Raymond Meeks & George Weld – The Inhabitants


Putting my thoughts on this book together has taken me a while. Most of this comes down to trying to understand how I feel about the subject or lack of subject within the work and the position of the author(s) to that. I often have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to people photographing what I perceive to be class issues. However, in Ray’s pictures, produced in the North of France, near Calais to be more precise, it is as much about the remnants of refugees as it is about outright class positions. He was also in the South of France on the border of Spain with similar motivations to make the work. However, this is probably only part of the focus of the book. I do not think of Ray as a political animal, though he could once have been. Therefore, asking the book and Ray himself to be solely about my interpretation based on him being the sixth Immersion laureate for a French–American Photographic Commission established by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, to be about European politics or a wider chasm of what may be going on across the world, in terms of borders, including in his native America, might be a bit of a mistake or overreach.


This is where I still find myself asking questions about the work, interrogating it, and trying to understand how I feel about it wrapped up in a beautifully produced and elegant book of photographs and one extended poem by George Weld, which, not being a fan of poetry myself, somewhat confounded me by opening the work up for me more than I expected. Maybe I was getting lousy shit before. I also associate poetry with a class position, a pursuit of those who have free time to dabble in thin, long lines of words, words being clever, held like a dagger to the grubby throat of a world running out of time. How different then, photography? In George’s words, I find something familiar, something observational that suggests the obvious found in Ray’s photographs, but that is to be deciphered through the parable of a watery void suckling at the writer’s kneecaps at the edge of a river bed, unwilling to let him go, reluctant to exert more force to push him away. He is present, a marker of experience, the pen of service. His inclusion reminds one of the great photoessay writers of the mid-twentieth century such as Paul Morand, Florent Fels, and V.S. Pritchett amongst others.



It should be mentioned that there are no refugees or homeless individuals in the pictures and that most of Ray’s inquiries are pointedly looking at the hinterland of an area. This play reminds me of Anthony Hernandez’s similar use of hinterland space in Landscapes for the Homeless. That Calais is attached to the 2015 refugee crisis, and a continued discussion between post-Brexit Britain and France/EU about borderlands and these same refugees cannot be ignored entirely. If the location had yet to be disclosed, or if the same work had been made in America, I might still ask questions, but my delay in response might be shorter. With this in mind, there is a sensitivity in the work that does not exploit or render the misfortune of others as simple gristle and bone meal for the elixir of making art that evades the critical questions at its heart.


There are questions about what type of photography this is, in its observational and lyrical form. Part of the book’s constructions suggests an ode to the humanist tradition of books from Willy Ronis or Robert Doisneau, with images floating to the edges of the pages and then back toward the center, top, or bottom. This aligns with editing in the 50s and 60s and is rarely seen. Weld’s caption poetry is used as an illumination of sorts. There is an almost direct correlation to post-war French photobooks. When I look through the morass of weeds and bramble in The Inhabitants, I see stark totems of what came before Ronis and Doisneau, namely the archaeology of disused WWII bunkers, a la Paul Virilio whose edifice, colossal and imposing in rebar and concrete is now used, or has recently been used to shelter refugees looking to escape a different war in different terrain, nearly caught casually weaving geometric spiderwebs of string. Have you seen David Cronenberg’s film Spider? Does the spider, the fly, or the web make its environment?


The photographs were never in question. This is peek Meeks in terms of image-making, so there are no bones of contention when it comes to his images, which, veiled in a thin veneer of melancholy and geometry, elicit a feeling of purpose and odd hope. The use of shadows and his foreshortened optical effrontery is reminiscent of John Gossage. Whereas it would be easy to invoke Gossage’s book The Pond, as many artists seem happy to do, I find more symmetry in this work with Secrets or Real Estate and 13 Ways to Miss a Train than I do with The Pond, though I get that bramble informs both. One could argue that there might also be a hint of The Romance Industry lurking between the pages of The Inhabitants.


All in all, the questions that Meeks and Weld ask are counter-illuminations. They do not ask for specific responses as they do not propose particular questions, and this is the strength of the book and the work in general, which should be noted that it is different in a gallery context from what I have seen of the resulting exhibition. Instead, both artists are content to provide suggestions without leading the viewer toward a conclusion. At first, this chaffed at my approach to reviewing the work. I felt there was little at stake for the artists, that they spoke about a towering subject but refused to annunciate the obvious. My initial phase of knee-jerking made me want to cauterize the beauty in the pictures and words and retaliate, dismiss, and generate a discussion that included a summary dismissal of the work based on what I perceived to be insensitivity. Instead, having let it settle in a bit longer, I find that whereas those questions have not entirely left me, I am still thinking about them. That sustained web in which I am caught floundering is likely more meaningful and lasting than if I had consumed the whole of it and moved on like I do with so many tragedies of our immoral time. That sustained and prolonged gesture is where hope lies. Work that refuses easy categorization and lodges itself under the skin next to the bell-ringing pulse is rare and should be explored more. I highly recommend this book because it strikes at something closer to human. I agree with Tim Carpenter’s assertion that this is Ray’s most important book. Seeing him this close to something vaguely political is interesting. I don’t know if I want more of it, but it is refreshing to see that he cares.


Raymond Meeks/George Weld

The Inhabitants


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