Have you ever read anything that seemed to come to you at a critical time, so that it felt rather like it had been written for you? That page after page, you find confirmation? “Old Fields” by John Stilgoe is a transformational book. I’ve read nothing else like it.
If you want to make your pictures fit into the flow of words that go along with the prestige of photography, you will find someone to write something to relate the pictures you have made with one of these essays. There is a weird effect to this, it feels echo-chamber-y, as though there is an institutional confirmation bias in critical outlooks on photography. “Old Fields” stands out as a completely independent piece of sustained writing and thinking. Despite the title, I think many readers will feel the shock of the new. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, “A Little History of Photography”, Roland Barthes “Camera Lucida”, and Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” make up the repeated titles that you come across in essay after essay that begin photography books.
Reading it is like looking with new vision, but with each page beckoning deep recognition. I have read Stigoe’s other books “Outside Lies Magic”, and “What is Landscape”. Neither reaches what the author has achieved here. A photographer, and a historian, Stilgoe has worked as a teacher at Harvard since 1977. For the sake of accessing his thought, I’ve linked a “60 Minutes” video for you to watch, although the depth of what he has written is not possibly transmitted through the weak means of American television journalism. Stilgoe’s insight to land, fantasy, the aerie “world-turned-upside-down” affects that one experiences viewing the world through the mirror of a camera, or the ground glass of a Rolleiflex, or large-format camera, his dazzling capture of the critical language of photography operates behind the scenes as he writes in hand-crafted, unduplicatable prose, bespoke, it feels reading it, for me.
I am not one to hide my affection well. I love this book totally. It feels curative. I am not done reading it. I don’t have a critical take on it. I can only recommend it as a man who has read a fair bit on the subject of photography, and has more than a passing knowledge of cameras. I have been reading it slowly, savouring it. It is a beautiful book to hold, bound like books that I used to seek out, hardcover, clothbound objects that resist drops into the Bow river, like this one, which I’ve been reading outside during a cool summer that is coming to an end with a vibrancy of health, happiness, and I daresay love. Read this, The Camera Store will have more copies coming, I am hand-selling them in a way I haven’t done in decades.
The last was Robert Frank’s “The Americans” when I worked in a photography specialty store in New York. In a marvelous essay in Frank’s monograph ‘Hold Still, Keep Going” I read a contrast between an egghead new commandment by poststructuralist Julia Kristeva, and Neal Young’s crazy horse wisdom. The contrast was meant to draw the eye to how Frank’s great photographs seem to balance between absolute analytical strictures and the agony of lovers. Seems. Like a subconscious power, like a spell. I think this enchantment is of a kind is where Stigoe wants to take you for a long walk. I advise you to go with him.