Words and Pictures: Treadwell

Words and Pictures: Treadwell

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Reading E. Annie Proulx’s story the other day with Richard Renaldi’s photograph as an illustration got me thinking about words and pictures, and how the two collide. I was thinking of doing a “what’s burning a hole in my bookcase” post anyway, so when I pulled Andrea Modica’s Treadwell off the top shelf yesterday, it felt like kismet; E. Annie Proulx wrote the introductory essay.

I’ve often wanted to post about Treadwell, which is one of my favorite photo essays ever, but the images available online are all pretty small and of poor quality. So we fired up the PhotoShelter scanner, and voila!

Just for some background: Andrea Modica made these images in upstate New York between 1986 and 1995, focusing on one young girl and her extended family. Modica received support from the project from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

All of the following text is excerpted from E. Annie Proulx’s Essay:

There is a Treadwell, population 200, in rural New York south of the Susquehanna, south of interstate 88, and it is the place where, ten years ago, Andrea Modica took the first and now famous photograph in this study, two children caught in the hands of adults; we look and wonder, are they sheltered or imprisoned, resigned or straining against the hold, is the clasp tender, is the bathrobed child prevented from hearing something dreadful, is the other seeing something that can never be forgotten? The slant of white buttons, the tiny downward glint of a ring introduces us to the richly fleshed and beautiful child who is the central figure in Treadwell, moving from this moment out of childhood toward the shoals of adult life.

For a decade Modica followed her subjects from one decayed farmhouse to another, photographing in an atmosphere of crowded rooms and generations of bad luck. The photographs are not some chronicle of despair, but caught moments in lives ruled by hard situations; there are possibilities of anything.

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“This picture was a turning point for me,” she says, leaning forward, her elbow on the table. “Until this one I had been photographing in a place that was like a foreign country to me– photographing like a tourist.” But with this picture she entered into an intimacy with the situation of place, the chewed-over woods and fields of central New York State, the region’s moody, autumnal weather, the rural slowing of time that is like wading through backwater, and began a kind of episodic story in photographs that the viewer pieces together.

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The oblivious lovers in the cold grass, the bleak landscape, the wreck of junk, the asphalt shingle that covers the clapboards of an old farmhouse, the glaring window, all eclipsed by the extraordinary expression on the face of the watching child. She stares fixedly at the straining lovers as she hoists a grimacing cat, her expression a mix of nascent longing, tenderness, curiosity, a sense of intrusion, and recognition of the existence of heated passion.

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A skeleton of a horse lies in the dead leaves as it fell, surrounded by a mazy thicket of saplings. We stare and see the hooves still standing, eerily upright, like a spare set the skeleton may use some moony night. And there beyond the saplings, as though risen from the bones, is that a ghost horse, an after-image of life, a reincarnation, a dream-animal, or another fragment in the reliquary of Treadwell?

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The suspended deer head, eyes closed, long neck attached, seems simple enough at first glance, a successful hunt (in fact a young boy’s first deer), but the more we look the more we see.  It is not usual to hang a deer by the neck. Rather, they are commonly suspended from a gambrel with the muzzle toward the ground for bleeding out. The head, then, is a trophy, hung up after the venison was cut into joints and chops; the inanimate tree begins to take on a morbid color.

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There is a beginning, a flow of events and episodes, the children grow older, sexual tension increases, lipstick is smeared, caries eat at the teeth, a finger points.

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There is a sculptural, heroic quality in many of these photographs. They feel large. They possess a tactile physicality. Often the images of children are like fantastic statues in some wild garden.

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There is a sense of beating, scratching life, of inchoate longing and suppressed anger.

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The ancient lotus position of a little girl is saturated with meaning beyond her culture. the sculptural effect seems heightened by the outlandish clothes of the late twentieth century, sagging knit fabrics emblazoned with logos and mottoes.

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Modica has a strong eye for the human condition. We are able to
catch telling pieces of lives in a single photograph, glimpse private intimacies, animal pleasure, the comfort of skin. She sees, and shows us how to see, a kind of beauty in mean lives, the beauty of affection and gesture, of imaginative play, even with such a macabre object as a decaying fawn head– relic of deer, of hunt, of deed.

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  1. Monica Rooney at 10:50 pm

    How appropriate that you should post these powerful pictures today. My photography class tonight showed The True Meaning of Pictures about Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachian portraits. The pictures were wonderful but I didn’t quite feel comfortable looking at them.

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