Review by Madhu Joseph John •
Art book critics generally use criteria such as contents and caliber of images, layout, production niceties, such as quality of paper, design, and above all, the originality of the subject matter to analyze books they wish to review. In House Music, a photobook by Charles Rozier, many of these yardsticks are realized in superlative fashion. So much so, that I ventured to analogize it with the books described in Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books, describing seminal photographic books of the twentieth century. I found that Rozier’s book was like no other in terms of originality and layout. Perhaps a bit of Larry Clark’s Tulsa. Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the narrative that comes closest to the ethos of Rozier, but House Music exceeds it both in ambition and production, if not in titillation.
Charles Rozier’s book is a 27-year chronicle of his family. The principal characters of this rich photoplay are his wife Helena, his daughters Laura and Anna, and his brother-in-law George, with a sprinkle here and there of parents, in-laws, cousins, and a pet or two. Though unseen, Rozier’s presence is palpable in every image. Sixty four well-composed images are presented, with a seamless transition midway from black and white to color. The sequencing is immaculate, on par if not superior to that of a Ralph Gibson photobook. Characters are framed within plausible home interiors and everytown-USA landscapes; each image, every image is unposed. The book is replete with rarely depicted but recognizable gestures, demeanors sometimes transparent, sometimes inscrutable.
Several images stay with you long after you have switched off your lamplight. “Anna, tilt/New York 1996” shows a child, milk bottle in mouth, one leg akimbo, a familiar gesture for any parent, yet one that is rarely recorded, even by the likes of Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier. “Anna, Helena, Laura, strollers, New York 1998” – where you have an exhausted Helena, one hand draped over Laura’s shoulder, the other steadying Anna’s stroller – is eerily reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.
George, the brother-in-law, is the most engaging and enigmatic character in this family drama. He turns up everywhere, with the children, with a parent, with his sister, and very often by himself, with a depleted cereal bowl and a coffee mug in hand, poring over a catalog of urns, and ruminating about the beyond, flowers in the crook of his arm, in a graveyard. There is this absolutely riveting one of him with his sister, “Helena, George, lawn/Oyster Bay 2008,” seated side by side, in separate chairs on a lawn, both in deep thought, stoic yet vulnerable, looking in differing directions. For some unfathomable reasons, enough to bring me to tears. It just might take you there as well.
And for a coup de grace, the book culminates with a now grownup Anna, “Anna, red-tailed hawk/Temple NH 2009,” releasing a bird into the wilderness, just as she apparently is set to launch herself into the wide open.
As if these images were not remarkable by themselves, there is this utterly brilliant introductory piece by Alison Nordström, which I happened to read after I had viewed the images. All it did was to make me exult over the images all over again with the benefit of newer insights.
House Music is a classic, more Tolstoy than Virginia Woolf, its scope broader, more philosophical than any photobook in recent memory. It’s a masterly portrayal of intimacy within a family as its members traverse through the unsettling and unsettled spaces of childhood and adolescence, the absurdities and doublethink of middle age and the tyranny of senescence.
What Rozier needs now is a Clive Davis, or better yet, a John Szarkowski to pry him out of his relative obscurity into the forefront. Even if a Davis or Szarkowski don’t turn up, I reckon that House Music will make it to Martin Parr’s legendary photobook collection shortly and eventually turn up in the book that catalogs the 101 seminal photography books of the twenty-first century.
Charles Rozier – House Music
Photographer: Charles Rozier (born in Norfolk, Virginia; lives in Westport, Connecticut, USA)
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing, London and USA; © 2019
Essays: “From a farther room” by Alison Nordström; foreword by Charles Rozier
Hardback, 123 pages with 64 images including 38 color plates; 24.5 x 22.2 cm (9.7 x 8.7 inches); printed by EBS, Verona, Italy
Photobook Designer: Charles Rozier
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