JW at Corn Close, Cumbria, UK 1978
photograph by Elizabeth Matheson

Pictures from the Collection of Jonathan Williams

(An exhibition brochure, Belk Gallery, Western Carolinia University, Spring 2001)


Poetry and photography have always seemed to me to share certain qualities and sympathies. To be really dumb about it, the two words share five letters: p-o-t-r-y. Does that suggest anything? Not really. And they often appear— at their best— in black and white. Maybe this somewhat dim observation has just now come to the end of its usefulness?

Another errant thought to throw out is: think of how many poets and how many photographers there are these days. Thousands and thousands and thousands. There are seldom more than ten poets in any generation that can be stomached and read with pleasure. On the rare occasions when I am forced to sit amongst academics for dinner, sometimes I will turn to the most boring and righteous and say, “Let’s play a little game. Please tell me the name of your 50 favorite photographers. After that, let’s name your 50 favorite jazz pianists.” It’s a cruel game because university people slouch laboriously from semester to semester and don’t ever go to Disneyworld, or hang out in jazz clubs, or visit shops like The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville to explore the fine range of books on photographers. I usually start my jazz pianist list with these ten: John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, James Booker, Erroll Garner, Jelly Roll Morton, Bill Evans, Cyrus Chestnut, Bud Powell. Only 40 to go!

I went to Black Mountain College fifty years ago to study with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Harry hated to talk “about” photography. He’d help you in the darkroom and with the camera. That was it. But, Aaron was a mensch of the city. He would talk and laugh about everything— photography included. He had taught English in the New York school system in his early days. The beer sessions at Ma Peak’s Tavern, a rather louche establishment on the way into the town of Black Mountain, were great experiences for me and the other students. Aaron would talk about Stieglitz and Steichen, Atget, Walker Evans, and Minor White, while carefully checking that crummy room for nubile maidens and possibly available ladies.

Siskind had known Cartier-Bresson and thought he was one of the very best writers on photography. He was right. Here’s a sample: “In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what he frames through the view finder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself.... To take photographs means to recognize— simultaneously and within a fraction of a second— both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.” If you add “one’s ear” to the axis, this is also very good advice for any poet. There is a useful small book of Cartier-Bresson’s writings on photography and photographers, The Mind’s Eye, available from Aperture.

Once I get started quoting good texts, it is hard to stop me. Just a few more:

“People are wrong in supposing that I have intentions, I only create art. The artist will always be a special, isolated, solitary agent, with an innate sense for organizing matter.”
— Odilon Redon

“Be present, be yourself. You are here. Objects are here. They are for you only, because you see them.”
— Tibetan Lamaist saying

“I believe that photography loves banal objects, and I love the life of objects.”
— Josef Sudek

“If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar on the other side of silence.”
— George Eliot

But, let me tell you a little about this exhibition. By the time I got to Black Mountain I was a beginning poet and a beginning publisher. In 1951 hardly anyone in America collected photographs. You never saw prints on the walls of anyone’s home. Aunt Bessie and Grandpa Jones might be there in tacky gold frames on the piano, but that was it. Siskind had a small exhibition at the end of the summer session at the College. I bought a print of one of his wonderful walls for $10.00.

In 1953, when I was in the Army Medics in a hospital outside of Stuttgart, I bought a Moholy-Nagy print from Lutz und Meyer, an established local gallery. I paid $25.00. In 1995 a dealer in Washington, DC sold it to a German collector for $23,500. That paid for a new roof on our house. I hadn’t ever framed the image. It sat in a drawer for all that time. I only bought it originally because I had spent a little time at the Institute of Design in Chicago, which has been founded by Moholy. Occasionally one gets lucky.

However, the point is: never buy anything for “investment.” Buy what you like, what you love, what moves you. Buy your contemporaries. At this point in time, I can’t afford my contemporaries. But I was able to acquire lots of prints in the days when money was not an issue. In 1957, if you visited Frederick Sommer in Prescott, Arizona, the going price was $45.00 a print. I told him that was silly. His darkroom was costing him $4,500 a year, so I suggested the three prints he seemed be selling a year should be priced at $1,500 each. Nowadays, a vintage, signed Sommer print is more like $10,000 to $15,000. All this stuff is nutty. BUY WHAT YOU LIKE! In the old days, as I said, money was hardly the object. I was a writer and publisher. I would trade photographic prints for books. Ansel Adams was happy enough to trade a print of “Mount Williamson” for maybe three books. I still have my Callahans and 17 Siskinds and my Sommers and my Adamses and my Meatyards and my Bullocks and my Laughlins. They are part of the household. Other things I like to look at are half of the Great Smokies, almost all of the Nantahala Mountains, and (in winter) most of the Georgia Blue Ridge. We have 42 acres to protect us from Highway 106, the lifeline from Buckhead, Atlanta to Highlands. Highlands is turning into East Hampton, Martha’s Vineyard, or worse. The SUVs and Jags and 18-wheelers are down there, but out of sight and (mostly) out of sound. I am a very poor Murcan. Dubya at the helm is rather like the gorgon Medusa dressed by Brooks Brothers. I try to stay home and not get turned into stone, or something considerably less pleasant.

The homeplace is it. Being a writer, books are the major things to collect. I try to read at least three hours a day. Dig it. This is followed by photographs, drawings, a few paintings, ceramics, and Outsider Art. There’s not much room for more photographs. But I try to add occasionally from the work of some of the photographers we have published: Rob Amberg, Dave Spear, Elizabeth Matheson, John Menapace, Lyle Bongé. I don’t travel like I used to, but I keep my eye on some of the younger photographers: Michelle van Parys, Roger Manley, Mark Steinmetz, Kay Du Vernet, and Reuben Cox, who was born in Highlands, NC, but works free-lance out of New York City at the moment. I don’t have the money to compete with the monied. No problem. I have eyes and ears, so the house is a great pleasure after 50 years on the job. A monastic solution to 2001. Come April I must confess I will turn on the tv to see the incomparable Greg Maddux throwing the circle change. That’s about as much of Murca as I need. The rest is dross, etc. Eminem and Elton can have it.


Jonathan Williams was born in Asheville, North Carolina, 1929. He attended St. Albans School, dropped out of Princeton, finished up at Black Mountain College. For the 50 years since he has been a poet, writer, publisher of The Jargon Society, a photographer of sorts, and a hiker of long distances. He has written a lot about photographers. Recently, he wrote the essay for Harry Callahan, in Aperture’s “Masters of Photography” series. Blackbird Dust, a book of essays, was published in 2000 by Turtle Point Press. A Palpable Elysium, a book of 80 digitized color photographs (with texts), is forthcoming from David R. Godine, Publisher, in Boston, with an introduction by Guy Davenport. Jubilant Thicket, a new & selected poems, is in NYC seeking a publisher. A Harry Callahan is on the cover. Jonathan Williams is a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, which, he says, means that the 83 (or is it 81?) readers of poetry in NC don’t feel required to make the effort of reading him any further.