[ToC]

 

REVIEW

SCORCHED EARTH

Michael Ernest Sweet (foreword by Bruce LaBruce), Michael Sweet's Coney Island, Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP), 2015

Michael Ernest Sweet (foreword by Michael Musto), The Human Fragment, Brooklyn Arts Press (BAP), 2013

Reviewed by Will Cordeiro

[Review Guidelines]

Street photography gets a bad rap. Any fool with an iPhone can click a picture of the strung-out buskers rattling buckets near a city park or snap up the paraplegic waiting in the bus terminal. It's only the artist, however, who can transform such lumps of human clay into a convincing geometry. Mere documentation is not enough. We also require the supervention of reality into spiritual patterns which point out the hidden convergence between the lines written on the body and the zooming jungle of signs that surround it.

In The Human Fragment, Michael Ernest Sweet offers street portraits of lowlifes and tourists randomly encountered in Midtown's chaotic bustle with a few shots of sun-basking, tubby day-trippers sprawled out on Coney Island or Brighton Beach. His photos isolate such individuating features as wrinkles, scars, jowls, stretch-marks, cankles and camel-toe, flab, triple chins, liver spots, pimples, moles, veins, tan lines, stubble, pores and razor burns, butt cracks, six o'clock shadows, crow's feet, stray hairs, sun poison, allergic splotches, and pudgy dimples even while frequently leaving out the face—and thereby the ostensible identity—of the subjects which the camera seizes. Often cropping his black-and-white photos to focus on awkward blemishes or defects, Sweet delights in human difference. If each of us has been formed in the divine image, then the city's sacred energy manifests through the sheer diversity of its spectacle.  

The angular background of billboards and sidewalks, signposts and subway stations places Sweet's feculent subjects against a commercial maelstrom which all but consumes them. Many of the photos present a crossroads askew, the frame at a slight tilt, buildings listing at odd inclines, pedestrians pitching against the wind, the whole earth spinning like a top. Toddering old folks and off-kilter drunks just try to stay upright, to hang on. The close up focus rescues them, though, from being swallowed down the vanishing point of skyscraper canyons.

The hard edge of concrete, metal, glass, and brick makes skin appear fragile, fabric seemed bunched or ruffled. The subjects don't appear truly desperate, however, since the rush hour's white, black, and Brownian motion around them constitute the daily trammel of fellow bodies they habitually traffic in. These misfits fit right in—the photos are more punchline than food line. This isn't to suggest the photos make light of their subjects (though one could say all photos make light, are made of light). These portraits of unsightly bodies give evidence, foremost, of their owners' fierce survival; these hardened New Yorkers unabashedly own their physiques—fat, flaws, and all. This is decidedly not LA. Here we have cellulite, not celluloid. Here an ounce of ugly shows a ton of grit.

There's an undeniable element of humor in Sweet's work. Comedy is pain, but pain at a remove. Scars not wounds. His grotesques are funnier and less freakish than many of Diane Arbus's, more like you or me—part of the on-going human comedy rather than some singularly estranged exception to it. Sweet's "Twins," while alluding to Arbus's famous photo "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967," for example, presents a pair of twins less frontally, less as if they were on exhibit: the shot is dynamic, and the subjects have an arresting autonomy.

Although the people in Sweet's photographs appear on the verge of falling over, Sweet himself is a stand-up, riffing on the clumsy, aching sludge of the congested heart as it stirs once more to its daily rounds. The city's arteries burst and collapse. Beaten-down, Sweet's pedestrians nevertheless appear perennially upbeat. They wobble along, twittering or hipshot, side-eyeing us with a sly chicane, a rakish cant.
 
I disagree with Michael Musto's introduction in which he claims that the backgrounds and foregrounds in Sweet's photos are "usually not related to each other." The photos contrast telling details in close-up against ironic goings-on in crisp deep-focus within the mise en scène, creating irreverent though hardly irrelevant disparities. For example, natural light is put to good use in "Eavesdropper" where a sunbeam directs the viewer's eye to a solitary ear in the extreme foreground, a feature also emphasized by the sightline drawn from the tip of the jacket's epaulet below it. In the middle distance, two men chat on the street. The title alerts us to the obvious parallel.

"Drama Lady," for a more subtle instance, aligns the XY of a distant sign so that it's positioned behind the shoulder of a heavily made up figure who's on the make. She dangles a cigarette, her face scrunched into a nonchalant moue, aloof and worldly-wise with her short butch haircut, her tattooed eyebrows raised in a permanent arch, her mouth framed by lines etched as deeply as a ventriloquist's dummy's. The eponymous drama "lady" substitutes for the more idiomatic drama queen, perhaps indicating that this may be an off-duty drag queen or a genderqueer trans woman, even as the signage behind her—in her past as it were—becomes a de facto chromosomal label encouraging us to look again, to give both the personage and the photograph itself another read.

Often the backdrop of Times Square throws the passersby—rumpled, ragged, gangly—into starker relief. In one photo, "Such a Doll," however, we're presented with a three-quarters view of a blonde as she walks away from the camera, so that we only glimpse her bleached-out hair and bedazzled bra-strap. Conspicuously, she holds a toy doll that winks directly at the viewer. A starburst that adorns an advertisement in the distance, where we assume the bombshell is looking, projects the visual knockout of what we imagine looking at her would feel like, a viewpoint we're explicitly denied. Of course, such a denial is more erotic for all the potential it suggests. In the diminished grayscale of the photo, the starburst mirrors the telescoping lines of the cross-walk which in turn imitates the bias-striped design on the woman's dress which twirls around her busty, hourglass figure. While the woman herself is a doll, a storefront in the middle distant advertises for Madame Tussaud's wax museum. The whole scene dazzles with the eye-candy of swirling candy-canes, each stripe swooshing around in a woozy, non-Euclidean pinwheel to some further simulacra.

Moreover, throughout the collection, one picture often comments unpredictably on the next. A funny combination of photos occurs near the end of the book in which the backside of a lumbering bear of a woman dressed in a fur coat is set beside a skinny man with a flowing ponytail shot from behind: the excess of fur and hair almost interchangeably overtake their subjects and transfigure both alike into androgynes.    

In a similar vein, one of my favorite images is of Sweet's sunbathers, titled "Sand and Butt." It displays an ample yet ambiguous posterior covered by what may be, alternately, a Speedo or a bikini bottom. The elastic swimsuit, at any rate, pinches in the rump, rides up the back, and gives a most definite wedgie—creating a neat isosceles triangle hugging the ass, which is echoed by another triangle symmetrically situated below it, formed by the beach towel underneath slightly spread-eagled legs. The photo is cropped so that it cuts off the body just above the love-handles. It's not too farfetched to think the swimsuit thereby becomes a synecdoche for the photograph's power to cut into, shape, and squeeze its fleshy subject. The unruly human spillage—and what human isn't mostly spillage?—becomes transformed by the camera's gaze into a moment of graceful configurations, amorphous lard flip-flopping into aesthetic form.

Such a hypothesis seems further substantiated by the fact that the legs neatly outline the flip-flops printed on the towel. Indeed, in the upper left corner of the photo, a pair of real flip-flops tease the viewer. Yet, on second thought, the supposedly "real" flip flops are, after all, only another image, just as reduced to flatness as the kitschy prints on the beach towel. A closer look at the background—the other titular element, sand—reveals a different type of ubiquitous print, as well: footprints. The earth itself has become a primitive camera, capturing impressions everywhere. The imprints scattered haphazardly over the sand contrast, in their randomness, with the previous idea of order embodied by the form-fitting suit and the picture's cropped top: the photo thus offers us a comic take on a central dialectic of photography itself, situated between crafting an eternalizing, if abstract, geometry, and snapping up the quicksilver vestiges of human impact.

Michael Sweet's Coney Island, a follow-up book, uses color photos, though color might be the wrong word. Sweet's pseudo low-fi Harinezumi digital camera oversaturates everything into lustrous dayglow intensities. The most frequent shot consists in sun bathers sprawled out on gaudy beach-towels, their bronzed skin charred with an otherworldly radiation. Their flesh—bulging or occasionally gaunt, many pierced, tattooed, or in one case marked by scabs and lacerations—glares back at the viewer with a grainy opulence in shades of magenta and vermillion, hot pink, obsidian, or burnt umber. X-ray white glows around their underarms or bikini-lines. The sun, that cancerous incandescence, impresses its light on the pixelated cells of our integument as readily as digital sensors. The skin is the primal photo-plate.

One boy's half buried alive by sand; a sleeping women shields her eyes with a towel as if a black bar obscured them in a medical photo. Others are stretched out or crumpled, unconscious and sun-poisoned, their assortment of beach gear abandoned beside them. They're reminiscent of Weegee's crime scenes, a whole heaping shoreline of bodies twisted and splayed in some grisly disaster. A voyeur's shadow hovers over them at times. It frequently wears a gumshoe's fedora. The photographer prowling the aftermath stands in for the viewer's own gawking. We, too, have been implicated by the light's leering reach. Looking, shooting looks, has become a criminal act.

What's strange about these images is that, compared with most street photography, the subjects do not look back. They do not recognize or confront the viewer. They are most often asleep; sometimes turned away, behind sunglasses, or gazing out to sea. The novelist and art critic Hervé Guibert once defined the street photographer as "someone who can withstand the insult hurled back at him." But as for these pictures, the creepy lurking gaze of the photographer feels uninhibited. We cruise alongside the shadowy shutterbug, peeping at the singed flesh littered on the beach. An acid trip. Everything's foreshortened, elongated, slightly distorted. A haze of nauseous yellows, feral reds, and the opaque cerulean of inner space. Morbid, efflorescent zigzags dizzy us like a barber's pole on beach towels or swim trunks. We've entered the fever dream of some fauvist necrophiliac.

Though there are touches of humor—a geezer's man-boobs stick out as far as his schnoz in one picture—an inchoate violence predominates the collection. Perhaps that's nowhere more apparent than in a photo of an American flag beach towel without anyone nearby it. A beach towel, a flag—both stake one's claim to colonize a patch of ground. It's the sole photo without a human subject, unless you count the photographer's silhouette which pools on the sand nearby. Sweet snaps the photo without the owner's consent as easily as he could snatch the stray items left on the spot. The land below him, after all, was similarly stolen from the Lenape tribes by the Dutch. More than one person in this scene has been displaced or disappeared. The sizzling colors bleed so much they sting the eyes.

Several images allude to Coney Island's freak-show reputation by visual puns. A man appears to have a radio set implanted in his skull; the tracks of a rollercoaster loop above a woman's head like the orb of a pietà; an arm stretches across a man's back as if he were a contortionist until we realize it's his lover's arm emerging from under an umbrella. Yet, Michael Ernest Sweet does not seek out the anomalous sideshow mutant, but rather emphasizes how the most ordinary folks are monstrous or misshapen. We are all of us untidy mounds of flab, emaciated amputees, or mummified ragdolls. The bodies lie inert, exposed to the gaze of the onlooker, who is also paralyzed by their irradiated heap. Seagulls circle like vultures over a dumping ground where bodies bathe in the fallout, splayed amid scattered bags and belongings. On a few images, Sweet uses the technique of vignetting so that an eerie darkness corrodes the edges of the frame. Death is baked in.

The foreword by Bruce LaBruce notes that the "lurid colors" suggests a "kind of apocalyptic...doomed culture." I might take this one step further and claim these photos of Coney Island appear, to me at least, like an allegory about climate change: we see scorched victims collapsed from noxious fumes or heat exhaustion, a few zombie-like refugees staggering around as the tides encroach. The beach scenes depict a coming world of rising sea levels and desertification. A carbon-choked planet blazes with the same beautiful reds and oranges that illuminate the horizon at dusk due to air pollution and Rayleigh scattering. The few conscious souls still standing—nearly all of them gordos—seem willfully oblivious to their surroundings, unable to regulate their literal or metaphorical consumption. In this reading, the pictures don't "fat blame" so much as critique the environmental catastrophe wrought by Western capitalist culture. Folks have swilled on malignant junk and buried their heads in the sand; ironically, the result of all this gassy waste is the sunlight zapping them. It's the portrait of an empire that's morbidly obese.          

In Michael Ernest Sweet's two monographs, he depicts very different visions. The one vision—in the heroic, humanizing mode of black-and-white—offers a picture of the city as a kinetic wellspring of chutzpah which triumphs by sheer endurance over the unyielding moil that disfigures its residents. The other vision, in blazed-out hypercolor, portrays a torpid deadzone of blubber and trash devoured by the slow and smokeless weight of its own decay. Pinball game or catwalk, biopsy or burn pit. The urban scree is as banal as it is absurd whether his lens captures the puckered cinch of a man's pants or the lethiferous gleam on a woman's oiled flanks. We "look and look our infant sight away," as Elizabeth Bishop once said in another context until these humanoid creatures have raptured into light and shape and the contours of our own damaged psyches.