There are no images of conflict in Peter van Agtmael’s new book, yet war and its mark on the societies that wage it is visible in its pages. Its mark on a Magnum photographer like van Agtmael, who has previously documented fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also keenly felt.
“It’s partly about me coming home from war and reconciling with all those complex emotions,” says the photographer. “It’s also about the imprint of all these different wars and how they’ve shaped American society.”
Society is very much van Agtmael’s subject in Buzzing at the Sill (Kehrer Verlag). His images capture people from all walks of life – many battling at its fringes, others engaging in their own particular kind of freedom.
“I feel like the book on many levels is coming at a certain moment in our history, but I could have probably taken a lot of those pictures ten years before, twenty years before, fifty years before even,” says van Agtmael. “They’re not necessarily so much about a place and a time, even if they seem to take on a certain resonance given how things are in the country now.”
Buzzing at the Sill follows on from van Agtmael’s 2014 publication, Disco Night Sept. 11, which dealt specifically with the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and alternated the perspective between those countries and life in the US.
“I started doing that work when I was about 24 [and it] gave me my first kind of really deep emotional connection to America and who it was as a country – and what its fate was,” he says. “The situation was so intense and so personal, you’d have to be living in the clouds to not be really impacted by it.”
Van Agtmael’s eye has always ranged further than just those with direct experience of warfare such as the returning soldiers.
“It’s only one perspective on things,” he says. “And so all these other questions I started having about class, about race and history couldn’t really be answered through that work. So I sort of started [Buzzing at the Sill] concurrently, about three years into Disco Night…. These are kind of chapters in one big book more than they are almost sequels one to the next.”
The pictures in the new book are divided by van Agtmael’s own reflections on his family and some of those he has met in the course of documenting America. Texts are an important way to add context and perspective – some situations, he says, “came loaded with things that couldn’t be photographed”.
Working from an initial batch of several hundred images, van Agtmael took time to edit the final selection. The sequencing in Buzzing at the Sill, the tonal changes from page to page, the ambiguities that come in and out, creates a deft and measured narrative.
“I’ve been pretty disciplined – I like to go back and edit, it’s always been an interest of mine,” he says. “I print every few months – a big pile of small prints – and when I started I was working my way down through about 500 or 600 pictures. That was about two years ago; I just wanted to get the process going. It’s not a process I rush, I spend time with the pictures.
“There’s the process of going over the pictures and constantly trying to refine the sequence,” he continues, “both the smoother flow and the disruptive and surprising as well. As you say, the pictures move in and out of different distances and perspectives, types of light and characters.
“I want it to be a very disruptive sequence, while still carrying you onward…. The death of any photobook is clumsy sequencing.”
Van Agtmael explains that part of his editing process can even involve input from his fellow Magnum colleagues.
“I think Josef Koudelka was the first one to start doing it – and he still does it – at the Magnum meetings, where he’ll bring a pile of prints of what he’s working on and he’ll ask everyone just to initial the back of the print if they like it. And so I started doing that … to get a sense of what other people were relating to.
“Then I just take that back myself and work through it a lot on my own; I like to get a core idea of what people respond to, but the book really has to be, in the end, my book.”
While the imagery is varied in Buzzing at the Sill, there are recurring themes and subjects. Lyniece Nelson and her family feature throughout the book – the photographer having originally been assigned by the New Yorker to cover their story in the wake of the murder of Nelson’s transgender daughter, Treasure, who had worked as a confidential informant.
The images of the family include several beautiful pictures, such as the one above, but also poignant and tragic glimpses of lives coming to terms with death.
“It’s one of those great mysterious things of photography – usually, like any assignment, I leave and that’s the end of it,” says van Agtmael. “But sometimes you just click with people for whatever reason – with the situation, artistically, journalistically. With Lyniece and her family it was all those things; we just got along. I liked being with them and photographing them.”
Van Agtmael says that Lyniece and the Nelson family became “symbolic of some of these stories in America that I was trying to tell…. The people those connections are formed with, you don’t see in the book in the end – it’s about [the] moment, really.”
The title of van Agtmael’s book is taken from Theodore Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time – “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly / Keeps buzzing at the sill – and relates to the startling cover image of a vulture landing at one of the windows of a Texas burns unit for rehabilitated soldiers.
“The vultures can smell the rotting flesh … [that one was] trying to get into the ward,” van Agtmael explains. “The nurses paid it no mind as apparently the vultures were there all the time.” Reading Roethke’s haunting poem, the opening line hints at the possibilities of photography – and at van Agtmael’s work in particular: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see”.