Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Seeing the Body

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by W. W. Norton & Company (here). Hardcover (6.5 x 8.6 in), 144 pages, with 18 black and white photographs. Includes a collection of poems by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Rachel Eliza Griffiths is an acclaimed poet and visual artist, and her recent book Seeing the Body is a thoughtful hybrid of poetry and photography. Released by a literary (and not photobook) focused publisher, the book combines the two mediums of text and imagery, and does so in such a moving and powerful way that this work, while representing a different subgenre from most photobooks, definitely deserves attention from anyone interested in photopoetry. Through the meditative relationship between a collection of poems and a series of photographs, Seeing the Body confronts death and the absence of the artist’s mother, and expands to consider history, memory, Black womanhood, the American imagination, and rebirth.

The photograph on the dust jacket depicts the artist in a white dress, crawling on the deep bottom of a majestic rock cavity, immediately placing the artist in a position of obvious vulnerability. The title of the book appears on top of the photograph in yellow, the artist’s name is placed underneath it, and overall, the design of the book is straightforward. It consists of three chapters, the images making up the central section tilted “Daughter: Lyric: Landscape”. Most of the photographs are black and white self-portraits, many of them created just before or immediately after her mother’s death. The images are consistently lyrical and evocative, and while the physicality of the world is essential to Griffiths, her photographs are generally inward looking. She says that she started to perceive her body as “an urgent conduit of my grief,” and the work wrestles with how the body processes the strongest feelings of absence and loss. 

Griffiths worked on Seeing the Body over a period of six years, bringing together memories and tracking her journey of living through the pain. Poems form the central part of the book, yet the photographs are integral to the broader narrative. The book opens with a photograph Griffiths took in Mississippi just a few days before her mother passed away. It is a surreal, dream-like, photo of two figures dressed in white, surrounded by a swirling light-dappled environment. The photograph reminds Griffiths of her ancestors, and even a sonogram, and also might represent Janus, the double-headed god looking forward and back at the same time. 

In general, Griffiths intentionally leaves out captions or dates for the photographs, making them more open ended. The image paired with the introductory author’s note is a double self-portrait, a reference to Frida Kahlo’s painting Two Fridas. It shows two portraits of the artist, as they hold hands. She again wears white dresses – in one, she holds a manual typewriter, and in the other, a Rolleiflex camera. The photo literally represents the two sides of the artist, and different facial expressions indicate slightly different perspectives on her life as an author and as a photographer. It is a striking and symbolic image to open the narrative of the book, and in the note, Griffiths writes that her self-portraits function as “a map of the self and of the greater world in which I am both visualized and invisible, as a symptom of grief and identity.” Her photographs don’t serve as illustrations – Griffiths considers them her visual language. The images she made before her mother’s death show a woman she can never be again, and yet through photography, she can still see that person and the physicality of that body.

Through her poems, Griffiths considers her mother and her presence, “even now she is still making me.” Griffiths’ poems are intense and moving, but they also celebrate her mother, remembering her cooking, her love for music, and her sense of humor, as “a young black mother scrubbing love songs / across the drama of ordinary life.” 

In the photographs, Griffiths appears discreetly nude or wearing white, her face obscured while her body encapsulates and reflects the range of her emotions – in a fetal position, folded nude into furniture, on the floor, or in motion. One photo shows Griffiths jumping at an empty crossroads at night, with an American flag hanging on a nearby pole and her arms looking like wings. Of course, this also a political image – just two weeks before she took this image, a white supremacist murdered nine worshippers at a historic African American church in South Carolina. So as she was privately grieving for her mother, her grief became public, connecting to the systemic patterns of ongoing violence and racism around her. 

Another photograph shows Griffiths sitting on a chair by a window, highlighting her curved spine. Taken during a deep grieving period, her bones are sticking out, marking the physical exhaustion of her body. Her poem “Signs” distinctly sums up the physical side of grief: “My hair fell out. / Kinky questions black on my pillow, I wore wigs. / My doctor spoke of mutiny, of my eggs, the starless issue / of impossible children.” The final image in the series captures Griffiths standing by an immense tree as she looks up – she appears dwarfed by its bountiful scale. The tree is in full blossom, symbolizing the wonder and power of life’s rhythms.   

There are many extraordinary poems in the collection, several of them reflecting on Griffiths’ identity as a Black woman, and closely connected to death and mourning. In a poem titled “Color Theory and Praxis (I)”, Griffiths considers the body in art. Responding to Dana Schutz’s now-infamous painting of Emmett Till, she asks who has the right to the body, especially a body of color. “When they write / about destroying the painting, all I / can think of is who must remember / our devastation if not us?” A poem “Good America, Good Acts” is outraged with police brutality, “You aren’t doing anything anymore. / You’ve never done anything. Not you, not your country. / Everything that happened was long ago.” In “Myth”, she pours out her anger over the death of Mike Brown, which happened seven days after she buried her mother. “America shot Mike Brown / & I can’t be sorry anymore / because I’m too angry, too tired, / too alive / to let their good myth put its hands / on me & mine”.

Seeing the Body is a profoundly personal book, born out of extreme loss, where personal pain crosses into public grief and rage. Griffiths’ work also considers the transformations brought on by pain and grief – the first poem begins with words “she died”, the narrative then evolves and transforms, ultimately ending with a “newborn skull,” symbolizing the arc of rebirth and the awakening of Griffiths as a woman and as an artist. The book ends with a photograph of Griffiths standing in the water, an accepting moment of peace and quiet. 

Photographs and poems don’t always interact effectively, but Seeing the Body delivers a heartwarming and soulful narrative, making the two forms surprisingly interdependent and complementary. It’s a book that requires both deep reading and seeing, and rewards that combined effort with a timely dose of genuine intimacy.

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

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Read more about: Rachel Eliza Griffiths, W. W. Norton & Company

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