Rating:There’s a sub-genre of contemporary photography that documents a rough and rowdy youth lifestyle with the intimate, immediate look of an old snapshot. From the grainy images in Larry Clark’s autobiographical 1971 photo book Tulsa to the films and fiction of Harmony Korine (who got his big break at 17 with the script for Clark’s film Kids) to the current skateboard aesthetic of Ed Templeton, you have a lot of kids behaving badly, seen through a crude visual gauze to keep it real.
Paul Kwiatkowski’s And Every Day Was Overcast is at first glance an extension of this aesthetic. This “illustrated novel” is a coming of age memoir, a narrative of growing up in South Florida told through text and often blurry snapshots, many of which were taken with cheap disposable cameras. Kwiatkowski cites Harmony Korine as one of his favorite contemporary artists, and you can see a comparable sensibility at work. But Kwiatkowski transcends his influences, keeping it real the best and only way that an artist can keep it real: not through attitude, but through raw emotion.
The book is a story of growing up with ‘tude, but it’s more than that. Kwiatkowski ends one chapter with a line that sums up where he’s coming from: “Mostly I heard the televised voices of people I considered to be more real than the ones I knew in real life.” The author grew up in a media saturated society, trying to survive and not be bored in a world where there aren’t a lot of options other than sex and drugs. But Kwiatkowski also has a sensitive side, looking back with regret at a tenuous friendship with a high school outcast.
Toby wasn’t even a Nirvana fan, but he insisted people call him Cobain. Bullies called him “Retard Radio” after the pair of two-way radios he would get lost in, one clipped to his shorts and the other kept to his ear. “Beyond him, I saw something grey and shapeless move across the parking lot. I squinted through the hazy maze of street lamps. The diffused shape came into focus as it neared the store.” Kwiatkowski’s prose casually describes his photographic eye, the mood and emotion captured by the imperfections of a cheap disposable camera getting to his own truth more accurately and evocatively than a four-figure digital SLR.
The book is divided into chapters preceded by brief “transmissions,” his youth like a radio station that goes in and out of signal range. Kwiatkowski doesn’t specify what is real and what is fiction, if the woman with the bottle-cap sized bruise on her ass in one photo is the same girl who figures in a bittersweet romance. This adds to the mystery of the work, the murk of the humid Florida atmosphere in which he immerses the reader. This is not the Florida of sunshine and Mickey Mouse, but one that always seemed cast in haze of drugs and the awkward sex of youth.
Paul helps a friend beat up Cobain and makes off with one of his two-way radios. He listens: it’s a static, fuzzy mess of uncertain signals. Paul realizes with horror that Cobain found this electronic din more comfortable than the real world.
The photos in And Every Day Was Overcast break all the rules of conventionally “good” photography. Images are marred by harsh flash, uneven lighting and blur, the typical flaws of a disposable camera stuck on a fixed aperture and shutter speed. Kwiatkowski brilliantly taps the aesthetic of found photography with damaged artifacts that reflect damaged youth. These are pictures you might find discarded in a flea market, or even tossed in the garbage. The most heartbreaking image is a set of proofs from a schoolboy’s class picture. The child seems to look tentatively at the photographer, an uneasy look made even more bittersweet by the scratches across most of the images. Is this boy the author, who recovered a set of childhood pictures that were discarded and damaged? Photos can provide us with a personal history of cherished memories. The images and words of And Every Day Was Overcast reveal a photographic memory of loss, of loved ones, and of innocence.