Clara DeWeese, For The Sake Of The Song

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Tired Eyes Publishing (here). Softbound book, 10 x 10 inches. 125 pages, with 85 color reproductions. Includes texts by Jan DeWeese and Linnae Wolting. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Clara DeWeese’s debut monograph For The Sake Of The Song takes its title from a 1968 album by Townes Van Zandt. DeWeese’s cover photo shows two young friends singing together in a car, and it’s easy to imagine them voicing the words to Van Zandt’s title track: “She says that she knows that moments are rare…I suppose that it’s true…

Like the famous Texas troubadour, DeWeese is a creature of the West. She was raised in an artistic extended family in Portland, and her musician father Jan DeWeese wrote the book’s preface (he is photographed for the book, listening to music). After earning her BFA at Montana State in Bozeman, 31-year old DeWeese has since made her home in nearby Butte, a town with some photographic provenance thanks to Robert Frank.  

For The Sake Of The Song tracks DeWeese’s outings through various western locales, clustered mostly in Montana. The terrain—glimpsed through occasional outdoorsy snatches—looks expansive and inviting. But geography is largely a secondary concern. The book’s primarily focus is friends and relationships. As quickly becomes clear browsing her photos, DeWeese is a people person. “In every encounter she is warm and genuine and she imparts friends and acquaintances alike a a feeling of maternal good will,” Linnae Wolting (herself the subject of several striking photos) writes in her introduction.

Friend by friend, DeWeese gradually unveils a broad social network slanting toward non-comformity. Some might describe her peer group as a chosen family, an alternative or addition to blood family. She rotates among a regular cohort of colorful personalities and domiciles. All appear vibrant and photogenic, and DeWeese has no qualms shooting them whenever the right situation presents itself, using 35 mm color film. The resulting book—balanced between convivial cheer and millennial ennui—feels like a contemporary marker.

Viewed in broad strokes, the book’s subject matter might be comparable to a social media feed. Like many thirty-somethings DeWeese routinely journals her daily activities—sharing regular on Instagram—stitching a thread between herself, her companions, and their gatherings. “Her work is…an open book with all the blemishes of real life,” writes Wolting. “Genitals, boobs, flab, bad haircuts and hangovers, bad relationships and boring pots of water that never boil.” The emphasis is on community expression rather than narrative arc.  

The book may tackle similar territory as phone snaps, but DeWeese’s photographic skills rise to a different level. Many of the book’s photos appeared originally on her website under annualized subsections called Moments Passed, collecting images into yearly diaries. In For The Sake Of The Song they are wryly captioned by subject and date, e.g. Banjo With His Bone, 2020; Kaylin Eating an Oyster, 2021; Birdy Wounded In The Tub, 2018. Her pictures are somehow both tender and sharp. Photographs like Kai and Her Airplane, 2019 and Elvin At Home, 2019 demonstrate a studied feel for composition and color. Buck Head, 2021 could be a film still from a slasher flick, while Party Hard, 2020 sprawls into a delightful abstraction of domestic bliss.  

DeWeese’s inclusion of bare skin and suggestive poses is certainly not comparable to social media, where such material is typically banned. Rejane in the Tub, 2016 makes for a nice cross-spread counterpart to infant Yves Preparing For a Bath, 2022. Both subjects look calmly into DeWeese’s camera, cozy, nude, and open to possibilities. Neither picture would last long on Instagram. 

Lest anyone accuse her of objectifying other bodies, DeWeese incorporates her own topless form as a model in several photos, for example looking into a bathroom vanity or reclining in a plush pit. These relatively innocuous exposures pave the way for more provocative nudes. If Provo and Liv on the Motorcycle, 2019 and Morgan in Drag, 2019 probe the boundaries of polite society, My Last Hurrah With Tok, 2017 is a lascivious assault on prude norms. Tuk glares from a blue corner, his fingers and erect penis streaked with blood. Although no picture in the book is overtly salacious, there is a hedonistic and adventurous edge throughout, as if another coupling or catharsis might break out at any moment. Young people showing off their healthy bodies. Twas ever thus. 

Young photographers have documented their chosen alt-families for a long time as well. Larry Clark laid down an early marker in 1971 with Tulsa, exploring his troubled friend circle in the titular city. A nice start, but it was Nan Goldin who really kicked the subgenre into gear in the late 80s. As a personal exposé The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency literally pulled no punches, and Goldin’s decision to incorporate self-portraiture gave it legs into the #metoo generation. 

Photo history may not repeat itself but it often rhymes, and the current period has exhumed the ghosts of Clark and Goldin. The past several years have seen a raft of “chosen family” photobooks by talented photographers. They include Maria Pasenau’s Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau, Arnic Balcus’ Myself, Friends, Lovers, and Others (reviewed here), Agata Kalinowska’s Yaga (reviewed here), Inuutec Storch’s Keepers Of The Ocean (reviewed here), Gabriella Angotti-Jones’s I Just Wanna Surf (reviewed here), Ed Templeton’s Wires Crossed (reviewed here), and Mike Brodie’s A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity (reviewed here). The list goes on. 

Like these predecessors, For The Sake Of The Song seems to cast its view outward, all the while revolving around its creator. DeWeese appears directly in a few self-portraits, just another character in the friend mix trying to find her place in the universe. But even when not depicted—the vast majority of images—she lurks as an invisible galvanizing presence. Most photo subjects peer back into DeWeese’s camera lens, and this reflective gaze becomes a running motif and connective tissue. They inject DeWeese’s personality even into the candid grabs. “I cherish such psychological introspection with friends, family and lovers, celebrating our human connection as a means for realization,” she says. It seems she’s pulled off quite a trick, creating a complex autobiography of herself and her life, while remaining largely hidden from the lens.

The book’s production is spare but effective. It’s a softcover photobook with plain san-serif typeface, and minimalist design. DeWeese’s photos are laid out one or two per spread in uniform size and position. A nitpicking critic might point out that the palette is uneven. A few photos have oppressive color casts, and roughly the same number seem oddly drained of saturation. Perhaps this is intentional, but it’s more likely a production default. In any case, I think it actually works in the context of For The Sake Of The Song. Unpredictable tones add a spice of individualism to a book which might otherwise creep toward homogenization. And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong?

Collector’s POV: Clara DeWeese does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover with Swiss binding, 24 x 28 cm, 108 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions and 14 contact sheet pages. Includes ... Read on.

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