Review: We Shall by Paul D’Amato

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When looking at Paul D’Amato‘s We Shall for the first time, you want to do yourself a favour and skip over all the text in the beginning. Go straight to the pictures. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the writers who contributed to the book. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the essays. They’re wonderful. Essays can help flesh out what is in the pictures and what is not. They can help guide the viewer, or they can set her or him on a specific path. But it’s a photobook, and photobooks are about photographs. It’s always better to look and see, and to feel what’s in the pictures, before being told what is or might be or should be or could be.

Having looked at the pictures, you could then go back and read the various essays. You might also want to read a long essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled The Case for Reparations. Having done that, there will be a lot more information swirling around in your head, which might or might not have an influence on how you see D’Amato’s work. It’s never that clear what words do to pictures. Words are very prescriptive. As a writer, you intend to string them together in such a way that your reader will come to certain conclusions. If that doesn’t happen, you’ve failed as a writer.

Photographs don’t necessarily work that way. They can, in which case they become easily tedious and one-dimensional (think editorial or commercial photography, or the worst examples of photojournalism). But when photographs are done well, they’re prescriptive in a much more subtle sense. They don’t tell you to do or think anything. Yet at the same time you just know you’re going to feel very bad if you pretend that they don’t tell you to do or think anything. It’s very strange. This is what makes photography so exciting. This is why so many of the practitioners of this most technical medium struggle mightily with it: here’s a hammer, now make me some poetry (I know, I know: cameras aren’t hammers, and photography certainly isn’t poetry).

We Shall essentially is a book of portraiture, the few non-portraits notwithstanding. Photobooks containing portraiture are very hard to put together. However good the photographs might be, most viewers will essentially be looking at pictures of strangers, and as a species we don’t seem to be too good at dealing with strangers. So the photographs have to be very good for the viewer to become interested in looking at those strangers. This is the portraitist’s challenge. People usually can’t agree on what it is that makes a great portrait (see this article and this one). But it seems fair to say that a great portrait creates the compulsion in us to spend a lot of time looking at a stranger, becoming interested in a stranger, caring about a stranger.

In addition to featuring some impressive portraits, the book also works with variants of pictures of the same sitter, either taken right after one another, or with some time in between. Often, these pictures are placed right next to each other. On top of that, there are gatefolds that are used to unfold other pictures, other variants. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought one could make a photobook showing variants of the same portrait right next to each other in a way that actually works, but it does. A lot of thinking must have gone into the way the book is constructed.

In his introduction, the photographer states “It is important to keep in mind that the photograph and the person in the photograph are not the same. My subjects move, talk, and respond to one another; their appearance is constantly changing. As a result, my images do not represent the West Side, or a particular class, race, or even time. All of that has an existence that is independent of the work and beyond the scope of photography.” I don’t know to what extent I buy that. He continues “In the end, the work is about establishing and playing with a sequence of relationships: between me and my subjects, between the formal elements in the pictures, between one image and another, and between the viewer and the photograph.” You know, if it were really just that, this would be an OK book, essentially merely a photographic exercise. But given this is a very good book, there is a lot more going on.

This is one of those other things about photographs: they often take on a life of their own, speaking forcefully of things you personally didn’t intend to put in the work.

But at the end of the day, good photographs have more in common with an invitation than with a command. They invite us to look and to engage, they invite us to care, but we don’t have to. It’s up to us. People often blame photography (or photographers) for doing or not doing certain things when the source of the problem really is that they don’t want to deal with what is in front of them. We Shall puts something in front of us that we can engage with or not. The same is true for Coates’ essay. Make no mistake, the book and the essay are very different in all kinds of ways. But at the same time there is a dialogue. One can inform the other. Crucially, one or the other – or both – can inform us, if, again, we want to be informed, if we want to care.

We Shall; photographs by Paul D’Amato; essays by Gregory J. Harris, Cleophus J. Lee, Paul D’Amato; 102 pages; DePaul Art Museum, 2013

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.6

Ratings explained here.