A Conversation About John Cage and William Gedney’s Iris Garden
May 27, 2014 | by Jason Fulford and Leanne Shapton
Iris Garden is a 2013 book that combines John Cage’s stories with William Gedney’s photographs—including several of the composer himself—with an ingenious design evoking Cage’s affinity for chance. The stories and photographs were selected by the photographer Alec Soth: twenty-two of the stories are from Cage’s series Indeterminacy, conceived in 1959, which featured stories of varying length, each intended to be read aloud over the course of one minute; and forty-four photographs from the William Gedney archive, shot from the 1950s to 1989 and housed at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Leanne Shapton and Jason Fulford are the founders of J&L Books.
Leanne Shapton: As soon as I started flipping through this book, I thought, I’m so happy art publishing allows for this. It’s a strong book, but it’s quiet and subtle, and the design would never make any marketing department happy.
Jason Fulford: The book comes completely apart, literally. Even the endpapers slide out, and the cover can be unfolded—so you can read it in any order. It reminds me of how my Hasselblad disassembles. You can take all of the pieces apart and lay them out on a table.
LS: I went to the back of the book and read Cage’s statement, which helped me “read” the book. He wrote: “My intention in putting these stories together in an unplanned way is to suggest that all things—stories, incidental sounds from the environment and by extension, beings—are related, and this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.”
JF: Cage stays with you your whole life. You keep coming back to things you loved about him when you were fifteen, and they still relate to you at forty. Actually, I guess I probably learned about him in my twenties. Did I ever tell you a story about Lee Elickson, the American filmmaker who lives in Amsterdam? When he was fourteen or fifteen, he had a chance to meet John Cage. He brought an empty sheet of music and asked Cage to sign it. Cage asked, What are you gonna do with it? So Lee had to think fast and said, After you sign it I’ll put it on the forest floor for a week, let nature make its marks, and then have it performed by an orchestra. So Cage was like: Oh, okay. Lee still has the paper, but he hasn’t found an orchestra yet to perform it.
LS: When we read books, they have so much of the author’s and editor’s intention in the sequence. Someone’s made our bed. But Cage intended that these texts not be “oversimplified by the idea of relationship in one person’s mind”—he assumed we’d all have completely different relationships to it.
JF: I think we can guess that Cage would have loved this design, but I wonder if Gedney would have. I’ve always seen his images edited according to their subject matter. He’s got pictures from Appalachia, New York City—especially out his window on Myrtle Avenue, near Pratt. He also shot in England, Ireland, France, San Francisco, and then he took a trip to India, I think on a Guggenheim. In a lot of ways his pictures are unremarkable, really quiet, and they seem very personal. He didn’t have a big audience during his lifetime. A handful of really great photographers liked his work and appreciated it, but I don’t know who he thought of as his audience. I read that Gedney never had his work published as a book while he was alive, and when he died he gave all his photographs and negatives to his old friend, Lee Friedlander. Friedlander got Duke University to take them.
LS: Did Gedney have this work grouped in some way?
JF: I visited the archive once, and I remember it being organized chronologically. What do you think about the reproduction of the frame edges in some of the pictures?
LS: I don’t like that generally, but I gave the benefit of the doubt to the editors. Maybe it was what Gedney liked.
JF: When Gedney was alive, a lot of photographers who considered themselves artists would insist on having the frame printed.
LS: It was a statement about how they cropped it.
JF: Right. “I crop in-camera and here’s the proof.”
LS: Frame edges make for a kind of period piece, but the design of the book speaks to 2014. It’s funny that frame edges are an Instagram filter now.
JF: I asked Alec how he made the selection from the almost five thousand pictures in the archive. It was overwhelming, he said, but he tried not to be too strategic about it. He relied on serendipity and chance, like you would if you were hunting for mushrooms. He did include the portraits of Cage and Morton Feldman on purpose, though.
LS: The picture of Cage with the basket at what I considered to be end of the book made him look like Little Red Riding Hood. The pictures match the spirit of the Cage stories—you read along and something happens that turns the whole story around.
JF: I think Cage would have loved all of this—his theories about found sound imply that your mind wants to find connections. If we just stop talking for a minute and listen to what’s happening in the room, and through the window, that to him would be a piece of music.
LS: There’s a great piece in the book about a man hearing his blood in his ears, his heartbeat. I love all of the pictures of people asleep. There’s one piece of writing where a man says, I have my best ideas when I’m asleep. Cage said you’ll have good ideas if you execute something boring—which is how I think. Do it until you’re bored by it.
LS: I hadn’t realized Cage’s writing is so funny.
JF: Everything I’ve ever read of Cage’s sounds like a gentle, amused Zen master.
LS: How close were Cage and Gedney? When you look at the pictures of Cage, you feel like Gedney loves him. There’s a real care in the moments he chooses. They’re tender—they’re not poses.
JF: I asked Alec about this, too. He said he didn’t find much evidence of a relationship between the two, but a theme in Iris Garden is their imagined relationship. “The whole spirit of Cage’s music, and most photography, is listening to what is not there, the sound between the notes, the story between the photographs.”
LS: Tell me about Little Brown Mushroom, the publisher.
JF: It’s a company that Alec Soth started a few years ago. He started publishing his small projects and some of his friends’ work. It’s similar to how and why we started J&L, I guess: to have the freedom to champion stuff. He does it out of his studio in St. Paul. This book seems new for them, going back into the history of something. There’s so much love in this book, from the editor and from the content.
LS: There’s a nice patience, a temporal quality that gets paired with the spoken pieces and the tone of the spoken pieces asks you to think about something happening in a different time and space.
JF: Some of the pieces actually require a lot of patience. If there are only four lines, you have go real slow. Cage has a famous “Lecture on Nothing” where the audience gets very restless. He often ran into audience resistance with his work.
LS: We’ve talked about this before—at what point is something pretentious and at what point is it brilliant? I think it has to do with rigor. If you don’t put that much effort into something and just do it for the sake of its idea, then it’s pretentious, but if you throw yourself at it and into it and it’s layered—
JF: If you listen to a performance of one of the short pieces, there’s a lot of drama that happens while you’re waiting for the next word. The … suspense … adds … content. I didn’t read these texts with a stopwatch, so Cage’s rule is going to be broken. Would he scold me for that?
LS: Gedney’s pictures mitigate that bossiness, they round it out and soften the idea. His images show that the palette Cage is working in isn’t avant-garde—it’s absolutely human and quotidian. It’s gentle. The book is literally flexible.