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Jonathan Williams

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Jonathan Williams Feature

Richard Deming

Portraying the Contemporary

The Photography of Jonathan Williams


While he will be remembered as a Black Mountain poet and the publisher of the Jargon Society, Jonathan Williams initially went to Black Mountain College, that kiln of avant-garde aesthetics, in 1951 to study photography with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, artists whom Williams had first met earlier that same year in Chicago at the Institute of Design. Williams had already left Princeton at this point, convinced the school was too stultifying and conservative. Given the range of Williams’s abilities and creative intellect, that he would find traditional university study too confining, too overdetermined and overdetermining is not at all surprising. In the 1950s, Black Mountain College, which offered a central site of community for figures from Merce Cunningham to Buckminster Fuller to Stefan Wolpe, seemed to be the only place able to accommodate the explosion of possibilities for imagining artistic production that were forming at that moment for the broadening field of the American avant garde. When Williams arrived, the poet Charles Olson was the school’s chief administrator — as loose a role as can be imagined — and Olson made clear in all levels of pedagogy that the self was any artist’s true instrument. “I take it wisdom, like style, is the man — that it is not extricable in any sort of statement of itself,” writes Olson in “Against Wisdom as Such.” “But [truths] are,” he insists, “in no wise, or at the gravest loss, verbally separated. They stay the man. As his skin is. As his life. And to be parted with only as that is” (68). For those of Black Mountain, the art in any and all forms was inseparable from the person and from one’s way of being in the world.


Interestingly, but perhaps also frustratingly, certain of Williams’s roles get more attention than others. Along with the school’s other famous alumni, Jonathan Williams was one of the quintessential hyphenated cultural workers of the last fifty years. As the publisher of Jargon, Williams directly changed the face of post-War American poetry. Not only did he launch or sustain the careers of Russell Edson, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, Mina Loy, but he logged thousands of hours and miles, distributing the work across the United States and Europe, placing books into people’s hands. Measured against Williams’s Herculean efforts, today’s bloggers have it easy. As a poet himself, Williams was a bit of a coterie author, though never quite as neglected as he was made out to be, given the friends, fans, and well-wishers who would make pilgrimages to North Carolina to pay homage. Williams counted Hugh Kenner, Russell Banks, David Hockney among his company of interlocutors and supporters. However, the role of Williams’s that seems to get the least attention is his role as photographer. Williams’ talent was for the portrait photograph, and he took hundreds of these over five decades, primarily of authors, artists, and musicians, who lived and worked outside of the mainstream — figures such as the poet Basil Bunting, the outsider artist Howard Finster, and the master of Southern Gothic photography, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Despite two published collections of portraits — A Palpable Elysium and Portrait Photographs — Williams’s abilities as a photographer remain undervalued. Engaging Williams’s photography reveals insights into his work as a whole as well as indicates the various ways that he participated in shaping the culture of the artistic avant garde, particularly of the 1950s.


If Williams’s identity as a man of arts and letters is hard to categorize, he was not alone at Black Mountain. In describing the project of the school, Mary Emma Harris writes in The Arts at Black Mountain College, “Throughout its history Black Mountain was concerned with the nature and meaning of form in art, in institutions, and in lives and with ways to keep those forms alive, vulnerable, and responsive” (244). During Williams’s time at the school, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, appeared at Black Mountain for summer visits. Rauschenberg, who had been a student at the college just a few years before, famously blurred together the possibilities of painting and sculpture in his combines, assailing any delineation of rigid categories. Cage transformed music, incorporating not only silence and dissonance, but also the material properties of instruments and recording procedures and chance operations into his compositions. For artists and writers connected to Black Mountain, distinctions of form, genre, and mode all offered boundaries that were meant to be transgressed or dismantled in order to free the imagination. Perhaps the epitome of this conflation of the arts was the now famous performance in the summer of 1952 of Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, an event that was the precursor to art “happenings” of the 1960s and 70s that included an improvisatory, spontaneous collusion of all the arts represented at Black Mountain — music, dance, painting, writing — that, orchestrated primarily by Cage, occurred. Harris has assembled a sketch of this indescribable theater piece:


A general summary of recollections places Cage on a ladder reading either his Meister Eckhart, lines from Meister Eckhart, a lecture on Zen Buddhism, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence; [M. C.] Richards and Olson reading at different times from another ladder; [Merce] Cunningham dancing in and around the chairs — he was joined in his dance by a dog, who as an interloper, created his own time brackets; Rauschenberg either standing before his paintings or playing scratchy records of Edith Piaf and others at double speed on an ancient wind-up phonograph with a horn loudspeaker; [David] Tudor playing a prepared piano and a small radio; and either Tim LaFarge or Nick Cernovich (possibly both) projecting movies and still pictures upside down on slanting surfaces at the end of the dining hall [where the event was staged]. (228)


If one tenet of Black Mountain held that an artist’s obligation was to close the gap between art and life, then categories and distinctions between and among forms of artistic expression and production would be demarcations that needed to be dismantled. Since this ethos was the dominant condition of Williams’s aesthetic education, the insufficient attention to William’s photographs and his identity as a photographer means that there is a great deal more to discover in terms of thinking about Jonathan Williams and what his work signifies. Moreover, Williams has taken not only the most famous but the definitive portraits of Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and countless other writers and artists. The cultural and historical importance of these images means that Williams must be taken seriously as a photographer in that his work constructs the human face, and thus the mythology, of a radical strain of American avant gardism.


It might be said that Williams himself contributed to the undervaluing of his talents or significance as an image-maker. For instance, in the introduction to A Palpable Elysium, a volume collecting many of his famous color photographs, he asks that the “professionals” regard him as “a literary gent who takes the odd tolerable picture” (9). We might not take such self-deprecation seriously, however, because this demurral was a recurring rhetorical maneuver of Williams’s. This gesture would unfortunately shape how people encountered the photography, regardless of the strength and composition of the various images. Portraitists often struggle against the fact that their subjects can overdetermine the reception of the image. In other words, viewers respond to the content, accepting it too often or too readily as simply being a representation of how things are — the content overwhelming the form. With Williams, this would mean that his photographs might be seen by some as simply (or merely) providing visual record of the artists and writers he supported, and the photographs are merely a means to that ends of promotion.


Williams did, however, see himself as a writer first and foremost. “What I am is a writer who has been very enthusiastic about photography ever since I studied (a smidgen) with Harry Callahan at Black Mountain College” (Palpable Elysium 6). This enthusiasm is not to be underestimated, though: his impressive photography collection includes work ranging from Frederick Sommers to Ralph Eugene Meatyard to Gerard Malanga. Williams would also provide introductions and essays to published collections of work by many of these photographers. His personal collections of contemporary photographs (now housed primarily at the Beinecke Library of Yale University) and his essays, while representing his taste also illustrate that Williams remained a lifelong student of the art. As is true with many artists, the attention to the work of others bore fruit in Williams’s own art.


From Callahan and from Siskind, Williams learned, as he has described it, the fundamentals of using the Rollei camera he owned, but he would become closer to Charles Olson and that poet’s maximal enthusiasms for what language can accomplish. If in terms of skills, one cannot say Williams learned from his teachers more than the rudiments in terms of how to take a photograph, one can suggest that he learned about art itself and its possibilities as a way of life — a form of perceiving the world and participating directly in the shaping of that set of perceptions. Since the Black Mountain pedagogy emphasized experiential learning by doing, learning by discovering rather than through direct didacticism, Williams learned a form of attention that comes with a dedicated observance of details and particulars. Siskind especially helped Williams to think of the connection of particularities to one’s inner life. In commentary accompanying his portrait of Siskind, whom Williams described as one of his last mentors, Williams writes, “Siskind and his abstract expressionist pals [...] were among the first to show us that our innermost feelings can be found in the commonplace debris of the world, that they can be limned on walls and in stones and bits of stonework” (Palpable Elysium 94). The world seen this way becomes a legible text of the self in the process of experiencing the world and responding emotionally to its intrinsic forms. In this sense, enthusiasm as a measure of the promise of one’s own imaginative investments was a lesson that Williams discovered at Black Mountain College and would continue to shape his artistic ideals for decades to come.


Williams had not chosen simply anyone to become his mentors: Callahan and Siskind, both already fairly well known in the art world by 1951, would become arguably the two most important photographers of the mid-century. Siskind in particular came to be seen as the artist who brought Abstract Expressionist aesthetics impulses and ideals into the realm of photography in his ability to create images of objects that would isolate formal qualities and abstract possibilities of concrete particulars. Coils of rope, the grain of unfinished wood, the loops of a snail’s shell, all offered Siskind a way of considering abstract form as part of daily experience. In this way, Siskind’s photography would endeavor to distill objects to some essential sense of their form as form itself.


The lesson that Williams derived from Siskind is that for a good photographer, the world reflects back the possibilities of the self. Considering a photograph of Siskind included in A Palpable Elysium, we can think about how this ideal manifests itself in William’s thinking about portraits, as he tended to photograph people rather than objects. In Williams’s portrait of his former teacher, Siskind’s face is a quarter turned from the camera, his glance soft but direct in the way that suggests he is not looking at something specific (95). Clearly, Williams does not capture Siskind in the middle of some larger motion. In most of Williams’s portraits, the figures have an almost palpable stillness. They are unhurried, indicating not only Williams’s care as a photographer, but also something about what he was trying to express in his subjects. Moreover, the center of the image disappears almost completely into a shadow. Why is it that the center of the image in the portrait is so dark? The most clearly defined feature is Siskind’s right eye, which is the furthest thing from the viewer. A photographer, it can be argued, captures one’s own self in the act of seeing. Thus, attention as an end in and of itself — an attention to our various forms of engaged and engaging attention — was what Williams learned from Siskind and Callahan, as well as Olson. Siskind’s interest was objects, but Williams finds similar possibilities of expression in living people. That is why Williams’s portrait of Siskind is also, paradoxically, a representation of Williams’s perception of his subject, which is why Williams’s portraits convey a kind of intimacy: the subjects reveal him even as he reveals them to the viewer. To Williams’s credit, the portraits are rarely so sentimental. Indeed, in the Siskind portrait the fact that the foreground is so dark suggests something about the fact that what is nearest to us is the most difficult to discern and that one sees always with one eye in the light and one in shadow.


Guy Davenport said of Williams and his photography, “The color slide, descendant of the magic lantern, is still the most charming disseminator of culture, and Jonathan Williams is its master. He is the iconographer of poets of our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium” (Bartram’s Tree). Davenport’s claims about Williams’s photography indicate how a viewer might perceive the work in cultural and historical terms. If the portraits are iconographic, they create an authority by which to disseminate the importance and values represented by those figures in the photographs, values that might otherwise go unrecognized. Indeed, Williams specifically photographed his peers and those writers and artists — including Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams — who provided the contemporary foundations for his specific aesthetic genealogy. The photographs create a value for these authors, and that value then legitimates these figures who are often outside mainstream marketplace or institutional interests. Williams conveys authority to his subjects by means of the photographs and this authority reinvests itself in his work.


For an image to create its own authority, it must insist on itself. In Williams’s portraits, we see a recurring formality in the poses and situations, which might convey veneration and be why Davenport sees the images as iconographic. Rarely are the people in the photographs smiling or laughing or crying. While the images have a form of intimacy, we never see the people in an elaborated social context, interacting with others. Perhaps because the only relationship being expressed is between the subject and the photographer taking the picture, there is a tendency for the people in the photographs to be by themselves and to be either confronting the viewer or turned away from the gaze of the viewer. That is to say, the people in the photographs that Williams takes — from Robert Duncan to Denise Levertov — are rarely engaged in an activity other than establishing a relationship with the photographer. The formality, call it a form of distance, may be what is so decidedly masculine about Williams’s photographs and is the means by which the images manifest their authority, through their seriousness and their emotional coolness.


“Cool” may not be the most precise word since it often implies some negatively marked withholding of emotions. I mean it in the way that Miles Davis played “cool jazz” in the 1950s. In Williams’s forward to the Aperture Masters of Photography volume that collects Callahan’s most famous images, he remarks on the stillness of those photographs: “Harry’s a quiet man; where do you find any noise in his photographs? A little surf is all I can locate” (12). Williams goes on to suggest that Callahan’s photographs are best viewed while listening to Musica Callada by the Catalan composer Frederic Mompou. Mompou’s work is impressionistic and built on careful, fragile melodies for solo piano and he has been described as a successor to Claude Debussy. One can take Williams to be suggesting that Mompou’s quiet, contemplative work for solo piano creates sympathetic conditions for viewing Callahan’s images in such a contemplative mood. However, while Williams’s portraits may not be as seemingly contemplative as Callahan’s photographic meditations on his wife Eleanor’s nude figure, for instance, Williams’s images do find ways of capturing a stillness that marks the people he photographs. One telling difference between Williams’s portraits and Callahan’s is that the latter consciously intends an artfulness that a viewer would immediately recognize. Williams, on the other hand, is much less evident in the artifice of his photographs. The subjects, though posed, are not elaborate tableaus. The people in his pictures are people first, subjects second. Yet, to miss the artfulness altogether is to not look at Williams’s images carefully enough.


Important critics of photography such as Roland Barthes and John Berger have argued that the force of these images comes from the act of choice that conveys significance to whatever is photographed. “In an initial period,” writes Barthes in his seminal work, Camera Lucida, “Photography, in order to surprise, photographs the notable; but soon, by a familiar reversal, it decrees notable whatever it photographs” (34). The camera names its own authority, this way. One result of Williams’s photographic authority was that he became perhaps the primary chronicler of Black Mountain in the 1950s, his images developing into the foremost representations of the writers connected to Black Mountain. His portraits of Olson and Creeley and Duncan have become the most famous taken of these authors and he would also go on to take the definitive photographs of Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, and Jack Spicer. This interesting question is not that he took strong, recognizable photographs, but that Williams’s camera served as a way of determining value for these writers. In many ways, the sheer formal seriousness of attention evinced by these photographs conveys some of that importance to those artists and authors being represented. That the figures are presented in powerful ways as serious subject, the viewer is persuaded to see the people that way as well. The power of photography in terms of its ability to persuade is generally true, but Williams clearly was aware of how to make use of a photograph’s rhetoric to legitimate his avant garde community.


In the Black Mountain images especially, which are some of the earliest examples of Williams’s mature work, William’s portraits represent not only a countercultural intensity, but a masculinist vision of the writers with whose company he kept. In Williams’s most famous images this form of physical power is often literally foregrounded: Olson’s massive form, shirtless, hunched over a writing table with a gourd at hand; Creeley as the dark-eyed, “Spanish assassin,” or Creeley perched atop a broken toilet, the painter Dan Rice at his side, peeking out of a barrel; Joel Oppenheimer growling at the camera while Francine du Plessix stands with feet planted and arms defiantly akimbo. All of these images serve to represent a playful but fierce artistic temperament as the essential environment of Black Mountain College. At the same time, the emphasis on physicality, coupled with Williams’s characteristic cool, make the image specifically masculine.


It would be worth considering in another context what the specific function of this masculinizing plays in Williams’s production of photographic documents of Black Mountain that are utilized to introduce the personas of Black Mountain College into literary and artistic communities at large. This particularly gendered set of documents would indicate the influence of Olson even on Williams’s photographic work. Although there were a number of gay or bisexual students at Black Mountain in the 1950s (including Williams, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners, and Franz Kline) the environment was overwhelmingly hypermasculinist. As Michael Davidson shows at length in Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics, Olson’s poetics and pedagogy were deeply masculinist and given his sway and influence during his tenure as the school’s rector, it makes sense that this ideology would assert itself in others (36-40). In Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Martin Duberman cites his interview with Williams in which Williams says categorically, “It took me a long time to get out from under [Olson]” (384). Williams is speaking specifically about Olson’s influence on his poetry, and yet for anyone connected to Black Mountain, art and life — aesthetics and worldviews — were continuous and interdependent. The patriarchal ethos would manifest themselves in the photographic representations of these authors in almost unavoidable ways.


Once outside of Olson’s aura, Williams would take portraits that were not so strongly gendered as his Black Mountain pictures, but as I have indicated they do maintain a coolness and a reserve that are in traditional terms coded as masculine. Even the color values of Williams’s images are muted or keyed low. If a photograph enacts the photographer’s identity, becoming the screen by which to discover how he or she sees, then are we to see the images as being Williams’s desired reality — that is, the photographs become allegories of his desire — or was this a reflection of Williams’s own complex versions of how to be both masculine and gay? These questions are not easily resolved to be sure, and yet if Davenport is correct in his idea that Williams’s photographs disseminate a form of culture, the questions of what and how the visual markers of identity are circulated become relevant in terms of the cultural work Williams’s portraits — or any portraits for that matter — accomplish.


Although different arts, there are certain commonalities that poetry and photography share, according to Williams. He writes, “Poets and photographers do not necessarily believe in public audiences or constituencies. They believe in persons, with affection for what they see and hear. They believe in that despised, un-contemporary emotion: tenderness” (Magpie’s 84). What if we were to take this idea of tenderness as a poetics of Williams’s photographs? Immediately, there is a productive tension in that the images are not evidently tender. So, the question is, what is the idea of tenderness working in his photograph, and might it reveal an idea of attention as being both a tendency and a form of tenderness? Again, this complicates the photographer’s relationship to the people he photographs and makes the masculine vision far more nuanced. Williams’s assertion indicates the simultaneity of the public and the private and suggests that the images are private, intimate perceptions that are made public. In that sense, the images resist being made into generalizations — it is the photographer’s relationship to that person being photographed that is of paramount importance. But in looking at Williams’s portraits one engages not only what tenderness looks like, but how it sees. This is a communicable tenderness, something like a binding empathy that forms the possibilities of community. In looking at these portraits, one stands in Williams’s place, becoming the proxy for the relationship established within the photograph without ever losing one’s own sense of self.


There is a famous story about Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and his response to someone who thought that Stein did not look like what Picasso had painted. “She will,” he replied. What has always intrigued me about that exchange is whether Picasso meant that the portrait was ahead of Stein in the way that Stein believed the contemporary should be. Or did he mean that the image would become so famous that people would be unable to see Stein except through the lens of his painting? Artists, in a sense, create history before it happens. In numerous biographies, memoirs, and retrospectives of the avant garde of the post-War period, Jonathan Williams’s photographs serve as quintessential representations of the era as defined by the topography of artists’ faces. His concept of the contemporary, also defined by what was outside established or institutional values, was made historical in part through the persuasive, inquisitive authority of his camera. Through his camera’s lens, he helped disseminate new aesthetic possibilities by the camera’s ability to establish value through its gaze. The images that he created with his camera helped fashion an avant garde community as a collective of individuals — each a face that enabled the work to be seen as human, as seeking to create the world as both subjective and objective at the same time — local and private, public and shared.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang,

Davenport, Guy. “Introduction.” An Ear In Bartram’s Tree. By Jonathan Williams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. N. p.

Davidson, Michael. Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: Dutton, 1972.

Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Olson, Charles. “Against Wisdom as Such.” Human Universe and Other Essays. Ed. By Donald Allen. New York: Grove, 1967. 67-71.

Williams, Jonathan. “A Callahan Chrestomathy.” Harry Callahan. Aperture Masters of Photography. Köln: Könemann, 1999.

---. “The Camera Non-Obscura.” The Magpie’s Bagpipe. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982. 82-86.

---. A Palpable Elysium. Boston: Godine, 2002.

Richard Deming

Richard Deming

Richard Deming is a poet and a theorist dedicated to the philosophy of literature. His poems have appeared in such places as Sulfur, Field, Indiana Review, and The Nation. He is a frequent contributor to Artforum. Currently a lecturer at Yale University, he is the author of Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford UP) and a collection of poems, Let’s Not Call It Consequence (Shearsman).

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