So much of Raymond Meek’s book Halfstory Halflife reminds me of a Tim Winton novel. The landscape is present – a character in of itself – dominant, fecund, dark, equally a nest and a challenge; boys involved in a risky venture – one where they egg each other on, where reputations are made or lost; the girls, present but distant, not really characters, but there to remind us why the boys risk so much.
Running through the whole thing is a cutting line of darkness – something rotten, something known but unacknowledged, something in everyone’s faces but in no one’s conversations. For Winton it’d be a murder, or the past. For Meeks it’s the present. The forest, the creek, the risk, the rush are all an escape, but the reality of dry, post-industrial wasteland – hopeless, lifeless and fucked – is there to bring us back to that darkness.
So the boys jump off a cliff. There are pictures of them falling and Meeks sequences the book in a way so that it’s not the water that the boys hit when the jump from the cliff, but their home town: emaciated and shrivelling. There’s one image of a metal pipe wrapped around a tree, an out of focus boy jumping in the background that shows us so clearly this action is an escape.
A great deal of the photos in this book involve repetition. In some cases, Meeks uses a form of cropping as a type of repetition and variation. An image will be split and we’ll see the right of the image on the left page and the left of the image on the right page. I like this a lot. It’s vaguely dis-orienting, but speaks to the ways that the boys repeat their journey up and up to the cliff, wait, watch, jump down to the water and head back home again.
But there’s always just enough variation in the repetition – we get depth instead of a flat taxonomy. Meeks isn’t cataloguing the jumpers, or the cliff, or the town, but showing us a swathe of people, or experiences. There’s mood, personality, emotion and tone that are all achieved by the repetition. It’s s superb and never predictable and he doesn’t rely on repetition: he manipulates it.
Through repetition the forest itself is given a character, too. While dark and oppressive, it is also full of life, of beauty, of fun. Trees shelter people from the harsh and bright light outside, pathways cradle as they walk up, yet again, to the jump. Leaves and moths and butterflies are all caught, pausing, standing still in the space after a leap. The forest holds its breath and it’s like the place encourages nurtures and responds to the jumps and the rush.
When looking at the boys themselves what we see is that the cliff is more than just an escape. Meeks shows us a world where there is hesitation, glee and posturing. There’s groups and isolation, there’s levity and seriousness. There’s contradiction and balance. In particular, the posturing of the boys is so excellent. The shots are candid, but through this we can see that the boys are projecting to each other images of a boy’s idea of a man’s strength. Chests artificially puffed out while dragging on a cigarette, arm chair coaching after someone jumps, shirts off but still kid-scrawny. They aren’t there yet, there’s still images that challenge the boys’ own projections, like one of someone getting pushed over the edge, which reminds us that they are, at least a little bit, showing off, pretending, wanting the girls to notice, but not yet grown up.
There’s an image of a group of boys approaching the light. Below them, where they’ve presumably come from, is dark, dank and rocky. Where they’re headed is wooded, light and bright. The image is cloyingly beautiful and laden with meaning. And I think that this is how Halfstory Halflife ultimately deserves to be considered: outstandingly gripping and obviously potent. — Matthew Dunnne
Raymond Meeks (Ohio, 1963) has been recognized for his books and pictures centered on family and place. In November 2014, a mid-career retrospective of his books was organized by Light Work in Syracuse, NY. The exhibition featured more than twenty books, including self-published works and numerous volumes from a variety of publishers.
In 2011, Meeks and publisher Kevin Messina (Silas Finch) co-founded Orchard Journal, which was established as a collaborative conversation between artist, subject and viewer. Featured artists have included Wes Mill, Deborah Luster and Mark Steinmetz.
Ray is currently at work on a new set of Journals under the title Dumbsaint, to be published by TIS Books. Vol. 1, Township(Sept 2017), is in collaboration with Tim Carpenter and Adrianna Ault, guest edited and with a short story by Brad Zellar. Meeks is a 2016 recipient of the Siskind Fellowship Grant. His book Halfstory Halflife (chose commune, 2018) was a finalist for the Paris Photo/Aperture Photobook of the Year Award.
“My work is concentrated and at play with memory and place; the way in which a landscape can shape an individual and, in the abstract, how a place possesses you in its absence. I continue to be inspired by book narrative and collaboration with writers of poetry and short fiction and the merging of image and text.”