It seems appropriate that I first viewed Buzzing at the Sill during a five-hour flight across the United States. Upon opening the book, Peter barely gives us a moment to breathe before we are underwater in the second image: a crowd of spectators in the foreground observes a clumsy aquatic acrobatics show; four women in swimsuits are suspended in a cyanotic vista, wielding an American flag as it drowns beneath the viewer’s horizon. Buzzing at the Sill reads like a treatise on America seen through the poignant lens of Peter’s critiques and observations upon class and race. Narrower in scope than Robert Frank’s Americans, the book feels like a contemporary twist on that classic work, with strong tones of Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures infused throughout.

Buzzing at the Sill, as Peter explained to me, can be seen as a second volume in what will become an extended series of books. The first, Disco Night Sept 11, looked at the rippling ramifications—both at home and abroad—of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq undertaken in the aftermath of the events of September 11th. In Buzzing at the Sill, Peter explores the United States while also following a more personal narrative. His writing alludes to what drew him to seek the life of a conflict photographer; it also weaves through anecdotes that form a diaphanous reasoning with how those wars have affected the United States. The photographs, on the whole, feel like elaboration and evidence; images proving that America is a fractured landscape of disparate cultures and classes.

In large part, the photographs are of two categories: compassionate observations of the circumstances of non-white, impoverished Americans, and less complicated observations—perhaps condemnations—of the culture of wealth. These latter pictures of the affluent (almost exclusively white) mostly feature well-dressed people seen in scenes that might easily draw the disapproval of the viewer.

Louisville, Kentucky. 2015. Kentucky Derby aftermath. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Throughout the book, there are dense sequences of cultural diversity—almost like a checklist of the political demographics that now make up America: Muslims, Latinos, rich white, rural poor white, and African-American. This book may force many to question their ideas and judgments based on the surfaces of class and race; who is or what is “American”?

Yet there is a deliberate gap in his coverage of America; namely metropolitan scenes and the middle class. Maybe the latter doesn’t exist anymore. The book could well convince someone who may not know otherwise. And maybe Peter was prescient in knowing, as we have learned from the recent elections, that the well-off constituents of these urban centers are no longer as important in determining the future of America as we once believed. Also, perhaps Peter is imploring us to see that the America beyond city centers, and the unseen urban poor, may be the America that deserves greater understanding and more attention. It’s evident that Peter believes this is the America that most directly suffers the emotional and economic blowback resulting from engagement in foreign wars. He sees these photographs as “the imprint of those wars on this society.”

Process is an essential part of understanding this book. Peter is drawing upon 10 years of orphaned images from documentary projects, assignment work, and his ongoing street photography to build his thesis. While creating the photographs, he didn’t have a preconceived notion of the endgame. Rather, he curated Buzzing at the Sill from careful reflection upon the themes that arose in his work over this time period. The writing thereby becomes the glue that helps us bind his thesis together. At times, the disparate sourcing of his images may force us to pause a bit longer in order to bridge the stylistic gaps. Many images draw from a literal and classic documentary-style, while others are more lyrical and establish mood through symbolism and color associations. But after viewing the book, which beckons many returns, I find that the images and the text do gather into a coherent and deliberate narrative, especially on repeated viewings.

Brooklyn, New York. 2010. The Fourth of July. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Peter carefully considered the craftsmanship of this volume. The book is an object in and of itself. The revealed Coptic binding is sandwiched in between two cardboard-colored boards. The diminutive size and preciousness of the object places the viewer in an odd space of vulnerability when confronting the unsettling realities that lie within. The 9” by 7” size is paradoxically small for the emotional and political intensity of what is housed in its pages.

It’s no surprise to me that Peter has drawn his title from Theodore Roethke’s writing; the original Buzzing at the Sill is a poem that is dramatic and piercing, like Peter’s photos. Yet Peter’s words—descriptive, well-chosen and autobiographically narrative—demur to the intensity of his photographs. The title, a reference to the poem, is a reminder of what exists on the other side of the window behind which much of his audience sits—at a great distance from his subjects. As I close the book, his final photo and his last written sentence are powerful and urgent warnings that peril looms imminent in his future; and as Americans, most likely in ours too.

Serge J-F. Levy

Reviewer’s note: Peter and I met at the Coffee Shop in Union Square in New York City to talk about his book. He washed down his slice of whipped-cream-topped cherry pie with a Red Stripe lager. I had an herbal mint tea.

Buzzing at the Sill
by Peter van Agtmael
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag
Hardcover: 192 pages