Every summer, since as long as anyone in the area can remember, groups of teenage boys and girls have been congregating by a single-lane bridge that spans the tributaries of Bowery and Catskill Creeks in the Catskill Mountain region of New York. Just below it, in the wilderness, a waterfall drops sixty feet above a pond. Those daring enough to take the leap usually take a small run-up before flinging themselves off the precipice. Within the act of the jump and its timeless ritual lingers the last fleeting moments of youth, of endless summer days and reckless abandon. Beyond that, the unknown.
Known for his slow-burning chronicles of rural America, Raymond Meeks turns his attention to Furlong and its intrepid summer dwellers in his most recent book Halfstory Halflife. Sketching out his local area with a sensitive lyricism, Meeks observed its energy and atmosphere over the course of three years; the spectacle of the wait, the anticipation of the climb and the final leap into darkness, where time comes to a standstill as bodies are frozen in motion. These everyday experiences and rituals, simple and carefree in their nature, gain a weight and significance through the lens, as the bodies fall somewhere beyond the threshold of youth and into adulthood.
LensCulture reached out to Meeks to speak about his enduring relationship to the book form, navigating the charged dynamics of Furlong and the intricacies of longterm projects. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
LensCulture: The artist book as an object has been central to your practice, and the last time we spoke, you mentioned that childrens’ books first sparked your interest in the book form.
Raymond Meeks: That was the first thing that drew me into thinking about pictures as illustrations in books. That was my foundation. My son actually designed my first book when he was 10. My studio was across the street from where we lived in Montana and I came home with a bunch of small prints and this adhesive paper, and a blank book. I started pairing things together and he came in and asked me what I was doing. I said, “Just trying to figure out…,” and he started taking pictures and putting them next to each other, and pointing out the relationships between them.
LC: That’s beautiful.
RM: I said, “I’m going to go help make dinner. I’ll come back and you just put them in the book wherever you want.” And he did, and that’s what the book ended up being. He’s great at seeing combinations and sequencing, and his placement is really free. It wasn’t like rigid book publishing. He has formed the way I’ve done everything since then. I always try to channel that energy, playfulness and whimsy when I’m designing a book.
LC: Tell me about how Halfstory Halflife started as a project.
RM: It started organically, the way everything in my life starts. It’s where I live—I knew there were creaks and tributaries in the area, but I didn’t know there were these kids jumping from 60-foot ledges. I didn’t know that they had become this gathering place, and that I would respond to it the way I did. After the first year of shooting, I thought I had a book already. But then I spent the whole winter editing. You start with 80 pictures that you feel are really strong. By the time you’ve worked them into different things, you’re down to 12. I went back for a second year, and then it ended up being three years.
LC: And were you photographing the same group?
RM: The same tribe. Different kids. Some were the same throughout. I met one of the main protagonists—Chris Pickett—on the last week. It’s as if the skies parted once more and the gods sent down a subject for me. I had been trying to tell the story by way of a larger population. Then, when he showed up, he embodied everything about this time of life. He’s an old soul so he’s got this wisdom about him.
He arrived, and I was loading a camera. I was facing the side of a cliff—the kids run down this hill, make a leap, stand by the edge of the cliff and jump—and everybody had cleared out, but I see this person coming down the hill. He’s fully dressed so I thought, I’ll quickly load and he’ll be taking his clothes off and I’ll get some pictures. But I didn’t have time—he was in the water just like that. He doesn’t dive, he doesn’t jump. He just throws his body. I’m just thinking, “There’s no way he got his clothes off, there’s no way he landed.”
Before I had even finished loading my camera, he was back up again, fully dressed just like a drowned rat. Still in a button down, one cuff up and one missing sock.
LC: What was your working process like? Did you develop relationships with the people you were photographing? Or was it more observational at the start?
RM: The more I got to know the kids there, the more they wanted to give me something and perform. What I ended up deferring to was less engagement. I would do just enough to let them know this is who I am, this is what I’m doing and then offering prints in exchange. A lot of the kids would do stunts. I knew that’s what they wanted to do, so I would photograph them, go home, make a digital print, and give them the prints of it. Then I would just have to tell them, “Thank you for that. That’s not what I wanted. Do what you do.”
Initially, the edit for the book was more jumping, more jubilant. But eventually it became more falling than jumping—this element of coming of age and uncertainty.
LC: What came out for you when you started sitting after that summer and letting the pictures distill?
RM: It was ritual. I was raised Catholic, so these rock outcroppings to me were like altars. These bodies leaping into the dark void almost became like this sacrament. I feel like each generation has to pay for the sins of the previous generation. They were almost offering up their bodies and it’s the process of evolving by way of ritual—that process of coming of age, something that’s been going on at this specific place for as long as people can remember.
LC: There’s definitely a timeless feeling to the photographs.
RM: At the time, I was really interested in the place itself; imagining thousands of years ago what was happening here, or how it has changed. As far back as anybody could remember, and we were speaking to people that were 80, it hadn’t changed. There’s graffiti, there’s been a couple hurricanes in New York that created a wash-out—but for the most part it’s the same. I had an impulse to make it less timeless, and more of the time, showing vaping, cell phones, intimacy, sex. Because there are those things too. There’s definitely a pageantry and showmanship there. The men line up, the women are below, and there’s a lot of the flaming ego and adoring bodies. There’s that whole component of it, but ultimately, in the end the final edit of this work was to eliminate it.
LC: Where does the title Halfstory Halflife come from?
RM: It’s a poem by a writer called Dean Young. The book it’s from is called Bender. It seemed fitting—mysterious and ambiguous. I was also photographing and editing photographs of Chris Pickett when I came across the title, and I felt it references so much about this time of his life, without pointing directly at it. I studied anthropology in college, and I was interested in the dynamic of what it is to be a young man, what shapes you. Experiences like risk-taking, backing down, the name-calling. That’s really what kept me coming back to it for three years.
LC: It seems like a very masculine environment, and you can sense this almost electric current running through the images, but there’s also a lot of vulnerability and softness.
RM: There’s a lot of testosterone there—you can smell it in the air. The more sensitive, delicate side of me and my personality gravitates towards and attracts someone like Chris Pickett, who also has a really strong feminine side. Then of course, the subjects were all male. There was a balance of that in the book. I think ultimately the way I photograph, the way I print, all those decisions that end up in there are more delicate.
LC: How old were the boys you were photographing?
RM: They’re anywhere from around 14, and the average age is probably 17, 18, a few over 20. The West Point Military Academy is not too far away, so on weekends some cadets would come and jump there, but I was less interested in anybody that had to get in a car and drive three hours. Their demographic and social class was really important as well. That’s what I try to set up in the beginning of the book: not just where we are environmentally, atmospherically, but also where are we socially? What class of people are we talking about?
LC: And what is that demographic?
RM: Lower middle-class. Usually both parents, and multiple siblings. But not a lot of spending money, working minimum wage jobs. About half of them go off to college. The other half do military or just work locally until they figure something out.
LC: How did you decide that the project had come to end?
RM: I had worn a path to get there, in the car or on my bike, and by walking down this path and putting my cameras down. I have a ritual too. And that ritual and routine just got too old. I couldn’t imagine myself doing it for another year, bringing an energy to it as well. That whole routine and ritual just became tired. It’s hard to know when a project is over. It certainly wasn’t because I felt I had solved everything visually, because I’m still evolving so much. The other reason to bring in friends and colleagues who I think have a more sophisticated vision than my own, is to give this book more life for me, so that I don’t tire of it after 6 months.
It’s not that I couldn’t continue to photograph, and grow, expand and evolve as a photographer. But it was time for different subjects. I think a project, like a relationship, has to have a self-sustaining energy to it. A relationship between two people has to be something that you’re both making and giving to. Then it creates. It has its own charge that fuels the relationship.
LC: This book marks a departure from your art books in the sense that it’s published with Chose Commune, rather than by you. Has it been different from the way you’ve worked in the past?
RM: It’s been liberating, because I carried it to a certain point as a photographer, then I’ve taken myself out of it for the most part. I had been making self-published books on my own for so long, that are editions of 40. I wanted to make a book that was accessible to a wider audience, to start reaching across the ocean. The other self-published books I do, I start making them at the point where I’m just about to be out of money. There’s an urgency to it, and there’s no time. It’s just me relying on intuition and faith, making something that resonates with me. Maybe I run it past my son, and one other friend, for any sort of copy editing, and then it’s out in the world.
After three years of photographing, I spent a whole year culling down an archive into a central group of pictures, then doing a sequence and getting it as tight as I could get it. I then sent it off to three colleagues of mine that I trust as critics. That was probably the best part of me doing the book: taking my ability to a certain point and then this huge evolution and growth at the end, because I learned so much by engaging with my colleagues and getting that criticism—about some of the choices they make, why they make them, and how they can inform my practice.
LC: What’s next? Will you still work with this new framework of having colleagues give you feedback, or was that just for this project?
RM: I’ll always rely on that. I don’t ever want to do anything again that’s solo. There’s something really wonderful about collaboration. If you start layering on different directions, the project gets stronger, and there is no better opportunity to grow visually. I’m in that place now where I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I just have to trust that I’ll find something. Or that something will find me. I don’t really look for projects. I just try to live life and see what comes. I recently felt I may never make another book. When I tell my friends that, they say: “You’re crazy. You’ve got many more books in you.” But I’m not talking about my ability to make or edit a picture or create a sequence. I’m talking about the way grace works in the world. Things are given to you, and I don’t know if I’m going to be given something like that again.
I’m not somebody who does a lot of research, or figures out what’s relevant in the world today and what the world needs a book about. This is closer to poetry than it is a novel or a short story or a documentary. So I’m relying on the world, the universe, the whatever, to offer me something and hopefully be receptive—receive it and then honor it somehow. Some of my favorite musicians and writers talk about this continuous stream that’s always flowing—the river beneath the surface that’s always moving and has the source of inspiration. We just need to tap into it somehow. And there’s no recipe for it. That’s the way I feel about it. When it’s best, it’s an offering that you have to be open to and do something with.
—Interview with Raymond Meeks by Sophie Wright