Every time a photograph is made, as the photographer presses the shutter, a moment in time slips away only to be preserved in the form of the image. It is this near-instantaneous relationship between present and memory that Raymond Meeks explores in Somersault, his latest book from MACK. At first, Somersault feels like a companion piece or B-side to ciprian honey cathedral, Meeks’ critically acclaimed release with MACK in 2020. If the latter was a fever dream of partnership, home, and the finitude of love, the former is a lucid walk through an echo chamber of memory, landscape, and the bittersweet nature of change and loss.
The landscapes feel familiar, reminiscent of the work of contemporaries like Tim Carpenter and Michael Ashkin, and their densely layered visual perspectives of suburban and rural America. The portraits are typical Meeks, capturing fleeting glimpses of daily life that often feel more like instances of déjà vu than reality. His subjects are often unaware of being photographed in that exact instant; Meeks’ camera acts as a fly on the wall as well as the eyes of a discerning photographer.
The work focuses on Meeks’ daughter’s time spent at home before moving away for college. Abbey Meeks writes a short text at the end of the book where she states: “I’m not this girl anymore … terrified and confused and deeply self-involved.” Meeks’ photographs catalog this steady growth in his daughter’s life, in a subtle yet revealing way. Some of the portraits are whimsical and playful, showing her as carefree and even innocent. Others are more serious and posed, revealing a contemplative young woman on the cusp of adulthood. This slow unveiling of his daughter’s inner life echoes how most of us feel as young adults: on the edge of something significant, but also unwilling and apprehensive to let go of the insignificant.
The landscapes in Somersault effectively mirror this central focus of the work. There is empty space as well as lots of overgrowth of plant life, each frame hinting at a low ache for leaving a familiar place behind and finding one’s own place within the world. Many images are framed by the encroachment of plant life and nature upon homes, structures, and the built environment. We can almost see Meeks’ own fears, and a father’s dread, in the scenes at which he chooses to point his camera.
What saves these images from being necessarily bleak is the lighting. There is a pervasive glow in the light Meeks uses in these photographs: soft, dreamy, misty atmospherics envelop the pictures and allow their subjects to be present, but not to overtake each frame. But there is still a lingering, understated sadness in these pages. From wilted daisies in a field to rotting apples hanging loosely from tree branches, we see metaphors of a father’s love for his daughter coming to an end in one stage, and a period of uncertainty and doubt as both move forward into a new era of their own lives, as well as a new dynamic in their relationship with one another.
Some readers might take Somersault and pit it against ciprian honey cathedral, wondering if one outshines the other. This comparison of book to book, however, perhaps diminishes the strengths, or weaknesses, of either work by itself. Inevitably, viewers will look for comparisons in an attempt to say that one is “better” than the other, or that one lacks what the other might have. But does this inclination reduce each body of work into a mere vehicle for passing on our own judgments? Michel Foucault stated that an ideal form of criticism would be one that “would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence.” Meeks’ work, in both books, is abundant with signs of existence. In close examinations of family life and the land in which we spend our days in love and lament, the photographer in this instance does the work for us. We are left not being asked to compare, or to judge, but simply to take in, to breathe out, to see and to feel.
In many ways, Somersault is a book about loss. Loss comes in many forms. To most, death is the ultimate form of loss. It can also be the end of a relationship, or the loss of friends who circle in and out of one’s life. Here, it is the slow release of a child who has outgrown their childhood and moves on to another stage of life. Yet stagnancy can also be a type of loss, a missed opportunity for growth. Sometimes we need to lose something or someone to continue moving and living, to maintain a forward frequency. As much as a loss and the ensuing bereavement might hurt, it is that sting of pain that gives us a new choice: to accept defeat lying down, or to form new strength and purpose from what it is we have lost, and from there to see what we might have gained.
The slow ache of memory persists and pervades instances in our lives when the present and the future cannot hold enough weight to anchor us down. What we lose comes circling back to us. Memory is cyclical. Somersault is an ode to kinship, to small joys and minor victories, to the ones in our lives who will remain there, no matter how many steps ahead they might travel.