What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tribute to Lionel Stevenson (1940 - 2017)

Lionel Stevenson, "Buck" (1972)
Prince Edward Island photographer Lionel F. Stevenson, who died April 3, 2017, at age 77, worked in the classic tradition of the great Parisian street photographer Eugène Atget, producing images of people, places, and things that are at once elegant and plainspoken. Lionel was closer to Atget than most photographers. In 1969, he worked with the legendary Berenice Abbott, helping print her photographs for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Abbott met the hermitic Atget when she was in Paris in the 1920s. She did much to spread the news of his genius. When he died in 1927, she salvaged his prints and negatives. The connective chain that runs from Atget to Abbott to Stevenson is evident in their work. All three are meticulous artists. All three are masters of line and light. Anthony Lane says of Atget, he “stopped to absorb the detail that others failed to notice” (“A Balzac of the Camera,” The New Yorker, April 15, 1994), an observation that applies to Abbott and Stevenson, too.

Like Atget and Abbott, Lionel had a democratic eye, photographing everything from farm gates, fishing boats, barns, sheds, and street scenes to sand dunes, pig races, rocks, trees, and flowers. He was a superb portraitist, showing his subjects at ease in their home and work environments. My favorite Stevenson portrait is of New Glasgow blacksmith Elbert Nelson Hill, who lived from 1891 to 1984. It’s called “Buck.” It shows Hill sitting in his forge, in his work clothes, arms folded across his chest, shirtsleeves rolled up, legs crossed, two horseshoes balanced on his left knee. His lips are pursed. His glasses catch the light. His cap sits high on his forehead. His belt buckle glints. Behind him, over his left shoulder, light throngs a window.

The portrait bears the unmistakable stamp of individuality – not a blacksmith, but this blacksmith, at this moment, at ease amidst the tools and furniture of his workplace, so absolutely and immutably there, down to the safety pin that holds his shirt closed and the shining belt buckle with its prong precariously stuck in a hole that Hill himself must’ve punched in the very tip of the leather.

I first encountered “Buck” in the summer of 2014, when I was a patient at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. It hangs on the wall in the sitting room at the junction of Units 1, 2, 3, and 4. I was immediately drawn to it. I relished its subject – not a celebrity or a politician or a tycoon, but a blacksmith, a man who works with his hands, a vanishing breed of craftsmen. And I loved its look. It had an air of artistic seriousness. It reminded me of the work of master photographers such as August Sander, Walker Evans, and Paul Strand, work that I’d seen only in reproduction. But here, in a hospital of all places, was the real thing. My eyes devoured it.

During my hospital stay, I made a point of visiting “Buck” everyday. I’d stand in front of it, loops of heart monitor wire dangling beneath my T-shirt, looking and looking, soaking up its calmness. Sitting there in his forge, gazing into the camera, Hill seems so relaxed and natural. He doesn’t appear to be posing; he’s just being himself. Calmness in art is an elusive quality. Not every artwork has it. Vermeer’s paintings have it. Atget’s photographs have it. Stevenson’s “Buck” has it in abundance. As an anxious heart patient, I found it consoling.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to talk to Lionel about the genesis of “Buck.” “I was just photographing around the forge,” he said. “I asked Buck if I could take his picture. He took a seat on the stool. He had two horseshoes on his knee. He’d just finished welding the corks on them. I was using a Kodak 8x10 view camera. He was illuminated by the light coming in the garage door. I could visualize the print – him sitting on the stool. I knew my exposure and my camera and what I would do. There were two negatives – each slightly different. I chose the stronger one, the one I thought best expressed Buck’s personality. It’s probably my best portrait.”

I said to Lionel that I thought “Buck” showed an avid realism. He laughed and said, “That photograph is as abstract as hell – it’s black and white.” He went on to say, “Every photo is abstract.” He asked me if I was familiar with Magritte’s “This is not a pipe.” I nodded yes. “Well,” he said, “when you look at ‘Buck’ – it is not Elbert Hill. It’s a photograph of Elbert Hill.”

Lionel’s passing removes from our midst one of our finest photographers. Our only solace is the knowledge that his wonderful pictures will live on, instances of flux forever held.

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