Published August 29, 2013
“Walk with Dennis Tedlock through this book and you’ll never stroll down the street again with the same view of life.”
National Geographic photographer Sam Abell is speaking of a new book by Tedlock, the University at Buffalo ethnopoeticist and translator internationally renowned for his groundbreaking work on Mayan and Zuni narratives.
The book, “An Archaeology of Architecture: Photowriting the Built Environment” (University of New Mexico Press, 2013), features 66 double-page spreads in which the author presents beautifully wrought photos of places – architectures -- ancient and modern, often magnificently decayed and mysterious but above all, mutable.
Tedlock also explores the content and meaning of each photo in a revelatory short essay that illuminates mysterious pentimento and unveils histories that transcend our common – and limited – understanding of the buildings, cultures and eras before us on the page.
“This is the result of photowriting,” Tedlock says, “in which the same person processes photographs and words using software on the same equipment so that language and image begin to reflect and speak to one another. It is the reverse of documentary photography, because here the images, instead of being subordinated to a preconceived narrative, are the source of narrative.”
He says, “I hope my reader-viewer will look back and forth across each double-page spread, seeing more in the picture than the words can tell and reading more in the words than the picture can show.”
Himself a poet, Tedlock labels the image/essays with such tantalizing titles as “Light from a Hole in the Earth,” “Sound of a Baby Crying,” Homeless in a Painted City,” “Five-Pronged Guitar Attack” and “Billy the Kid on Location.”
“Photowriting,” says Tedlock, “is a process that contradicts an obsolete system of values in which writing is said to detract from the value of a photograph as fine art, while illustrations are presumed to detract from the literary value of writing.
“There is a fine-arts notion that a viewer should be able to take in a photo, to grasp it, without any help, but that's not really true,” he says.
Without the assistance of the written information provided here, Tedlock asks, “Who would notice the two dead batteries in ‘Lower on the Driver's Side,’ or know what it means when a vehicle's suspension is low on the driver's side? Or know, in a photo of the ancient theater of Herodes Atticus, that the carpenters are working on a stage set for Puccini’s Turandot, and that they are violating the architectural rules set down by Vetruvius?
Although well versed in the history of the ancient sites included, Tedlock employs the same archaeological and poetic techniques to explore 20th century public squares, movie sets, street murals, and a graveyard for chunks of a downed cathedral and abandoned hair salon chairs, and complex streetscapes with compelling stories.
The crusty abstract expressionist wall on page 29, for instance, represents the ruins of Joseph Sutro’s spectacular glass-enclosed bathing pavilion (San Francisco, 1896-1953), the largest in the world. All but forgotten now, it housed six salt-water pools of different temperatures, restaurants, seating for 7,000 spectators, an orchestra balcony and a museum of stuffed animals. Ultimately it was closed, deteriorated and burned to its foundations in 1966. At the time, Tedlock tells us, local Satanists claimed the tunnels under the pavilion gave malevolent underworld beings access to the surface of the earth.
There is a bird blind in Western New York’s Alabama Swamp built by local Boy Scouts and uniquely decorated to blend with its organic surroundings; houses from a village built entirely of hardened ash; structures that represent famine, or are themselves relics; temples; a Shaker homestead now occupied by Sufis; a colorful frieze of Hercules on a “green hermeticists,” a tiny ocean-side camera obscura and holograph gallery; a Vietnam vet’s refuge built in and around a lost Westwood trailer at the end of an old, impassable logging road; beach huts; urban borderlands, and elk skulls lined up against a pre-fab office situated in a million year-old caldera, and the disarmingly historical worn out two-story Maritime Building in Broadstairs, Kent.
In his foreward, poet Arthur Sze writes, “As image and text mutually inform, enlarge, complicate, hone and deepen one another, you will find that the gaps between image and text and between each pairing give your imaginations space to contemplate, discern and discover.
“You can read the words, form an expectation, and then be startled by what you see in the image,” he writes, “or you can look at the image, form an expectation and then be startled by what you read.”
Tedlock is a Distinguished SUNY Professor and James H. McNulty Chair in English at UB, where he also is a research professor of anthropology. He won the PEN translation Prize for his book “Popol Vuh: the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life,” and has written other notable books on Mayan, Zuni and other Native American literatures. He has conducted field research among the shamans of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the Koasati people of Louisiana, has contributed chapters to more than 40 edited volumes and written articles for major journals and literary and arts magazines in the U.S., Europe and Asia.