Someone on YouTube alerted me to Matt Stuart‘s Into the Fire about two months before it came out. I can’t find the comment now, and if it’s you, thanks! I missed All that Life Can Afford by about 6 months, that is, it came out just around the time I started buying photobooks, I didn’t grab a copy when they were readily available, the book is now way too spendy for me. (A 2nd edition is available, with new images and a new edit, and I haven’t pulled the trigger on it just yet.) Anyway, I was sure to jump on Into the Fire just as soon as I heard about it.
To be honest, I went into Into the Fire with the wrong idea, I think. I expected Stuart’s well-known and much loved British wit-inflected street photography, and the aesthetic, gestures, and quick action just doesn’t much happen, or doesn’t happen in the same way, in Slab City.
And why would it? London is nearly as cosmopolitan and touristy and bustling and hypermodern as cities come; Slab City is an unincorporated community a handful of miles from the Salton Sea, wedged between East Jesus, a military test range that Google Maps calls the “Speedbag AFLD” (whatever that means), and Salvation Mountain. Residents refer to it as “the last free place on Earth” and while some might disagree, Slab City and its short- and long-term residents do appear quite a bit freer than, say, your average Londoner in one of Stuart’s well-known street photographs. And that’s free as in beer, more or less, and free as in speech.
Given my expectations, I was initially somewhat underwhelmed by Into the Fire. I’ve come around to it, partially, only by recognizing first that it would be largely impossible to get 12 years of London Street Photography (which is what Stuart distilled into All that Life Can Afford) out of 5 or so visits to Slab City over 4 or so months, and second, by seeing that Stuart did find the gestures, glances, moments (decisive or otherwise). And while there are perhaps fewer clear winners in Into the Fire than in the earlier book, plenty of the pictures hit just right, and Stuart’s timing and ability to see really does translate fairly well to the Salton Sea, even if the British wit really doesn’t quite read.
Blake Andrews published a great interview with Stuart about the book over at B back in 2020, that’s worth a read. In it, Stuart talks about how he came to make the work in Slab City, the people he met and photographed, and how he got along in the American West. This interview, the publisher’s blurb, and Jessica Heinzelman’s afterword form almost all of the press I could find on Into the Fire, which seems strange to me. And, no, copy/pasting from the publisher’s blurb and inserting a few pictures does not a review make. Surely I’m not the first. Perhaps other reviewers found themselves initially confused by the apparent disappearance of Stuart’s signature wit and honed instincts. It’s not as obvious in Into the Fire, it’s all there, it’s just that the Sonoran Desert is far more open and empty than Piccadilly, and much of life is seen through car windows and under cover. I wonder if there would be more interest had the Slab City work come out before Stuart got famous for his work in London…
Anyway, after my initial disappointment, I’ve come around to Into the Fire. It encourages closer looking, and relies on more consideration and discernment than the quick yucks of much of the famous London work. The subjects all know they’re being photographed, and it’s fairly clear that Stuart was present and familiar to them, and that they were comfortable with being photographed. In his London street work, sometimes the subjects seem aware and comfortable, but they’re often largely oblivious, caught unawares. One day, when I’m not feeling so stretched, I’ll probably pick up a second edition copy of All That Life Can Afford. Until then, I’ll be happy enough with all the work readily available on the internets, and continue to enjoy and appreciate Into the Fire.
Overall, Into the Fire rates a solid and recommended 3.8 stars.
Setanta Books still has copies available. There are actually two versions of the book, one with the sunglasses picture (like mine), and one with Barbie doll parts stuck to a car dashboard, and Setanta has both available, and has signed copies of both available. Honestly, I’m rather surprised, though given the lack of press, perhaps I shouldn’t be? Strange what hits and what doesn’t sometimes.