Last Thursday I made a routine stop in downtown Durham’s Letters Bookshop, five doors down from Rock Fish Stew offices, and I noticed a slim, paperback volume of photographs by Molly Malone Cook with text by Mary Oliver, a book called Our World (Beacon Press, 2007). Oliver’s name drew me, a long admirer of her observations. Flipping pages I noticed two 1962 portraits by Cook of W. Eugene Smith in what appears to be his Sixth Avenue loft, a man and building I’ve studied for eighteen years but never seen these images. I picked up the book for $8.
Over the past few days I’ve read Our World twice in two one hour sittings. The sequences of imagery and text are uniquely effective. Oliver and Cook were partners for forty years, the photographer ten years the more famous writer’s senior. The photographer passed away in 2005 and the poet then dug through the left-behind negatives and prints to assemble this book, a spare and moving homage to partnership, shared time, and love.
Early in the text Oliver offers a brief passage that all aspiring documentarians could heed, no matter if their subjects aren’t intimates, perhaps more so if not:
Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell.
Simple humility and humbleness, so critical for good documentary work, hard to achieve.
Later, Oliver offers an extraordinary passage about observation (Cook is referred to as “M”):
It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely.
Our World is a powerful, minimal demonstration of attention with feeling, openness and empathy. Those are qualities difficult to teach, perhaps only passed on by example. Huge gratitude to Oliver for this profound one.
At Rock Fish Stew, we’ve spent the last few months preparing a new digital documentary series that will launch next week, one in which we’re attempting to assemble text, still photos, and video in sequences that make the parts stronger as a whole. Our World arrives in our hands just in time.
– Sam Stephenson