Sometime in 2019, Andrea Modica moved and set up a new darkroom. In the process of moving, she came across an unopened case or two of her long out of print book Treadwell.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, Modica left her Brooklyn home and drove up into the wilds of Upstate NY. While passing through Treadwell, NY, she noticed a family sitting on a porch, stopped, and made friends.
Over a ten year period, 1986-1996, Modica visited the family and made photographs of them. And not just 35mm snapshots, but proper, 8×10 viewcamera photographs.
Modica was particularly drawn to Barbara, “…a richly fleshed and beautiful child” in the words of E. Annie Proulx, who penned the Preface. And Barbara becomes the central figure, around which the book revolves.
The family seems to be engaged in a good deal of deer hunting. There are carcasses and heads all over the book, and the children play hide and seek and peek-a-boo with them. Otherwise, the children play mostly solitary games and everyone seems to be fairly relaxed, more or less at rest, for most of the time. The photographs are mostly very quiet, relaxed, but there’s a seeming tension throughout, thanks to punctuations of violence, in the form of animal carcasses and Dukes of Hazard-type landscapes.
The adults are curiously absent for most of the book. The first plate has Barbara and a sister in the arms of some unknown adults; partway through, a child sits in a woman’s lap. Otherwise, it’s all children, animal carcasses, and a few landscapes that often make my breath catch in my throat.
The front flap calls it “…a rich, empathetic, and often wrenching study of small town family life….” and Sally Mann calls the photographs “…deliberate and sensual… real and mystical… effortless, unforced… radiant gifts.”* I can see that, for sure. There’s a tenderness to the photography, a respect, and the children participate in the making of them. But somehow, here nearly 25 years later, with #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo still very much in mind, not to mention the ever-ready and always-present critics and trolls that populate the internet, I feel a troubling sense of voyeurism and tourism around it. After all, Modica was a Brooklynite. It’s not like this was her family, not like she grew up here or anything.
But even with that, the photographs are excellent. They are tender, rich, sensual, empathetic, and all credit to Modica, she really did make friends with the family, and continued to visit and photograph them even after the book came out. I just wonder if this book would have the same breathless praise were it released today.
I’d give Treadwell a solid 4 stars.
Treadwell is long out of print, but is available direct (and autographed) from Modica, while very limited supplies remain, and if that doesn’t appeal (why wouldn’t it?), try Bookfinder. It is a good book, I think, and a good example of sticking to a project for as long as it takes (and even after).
*Modica, Andrea. Treadwell. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1996. (front flap and rear cover). The full Sally Mann quote reads “I know how hard it is to make pictures as deliberate and sensual, as real and mystical as these. But when Andrea does it, they seem effortless, unforced, like radiant gifts.”