass and traditional music and bluegrass music was intersecting with the music of the folk revival. Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road collects 140 striking black-and-white photographs of the places where people were making such music. As Alice Gerrard writes in her foreword, “John’s photographs tell a tale of the country music parks, the bars, the homes and front porches, the country side, the music parties … where the music lived.” Gerrard’s phrase “where the music lived” so well describes this entire book, for Cohen’s photos capture the lively interchange between audiences and artists and reveal that the photograph and the phonograph bring to life these subject’s lives.
Each section of the book is devoted to a location or context such as “Down Home Religion,” “Land Auction,” “Alice & Hazel,” and “Live Radio Performance.” In the section on “Down Home Religion,” for example, there is a photo of Mr. and Mrs. John Sams from Combs, Kentucky — the photo that graces the book’s cover — “surrounded by kids and grandkids, playing on their front porch overlooking a highway. They were both strong singers, and she sang a church song she had written, accompanied by her pounding guitar.”
The section “Dulcimer in a Parking Lot” reminds us that some of the best music is played off the main stages. “In a parking lot at a festival, among the cars, it was unusual to encounter a large lap dulcimer being played along with a guitar and an autoharp. Dulcimer music is rarely seen or heard in public places. This musician was probably Raymond Melton from Carroll County, Virginia. Often there is good music performed in parking lots between the cars, separate from the more professional stage performers. It’s about the desire to be involved in the music. One guy said, ‘People come to play, not to listen.’” In the same section there is a photo of Edna Ritchie — Jean Ritchie’s sister — playing her dulcimer for her high school students in Viper, Kentucky.
Some of the most stunning photos are not of the musicians but of the audiences. Cohen’s photos from a land auction in Galax, Virginia, capture the wonder, pain, desire, hunger, love, yearning etched into the faces of the gathered throng. “There was a small string band performing old tunes without any amplification. The crowd who attended this auction were local people, local farmers buying useful stuff, transferring farm objects from one family to another. The auctioneer was Luther David, who himself was an excellent fiddler.”
Other sections feature photos of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Doc Watson, Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens, the Stanley Brothers, The Country Gentlemen, Cousin Emmy, and Sara and Maybelle Carter.
Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road is more than a document, or a collection of photographs; it’s a testimony to a time and place and to the feeling of being in that place and time. Cohen’s book “collects a world” with an honesty and clarity that allows us to possess this world living in our musical memories.