In his poetic, impassioned and elegant introduction to the collection of essays Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, John Berger quotes the French poet Paul Valéry, who wrote that “[t]he eyes are organs of asking”. Berger continues: “The first answers to such asking are visual not verbal, precise yet inexplicable, familiar yet strange. Appearances contain more messages than we ever allow them to tell us — except perhaps when we are in love.”
In his seminal essay on photography, “Appearances”, published some eight years earlier, Berger wrote that:
“The one who looks is essential to the meaning found, and yet can be surpassed by it. And this surpassing is what is hoped for. Revelation was a visual category before it was a religious one. The hope of revelation – and this is particularly obvious in every childhood – is the stimulus to the will to all looking which does not have a precise functional aim.”
Looking again at the fragile, gilted images in that small wonder of a book, Treadwell, by Andrea Modica, Berger’s words attain an unshakeable clarity and depth. In a sense this may seem a contradiction, or at least some form of anachronism, given that when looking at portraiture of this lucidity it might seem that the image begins precisely where words run dry. And yet, the question posed by these resonant, elliptical, hypnotic images is of a piece with some form of revelation - however minor. Moreover, there is a basis both for hope and a welcome sense of mystery in this work, one that is grounded in the most elusive of the many qualities that these photographs possess - “the stimulus to the will to all looking which does not have a precise functional aim.”
What follow are some words excerpted from "Reliquary", the introductory essay to Modica’s book, written by E. Annie Proulx:
"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. …
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? …
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. … There is a sense of beating, scratching life, of inchoate longing and suppressed anger. …
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.”
Photographs © Andrea Modica, words © E. Annie Proulx. Published by Chronicle Books, 1996.