By Lee Conaway Addis. Published by Via Press; 2003. Library of Congress Control No. 2002117686; ISBN No. 1-885001-16-9. 120 pages; 98 black-and-white reproductions. Purchase information: Via Press, 3033 East Turney Ave., Phoenix AZ 85016; 1-800-284-2669; or Lee Conaway Addis, P.O. Box 1000, Cottonwood AZ 86326; 1-928-634-9670; www.leeaddis.com . Price: US $50.
Arizona-based photographer Lee Conaway Addis may be a bit of an eccentric, new-age mystic, but his images have all the old-fashioned, decisive-moment bite and balance of the best black-and-white documentarianism. Addis began taking pictures, credibly enough, back in 1956, as an 18-year-old Air Force recruit with a newly purchased Agfa Super Solinette 35mm folding rangefinder.
By 1991, he had moved up to a Leica M-4 rangefinder with a Summilux 1.4 fast lens. Now, his peripatetic lifestyle--which takes him all over the rural U.S., Mexico, India, Ireland, and eastern Europe--results in a portfolio of arresting gelatin-silver prints, all of them naturalistic and shot in available light with high-speed film. To appreciate his art, you do not have to embrace his philosophical point of view, which invokes the theory of quantum mechanics to suggest that two of anything "could mysteriously occur simultaneously in different places at once." (And it is hard to know how seriously he is when he affirms that he and all of his "found images" are due to be transported, "at many times the speed of light," from Earth to a planet 7,200 light-years away.)
"Here and There at Once", with its portentous subtitle about life, death and hope, is nonetheless a rather breezy, handsomely bound collection--its images crisply reproduced on fine paper stock. Addis often labors in the realm of the snapshot, but he knows precisely when to snap, resulting in images that crackle with the energy of life, as in a photo of passengers crammed onto a bus in Mexico. From the sleepy man with his eyes closed in one corner to the watchful toddlers on the other to the scowling teen in the center of the frame, an entire working-class culture seems on display.
By comparison, an image of an open, empty crypt with the photographer's shadow looming above it seems all too staged, yet the composition has a haunted edginess to it all the same. Images of beautiful, smiling, raggedly dressed children in Romania exude hope and Inner Light, while a toothless, emaciated old man in a hospital bed somewhere in the U.S. stares gamely at us, his deep, dark eyes far from death. With its background of folded white bed linen, it is a photo worthy of Richard Avedon.
Shot from directly above, a photo of a beggar curled on a cobblestone street in Mexico is rich with texture and information--the man's rumpled clothing, his torn hat, the church leaflet in his hand, the weathered details of the ground and an almost unnoticeable scrap of newspaper in the lower right corner. Through all this, the man's alert profile activates the image.
If Addis spends a bit too much of his film on static shots of graves, shrines and road signs, he more than makes up for it whenever he captures the human or animal form in its endless variety. Crying children are comical and poignant all at once; laughing donkeys and bony black dogs on the streets of Mexico are like cartoons come to startling life; a naked Hindu strolling past bicyclists and moped riders somewhere in India is a matter-of-fact echo of Adam in the Garden. Deeply compassionate and endlessly curious, Lee Conaway Addis has a great talent for making us see the world freshly through his eyes.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.