Reading Raymond Carver by Mary Frey, reviewed by Robert Dunn

In my last review for Photobookstore magazine I looked into how story works in photobooks. By story I meant something less than an out and out narrative, but also something with a shape reminiscent of a story: a beginning, an end, and at least the feel of a narrative arc as we move through the book. In effect I was talking about the photobook as a form of literature.

 the last couple years I’ve been teaching a university course in making photobooks, and when I have to explain what I’m doing to layfolk, I tell them that I consider the best photobooks analogues to literature: you know, up there with volumes of poetry, a short story collection, even a form of novel. (How far away in truth is Kerouac’s On the Road from Frank’s Americans, Klein’s Life Is Good and Good for You in New York and his Paris fashion shots from Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s?)

Well, here we have a photobook in which the literary nature is explicit: Mary Frey’s Reading Raymond Carver. As Frey says in her intro to the book, she wasn’t setting out to mimic Carver’s short fiction, just that she remembers “that I was reading Raymond Carver.” Which is at it should be. I can’t quite imagine a photobook that would set out to mimic or directly be influenced by a work of literature: I mean, what, make a photobook of The Great Gatsby? Crime and Punishment? Plath’s Ariel? (Even most films made from true literature suck.)

But there are photobooks that if not exactly inspired by literary works, are at least coincident with them. Think of Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood, inspired by the same 1950s Midwest crime that jazzed Truman Capote to write his one great nonfiction book, In Cold Blood, not to mention several movies, the best being Terence Malick’s Badlands. The power of a photobook can come from the literary or cultural overtones it captures.

As a novelist (as well as a photographer), I may be biased, but, indeed, I think all serious photographers would benefit from spending less time worrying about f stops and more getting turned on by Walt Whitman or Dante or Aristophanes or King Lear. (My own photobooks have their own great writers lurking somewhere in my consciousness—or unconsciousness—as I snap photos, then put them into a book.)

In Reading Raymond Carver we have a book that doesn’t shy away from the literary connections. So what does it tell us about the relationship between strong writing and powerful photobooks? And how does that doomed American short story writer make Frey’s book stronger, better?

Again, and key, is that Frey’s making of her photobook was coincident with reading Carver short stories; she never set out to capture his work in pictures. Carver’s world of small towns, complex domestic arrangements, lives unambitious but nonetheless profound, also appears to be Frey’s world.

Hence, we have a lot of shots of children: playing shoot-em-up, riding a trike on a broken-brick sidewalk, hanging upside-down on a jungle gym, in their jammies getting ready for bed. We have a housewife proudly holding mouth-high a huge fresh-baked pie, singed oven mittens protecting her hands. There are heaps of teenagers, too, keeping busy in teenager ways: playing Monopoly, applying mascara on a friend, twirling a basketball, holding up a print of a Hopper lighthouse, at a picnic scarfing down sandwiches made from Wonder Bread.

That is, American suburban life, conventional life, day-to-day life … pictures of lives that couldn’t look more normal. And yet, just as in a Carver story, each picture is resonant. Frey’s gift is to give us photos that look like anybody’s shots of their family, and yet make them interesting, compelling. That was Carver’s art—the boundless depths of “normal” life; and that’s Frey’s, too.

How does she do it? How come her book resonates and moves us far more than our own neighbors’ endless Instagram feeds?

The ultimate explanation is probably right up there with the usual mysteries of art, but I have a few ideas. Each photo is quite telling. We immediately get what’s going on—the kid on a couch sucking his candy, the girl in the next shot guzzling some beverage out of a bottle in a doorway—and somehow each shot rouses, at least in me, my own memories of the deep, meaningful banalities of my own former suburban life.

That word meaningful is key. Here’s how Frey explains her project: Stuck at home, pregnant, “Out of necessity I photographed my family and neighbors, seeking out the most banal situations and challenging myself to find or construct meaning in the everyday. For me, a simple gesture, the quotidian moment, or a descriptive element could hold significance beyond its purpose.”

Frey captures the whole point of her art in a couple sentences: to find meaning in the everyday. This, of course, was Carver’s gift, too … and that “finding or constructing meaning” should be the primary challenge of all photographers, all writers, all artists.

Certainly, Frey succeeds, and the effect is cumulative. The impact of her work probably wouldn’t come across in a single photo on a wall; it’s seeing all the shots together that moves us. And that’s the power of a great photobook: These photos tell a singular story. They add up, as do the best short story collections, to far more than any single piece. Simply, these photos belong together.

Carver’s stories are mostly set in the 1970s, as are Frey’s photos, but both have a 1950s feel, which Frey acknowledges. All this gives the book an interesting Happy Days twist—the hit (and unwatchable) TV show from the 1970s that took off on an American Graffiti–like vision of the American ’50s. So the cover, instead of a 1950s-era picture of, say, me, leaning over, transistor radio pressed tight to my ear, listening to Vin Scully broadcast LA Dodgers games with Duke Snider, Maury Wills, and Don Drysdale, we have a teenage girl leaning over, portable eight-track player pressed tight to her ear, a cartridge of Led Zeppelin’s final album poking out of the slot.

It’s homey stuff—purposefully homey stuff, as that ’70s Watergate decade yearned for the fantasy stability of two decades earlier (not that far from the U.S.’s 1950s-stuck current leader)—and the book rouses intriguing memories. Except that nothing’s sugarcoated … nobody’s going to make a nostalgic sit-com out of Reading Raymond Carver.

Just as they won’t out of Carver’s stories themselves. Which raises the question of how close this book comes to the richness and complexity of actual literature.

One primary way Frey’s book succeeds is that each photograph projects not simply what we see on the page, but streams of action leading up to the moment, and after. At random I flipped to a shot of swimsuited  teenagers, three boys playing a video game, a boy and girl making out. The scene is rich enough that we can imagine the kids out on an endless-summer, what’re we gonna do? lark; and that the lucky guy and girl just found each other … and there they are going at it. Something in the shot suggests they won’t be a couple after this night … or maybe I’m totally wrong.

But the implications—the constructed meanings—are there for us to make as much of as we can. Take the next shot, also the one on the cover. The cool intensity with which the girl presses the eight track of Plant, Page, and Bonham to her ear, fully rapt to the music … easy to hear Zep’s thunder pulsing and squeaking out of the little speaker. The disco LP behind her, what do we make of that? She also has a Bob Seger eight track … O.K. And a wood LISA sign on her door. So we have Lisa, her urgent need to hear Led Zeppelin, ear pressed tight to the speaker, yet also the flat, unreadable emotion on her near blank face….

The more time I spend with Reading Raymond Carver’s photos, the deeper I fall into their world; and the more intrigued I am by the idea of making my own short stories out of the book.

Richness of art in all its forms. Two-way streets. We can take these photos and find inspiration in ordering them into a collection as if from Raymond Carver; then it turns out that each photo is so rich somebody else could come along a write their own story from it … and it all goes round and round.

Which is at bottom what literature, what art is: Creations that stay alive, always inspire, always move us, continue to intrigue, explain, enrich, and inspire.

And that … that’s the answer to how close this book comes to literature right there.

The first edition of Reading Raymond Carver by Mary Frey can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.