Larry Towell, The Pear, Lambton County, Ontario, Canada, 1983, Gelatin Silver Print
By Murray White
In the past 25 years, Larry Towell has slept on the hard concrete floor in a refugee camp in Jenin, crawled through the jungles of El Salvador with rebel forces, been the sole occupant of an abandoned resort complex on the Gaza Strip, and fled tanks during Israeli raids on the occupied West Bank. The image above is none of these. But in the catalogue of work that Towell – a member of the esteemed Magnum photo agency and perhaps our country’s most celebrated documentary photographer – has produced, it is no less significant to him. In it, Towell’s wife Ann holds a wild pear to the mouth of the couple’s son, Moses. It is 1983, though the ’51 Ford pickup suggests a different epoch. As, perhaps, does the landscape, parched-seeming and barren, a bold echo of Walker Evans’ work with sharecroppers in the Southern United States during the Great Depression. Towell’s image – different but also the same – is one of hundreds, if not thousands, he has taken of his family on their farm in Lambton County, Ont. Those images are soon to be assembled in a book, The World From My Front Porch. What it shares with Evans’ best work – and indeed, the work of such legends as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, Magnum founders – is that incalculable quality of the deeply personal that pulls the viewer past the surface two dimensions into the bottomless depths of intimacy that the best documentary photography must evoke. It is striking, to be sure. The hard angle of her jaw, the sharp crook of her arm, set against the soft curves of the fender. The road, cracked and rough, creeping up and away over the rise into God knows what. The boy sharing the fruit with his mother, and in a moment, grasping it from her excitedly and drawing it to his mouth.
It is not Gaza, not Jenin, not San Salvador, nor any of the other places where Towell distinguished himself as a photographer and built his career. It is, though, both different and the same. Towell’s is a practice wed to patience and the extraction of personal reality, amid the din of world-changing trauma or the peace of a world within eyeshot of his front porch. Towell’s practice is not quick, not easy, not tied to flare-ups in various global flashpoints. It is contemplative and long-term. He spent more than 10 years in Central America, following the peasant uprisings in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Larry Towell, Pregnant Ann with Naomi, Lambton County, Ontario, Canada, 1989, Gelatin Silver Print
Closer to home, he spent a decade travelling with a migrant colony of Mennonites as they drifted between Mexico and Lambton County, picking up work along the way. Time is the essence Towell means to distill. Over time, he draws close, close enough to transform the unknowable carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that tracks past the news channels for a few minutes each night into clear, recognizable human experience: A Palestinian woman clutches her child to her breast, scurrying in front of an approaching Israeli tank enforcing the daily curfew; a young girl bathes in a jungle stream in El Salvador, glancing sheepishly upward at the guerrillas that trudge past her, toting automatic rifles; a Mennonite couple steals an embrace next to a hay bale in Mexico. None of these would be possible were Towell not endlessly willing to watch and let the world unfold in moments both quiet and wild. These are the moments in between the flashes and explosions; Towell’s images are not news, but the vast tableau of daily life upon which news is occasionally spattered, only to fade and absorb into daily life once again.
Towell has said his principal preoccupation, as a journalist and as a humanitarian, is the notion of land – how a people’s connection to it shapes their identity, and how those untethered from it by whatever means – by conflict, like the Palestinians or the peasant farmers of El Salvador, and by poverty, like the Mennonite migrant farmers – see that sense of self wither and fade, ghost-like, into oblivion. When I spoke with Towell several years ago for the CBC, it was on his farm in Lambton County, the snow piled high and silence all around. We talked about The World From My Front Porch, a project – book notwithstanding – he’s been working on most of his photographic life. The title, he told me, “plays with the idea of what a photojournalist does. Essentially, we always go out in the world and we look at the world and we make a statement and we try to be honest. “But with this book, I’m saying this is also who I am, and this is also the world.” In his many days and nights with the landless, on cold concrete floors and in dank jungles, in moments quiet and chaotic, Towell had a foot in both worlds and a profound compassion for what his had and theirs had come to lack. “Once I owned my own front yard, I could stand on my front porch and I could look out at the world. I needed it as an anchor.” Casting himself adrift, time and again, the world can finally see what kept him moored.
Larry Towell: The World From My Front Porch runs through March 20 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery at 1026 Queen St. W., Toronto, Canada