The decay of private life is nothing new, though its accelerating decline has come to seem all but inevitable. It’s tempting to blame this state of affairs on technology, on all those devices—iPods, BlackBerries, etc.—that interfere with our ability to focus on the present moment and the person standing before us. But surely the responsibility lies also with a society of unfettered materialism, inclining us to view people through the utilitarian filter of their functions, so that each new encounter becomes another point to be connected on a career trajectory.
Like a voyager returning from distant lands, the photographer JoAnn Verburg brings us evidence of private life’s continued existence. The people in her pictures—some 60 of which are currently on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s handsome mid-career retrospective—appear to read for leisure; they nap in sunlit rooms, or steal oblique glances at one another. They touch each other with no intention other than the desire to make their connection manifest.
She photographs them several times over, juxtaposing, for example, three portraits of her husband, the poet Jim Moore, taken seconds apart. In the first two, this balding, grizzled, middle-aged man (nothing particularly photogenic about him) stares off into the middle distance. But by
the third shot, he looks up, confronting the photographer—and us—with an alarming naked gaze, at once wounded and challenging. What has happened, in the interval, is anyone’s guess, but the three images together capture an inner reality, something as subtle and fleeting as thought.
The daughter of a chemist who worked for a photographic paper manufacturer, Verburg was born in New Jersey in 1950. She began taking pictures as a child, an activity she continued while majoring in sociology at Wesleyan, and at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studied to be a museum curator.
Her breakthrough as an artist came in 1977, with the Rephotographic Survey Project—a collaboration between Verburg, photographer Mark Kleet, and photo historian Ellen Manchester, who were bent on updating 19th-century images of the American West. William Henry Jackson’s magisterial 1873 view of a Colorado valley is included in the MOMA exhibit beside Kleet and Verburg’s velvety print, shot from the same craggy outpost over a century later. The valley’s narrow creek had been dammed and turned into a reservoir. But otherwise, the two images appear uncannily similar—testaments to photography’s powers of abstraction, its ability to create icons from everyday matter.
Verburg arrived in Minneapolis as a visiting artist at the Walker Art Center in 1981, settling there two years later. (She now divides her time between St. Paul and Spoleto, Italy.) Her early group portraits recorded avant-garde artists and performers, most passing through town in the Walker’s orbit. They bear witness to her interest (shared with the choreographers she photographed) in the tenuous connections between individuals, as expressed through the abstract language of gesture.
Those concerns return in her sensual and psychologically astute pictures of friends—frequently couples—swimming, which Verburg shot with her camera pointing directly down at the pool’s surface. The floating bodies and faces, at times exquisitely vulnerable, emerge from the water’s depths as if breaking through from an alternate reality.
Her domestic views, especially an extensive series devoted to her husband reading the newspaper, are haunted by an awareness of distant, sometimes violent events. Seated on a sunlit porch crowded with potted geraniums, for example, he absorbs the collapse of the World Trade Center. (At other times the news is less dramatic. “Petty rivalries and catty digs
thrive in the rare heights of great art,” a pull quote in a still life informs us— a wink from an artist in self-imposed exile from the art world’s centers.)
Moore, whom Verburg married in 1984, is in fact her greatest, if most recalcitrant, subject. She is unusual in this; my (admittedly cursory) survey finds the husband a relative rarity in art. Is he a figure too humdrum or too monumentally threatening? (Certainly the latter for Sylvia Plath, whose description of Ted Hughes in “Daddy”—”a man in black
with a Meinkampf look/and a love of the rack and the screw”—remains among the more memorable.) Julia Margaret Cameron dressed up her aged, semi-invalid husband and photographed him in dramatic tableaux, as King Lear or Merlin. In our own day, Sally Mann (I’m told) takes pictures of Larry Mann, but she doesn’t show them.
Moore is Verburg’s Everyman, a personage at once reassuringly familiar and utterly unknowable. He likes to read the newspaper while in his underwear in bed; in this, he is perhaps not entirely unusual. We most often perceive him in pieces— the nape of his neck, his balding pate, his hand holding a book—or else engaged in one of the many naps which his profession as poet seems to require of him. Yet these distanced, oblique views are more tender than any direct confrontation.