between the lines of photo criticism
“Why must every generation think their folks are square?” sang the Lovin’ Spoonful during the Summer of Love. “And no matter where their heads are they know Mom’s ain’t there.” Suspend your disbelief and stifle your complacency. “We don’t want pretty things anymore,” declares artist and educator Gregory Eddi Jones in his Ginsbergian howl concluding Primal Sight, a fascinating collection of photographs and texts that Efrem Zelony-Mindell curated for Gnomic Book. “Thanks Edward, thanks, Ansel. We’ll take it from here.” GEJ tells the Dead White Male Photography Legends Weston and Adams, “This is my generation. This is our time in and of this world. This is our flag stabbing dead mud.” Whatever lifeless muddy world DWMPLs left us with, the “past and the future are ours no matter what,” GEJ declares. Were truer words ever spoken? Sure, but every generation writes history, whether or not we know anything about the past, and every generation impacts the future, whether or not we know what we are doing. Or we take a picture and pretend the camera does not expose some version of the truth.
What truths do we see with Primal Sight? After EZM’s triumphing newflesh,* lauded by LensCulture as one of “Art History’s seminal moments” when it was published in 2019, the anticipation for Primal Sight was so great that Humble Arts declared it “might be the best photobook of 2021” before it even dropped into the boutique marketplace for limited edition photography books. There are at least three Primal Sights. One is the Gnomic book which, like newflesh, we hope, will soon be found in the secondary market for collectors.** Another is EZM’s curatorial vision realized on the pages of a PDF that the curator makes freely available for everyone. No need to steal this book, as Abbie Hoffman once recommended to the counterculture. “I don’t need to perpetuate,” EZM told artist Keavy Handley-Byrne of the Strange Fire Collective, “a system that I know is broken, flawed, unsustainable, and upholds the supremacy and violence of white cis gendered men.” Still another is a Primal Sight illuminated by words, EZM’s mythologizing opening statement and GEJ’s riotous rhapsody, as well as a flagging commentary contributed by scholar David Campany. Adding color, light, and shadow to Primal Sight is a bevy of interviews when the curator highlights his feelings about the art of curation.
At first, Primal Sight is blinding. What appears to be a burned Black male with his eyes closed and wearing a therapy oxygen mask adorns the title page. In a spatial – as opposed to metaphorical – reversal of image and text, the title appears au verso, as the frontispiece, and opposite words painting what the mysterious portrait performs: “Out of the mysteries of the world figures and objects take form; they shine in darkness.” Immediately Primal Sight’s sequencing begins to enliven EZM’s curatorial statement: a dejected Bernie, in silhouette below a cloudy sky of his political impotence, looks down; a 1920s movie House of Wax villain, in sexier silhouette than Bernie’s, leans over a sleeping beauty bound in ivory; two dogs kiss in snarling high contrast; a hair-twirling maraca player; a horror movie screamer; a milky DADA construction commanding us to “Fill the Void with Meaning,” a sleeping tabby in beastly closeup; a brush fire; a Black male emerging from smokey mist to spray wash a sports utility vehicle; an untitled wire mesh lost in its shadow. [7-16] Form and tone mesh a precarious narrative across Primal Sight’s often discordant pictures. Each photograph startles us out of our complacent stupor, requiring a second or third or forth reading to see the images spilling over frame into frame. Finally we begin to feel what DC eloquently generalizes as the “weight – metaphorical, symbolic – in many of the themes and motifs” both actual and implied. “Anarchy introduces new depths of thought and plausible impossibility,” EZM hypothesizes, romanticizing a plausibly impossible world without aesthetic, political, or social hierarchies. “That is what photography has always provided: to upset established order” that EZM strives to subvert.
How subversive is Primal Sight? Does subversion engender viscerality? “I’m interested in how turning formal decisions upside down can allow viewers access into themselves and their feelings more organically,” EZM told KHB. Photography is talk therapy on rewind. We still ourselves in order to feel what we see in the photographs. Not too touchy feely though, lest we miss the commercial imperative found in every photography institution’s mission statement. “Primal Sight is about pushing limits of both black-and-white imagery as well as how we engage and perceive photography.” EZM elaborates, expanding on the art industry cliché, “I mean for the narrative to be unusual, alarming, and terrifying—or uncertain.” What are we looking at? Is a lightbulb man  a snapshot reënactment of a distant cartoon character long forgotten, until now? Whose gaze is gazing at, left page , an overweight White male courteous enough to keep his underwear on; right page , the toned derrière of an anonymous nude White female photographing herself in the mirror with a Sony on a tripod; left page , a muscular Black male soaping himself in the shower and shielding his face from the camera; right page , a curvy female in bra and panties decapitated by the frame and seated on a lawn chair, breasts at camera eye level; right page , an “Intentionally Not Dated” janitor sweeping up after a party; right page , a wide-angle shot of a child on the toilet who looks away from the camera at closed Venetian blinds? How do these photographs fit together to tell how many stories? Primal Sight headbutts photography’s conceptual fantasies until these disappear into a visceral visual where the information in the image, what Roland Barthes*** called the studium, is suddenly overshadowed by an incomprehensible sharpness, Barthes’s ubiquitous punctum. “I wanted Primal Sight to be something sharp and formidable,” EZM says to Sadie Cook, a contributing photographer  and EZM’s most perceptive interviewer. Feeling the prick drowns out why we are pricked. Form suffocates content. Is it punctum? Or is it punctilio, what Berenice Abbott called the photographer’s “recognition of the now”?^
Because Gnomic Book’s publicity and most reviews announce that Primal Sight “surveys the state of contemporary black and white photography,” readers may be bewildered because, unlike the PDF, the book as published presents no black & white photographs. Printed on matte black paper, every image is drowned in a monographic blue-black and blue-white wash with midtones rendered in blue-gray, as if the pages had been waterboarded in a tub of exhausted easter egg dye. The submersion into the bluish bath modifies the tonality of the pictures, lowering the contrast overall, forcing highlights into shadows, effectively pasteurizing each photograph. Although enthusiastic reviewers are encouraged by the PDF, where black is black and not blue, the book design’s visible bruising seeps into its critical reception. Writing for the photo-eye blog, Odette England suggests that “the images are not confined; they are nuzzled in an inky bath of blue-black like a mother or lover,” a nuzzling owing “to a seepage or intrusion of many of the photographs into the blue-black void.” Is Primal Sight a symbolic meconium birth? Is this black and blue freedom from confinement a metaphor for what Barthes called “la Mort plate,” a “flat Death,” a platitude for what Gnomic’s blurb brands as a subversion of “traditional notions of black-and-white imagery into something feral and queered, possessed of previously unimagined possibilities”? GEJ comforts us, “The flat promise of pictures. It doesn’t matter if we believe in them.” Or not. Is the book designed to arouse fear? “In a lot of ways,” EZM tells SC, “I like to think of Primal Sight as a horror novel, a genre I’ve been obsessed with even since I was a kid.”
Primal Sight sources its focus on black and white in primordial anxiety. Seeking an answer from a mythical era when language predated color, EZM suggests, “The world of color is removed from curiosity because it is entrapped in literality. Grays, black and white, silvers—brilliant and pointed— are identified in every language and culture before color is procured.” Before we search for an anthropologically universalizing, historical linguistic footnote, let us assume that if black and white has more punctum than color, the reason will not be found in prehistory. Paleolithic artists painted their animals and stick figures in color. “Could there really be something essential about black & white? Something fundamental?” DC asks rhetorically, “Something possessed of first principles”? If the scholar’s Aristotelian leap of faith is insufficient, evoke psychoanalytic theory. “More profoundly,” DC paraphrases Julia Kristeva, “color is highly unstable at the level of meaning … color is a ‘signifier’ with no fixed ‘signified’.” Essentializing black and white with reductive psycho-semiotic theories and prehistorical revisionism puts the primal in Primal Sight. Or, as EZM reminds us, “We still need fairy tales.”
“Feeling a desire to urinate," Henry Miller wrote in Quiet Days in Clichy, "I calmly proceeded to pee” in the bathtub he was sharing with two women, who “were horrified. Apparently I had done something unethical.” Primal Sight encourages us to consider ethics, including those of pissing in our own pond, as a male model does, demurely pulling up a tee-shirt to reveal a furry torso while hiding the face.  No wonder Humble Arts’ Roula Seikaly praised Primal Sight’s photographs that “practically spit on all that is polite or nostalgic about the medium.” Surely EZM is taking the piss, as is GEJ who, sublimating synthetic dreams of youthful fecundity and virility, expresses his anger and despair about the “crippled Earth” his generation and everybody else is inheriting. What about “Eric (Voiding), 2018”? Can a metaphor be unethical? What is the significance of an anonymous figure urinating off the page into the rest of the book? Aesthetic potty training, the Rabelaisian waterhole an emblem of photography? “There is no hope in these pictures.” GEJ says, “They are dreadful things.” Or is it all piss and vinegar? “I don't purposely try to piss people off,” EZM tells RS. “I just know that’s going to happen without even trying, so I don't need to obsess about it. I’m just waiting to watch it happen.” What is happening? Turn the page. Eric is voiding all over two Black males cuddling on a cinderella bed in a wonderfully affectionate portrait.  What an unfortunate metaphor to interrupt the current of EZM’s elegant curation. Or does it? Maybe it’s a joke. “Rip the pages from the body of this book,” GEJ advises us, “and staple them on your empty walls.” Time to chill.
Throughout Primal Sight, photographers see so clearly that, to paraphrase Berenice Abbott, they look through the present into the past and sense the future. Left page , two Black males flirt in a ritualistic pas de deux reminiscent of Martin Munkacsi; right page , two little girls playing on a rundown NYC stoop quote Helen Levitt; left page , a nude tattooed White male standing with crutches on the seamless glares at Robert Mapplethorpe through a generic Hollywood spotlight; right page , two nude Black males embrace in bed, filling Irving Penn’s elegant frame from above. It’s always about Daddy. “Because fucking-A,” EZM winks at RS about Aaron Siskind, “that man is responsible for every inspiration I’ve ever had as an artist.” EZM celebrates with SC “how curation is a form of artistic expression. Curating pictures is painting in my head and in my hands.” Like a piano prodigy improvising jazz music tradition by riffing Thelonious Monk’s Straight No Chaser over a polytonal blues, EZM includes work by artists of previous generations who, the curator tells KHB, “make the case that imagery like what’s inside Primal Sight isn’t just some alien that landed yesterday.” Alive in a great artistic continuum, their “future is in our hands now…. Their work is capable of being reimagined and reinterpreted. Thanks Duane, thanks Aaron, we’ll take it from here,” the curator informs still living and long dead white male photography legends Michals and Siskind.
What are they taking, and where? Us. Home, decides DC, in a brilliant flash of Freudian unheimlich. “But home is always strange, and more so when you stare at it.” “There’s nowhere else to go,” GEJ confirms. “Let us have this sanctuary.” Reality and its metaphors, photography’s uncanny first principles. “I photograph, therefore I am,” wrote Joan Fontcuberta. “In my mind,” EZM educates Vogue Italia, “black-and-white imagery is in and of itself a metaphor, an opportunity to question how we see and construct our worlds and embody our lived experiences.” Right page , two untitled, desexualized military cadets wearing camouflage are locked in a wrestler’s embrace as they disappear into the cold landscape; left page , a little girl is crying or laughing with, screaming at, bullying, or saving a little boy while their neighborhood goes up in apocalyptic smoke.
Seeing with Primal Sight, a curatorial tour de force featuring superb photographs sensitively sequenced, we slowly slip and fall under a dystopian delusion with no escape in sight.
* Graphically, the title is n e w f l e s h, with a space between each letter, a series of gaps visualizing the title as an idea rather than as a sign, dematerializing language in order to flesh out what it cannot adequately describe. Philosophically inclined readers may attribute EZM’s play of letters and spaces to Barthesian semiotics and Foucauldian heterotopia. Given that the referent cannot exist as spelled, with spaces slicing up the new flesh, and rather than lose ourselves in this semantic foreplay, as well as to avoid word-processing glitches, we are tempted to delete the titular spaces.
** newflesh is sold out at the publisher.
*** La chambre claire, Roland Barthes, Gallimard. The punctum/studium dichotomy has been become so prickly in conventional usage that the terms are virtually meaningless in mixed company.
^ https://photoquotes.com/article/it-has-to-walk-alone “The photographer’s punctilio is his recognition of the now––to see it so clearly that he looks through it to the past and senses the future.” Abbott, one of the finest photographers of her generation who, fully aware of her vital contribution to the development of 20th century photography, wrote using third person masculine pronouns in keeping with the gendered requirements of formal writing formerly taught in high school English class, where the third person was always he, never she.