Photographs by Tom Arndt. Foreword by Garrison Keillor. Introduction by George Slade.
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009. Hardbound. 192 pp., 157 black & white illustrations, 11¼x11¼".
Home: Tom Arndt's Minnesota Photographs by Tom Arndt. Foreword by Garrison Keillor. Introduction by George Slade. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2009
Agape. Yes, why not start there. Let us begin with unconditional love. In my forty some years of looking at photographs and books, this has not been the first word that pops unbidden into this Jew's mind. Midway through my first look at Home, agape came to mind among cascading layers of emotions and thoughts. I've never used that word in conversation or print (unless for some long forgotten college paper) before now. Rachmonis, yes — for you Lutherans, Yiddish for a broad sympathy, a feeling for the other: love, well of course, everyone knows what love is, even true love. Without true love there would be no Great American Songbook or rock n' roll or opera. If you have a few lingering questions on this ancient topic, take a slow look at this book. Tom Arndt loves people; he loves each and every one of us unconditionally. Photographs prove nothing, but his photographs bear witness to this claim.
Of course Tom is no fool, so his love is leavened, clear-eyed, respectful of getting up early on Monday mornings and staying up too late on a Saturday night to listen to the preacher's sermon on Sunday. His meticulous use of the craft of photography, employed so quietly as to be all but invisible, is in harmony with the farmer on a tractor and of no interest to the hustling carnies promising Kewpie dolls at the county fairs. It's all here in Arndt's Minnesota: the down and out on Hennepin Ave., the good Lutheran farmers, the bored kids, even a young Garrison Keillor driving a car (1971), having dark 1971 thoughts, or simply paying attention to traffic.
Photographs do not tell, but they do show. This is Keillor as he looked then. Let us invent some other friend of Keillor's back then, say another English major writing a lovely description. From the here and now, we would know what that writer thought, but the photograph, limited as it is, shows us the then. (This photo also shows us a thing or two about how young photographers were grappling with ways of describing, not yet married to a fully formed style). Keillor has known Arndt since before that picture was taken and has contributed a foreword I can't wait to read, along with George Slade's introduction, once I finish up with my observations. If you want to know what they have to say, well let me put on my carnie hat and say, "Step this way folks, and buy this book."
Now for a disclaimer or two. About 30 years ago, I met Toby Old in New York and ever since have been sucked into tales of the dark side, the undertow below the wheat, corn, and ice fishing of Minnesota. The Minnesota Old (this is too good a typographic pun to pass up: I mean Toby, not the Farm Labor Party) left, and the one Arndt returned to after fleeing to the warmer clime of Chicago, is not the Minnesota of John Szarkowski, just as the last forty years have changed America from the America of Diane Arbus. While much has been written on New York photography and on West Coast photography, Minnesota just might be to American photography what Czechoslovakia/Hungary was to European photography in heyday of Modernism.
Having had the pleasure of sitting down with a big box or two or three of Tom's prints, having seen an exhibition of prints on the walls of the Howard Greenberg Gallery two years ago, as a fellow craftsman, I tip my hat. His prints, to borrow Bill Arnold's stolen line, "sing." If Edward Weston's prints sang like some great tenor, Tom Arndt's prints sing like Nat King Cole. The reproductions in this book are excellent, do fair justice to the pictures, but lack the subtlety of the originals. The prints in my mind's eye are softer, longer toned than the reproductions, good as they are. To Tom's credit, the book was printed in Minneapolis and bound there, too. The design by Ted Savage is in keeping with the substance and spirit of the photographs. This is intelligent design I can sign onto. If those things are not enough, how about this first: a credit to the printer's devil, so thank you, too, Lillian Marie Wilsted.
The argument (begun in 1839 or so) on the subject of photography as art or document, engaged in by expelled angels dancing clumsily on the splayed head of a railroad spike, has almost been laid to rest by notions of art changing only slightly faster than definitions of what is a document in photography. This argument, still lively when Arndt began to make photographs, has been shunted off to an intellectual siding, making way for the high speed train of postmodern, post-structural, post-rational snake oil of invented tableaus created by a generation of artist/photographers fearful of crossing the street. And a generation of curators old enough to know better, as well as a generation who mistake the artist's studio for the street, the invented for the notation of the actual.
A few years ago, I was having lunch with a charming, intelligent curator. (Here known only as old enough to know better.) I mentioned that I had seen Tom and the curator somewhat arrogantly dismissed Arndt for still making B&W traditional photographs. Being the polite coward, I did say that I liked Arndt's work, but I did not say, "Let's dump Philip Roth while we're at it for crafting beautiful sentences." One could (and sometimes does) argue all day, but the best argument is the rare work exemplified by moral and intellectual clarity. Tom holds up his end of the bargain (unlike the chap referenced above). Now you and I must hold up ours: we need to look.
Plate 116, Como Park, St. Paul, 1975 is a pretty good place to consider Arndt's vision at his best. (I opened the book at random, and not that every such throw of the dice would succeed, I offer that the odds in this random game beat house odds.) A man is pictured after eating his breakfast or lunch, seated on a pew-like bench to the right of a telephone booth and to the left of an empty bepewed booth under a three paneled, criss-crossed mullioned window beneath one of those rinky-dink murals which, photographed, might either be a photograph or a pretty good piece of country realism. Oh yes, and the telephone book, floating at picture's edge, mid-frame left, might just be the family bible. And the chunk of the landscape, torn and flapped open like some cartoon-child's drawing of the Rolling Stone's logo. It is not too difficult to photograph Mick Jagger looking sexy or looking vulgar or looking stoned, or looking like the sharp cookie he is at heart, but consider the problems—or the luck born of a lifetime of being ready to see this commonplace working man, getting himself ready to go back into the thick of it (it might be selling insurance or fixing broken appliances) under this one of ten thousand cheesy lake panoramas, sticking its tongue out, frozen for at the very least thirty four years, and counting. This photograph could not be more specific. It shows what it shows clearly and what it shows is a feeling so prosaic you could cry.
As good as Arndt is at putting a frame around not much and transforming it to reveal meaning—meanings we must intuit, must figure out for ourselves, for if we didn't have to do that, then why bother looking in the first place — he is a remarkable photographer of (so-called) ordinary people. Plate 125, the bar owner in 1970, or Pl. 79, Eddie on his tractor, 1985, or the next picture, Leon's dad, 1970, all show the person, show the environment, make no judgments except acceptance; the sitters are comfortable with the man and camera, the man earning trust in the moment and with compound interest these many years later.
Any book of photographs made up from this span of time will show multiple unfoldings of time. The dress, the cars, the public ads and everyday fashion of this or that year, but also the consciousness of the photographer developing over time, both in relation to his subject and to the twists and turns of a photographer staying true to his conception of the medium as it changes around him. In Tom's case, he has changed by following the older idea of mastery that can only be acquired by time and work. Over the years, Arndt has worked with different cameras, mostly rangefinder/viewfinder 35mm cameras and medium format ones (whose negative is about 3.5 times larger). Arndt is at home with squares and rectangles. For photographers and viewers younger than Tom and me, it is worth noting that the square was, for almost all photographers before the 1960's, not used, and by some, verboten.
In the summer of 2007, I stopped in St. Paul for a few days and visited with Tom, met George Slade and after a good-bye lunch with Tom, drove across the I 35-W Bridge maybe an hour or so before it collapsed. Timing, luck, good and bad. Missing the bridge collapse is good fortune, but timing is something else. Patience is one of those fundamentals of photographic picturing out in the world that eludes non-photographers. Even a compulsive, hyper photographer like Garry Winogrand could not have made half of his best pictures without it. Arndt's timing comes from patience: he is not waiting for a decisive moment, but something more in plain sight, something often more elusive.
Look at a three-photograph sequence, plates 132-134. The first is a portrait of an overstuffed chair seeming to sag on its right side. Looking closer, this is not a trick of perspective, for the top cushion shows more wear on that side, the little throw over the chair's back is pulled down in the same direction. (Damned if I can figure out the pillow.) The next photograph is both intimate and austere. The bottom of the (square) frame shows an unmade bed in the summer time. The bed is up against a plain wall adorned by an oval portrait of Jesus. The last photo in this little sequence changes tone, and with the aid of the captions, explains everything except the mystery of the first two pictures. The captions are: Aunt Fud's chair, Fergus Falls, 1970, Aunt Fud's bedroom, Fergus Falls, 1973, and the last, Aunt Fud and Candy's doghouse, Fergus Falls, 1973. This portrait puts me in mind of Lee Friedlander's tale of how he fell in love with the medium of photography because of the endless stuff the lens describes. One could easily love Aunt Fud's portrait (in life, I would hazard a very respectful guess that she might not be so easy, and without any doubt, one who did not suffer fools). Have a look at Candy's doghouse, so carefully made, but now missing a shingle. Did Candy worry it off? Fergus Falls' winters might bear some accounting for that missing shingle. I can happily lose myself in the play of afternoon summer light on Fud's house, on the grass, on the trees and her basket weave dress.
When I tire of those pleasures, why then I can contemplate the face and the gaze of Aunt Fud. I would rather look at Aunt Fud's face and muse on it and on her relation to Tom and to Tom the photographer, more than I care to engage most photographs. I like her almost as much as I could, with time, come to love the Farm Couple, Lake Crystal, 1975 (plate 139). In this photograph one can see the whole Tom Arndt ball of wax: formal issues squarely addressed, resolved and played with (with a difficult camera too if you care about insider games), but not for their own sake. A few years before Tom made this portrait, I came up with versions of the following observation: If you don't know that the sun rises in the East and how bread gets on the table, save your theory for someone else. Tom knows this. Tom Arndt's subjects seem to know this. Some of them are the very people without whom there would be no bread on our tables. Some of them have the look that makes a prudent man or woman check to see if they still have their wallet. No matter, Tom Arndt sees and records their humanity, taking each and every one as he or she is. Agape.—Richard Gordon
Richard Gordon is a photographer who lives in California. His photographs and artist's books are in museum and library special collections from sea to shining see. Four prints from his recently completed book project, American Surveillance, will be in SFMOMA's surveillance and voyeurism exhibit in 2009. He is one of five photographer's in the 'Camera as Subject Matter' travelling exhibition.