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Paul Bowles - Photographs: "How Could I Send A Picture Into the Desert?"

Philip Taaffe

While I was visiting Tangier in 1989 during the filming of Bernardo Bertolucci's version of Paul Bowles' novel The Sheltering Sky, I saw the movie crew spend days in preparation for a scene by meticulously removing all traces of plastic from the environment. They were attempting to evoke the era of Tangier as a postwar "city of dreams"--so Bowles refers nostalgically, and in considerable retrospect, to his adopted home. At that time, I imagine, Tangier was an unwitting paradise of sorts, a windy, whitewashed Arabian labyrinth, an economically and politically autonomous zone positioned at the very northwestern tip of Africa. In the late '40s, a time when being a cultural outcast really meant something, it began to attract some of the most notorious, brilliant, and hopeless individuals from a decimated world ever to congregate in one geographical setting. Add to the scenario a mounting list of international socialites and, from the point of view of the emigres, the powerful mystery of the indigenous population, and the dream potential grows. The collection of images in Paul Bowles--Photographs: "How could I send a picture into the desert?" has an authenticity that quite naturally intersects with this era of postwar history. With the locus of Tangier as their staging ground, these souvenirs from the exhaustive peregrinations of Bowles himself consistently pursue an idyllic, pristine exoticism and reveal his desire to experience deeper, less fragmented cultural traditions.

As a fan of Bowles' life and work, my first impression of this book is certainly one of compelling interest; and yet, at the same time, I have a sense of bemused curiosity as to how this heretofore unpublished material came to be assembled in such an academic way. Initially, I felt that a scrapbook format might have been more appropriate, but the information is so intelligently organized, and the scale of the images so varied, that the standard "art photography" presentation, in fact, seems perfectly adequate. These snapshots (most taken by Bowles, a few by friends), incidental by their very nature, can also be seen as personal diaristic encounters. The best of them have a rich biographical texture and a resonant sense of place.

One of my favorites is a picture of a group of five acrobatic Tangerino boys forming a human column, Coney Island style, by standing on each others' shoulders--smallest boy at the top, three poised in the center, with the strongman supporting their weight beneath. Taken on Merkala Beach, Tangier, in 1956, the year of Moroccan independence, it is an absolutely triumphant display of young male prowess--and Bowles captured it well. In a brilliant editorial juxtaposition, on the page facing this photo is a picture of Bowles' parents from the same year. Sitting in canvas deck chairs on Merkala Beach, they would appear to be watching this gymnastic performance with an air of studied indifference. Another clever and deliberately suggestive pairing brings together two 1963 pictures from Marrakech. On the left-hand page, we have a scene from the souk for black medicine, with a veiled woman in the background presumably shopping for magic ingredients; on the right-hand page, we see a bewildered-looking Jane Bowles slouching in a horse-drawn carriage with her bad right leg elevated, staring impassively into the camera. Could this union of images be a meditation on Moroccan theories of causality, perhaps?

Central to the spirit of Bowles' photography are the discreetly homoerotic portraits contained in this volume. One important example is the picture of 16-year-old Ahmed Yacoubi, taken soon after Bowles met him. Yacoubi was to become a widely respected Moroccan painter and longtime friend of Bowles. Shown here standing on the roof of the Palais Jamai in Fez, djellaba pulled back to reveal his torso, the extremely handsome young Ahmed is settling into his profile pose of radiant nonchalance. While this is not a particularly outstanding photograph from a technical standpoint, it seems to epitomize a crucial aspect of Bowles' photographic impulse, which is that he is genuinely captivated by his subjects. Another haunting image is the portrait of the dark-skinned, white-hooded boy from the oasis of Beni-Abbes in Algeria. He wears a necklace of magic amulets and has a strong, seductive look in his eyes. Immediately following the main body of photographs, there are several pages of sometimes highly anecdotal remarks delivered by Bowles as he identifies each of the pictures. The last section of the book is devoted to a series of forthright and illuminating conversations between Bischoff and Bowles. They are well-edited, fun to read, and peppered with some memorable costume-party photos.

Bowles is not a visual artist; nor, for that matter, does he often concern himself very much with acutely visual descriptions of physical detail in his writing. So it comes as no surprise that the relentless psychological complexity and extraordinarily graceful style of his fiction are not significantly present in his photographs. Photography is clearly a medium that Bowles cherishes; but it is not one that he chooses to serve more serious artistic ends. It is, therefore, no easy task for the critic to place these photographs within the context of Bowles' substantial literary and musical accomplishments in a meaningful way, though Simon Bischoff makes a respectable effort to put things in historical and theoretical perspective in his lengthy introductory essay. His text is often solidly informative, well illustrated, and touches on some interesting ways of thinking about these images in relation to Bowles' life and work. Unfortunately, large portions of the essay are steeped in a ponderous use of semiological recitation that seems imposed on an otherwise elucidating narrative.

Philip Taaffe is a painter who lives in New York.
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Author:Taafe, Philip
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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