Written by Carl Weese
This hefty softcover book—228 pages of text and pictures at traditional letter-size—is really two things at once: a collection of 83 portraits by photographer John Sarsgard, and an anthology of contemporary American poetry edited by Larry Fagin.
For the poems, the selection emphasizes diversity, not favoring any one style or camp. There are young and old, famous writers and relative unknowns. With the better known contributors, an effort was made to select some of their lesser known work, so even readers up to date on the poetry world will find some surprises. I was an English major many years ago but I haven’t stayed current in the field. I’m finding Larry’s curating to be a great guide to introduce me to current work, and I’m happy that he sought out a wide range of styles and approaches.
On the photographs, first, disclosure: John is a friend, who has studied platinum printing with me. His portraits are utterly direct and straightforward, devoid of any hint of pretense or artifice. His rapport with the poets is obvious, and he has told me that the conversations during the sessions were mind-blowing-amazing. He makes the exhibition prints in platinum/palladium, and they are progressing to several gallery venues around the country.
Something to study in these portraits is the way John uses every bit of the frame. The environments—I’m not going to use the term “background”—are rich with suggestion even though they generally take up little space compared to the human subject. In most cases he asked the poet to choose the location for the shoot, and the places selected are often resonant, adding another layer to the connection John makes with his subjects.
The pictures are all made by available light, on medium format Tri-X film, with a Pentax 645 and normal 75mm lens. That last detail is telling. Selection of the normal rather than the more typical “portrait length” of 150mm is partly responsible for getting those significant surroundings into the frame and keeping them legible. It also draws photographer and subject physically closer, which again aids the sense of connection that comes across in these pictures.
The publishing team, including Sarsgard, Fagin, and Larry Moore of Broadstone Books, wanted to keep the price “at a level that poets might afford.” This leads to a small downside. To reach that price, they had to print overseas, by remote control, using CMYK-monochrome printing. The reproductions are good, but not at the level of a first-tier print house working with tritone or quadtone plates—however that book would cost $80–90, not $39.95. I think they made the right compromise.
If you like portrait photography, or poetry, this book is for you. If you love both, it’s like getting two for the price of one. Also, if you order from the publisher and mention that you read about the book here at TOP, they'll discount it to $30 for you.
©2015 by Carl Weese, all rights reserved
ADDENDUM by John Sarsgard, the book's photographer: "I appreciate Carl writing the review, and certainly hope folks will buy the book, but I also want to take the opportunity to encourage others to consider a long term personal project. I met and engaged with over a hundred poets, and gained a perspective I would never have any other way. I am still in contact with many of them.
"I hope many who have not done so will think about a group of people they would like to meet and know just a bit. I had the benefit of an insider collaborator, but I also found that people will lead you to others if they like the work. Poets are under appreciated by the larger society these days, and most I contacted were happy to participate. I'm sure rock stars and novelists would be harder.
"I tried to keep the technical things simple and second nature so I could spend my time engaging with the people. One camera, one lens, one film, natural light, tripod or not as necessary, meter the face.
"Carl mentioned that the poets frequently picked the location. I always asked, but also made sure I had a few ideas just in case. "I dunno," followed by "I'll get back to you" from me would have been lame. I did learn how hard working in a park can be on a sunny day, with hot spots in the background everywhere. Cartier-Bresson liked cloudy days for good reason.
"I asked everyone to sign a simple release at the end of the session that promised prints, with a space for a mailing address. Most signed right away. Some wanted to see the prints first. They all signed eventually. I don't think releases are technically necessary for this work, but I wanted to make clear what I might do with the images. I gave them all permission to use the images for anything they wanted, and a number have been used as author photos for books.
"Finding a publisher was hard. More than one told me that photo books are the second lowest volume category, and poetry sells even less…and that I had some nerve to ask them to publish something that combined the two! Larry Moore at Broadstone is a brave small publisher who loves both poetry and photography and is not in the game to get rich.
"I hope many will explore such a project. Think of what might happen!"
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