Robin Coste Lewis, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Knopf (here). Hardcover, 7 x 9 1/4 inches, 384 pages, with 172 black-and-white and color reproductions of archival photographs and ephemera. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The following poems are included:

  • “Terra”
  • I. (from “Intimacy”)
  • II. “The Ark: Self-Portrait as Aphrodite Using Her Dress for a Sail”
  • III. “Migration: The Seventh Meridian”
  • “Inhabitants & Visitors”
  • “Before”
  • “The Evolution of Speech”
  • “The Process”
  • “Landscape”
  • “Head-Turner”
  • “Navel”

Comments/Context: A box of old photographs hidden under the bed sounds like the beginning of a story we have heard before. Such tales are usually built on the scaffolding of elusive memory, the dusty pictures connecting us back to layers of elders and ancestors long forgotten, to the singular milestone moments of births, graduations, marriages, and deaths, and to the more causal flashes of families and lives now grasped at with a sense of fleeting mystery. Even when we can recognize the faces and name many of the names, the in-between stories and personalities in such photographs often remain stubbornly shrouded in the past.

In the past decade or two, particularly as many archives have become digitized and more freely available, artists and photographers of all kinds have mined family albums and shoeboxes of snapshots for the visual raw material that has then been the starting point for innovative re-interpretations and re-imaginings. The artistic possibilities have been surprisingly open ended – rephotography, assemblage, and scrapbook-style collage are perhaps the most obvious and common approaches, with sophisticated restaging, investigative history recreation, and the urgent search for personal identity often spinning out from even a handful of rediscovered images. Along the way, the enduring power and relevance of vernacular photographs has become much more widely appreciated, with anonymous flea market finds making their way into art museum collections with more regularity than ever before.

Robin Coste Lewis’s recent photobook To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness takes as its origin story a variant of the standard narrative – in this case, its catalyst was a grandmother’s suitcase of photographs, discovered some twenty-five years ago. What’s different here is that Lewis isn’t a photographer, or a painter, or even a visual artist of any kind; she’s a celebrated poet (who won the National Book Award for Poetry for her debut collection in 2015, and was the poet laureate for Los Angeles between 2017 and 2021), so her crossover into the realm of photography comes from a somewhat unexpected vantage point.

It’s not that photopoetry collaborations are somehow unknown; that’s hardly the case, as the affinity between words and images has been explored by countless collaborators since photography was invented. One way to frame or categorize photopoetry books is to consider how tightly coupled the photographs and poems actually are. In some cases, the two have been made entirely independently of each other, and only interleaved and sequenced together at the time of the book making to create a dialogue; in others, the two artists work together closely during the creation process, in a sense, reacting to each other’s work as it is being made. In Lewis’s case, her poems are somewhere in the middle, generally loosely coupled to the photographs, in that her words are matched to the images largely in broad spirit and in a few cases more literally. What’s intriguing here is that her photo collaborator is in a sense a version of herself, in the guise of her grandmother who was often behind the lens and ostensibly the primary gatherer of the pictures.

The backstory to the photographs in To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness starts in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the Lewis family was part of the rich diasporic culture that had settled in the Gulf. In response to the segregation, racism, and overt white prejudice they endured there, in the years after the Great Depression and World War II, the Lewises (in particular, the poet’s grandmother and her two great aunts), along with millions of other Black people from the South, began a migration to the Western United States, the Lewises ultimately settling in Los Angeles. Aside from a few treasured images of people and places back home, the photographs found in the suitcase largely pick up from there, documenting the new transplanted life the Lewises then built for themselves in Compton and LA.

The archive of pictures that was saved is in many ways both ordinary and extraordinary. The photographs document the 20th century lives of the Lewis family and their friends, as they saw themselves, and capture a thick slice of celebratory and hopeful Blackness that we haven’t seen often enough. Studio portraits and posed arrangements of people mark particular family milestones, including birth announcements, grade school portraits, young people in graduation robes, young men in sailor uniforms, and wedding receptions with tables filled with food. The formality in these pictures helps us understand that these were moments with timeless meaning, and the faces found there look out to the future with quiet optimism.

Many more of the pictures are casual snapshots, where “hold still for a moment” quickly gives way to more improvisational and chaotic everyday life. Several images show us groups and pairs of young girls in crisp outfits, some with fluffy skirts, white socks, and Mary Janes, another with three sets of happy braids in the garden, and one more marked “cuties” with matching white dresses and bows. Bunches of infants, toddlers, and slightly older kids are seen outside, standing in playpens, lounging on the grass, hanging out on the sidewalk, or playing with a rocking horse, and then again inside, smiling at each other or mugging for the camera. Kids seem to be going every which way, but with a kind of respectful joy that feels almost contagious.

Lewis’s mother was a frequent subject in these pictures, her warm wide smile filling photographs of her stylishly holding various infants, posing in the garden with a bouquet of flowers, and playing the role of queen in a crown and velvet robe. In other pictures, sharp looking couples stand ready for a night out, casual groups pose in the yard, and women have a soda on the porch. Cars feature prominently in many vaguely posed shots, with people of all kinds standing proudly in front of (or sitting on, or leaning against) whatever was parked in the driveway. Duly recorded outings we taken to the Hollywood Bowl, to the ski slopes, and to the ocean, and boys’ baseball teams were lined up for the annual team picture (with what looks like a father as coach). And images of serious nuns and family elders are mixed with a man in sunglasses and a woman on a swing, the pictures moving back and forth in time, mixing the generations into a time-jumping swirl of family. In general, these are family photos filled with love, compassion, tenderness, and resilience, with only a few flares of darkness, shadow, and decay that seem to hint at more menacing realities outside the frame. What makes this archive remarkable is not so much the particular content of the pictures, but how infrequently Black families in America have been seen (or portrayed) in this way.

While it’s not entirely clear exactly how these photographs inspired Lewis, several of her shorter poems in this collection (like “Terra”, “Before”, “Head-Turner”, “Navel”, and others) seem closely connected to the photographs, with particular lines and stanzas that seem to directly reference particular pictures. Two additional works are erasure poems (one from Henry David Thoreau, the other from an essay from James Baldwin), so the creation is essentially reversed, the pictures perhaps thematically guiding the elimination process, but the words themselves were not grown directly from the images.

The two longer poems in the photobook use the photographs as a bridge, reaching from the specific of Lewis’s own extended family to much broader questions of Blackness, migration, time, history, and even the universe. “Intimacy” is drawn from a larger multi-media collaboration with the painter Julie Mehretu, and attempts to reformulate and expand the concept of historical time (particularly Black time), drawing her own family’s migration out into larger waves of movement and migration measured in centuries, thousands of years, and even DNA. Her words link her own family to far distant ancestors, where measurements of past and future get muddled and metaphors of water, floods, cells, cave paintings, and galaxies spin and recombine. Old stories become new again, faces move back and forth in time, and Blackness envelops the stars, with Lewis using language to feel present with and connected to these larger forces, her own purpose “to make the dead clap and shout” ultimately emerging from this shifting sense of appearing and disappearing.

“The Ark” wrestles with some adjacent themes to those found in “Intimacy”, and then pushes away from the family photos to chart different histories. The poem uses the life of the African-American explorer Matthew Henson (who accompanied Robert Peary on a series of expeditions to the Arctic in the early 1900s) as inspiration, connecting back to Lewis herself and an eclectic scattering of themes including running away, floods, journeys, polar bears, water, and poetry. While Henson clearly offers links back to Lewis’s own explorations of migration, lineage, history, and Blackness, this particular work is disconnected from the photographs that engage the other poems, so much so that it has been isolated and printed on white paper in the center of the volume.

The inclusion of “The Ark” is one subtle signal that this is a poetry-first publication, with the photographs included as important but supporting material. The construction of To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness smartly plays with the look of old black album pages and the larger theme of enveloping Blackness. Lewis’s words are printed in white against glossy black pages, like pinpricks of starlight against the vastness of the cosmos, with only a few stanzas or phrases printed on any one page; most often words on the left and a single picture on the right of a spread provide a point/counterpoint dialogue, the spaciousness of the design encouraging us to linger and meditate over a single thought or a moment in a picture. Perhaps the photographs are best considered as a kind of supporting framework or netting, atop which Lewis has constructed a series of poems (small and large) that respond to both the pictures themselves and the more expansive ideas they represent for her.

All of this isn’t knit together quite as tightly as it might have been, particularly the somewhat skew inclusion of “The Ark”, but there are enough truly transcendent moments when Lewis’s words and the photographs come together with a kind of perfect clarity to overcome any otherwise momentary distractions. It is in this space where the feeling of being alive and Black and seen is profound (even for a White reader like myself), and the debts to the original three women that made the first migration journey for the Lewis clan feel so sonorous and resonant; the many faces and lives ripple out in waves, with Lewis herself seeing more clearly just how those many interwoven histories relate to her own present. There are dozens of moments in this photobook when the image/text combination is sublimely aligned, seeming to pull us down a vortex into a moment of shining insight, with the image providing a natural visual echo of the poetic words. It is this powerful synchronicity that creates a durable amplifying effect, encouraging a small moment in the past to plausibly reach for the edges of time.

Collector’s POV: Robin Coste Lewis is a poet not a photographer, and the family photographs used for this project are of course her own archive. That said, a single-channel video version of the “Intimacy” portion of the larger project will be on view at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York (here), from May 6 to June 24, 2023.

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