Jo Ann Walters holds a BA from Arizona State University and an MFA from Ohio University. She exhibits nationally and internationally, and her works has been featured in publications New Color/New Work by Sally Eauclaire (Abbeville Press), The Pleasure and Terror of Domestic Comfort (Museum of Modern Art). She has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Connecticut Commission of the Arts Fellowship, and the Ferguson Award for Portraiture from Friends of Photography. Her work is included in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, St. Louis Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Portland Museum of Art, Danforth Museum of Art, Bibliotèque Nationale, among others. Walters has been described by the seminal photographer William Eggleston as “one of the few independently original photographers working in the medium today.”
Lovely as gardens, these lives are lived among small prints and highly piecemeal backgrounds. The girls and women in these portraits are mostly looking forward, preparing themselves for an imagined and transitory feminine future. They inhabit space as if it were all interior — both the rooms inside their houses, and their backyards, and even the woods and fields are places of routine and touch and waiting. And this ineluctable, anticipatory web of relating, at once so fragile and so unyielding, is their chief resource to arm themselves against the foreclosures of the present. They hold onto animals, blankets, towels, clothing, trees, furniture, little sisters, babies, and themselves and one another, seemingly as talismans of the lasting goodness of the future. In the careful, beautifully complex class delineations of many of the portraits it is difficult to tell which of these are dreams that cannot indeed come true.
The domestic character-building ground of a small city or town has long been an extremely demanding place. Its quotidian beauty is the master key to a way of life that seems, from the inside, a self-evident good, a natural form. To achieve and protect these wonders, those who live amidst them must labor, hard. Yet the boundaries of this place now are challenged, its sustainability is in question, its parochialism exposed. But still, such towns as these persist.
Who among us can say for certain what we must circle round and protect, lest its absence prove intolerable? Walters’s photographs propose at least some things to consider. Look again at the image of the little girl arching back against a woman, perhaps her mother, who holds her own body firm as a counter weight, not all that easy to do. It’s the suddenness, like the wrench of a big fish, that surprises us. It’s the frisson of an alien posture, powerful and unexpected, demanding balance and adaptation. Walters exposes the taut beauty with which that challenge is met, grace that is a justification of its own. And who has seen before the burst of stars scattered and flung over the woman behind the screen door or the riveting equilibrium of the upside-down child, an unexpected Buddha on the handrails?
By some alchemy, Walters shows us not only the material but also the simultaneous imaginative world of the mostly women, girls, and children in her focus. And not just once or twice, which could be dismissed as happy chance, but repeatedly. As a feminist critic, I am thrilled at the complexity and richness of the representation; and as grown-up girl, I am moved by her impulse to explore and rewrite, and by the force of her follow-through. In her early garden work, about which I have written previously, the images are simply stunning, one after another, beautiful enough nearly to break your heart. Then her work goes on from there, shifting into the piercing series of portraits of women. The cumulative sense of it all is the power of Walters’s mind to condense and abstract, her refusal to be easily contented or intimidated, and the sheer determination, guts, and drive to push forward, even if it means pushing off from what is known, and is known to be successful. That is an arc that a lot of people just do not have the wherewithal to follow.
These are, may I say it, superb photographs. They bring a world to the pages of a book, depicting subjects who do not, in the main, occupy such a serious and sharply rendered cultural position. But, at the same time, it is so quietly and profoundly observed as to make that world available for a most unusual kind of contemplation. Here are childhood’s intimations as well as adult recollection; here is a finely chiseled, technically and beautifully balanced work of art; a pensive, searing almost sacred meditation on the ordinary. The Vanity + Consolation book project, now nearly complete, is a major contribution: a vision of everyday life that largely goes unseen.
Laura Wexler is professor of American Studies, professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and the founder and director of the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale.
Jo Ann Walters lives in Connecticut and completed her residency at Light Work in August 2013.