4 December 2011

About Love, Gay Block

'Through photography, I have learned about love.' The words that open this anthology of Gay Block's work, and give it its title, really are the best possible introduction to her warm and sympathetic photographs. Photography as a way, almost an excuse, to connect with others and as, fundamentally, an empathic medium - these are the principles that shape this collection of portraits.

Intertwined with these concerns, and essential to the structure of About Love, is Block's own biography – born and raised in a wealthy, Reform Jewish community in Houston, Block followed what she felt to be the typical 'plan,' leaving college when she was 19 to marry and raise a family. She discovered photography later in life, having returned to college at the age of 31 after the death of her father. In the coming years she also, this book suggests, discovered herself, eventually entering a long-term relationship with her current life-partner, Malka Drucker. This story emerges only gradually, through the extended texts that Block appends to each 'chapter' of About Love, and would not be afforded so much importance in this review were it not for the fact that the core themes of Block's 'story' – of curiosity, self-education and discovery – are reflected so strongly in the construction of the book and its content. Photography was, as Block herself states, her 'vehicle to consciousness.'

Arranged chronologically, in loose chapters that are more like families of related works than formal 'series,' the photographs presented here (and the films included on two attached DVDs) relate Block's exposure to ever-widening circles of society and acquaintance – from her own family in Houston, through Jewish pensioners in South Beach, Miami, touching on her record of Holocaust Rescuers (exhibited in MoMA in 1992) and on to her studies of America's female spiritual leaders and Santa Fe's lesbian nightclubs. Her personal and creative development is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the two chapters titled 'Early Portraits' and 'Late Portraits.' The first of these largely consists of portraits taken within the Jewish community of Houston – these appear slightly limited, in both content and technique, compared to the later works, in which a much wider variety of styles and sitters appear. In the later collection, Block's eye hones in on signs of difference (as perhaps is to be expected from journalistic commissions) and on the trappings of style and lifestyle, as well as on the physical markers of age. A number of photographs here depict scars and Block's use of colour highlights the varieties of 'costume' on show among her subjects.

However, Block's work is never detached or disdainful and the abiding quality of her photographs – their empathy – can be traced back to the earliest, and most substantial, body of work in this book. Yes, the world of her early subjects in Houston is strictly delimited and David Chickey's thoughtful book design, with a great deal of bright white space surrounding smallish frames (Block also credits David Skolkin for his design input in this regard) emphasizes both the claustrophobic, suburban atmosphere of these shots, as well as our sense that we are only 'glimpsing' a world set apart. Block often accentuates the careful choreography of this social milieu through artfully arranged shots in which family members postures echo either each other or the objets d'art in their homes. However, at the same time, these photos often feel convivial, with Block taking photographs from across a table or a couch, in an intimate fashion. Their subjects are individuated and gaze straight into the camera, frank, so that the images carry no formal atmosphere of pretence or hypocrisy. Here, as throughout this book, hands are important – people hold or gesture towards the people and objects they hold dear, in a physical, visual expression of inner feeling. The experience of reading these pictures seems to echo the process Block describes of taking them; of being puzzled, curious and then increasingly sympathetic as her knowledge of these subjects deepened. It is no wonder that Block felt a twinge of frustration in her 'Camp Girls' series when, on returning to her subjects after 25 years, she felt unable to get beyond their polished appearances and homes to see 'what life might have in store for them.'

The autobiographical, personality-centered approach of this photography, and this book, has its limitations. A grid of colour photographs of 'People I'm Close To' feels uninformative and a little self-indulgent. Similarly, none of these photographs are accompanied, on page, by captions; they are arranged, not in strictly chronological order, within chapters corresponding to periods of Block's life, rather than within clearly described projects. The approach can feel a little unclear and scatter-shot. Still, the work at its best is dense and powerful and feels like a coherent, humane vision – no doubt down to its clear-sighted, humane author.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 1st December 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from About Love by Janelle Lynch, published by Radius Books, 2011.