Joshua Lutz wants us to feel more than he wants us to know. A photographer and artist who grew up with a mentally ill mother, Lutz has come out with a new book focused on his mother’s life that is as emotionally compelling as it is parsimonious with the biographical details it divulges.
“We want so badly to understand. We want to know,” said Lutz, who teaches at Bard College, the International Center of Photography, and Pratt Institute. “This is what makes photographs so powerful. We get little hints of reality and we want to know what that reality is.”
Because we trust them to capture and present a verifiable reality, we endow photographs with the authority to convey the truth, even though they present just a sliver of a slice of a scene. Wired to create meaning out of what we see, we go beyond what is actually visible in an image to construct a context and a narrative that will make the image comprehensible to us. Understanding a photograph is therefore just as much about what the viewer brings to it as it is about what’s in the picture.
Lutz is convinced that a photograph tells us much more about the viewer and the photographer than it does about the image’s ostensible subject.
Hesitating Beauty, Lutz’s spare, affecting book, foregrounds the viewer’s role in this process. In the more than 40 photographs that comprise the book and in the sparse texts that punctuate the flow of images, Lutz is not so much interested in a chronological documentation of his mother’s descent into mental illness as he is in providing sparse clues that let the reader piece together a story—or stories—while engaging fully in the emotional tenor of what her life and his life with her must have and could have been like.
“I have a vague memory, a vague understanding,” said Lutz of his mother’s life and of his childhood in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail. “For me it is a dreamy, hazy thing.” With Hesitating Beauty, he has put the viewer in his own place of “not knowing,” a move that also serves to drive home his core beliefs about what a photograph can and cannot do.
With arguably one or two exceptions, the portraits of Lutz’s mother in the book do not depict the sorts of graphic details—dramatic facial expressions, physical contortions, or harrowing institutional scenes—which are often the stuff of portraits of the mentally ill, and which serve to both captivate and distance the viewer. Instead, in pictures that span from her late teens to just before her death in 2011 at the age of 63, Lutz’s mother, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, strikes largely unremarkable poses, sitting, looking calmly into the camera, for example, or engaged in the ordinary: doing needlepoint, examining a photo, looking up at her husband-to-be with a mischievous smile. On first glance, we could believe this to be any woman, any mother, in any family album; indeed, for the earlier portraits, Lutz, 37, drew on family archives and photos he took of his mother when he was in high school and college.
The book’s restraint even extends to Lutz’s mother’s name. It is omitted from all the photo titles and passages in the book, and Lutz never so much as refers to her as “my mother.” It is only by closely scrutinizing the details in one photo—an extreme close-up of an arm in a hospital bed with wristbands that say “Haldol” and “Fall Risk” in large bold lettering—that one can make out the name Jinne Lutz in smaller, faded type on a third bracelet.
But while Lutz shrouds the details of his mother’s life in ambiguity, and while he omits from view much of the concrete, daily ins and outs of what living with his mother must have been like, Hesitating Beauty conveys the sense of unease and outright terror that one imagines must have pervaded both his mother’s life and his own childhood.
It is the subtle, slightly unsettling details in Jinne Lutz’s portraits that first intimate that this was no ordinary life or family story. Take the cover photo, for example. We see a sepia-toned head-and-shoulders portrait of Jinne as a young woman. Slender, with thick, short-cropped hair and delicate features, she is wearing formal attire and a string of pearls. Is it a wedding photo? A graduation picture? A debutante’s coming-out photo? We can’t tell. What strikes us is that something is not quite right. Her eyes are nearly closed. Her mouth is slightly ajar as if she were about to say something, but hesitates. She seems every bit the “hesitating beauty” of the title that is printed right across her nearly closed eyes. The image is disturbing.
The same can be said of a portrait just a few pages into the book in which Jinne Lutz, now clearly well into middle age and sporting a nondescript T-shirt, shorts, and a bit of a belly, is seated partly in shadow on a cheap, flower-print sofa. It is not quite clear where she is, but she looks somewhat uncomfortable; she is wearing a hospital wristband and socks, but no shoes. The effect is especially unsettling because the photo follows directly upon a picture of Jinne, still in her late teens or early twenties, holding onto the handlebars of a bike and throwing back her head in laughter as her long, curly hair blows in the breeze. It is an iconic image of a beautiful young woman on the cusp of adulthood about to seize life. Peeking out from around the picture’s margins are other images with mid-20th century graphics and fonts. There is a picture of a boy, a tiny house, and partial titles: “Book of Photo” and “invisible Co” The tremendous contrast between the photo of the younger and the older Jinne can only evoke sorrow.
Grounding the book’s emotional tone throughout and providing seeming clues to the story are the sparse passages of text that appear every few pages. Usually no more than a paragraph long and printed in an old typewriter font, they are written in the voices of Lutz, his father, and his mother, although all have been arranged by Lutz, based on words his parents said or wrote—or which he imagined they might have said or written.
“Sweetheart, I can’t write too much because I feel scared, but the things that I see no longer make sense. Faceless figures, rocks growing like trees. I can’t even remember what these tears are for, but I look at my children and I know they are not who you say they are. Please visit me. Yours forever, Hesitating Beauty,” reads the first passage in Jinne Lutz’s voice. Jinne’s “letters” are all signed “Hesitating Beauty” or “H.B.”
One of the most remarkable and accomplished aspects of Hesitating Beauty is how Lutz has chosen to curate the texts and the photos. The narrative seems to begin over and over again as the portraits of Jinne skip back and forth in time and new people and elements are introduced.
Close to half the images in the book are not of Lutz’s mother at all, but are landscape and exterior shots that have been shot over the past half-decade. Interleaved among the portraits, they have a dreamlike, even hallucinatory quality. Often they appear menacing or ominous, sometimes because of what appears in them—an unidentified figure in the woods clad in black carrying a load of wood, or an exit sign in which the destination has been digitally edited out—but other times simply because of how they resonate with the other images and texts in the book.
Included among the contemporary photos are several staged shots with unidentified actors. Some add depth to the story, but a couple are unnecessarily confusing, thus coming across as random. Who is that woman, who is clearly not Lutz’s mother, standing by the window, looking out? Or why is that man seated in the chair giving the photographer the finger?
The photos in Hesitating Beauty are almost entirely close-ups or tightly cropped images that leave as much outside the frame as they include, reinforcing the sense that the viewer is lacking context. This holds true for the portraits, landscapes, and exteriors, as well as for the few interior shots depicting unkempt living quarters and cold institutional settings. Many of the photos, moreover, make extensive use of shadows and soft focus, which plunge details and background elements into a semi-obscurity. The effect is at once intimate and claustrophobic.
It is unfortunate that in a few instances, the images have been rendered too dark, leaving too many details obscured. A comparison with digital versions of the photos, shows this to be a result of the book’s printing, rather than how the images were shot or developed.
The tight technical and thematic focus of Hesitating Beauty, Lutz’s second monograph, stands in distinct contrast to his first book, Meadowlands. Published in 2008 by Powerhouse Books, Meadowlands portrays the eponymous 32 square miles of polluted New Jersey wetlands and the people who live there. It was shot with an 8-by-10 large format camera over 10 years and documents the human impact on the environment in the New Topographics tradition, with environmental portraits and sweeping landscapes, in which every detail has been painstakingly coaxed into view.
After Meadowlands, Lutz said, he wanted his next project to be completely different. “I wanted to work on a much more intimate level. With large format work, there is so much detail in the photos that you can fall into the illusion of it and forget that it’s a photograph.”
It was the fall of 2008. Lehman Brothers had just collapsed and Barack Obama was about to be elected president. Lutz had been reading a biography of Woody Guthrie while traveling the country on an assignment photographing the effects of the economic crisis. He was struck by the fact that Guthrie was singing and writing about the same issues that concerned him—“only he was doing it 50 years prior”—so Lutz decided to center his next project around Guthrie, using the singer’s work as the impetus for images.
As Lutz read on he discovered that Guthrie and Jinne Lutz had spent time in the same mental institution, and “I also found out what a flawed character he was,” Lutz said. He became intrigued by these flaws at the same time that he became more drawn into a project about his mother. The two stories “collided” and Jinne Lutz took on the persona of the woman in Guthrie’s song “Hesitating Beauty.”
Lutz had begun photographing his mother in high school, around the same time that he first became interested in photography. Taking pictures of his mother had provided a way for him to be with her in her darkest and most difficult times and still feel that he could salvage those moments. It also had served as a way for Lutz to put distance between himself and his mother and assuage his fears that he too would become mentally ill. “As long as it was me looking at the crazy, it meant that I wasn’t crazy,” noted Lutz.
But this strategy left Lutz at sea in understanding what was going on around him. “Holding so tightly onto what I believed was sanity yet consumed by fear of depression and schizophrenia, prevented me from being fully present to her reality,” Lutz writes in his book’s opening passage. “Looking back on the family archive for clues and understanding, my role in shaping that story began to collide with the memory of how it exists and a need to change it. I imagined a time, a place where the weight of those memories is heavier than reality.” In Hesitating Beauty, Lutz has succeeded in conveying to us the emotional weight of his experience by not overwhelming us with the details of its reality.
TALIA BLOCH is a journalist and poet based in Brooklyn. Joshua Lutz's Hesitating Beauty will be on view at ClampArt from April 11 - May 18.