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Tuesday, 25 March 2008


Stephen King believes that you don't write a novel, but find it in the same way you find a fossil in the ground. The writer's job is to chip away to reveal the subtleties and symbolism that lies within the fossil, using his or her writing skills as the tools to do so.

It is the same with art. We don't know what we are makng until it is completed - the complexity and subtlety of great work cannot be planned, it only becomes apparent in the aftermath of its creation.

Maybe that's the case with Juliana Beasley's Rockaways Project. Maybe she has found her fossil on Long Island and is chipping away at the layers to reveal what lies beneath. Ostensibly the project is about the inhabitants of Rockaway Beach, a historically important but now neglected corner of New York - it's a story of a place where mental illness, addiction and gentrification clash, a story which slots into 3 or 4 of the photojournalistic cliches mentioned earlier.

But at the same time, I don't think it's really anything to do with that. I'm not really sure what the pictures are "about" (or even if they need to be "about" anything), but I loved them and they excited me from the first time I saw them. They seem so different and special and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because Juliana makes her work in an instinctive but ritualistic manner that blends with the unconscious lives of those she photographs. She hangs out with her subjects, she drinks with them, lives with them and shares the travails of life with them. Her photographs appear constructed but in reality they are accidents waiting to happen, they are not part of some thought out whole.

Instead, her images latch onto elements of Charlie or Paddy's or Isabelle's lives, elements that are essential to their survival in a world that has passed them by. The people Juliana photographs look unreal. They resemble characters from old movies ("I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr deMille.") . But at the same time, the fictional world they have created for themselves still has its edges - it's a realer non-reality than the ones Hollywood ever imagined. It's a non-reality that makes them look real, organic and human. Their lives have not worked out as they hoped, but they haven't capitulated. Instead, they have a sense of drama that protects them against the values of the world that surrounds them and threatensto engulf them. They have a frontier spirit, they are themselves - and perhaps that's something you need to survive in the SROs of Rockaway Beach.

That clash between the dramatic and the mundane, the real and the fantasy is what makes them so original. And so American. And so truthful. And so beautiful!


Doug Rickard said...

Colin... personally, I think that you hit the nail on the proverbial head with that text written here on Juliana's "Rockaways". I rarely see a description that seems to match so well with what I think the motivations and experience are of the photographer... also the results. But here...what a match.

I have loved this series from the moment that I found it... randomly. I remember that it made such an impression on me that I had to immediately send an email to the creator (Juliana)... just to tell her that. I am not sure which world is more interesting to me... the one in Juliana's head or the real place that is Rockaways.

Anyway... enough gushing.

colin pantall said...

Thanks dr... it's a great series and there's a lot more to it than this, but these are the ones I like best. Oh, I could just gush on and on...