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Eugenia Parry Dishes To Susie Kalil

Parry speaks candidly about the writing process and the extraordinary artists who provide inspiration.

Susie Kalil: For over four decades, you’ve written about the works and lives of other artists. I’d like this interview to focus on your instincts and experiences – the writing process, your relationship with editors and publishers. Most I important, I’d like to know what you’re thinking about, what grabs you! I’m fascinated by how your essays and books move back and forth in time – between 19th century and contemporary artists, from Edgar Degas, Gustave Le Gray, Lisette Model, and the Crime Album Stories, to Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Joel-Peter Witkin, Patrick Nagatani, David Levinthal, Adam Fuss, and Jungjin Lee. How have you gravitated toward specific subjects: What are you searching for? It seems you’ve been interested in “unknown” worlds or realms, however romantic or shocking. It’s almost as if you reset a compass course in each book, taking the reader/viewer on a personal journey.

Eugenia Parry: I write essays the old-fashioned way. It starts with an instinct about an artist, a profound attraction that touches something in myself, really stabs me to the core. If I don’t feel this, I can’t write and often tell artists who ask me to write about them that while their work is admirable, I have nothing to say about it because I don’t feel that connection. It moves me into lots of reading, and then I find a way to connect that initial instinct with a way of telling about it. I’m always looking for that “hook.” It can be anything -an artist’s physical size, illnesses, passions. I’m not interested in theory or the history of photography when I write. I don’t choose photographers or artists who are trying to add their names to the history. I look for wounds, gaps, uncertainties, obsessions, which have little to do with making a photograph. Sometimes the “hook” comes after hours of sifting through my library and pulling books off the shelves, books that might deepen my understanding of the artist in question – poets of all sorts, writers of haiku, the works of Jung, interpretations of myths and dreams. I’m attracted to artists who invent their subjects rather than record off the street or from nature Jayne Hinds Bidaut, Patrick Nagatani, Paolo Ventura, David Levinthal, Adam Fuss, Joel-Peter Witkin – all are fabricators with deep connections to photography’s earliest curiosities fossils, insects, maladies, cabinets of wonders. I try to change what everyone thinks they already know. Photographs become not examples of “art,” but tears. Bitterness. I expose what’s been hidden. It involves exploding into spirit. New Mexico is, above all, about spirit.

SK: Can you discuss the deeply personal connections you’ve experienced with artists? You’ve mentioned that you’re more interested in how artists, generally, think than you are in photography as a medium – but you continue to write about the work of photographers.

EP: For some reason, photographers come to me – I’ve been pigeonholed. So much writing about photography is technical. I’m drawn to a different kind of intelligence – not theory, but instinct. Some pictures are “impressive,” but they have no heart; they’re cold. They don’t account for my feelings. “Impressive” is dangerous – I walk away hungry. Impressive means wanting the critics to like you. I don’t want to explore that tiny place in the self. Baudelaire said, “Break my heart.” It must hit you in the gut. With Levinthal, it was the child immersed in toys that tell dark stories, the sex dolls that he photographs as if they were real women. I was dealing with a table top artist compelled to work in miniature. I was interested in his colitis, an affliction that forced him to work indoors – he couldn’t leave his house. You start with an illness and find it’s the key to why or how an artist works, how it might lead them to do what they did. For Levinthal, I listened to Rolling Stones tapes for months. With Nagatani, a Japanese-American, whose parents met in an American concentration camp, it was the atomic bomb, radioactivity. He was totally enchanted by New Mexico’s atomic history. I followed him there. He gave me boxes of books, and I read them all. With Adam Fuss, I went to England and walked with him through the woods of his childhood. I realized why he wasn’t afraid of dead rabbits since we kept hitting them with our car along the English byways! I watched as he set fire to a swamp spouting methane gas. He grew up near William Blake’s house. It was clear he wasn’t simply a photographer, but an intuitive who happens to use photography. Photographing the entrails of two rabbits, he found a metaphor for the pain of human emotional entanglement.

SK: In every case, you’re a storyteller – but where and how does the story begin?

EP: With Meatyard, I didn’t want to travel the same ground as others had done – the way of the masks. I discovered that he and his family had liked making violet jam. They also made elderberry fritters, elderberry and dandelion wine. They were fans of foraging. How does this explain a man who was always very ill and also a photographer? I like improbable connections. Meatyard read Euell Gibbons, a hunter after wild food. Pursuing this, I discovered that Meatyard staged his pictures in the very places where Gibbons told his readers to find wild edibles. Transforming what had been foraged into a new substance like violet jam connected me with the way myths help us to live, to what the sites and sacred rituals in the photographs were trying to express. A world transformed and transcendent. Violets as food for the gods.

SK: You’ve written several essays on the work of Joel-Peter Witkin. The grotesques, the posed cadavers force us to examine the human condition. Is it the sacredness of his moral sense that continues to attract and provide a point of entry into the work?

EP: I first saw Arm Fuck over 25 years ago. To me, it’s not sordid. Rather, it feels closer to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the many times we’ve been misjudged, lied to, insulted, or forced to carry someone else’s guilt. I saw The Kiss at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU, in 1985 – isn’t everyone divided? Embracing “the other” in ourselves we become whole. Witkin’s work is like a sacred text – it shows me how to live to the greatest potential, the wisdom of what we endure in life amid forces out of control. Witkin’s images illustrate exactly how I feel. When I moved to New Mexico, he was the first person I telephoned. He’s a compassionate person but not easy to get to know. When I have the chance to write about him, I grab it. My essay, Fool for Christ, introduces a new retrospective book on Witkin to be published by Delpire in Paris in the Fall. I wrote about Witkin and Christ because Christ is alive in all his pictures – triumph over cruelty. I’ve continued to write about his work because I like crossing thresholds – I like the trickster mentality of artists who upset and disorient. Witkin’s images restore myth to modern life. I feel my way into artists’ minds and follow where they go. I put aside my ego and become them. I give up my story and become their story. It’s traumatic at times. Assuming their voice from inside, I lose part of myself. It’s a risk.

SK: You wrote the essay
Ghost Lands, about Jungjin Lee’s wide angle work in the Aperture monographWIND. There’s a sense of the magical, uncanny, and otherworldly in her work -like a distilled moment in time. How did you connect to those enormous images?

EP: I was astounded by her spiritual interpretation of the land. I consulted the I-Ching for a character called Wind to find that she was using wind in the same sense, though she’d never read the I-Ching. Jungjin Lee, a solitary, was a ceramicist and calligrapher before becoming a photographer. She also assisted Robert Frank. Her photographs have secrets; they become our secrets, too. There’s no wind in her book WIND.

SK: We’ve all witnessed the changes from printed publications to online blogs. The in-depth essay is becoming rare, privileged. A younger generation comprehends a kind of coding and texting, with little inclination to read – and the editors follow. You’ve had so much experience with publishing. Can you discuss working with editors and artists, and how that dynamic might be changing?

EP: I’ve always maintained that “the beholder’s share” – what we, as viewers and writers, bring is as important as the work itself. I kill myself to get it right. Do others think I inflate the artist or the work? Am I distorting? My recent essay on Witkin started with a guy spinning in a clothes dryer on the David Letterman show. Witkin and his son considered him a martyr, giving him a special benediction. We’ve lost our affinity for symbol and ritual – there’s a craving for it, but most people don’t know how to access it. Sometimes editors attempt to change my voice, and thus, the meaning of the work. They want to blend or leave out paragraphs. I usually have a straight-forward relationship with publishers. Some publishers, however, have no understanding of the artistic process – and want the essays to read like instruction manuals. I know I’m working in a vacuum of general non-readership. But there’s always a group of us who cares about the high road – they’re usually photography publishers. They become part of your inner circle. We only do what we’re capable of. Blogs aren’t interesting. I’m a sensualist – I like paper, text, ink, and being part of the design and presentation. I love books – how text and images are distributed. Language is gorgeous. I swim in words. The drug of electronic media is intoxicating; it’s the way of the world. You ask about the photo essay. People look at pictures rather than read. So I try to make my first line, my first paragraph so humorous or outrageous that people want to read more. I’m interested in the tragic side of life – how human greatness overcomes deep despair.

SK: Your essays over the decades are perhaps more timely now than we probably knew when they were first published, particularly since the melding of diverse media – photography, painting, sculpture, and drawing is “in the air.” Aside from entertainment, how is photography relevant in 2011? What do you expect from it?

EP: Photography is a medium like any other. It can do whatever a good artist wants it to do. Daguerreotype, allowing us to peer into details, still moves us. We think of lost people – faces, women proudly holding bouquets and books. But it really depends on the artist who decides to use photography. Witkin has always made drawings; Fuss photographs without a camera. They show that the medium is more flexible than we thought it could be. I’m interested in artists who aren’t afraid to go backward, forward, or sideways. I write to suit their driving, inner beliefs.

SK: What do you hope to achieve in your essays – I’m referring to your vocation as a writer.

EP: Writing is like a decent into Hell – you have to access a place that’s not yours and, step by step, help others see it. I like meeting people who think differently, who scare me to death. I want to cross the threshold between worlds. That’s why I live in the village of Cerrillos with bikers, druggies and aging Hispanics – they’re alien to each other. I’m an alien to them! Even after 40 years of writing, I’m
paid very little for my work. I bury myself in unlikely stuff that turns out to be the lost key. It makes me think that in my imagination, my life as a writer is some kind of fairy tale. I’d be delighted to have a piece of mine discovered, years later, by someone looking for something, who stops and sits down with my essay and is changed by it.

Eugenia Parry received an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, and Masters and Doctorate degrees from Harvard University. Formerly professor of art history and department chair at Wellesley College, she has published and lectured widely on the histories of art and photography. Known for her imaginative essays on the creative processes of artists, Parry’s numerous awards include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in creative nonfiction. Her meta-fictional Crime Album Stories (2000) received the International Center for Photography’s Infinity award for writing on photography. From 1987-1993, she served as professor, and still remains an adjunct professor in the department of art and art history at the University of New Mexico. Parry’s most recent text, Forager, in Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks, published by Radius Books in June 2011, sets the stage for exploring the unknown work of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing photographers.