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When you stand on the shoulders of giants, what do you see — especially if you’re looking through an old Leica M6 rangefinder with a single, well-traveled, 35-millimeter lens, which, over a quarter of a century, has seen a lot?
What the photographer Peter Kayafas sees are roadside curiosities, families in their Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes, abandoned buildings, rusty vehicles and other details of America’s urban, rural and psychic landscapes. His latest exhibition, The Way West, is now on view at Sasha Wolf Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (through June 15).
Kayafas, who will soon turn 43, was born in Boston and brought up in nearby Concord. In addition to being an astute artist, he is also an educator and publisher (he is director of the Eakins Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that produces books on art-and-culture themes). In a recent interview at his home in Manhattan, he said, “I was lucky; Concord’s public schools were very good. Growing up, I learned to swim in Walden Pond and I rode my bike past the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne.” As a youngster he absorbed — and embraced — the outlook those historical American figures had helped shape.
Another major starting point of Kayafas’s work as an image-maker was his upbringing in a family in which photography was something of a lingua franca, just as music would be for a young instrumentalist whose parents are talented musicians. In Kayafas’s case, his father was a photographer, who had studied with Minor White at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. White had been a student of art historian Meyer Schapiro’s at Columbia University in the 1940s and later became a confrère of such modern-photography pioneers as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. At MIT, Kayafas’s father also knew Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton, an electrical engineer and inventor of the electronic flash, high-speed photography, and a camera shutter that allowed atomic-bomb explosions to be photographed from miles away.
The senior Kayafas taught photography himself at Rhode Island School of Design. Photographers Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan were family friends; so was the influential curator-photographer John Szarkowski, who headed the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department for three decades, starting in 1962. The first camera Kayafas’s father gave his son, when Peter was in high school, was a Leica M2 that had belonged to Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), the genre-defining master of “street photography,” whom Szarkowski regarded as the leading photographer of his generation.
Peter Kayafas pours this unusual legacy respectfully into his teaching — he has been a photography instructor at Pratt Institute for fourteen years — and into his own pictures. His deep, long steeping in the history, technical procedures and culture of photo-making richly informs his images but does not turn up in his work in overt or intrusive ways, such as self-conscious quoting of photographic sources or studied fussiness in his presentation images.
In the same interview, Kayafas observed, “Process is the most important thing for me, because a camera, for me, is just a great excuse to look at the world in a way I otherwise wouldn’t look at it and, as a result, to see it in a way I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see it.” Kayafas added that, on a personal level, the pictures he unhurriedly creates, taking long periods of time between shutter-snapping, editing and final printing for publication or exhibition, “serve as antidotes” to the visual deluge of our advertising-Instagraming-selfie-saturated times. He said, “People are used to looking at pictures for a matter of seconds, and if a picture or a group of pictures does not give up its meaning or meanings in that short period of time, then an art director has failed. That’s the difference between looking and seeing. An ad is about looking, and a work of art in the form of a photograph or a painting or choreography on a stage or anything that involves a kind of visual, cerebral contemplation of something — that’s seeing.”
Kayafas moved to New York in the late 1980s to study photography at New York University. “I wanted to be a street photographer like Winogrand,” he recalled, citing the non-stop attractions of the city’s energetic streets. What might be called his serious photo-making started at a relatively early age, but the later, mature body of work for which he has become known is rooted in the road trips through the American South, Southwest and Midwest he began undertaking while he was still an undergraduate.
“The writings of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the blues — all of that had turned me on, and I had to go see the South for myself,” Kayafas explained.
Even then he knew, of course, that that first trip, which he made with a college friend, starting in the Deep South and looping around the West Coast and across the Midwest before heading back to New York, had its antecedents in the expeditions of the photographers Walker Evans and Robert Frank many years earlier. It is probably fair to say that, knowingly or unwittingly, any photo-makers who set off by car across back roads and through small towns to find some version of “America” carry in their artistic DNA a sensibility and approach that were formed long ago by those legendary lensmen and others like them.
In the mid-1930s, Evans had famously traversed the South to produce the images that became his influential MoMA exhibition and book, American Photographs (1938). Two decades later, the Swiss-born Frank, armed with a copy of that book, set off across a wider swath of what would become his adoptive country; 83 of the photos he shot, of streetcar riders, lunch counters, a Jehovah’s Witness, a glowing jukebox, and other subjects became his own influential classic, The Americans (first published in France in 1958 and a year later in the U.S.). In their work, Evans and Frank strove to capture real life without sentiment, from a disinterested aesthetic point of view. Still, what they chose to photograph reflected personal artistic choices, and their images sometimes conveyed a strong sense of psychological tension.
The twenty pictures on view in The Way West have been culled from the thousands Kayafas has shot during his more recent annual road trips to such places as New Mexico, Colorado, Montana and Nebraska. They are naturally, not forcibly, marked by what Evans approvingly referred to as “the non-appearance of the author” even as they boast a sharp eye for composition, atmosphere and timing. (Szarkowski, referring to the photographers of the 1960s in which he was especially interested, called the tradition out of which they had emerged a “documentary approach” pursued toward “more personal ends.”) Two collections of Kayafas’s photos have been published by Purple Martin Press, including O Public Road! Photographs of America (2009) and Totems (2012)
In her collection of essays On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag calls her subject an “elegiac art.” If it is, then a sense of sorrow about what has vanished, when mixed with yearning, could become suffocating nostalgia. In part, Kayafas’s pictures may be read as evidence that certain icons in the panorama of America’s enduring, mythical self-image are still out there, waiting to be stumbled upon and witnessed firsthand. Sometimes his subjects appear familiar, but his pictures are never nostalgic.
In The Way West, macho guys are ever-present — check out the rodeo men in “Cripple Creek, Colorado, 2011.” The proud and beautiful are on view (mini-skirted cheerleaders in “Grand Island, Nebraska, 2010”), along with the restless or maybe the bored (a group of teens hanging out at a carnival in “Rapid City, South Dakota, 2010”), and also some believers (two men standing at attention, their baseball caps across their chests, as the national anthem plays in “Waynoka, Oklahoma, 2013”). There is a maverick dreamer, too (or maybe just someone who got lost on her way to the mall), in “Billings, Montana, 2010,” a long-haired young woman at an amusement park scratching her head as she ponders her next move.
An air of melancholy and surprise wafts through Kayafas’s pictures of human-made structures — a painted sign depicting an unidentified building (“North Dakota, 2011”), a child’s metal slide in the middle of nowhere (“Rodeo, New Mexico, 2013”), or a six-sided hut jutting up like a small, hilly island in a sea of tall, wild grasses (“Henry, Idaho, 2013”). In The Way West, photos of white youngsters in cowboy hats and Crow Tribe children lounging atop their horses (in central Montana, near the site of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn) do not provoke nostalgia for a lost way of life as much as remind us of the ever-widening gulf between those whose privileges allow them to co-opt the American Dream and those left behind by the militarized, oligarchical, national-surveillance state the US has become. Does a bountiful future await these Native-American children? How many of those Nebraska cheerleaders will be lucky enough to land jobs at McDonald’s or Walmart?
Kayafas manages to pack a lot of history — of photography and, implicitly, of America’s real and imagined images of itself — into each of his photos. For some viewers, these pictures may merely offer an abbreviated, reportorial glimpse of what a once-fabled region looks like today. For others, they may allude to a more expansive, Whitmanesque concept of America as a big, diverse place that is also a big, diverse, national family. In doing so, the vision and spirit of Kayafas’s broad body of work, of which The Way West represents only a small sampling, may even begin to point a way home.
Peter Kayafas: The Way West, continues at Sasha Wolf Gallery (70 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 15.