Category Archives: Personal

Joan Rachaelsdaughter: Slow Forward

On “Slow Forward,” a Retrospective of the Work of Joan Rachaelsdaughter at UMF Art Gallery, 10 March to 10 April 2016

Joan Rachaelsdaughter’s work combines, in uncanny distillations, intimately tactile materiality and formally realized visual image. Her best work is placed as if mystically in that fold where the material—the object that can be touched—becomes the visible, the form seen. Touch, the haptic, is always an atomized experience: one touches with one’s hands small areas of objects and cannot touch — simultaneously and all at once— an object larger than one’s body. Touch is specific to the delineations of one’s own inhabited body. Sight can, however, be expansive and encodes a path out of the limits of the self: illumination, enlightenment, these terms imply vision, light. Rachaelsdaughter’s work moves between touch and sight, creating palimpsestic photo- graphic images that evoke the realm of what is lost— coffee filters, old clothes, dis- carded books—and revivify the lost object as found vision. Metamorphosis is the trope and style of her work, and liminality her homeland.


Images of windows, books, clothes, moths, birds, angels, objects in the physical world that invoke transformation, departure, and liminality, make up much of her oeuvre. There is always an outside to Rachaelsdaughter’s work, or rather, a sense of emerging into an expansive unknown. Hers is an oeuvre of hinge— her images act as hinges thatopen from clothes, textiles, nature, politics, discarded household items, the human face, and from this opening move into a space that is unclaimed and unclaimable; in its refusal to claim, to settle, her delicate and forceful work is its most evocative. This farther space that I find in Rachaelsdaughter’s images puts me in mind of the late night fields and sky I used to watch, as a child, in my father’s car in the deep South— after we had been driving all day and well into the night, the hinge of exhaustion and placelessness would suddenly open to an expansive, terrifying, and beautiful contact with the very and actual distance of the land, its near endlessness, at the edge of human touch. Rachaelsdaughter’s life work, I think, has been to keep opening the sight of the edge of a journey, never closing down the vista.
Ten years ago, I wrote a small series of moth poems based on Rachaeldaughter’s “Moths” series of images. Her “Moths” originated as used coffee filters and, photographed with evocative dark blur, became the flickering umber presences that evoke the mythology of the moth as the soul that rises from the newly dead. I wrote not about moths as such but about Joan’s moths, their double-presence as the thing that is gone (the discarded coffee filter) and the thing that is saved (the gorgeous and haunting image of the ‘moth’). Rachaelsdaughter’s touch is so delicate, so deft, none of her works overbear. Instead, they retain their mystery: the Kinglet series, while it plays with the idea of mapping, also resists any direct mapping of bird and book and land.

The kinglet, the book, the land, all stand as openings through which a sacrificial time moves in Rachaelsdaughter’s kinglet series. The sacrificial is always present, just under the skin of Rachaelsdaughter’s images. If her earlier work emphasized textile, the delicate hanging garments conjuring meditations on the meaning of embodiment, her more recent work exposes the materiality of the gaze itself. “Full fathom five” offers an astonishing self portrait of the artist, seen as in a webbed but intact mirror, reminiscent of the obsidian mirrors used in the Americas before contact. The artist’s window, that I interpret always as a window watching Maine, presents a mythic Maine—not the tourist attraction of blueberries, blue sea, and blue skies, but the tractive and brooding Maine of winter and distance that cannot be owned, only limned by the longing eye. In Rachaelsdaughter’s work, the goal of longing is to watch: her work is very still and does not imply resolution to the visual webs it investigates. Instead, Rachaelsdaughter’s work stays in the realm of the watch- er, the gaze does not claim or take over what it sees but allows the act of seeing to be- come an invitation to the material world, beckoning the material world—birds, trees, the human face—to become manifest at the hinge of vision. Her invocation of religious symbols—the cross in “Tree Sacrifice” and the ankh in textile works—invites the viewer to contemplate the force and history of religion, making of given religious forms fresh, mysterious, and compelling myths. The work is not anti-religious nor conventionally religious but instead gets its charge from the feeling of being outside and look- ing in on something powerful and unknown.

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Indeed, one of my favorite of Joan’s new images is a deceptively simple photograph of the view from her window. Tracing its lineage back to the beginnings of photography—Niepce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras” and Talbot’s “Oriel Window”—Rachaelsdaughter’s window view gazes toward a distinctly Maine skyline of evergreen trees, pointed firs, looming from a curved hill. This hill in the mystical darkness at the fold of her photograph looks as if it were part water part earth part sky, a dark fold matched by the edge of the image which is strongly framed by the presence of the wall/window frame, a dark line that is both grounding—it is from here that we gaze—and disturbing, the forceful absoluteness of the window frame’s heft contrasts with the dendritic fine hairs of the winter-stripped deciduous tree at the image’s edge. In the lower third of the image the glass of the window and ice and frost combine to give the impression that the whole scene is fragile, balanced on the vitreous breakable stuff of vision. And yet Rachaelsdaughter’s vision holds fast, through these decades of remarkable works, leading her audience through astonishing and subtle encounters with the self, the other, and the forms of the animal, plant, mystical worlds. The encounter is always with the visible, but the hither side of the visible. This retrospective at University of Maine Farmington is long overdue.

Sugimoto’s Patience

The Patience of Seeing: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Oceans and Movie Theaters


Keeping his camera’s lens open for the duration of movies, or setting his camera on long exposures before various seas and oceans, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto created two series of images that empty and fill the visual field with uncanny quietness. The stillness of the images hold a volatile core of motion, as if the images were created to give form to Roland Barthes’ description of a photograph finding in the viewer a still, calm, erotic and lacerating place. I saw two images from the movie theater series this June in Washington DC (The Memory of Time) during the calm of summer, and returned to the images not in a museum but in my classroom this winter, the last class day of the worst semester I’ve ever experienced. The images opened for me very differently before and after this semester. The uncanny hollow light in Sugimoto’s movie theater photographs this summer bothered me. I did not like to look at this commentary on what we see when we watch a movie—light, darkness, light, a blur that manifests ultimately as seeing nothing at all—the visual commentary of the movie theater series seemed almost too sharp, too close to saying that not only as we watch movies but also as we live there is this hollow core of motion that manifests as nothing, or nothing but a gaping shudder of light.

And yet this winter when I returned to the movie theater and ocean series of photographs they transfixed me. Here is the stillness of the ocean that is made of incessant movement; here is the stillness of moving picture films, built of incessant, meaningless movement. It put me in mind of the stillness in my grandparents’ small town in winter in Georgia, the cheap restaurant where they would take us out to eat for a treat after the disappointments of Christmas, seemingly always in a cold occlusive rain, the movement of rain making everything still and pale, my grandfather’s hands still shaking years after he saw battle. The stillness in the center of what you do not want to avow but what creates you. This trauma of movement, the unending movement of time, Sugimoto fixes in the ocean and movie theater photograph series that for me form one coherent series, a darkly patient meditation on time.

The images for which I lacked the patience in summer’s long days and transpicuous light, in winter’s bitterness were the very images that saved my sense of what patience is: waiting and suffering, taking the time to see the nothingness in the center of all images, the brilliant hollow horizon set against all the details of theaters and shores, life details in crisp outline, that are in the end only the image’s edge. Having the patience to hold still at an ocean’s graphite horizon, so still you see the detail of corrugated water, the fold of horizon, or no detail, only the vista of your own watching, itself the first and last detail. That is surely what Sugimoto means when he says that these images “explode behind his eyes,” he means that they open the interior presence of what is seen, its duration. The images of theaters and oceans are one series, for me, because they turn on the same premise of constant movement that is revealed to be stillness: over time, so many repeated movements add up to stillness. In the summer that idea did not charm me, but in winter I see the truth of it.

December 31, 2015


Killing Mad Men’s Betty Draper

imagesOn Mad Men’s Betty

There is an immense and impenetrable friendliness to certain kinds of capitalist exchange. The love of family, lifelong friends, none of these comes close to the frictionless glissade of buying face-to-face that which could be gotten elsewhere cheaper, or that which could well have been done without. In no other human interaction is one so blithely adored as in the sphere of non-necessary capitalism. I am not wealthy and do not have these purchase interactions often, but I remember their giddiness, like that of eating MSG, before the headache sets in.

Betty Draper Francis, the blonde from Mad Men, is the headache. Her death from lung cancer at age 38(ish) is somehow the payment that Mad Men—which offered a giddy sleekness not at all unlike that of the shiny exchange explained in my first paragraph—has been willing to make so that viewers will know the beauty of capitalism kills, or rather kills in some cases. But the sacrifice is at once so small, since Betty was effectively written into a characterological corner after the first season, and so gendered, the payment is scarcely fair. And yet it gave me a headache to see Betty’s punishment.

Ten years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation (published as my first book, The Posthumous Voice in Women’s Writing on the deep cultural allure of the dead woman. In my book, I traced how various women writers responded to this cultural position of being ‘dead’ by writing from the perspective of the dead, ie, using the posthumous voice, a form of rhetoric. The book focused on 19th century writers, Shelley, Bronte, Dickinson, Rossetti, with a closing chapter on Sylvia Plath. Concluding the book, I made the case that the need for women writers to use this ploy, of writing as if they were dead, was over in the 21st century since now women were no longer placed in the cultural position of the dead.

And then came Betty Draper Francis, whose sacrificial body, whose death, posed at the closing of Mad Men, gave me a headache. Do we still need the dead body of a woman to draw off the poisonous residue of every one else’s power? Of course other characters have died during the series, many of them women, dying of cancer before they reached age 40. But Betty stands alone as a major character whose life ends unequivocally badly. She is the sacrifice. Betty’s husband sold the cigarettes, the smoking of which ostensibly gave Betty her very youthful lung cancer, and he is positioned by Mad Men as a troubled hero, while Betty is simply nullified, erased, evacuated. The gray dress in which she smokes in her obfusc kitchen as the show ends is the same dress in which she smoked during the first-season’s psychoanalysis that gave her the diagnosis of being infantile, childlike.

I am not defending the character of Betty, concerning which I cannot say I much care, but instead I am fascinated to see that the trope of using the dead woman, the beautiful dead woman, did not die out in the 19th or even the 20th century but is victorious in the 21st century. Betty’s death allows every one else in Mad Men to succeed; Betty alone suffers an unbearable fate. Her ultra femininity, displayed throughout the show by signs of blood, fertility, infantilism, excessive delicate beauty, and, above all else, residence outside New York City, caused her death. Her excessive feminine uselessness makes her the “mark” the one who can go down so that others carry on; this violent sacrifice is deeply entwined with capitalism.

While the Sopranos made some effort to goad viewers into thinking about the violence of America even as we embraced the violent Tony Soprano, Mad Men never really sank a comparable punch regarding capitalism. That is, the show should have been about capitalism in the way that the Sopranos was about violence. But instead, Mad Men stayed just at the edge of the glossy giddy capitalist exchange, never quite showing that pain that bends beneath that exchange—that is why Mad Men could not ever really deal with race—and so Betty’s death becomes a capitalist death, a woman killed by merchandise. The sacrificial aspect of her death is strong and yet not strong enough to disavow Mad Men’s contrapuntally brilliant superficiality. The mask of the dead woman shows—not is—the false front of capitalism. Don Draper’s vicious childhood the show submerges as if no one, after Don, might ever encounter such suffering, as if, with Don, all Americans had moved past poverty. Beauty reigns.

As Mad Men shows Betty’s daughter reading aloud her mother’s dying wish, the viewer is encouraged to fantasize very specifically about the beauty of Betty’s dead body. Sally reads Betty’s instructions, and views the accompanying photograph, so that we, the viewers, can imagine the beauty of dead Betty. The cultural allure of the dead woman, an allure that in the 20th century becomes deeply intertwined with capitalism’s facility, makes it into the 21st century not because Mad Men is faithful to 1960s verite, but because the beauty of the dead woman, she who dies for the beauty of the merchandise, apparently is still a compelling trope now, in 2015. Or not now, but two months back, in May of 2015, an age ago, in rapid 21st century time.



Graham MacIndoe’s Missing Persons, and All In

On Graham MacIndoe’s Missing Persons images


These photographs test with severity and brilliance Barthes’ dictum that the photograph is the emblem of mortal time. Each image is a photograph of a photograph—showing the faces of missing persons for whom someone made a poster and posted it not on-line but in real space and time, in industrial and urban landscapes. This real space and time aspect of the images, that they show the boundary between life, social death, and real death, connects them thematically to Barthes’ concern with the photographic image as the clock for seeing. The images’ sensitivity to form and metaphor yields photographs that brilliantly bring home to us the vulnerability of the human body displaced on to the vulnerability of the photographic image—the face on a piece of paper, stationed to appear where passersby might remember and seek the real face. The disturbing theme of this series of photographs of missing persons posters is balanced by MacIndoe’s images’ exquisite formal turns.


The first image in the series, as displayed on MacIndoe’s website ( is structured by parallel lines and symmetry so rigorous as to count as a kind of violence: the lines of the railing on the bridge echo the industrial silos in the background, which are in turn echoed by their own reflection in the still canal water. The pollution and desolateness of the industrial landscape are quietly brought forward by the lack of people in the image. The only human face is that of the missing person. This image of the missing person is dead center in MacIndoe’s photograph and also illegible, only the word MISSING written above the face of the missing man/woman is clear. The paper is torn and the railing dented, framing the image of the missing with damage. Evocatively choosing bridges, cross-walks, places of crossing, to position his photographs of photographs of missing persons, MacIndoe thematizes their between life and death status: the photographs powerfully juxtapose the between life and death status of the living with the between life and death status of the photograph-as-object.


An extraordinary quietness attends these images, almost prayerful, as each of MacIndoe’s photographs contains the earlier photograph of the missing person, trace upon trace, the fragility of the human body articulated through images that transparently show the fragility of the photographic image. As the photograph acts as a stop-time, holding on to the lost, MacIndoe’s series delicately but surely explores how the stop-gap of photography also gets lost. There is a mis-en-abyme structure to these images, each fold containing the depth of the negative space in the photograph, that is, the absence of the thing shown, an absence signified by the photograph, but also of course in MacIndoe’s Missing Persons series this absence is doubled, signifying the absence of the missing person. The structural movement of the project places the viewer in a liminal place not only by engaging the disappeared—those who are not known to be either alive or dead—and not only by invoking spaces of liminality—cross-walks, bridges, the unattended corners of cities from which cars and buses drive away, and roads and railroads—but also by placing the viewer towards the vanishing point. The images are structured by the vanishing point and its ever present metaphor of disappearance. For example, an image showing a young girl’s face, and words written below it a mother’s plea for her to come home if she can, is dominated structurally by a narrow road that pulls the viewer past the girl, as indeed life and movement seems to be moving past her face suspended in the moment of the photograph that signifies the “before”, before the disappearance, before the rupture of the bond expressed in the missing persons poster.



Poignantly, the theme of trash and detritus works through the images, as one face is photographed where it stares out at the viewer from beside a pile of trash, while another face is photographed where it stares out above a trashcan, while the final image of the series shows a missing persons flyer that has fallen onto the ground next to a dilapidated fence. The image of the missing person has literally become detritus. MacIndoe invokes an almost nineteenth century sense of the magic of the photograph, the capacity of the photograph to contain the soul of the subject, forcing an eerie connection between the missing person whose photograph he photographs and the viewer, as if we saw the erosion of the soul of the person, as if we witnessed in his photographs not the moment of a disappearance but the gradual slow erosion of a person, a social death.


If Barthes says of the photograph “a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see” MacIndoe’s Missing Persons series makes us see the facticity of the photograph, makes us contemplate the strangeness of the object that is the photograph, not just its capacity to haunt us—which is all too clear in the images of missing persons—but rather also its queerness in the world of things, its always liminal status in the world of rooms, bridges, trash, roads, and telephones (to name a few objects in combination with which MacIndoe captures the images of the missing). MacIndoe’s photographs are not staged. They are honest discoveries, painstakingly found, of the places where missing persons posters end up.


The Missing Persons series are brilliant in their exploration of what a photograph is, as an object, what it can do in real space and time, in the social world. Their formal perfections bring forward the tragedy of the subject in a way that is quiet and kind. A small deliverance of justice for those whom fate has delivered to the purgatory of the missing.


September 6th, 2013

On Graham MacIndoe’s series of photographs: All In

 For Barthes, the photograph has to hurt, at least a little, to work: if the image works, the photograph’s punctum wounds you. And in the extremity of Barthes’ theory of the punctum, the place in the photograph that pricks one viewer by no means will be the detail that pricks another viewer; indeed Barthes defines the punctum as that which categorically cannot be planned or planted by the photographer. This definition of the photograph’s relationship to private pain is evocatively true of Graham MacIndoe’s All In series, in which the punctum, where the image wounds, for the former addict traces places on the body. And yet these photographs chart damage so delicately you could almost miss it, almost ignore what happens to the body in addiction. 

 The translucent membranes of the glassine envelopes are on display as if in a museum of the natural history of self-destruction. Carefully set, each of these former conveyances of heroin, all now emptied and pressed like Sunday shirts, stand in blank fields. The utterance of the series, what it tells, speaks by skin, as Barthes argues the photograph functions as a kind of relic, the mark where light bounced off the solid and transient object. But the memento mori objects of All In are double markers. Not just the photographs but also the baggies are memento mori, preserved for mnemonic record. The images are placed as markers, in their fragile gravestone shapes, of the parts of the self that are given away in addiction—glassine, spectral, riddled with language promising both the best and the worst of fates.

 The series format empresses the knowledge of repeated purchases, repeated use, and also acts like a deck of cards, inviting the viewer to pick up the game, but not the game of addiction itself, rather the game of a kind of ascetic self-disavowal, the artifacts of one’s closest calls. Most of MacIndoe’s audience, I believe, will come to the series not as former addicts but even so all of us have lost time and tried to hold time in the realm of objects. Of course that is the traction of photography, the photograph holds time in an object, a thing flatly distanced from the kind of use that erodes objects not created solely for being seen. In ways that I will try to explain, the images in All In evoke the postcard. Sontag’s injunction that photography makes of us all tourists of the most shallow sort ignores the intensity with which postcards act, as images that are better than mirrors because they are so indirect.

 MacIndoe’s All In series reads like postcards sent from a country most of us would not be able to visit and survive. The photographs function as atonements of a rather private sort. Here, the drug is gone, though of course there must be traces of it in the baggies, and the violence that the drug did to the body also mostly gone, though there must be traces of its harm. But the emptiness of the baggies is what catches me; that is the punctum of the series for me. The hollow Sunday afternoon light that emanates from the glassine, a space annealed, emptied, small violent words and gone stashes sealed behind glass frames.

 Barthes, quoting Kafka, argues that “’We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds,’” and maybe this series that records addiction could be read as motivated by the desire to drive from the photographer’s mind the memory of each moment of acquisition marked by the baggies, the vertiginous pleasure of going all in. The photographs also query the connection of this pleasure of addiction with the pleasure of the aesthetic moment, the sublime hit. “Ultimately, or at the limit, in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes” Barthes argues before introducing Kafka’s above quote. The act of looking away is built into the images of All In. The series is devoutly quiet. All In protects its audience from the pain of confession, sublimating instead luminous skins.

 One draws from Barthes’ description of photographs generally, “they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies” in looking at All In. The heroin baggies are arrayed carefully centered, clean and absolved of their potent contents. Small particular damages to the skins of the baggies become personalized, as if mirroring our own damages, the relic folds still showing in the pressed flat bags, in scientific precision. Here the touch of the photographer’s hand almost seems to outweigh the putative ‘eye’ of the photographer, the haptic gloss of the material made immanently visible, and the pathetic force of the language printed on the baggies— invoking among other themes love, Christmas, candy, sin, death, and wealth— both belies and reveals such thin desires of which the words printed on the baggies speak.

 All In manifests the trappings of desire in its most potently hollow formal turn. The “butterflies” in MacIndoe’s series of photographs carry forward a quality of grief pinned down to its locus, the baggies translators of human touch, between dealer and buyer, and also between user and recovered addict taking the images. The photographs come to stand for this most fragile boundary not only, as might betoken a series opening with the words “Kiss of Death,” the boundary between life and death, but more than that the boundary between skin and light, between past self and present self. They are photographs of the liminal, a held ritual of gazing, never courting the poignancy they earn.

December 30th, 2013


Some Other Places We’ve Missed

Mark Strandquist’s photography project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed, shown this June at the Bridge in Charlottesville, Virginia, plays on the conceit of loss as concrete topos or commonplace—loss as a place that can be shown. Some Other Places We’ve Missed is a series of photographs, snap-shot size, taken in response to prisoners’ requests to see places that, incarcerated, they can no longer visit or inhabit. But the concept yoking these images resonates on multiple levels. Loss is the place that grounds 21st century American culture, or for the most part does: how many of us now live in the same house, or the same neighborhood or town, in which our parents lived at the time of our birth? As Bachelard makes clear, the first house of childhood holds the shape of memory. And we have nearly all been dispossessed of the body of that memory



 But for the incarcerated, the shape of early memory, the loss of the concrete space that was oneself, is a sharper, harsher, crueler and sometimes absolute loss. Almost grotesque for me to compare the loss of access to the place that is oneself suffered by the incarcerated to the loss of access to one’s first house suffered by the typical non-incarcerated 21st century American. And yet, I think that link is part of what makes Mr Strandquist’s show so very powerful. We all, almost, know how it is. And yet we don’t.


As a young teen I spent roughly two months in solitary confinement. No reason to say more except to note that the absolute weirdness of place that entrapment enforces is powerful. One never again feels the same about habitable man-made space. Habitable man-made space indeed becomes one’s obsession, as Merle Haggard once suggested when he said he felt at home in his room on his tour bus because it reminded him of his prison cell. He was not romanticizing prison, maybe his songs did, but telling a truth of entrapment. One becomes the space where one is held.



Strandquist’s photographs resist that shrinking of soul. Quietly, these postcard sized, homely, images instate the possibility of release for many who will not get out of prison for years, or maybe never. The project—to show another place “we” missed—is protest sublime, tersely inculcating audience in the harms of the victims with that “we”. So quiet, so delicate, the tender rooms and houses and parks and corners of the middle and poorer than middle class that his photographs show, endowed mirrors of mental landscapes entrapped in prison. The small frame, insisted upon by the prison, that dictated the images be no larger than postcards if they were to be sent to the prisoners for whom the images originally were made, provides the formal restraint that keeps the project clear of bathos. That the images were made firstly for the prisoners—that they were made to give the prisoners a visual image of a place they love and cannot physically enter—is the kindness and trauma at the heart of the project.



How intensely this project pressures the conceit of photography to give us what we want: the face of the beloved who is dead, or the face of the beloved when she was beautiful and young. As Barthes would have it the face of one’s mother as a virgin in a pristine winter garden. Photography as Eden is the concourse of Strandquists’s strangely eloquent project.



Viewing the exhibit one is asked to interact. One is asked to pick up a different card beneath each photograph, a card on which the prisoner has written his description of the place he is asking Mr Strandquist to photograph. In this sense the project is collaborative: the prisoner describes the place to be photographed, and Mr. Strandquist goes to that place and sends back the requested image. These handwritten, photocopied (or photographed) verbal text documents, in which the prisoners describe the places they want photographed, push to the edge of poignancy. Almost too painful to imagine the imprisoned writer’s hope to see a place he misses. Did the photograph answer that hope, or did it only whet desire? Not that I mistrust this project. It is moving and graceful and the photographs themselves formally balanced and clean, as clean and sharp as that aching memory of the playground where one once played, unseen by parents because that part of the town was safe enough to escape to, between pine trees, it was just there one was safe.



Art as activism, I guess, is the gambit of this exhibit. And as such it works very well, because its terms are willing to humble the artist, to set the artist at the service of the “criminal” to look not for the distinction, one drawn by Alice Miller, between the criminal and the artist (that distinction was the presence of a caring witness during childhood’s atrocities) but instead to place the artist at the service of his brother, the criminal. I do not touch here on race, but it’s well known that the story of incarceration in America is mostly this story of race (Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow is immaculate in its presentation of these facts). And yet Strandquists’s quiet, plaintive images resist racializing the trauma of incarceration and I think properly so. They show the gaze of the criminal as inseparable from the gaze of the child, looking at and looking for the corner of the world where he is safe, where he is home. And not the perverted post-incarceration home to which Haggard referred but home as Bachelard would have it, the place of sky and earth at ease.


Claire Raymond, July 2013


for more information:

some other places we’ve missed photo