The first strange thing in Sibyl Kempson’s Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag happens about two seconds in, when the cast, playing a family of sharecroppers draped in an impossibly heteroclite array of old dresses, aprons, flour sacks, braided rugs, even inflatable neck pillows, lets out a lightly explosive “POOF!” then rubs their eyes. Disconcerting at first, the action will be repeated several times before its significance is revealed (and then, throughout the show). That split-second of onomatopoeia marks the moment when these hard-scrabble farmers are blinded by the flashbulb of a visiting photographer. For them, nothing would come of that unexpected meeting with Big City notions of art and journalism. For society’s relationship with the photographic medium, however, nothing would stay the same.
This dichotomy is the subject of Susan Sontag’s essay, On Photography (1977), which provides the ethical – sometimes didactic – backbone of Kempson’s expansive text, that, spread-eagled across those two opposites that are “art” and “life,” keeps one foot in an impenetrably freaky lyricism and the other in a cliched hayseed pragmatism familiar from Laura Ingalls Wilder to The Beverly Hillbillies.
Long before the advent of our image culture, Sontag deconstructed the insidious reach of the photographic act beginning with the experiment engineered by the Farm Security Administration in the height of the Great Depression to send photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to document the suffering of dirt-poor tenant families across the American south. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” Sontag wrote some 40 years later. “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.”
But in Kempson’s dust bowl (a pretty bleak approximation of which is provided by a sinister concrete basement at Abrons), the hicks have not fallen off the proverbial turnip truck. And as Sarah, the youngest of the tenant farmers, makes clear in one of Ashley Turba’s gaily downbeat songs that punctuate the action, “we’re not doing literature and this ain’t no little house up some prairie.” No indeed.
Yet Evans, accompanied by writer James Agee, did more than take passing photos. The pair spent a summer living with three families in Alabama in 1936, sent there by Fortune magazine for a never-realized feature story on rural poverty. Instead, the images and accompanying text would be published as a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that would make Evans famous while epitomizing the photographer’s moral dilemma. Kempson’s fictional Sontag (Tanya Selvaratnam sporting a shock of white bangs) sums it up: “the choice between sleep-inducing beauty and the strangeness of truth.”
Kempson pays homage to Sontag’s analysis in this show that means to give voice – albeit irreverently – to the silenced subjects of Evans’ lens and Agee’s pen. Her bone-weary, matriarchal family is composed of individuals – the obedient Sarah (an angel-faced Sarah Willis), hard-working mom Linda (Selvaratnam), and two diatmetrically opposed older daughters, Tory – the family oracle – and Jean Ann – the black sheep – (Eleanor Hutchins and Amanda Villalobos). Their visions, their dreams and their wanderlust were there, before, during and after the family became studies in light and shadow captured on a negative.
Still, these ordinary folk are at a clear disadvantage when Jay the photographer (Robert M. Johanson) and Ben the writer (Gavin Price) roll up one day, their ambitions and canary-yellow suits and shoes glowing in stark contrast to the farmers’ dust-covered, bare-bones existence. After Evans and Agee took the family’s pictures, recorded their prayers and left, the artists never revisited their subjects, never helped them with their royalties, never even showed them the book. So what do we do about it now?
The answer seems to be to let this quirky, uneven production, the first by Kempson’s new company, 7 Daughters of Eve Thrt. & Perf. Co., run its course and listen to these stories. The thread runs crazily around like a skein of wool at the mercy of a kitten. Kempson will knit in some knotty allusions to ancient Mesopotamian art and, less seriously, The New American Machinists’ Handbook. There will be a Bird-Carp-Man and a pseudo baptism in the River Jordan (or in a smashed up hot-tub, take your pick). There will be seed ceremonies and Grace said over a few scraps (“HELLO?/Anybody there??Uh…thanks?”). There will be loads of junk – literal and figurative – to sift through. There will be love, there will be disappointment, there will be starvation. And, of course, there will be those photos.
But when the lights go up in this age of the ubiquitous image, Kempson’s hope is that our own eyes will be clear of illusions, à la Sontag: “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s ‘message,’ its aggression.” Did we need Sontag – and Kempson – to tell us that anymore? POOF!