Some years ago, at an estate sale in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson – a small town about 20 miles north of New York City – filmmaker Peter Ward purchased the archive of an amateur photographer called Bernard Taylor. For forty dollars, Ward took home six boxes of newspaper and magazine clippings, handwritten and typed notes, photographs, and postcards. Most fascinating of all were Taylor’s worksheets: photographs, mounted on heavy card, annotated with short quotations from some of the finest scientific, philosophical and literary minds of the modern era – among them Gertrude Stein, Jun’ishiro Tanizaki, Cormac McCarthy, Louis Pasteur, and John Stuart Mill – and with his own terse, cryptic captions. Ward spent several years putting the archive into order, adding his own editors’ notes, eventually publishing it privately in a small run of 50 copies which were given away to family and friends.
The present book is a facsimile of Ward’s original publication. As well as quotes and captions, it includes vintage postcards, aquatints, and Taylor’s remarkable imagery, divided roughly into three chapters or suites. The first section concentrates mainly on organic forms: the twisted, almost abstract shapes of leafless winter trees; the burgeoning growth of early summer; still woodlands, the atmosphere dense with mist. In the middle of the book is a short, haunting series of photographs taken at night. The final section is a puzzle, mixing the almost romantic idiom of the earlier images with photographs of vacant lots, empty doorways and concrete foundations. Certain buildings seem to have held a special fascination for Taylor – vernacular structures like storage sheds and water towers. There are no portraits or even incidental images of people among Taylor’s photographs, and the overwhelming sensibility is one of stillness and slight melancholy. The archive as a whole, on the other hand, is the product of a truly ecumenical mind – one that was happy to bring literature into dialogue with the study of optics, and aqueducts with the design of the universe. The Archive of Bernard Taylor is more than a record of place – it’s also a reflection on isolation and imagination.
With the help of Tom Lecky from Understory Books, I was able to get an interview with the elusive Peter Ward. We spoke briefly over email in January 2021.
ES: I notice that you don’t specify exactly when the images were shot – was it not possible to date them accurately?
PW: Taylor moved to Hastings-on-Hudson in the 1950s, so the photographs were almost certainly taken after that, but none of his notes were dated, and we can’t assume that the magazine and newspaper clippings were collected at the same time the photographs were made. There were no negatives. A photographic expert to whom I showed the prints suspects that all of the work in the archive was probably created in a short span of time – possibly within the space of a few months. There’s no revisiting of locations, and not much in the way of seasonal change. Interestingly, most of the locations don’t look much different now than they did when the photographs were taken.
The prints themselves seem to have been remarkably well preserved, though, and they have such a fresh feel. There’s something the style of the imagery that reminds me of the work of contemporary photographers like Alan Huck or Michael Ashkin: the engagement with unspectacular spaces, the focus on a kind of ordinariness in the environment. I think many of these images will also appeal to fans of work by twentieth-century landscape photographers like Robert Adams, Joe Deal, and John Gossage.
It was evident from the contents of Taylor’s library – which I viewed at the estate sale, but didn’t purchase – that his influences came more from writers, painters and musicians. He did not, as far as I can tell, have any formal background in photography or art, and nothing in the archive suggests that he knew the work of the people you mention or that he was consciously referencing any tradition. We believe that he studied English and American literature in college, and that books were his profession. So his conceptual grounding comes from the literary world, not art.
You attempted to keep as closely as possible to Taylor’s original order, but I’m aware that at some points you felt the need to reorganise his worksheets for the sake of clarity. I understand that Taylor’s own mysterious captioning system helped you to do this?
The appropriations, captions, poetry, and structure of the book all follow a variety of formal constraints in the tradition of the Oulipo, the French-founded literary group launched in 1960 by the writer Raymond Queneau and scientist and mathematician François le Lionnais. Oulipo was essentially an art/science collaboration – a workshop for exploring structural systems or algorithms for generating poetry. Queneau described the group – which later numbered the writer Georges Perec among its members – as ‘rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.’ Taylor’s captions held the key to the order of the pages.
Your own editorial interventions are quite different. They’re very closely engaged with the history of the town – its industry and architecture, its former residents – and not necessarily with Taylor himself, or with his photographs. The link between the archive and your editorial commentary isn’t always direct or obvious. What were your reasons for adding this material to the book?
Hastings-on-Hudson is a small town, and it was important to me to establish a context for those who might not be familiar with the place and its history – its residents, its industrial heritage, its geography and geology. Like many small towns, it’s a place where even the most seemingly ordinary lives are occasionally shaken by mystery and scandal. I felt it would help the reader to understand Taylor’s motivations.
But it’s far from a standard or systematic historical presentation. It’s filled with speculation and mystery and bears your own stamp as much as that of Bernard Taylor. It’s as though the book is about your world as much as it is about his.
My hope is that the book creates its own world. Whether it succeeds or not is up to others, and I become just as much an outsider as anyone else. Put another way, although I made the book, I brought the material together, I don’t consider it ‘mine.’ The reader has to bring it to life. In a world that has grown the cult of personality with increasing fervour, I find it more interesting to disappear into the work and be a participant than to be the headline. How each person approaches it is their own journey. It begs the reader’s participation and attention, and hopes to create conversation.
The Archive of Bernard Taylor pointed up a certain dilemma that often troubles me as a writer. I looked carefully at every photograph in the book. I read every line, every annotation, all the front and back matter. I’m not sure that Ward fully understands the protocols that held Taylor’s archive together, and my short interview with him raised more questions than it answered. There is a structure to the archive, but it’s not quite the schema that Ward, distracted by his own agenda, partially identified and then went on to obscure with his additions.
If, by ‘author’, we understand the person who shapes the presentation of a work (if not its interpretation), then The Archive of Bernard Taylor has at least two and potentially many more authors involved. The ‘meaning’ of this book isn’t just to be found in the photographs, or in the ephemera, or even in Ward’s strange addenda, but in the hidden structures that hold them together. Some won’t look closely enough to find these links, and many will only ever know the work second-hand, through reviews like this one. Yet I’m reluctant to share what I know, because it may well change the meaning of this book for subsequent readers. Peter Ward doesn’t want the work to be ‘his’, and in the same spirit, I don’t want it to be ‘mine.’ And this is the position that I often find myself in when reviewing work by others – not-quite-critic, not-quite-author, the reviewer’s task, as I understand it, is to open the work up, not to weigh it down with their own judgements. So rather than setting out to ‘correct’ Ward’s presentation of the archive of Bernard Taylor, I will leave the mystery intact, in the hope of helping to create the conversation that he wanted.