When Walker Evans accompanied James Agee on an assignment for Fortune in 1936, the two came to a certain realization that the bounds of magazine journalism would not permit a full portrayal of the Woods, the Gudgers, and the Ricketts — three families of poor white tenant farmers. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men grew out of that realization. Evans’s portraits of these families sit at the very front of the book, head-on shots of weathered faces, dark eyes, freckles, cheekbones. They are without text, without description. Agee’s prose flows out of and after these photos in deep contrast. It is luminous, cosmic, rhetorical, poetic. Tragic and lyrical, dense. It is direct. It speaks to the reader; it says care for these people, please.
No one bought this book. It floundered and flopped until resurrected in the years after Agee’s untimely death.
In 2007, the contemporary poet and photo historian John Wood published a book of photos and poems titled Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century. The photos are of the various patients of renowned 19th-century dermatologist George Henry Fox, photographed by O.G. Mason. They are horrifying. Psoriasis that plasters over the skin of a bearded man. An American man covered in 40 tumors, some kind of sarcoma that slowly whittled him to death. A young girl with scabies, her hands across her breast, praying in some kind of half-light.
Wood uncovered these photos and writes in a tender, probing, honest way about each of them. A poem accompanies each photo, and some deal explicitly with the visceral reaction of seeing the photo, simply — that moment before empathy comes, if it ever does. The poem that accompanies the photo of the American man with sarcoma begins, “What happened here?” It is told innocently, as if Wood wrote with a hand covering his eyes, some small slit through which he could barely see. The opening stanza of the poem about the young girl with scabies is defiant, reminiscent of Agee’s earnest and passionate defense of the divinity apparent in all humanity: “Forget medical history. / Imagine she was stung / While robbing a hive of honey. / Such beauty should be sung / Into pastoral poetry.” Similarly, the opening line of a poem about a 19-year-old girl with a severe case of elephantiasis, her legs swelled and pillowed and bloated, are simple, moving, haunting: “Do not say to me that she is not beautiful.”
However, like the then-experimental project of Evans and Agee, Wood’s book, published by Galerie Vevais, a German photography publisher, did not receive the critical recognition it deserved, especially in the United States, where Wood, the founder of the MFA program at McNeese State and the two-time winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, tried to publish it but failed. No American publisher wanted it, he says, in an interview with 21st Editions.
Why, though? In the same interview with 21st Editions, Wood asserts that the photographs of Fox’s patients repelled even him, the poet, stating, “I had long known those photographs that inspired the poems in Endurance and Suffering, but they repelled me, and I couldn’t understand why anyone but a historian of medicine would even look at them. But one of them, the naked girl with elephantiasis, stayed in my head like some cruel story, the sort you’ve heard, hate to recall, and would never tell someone you love.”
But it took time, and effort, and the slow dwelling on and carrying of things before that first line–– do not say to me that she is not beautiful — came to Wood in an honest way. Readers do not have to sit with that. No one is requiring us to. So we come to photos that repel us, and we turn the page, put our hands in front of our eyes, leave no slit through which we can allow some word or image of something-that-could-be-beautiful seep into our being. Evans’s photos occupy that same landscape. His tenant farmers do not shy away from the lens. They stare through the page, and their hurt immediately pushes the pressure points of human guilt and responsibility.
Now, though, the Midwest-based small publisher, Coffee House Press, is releasing a novel, House of Coates, by Brad Zellar, assisted by Alec Soth, who The Guardian in 2010 compared to both Walker Evans and Stephen Shore, placing Soth in a tradition of American open-road portraiture photography. What makes House of Coates interesting is its claim to fiction, and what that means and how that places it in the context of photography and prose collaborations. Centering on a few days in the life of a homeless drifter, Lester B. Morrison, the short novel is written with a certain authority, at times expounding the values of the drifting life, and the photographs are grainy film ones of simple things, simple homes, snow banks and sunsets, roadside diners, and clutters of abandoned trash. The photos serve as a sort of image map, and they are supposedly, for the sake of the work, taken by Morrison himself, grounding the reader in the true context of the story. There is the sense of stumbling upon a scrapbook, something collected and only important because we hold it in our hands.
What adds to the mystique of the novel is the constant, recurring notion that Lester Morrison actually exists — not merely in the fictional world, but in the actual one. House of Coates was first published by Soth’s photography-based publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, which specializes in one-of-a-kind, limited-run art books. After its release, a Minnesota Public Radio article articulated the mystery of Lester Morrison. In the article, Soth states that he is not, as some readers attest, Lester Morrison, but the answer is still vague and generously unclear. Both Soth and Zellar claim to know Lester in a deeply nuanced way. They claim to know the results of a psychiatric test he took in 2009. And they claim, on the Little Brown Mushroom website, that the photos in House of Coatex were sent from Lester to them in a duct-taped shoebox. But Lester, by all accounts, is a now-gone mystery, and his presence, fictional or not, only exists in the pages of House of Coates, and in many ways, whether Lester exists is not the question at large. The true issue is why he matters. And, too, why all the Lesters of the world matter. Zellar knows this. In a 2012 Minnesota Post interview, he says, “Because the Lesters of the world tend to be largely inaccessible and tremendously unreliable characters, I had to make my own version of his story.”
Soth’s photos (it is my belief that they are Soth’s) contribute to that continual duality between the real and fictional Lester, for in this work he abandons his normal beauty-in-the-banal style of portraiture, eliminating the human face from the frame, putting a fictional eye behind the viewfinder. It serves to suspend belief at times. It is the literary shaky-cam, the found image. And though the story is haunting and lovely and artful, it is not repelling in the same way that Fox’s medical patients were. If we are put off by it, we can hide behind the fiction. If we are willing to hear the story of a man we might be willing to forget or never encounter in the first place, then we sit with the story, and the photos, and the romantic prose, and we allow it to encompass us in our own time, allow the real to merge with the surreal until we are unsure but still empathetic, held in the white space between fiction and nonfiction but at least at some semblance of ease with that suspended state.
The aim of House of Coates is similar to the aims of both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Endurance and Suffering — to tell the story of the never-told, to delve into the underworld of society and come out with something human, tender, heartfelt. And, like these two other works, House of Coates is still considered an experimental work, despite the fact that we are a society of the image. The compiled image. The moving image. The flashing image, the pixelated one.
In a letter to the reader of the galley copy of House of Coates, Christopher Fischbach, the publisher of Coffee House Press, discusses how the original edition of the work, published by Little Brown Mushroom, was collected, not read. It was presented as a spiral-bound and limited-edition art book, and not circulated widely. It was a cherished thing. It was not passed along, given out, read, written over, read again. Fischbach says, in this letter, that House of Coates “deserves better.” Because of the story it aims to tell, and how it tells it, because of the hunting down of the never told and the taking stock of the never seen, it does. In the same way that Agee and Evans deserved better upon their initial publication. In the same way that John Wood deserved better upon his attempt at publication.
Despite this, House of Coates won’t garner a great deal of national attention, though it is a jewel of a book, a ghostly one. Zellar’s prose is authoritative and incantatory and gripping. But what is more telling is that this collaborative medium between prose and photography, poetry and photography, also deserves a more established home in the spectrum of the literary world, and I worry that it will not get there, because some might not find it necessary, because others might find it too much. But consider the reliance on the photographic image in Rachel Kushner’s dynamic and powerful novel The Flamethrowers, or the scene from Don DeLillo’s White Noise where Murray and Jack stand at the most photographed barn in America, and Murray states, “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.” If that is the aim of the writer — to keep an image circulating in the consciousness of the reader, long after the sentence has ended — then it still must be the aim of the photographer, indeed, the aim of all artists at large. Murray’s questions at the end of that scene are the universal questions of artistry, of why photographers choose to photograph an object, a person, why writers chose to pick away at a story: “What was the barn like before it was photographed?…What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”
The writer and the photographer are not at any sort of odds. One form does not negate the other. They are both probing the world behind the limitations of their instruments, and, perhaps more importantly, behind the limitations of their individual ability for compassion, empathy, and tenderness. To place both forms of artistry within the same bound book allows for the engagement of multiple senses and for the opportunity of more catharsis, more movement, more truth. It sounds floozy, doesn’t it? But take out Evans’s photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and you have a young earnest man trying so hard to make us feel what he feels. We might dismiss Agee so quickly without Evans’s careful eye. But without Agee, Evans’s photos might only be human, and never divine.
House of Coates seems to be one small step in the direction that allows for a renewed attempt in combining the art of writing with the art of photography in a fulfilled literary sense. Not in the same sense as, for example, Jack Kerouac’s famed introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, but rather as something more dynamic, reliant on the other. The photos in House of Coates reinforce the potential reality of the story, allowing us to probe if we want to, but giving us permission to suspend belief if we feel we must. In that sense, we, as readers, are secure. The hope, though, is that we sit just a little longer, each time, in whatever reality we find ourselves, and then a little longer still, until we are affirmed in some kind of beauty, whether it be in the turn of a line or the movement of syntax or the freckle on a high cheekbone or a grain of color layered upon film, or in those things combined, pointing them to a fellow reader, a friend, saying, asserting: do not tell me that this is not beautiful.