Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 104 in 2001.
Photos by Barney Rosset
Barney Rosset, who took these photographs in Brooklyn in 1947, wound up some fifty years later as one of the preeminent publishers of our era. Joan Mitchell, the subject of many of these photographs, became during the same period of time one of our great American painters. Barney Rosset took over Grove Press in 1951 and went on to publish such writers as Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and Marguerite Duras, and time after time created landmark cases against censorship in the United States for the right to print them. Joan Mitchell became not only a great painter among her generation of Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, but as a woman had to fight the system to survive and continue to develop as one of the premiere painters of our times.
Both were embattled, and both were romantics. Barney Rosset loved books and fought for them. Joan Mitchell loved painting and believed that without such love you could not make art.
Barney's photographs of Joan - always direct, always telling, but never sentimental -give us a very personal record and insight into their relationship. His background as a photographer dates back to his enlistment in the infantry in 1944 and from there he was transferred to the photographic division of the Signal Corps, sent to China, and put in charge of a still photo and motion picture unit. The photographs that he took there, which record both the beauty and the misery, still hang on the wall of his loft to this day.
The photographs of Joan - especially the nudes - penetrate to the very depths of her being, capturing somehow her passion, her sensuality, and her lust for life. Barney's photographs also bear witness to that knowing, waiting void that was always at the center of her being and which relentlessly threatened the forms that were trying to emerge from the very center of her paintings.
The earliest photographs are taken in their hometown of Chicago, and in the apartment they shared at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1940s. It was in this apartment that Barney took the classical and hauntingly beautiful nude photographs of Joan.
Most of the photographs have never been seen, none have ever been exhibited, but they speak from the heart as photographs taken for purely personal reasons so often do and give us a special and intimate view of the immeasurable force of love.
It was not difficult to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge about nine in the evening. Rush hour had ended quite a while before, and going into Manhattan was peaceful and simple.
Tonight he was crossing over on his way to LaGuardia, and the plane for Paris, one last ride across the great old structure, and a whirl up the East River. They came down off of the approaches to the river, down the small side streets running alongside the base of the bridge and swung out onto the East River Drive.
Only a few months ago there had been dirty, tottering structures where tonight there were only flat, vacant lots. The city was tearing down its old rat-ridden, cold water, crime breeders, and preparing to put up more of the prison-like housing projects. Already, in his short stay in New York, the new buildings had sprung up along the river for many blocks, and he had noted the builder's startling progress every morning as he had driven in to work from Brooklyn Heights. Sometimes it seemed as though all of Manhattan must soon be living in the new beehives, and yet he knew that even all of these squat, and some tall, structures would only house a fraction of those still waiting to have some abode to call their own. America was building, not enough and with ugliness, but she was building, here in New York. He turned from looking toward the empty lots and new buildings and faced back to the mighty old bridge which he was leaving behind.
The Brooklyn Bridge was his symbol of New York, of America, and of Joan's and his love which they had shared in its shadows. And the bridge had come to know them, and to show them its own moods of happiness in the sunlight, and strangeness in the fog. It was strong, and beautiful, flinging itself into the sky, defying age, and being still young, and the heart of power itself. Now he was going to Paris, by plane, and it was as easy for him to leave America physically, as it was for him to dig up the shallow roots, and prepare to plant them elsewhere. The Brooklyn Bridge was his anchor in America, not a family, nor a race, nor a religion, nor an identification with a whole people. Joyce had said he had to leave Ireland to forge the uncreated conscience of his race. He could not feel it that way. Could there be a conscience to America, could New York and Texas, and Chicago, share the same wonders, the same hatreds and stupidities, and greatnesses?
Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge would have been at home in California, maybe, maybe it carried in its old weather-beaten stone the conscience of America. And if this were so, he had a right to leave it for a moment, to get from under its shadow, stand clear, renew his perspective, and set down what he saw from afar. He often wondered what it would be like to say, with pride, I am a German, or a Frenchman, or an Englishman, and there are no better people, and my family goes back ten generations, all fine people, and we have gone to the same church in all that time, and worshipped the true god, the only god, and when we die we shall be buried in the same place we have always been buried, and our children shall carry on after us. None of these thoughts had ever been his, as a mongrel Jewish-Irish product he was second generation American, midwestern, commercial, without land, without church, without an old family, and with none of the pride or security which sometimes seemed to go with those things, and he had not even a secure class identification or a family profession to follow.
There was only the fact that he was a citizen of the United States, and he was leaving it, this land of his birth, with few pangs of sorrow, and his only wondering was whether he was running away from his home, afraid to defend it, or whether he was a wealthy exile, seeking a home where they wanted him, where he could rest and then work. When he had been a youth in Chicago he formed a sentimental attachment for the dirty city. Carl Sandberg's poems and not the city itself were what he saw and heard, their crudeness, and their cries of wealth and strength and cruelty and big heartedness. Later there had been two Americas. The one with the traditions of Jefferson and Lincoln, freedom and democracy, and the other America, of monopolies always growing, strikebreaking, and red-baiting. It was a complex thing, this intertwining of many directions and ideas. He had been unable to decide, for any long period at a time, whether the first America would be able to last out the second one, without terrible destruction and help or terror from abroad, and when people had told him that it was time to escape, to run out like the lucky few who had left Germany, he had believed it for the moment, seizing upon it as an alibi for getting out from where the going was tough. Later he had seen through his own machinations, the crisis was manufactured, health was still flickering in America, all over, and his Brooklyn Bridge had not yet been torn down. Still, now he was leaving, not feeling all was lost at home, but that perhaps that it was only himself who was the lost wanderer. He did not know yet how to gather up the loose facts, the fears and the realities, winnow through them, and get down to the hard cores of the life in the country which must be his, because he had been born there, and lived there, and spoke its language, played its games, loved its people and hated them, and he knew no other place, really, nor did any other place know him.