Review by John McIntyre
I had just finished Tom McCarthy’s strange and ambitious novel, Remainder when I picked up the artist Agnes Bolt’s book The Braddocks. McCarthy follows a man suffering from amnesia after an accident as he first recreates parts of the world he remembers, later re-stages scenes which he experiences, and finally adapts scenes which fascinate him, crossing the line from reenactment to live action. That desperate, consuming urge to control events is credible in McCarthy’s trauma victim. The question of whether he is an artist arises briefly in the book, but he dismisses it as entirely beside the point of what he means to accomplish. It’s a reasonable assumption, the artist’s will to shape events and images.
In the interview with the curator and writer Jess Wilcox which precedes the meat of her project, Bolt remarks: “I like projects that force me into an uncomfortable relationship with my own desires for a particular outcome and what actually happens. I like to provoke something but not necessarily determine the final outcome.” She wonders if she can instigate a romantic connection, for instance. Instead she finds the lives and characters of her subjects so fully formed that her only chance at determining the final outcome lies in how she frames events.
“There are two Braddocks in the United States,” Bolt writes, “one, a tiny farming community in North Dakota, the other, an urban rust-belt town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” As a means of contextualizing the two, and perhaps forging a link between them, Bolt arranges a sort of gift exchange between residents of the towns. I say “a sort of” exchange because the gifts aren’t required to have any particular utility, or for that matter beauty. They include items like a miniature grain elevator, an American Legion plaque and a formidable-looking bust of the Polish statesman Jóozef Piłsudski, offered by a Polish club which, “is actually a bunch of Irish folks.”
Bolt considers her project documentary photography. Despite the structure she imposes to link the two towns, the results feel natural and revealing. The photos of townspeople with the objects they trade and receive are a tacit acknowledgement that this is a record of a unique occasion, but we mustn’t discount the insight into character this unique occasion reveals. For all the platitudes and truths we share about technology shrinking the world, we still often have a poor understanding of one another across the miles. Bolt’s project recognizes that a physical object, however mundane or practically useless, proposes a different level of intimacy than digital communication.
The photographs show a sharp eye for detail and honest framing. Nothing feels self-consciously artistic. The color palette is muted, and Bolt opts for matte presentations of the photos rather than glossy versions. There’s no mention of the technical specifics employed, but there’s a strong suggestion of natural light not only in the landscape shots but in some of the portraits as well, which offer the range of impressions one might expect under the circumstances – diffidence, pride, stiff awkward postures, even bemusement. That is to say, Bolt doesn’t seem to have wheedled and cajoled the subjects to be “natural.” So while DJ Chevy appears every bit as gregarious in his portrait as Bolt describes him, there’s reason to believe it would be difficult to catch him looking otherwise.
Apart from those portraits, many of Bolt’s photos appear spontaneous in origin, taken in motion or from an unexpected, ad hoc angle. The pale sky and a bare, snowy field form an almost unbroken plain of white, until the viewer notes Christ on a cross probably ten or twelve feet high. The cross sits to the left of the shot, with a large, empty space running out to its right. The poet Gordon Osing has observed that, “the center is wherever attention gathers,” and Bolt clearly subscribes to this notion.
Whether this sense of motion, of flux, is a matter of artifice or not, the impression is appropriate: Bolt managed the exchanges via a series of 1300 mile drives between the two towns. This no doubt allowed, or forced, Bolt to spend much time contemplating the project as it unfolded. Whether coincidentally or by design, The Braddocks also rewards a deliberate approach from the reader/viewer. Bolt offers a few pages of text prior to each set of photos. It’s apparent that her eye is sharp in appraising the people around her in more than a visual sense. A woman named Joyce Ann in Braddock, PA reveals, “she’s leaving everything behind, except a regret and a boyfriend. She says she’s getting rid of him too, though I don’t believe her.”
In addition to the interview and her own writing, Bolt includes the writer Wells Tower’s story, “Door in Your Eye,” a choice which adds still further emotional resonance. Bolt’s last image is a shot of a road, partially obscured by darkness, unfurling in front of a car’s headlights. There appears to be snow on the ground, enough that it’s impossible to tell if the road is lined or unlined. It feels like a perfect summation of The Braddocks, a little window of illumination on these towns and lives. It’s a collection of impressions rather than conclusions, but the impressions are strong, and they keep the viewer coming back for another searching look.
Agnes Bolt, The Braddocks, (Self-published, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior images from The Braddocks