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Book Transcript

The Album-Project

We navigate socially from day to day on the assumption of a sliding scale of mutual transparency; we believe we know what others are thinking, more or less, just as they can be expected to imagine our motives and reactions. Yet if we stray from the simplest transactions or make even a small contextual shift, none of that is entirely true; we are prepared for only the most conventional behavior. And how much do we really grasp, or want to grasp, of the echoes in ordinary speech and gesture that transcribe the jagged caverns of deeply interior experience and desire? As the photographer Charles J. Mintz remarks, “We don’t have enough syntax for people to know what we’re talking about. We’re always adjusting the dial on just how obvious something is.” What we express is incommensurate with what we absorb, with what we know and the ways we know it.

Mintz is thinking of autism, which is one of those disorders that seem almost to characterize an era. The etiology of the disease is poorly understood, its diagnosis imprecise, its treatment frequently conjectural. But one thing is sure: autism is common. According to the Autism Society of America’s website one in 150 children suffer from the condition to a greater or lesser extent, while the current total of those in the United States diagnosed within the broad spectrum of this neuropsychiatric disorder is estimated at around 1.5 million. Charles Mintz’ son, Isaac Mintz, now a man in his early thirties who works part-time as a page at the Cleveland Law Library Association, is part of that statistic. Nineteen years ago when he was fifteen he underwent surgery for spinal scoliosis. His father bought a Polaroid Spectra® and gave it to Isaac as a tool to help him come to terms with the confusion of the hospital and the changes in his back. Soon Isaac was using the camera to organize his social world. Nearly two decades later he has produced hundreds of photographs of family and friends, meticulously labeling each shot in a legible round hand.

“The Album Project” is a collection of twenty one images of Isaac taken by his father with a large format camera, holding his photo albums open at waist level to display the pictures inside, most of which were taken during family holidays. Dressed in an array of t-shirts, shorts, and athletic shoes, Isaac is shown isolated against a pure white background, as if to say these clothes, this body, and the photographs are a world unto themselves, the spare contours of an island self. In this respect they resemble other series of photographs by Mintz, like his views of Lake Erie or of Venice Beach in Los Angeles, which sometimes use infra-red film to evoke psychological isolation, embedded in a pared-down world of minimal forms. Such an unsentimental, even tough, poetics of alienation has tended to be part of the vocabulary of contemporary art and of the modern psyche in general, and seems especially appropriate to convey something about the quality of autism. Serial photography, also – the documentation of repetitions, cycles and sequences evoking obsessive, proto-scientific taxonomies, explores similar psychic territory. Andy Warhol said of his photographs, “A picture means I know where I was every minute.” Mintz’s photographs of Isaac speak of the infinity of increments of behavior and circumstance that cohere to gradually form a self, and a life.

Most of the photos in the exhibition are quite large, and one, printed on canvas, is huge. All show Isaac in basically the same pose, but over a series of separate sessions in 2008. Looking a little more closely, we see changes. Isaac’s expression becomes more self-possessed, his resemblance to his father more pronounced. Considered superficially they speak of Isaac’s growth, the usefulness of the Polaroid to that process of maturation and growing comfort with the project. But more than that they evoke the fugue-like structure of the human mind, as themes are repeated and elaborated over months and years. Mintz’ portraits of his son move slowly forward, season by season, like core samples of selfhood. Most of all Charles Mintz’s photographs describe the monolithic presence of Isaac in his father’s life. Though inflected with unusual difficulties in this case, that’s the way it is for almost everyone. If parents are giants to their children, the children also are colossal, looming ever larger in their parents’ concern. In this way there is a rare, universal humanity in the images Mintz presents here.

Around the time of his fifteenth birthday in 1990, our son Isaac developed a serious curvature of his spine. Isaac has autism – a limited ability to communicate. Surgery was recommended, probably necessary. We had spent fifteen years protecting him from injury and were unprepared to send him into a situation where, at least temporarily, he would be hurting. In an attempt to help him understand, we bought him a Polaroid Spectra® camera. We hoped to use it to show him what was happening and why it was necessary to enter the hospital feeling OK and leave with a very sore back. Somewhat to our surprise, the camera became his constant companion at family events – a tool for him to order his world. Because I wanted the images to be printed large enough to make the captioned photos in his albums “readable,” this work was done on an 8x10 camera with film subsequently scanned, adjusted and printed. Isaac was photographed in roughly ten sessions in my studio producing 75 images. The process would begin with him and me going through an album and selecting two or three page pairs.

This sort of decision-making is very difficult for him. In some of the Polaroids, you can see him wearing his “taking a picture” face. He learned this pose in kindergarten when the teacher insisted he “smile for the camera.” Once established, these habits become fixed, usually forever. This expression would have become the default expression for the large images if I had not intervened. This forced grin repeated in all of the pictures would not have done justice to his actual range of expression. This limited range becomes part of the story. As difficult as some of these tasks were, including not moving once the camera was set, he completely enjoyed his part of doing the project and continues to ask when we will do it again. A short video of this process is available on the website. This project is a record of Isaac and his photographs. The five-hour scoliosis surgery, so intimidating at the time, becomes no more than the background for this story. The story is his ability to overcome his limitations and build a life independent from his parents. It is a history and a tribute to the family members and friends, many of whom are no longer with us that live in his albums. But, that is not why I did it. The project is about telling your story with a limited palette – language, both verbal and written – body language – photographs. It is about the discomfort and frustration of using every tool you have and still not being understood. I have searched for the common tie between this work and my other photographs – the unrecognizable and anonymous people in my east coast and city images, the mystery of the “other side” in my booths and fences and the other work, finished and in-progress. The great photography teacher, Freeman Patterson once said, “We all photograph our childhood.” My memories of growing up were of the awkward, misunderstood, fat kid. In the end, in spite of our different abilities, Isaac’s challenge to be heard is mine as well.

Chuck Mintz

August 2009



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