Writing letters to Lew: Some Reflections on the Work of Lew Thomas — Dominic Jaeckle

“[We] are the photometers, we the irritable gold-leaf and tinfoil that measure the accumulations of the subtle element. We know the authentic effects of the true fire through every one of its million disguises.”

 Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Spiritual Laws’ 

 

“This life that I am living, Ye Gods, everywhere let me see if it is real”

 from a Pawnee Warrior Song, traditional

 

Writing in The Los Angeles Times, back in 2014, Sharon Mizota pens a review of Lew Thomas’s first solo show in two decades. In reading Lew, an unsung hero of California’s avant-garde photographic movement of the late ‘70s, Mizota stakes the claim that his work remains hugely effecting and widely overlooked. Most striking, she writes, is his sense of humor: that’s the first impression docked. However, in spite of the truth behind these two sentiments, as she strolls the rooms of this Los Angeles gallery – Cherry & Martin on La Cienega Boulevard – she changes her mind. It’s an ironic purview strung through her response, to a point, as Lew’s work centres on precisely that sense of departure, on that sense of change, on an apparent lack of definitive meaning. Sure, Lew is funny, but pacing the gallery Mizota accidentally lands on a couple of other themes central to his work: the circulation of meaning, the look of an idea as it changes hands….

Lew – at work as either a photographer, editor, or writer – is invested is in our capacity for alteration, in an understanding of the act of looking as instigating a critically charged altercation between a world moving forwards and our aptitude for retrospection, for nostalgia. If movement is the only meaningful gesture left, it’s standing still that engineers Lew’s melancholic laugh; it’s standing still that defines the photographer’s practice in his vernacular – providing foundation for his probing explorations of the medium and its metaphoric weight. Every photograph proves an interruption to the running order of things, for Lew. Every photograph, a potential joke, a potential affront… instigating a contractual obligation for its misreading. That, it could be argued, is at the heart of his interests. He’s taking pictures of meaning-making; of the importance of an audience and its incidental power.

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Lew Thomas, THROWING-NIKOMAT [1973], 4 gelatin silver prints, mounted and framed; image courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles

Now based in New Orleans, co-founder of San Francisco’s NFS Press, and active as a photographer, editor and curator since the late ‘70s, Thomas proves a veritable pioneer of America’s Late Modern photographic renaissance. Not delimited by the formal purity that would define his forebears, he wrings his work and critical eye through film, literature, and their cousins, offering a complex perspective on the development of photography as an art form and posing a potential, argumentative view of our relationship with images and with language. With Lew, we’re not exploring pictorial potential, but rather engineering a conception of photography as providing platform for a complicated methodological criticism… a forum for metaphorical play. His is a challenge to direct representation; an insistence that we need read photography within the contexts of our needs of it not the confinements of representation. A picture is always associative, for Lew, emblazoned with our own private connotations.

With contexts drifting, it’s a form that lights off and on. For Lew, photography introduces itself as a prop for memory; as a commercial vehicle; as an assertion of where we’ve been. A blank sheet of coated paper – an empty collection of liquid crystals – photography is a meaningless practice. Blank without appropriation, vapid without attribution. Riffing on the idea of the “taken” photograph, Lew circumnavigates an understanding of photography as an analogue for critique. The word furnishes us with a means with which to dispute ownership. To take a position, to couch it within a personally set logic, to bastardise its flat demonstration of any given thing. It’s at that juncture that the meaning of the word “photography” is jigged, for Lew – budding out from a mechanical means of encapsulation or representation to emerge as some codification of the subjective, of ownership, of our own methodologies of self-recognition. As David Levi Strauss wrote of Lew in ’86, considering either his photography or textual works, his efforts were to revaluate image culture so as to ‘[encourage] reading as opposed to a passive viewing.’ Lew ‘persistently recognises photography as a language’ – a wholly literary thing – which can and must be used to reach out and act on the world.’ His is a conspicuous contemporaneity. Reflecting on the Cherry & Martin reprisal of Lew’s early structuralist works, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer – writing in Artforum – writes that the ‘literal, one-to-one indexicality’ prevalent in Lew’s practice ‘anticipates both the copy-and-paste re-representational logic of the Pictures generation and all the digital peregrinations that have followed.’ It’s a line of thought echoed through critical surveys of Lew’s practice, and indicative of the necessary character of his work to efforts to describe any outlying landscape that can be gleaned from our vantage point of the slow burr and glow of a screen. It’s not a capacity to photograph that drives Lew’s work, but the vehicular nature of photographic language itself. Evolving out of commercial enterprise, any discussion of the photographic, for Lew, is a discussion of the nature of inference….

Such an expansive photographic formalism can be gleaned most acutely across four texts, edited by Lew, that would drag the ‘70s into the ‘early ‘80s: Photography & Language [1976], Eros and Photography [1977], Structural(ism) & Photography [1978], and Still Photography: The Problematic Model [1981]. These works represent a curatorial project key to his effort apparent to expand the understanding of a photographer’s role in the cultural field. Taken collaboratively, the books function as a continued surveillance of the significance of context to content, a mitigation of the semiotics of capital, a drain for the meaningful spillage of direct, visual representation, and an itinerant study of the limits of technological authenticity. Although initially ideas are presented through photography – as individual writers employ individual images as lily-pads for associative inquiry – these interests are read against a panoply of cultural fora. Against popular narrative, against canonical literatures, against a cinema (low and high), Hollywood mythology, the cult of the celebrity, the auraticism of the author…. The list could carry on and over. The four publications would provide space for over a hundred photographers, artists and writers to exercise their various inquiries and, as such, the books are characterised by an uncompromising, combinatory and interrogative approach to the idea of medium and its mastication, through the conversation and contact between these pieces – that would insure the essays collated extend beyond the remit of Thomas’s own Californian peerage and drift towards canonisation. Writings as diverse as ‘Photography and Language’ by James Hugunin, ‘Ontology of the Snapshot’ by Robert Leverant, ‘Reinventing Documentary’ by Allan Sekula, ‘The Cycolograph and Work Motion Model’ by Bruce Kaiper, ‘John Heartfield’ by Doug Kahn, and ‘Gay Semiotics’ by Hal Fisher continue to incite debate with the field. These pieces, caught as distortions of one another within the brackets of each book, not only establish the firebrand formalism of these anthologies as a series but also communicate something significant about Thomas’s own relationship with culture. Primarily, we’re talking about collage, about montage, about editorial intervention as a creative practice. It’s a didacticism under duress that Lew was at work on; we buy the ticket not for the show, or a want of clarity, but in an effort to allow its influence to subtly, and contractually, distort our point of view. We’re pulling shapes in a hall of mirrors, he’s having fun making fun of the market, and aiming to truly dissect a conception of looking as an active critical, and highly creative act.

Looking for a critical stillness, Mizota strives to embed Lew within some sense of a cultural lineage. She reads him against x and y, but the subtle play against that effort (as Lew himself would infer) is not so much that wanton hunt for critical chronology but rather an effort to picture a reader… to convey the ways in which our own reading, insistent as it is on the flexibility of meaning, denotes a form of personal property. An idea has purchase here if we can walk away with it. Redirect it. Move it along. That’s Lew’s invariable play on the critic; rather than a point-and-shoot contact culture pioneered by Cartier-Bresson on the one side of the Atlantic, or the occasional corporate-romanticism central to the curatorial works of John Szarkowski on the American east coast, the real takeaway, and the more tangible point of departure that Lew prompts with the greatest élan, is an envisaging of critical process. His are pictures of meaning making. Pictures of the exchange in control congruent in any critical transaction, in any moment of reception. Between two poles of receipt – that transactional give and take – the photographic form emerges as the perfect medium for his creative scrutiny of criticism. In the very vocabulary of photography, we glean the perfect platform for such parody of critical practice and the market-driven circulation of cultural objects. Choose your term: the positive; the negative; its development…. Lew is interested in reading, in acknowledgement, in refusal. In the idea and its reversal. Its undressing, its exposure, its development.

Scanning his work, it is as though each image posed as an argument only to be rephrased as some sublime joke, consistently asserting that the punchline will need shift with the teller’s peripatetic context. Lew’s work, as bracketed by both himself and his critics as a “photo-conceptualism,” strolls that route. In his essay ‘Photography and Ideology: Theory, Review and Correspondence’ – collated as an element of the Structural(ism) and Photography anthology – Lew reflects on the precise character of this photo-conceptualism…

Let’s say it’s not a photography vis-a-vis politics or propaganda. No, it’s a photography appealing to intelligence and it is supported by methods of linguistics, structuralism and semiotics. It differs from conceptualism in its emphasis on content as being manifestly more important than the hermetic issues of formalism.

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Lew Thomas, 9 PERSPECTIVES [1972], 9 gelatin silver prints, mounted and framed; image courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles

In this mode, Lew’s “photography” is not a technological process, but rather endeavors to draw attention to our own specified and developed ways of looking, shifting authority from the auratic author to a more complete, unidentifiable sense of audience. We’re looking for opposition, with Lew; we’re lighting out for change. We’re on the hunt for an echo that doesn’t come back empty. Looking to deregulate a value shifting in an open economy of ideas; looking to observe a bigger idea broken down to its component parts. His is an investment in a meaning that circulates, that alters. From the artist to picture product, picture product to viewer, the anecdotal and the allegorical converge as little other than collage pieces. The appropriation of other people’s works appear in a new, revitalized context: we’re encouraged to chart the distance between mine and yours. By that final reassertion of ownership, the idea is irrevocably distorted, irrevocably changed. It’s there, for Lew, that the idea has purchase. Through his photographs, photographic collages, and editorial experiments, Lew strives to makes us constantly aware of a cycle – of the traffic of meaning – of the idea that (with each step, with each exchange) we provide our own modifications to a given fact.

Mizota curtails her remarks with a little on that. It’s implicit, she suggests, that Lew’s work is a finger pointing exercise. That Lew’s work is deliberately intending to disrupt any fixity of consensus in our various perambulations on aesthetic representation. Falling into cliché, the referential line for Mizota is a question as to whether a photograph, when taken to its metaphorical limit, constitutes itself as a mirror or a window. We’re not dealing with flat panes of glass with Lew, either backed and reflective or germinal – blooming out onto an open street; he is more interested in the architecture built around that particular cliché. Walking down a long room, with Lew’s photographs flanking the eye line, Mizota suggests that we’re sharpening ‘an appreciation of representation as an endlessly fascinating hall of mirrors.’ Pointing a finger, either directly away from ourselves or looking for some specular reflection. Whatever we see, in this instance, is always an invite for distortion – a slightly transformed (and yet still recognizable) self-awareness. Neither mirrors or windows are important in that case… it’s more a question of the act of looking as some critical bedrock and an enjoyment of the fact that we can’t help but twist a subject. We look for our grounds for distortion… look to buy it, look to live on it. Build our own hall of mirrors where a home should be.

Looking at his work, Mizota registers the subtle changes to her own reflection and her own capacity to self-reflect. The ways in which she’s being willfully manipulated. He’s making pictures of meaning-making. Making pictures of her making meaning. Folding the poor critic back onto herself: she’s distorted, but ever so slightly. Thomas, she muses, makes us alert to the fact that we furnish ourselves with our own preset constraints. He proposes that when we zone in on the details present in either the delivery or receipt of any given joke, in our addressing the walls of any given gallery, we’re not playing a game of self-improvement or self-extension but – in end – celebrating our own limitations. We will be manipulated, partially, but we’ll make happily make headway with the work ourselves only to home in on the disjunction between anything that belongs to us and the glare of a wall, glow of a screen, or flat weave of a page that platforms the illusion that we’re not just searching out a reflection in the pit of any given medium. Lew isn’t avoiding the details, but making a play on the idea of essential meaning. His effort is to ‘[make] us aware of the limited and fleeting nature of our own vision.’ That’s not only strung through his relationship with gallery culture and its contexts – from the 1970s to now – not only prefigured in Mizota’s efforts to embed Lew’s work as functioning within a certain aesthetic blood line – but is also the penetrating impression I came away with when writing letters to Lew.

*

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Lew Thomas, BLACK & WHITE  [1971], 2 gelatin silver prints, mounted and framed; image courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles

I didn’t know why I had written to Lew. We wrote back and forth over a month or so in late 2015 with the occasional comment cropping up through that next spring. Although beginning with questions, rather than coming back with any real answers, Lew’s letters ended up prompting questions about the very idea of correspondence…. About writing with real intent. About communication; about the plausibility of conversation when strung between computer screens. Our dialogue became a play on a series of staple questions, alternately broad, expansive and fit for purpose. Who are you writing for?  How do you draft a direct question to someone seemingly so insistent on dissolving the very notion of a direct answer? What are you wanting? Is talk worthwhile when nobody can interrupt you, interject?

Initially, it seemed sensible to position any conversation as though it was under the guise of research. A stepping stone into something bigger – a series of rippled feet across a stream that would assert two, estranged banks to channel talk better. Looking for a dialogue, to term any talk an “interview” would perhaps be give it a little more gut. A little more gravitas.

Lew,”

Dear Lew,”

Lew Thomas.”

I was looking for entreaty.

He got back to me, but rather than respond to any simple efforts to proffer some replete remark on his practice, he simply wanted to know why I had e-mailed him at all. Words or pictures? Language or photography? I was flattened out. Didn’t know the difference anymore. Caught between argument and anecdote. Any effort to pit the work as an academic endeavour, strung through with photogenic kernels of theoretical clout – arranged like flowers – felt nothing but crass. It’s not that his work evades the theory machines that were growing up and maturing in the American gallery culture of his day and on, but moreover that his work was all the more about action. It inspires a little self-reflection. A movement to animate that hall of mirrors. A necessary overview of the conditions for a wanting to act, a wanting to write, a wanting to reach out. I should have taken his first remark to heart; taken his word as my instruction. “Let me get my wits together,” he’d write on November 1st. An inbox as curving mirror, I felt fated for not having better thought that through. Not an interview was offered up here, per se, nor a direct correspondence, but rather a promontory with which to read Lew, a platform inviting his rereading. The opening gambit needed be something on that simpatico… on the apparent binary between words and images given platform in his work, giving stage to the apparent bedrock of my confusions. It would come over as a competitive relationship that Lew would be quick to ironize. Returning to his early works, he unpacks his early, dialectical put-on, ‘Black and White’ [1971]:

 If I understand your discussion of my work in terms of images and words – ‘Black and White’ is a fitting place to begin, as I did at the end of 1960’s. Its dialectical meaning is still as relevant today as it was when I put the concept into practice. Two images, produced photographically, seemed to me stunning in their clarity and simplicity. So clear, and so simple, it was scary to me when shown in public. Just what I wanted and desired! To view it as a commodity for purchase was even more absurd and profound. Was this what Malevich found when he produced his black and white squares on canvas? Supreme identity? I could have presented my objects without the two words except I wanted to leave no doubt in their meaning. Absolute truth.

The clarity of black and white, the “absolute truth” innate to their presentation, was not just about the simple opposition of two poles. The piece, Lew writes, “contained the meaning of series, time and simple cognitive structure. No more pandering after pretty images to seduce the eye in static acceptance and belief in market supremacy. No – black and white was an object, a sequence, a split signifier. Dual signifiers filling the same space and time in their objective presence.” However, this stark presentation immediately smacks of an effort to constitute something else, on Lew’s behalf, to follow his thread. It’s demonstrative of a need to draw attention to his own need to visualise a reader’s processes, to force our own eye onto our own critical habits. ‘Remember,’ he would later couch in my inbox, ‘it’s not how pretty it is but how the meaning is enclosed in its construction.’ ‘Black and White,’ was made endemic of that. An emblem of it. Maintained as a piece that Lew would consistently refer to throughout our brief dialogue, ‘Black and White’ was – he insists – foundational to his later work and his drift into the role of editor and the critical collage anthologies of the late ‘70s.

As I muddied the water further, drawing in more names, questions poorly phrased, and in an effort to exact a better image of his practice, Lew withdrew to the anecdotal… watching his work as parsed through television:

A friend mentioned that a television show – The Leftovers – reminded her of my work. I thought she was making fun of me, and making fun of my work, but when I watched it the other night I could see she was right. The transitions embrace jump cut editing. […] In The Leftovers, the transitions are abrupt, but when you follow them you can see they make sense.

 In The Leftovers, a three season show still ongoing – aired on HBO and based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name – its key conflict line still lacks resolution. The series premiered on June 29, 2014, and was renewed for a second season, premiering on October 4, 2015, and running to the end of that year. HBO renewed the show December last year for its third and final season, which is scheduled to premiere early 2017. Set in the fictional Jarden, Texas, The Leftovers runs its narrative through the domestic tribulations of this small town, three years after an unexplained global catastrophe – dubbed the “Sudden Departure” – the simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people, 2% of the world’s population, on October 14, 2011. Treading through a naturalist drama on the one hand, and its subversion on the other through a more hackneyed sequence of narratological tropes inherited from a formal history of science fiction, it’s God and God’s followers that supplement the all-to-human tragedies that preponderate in the wake of the disappearance. Religion declines, cults bloom and blossom, and the town sits on a pendulum swing between moral, martial and divine law as characters are forced to pace through their regrets, their own remorse, their weighty inability to come to terms with the depths of sudden loss. There’s plenty at work within the show’s self-definition that invites critical departure. An overall embrace of a long litany of clichés, strung out over twenty contingent parts and two seasons. One summer, one autumn.  Whether we linger on Texan ideology and the nature and historicity of Texan character, whether we think on the possession of life – of human connection as constituting a human property – concomitant in the human or familial relationships that purpose and shape daily life, the pain and confusion suffered through atomisation, there’s a rich burr of ideas that pre-empts the show’s critical reception before we even begin thinking on the evolution of network television as a vehicle for popular symbolism in the twenty-first century. But Lew’s appeal to the show, to the comparison, was not a rarefied effort to support it as a buoy adrift on any contemporary sea of symbolism. His interest – or the foundation for the comparison that his friend would raise – was a technical one at heart. Looking to explicate, Lew returned again to his early work… to ‘Black and White:’

 [My] ‘Black and White,’ which has always been the formula for on-going work, can be read as a [jump cut] … as a divide between two worlds. People say why not do it with one print without words? It’s not the prints that have meaning so much as what goes on in the “between”. A World or Nothing? Is it infinite or solvable? Is it real or myth? In sports, it’s hard to understand why teams with less talent can overcome teams that are loaded with TALENT. […] For now. Jump Cut; look it up on Wikipedia.

 I overthought The Leftovers to within an inch of its symbolic purchase before taking his instruction to heart and turning to the encyclopaedia. I sat with it for six months, turning it over, trying to put myself on the one side or other of that point of comparison. Through that show, I saw Lew as pioneering a new secessionism; I saw Lew as hit by the pinch of loss; I saw Lew as riffing on the idea of photography as an organisational principle with which to sequence, understand, and register the loss of the everyday observation within the increasing glut of networked impressions of that self-same everyday. Always eclipsed, the lost object is given a careful permanence through the photograph. A kind of memorial, an American monument. Maybe that was Lew’s project? That he was at work on digestion. Re-purposing leftovers, knowing that the only tangible thing left was whatever remained leftover? The fat, the gristle; detritus on a bone-china plate. It was no real stretch to imagine the flippancy of that first remark, but it walked on like a three course meal. Turning to Wikipedia, however, and appeasing Lew’s direct instruction, the meaning central to his work became clearer:

 A jump cut is a cut in film editing in which two sequential shots of the same subject are taken from camera positions that vary only slightly. This type of edit gives the effect of jumping forwards in time. It is a manipulation of temporal space using the duration of a single shot, and fracturing the duration to move the audience ahead. This kind of cut abruptly communicates the passing of time as opposed to the more seamless dissolve heavily used in films predating Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, when jump cuts were first used extensively. For this reason, jump cuts, while not seen as inherently bad, are considered a violation of classical continuity editing, which aims to give the appearance of continuous time and space in the story-world by de-emphasizing editing. Jump cuts, in contrast, draw attention to the constructed nature of the film.

“Madame Bovary,” Lew would retort, “It’s me….”

A jump cut, in a sense, is to be taken here a critical conjunction. It’s an insistence on the importance of an audience to the running real of a moving image; a visual tic that asks us to pull a thing apart only to rebuild it again and recognise the changes. The cut, allowing it to hold water. “It’s not how pretty it is but how the meaning is enclosed in its construction.” The cut draws attention to our own editorial impulses. Our want to cede some details, to elevate others, to gloss continuity and instead frame our perspective as contingent on a series of objective events. We’re the conjunction, rather than slaves to continuity. That, it felt, was Lew’s hit. We’re the connective node that attaches one scene to the next. In drawing attention to “the constructed nature of film,” there’s no interruption to critical process. On the contrary, it’s Lew’s lily pad; Lew’s way to envisage the ways in which we are not just looking to channel conversation, but in turn to establish peripheral banks to personality. A little line, human to human. A small correspondence. In emphasizing that wide-view of the ways in which meaning is constituted, Lew sounds as though he’s singing a song reminiscent of other critics of the cinema and our incorporation of its logic. Our self-definition as minds constantly playing out as an audience to something, Lew needs to platform the view that entertainment is not a state of resignation, but a process. We entertain the idea – give it blood, give it context.

*

In 1989, Serge Daney is driven on defining the multivalent nature of pictures. Looking to establish some bleed between a mobile and a static frame, he returns to concretized conceptions of these forms only to unsettle the grounds of those structured terms of argument. Speaking generally, ‘photography’ is an immobile image, he suggests, whereas the cinema image has its own brand of movement, ‘different kinds of movement:’ ‘photography is contrasted to cinema as immobility to movement.’ True enough….

 But what’s forgotten is that the movement of images in cinema could only be perceived because the people – the public – were immobile before those images. It’s because people were put into theatres, locked into place before the screen and held in a situation of ‘blocked vision’ (as Pascal Bonitzer once put it) that they were able to see all kind of movement the (technologically fabricated) illusion of movement and a still more complicated movement, which, if you insist, can be called the ‘language’ of cinema, though it is much more than a grammar: the movement consisting of everything that film-makers from Lumiére to our day have proposed in order to jump from one scene to the next.

Daney’s supposition is that at the heart of cinema’s seductive capacity to scan from frame to frame is the fact that it offers life a gentle animation that we can as easily ignore or elect as our point of focus. It proposes that we can hold the shift between frames as some yardstick to date the life of a given moving picture. The movement shifts out and on – the subject changes, but the context is calcified.

Through Daney, we’ve a picture of the twentieth century as a hundred years of sitting still; we’ve an image of a sitter looking to better characterize the personality of a world in which we couch an idea. It doesn’t matter if the image moves or otherwise, our observation pins us down, we look to give it a solid geography… a solid context. We look to expand an impression only to privatize it…. To settle it down as pertaining to one, particular governing idea – our own. To that end, what’s important, Lew would later write to me, is interruption. Is interval. Is intermission. His work responds directly to such an insistence; ideas coagulate – bunch up – around a given thing, a given point of emphasis. They prove useless without personal imposition. Without the delineation of personality as a bridge – a form of conjunction. Something iterative of its need for an audience unrelenting in its looking for itself and, by proxy, a look for other people.

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Lew Thomas, PORTRAIT EQUALS 36 EXPOSURES [1972], 36 gelatin silver prints; image courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles

The photograph, he suggests – and to push Daney’s “audience” analogy further, is nothing but a screen over its subject – deflecting interest, calling out for interpretation and ownership. An idea that he would further with example… “LOOK at Gutmann’s ‘Columbus Discovers America.’ LOOK at the automobile covered with language like a film over an image.” Lew’s own work echoes Guttman’s to a degree…. In ‘Portrait equals 36 Exposures,’ he ironizes that aforementioned conception of a roll of film as an organizational principle. Here 36 pictures convey a duplicitous portrait: 36 of the same face exact a proof of the sitter no more than they do a proof of the photographer’s hand. In ‘No Reverse Shot Possible,’ television and the moving picture are coded as an indictment of our proclivity for nostalgia. A fantasy – a fiction – combative to the imposed logic of an ongoing life. The book spine, and bibliography series, tow a similar train of thought – lampooning the efforts to hide the growth of ideas of a given book behind a single title. ‘Nikomat Throwing’ makes believe that chance is the determinacy at work, downplaying the importance of the pitching hand. These brief examples relay the atmosphere preponderate throughout Lew’s corpus. It’s a study of the shift in power from an auteurism to something more dynamic… more “dialectical,” to use Lew’s own phrase.  A shift in emphasis from author to audience. An attempt to reify remote control.

Writing letters to Lew served so as to ape that line of thought, and spoke to the constant significance of his efforts to draw photography down as nothing other than a performative means of communication. The transaction holds, but the push is a conversation – circulatory in an economy of ideas – that clicks between consumers looking for their mark. Perhaps, the marketplace is the ironic threshold for Lew’s hall of mirrors; a term that feels interchangeable for the television, the multiplex, the museum or the streaming platform. His interest is in the dissolution of content, and the maximal attention laid claim to in our contact with it. Attempting to do away with the rapturous confinement of still photography, of still life, this is work settled on the movement of meaning. On talk. On conversation unhampered by the terms of expectation and intention, but heralding a gentle respect for misinterpretation, for misreading.

*

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Lew Thomas, LIGHT-ON-FLOOR [1973], 36 silver gelatin prints; image courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles

Talking with Lew felt like an interchange locked in his playbook, and indebted to the semiotic shift he seems to feel the word photography needs to embrace. The word holds its own vitality – symbolically moving with the terms of an elective mode of valorization that fluctuates between an envisaging of the author or the audience as the vehicular denominator for an authentic sense of value. Whilst it matured at a rate of knots, wholly infatuated with the commercial contexts that greeted its advent, in its plastic iteration it served the purposes of a fixed punctuation point. A full stop. A framing device, it offered a terminal for the election of importance. Click, click, click. The domestic or the civic scene, the public or the private, the taken photograph had no scarcity. It’s a form obsessed with our capacity for recollection, for reproduction. The taken photograph, the stolen moment, whatever the case it remained a form so drenched in its own sense of proof that it coins its own cliché as a diktat of veracity. The camera, as they said, never lies.

Now, the language turns again. We’re dealing in private ephemera, in an impression of a “public” – to again return to Daney – but a public no longer deemed immobile before a screen but on the curb of something. Zoning in on continuity, on a logic self-bred. A channel, a stream; rolling coverage as a delta not opening up as a mouth to any ocean but bending back on itself as a littoral remark on personality. Being here, and here, and here. Each identity, photographically disposed, builds to a crowd. A sequence of events and actions. Innumerable people. Every observation a simultaneous question, a simultaneous statement. A picture of an immobile figure, for sure, but on the verge of something: of movement. No more still-life; only moving pictures.

In this sense, the letters between myself and Lew provided platform not only for a revision of his work, his various pressure points, but alternately offered up a way in which to explore the epochal character of photography itself. Whilst his work could be sequestered to nothing other than a playful manipulation of the constraints preset by his chosen medium in a corner of the twentieth century given over to such an experimental, playful demeanor, it’s almost as though his work is more meaningfully invested in the possible futures of photography. Here, photography is anthropomorphized: looking back on its time, it knows it need shed the semiotic skeins of the daguerreotype, of the salt print, the portrait product. It needed to evolve, again, and find some way in which to meander in between the peripheries of personality and a rewritten version of personality as itself a staged event… consistently charted in encoded pictures. Late into our conversation, Lew wanted me to listen to the radio. They were playing a documentary on Melville and the nineteenth century and the importance of interruption, or interval, to his writing. The piece, an early morning NPR special, would run over “the meaning of intervals in stories and drama and what to wait for!” Lew would repeat that last part with an unabashed enthusiasm: we were waiting, waiting for something, lighting out for significance. Lew was excited by this, capitalizing the word WAIT and drawing it out….

What were we waiting for? That speculative look out for something dear? Lew’s work, Lew’s colloquial asides, all felt endemic of a need to redress photography as though it were some Caeser, the terms of its empire shifting.

Any understanding of photography as a plastic process is dying now. It’s a form, for Lew, necessary to our various adumbrations of personality. Writing to Lew, I realized that his photography was necessarily epistolary in its stance. It was two people writing to each other, looking to better understand where the other was coming from. A political communication, photography is maintained throughout Lew’s work as an inclusive act. A look for a way of speaking so as we can write to someone, so we can wait for a returning word. So we can read the world in active engagement.

For Lew, photography is a word in imperfect definition. A way to analyze the nature of our own means of description – a methodology for distortion – a light on the hunt for a moment of self-recognition in some hall of mirrors. A means to hunt out our own silhouette in other objects, to read our way into conversation.

“Madame Bovary,” as Lew would write, “It’s me….”


Dominic Jaeckle is a writer living in London. He writes about reading.

Banner image: I LOOK THEREFORE I AM, Lew Thomas, from the series TELEVISION EYES [1985]. Ektacolor print.

All images by Lew Thomas, courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles