Although in most ways I’m an analog kind of guy, when I shoot for my photobooks, I shoot digital—unapologetically. Since I’m coming to my photo work after years of writing novels, digital work is almost all I’ve known. (Back in the nothing-but-analog days, I could kind of afford color film but not making prints; as a writer all I needed was to boost a ream of paper from my job at The New Yorker magazine—hence I stayed a writer.)
So let’s say I wanted to show the effects of time passing on my photos. I could hunt around the Web and perhaps come up with a Lightroom plug-in to add scratches and creases and emulsion spots to the images on my computer. I could, say, print out the photos on my Epson and stick them somewhere where time and the elements would have their way with them. But anything I did would be self-conscious, a bit affected, certainly anachronistic, a little like the way kids are embracing cassettes for music mix-tapes—hoping to capture a lost era.
With the photos in Huger Foote’s brilliant new book, Now Here Then, the passing—no, the inescapable effects, the ravages—of time is central to the meaning of the book. These thirty-six photos were taken decades ago, initially shot with a sense of serendipity, of letting fate help Foote capture the strongest images possible; then time stepped in, the prints messed-up back then while being edited, tossed into drawers, nearly forgotten, then pulled forth three years ago and carefully turned into the stirring work under review here.
Time is Foote’s friend. He speaks of his love for the “element of time and decay” and its role in the beauty of images, and it’s certainly beauty and complexity that the passing of time has brought to these already strong shots. As Foote gladly admits, these are damaged photos, all the more lovely for it.
Take for instance the image of an unlit lightbulb hanging in front of a daylit window. The photo itself is a nice, Eggleston-like shot of a common, not always noticed corner of our daily world. But what’s this laid over the photo, a weird bright-yellow, lopsided-trapezoid emanation jutting off from the bulb? Is it an emulsion spill? Another print that stuck to the one in the book? Hard to tell, but it renders the commonplace scene almost abstract, and shimmeringly lovely. Magic.
Another photo, one of the three different covers: two face-unseen women wrestling with each other on a chair, their clothes coming off. What could in 2016 be an iPhone party shot posted on Instagram is instead a cracked, white- and red-stained print that has a patina like a Matthew Brady Civil War photo. More magic.
Then there’s a portrait of William Eggleston, a personal friend of Foote’s. In this photo the circular lamp over Eggleston’s head reads as a halo, though in the book it’s been tarnished with black schmutz—perhaps time’s sly comment.
Which leads to the essence of Now Here Then: the way that time has simply made things right. Take one of the already complex shots, a flurry of leaves and flowers before a red bench (another of the three covers), which is turned almost unearthly by whatever fluid has washed over the print, and stuck. A black-and-white nude of a woman (with hints of a dancing Isadora Duncan) is blurred, cracked, washed out by the visitation of time upon the print, and thus seemingly more ethereal and evocative than the original shot.
“Every single one of these images has a story,” Foote says. The earliest picture is one Foote took of his mother in his backyard when he was 13 or 14. Old friends pass through, there are trips to faraway lands, a flash-burst, light-concealing self-portrait in a spotted, antique mirror—in a way this book must feel to Foote like his autobiography.
Photos with stories, photos lyrical and lovely, all that is in Now Here Then. But what I keep coming back to is how time has simply made the pictures better. It’s as if Foote’s gift isn’t just taking the shots but being possessed with just enough distraction and carelessness—and, perhaps, Prospero-like sorcery—to let the elements work with him to make the prints the best they can be. Time, what does it do but make us older, less vital, more damaged? Beauty in this damage? Vitality in desuetude? That’s the province of high art—and dreams.
Which leads to the final joy of Now Here Then: That the photos Foote chose, old, physical prints begrimed by time, damaged by indifference, could easily feel elegiac, too much like history; but instead the book is surprisingly fresh, with its blooms of color, fascinating concatenations of objects, alive and of the moment.
That’s true photo magic.
Now Here Then by Huger Foote is available here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info here). In Fall 2016, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.