In 1930, Andre Kertesz looked out on Carrefour Blois and playfully photographed the street below. Drawing together the geometry, labour and shadows of an inconsequential corner, it remains impossible to dismiss. Such curiosity comes to mind as I work through a new collection that weaves Larry Towell’s long-term book and magazine projects around archival documents, objects and the ongoing family pictures that he has consistently made around the farm his family sharecrop in Ontario.
Through a format that wraps substantial documentary series around the nourishment and loose-ended progression of home life, the photographer generates a body of work ambitious enough to approach deeper narratives that touch on territory, stability and the importance of belonging. Towell’s porch becomes a busy turnpike, occupied by children, animals and the discarded tools of summer. His wife, Ann, nurtures and cradles at the heart of the home; children swim, swing and carry each other, growing in a clement world of cattle, dogs and flowered meadows.
Beyond the porch, there is discovery, tenderness, fruition, and the endless animation of childhood. It’s little wonder that Larry Towell talks of needing home, a respite from the difficult territories he visits, a place that affirms all that is secure and logical. Yet before such pages of domestic intimacy centre the book, a sense of the troubled provenance of this landscape grows. The foundations of the Towell home have been shaped by the efforts of difficult lives; by transient labourers whose lives are short; by those who challenge the borders of the land, ripping away fences and plundering in tense times… These urgencies are made known by means of a layered and carefully gathered archive of texts, pictures and ledgers.
The relationship between photography and additional, diverse inclusions has sometimes offered a more vernacular, rooted and useful contextualisation, embellishing and propelling the photographs at the heart of a project by their adjacency to a rich and tactile lineage. Here, the strategy is employed to sensitively render objects on paper: notebook pages provide distinct voices; flowing hand-written letters betray the anxieties of working days; the apparatus of early surveyors mark attempts at some sober scrutiny. These accounts are grounding, suggesting how residents have been shaped and propelled by the land itself.
Through archival Towell family photographs, lives come of age against the landscape: the kinships and close relationships of middle-age, the awkward young musicians trusted to carry a tune, the hunters commemorating their catch… and the fathers, who always know the best places to fish. These pictures are affecting, a pleasure to sit with and unpack across the double pages of this collection.
A number of significant projects are included: Towell’s excellent Mennonites series is reproduced, its inclusion educational, faithful and haunting – not least because it sits between essays made in troubled South American communities, sun-blued martyr posters from Jenin and the collected fragments of Israeli rockets and home-made explosives.
Each additional series in the book relates the uncertainties of relationships and security in a world way beyond Towell’s Ontario farm. By noting the modest progress of his own heritage, Towell seems aware of what should be cherished – of lives that, no matter how quiet, matter. In a collection of work so dextrous, refined and involving, a Hank Williams song of heartache sits in company with tear gas grenades, collected in the West Bank in 2004. This is a book of bold and emotional juxtaposition, and a fitting inventory of the values of a gifted photographer.