I don’t know where they got my email address—probably some mailing list-type service—but Light Work sent me an email with an advertisement for their 2017 Book Collectors Offer: a signed copy of Carrie Mae Weems’ new book of her 1990 Kitchen Table Series and a 2017 subscription to Contact Sheet for a fairly reasonable price. I hemmed and hawed about it for a couple of days, and then pounced. I’m thoroughly enjoying the subscription to Aperture I received as a gift earlier in the year, and I reasoned that 1) another regular photography publication will be welcome, and 2) a signed copy of a photobook I didn’t know anything about would at least add something to the bookshelf.
Little did I know the importance of the Kitchen Table Series. It’s a look into a life we all share, and simultaneously a life we, or I, for one, really know nothing about and to which we have little access. My mom would recognize something different from it; my wife something different still; none of us would get all the way to what some of my coworkers might understand. Yet it’s a universal, and important tale. If you can get your hands on a copy, do it.
Along with the book, Light Work sent 3 recent back issues of its Contact Sheet publication: 187, the 2016 Annual; 188 with a series by Todd Grey; and 189 with one from Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (I couldn’t find a website for Mr. Wolukau-Wanambwa, other than the excellent Great Leap Sideways and its tumblr companion, but he’s all over the place). If those three represent what I have to look forward to in the coming year, I’m in for an inspiring (or frustrating) trip every couple of months.
But the real star of the package—and my bookshelves—is the Kitchen Table Series. The photographs present a kitchen table with a single light hanging above, around which events from an apparent 20 year period of an unnamed woman occur. Interspersed are text panels that tell a story of this woman, her boyfriend/husband, their life together, and the dissolution of their partnership. In my first couple of trips through, I didn’t read the text and thought that the relationship imploded much earlier than it did. The man only appears in the first third of the photographs and then there’s an interlude with three photographs of the woman and a couple of friends: in the first, she’s weeping and her friends comfort her; in the second, she is pensive and her friends are ready to get on with the evening; in the third, the friends are laughing and the woman looks amused, comforted, but still with the event on her mind.
I’ve been in similar circles in the past… it’s been awhile, all thanks and praise be to God. On first viewings, I assumed that was the point when the relationship with her man dissolved, yet the text panels continue to mention him for most of the rest of the book, and it’s only at the very end when they break up, in a riot of song lyrics, shouted at one another, or sung out in righteous self-talk.
The mix of text and image works brilliantly, and it’s different than other text/photo works I’ve collected over the past months. In a gallery setting, the small text panels interrupt the flow of the large photographs and draw the viewer in for a closer look; in the book, they’re all the same size, sort of one per page, and they add dramatic pacing to the story. In a recent interview with Stephanie Eckardt at W, Weems says “I’ve always thought that both the photographs and text operate quite independently, and together they form yet a third thing, something that is dynamic and complex and allows you to read something else about the photographs. I don’t think of them as being necessarily dependent on one another. Rather, they exist side by side, in tandem.” That pretty much covers it.
The concept is high, and brilliantly executed; the content is strong, with great photography and good writing; and the design, well, it’s a large, well constructed book…
Overall, this is a solid 4.5.
For more information, have a read of some of this stuff. There’s much more and better information there:
- a recent interview with Weems about the series and its production
- an exhibition announcement and general discussion of Weems in the New York Times
- Art:21 interview
I’ve been sitting on this ‘review’ for weeks… It’s not where I want it to be, but I can’t get it any closer, so I’m flinging it out there, with apologies to Ms. Weems.