Max Ferguson talks to Raymond Meeks about his latest book – part photography, part poem
Upstate New York based Raymond Meeks is envious of photographers that “have collections of maps” and “who travel to far off corners to make their work and come back with iconic pictures and epic stories”, comparing himself to a dog staked in a backyard. But, this closeness to what he photographs is surely what makes the work alluring? Several years ago when Meeks and his partner Adrianna were packing their home to move, he decided to photograph the process – to help, “mitigate some of the hardships that most of us associate with moving”. Clarifying the duality of this situation he says, “the leveraging of such a menial and exhaustive task with that of making a new body of work definitely softened the impact and even excited the process of both.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, he noticed something else while watching Adrianna through the viewfinder of his camera: “I also came to appreciate her particular gestures and movements, which stirred a deepening of my affection for her.” Adding that, “it was almost an out-of-body experience.” This closeness between Meeks and Adrianna is what we are allowed to glimpse in Ciprian Honey Cathedral.
The first thing I noticed when I tore open the eagerly awaited brown cardboard package was the book’s cover. The pages, of colour and black and white photographs, are encased in a pale greenish cloth hard back. This in turn is wrapped in a transparent plastic dust jacket. Looking down at the book there is no image on the front. Or title. Meeks didn’t want to give too much away. Not even his name appears on the cover. The only information we have is fifty-four lines of text printed in poetic staccato onto the plastic wrap-around. This inspired text-cover-combo is the work of the publisher MACK’s in house designer Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. Before I’ve opened the book two lines – about three-quarters of the way though of this “text-collage” – grab my attention, “too small to read; trees with pasted-on leaves”. Re-reading I notice the title is on the cover. The words ciprian, honey and cathedral each occupy their own line of fifty-four.
On YouTube you can watch several videos of Nick Cave performing Rings of Saturn – the song that inspired this text-collage – and in each one he recites his trademark narrative prose in a deep baritone. Floating, dancing and mesmerising his audience with the lyrics: “upside down and inside out and on all eights. You’re like a funnel-web. Like a black fly on the ceiling”. Watching these videos, drawn to them by Meeks’ photographs, it’s as if it’s me in the funnel-web. I’m hooked. Looking for differences, so minute in the performances, I notice things I wonder if anyone else has seen. And similarly with the book, I come back to it time and time again as I am speaking with Meeks and writing this article.
Photographs of his partner Adrianna, like a metronome, set the pace of the book – allowing other images their own place in the narrative. In the first photograph she is presumably sleeping, on her back. Her head is resting on white pillow, the crop is close on her face and we can just see her nose and eyelids, but the hair that falls down in loose waves is what we are drawn to. This establishes the rhythm for the intro into the book. “The pictures of Adrianna in states of sleep don’t vary much” Meeks says, adding that “in terms of lighting conditions, camera angle and perspective. This creates a steady, grounded rhythm throughout the book—a place to return to— and allows for a more coursing and free-form flow of pictures that parallel and sometimes function independently, where the relationship between two subjects are maybe less apparent.” Each image on the first five spreads is presumably a photograph of Adrianna, but we cannot see her face, she is obscured either by shadow, crop, arm or wall. Who is this person we are meant to know? Speaking at the great distance we all find ourselves in from each other, Meeks explains that his relationship with Adrianna and how it is presented to us the viewer could be at tension with each other. “Our relationship and my motives have been clear between Adrianna and I, but for the viewer about to experience the work for the first time, I also felt it was important that they could enter with the understanding that she is an empowered woman who lives by intention.”
Halfway through Ciprian Honey Cathedral we come to a photograph of a stack of shallow bowls taken when they were moving house. On top of each one is a torn sheet of corrugated cardboard. The jagged edges are as wild as the plates are perfect. This, presumably recycled from their original intended use, is to protect the bowls from one another. Everything is delicate and the stack is high – as if it may teeter over at any time. It is the textural difference between card and china that stops me on this page. Looking back through the book again I see another photo – perhaps for the first time. In it a brittle leaf lays against the soft skin of Adrianna’s arm.
And the long wait is over. What we are left with is a book – part poem, part photography – that Meeks at one point described as a “love song”. And another wait, to see what this modern master of photography makes next.