Allen Frame Fever – The Brooklyn Rail

Allen frame
With an introduction by Drew Sawyer
(MATTE editions, 2021)

In an interview with his friend the writer Jane Warrick, photographer Allen Frame mentions that he kept a copy of his first story published in BOMB magazine: “Not only do I archive myself, but I archive everyone I know. The appearance of the archive is the best under which to first approach all of Frame’s work, in particular his color photograph from 1981, collected and published for the first time in a new monograph. Fever. I, too, am a born archivist (I have shelves of handmade high school and college scrapbooks, digitally produced albums from recent years, and boxes and boxes of analog family photographs, in addition to notebooks and photographs I inherited from my father); I feel a kinship with Frame’s impulse to save her friend’s work and legacy from oblivion. Personal archiving can be a form of care, a form of love. When those we love die, we vow to remember them and thus keep them alive, in a way, through our memories. The archive, at its best, is the institutional form of memory. In the archives, we all live forever.

For Frame, this act of archival care carries special weight, as the legacy of her own creative community has been disastrously affected by the AIDS crisis. Curator and researcher Drew Sawyer sets the context for this body of work with his opening essay, focusing on the middle of Frame and the distinct use of color photography: “Part of the fun of these photographs for viewers today could come from the recognition of well known artists like Robert Gober or Cady Noland. What made Frame’s psychologically ingrained images radical at the time was his use of color and his interest in the privacy of a queer community. The photographs capture the moment, in the 1980s in downtown New York and Brooklyn, just before people woke up to AIDS, how it would go unrecognized for so long, and how it would tear the lives of those photographed. As Frame reflects in the monograph, “We were full of joy and hope about our lives, about what we were going to creatively accomplish, about our close relationships.”

It is these close relationships that Frame highlights. Although the images are intimate and domestic, the book resists being relegated to the status of a family album. Each image is slightly offset from a matte blank page. Even the page number is surprisingly hidden in the lower left corner, preserving the illusion of the blank page as the gallery wall. Unlike a family album, the images are not accompanied by the who, where or when. This is recorded for the back index.

The first photo in the book shows a man in a white t-shirt with his back to the camera and looking out the window into a small, sparse, slightly messy room with artwork hanging on the walls. On the next page, a woman is ironing something in the same room, the other character is no longer visible. With each turn of the page we see new domestic scenes cropped in a similar fashion – although some later photographs are street scenes, they retain the tenderness of the interior shots.

They’re sort of snapshots – quick and unframed – and yet the little details and omissions reveal as much as they hide, testifying to close scrutiny, documentation, and refocusing. As Sawyer notes, “He produces a sense of psychological tension or narrative potential through the placement of his friends and the apparent orchestration of their gestures in the photograph. Solitary figures frequently stand in contemplation, or groups appear in frieze-like arrangements in domestic settings. In one page, the left page shows figures perched around the refrigerator in a messy hallway kitchen. A man leans casually near the door, a cigarette in his hand. He is in the background, the foreground and the center back figure of a man sipping coffee. On the right-hand page however, Frame distinguished the man in the background for a portrait, his gaze still focused on the others now cut off from the frame. Looking at the index on the back reveals who and where of the images (Dan Mahoney in the first; Butch Walker in the second; John West, Mahoney and Darrel Ellis in the kitchen; and Ellis alone). While the identities are being held for the end, the detail of their rosters reflects the importance, no doubt in part because many of these characters (Mahoney, West, and Ellis) are no longer alive.

The title of the book evokes this bittersweet catch-22; fever is both a sign of illness in the body, rising heat, but also, according to Merriam Webster, “a state of heightened or intense emotion or activity” and “a generally transient contagious enthusiasm”. Not having experienced this moment of creative overflow, followed by such extensive and rapid loss, fever seems an apt descriptor. These images capture much of what is fictionalized about the era: creative life and art merge in a mix of small gatherings, shared meals, and characters sitting in studios.

But the meticulous documentation that follows them in the second half of the book, the index and a collection of interviews with the people still alive depicted in the photographs: Butch Walker, Ken Tisa and Jane Warrick, to name a few -a, dims the light. -your heart images. This is reminiscent of Jaques Derrida’s notion of “archive fever ”—wrong archives– which captures the contradiction of archives: the turmoil and tension of an institutional guardian of once private desires and thoughts, and the deep desire for archives that requires death to exist. “It’s burning with passion. It is never a question of stopping, endlessly, looking for the archive where it slips away, ”writes Derrida. “It’s chasing after the archive, even if there are too many of them, where something becomes lawless.” In 1981, Frame and those depicted in his images had no idea what was on the horizon, and yet he documented. Metodically, carefully and lovingly, his photographs show an archival fever. This reminds us of Frame’s duty to its community, its duty to archive. The archive is the guardian of the past, but also continues to rewrite the past, as Derrida says: “The archivist produces more archives, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens up to the future. Fever opens onto the future, like a memorial, not of what has been lost, but of what has been lived, full of color and life, and continually open to re-readings.

About Debra D. Johnson

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