/ James Pfaff: Alex & Me
It’s a slim book, Alex & Me, but it’s no slight thing. James and Alex were in love in 1998. And then they weren’t. But for a time that September they borrowed a car and drove, Toronto to New Orleans then New York, making their own world as they went. A love affair made and broken on the road, James photographed it all, then, after a decade of ‘free living’ in which ‘[a]t times I was not myself,’ he went back to the pictures in 2014 to make this book as a gift for Alex.
It sounds romantic. It was. It still is. And like all romance, Alex & Me is the stuff of cliché. I can think of a song for every place they went. Detroit, Dayton, Cincinnati, Memphis, New Orleans, Jackson, Mobile, Georgiana, New York City. Along the way, neon, gas stations, stars and stripes, rhinestones. Cigarettes, cars and drive-ins. Clapboard. Jesus and the cross. White picket fences. The American Dream. Fixed abode and family. James and Alex on the outside of all that. On the edge of something else. Alex, hands in the pockets of her dungarees. Striking out.
The decisive strike out west that gave the road trip its place in American culture was often made, as Stephen Shore says, by outsiders: Nabokov, the pale Russian émigré writing Humbert’s year-long tour with Lolita in the hot vigour of Utah, riffing on his own trips with his wife Véra to collect insects. Kerouac, a Francophone Canadian by birth, on the road with Neal Cassady. Robert Frank, Kerouac’s friend, whose book The Americans was first published as Les Américains in Paris. Before them, Cartier-Bresson. Simone de Beauvoir.
Shot, as it was, by a restless Glaswegian, inspired by his Canadian lover, and now produced as a book by the Italian editor and curator Francesca Seravalle, Alex & Me talks to all of this. James’s book has a rhythm that reminds me of Frank’s; small details link to pictures in the pages before and in the pages still to come; it goes back and forth on itself; the structure is like music, right down to the small stops – caesurae – in which we gather Alex up, out of the images, as James had to do, on returning to them years after the affair had ended. This link is no surprise, since Seravalle, who helped James make sense of his vision for Alex & Me, has worked, before, with Frank.
Alex & Me wears its inheritance on its sleeve. But it does something different enough to matter, to be interesting and valuable. I doubt that Seravalle would have taken it on otherwise. It is, with her input, ‘a totally confident universe.’[i] It isn’t that James handles paint and print in a way that reminds us of the fact that image-making relies on ‘hard physical effects’.[ii] Though he does. It isn’t even that we feel these effects. Or that they give us a line on Alex, that Alex, at that time in September ’98, at that crazy point (again) ‘where ‘affect (love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire) is a guarantee of Being.’[iii]
I wrote about this ‘crazy point’ in my March piece on Sarah Amy Fishlock; I admire this kind of photography. Autobiographical. Expansive. Made to get close – and closer – to the bone. For Alex and for James, the fact of this book being published at all is as close to the bone as the sad and bright love affair at the book’s heart. When he set out to publish James saw the book as a gift to Alex. She accepted it in the beginning. Then the Ravenna publisher Danilo Montanari Editore took it on. Embraced it, even, with the certainty of a man who knows a good thing.
Money, time and hearts were invested. Alex & Me had its place in the world. Then Alex asked James not to publish. Two years before it came out, she fell silent and her silence was absolute. Today James has no idea, as he puts it, ‘if Alex is dead or alive.’ What began as a gift and grew into a tender and cathartic collaboration now turned on a set of solitary ‘adult’ creative choices. Suddenly the project would come, if at all, at a personal price. James had to draw his own line and decide if he was a person making pleasantries (however intimate) with a camera or not. He chose to publish. The whole thing was ‘too far gone’ not to, he said.
Alex did not withdraw because her memories of 1998 were too painful to put in the public sphere. She was one of the best versions of herself then that she ever was. I think she knew this. Nor was it that the photographs affirmed a self from which Alex realised, suddenly, she had journeyed too far to return. I think she knew that, too, from the start. It wasn’t the pictures themselves, either. ‘She loved those pictures. She loved the whole thing.’ (James)
It’s easy to see why she loved them. They celebrate her. Alex, in James’s pictures, has cropped hair; she wears denim shirts, flat sandals and broad strap vests; she has long collarbones and a face like a boy’s; she breathes so easy in her own skin, or she seems to, that I find myself looking for her company, through the pages, not for James. James is there and he’s looking for her too but it’s Alex I want to know. I know James a bit since he returned to live in Glasgow. I can have a coffee any time and talk life. But Alex, being silent now, can only be found in the photographs. She doesn’t call anymore, from the pool by her home, and say ‘How you doing, Pfaff?’ The book is all there is.
Alex against a strip joint wall, in her dungarees, unsmiling, a cigarette drifting in her right hand. (I’ve never smoked.) Alex at the wheel of the car she borrowed for the trip with James, unknown to the friend who owned it. ‘It’ll be fine,’ she said. A shot, later, of the sheriff who pulled the car over one night. (I’ve never taken off. I’ve never taken much without asking.) Alex, her hands against the gauze of a porch screen. (I’ve never been so unreachable.) In the photographs – and this is James’s skill – Alex is a person I recognise in her own right and in myself. She has done things I only think of or get half way to doing. She lives by instinct; she is impulsive, and that, James’s photographs tell us, is the cost – as well as the joy – of being Alex.
Her silence, as James agrees, has turned the book into something else. It was a story of love and the road, finely excavated by James, finely choreographed by Francesca. It asked questions about the power of the photograph to relive the moment it attests to. It nodded to its antecedents – Shore, Frank, Kerouac, Evans – then asked, without regrets, if it was possible to replicate in still form the heady experience of moving on the road through such a vast terrain as love.
Now it has a new and different life, yet no-one who has so far written about Alex & Me has addressed its source. It is a sensitive subject because Alex’s reticence was imposed, James believes, by her circumstances. When we speak, he alludes to her dependence on a controlling partner who has stalked the project online, abusing and threatening those he believed to be involved in its creation and promotion. At first James was embarrassed. He felt threatened. This man had everything, outwardly, that a ‘man’ should: a house, a 9 to 5, cars, children and guns. James was, as he had been in 1998, on the outside of all that. But the terrain he was contesting now was not that of love. It was ownership. Who did the images ‘belong’ to, if anyone? Alex & Me was photographed by James, encouraged by Alex, disputed by her partner, edited by Francesca, published by Danilo, and seen (digitally and as a book) by anonymous audiences across the world. It has, as successful photo-books do, an imaginative life of its own, gifted to it in part by Alex’s silence; but for her, the book’s stakes are real and, potentially, high. As James said, ‘I don’t know if Alex is alive or dead.’
He has been challenged on this point at talks and signings by individuals (some women) who find his decision to publish morally suspect given Alex’s position. Another cliché, it seems, touches this book: the male artist whose creative drive trumps all, often at a cost to his female muse. Alex has, in other writing, been called James’s muse. But in this context, I have a problem with the word. Traditionally a muse provides the visionary insight that inspires and rewards male creativity; often, her fate is to fail to sustain – for the artist – the transgressive beauty on which his work relies. To call Alex a ‘muse’ is to speak about her (or for her) as a thing of the imagination; she is real, as is her life after 1998; it suggests, also, that her relationship with James followed a well-worn – and simplistic – dynamic in which we might expect him to weigh the moral odds, then publish and (let Alex) be damned.
In fact, James is still coming to terms with his decision. Alex is gone from his life. He wants a reconciliation one day. ‘In ten years, maybe, it will be the right time.’ ‘If there had been any violence,’ he says, between Alex and her partner, he would never have published. But he lives, he admits, with the possibility of violence, triggered or intensified by his own decisions. Alex’s silence keeps this possibility alive, always. Yes, James says, he weighed this against his own investment in the book and to say he is not her keeper is, he knows, no absolution. But to withdraw Alex & Me, would – I think – have made James complicit with her partner, who conflated Alex with her image, and policed (perhaps still polices) both. That Alex & Me exists means that Alex exists, cigarette in hand, on the road in 1998, belonging – as she does – to no-one.
– essay by Katherine Parhar
Alex & Me will show at Street Level Photoworks in spring summer of 2018.
The book, a limited edition of 700, is available at: www.photobookstore.co.uk
Montanari Editore’s full catalogue can be accessed here: www.danilomontanari.com
Notes from the text:
[i] Natasha Christia: James Pfaff: Alex & Me, http://www.1000wordsmag.com/james-pfaff/
[ii] Francis Hodgson: Teenage Kicks, https://francishodgson.com/2017/03/11/teenage-kicks/
[iii] Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida, London: Hill & Wang, 1980, p.113.