On Webber’s “Prairie Gothic”

  By John Veldhoen


It has been a few weeks since my last review for TCS, and there is an omission in the last review, concerning George Webber, that I would like to clarify. In my last entry, I failed to mention Webber’s Prairie Gothic. There was no intention there, at least overtly, but I have to admit that my preference was for the books “Last Call” and “In the Place”, and I have tried to examine why since last writing.

It isn’t exactly because of the presence of the word gothic in the title, I’ve concluded, although that does have a role; the art historian Emile Male wrote, in a foundational paper on the Gothic cathedral, that in the middle-ages art was didactic, which may as well mean it had a narrative structure, the cathedral itself. Or, as the Christian apologist G.K Chesterton wrote, about the ungainly characteristics of the gargoyle, that without the controlling parenthesis of the cathedral, the gargoyle turns into “pure horror”. Which may be why the photos Webber has taken repel me, if only subconsciously, they scare me, his figures seem to resemble my fears, or myself, and look carved out of the imaginary, as much as taken from reality. The subterranean leaks through the surface in telling ways that subvert the meaning of the picture frame, in the way that is called the uncanny, and I don’t like mixing up that feeling with what I call the sublime, if I can avoid it. The novelist Yevgeny Zamaytin wrote once in an essay entitled “I am Afraid”, that true literature comes from madmen, rebels, dreamers, and heretics. I think truly great photographs can be taken with the same impulse.

This ambiguity leads back to the parenthesis yielded by the cathedral, as one can always recall, just as an important Italian moral philosopher once noted, men cannot live without doing evil. The greatest moral and aesthetic questions come out of that observation. I had a Journalism teacher once who tried to drill the theory of the inverted pyramid into my head, which makes it so that the questions that should occupy the basis of a news story are the factual, evidential ones. My dad always told me the most important questions in life are why and how, which put me in the perennial position of a student in conflict with a teacher based on what they have learned at home. In my case, I think I was best off listening to my dad.

Aritha Van Herk, the author of a precient text accompanying Prairie Gothic, that stands as a separate work, as much as an introduction, makes it so clear how photographs can provide a “wide-eyed” impression of the world, as a “cathedral without walls”, inverting interior and exterior.This is a world of listening to muteness, of watching with great suffering, to reiterate Van Herk, who echoes the ground for silence. This is the book of Webber’s that says the most to me, in retrospect, the one that needs more than a second glance.

John Veldhoen

John Veldhoen

In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.