Tanyth Berkeley, The Walking Woman

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Conveyor Editions (here). Cloth hardcover, unpaginated, with 70 black and white and color photographs. Includes captions/selections from Mary Austin’s 1907 short story The Walking Woman. Also includes an insert/booklet with an introductory text, an addendum with notes/newspaper clippings/email snippets, and a quote from Terry Tempest Williams. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tanyth Berkeley’s reverberating photobook The Walking Woman is an extended portrait that turns into a broader and more universal journey. She begins by engaging with one subject, washes out, recalibrates, finds a second (and surprisingly relevant and related) subject through a moment of serendipity, and ultimately weaves it all together with grace and presence via the help of a rediscovered century-old short story. It is a project formed from equal parts persistence and patience, where the powerful parallels and layers of the narrative only become visible near the end.

The story begins in the high desert of Arizona, with a woman named Ruth. As explained in the notes found in the addendum insert, Ruth is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist sect of Mormonism. After enduring a life of abuse, subservience, and neglect, Ruth began to speak out against these injustices, especially in defense of her rights as a wife and loving mother of five children. But instead of gathering support, she was declared mentally unfit, institutionalized, and ultimately exiled from the community.

But Berkeley’s photographs of Ruth don’t settle easily into the rebel mold. Wearing the modest prairie dresses common to the sect (a nod to 19th century values), Ruth stands in the scrubby desert, with flat mesas and rocky cliffs in the distance and dry washes and expanses of exposed dirt nearby, or inside largely featureless homes, the only decoration coming from a portrait of Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and a quilting stretcher. Hers is clearly a pared back existence, where isolation is the primary mode of life.

Berkeley’s portraits dig deeply into this theme of “woman alone”. With her weathered face and greying hair conservatively styled, Ruth stands aloof, her poses ranging from persistence to resignation. Some feature her set against the massive scale of the land, her toughness and resiliency seen in contrast to the unforgiving world around her. Others find her staring into the distance, either into the wide expanse of the sky or through a window, seemingly reflecting on choices and outcomes with an air of melancholy. She stands as a pristine white figure against a forest of scorched trees, wanders amid the rocky grasslands like a character from an Andrew Wyeth painting, and sits pensively near a well tended garden plot. Again and again, we see her looking, and searching, and walking (sometimes barefoot), and enduring, all with an air of hardened common sense reserve, even when she is washed by a scrim of ecstatic light.

But after a fallout with Ruth prematurely ended her project, Berkeley headed to a nearby hot springs to rethink her plan, where she inadvertently met her second subject, Spice, on a path through the hills. Spice’s story is altogether more modern, but not without its own share of similar hardships and struggles. On the surface, it’s a dispiriting melange of hard drug addiction, trailer-dwelling poverty, jail time, and out-on-the-margins isolation. But Berkeley quickly sees parallels to the countours of Ruth’s life, in both the mother separated from her children narrative (they each had five kids) as well as the retreat to the empty land as a place of refuge and rejuvenation.

Initially, Berkeley gets Spice to wear some of Ruth’s prairie dresses, and these portraits make the connections between the two quite literal. But the unvarnished details of Spice’s life come through more profoundly when she is captured back at her trailer, in various hooded sweatshirts, smoking, drinking coffee, and lying on her stained mattress, the squalor of the surroundings matched by the hollowness in her eyes. And while many of Berkeley’s pictures catch Spice in defeated moods, an armful of kittens or a walk out in the springtime air seems to bring back her humanity. Just like Ruth, Spice seems to have reserves of strength, courage, and even hope that emerge for fleeting moments, only to be quickly smothered by the weight of her reality.

In the sequencing of the photobook, Berkeley tells these two stories one after the other, using fragments of text from a 1907 short story by Mary Austin as the connective tissue. Austin’s story tells the tale of the so-called Walking Woman, and the gravelly cadence of its words is fittingly sparse and unadorned. Her character has faced many of the same life challenges as Ruth and Spice, and uses an endless life of walking through nature as the antidote to the painful trials of work, love, and childbearing. That Berkeley could uncover such a perfect textual match for her photographs is a welcome gift, as Austin’s narrative is filled with taciturn strength, understated reserve, weariness, separation, and perseverance, all of which fit like a glove with the themes Berkeley is exploring in her pictures.

Austin is also known for being an early connector of environmental and feminist thinking, and Berkeley’s images of the land pull this set of ideas into the larger visual narrative. On one hand, Berkeley celebrates the grandeur of the land and its spiritual power, the bigness of the sky stretching out with muscularity and the beauty of the barren landscapes coming through in the emerging life of a spring meadow, the tinted cliffs at twilight, the rumbling of a coming storm, the stillness of the sweeping grasslands, and the hazy colors of the sunset. But Berkeley is also finely attuned to the encroaching man-made ugliness of this space, from the tract houses and muddy backyard runoff to grim still life finds of Easter baskets and shotgun shells in the muck and a tainted stream running a poisonously acidic red. For these women, the land is a place for refuge and protection, but threatening undercurrents of fragile decay and destruction lie very near the surface.

When Berkeley ties all of these threads together into a single integrated flow, the results are quietly moving. The Walking Woman delivers a profound but unassuming lesson in female resilience, documenting layers of invisible strength that have found roots in the harsh soil of solitude. The women in this photobook have suffered mightily at the hands of men and society at large, but have tried to make peace with those trials and find paths forward they can live with.

So as disheartening as this photobook can be at times (even amid its consistent but severe beauty), its final conclusion is built on the enduring promise of something better, its spark hidden deep within the sturdy resistance of these women. By showing us a complex mixture of real, open vulnerability and emerging self-defense, Berkeley gives light to an unexpected brand of understated heroism that stands up to the sometimes grim face of personal despair.

Collector’s POV: Tanyth Berkeley does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, so interested collectors should likely connect with her via her publisher (linked in the sidebar).

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