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I know that Chris Felver lives in Sausalito, California, but I have never visited him there, despite our having known each for nearly 40 years. I know that somewhere in his house there are rolls of photographs he took one long night years ago of the American Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia and me sitting at Lamantia’s kitchen table in his modest North Beach apartment, not far from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. There were others there that night, but as the hours passed and dawn approached they began to fall asleep on the floor until only Philip, Chris, and I were still awake.
It was an all-night conversation with Philip doing almost all of the talking and Chris taking photographs and me sitting and listening as best as I could to Lamantia’s oracular flights of imagination. It is likely that I will never see these photographs, which I have reluctantly come to accept. Perhaps it is best they stay in the box where Felver consigned them.
With his gravelly voice, Felver would have made a great gumshoe in a mystery serial during the Golden Age of American radio, which ended around 75 years ago. Luckily for us, he did not miss his calling, which is to take portraits of the people who make up the cultural backbone of America — its artists, writers, composers, and musicians — people in the public eye, even if that audience is tiny.
Like the ubiquitous, wisecracking, fictional private eye of B-movies, Felver can be persistent and annoying, but in all the right ways and for all the right reasons. Given his pursuit, Felver needs to be as maddening and relentless as he is in order to accomplish what he has to do. It is why he has been able to compile one of the most extensive and substantial bodies of work produced over the last 40 or so years. And it is why I have come to expect him to call me every few months with a new request.
Most recently, Felver called to ask if I would look at his latest film on the English sculptor, Tony Cragg. He told me that it was less than t 30 minutes long and that maybe I would have something to say about it.
Somewhere in a box I have a VHS copy of his first film on this artist: Tony Cragg — In Celebration of Sculpture (1993), a 58-minute documentary which films the artist in his studio in Wuppertal, Germany, and then follows him to New York City and to various sites and cities in California, London, Eindhoven, and Dusseldorf. I also have a copy of it on DVD, along with many – but certainly not all — of Felver’s other films.
One of the striking things about Tony Cragg – In Celebration of Sculpture, which I have shown to my students many times over the years, is how invisible Felver stays throughout the film. Always the private eye, he seems to never let Cragg out of his sight, yet never becomes intrusive. It is as if he is there and not there.
The two men have an obvious rapport, and you can tell that Cragg feels especially comfortable around Felver: He reminisces, explains, points things out about his work, confesses, and mugs for the camera. It is an intimate portrait of an artist who feels most at home in his studio, but goes all over the world to oversee the installation of his large public works.
It took Felver 3 years to make this film. It took him 10 years to make Cecil Taylor – All The Notes (2011), a 72-minute documentary that is remarkable for many reasons. For one thing, you can see how deeply Taylor trusts Felver when they are in a taxi crossing the Manhattan Bridge at night to hear the pianist Mal Waldron. Crammed together in the backseat of a taxi, you never see or hear Felver, only Taylor talking about his admiration for Waldron. It is one of many riveting moments in the film.
Before I write about Felver’s photographic projects, I want to call attention to some of his other films, all of which are made without a crew. Felver is the original DIY filmmaker of artists, musicians, and poets. He seems to do everything by the seat of his pants, and I marvel at the way he gets people as elusive and shy as Taylor to open up to him. He got Donald Judd to talk about lots of things, including his disdain for museums, in Donald Judd – Marfa Texas, a 25-minute film that was released on DVD in 2011. It was the last interview that Judd gave before he died.
For reasons that I have never understood, Felver decided that I should say something about Judd in the film, which meant that we watched it a few times in my apartment and then he set up his camera and got me to talk without notes. This is what I meant earlier when I said that Felver can be annoying and persistent, lovably so. I mean if he can get Taylor and Judd to talk, who am I to refuse his challenge to sit in front of his camera?
Felver has made films on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Cage, and other creative personalities, as well as group documentaries on Italian artists living and working in Rome, and on the poets, writers, and others who knew Jack Kerouac, including a moving appearance by his daughter, the writer Jan Kerouac.
This is hardly all that Felver has done. I don’t know how he gets in touch with all of the people he has photographed — hundreds of writers, artists, musicians, and other cultural figures — but, as I said, he is inexorable. I remember him going on about trying to make an appointment with a writer or an artist, but always being good humored about his relentlessness. This is where he departs from the stereotype of the dogged gumshoe. Felver is an optimist. He sets out to do something and odds are high he will eventually get it done.
As the poet Robert Creeley said, in the foreword to Felver’s photography book, The Poet Exposed (1986):
The photographer is a friend, the faces are remarkably open, and a reflective small grin echoes from page to page. I think it is that, for the most part, all are at home in the world, and this person come to call, with his camera, is there in like manner, equally open. What drama there is is muted, faces are extremely without artifice, look for the most part straight forward. So the man looking at them is by that defined.
Felver didn’t just take a photograph, as each portrait is accompanied by a short poem or line of poetry written by the subject in his or her own hand. He finds another way to be a witness.
I cannot think of another person who has given us such intimate portraits of Sherman Alexie, Amiri Baraka, Louise Erdrich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Joy Harjo, Eartha Kitt, Jasper Johns, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith, and Anne Waldman. He has made photographic portraits of Native American writers, and of composers and musicians from John Cage and Doc Watson to Mavis Staples and Ozzy Osbourne. He spent a week in Nicaragua in early part of 1984 with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, five years after the 1979 July revolution there. The photographs in Felver’s book, The Late Great Allen Ginsberg (2002), were taken between 1980 and 1997, in which various other people make appearances: Philip Glass, Ray Manzarek, Ed Sanders, Norman Mailer, Robert Frank, and Gary Snyder.
Each of these projects reveals another side of Felver’s capacity to engage with others and the world, as well as to stand aside and let his subjects speak. I cannot think of anyone who has been as devoted as Felver has been to his subjects. Perhaps it is time we find a way to return that devotion.