Jason Koxvold, Knives

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Gnomic Book (here). Hardcover, 140 pages, with 76 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and a poem by Galway Kinnell. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given the particular timing of the invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century, as a medium, it was particularly well placed to document the layers of changes to the modern world that were spawned by the Industrial Revolution. As nations across the globe slowly moved from hand crafting to machined production, transformation took place in nearly every commercial activity, from the production of steel to the spinning of textiles, and photography was there to document those changes. Factories, locomotives, electrical power plants, steam engines, and other industrial and manufacturing infrastructure became common subject matter, particularly for the Modernists, and the romance of progress infused their imagery, even when the belching smokestacks were polluting previously pristine landscapes.

And for more than a century, this broad wave of industrialization, and the associated improvements to standards of living felt by those who benefitted from its successes, was largely a one way road. Whether you were in the United States, or Britain, or Germany, or countless other places, the factories in your town meant consistent work. One thriving factory led to another and another, which led to more supporting businesses, which led to bustling regional centers and the like, and those jobs supported the development of solid families and communities, and provided a strong bulwark against the stubborn erosions of unemployment and poverty.

But beginning in the second half of the 20th century in some places, and continuing on for decades in others, the yellow brick road to collective prosperity slowly ended when the factory in town closed up, either moving somewhere else where manufacturing was cheaper or going out of business entirely due to competition, changing tastes, or ordinary mismanagement. And what followed in its wake was a gradual but persistent ghosting, where the forward progress of industrialization started to work in reverse. The positive network effects of one successful factory begetting another turned around, and with each subsequent factory closing, the outlook in these formerly thriving cities and towns deteriorated further, creating a grim downward spiral to mirror the one that raised these towns up in the first place.

And while gleaming machines and towering man-made infrastructure once made for grandly optimistic (and often patriotic) pictures, this new de-industrialization process offers no such visual glories. What is often left behind are empty ruins, broken lives, and decaying landscapes, and even when seen (and photographed) with care and empathy, these surfaces tell inscrutable stories that require more complex nuance than is typically applied to remnants and remains. But if there is anything that the extremes of our recent political history tell us, it is that these stories still need to be told and understood (both in America and elsewhere). The hollowing out process of global de-industrialization, and the physical and mental traps it sets for those caught in its maw, isn’t yet finished, and its reverberations continue to rumble through societies both at home and abroad.

Jason Koxvold’s new photobook Knives takes life in a single town in upstate New York as a resonant example of this larger flow. Set in Ulster county in the Hudson Valley, Wawarsing was once part of a broad-based and century-old cutlery industry that included dozens of successful companies. But when the last of the major knife manufacturers moved its factory to China in 2004 (taking some 700 jobs out of a local workforce that had been slowly hemorrhaging for years), Wawarsing joined the ranks of the towns struggling to discover a new path forward.

Using a systematic and meticulous conceptual framework similar to those employed by Taryn Simon in many of her projects, Koxvold uses a photographic taxonomy of knives as his entry point into the story. Each knife is set against a blank white backdrop and unfolded to show its blade and handle, with its model name, manufacturer, approximate production date, and factory location provided as contextual information. Like Walker Evans’ still lifes of common tools, the 27 images are simple formal elements, often set at right angles, each knife a physical representation of tasks to be done or jobs to do.

Koxvold uses a chronological progression of these knife images as the through line for his photobook. And two important learnings come from this series of bare implements. The first comes from an aggregation of the company names that made these knives. When we read the names, it becomes clear that this wasn’t just one or two corporations in this area, but a parade of collective effort that starts off as proud and strong but ultimately feels dispiriting when we realize just how many of these employers are now gone: Ulster Knife, Hammer Brand, New York Knife, Walden Knife, Allen Cutlery, Wallkill River Works, Warwick Knife, Electric Cutlery, Kingston Cutlery, Waterville Manufacturing, Schrade-Walden, Camillus Cutlery, Imperial Schrade. When seen as a big list, we start to understand the magnitude of ongoing loss that these communities have had to bear.

The second insight comes from the functional uses of these knife products. While our modern lives have largely pushed the knife into the kitchen, it’s clear from all of these products that we used to need knives for a dizzying variety of handy uses. While a pocket knife, or Bowie, or even a fixed blade might be recognizable to many, the pruner, scribe, toothpick, cigar jack, bone jack, and budding knife are more historically mysterious, and the “nigger chaser” is undeniable evidence of our darkest days as a country. These are products that represent the threads of a bygone America that has been left behind by the modern coastal cities, but one that still very much exists, at least to some extent in mindset, out where the roads wind into the hills. So in this way, the knives are yet another taxonomy of loss.

Koxvold then takes this framework and interleaves portraits, landscapes, and interior scenes from modern day Wawarsing, creating a sequence that oscillates back and forth, adding snippets of history to the flow of everyday life. In the 14 years since the last factory closed, the city has remade itself, to some extent, as a prison town, with two correctional facilities as the major local employers.

Koxvold’s portraits capture residents, prison workers, and inmates, and in some cases, it isn’t entirely clear which are which. In the sequence of the book, all of the portraits are adult males until we reach the final two pictures, which show us a mother/toddler pair and then a young boy. These men (most are middle aged) are seen with sharp up-close clarity, their weary and wary faces filled mostly with resignation. Beards, bandanas, tattoos, and racing hats provide some clues to personalities, but many of Koxvold’s sitters feel like empty shells, their vacant stares perhaps emblematic of a lack of engagement or just nothing to do. What comes through most in these pictures is a pervading sense of being alone in this fight, as a hunter walks in the woods by himself and another solitary figure trudges through the endless whiteness of the snow. When the families do appear at the end, they seem to have been hardened by the plight of these men, their stares direct, unwavering, and tinged with anger.

Koxvold’s interiors and landscapes mimic this sense of vacancy. While we have seen empty offices, floor tiles gone to weeds, rotting insulation, and the vastness of closed factories and parking lots before, inside the larger narrative flow of this photobook, Koxvold gives these details a sense of context. Contrasts are smartly arranged between the pristine fluorescent-lit white rooms and modern razor-wired fences of the correctional facilities and the dinginess of windowless workshops where ammunition is stored and COPS runs on the TV in the background. One particularly elegant (and tough) sequence of images starts with a broken satellite dish, its power cord wrapped around the non-operational receiver (no longer connected to the outside world), is followed by a rope tied around wooden beams, symbolically holding (or binding) them together, and finishes with a broken mirror stuck in the snow. Other singular images keep the mood heavy: an unfriendly cat, a roaring taxidermy bear head, bubble wrap stuck among the leaves, a dead deer, wooden pallets lodged in the ice, an endless line of empty railcars filled with rusty water, and a fingernail decorated with a Punisher skull logo. When woven together with the knives and the portraits, the entire sequence of images feels like a roundly robust characterization of our traumatic post-industrial psychological terrain.

For towns like Wawarsing, it’s almost like this process of de-industrialization has set them on a dispiriting race to the bottom, with prisons and casinos the industries of last resort. Knives captures both the grubby surfaces of this fall, but also its gnarled and layered emotions, where masculinity bleeds into disempowerment and hard earned community pride turns to fear of immigrants and outsiders. What is so powerful about this photobook is the way that it uses different kinds of imagery to communicate where the disaffection, distrust, and anger we see bubbling up all around us these days can come from. Knives takes no sides and offers no solutions, but it offers a credible view into the complexity of the challenges being faced in places like upstate New York. By merging social and commercial history into a contemporary narrative, it offers a version of both cause and effect, connecting the dots between the changing fates of a single town and the larger moods of a divided nation.

Collector’s POV: Jason Koxvold does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, those collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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