Spotlight . . .
"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." . . . Henry David Thoreau
2022 Black and White Portfolio Spotlight, Premier Cohesive Body of Work
::: :::James Pryor is a master of environmental portraiture. This is his fourth Black & White spotlight award, and it's easy to see why his work is so widely appreciated. Pryor has been eloquently profiled by Larry Lytle and George Slade in these pages, Pryor generously shares notes made at the time he created the photographs in the current portfolio. It may be argued, as Garry Winogrand did, that explaining photographs diminishes their mystery. While that may be a universally accepted Truth among photographers, learning more about Pryor's subjects and the circumstances beyond the outer edges of his frames, only deepens the poetic narratives of his images.One cannot make pictures such as those we see here without a profound depth of feeling for one's subjects. Quoting Diane Arbus, Pryor says that he "cares more for the people in his portraits than he does about the images" resulting from his many close encounters.
All Images highlighted below can be viewed in portfolio
Of the transcendent Equinox, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, 2019 his field notes tell us:
"Equinox... 'a period of struggle between darkness and light, death and life.' Pastor J.L. White, Mission Ministry, approaching his 36th year, presented himself to me by his relentless humming and shuffling of feet. Back and forth, back and forth, he was to preach the funeral of a 7-year old boy who was so young, void of wants and without sin, yet his life was tragically cut short. The visual duality of contrasts brought clarity of isolation, loss, humanity facing physical structure...the power of prayer once again being questioned and accepted."
Of Lost Girl, Manhattan, New York 2021, Pryor remembered:
In the shadows of a wicked world
Spinning without a sound
Maybe I was just another lost girl
Dying to be found...Lucinda Williams
"It is 3 a.m.- sh; the smell of diesel, ozone and hemp fill the station, I have spent almost 45 minutes quietly observing "Avery" cry into her phone and snap her gum. She is without destination other than realizing tonight's cash is never enough. Without intruding I present myself to her as someone who feels the emotion and space we are sharing and would like to photograph this moment. 'Why not?' she says. The door closes."
I think of the Years All Gone. Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2019
"Magdalena, who refers to herself as 'invisible,' with snow falling, she exhales her spirit into the cold night air. She remains alone in the artist's common ground, amongst the passing river of humanity, she speaks in low tones about her fictitious family, her children from a husband that never was. Dementia is apparent, her reality fleeting as her youth. We talk in short poignant sentences as I remain a witness to her lost years."
Echoing the Sadness, Florence, South Carolina, 2019
"While walking the streets, conversing with the locals, I was introduced to Rumor and Essence, twins living alone since early childhood. Products of dysfunction and neglect they remain devoted to each other. What separates them is the hurdle of stuttering and deafness. I chose to capture their complementing auras as echoes of sadness."
Pryor took exception to recent characterization of his images as "dark." "Not my intent," he wrote in an August email. "As a musician, I am drawn to 'the flats over sharps;' they are not darker, just richer in content and direction. Are my images emotionally honest? I truly hope so. I am not a portrait artist, I am a musician with a visual "riff" giving the audience something to grab onto, remember, and hopefully own as theirs. This is a very real collaboration, it comes with a price; fill your pockets with tokens, the ride is worth it. Every framed capture steals a small piece of my soul–in small pieces in series of 12. Throughout my many years of artistic expressions the main takeaway is the term "shape-shifter." It is haunting, without conclusion. Everyone is traversing their own rhythm, mentally or physically. They tell their stories with full knowledge that it might lead down a dead-end street. How profound to be available to capture that moment in their journey."
And finally, this: "The common thread weaving throughout my creative narrative is the realization that life is without answers. Peace with calmness is fleeting; loss and pain are profound, cavernous and permanent. Is that dark or just honest?"
—Stuart I. Frolick, editor
2019 Black and White Portfolio Spotlight, Premier Cohesive Body of Work
When I look at James Pryor's haunting portraits, I am reminded of William Faulkner's most famous quote, from his novel Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even the past." More importantly, he continues, "All of us labor in the webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by the wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose providence dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations. The quotidian demands of life distract from this resonance of images and events, but some of us feel it always."
Faulkner reminds us that the past, which is the past each of us must contend with, is inescapably tangled with our present, as well as our future. We are, in our essence, unable to tear free of what we once were. This rumination is expressed by in Pryor's in his photographs as well as his thoughts as he says, "We are all living with ghosts in one way or another, be them thrust upon us or conjured on our own. Ghosts, though weightless, dramatically impact the rhythms of our lives."
When one considers this point of view me must admit that the act of taking a picture is a way to keep the past close to us. The meaning of an image, representing a fraction of a second, though standing in for some important event, will become warped by faulty memory as time passes. As the years go by, confounded by our fugitive recollections, we are creating our ghosts.
Pryor's photographs haunt us in that way. We are invited by the open-ended nature of his images a chance to conjure our spirits out of his imagination. Like glimpses from our own memories, Pryor confronts us with specters; portraits that at once feel human and otherworldly. People, who look palpable, but carry the aura of someone photographed in by-gone days. Pryor's apparitions hail from Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arkansas, places we associate with the gothic south—the land of Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and also Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Like Laughlin's and Meatyard's photographs, Pryor's imagery is enigmatic and dreamlike. His photograph of a young woman in, "If This Is Goodbye," is discomfiting. Her face and a portion of her jacket are the only elements in focus. Her storm-ravaged hair is echoed in the clouds that hover behind her and in the unsettled atmosphere of her stare.
When we look at the "Trawlerman's Song" we are confronted by a bearded old man whose craggy face is reinforced by the peeling and chipped paint of the weather-beaten window frame that encompasses him; notwithstanding, what we are really drawn to is his eye. We recognize that in his sightless eye we may gain some understand his life, and hear the song of his years aboard a boat endlessly rocked by a restless sea.
Pryor's well-spring of inspiration comes from his internal rhythms made manifest by his vision, which he puts thusly, "I draw from the emotional moment presented to me while it is backfilled with years of subtle poetic affirmations. Dreams, imaginations, despair, cavernous loss and the realities of existence delicately comingle on the dance floor of life."
In all of Pryor's images, if one goes to his website, we are struck by his unrelenting poetic vision. He represents his ghosts with a soft focused melancholy that forms the basis of the romantic ambience he infuses in each picture. In his subject's faces, we find in ourselves the melancholy side of life, a life inhabited by our ghosts.
::: :::2017 Black and White Portfolio Spotlight, Premier Cohesive Body of Work
Making photographs involves both technical know-how and a multi-dimensional set of decisions about applying that knowledge to create visual art. So many things enter into the latter component; decisions based on conscious choice as well as unknowable predilections. An artist's life and experience form a core, more or less solid, around which impressions gather and jostle for attention. That core, and the volume of the material surrounding it, expands as time and attention accrue. The single photograph coalesces will and intuition in a solid, well-rendered sample from the swirling globe.
In short, the longer we live and practice our art, the denser these photographic core samples tend to become.
"Living with Ghosts," the series by Manhattan, West Greenwich Village based photographer James Pryor represented here, visualizes encounters with the everyday uncanny. "We are all living with ghosts in one way or another," Pryor explains, "be they thrust upon us or conjured on our own." To capture these believable, intensely symbolic visions, Pryor relies on skills and insights honed in a successful career in the world of advertising images, where a desired effect must be achieved with expediency. He combines this experience with intuitive self-reliance to produce photographs that are simultaneously concrete and ethereal.
"All of my images are pre-conceived in one way or another," Pryor affirms. "I draw from the emotional moment presented to me while it is backfilled with years of subtle poetic affirmations." In other words, this long-term analogue photographer—"Shoot, Soup and Loupe" was his pre-digital motto—has found fertile ground with the arrival of new tools and the insights of experience.
Brace yourself before reading this next detail. Pryor uses what he refers to as "deconstructed" lenses on a Hasselblad FlexBody. Deconstructed? "I fracture the 150mm Sonnar and 40mm Distagon lens elements alignment—literally!" In combination with the adjustable focus plane on the FlexBody this provides "a drifting, myopic, blurring depth of field within my imagery." Only a true visionary could travel this willfully destructive path, but its end products are clearly accomplished and justify the means.
In combination with carefully calibrated printing, the optical tools allow Pryor to enter and record pictorial spaces invisible to us in everyday life. When asked if one might refer to these spaces as "alternate realities," he hesitates. "What is tangible and comforting to me," he wrote, "may be absurdly abhorrent or unsettling to others. In the end, I wish to allow the viewer to complete the narrative on their own terms."
Pryor senses a musical structure intertwined with the undeniable spirit presence in his work. "Ghosts, though weightless, dramatically impact the rhythms of our lives. I have focused my eye on capturing life's rhythmic singularity in the moments that are presented to me." He brings to these encounters a parallel set of skills in the auditory realm. "As a guitarist," he admits, "I am drawn to the flats on the scale, the notes 'beneath the notes,' the flats of life." His photographs embrace people who "along with their ghosts are clearly living 'beneath the notes' of society."
Pryor adheres to a concept he refers to as "impact theory," which may have its roots in his advertising work but has flourished due to his desire for catharsis through visual art, the accumulation of experience and impressions that has intensified over the years. "I want people to feel compelled to comment and take a position on my imagery, be that pro or con. Indifference is a slow death to all artists. Engage the viewer with your intentions and impact them with your passion."
Fantasy, then, finds common ground with challenged lives in photographs that Pryor freely describes as "self promotion of my personal feelings and beliefs." Watch yourself looking at Pryor's photographs. Understand that your reactions derive from your own core of beliefs and opinions. As you navigate the psycho-spiritual labyrinth of these photographs, keep close watch on your heart and soul; the photographer has gone to some length to build the maze and invest it with potential hazards. As Pryor describes the content of his work, "Dreams, imagination, despair, cavernous loss and the realities of life delicately commingle on a two-dimensional platform." Sounds like a photographic Minotaur to me.
2015 Black and White Portfolio Spotlight, Premier Cohesive Body of Work