Available Light: Exile in Mexico
Trade Paperback, 130 pages
ePub ISBN: 978-1-60940-108-5
Kindle ISBN: 978-1-60940-109-2
Library PDF ISBN: 978-1-60940-110-8
ePub ISBN: 978-1-60940-111-5
Kindle ISBN: 978-1-60940-112-2
Library PDF ISBN: 978-1-60940-113-9
Black Like Me took seeing as its subtextual main theme: seeing, being seen, being not seen, the consequences of judging from surfaces, the relations between surfaces and what lies beneath them. These issues prove central to photography, of course; and the question of where one stands as a documentary photographer or photojournalist, whether one observes from inside a culture or from outside it, has proven one of the enduring issues confronting practitioners of those forms and their critics. So my encounter with this book informed my later work as a critic and theorist of photography. Unsurprising, then, to learn that Griffin had acquired serious photographic skills and practiced the medium himself, thoughtfully and well. So this welcome collection of his photographs and essays on photography enriches his canon, and the literature of the medium. Perhaps it will bring a younger generation of photographers to Black Like Me and the lessons it still has to teach about walking that mile in another's shoes. — A.D. Coleman, photography critic and lecturer, author of The Grotesque in Photography, Depth of Field, and The Digital Evolution, et al.
This is Griffins great gift: that he does not doubt our humanity. That he truly feels, as did so many of the great social documentary photographers, that this magic medium can and "must soften in its little way, even for only a few seconds, the great callous that lies on the hearts of so many".
— from the Foreword by internationally acclaimed photographer Kathy Vargas
Black Like Me took seeing as its subtextual main theme: seeing, being seen, being not seen, the consequences of judging from surfaces, the relations between surfaces and what lies beneath them. These issues prove central to photography, of course; and the question of where one stands as a documentary photographer or photojournalist, whether one observes from inside a culture or from outside it, has proven one of the enduring issues confronting practitioners of those forms and their critics. So my encounter with this book informed my later work as a critic and theorist of photography. Unsurprising, then, to learn that Griffin had acquired serious photographic skills and practiced the medium himself, thoughtfully and well. So this welcome collection of his photographs and essays on photography enriches his canon, and the literature of the medium. Perhaps it will bring a younger generation of photographers to Black Like Me and the lessons it still has to teach about walking that mile in anothers shoes.
— A. D. Coleman, photography critic and lecturer, author of The Grotesque in Photography, Depth of Field, and The Digital Evolution, et al.
John Howard Griffin lived the words of Mahatma Gandhi,"You must be the change you want to see in the world". As Griffin walked the high road of social justice he kept his feet on the solid ground of craft in both writing and photography. He knew the only tools available to him to make the changes he sought were those he made his own through the relentless pursuit of mastering his materials, becoming one with camera and darkroom. Griffin's inner eye saw what was essential to our humanity and in "Available Light" his outer eye blazes forth.
— Alan Pogue, photographer
Pardon for the Cult of Black Like MeThe Rag BlogMay 27, 2008
By Dick J. Reavis
In November, 1959, with the help of doctors and dyes, a white Texan briefly became a black man in Dixie as part of a plan to determine for himself, and to tell others, what the region's race problem was like. John Howard Griffin's 1961 account of his six-week undercolor life, Black Like Me, became an American best-seller and in translations, nearly circled the globe.
Thanks in part to Wings Press, a smallish San Antonio outfit dedicated to poetry and to multicultural themes, Griffin's work has enjoyed a steady, if slow revival over the past dozen years.... It has also thrown off companion volumes: a resurrected Griffin novel, a short biography, and now, Available Light: Exile in Mexico, a 117-page Wings Press book of photographs and journal excerpts, tied together by commentary from his biographer, Robert Bonazzi. The photos and excerpts in the book date to 1960-61, when Griffin lived in a Tarascan village near Morelia, Michoacán.
Most of the pictures in Available Light don't impress my untutored eyes--except for Griffin's portraits. They are set in darkness; his subjects are revealed through mere spots of light. They are, in effect, negatives of the too-often-imitated white-background images of New Yorker Richard Avedon.
My preference for the portraits, however, squares with Griffin's own take: Bonazzi cites him as writing, in 1963, that "nothing really interests me in photography except human faces." Available Light is an addition to the autopsy of Griffin's virtues, but it's Black Like Me that will still be on reading lists 20 years from now.
Driving the revival of interest in Griffin and his work are two generations which did not witness the absurdities and brutalities of Jim Crow. Black Like Me catalogs what bygone segregation meant to daily life, especially for job-seekers and travelers.
Griffin's writing in the 1961 classic was workmanlike, but not literary. Its lines are stark, muscular and clear, but nothing more: "They called the bus. We filed out into the high-roofed garage and stood in line, the Negroes to the rear, the whites to the front," is typical of the style.
Griffin's prose conveyed sincerity and earnestness, virtues in a work devoid of footnotes, statistics, historical references or graphs. He was not out to prove that he was a sage. His message was, "I know that what I write is true because I saw it, heard it, lived it." By taking a direct, heart-to-heart approach to the racial question of his time and place, Griffin cut through a Gordian knot of disputations that had been nearly fifty years in the making. He did not aspire, as did most journalists of the day, to be a gatekeeper. Instead, he was a guide.
Most of what Griffin did had been done before. In his 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell did for class what Griffin did for race. But nobody had bodily transformed himself for the investigation of racial affairs, and Griffin's stunt--that he could change his color and pass for black--was a titillation that boosted sales and publicity for his book. How did he accomplish such a thing? Talk show hosts were dying to have him explain.
Sadly, nothing like that book could be funded today. The idea behind it was not PC. Who would believe that a white was more perceptive about the lives of blacks than were blacks themselves? Only whites whose minds were afflicted with doubts about the veracity of blacks! But there were plenty of those, and they made the book a success. Were Black Like Me to be proposed today, it would not be a book, but a "reality series" on TV.
Even in that happier day for print, Griffin's project was under-financed. Then a 40-year-old parent and husband in Mansfield, he did not have a publishing contract when he started his sojourn. He made the trip, from Texas to New Orleans, Hattiesburg to Atlanta, in exchange for mere expense money advanced to him by Sepia, a poor man's Ebony, published in Fort Worth by George Levitan, a white man.
If Griffin got by on slim funding, he worked an even bigger miracle with time. He spent only 42 days in the field for Black Like Me—and only 28 of them "in disguise" as an African-American! The resulting volume is a slim by today's standards, a mere 63,000 words—but the brevity of his message no doubt added to the book's appeal.
In later years, Griffin wrote for Ramparts, while it existed, and opposed the Vietnam War, says Bonazzi, a Texas-bred poet who now lives in San Antonio. But Available Light presents excerpts that show Griffin as more conservative than younger radicals of the day.
When Miami Cubans invaded Playa Girón, aka the Bay of Pigs, with American backing in April, 1961, demonstrators in Morelia sacked the offices of an entity called the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute, burning its files in the streets. They next turned their glare on Americans who were residing in the region, hoping to harass, uproot or at least embarrass them. Griffin organized the sheltering and defense of his countrymen in the village where he was living, Santa María del Guido, and though few of us would censure that, in the aftermath of the disorders, Bonazzi writes, Griffin met with U.S. embassy personnel--and gave them the names of protest leaders.
Griffin's opinion of the affair, his journal records, was that "No one in Morelia can now doubt that that this was a plot of international communism--that it was treason committed against Mexico."
Long live "treason," if that's what it was! The government that the demonstrators "betrayed" was in those days a one-party state whose democratic credentials were bracketed by two events: the imprisonment of union leaders Demetrio Vallejo and Valentín Campa, leaders of a 1959 national railway strike, and the Mexican army's 1962 murder of peasant leader Rubén Jaramillo. Vallejo and Campa were communists, as was Jaramillo and his pregnant wife. I suppose the Jaramillo children, who were also murdered, carried the Bolshevik gene. As Griffin believed, reds no doubt played leading roles in calling Bay of Pigs protests in Morelia, as they probably did across Europe, in China, and even in the supremely menacing Red Republic of North Vietnam.
Bonazzi says that Griffin was not what SDS-ers called a "CIA liberal," but a pacifist instead. Fortunately, he didn't blink, as many in his generation did, when the civil rights movement turned militant as the 'Sixties came to a close.
"For approximately a decade," he wrote, "black Americans persevered in the dream of non-violent resistance. But its success always depends on the conversion of the hostile white force.... In fact, racists redoubled their efforts in the name of patriotism and Christianity, to suppress not only black people but all non-racists."
I did not find in the diary excerpts that Bonazzi has variously brought to light that Griffin ever lamented his fate, felt hatred or professed strong regret. In discussing Griffin's career as a public speaker following the publication of Black Like Me, Bonazzi writes that "He would succeed so well, and with seeming effortlessness, in the public arena because he kept his focus and everyone's attention on the central issues. Since he never failed at being his own harshest critic, virtually every question asked had been asked over and over in the privacy of conscience."
The pages of Available Light, and of Bonazzi's brief biography, The Man in the Mirror, establish that Griffin was a saintly man, a Catholic convert and consort of Thomas Merton who, when overwhelmed, sought solace in monasteries. But can it be true that anyone of sound mind has ever been "his own harshest critic"?
But if Bonazzi's object is to create a cult around Griffin, the raw material is on hand. Griffin, who spent his boyhood in Mansfield, went to high school and began college in France, where briefly worked in the Resistance movement. He enlisted in the Army when he fled home. A combat wound in the Pacific Theater impaired his sight, causing him to go blind in 1947. Griffin penned two novels, married and fathered children despite the handicap. He literally did not see his wife and offspring until ten years after the onset of his blindness, when his vision suddenly returned. His years of darkness probably nurtured the even-handed wisdom he revealed in Black Like Me, and stood at his shoulder for the portraits of Available Light.
Cults, except for those of musical and film stars, are widely frowned upon, but creating one around a guy like Griffin, I'd think, has got to be a forgivable sin.
Dick Reavis is an award-winning journalist.
San Antonio Express-NewsJuly 20, 2008
John Howard Griffin paid a heavy price for both the fame and notoriety he gained through the initial writings that eventually became his extraordinary narrative, "Black Like Me."
In that book, he recounted his decision to disguise himself as a "Negro" as well as his encounters with racially prejudiced people and systematic discrimination while on a journey in 1959 through the Deep South.
As a result of the extensive national attention Griffin received from early accounts of his travels published in the magazine Sepia, he and his family received threats of violence from anonymous fellow citizens in his hometown, Mansfield, south of Fort Worth.
Griffin and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, chose the relative safety of exile in Mexico, renovating and living in an old hacienda owned by his brother, Edgar, in the village of Santa Maria, near Morelia. From that new base, Griffin continued his writing and photographic career, documenting the life of the indigenous people around him.
Through Robert Bonazzi's fascinatingly detailed biographical introduction, and his selection of some of Griffin's most notable photographs and essays produced during this exile, "Available Light" eloquently tells the story of that difficult but productive period of Griffin's life.
Bonazzi, who will discuss and sign copies of the book Tuesday at the Twig Book Shop, is well-qualified for this task, as he knew Griffin professionally and wrote extensively on his life and work while the author was still alive. He has subsequently edited Griffin's major works for both Wings Press and Orbis Books.
As photographer Kathy Vargas points out in her foreword to this edition, Griffin's photography was a direct expression of the conscience of a man "married to social justice," who hoped his photographs could soften what he called "... the great callus that lies on the hearts of so many."
In this edition, Griffin tells two poignantly self-revealing and culturally fascinating stories, written to illustrate his documentary photos of his forays into the region surrounding his home.
The first, "The Watch of the Dead," is his account of a visit to the island of Janitzio, near Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, on All Souls' Eve 1960 to join the Tarascan Indians in their all-night vigil and respectfully photograph their rituals of communion with the souls of beloved departed family members.
The second, "Passion at Tzintzuntzan," takes the reader to a village high in the Tarascan Sierra, where Griffin, with the aid of the local Catholic pastor, documents a Passion Play that takes the whole village for its set and cast, and in which a young man playing Jesus nearly dies from the ordeal.
Both accounts confirm Griffin as a reporter with an exceedingly acute anthropological sensibility, a highly perceptive eye and a sympathetic manner that makes his subjects reveal themselves seemingly effortlessly.
Bonazzi's introduction does a good job of providing the background information necessary to understand how Griffin and his family adapted to life in Mexico, and how he managed to produce these remarkable photos and essays. Bonazzi also reveals how, while he initially experienced Mexico as a relative paradise, Griffin found himself ultimately the object of Communist-led anti-American disturbances. In an ironic full-circle of his experience, in May 1961 he returned to Mansfield.
"Available Light" provides a panoramic view of Griffin's Catholic conscience, professional and family life, health struggles, correspondence with important intellectuals and interactions with indigenous people — all against the background of his struggle to awaken public sensibility about social and racial justice in the United States. This book is an important document, vital to understanding the larger civil-rights movement, ably showing how one artist-writer continued to make a powerful impact on that movement, even in exile.
Robert Bonazzi will discuss and sign copies of "Available Light" from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Twig Book Shop, 5005 Broadway.
(Ed Conroy, a San Antonio writer and critic, is director of development at the Southwest School of Art & Craft.)
School Library JournalJuly 2008Adult/High School— Griffin found fame-and infamy-with his mid-20th century experiment in changing his skin pigmentation and reporting on the responses a person of color garnered in the America South. With the publication of magazine articles that would become his classic Black Like Me, Griffin and his family become targets of hate mongers, and he, his wife and children, and his parents moved to Mexico to find sanctuary. While living in Morelia, Griffin worked not only on the book-length account of his experiences with racism, but also continued to practice photography, an art he came to some years earlier, as he was going blind. (He regained his sight a few years before his skin pigmentation experiment.) The current book includes images of friends, family, and Mexican neighbors as well as essays and journal entries from this both tumultuous and reflective period in his highly inquisitive life. A wide array of readers will find nuggets to treasure as Griffin was given access to Mexican folk celebrations, recorded rural life, reflected on the dangers threatening his family in Texas, and celebrated the recovery of his eyesight.
After his Black Like Me journey in 1959, John Howard Griffin, along with his young family and aging parents, were forced from their home town of Mansfield, Texas -- by death threats from local white racists. They escaped to safety in Mexico in 1960, where Griffin wrote his classic book, and began a distinguished photographic career.
In the mountains of Michoacán, in a an old hacienda in the village of Santa María overlooking the valley city of Morelia, Griffin began creating luminous photographic prints of the native Tarascans. Since he was first a writer, he also crafted an insightful, unpublished essay on his own approach to photography, as well as essays about side trips he made to photograph two fascinating religious rituals of Tarascan culture.
Relying only on available light -- from the candle lit watch of the dead to the crystalline brightness of the Sierra Tarasca mountain range -- Griffins vision shines with spiritual illumination and clarifying intelligence.
Knowing that he would become a controversial public figure once he returned to the States, he kept an intimate Journal of his ethical queries on racism and injustice, as well as the effects of Black Like Me, a book that would become an integral voice in the decades debate about human rights in America and beyond. Griffin would succeed with seeming effortlessness as a voice in the public arena because he kept focus — and the audiences attention — on the central issues of racial discrimination and segregation. Since he was always his own harshest critic, virtually all questions asked had been asked constantly in the privacy of conscience.
Drawing on Griffins passionate Journal — written between the end of traveling as a Black man through the Deep South in 1959 and the publication Black Like Me in 1961 — Robert Bonazzis Introduction provides historical context and new commentary on this crucial period of Griffins life.
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