Lauren Withrow made the pictures for Somewhere at the Edge of the World out in West Texas, I think, and as a native Texan, I couldn’t resist, and I’m not disappointed.
Like A Ghost Story: Photographs and I Dream of Dust, I learned about Somewhere at the Edge of the World thanks to friend-of-the-blog Noah Kalina, who recommended me to the people at Temper Books. They reached out with the offer of some review copies; I took a look at what they had and immediately put Somewhere at the Edge of the World in the shopping cart, and bought it and the Ghost book with my own money.
Something about Withrow’s photographs reminded me of Wim Wenders, of visits to West Texas made with family when I was a kid. There’s an undeniable cinematic feel to many of the pictures that matches how my memory works that far back. At the same time, many have a sort of diaristic, Hiromix feel. like all of it. And I don’t really have a whole lot more to say about it, but here I go anyway.
About the Hiromix/Diaristic thing, Withrow deploys (I think) friends in her images, all doing whatever they do in the rooms and fields that they do them in, and the work is all 35mm film. So if the wide open spaces of West Texas don’t look much like Tokyo, well, the work seems to come from a similar motivation and a similar set of activities. Maybe Withrow directs her models more, but who knows: it’s not entirely obvious (to me anyway) that a particular glance or pose wasn’t captured from the flow of time, that it wasn’t directed. Sure, in some fashion photography (and most all Instagram photography) everyone poses all the time… my dear Aunt Patty once claimed that “everyone lies all the time,” and this is undeniable, especially in social media (though such a thing wasn’t even imagined when Patty made her claim), where most everyone just is posing all the time. Given the apparent age of Withrow’s subjects, I’m positive they’re well acquainted with the dictates of Instagram, et.al., and so may be quite quick to strike a pose, if not always already assuming a pose. I’m not denigrating or badmouthing this: I do it myself. But it is something sort of new in the history of humanity, and it’s somewhat rare to find photographs of people where the people are aware of the camera but not actively posing for it in some sense. Anyway. Withrow’s portraits really do work.
As to the Wenders thing, well… I’ve unboxed a book or two of his, but haven’t really spent enough time with them to comment (and I’ve never seen any of his films, and shame on me), but if a picture of West Texas looks even slightly cinematic, I think it’s more or less a given that it looks like Wim Wenders… And many of Withrow’s pictures have a definite cinematic look about them that I expect is on purpose: one doesn’t make a Cindy Sherman “Untitled Film Still” outtake on accident. And the wide open, mildly sinister expanses of West Texas just look like cinema without even trying… is that because all those old cowboy movies were shot out there—they weren’t—or were the movies shot there because that’s what West Texas looks like? I guess the landscape came first, but did we see it before it was filmed? :shrugs:
EDIT: Looking again, again, I’m not really getting the diaristic thing any more. It’s there, but not as foregrounded as initially thought. And the 1990s diary aesthetic (small camera, flash lit) isn’t much in evidence: Withrow uses mostly natural light and the photographs are somewhat sharper and crisper than the more off-the-cuff-seeming work of Hiromix et al. (Really, just Hiromix… the other photographers lumped in with her make wildly different sorts of work, with wildly different aims, for wildly different reasons.) Still, and it’s probably some chauvinism, some sexism in me, there’s something personal about Somewhere at the Edge of the World that sorta tugs it into the Diaristic realm for me…
EDIT 2: As to the Wenders thing, again, I dug my copy of Written in the West Revisited and guess what? The pictures in it look essentially nothing like Withrow’s pictures. I’m not surprised, and I stand by my claims above. If Withrow’s pictures don’t really look like Wenders photographs, well, they still look like West Texas which, itself, just does recall Wenders to me, even if that’s entirely artificial and based on the handful of images I dimly recall Jason Lee or someone sharing on Instagram…
So, and really, Withrow’s pictures, especially the landscapes, have a cinematic feel, that is, there’s a sinister romanticism to them that recalls so much cinema. Her portraits are perhaps more on the staged side than the from-life side, but it still seems like friends hanging out and trying to navigate the endless plain. Together, it’s all about growing up out in West Texas, and this Texas boy knows something about that, even if I grew up in a Fort Worth exurb. There is something of a “cultural West Texas” or a “West Texas of the Mind” that some Texans carry, and in many ways, Withrow captures it.
Somewhere at the Edge of the World is a good one and I’m glad I picked up a copy.
Overall, I rate it a solid 4.2 stars.
At time of writing, copies remain available direct from Temper. Withrow’s website is worth a visit, especially her diary entries (at time of writing, one and two), which seem like little e-zines and work pretty much like Somewhere at the Edge of the World, but it’s all good stuff.
I want to say thanks, once again, to Kalina for pointing Temper my way, and thanks to Temper for their kind words. They’re doing good things and, again, I may reach out to them for a sort of short interview, so if you have any questions for them, leave a comment below and I’ll try to ask.