I haven’t spent much time in Massachusetts.
Sure, I went there once or twice as a kid.
Saw the Faneuil Hall. Probably ate some clam chowder. Went to a Red Sox game.
But that was so long ago I barely remember it.
There’s lots of red brick in Boston, right?
I visited Northampton a few times when my wife was in graduate school, but even that was 20 years ago. And Northampton is its own little enclave, like Los Alamos in New Mexico.
Most of what I know of Massachusetts comes from popular culture, I must say.
There’s a particular type of Massachusetts lowlife that you see on screen, again and again, and I’ve heard that damn accent so many times that it’s embedded more deeply in my brain than my aversion to coleslaw. (Or mayonnaise in general.)
Whether it’s Ben Affleck’s bank-robber-buddies in “The Town,” Johnny Depp playing Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” Sean Penn and friends in “Mystic River,” Jack Nicholson, Leo and Matt Damon in “The Departed,” Ben again with Matt and his Southie pals in “Good Will Hunting” or Casey Affleck in another of Ben’s directed films, “Gone Baby Gone.”
(I realize the list is Affleck-heavy. Clearly, much of what I know of lower-class white Massachusetts, and the Boston area in particular, comes through a very Affleckian lens.)
But that vision, of the heavy accent, the caricature, it’s out there.
Even my very-Jewish cousin Jeff, who’s from New Jersey, lived in NYC for two decades, and moved to Boulder a few years ago, can do a passable version of the Southie.
He said he learned it on “Ray Donovan,” another TV version of the Boston lowlife stereotype. (This time with Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight doing the accent work.)
I admit, I caught several episodes of “Ray Donovan” a few years ago, on a free Showtime marathon, and the actress who plays Schrieber’s wife, the Irishwoman Paula Malcomson, must have a slot in the lowlife TV Hall of Fame, having also had roles in “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
Quite the violent trilogy she’s got going there. I bet if they did a body-count-total on all three shows, it would exceed the population of a migrant-children’s-lockup in Trump’s America.
(To be clear, Paula Malcomson is probably a very nice lady. I doubt she’s been typecast as a criminal or a prostitute for any reason.)
But knowing what I know of poverty and violence here in Taos, the condition is definitely intergenerational, and often family or kin-network-based. (Gangs often being based on those self-same networks.)
There’s definitely bad blood out there, and it can sometimes express itself across a clan.
That’s what I began thinking about, anyway, as I put down “For Real,” a new photo book by Paris Visone, recently published by Peanut Press.
I swear, there’s never an intended connection between reviews, no pre-planned themes, but this book falls into a similar category to “Born,” from two weeks back, in that it feels right on the edge of what I’ll review here.
(Ultimately, the biggest criteria is, does it make me write, and here we are, with me writing, so there you go.)
The book opens with a screen-grab-facebook-message introduction from artist Cig Harvey, offering both praise and an odd character reference for Ms. Visone. (Apparently, she gave her fellow students the middle finger a lot.)
Then it’s on to the pictures, and like many books, there are maybe a few too many. The compositions are occasionally rough, with odd cuts, but it adds to the raw style. After a minute or so thinking on it, I decided the edgy-style was cool, and worked with the subject matter.
As each image is titled, and characters repeat, we suss out that the people seem to be the artist’s extended family, in Massachusetts.
One set of grandparents seems kind of normal, like regular old people, and the other, well, seems a fair-bit-different.
Her other Papa weighs 300 lbs, easy, and is all tatted out to boot. In one image, (I had to go back to double-check,) he also wears a blonde wig.
There’s a dyed-blonde cousin, or sister, who repeats named Paige. And others too.
At first, it seems like the narrative is centered around these folks in MA, but then odd destinations begin to pop up, like Russia or Amsterdam.
More and more characters are added to the story, and it becomes hard to keep track, beyond Papa’s huge belly.
I know my opening focused on criminality, and I must say, there no sign of it here. It’s not fair to call these people lowlives, like the fictional folks I referenced earlier. But lots of tattoo parlors, junk food, some drinking, and bikinis. It’s like a less charged version of the stereotype on TV.
Something more down to earth.
Something more real.
There are some great details, like the picture shot from behind a chihuahua’s butt, or the double-page spread where big Papa points a gun then aimed at little Papa.
When finally Dad makes an appearance, it is behind a car’s window glass, he wears sunglasses, looking menacing, like Anthony LaPaglia in some thug role.
Ultimately, we learn that the travel photos are related to a tour by the band Limp Bizkit, but I never figured out who was in the band.
Or why it was included. Probably her cousin or brother is involved? Maybe Wes is a dancer?
I know I’m hard on books, in the sense that I have high expectations.
Why not, right? I mean, this is a criticism column. We talk about the good and the bad.
I liked the photographs here, but felt like they weren’t quite out-there enough to be shocking, given all the things we’ve seen before.
But still, no knocking them.
Rather, my issue was I couldn’t figure out who was connected to whom and how, and why entirely I was supposed to care?
The photos are made over 10 years or so, and kids age, which is always nice. And again, it’s hard to knock a book of good photos that holds my attention and keeps me guessing.
But most books will then use end text, or some form of additional context to answer those questions. To make the cause of the tension, or the roots of the intention, known.
That was what was lacking in “For Real,” if we’re keeping it real.
Here we are though. It was worth reviewing, because I just reviewed it, and I liked it enough to recommend it.
More than anything, it makes me think it’s time to see Massachusetts for myself.
Bottom Line: A weird, fun and inscrutable family drama
If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.