Peter van Agtmael, Buzzing at the Sill

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Kehrer Verlag (here). Hardcover, 160 pages, with 72 color illustrations. Includes a 32 page booklet with captions and an essay by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past decade, Peter van Agtmael has been incrementally expanding the definitional edges of documentary photojournalism, deliberately encouraging his assignments and personal work to become a single fluid whole. In an ongoing series of photobooks, he has allowed the usually rigid outsider/insider divide to get intermingled, bringing his own intensely evocative reactions and reflections into the stories he is telling. In the excellent Disco Night Sept 11 (from 2014, reviewed here), he documented the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, using perspectives from at home and abroad to unpack the traumatic rawness of the battlefield and the confusion of trying to reconcile that military life with everyday America. And in his new book Buzzing at the Sill, he steps back from the conflict zone, looking more closely at the pervasive dark tension that has overtaken the United States, finding a broad range of undercurrents leading to the growing mood of alienation and disquiet.

Buzzing at the Sill’s title comes from a phrase in Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time” (My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?). The words connect with an image of a bird banging on a window, which appears in copper on the cover of the book. The artist took this photo at the U.S. military hospital in San Antonio, Texas, in a rehabilitation ward for soldiers severely burnt in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the nurses noticed the grim black form aggressively trying to break in. Metaphorically, it hints at the surreal uncertainty found in today’s America, where even the maimed and injured are still under attack.

The photographs in Buzzing at the Sill were taken between 2009 and 2016, during a mix of assignments, road trips, family hangouts, and unexpected occasions. They also vary geographically: from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to Louisville, Detroit, Brooklyn, and beyond. The first image in the book captures a dark blue cloudy sky photographed from the airplane window “somewhere over the USA”. Van Agtmael writes that as he comes back home from a war zone, he often takes few days in a neutral place “to collect my thoughts and begin unwinding”. This picture seems symbolic of the whole inward narrative van Agtmael has chosen to explore: after years of covering conflict, what does it take to look back at your own home country? The subsequent images are consistently gloomy, often intense, yet poetic and mesmerizing in their own way, revealing many simmering aspects of the troubled nation. Mindfully tied together through van Agtmael’s deeply intimate experiences and reflections (as elucidated in the captions), the photographs touch on the broad themes of racial and class tensions, violence, power, family, and personal identity.

All of the images appear full spread and the book’s exposed spine allows it to lay flat, strengthening its visual force. The colors play a guiding role in sequencing the photographs. A close up portrait of an older man appears against a black background as his face lit with a blue light. It is followed by a photo of the road to an annual political event related to the electoral season – seen at night, the road is dark with blue signs along it, illuminated with car lights. The colors dynamically move with the photographs, merging into one visual stream.

The captions appear in a separate booklet: the short snippets of text identify the location and the year of the photograph and often recount the detailed and engaged stories of the encounters. The visual narrative is also occasionally interrupted by shared childhood memories, funny stories, and witty observations. Van Agtmael tenderly writes about his family, and his aunt Marie-Louise who got really angry when he mentioned his was going to cover the war in Iraq. “Stupid! Asshole! Fucking selfish shithead! Why would you do this?” We also learn that the intensity of the reaction came from personal experience – she had been married to a cameraman who had covered conflicts.

The photobook functions as a constant back and forth between van Agtmael’s own impressions and his more penetrating visual observations of the prevailing mechanisms of society, digging into crucial issues yet always paying careful attention to small moments. He portrays people living in economic inequality and racial tension, and pairs them with signs of joy, tenderness and the beauty of everyday life. An idyllic image of three friends enjoying a night at the beach during Art Basel is followed by a photo of a Ku Klux Klan member as his tiny silhouette in white robe with a red stripe stands in contrast to tall and branchy trees (we later learn that his gathering wasn’t that well attended, and the UN flag was burnt at the end of the night).  

Another photograph captures a group of Kentucky Derby attendees – dressed up young men and women gather on the street corner, some of them sitting on the grass, others standing. They look exhausted after the festivities, and as they stare back in the camera, there is a sense of irritation and unease. The next image shows a black teenager holding a homemade bow with a wood fence behind him – he stares into space deep in thought. In the caption to this photo, van Agtmael shares that Daemion committed suicide two years later. The pairing of these images speaks to the polarized reality of American society.

There are images of a carnival parade in New Orleans; D-Day paintball in Oklahoma with purchased military surplus; Iraqi refugees in a low income housing community in Oregon; “white night” at juke joint in Louisiana for local whites hosted by the black owners; an abandoned house in a crime-ridden area in Detroit. Be it a photo of a boy, in Kentucky, as he presses a toy pistol to his throat on a quiet terrace of a house or a snowstorm in Michigan, van Agtmael’s photographs probe deep emotions, authentic concerns, and human connections, often creating the atmosphere of uncertainty and unease.

Van Agtmael’s close friends and family are also intertwined into the narrative, adding another layer of personal reflection. One image shows van Agtmael’s father gently buckling his grandfather into the car after his grandmother’s funeral. There is also an intimate photo of his sister Jenny – she hugs her daughter Victoria as they lie in a bed with soap bubbles around them. Another picture captures his friend “playing ecstatically with her young sons” in a white room, but the happiness quickly fades, as van Agtmael had a powerful flashback connected to his war experience while photographing this idyllic scene.

In trying to grasp America’s role and forward looking place in the world, van Agtmael has clearly bitten off a major artistic challenge, and Buzzing at the Sill certainly delivers. As a photobook, it is a well conceived and thoughtfully designed object, and the photographs are connected through a thoughtful editing process, highlighting van Agtmael’s innate sense of composition, form, and color, but also defining his concerned and engaged position. By avoiding a set linear narrative, and allowing his experiences and emotions to be so prominent via his writings, van Agtmael creates an element of surprise and intrigue. He encourages us to get in close, where he offers us an intimate, honest, and powerful vision of contemporary America.

Collector’s POV: Peter van Agtmael is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a full member in 2013. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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