In 1955, novelist Sloan Wilson published The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an unconventional bestseller that smashed American middle class fantasies of two-car garages and the proverbial white picket fence. Tom Rath, the story’s lead, seems to have the formula down: patriotism (check), spouse and requisite offspring (check), suit job in the city (check). But beneath the fedora, Rath’s mind is heavy with worry and regret. He’s done terrible things in war. He’s been unfaithful to his wife. He feels inadequate as a father. He gets no satisfaction from work. He’s climbing a ladder to nowhere. Just like everyone else.
Russell Joslin’s new photobook, Alone Forever Sometimes, is a kind of visual epilogue to Sloan’s novel. Where is the man in the gray flannel suit today? What’s become of that garage, the kids, the hoped-for bliss? It’s just him now. The world seems strange, and the man in the suit, a stranger in it.
There have been a number of important photobooks over the past few decades that enact the modern condition—its anxieties, its bewilderments—by way of Rath-like metonymy. At the turn of the millennium, for instance, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison published The Architect’s Brother, a photobook with a Tom Rath of its own. Like the stranger in Alone Forever Sometimes, the everyman of the ParkeHarrison work (played by Robert himself) wears the coat and slacks of his white collar trade. But the ParkeHarrison setting is post-apocalyptic. Barren landscapes crack and steam. Industrial ruins smolder. Unlike Joslin’s stranger, the architect’s brother knows the history of this ruin. He understands its machinery. Alone? Yes. But the mythology is Emersonian. In that world, even one, solitary soul can sweep the carbon from the sky.
In Alone Forever Sometimes, no fissures are mended with sword-length sewing needles. In fact, the world looks very much the same as the one we see and experience every day. The forests and doorframes are ordinary enough. Nothing dangerous lurks behind the bushes. Yes, there is a black-clad man “knocking about” like Nosferatu in the closet. But forgive him this “trespass” (the word Joslin uses to describe his own creative process). He is lost, after all, and like Rath, a stranger first and foremost to himself. For that reason, if for no other, Joslin’s version of the everyman will feel, to many viewers, unexpectedly relatable.
Editor of two previous collections, Black Forest (Candela Books, 2014) and Series of Dreams (Skeleton Key Press, 2018), Russell Joslin is well known for his long, successful tenure as owner/editor of SHOTS Magazine, a black and white quarterly with a reputation for provocative, surreal photography. For almost two decades, Joslin featured artists like Arthur Tress, Susan Burnstine, Roger Ballen, and Louviere+Venessa—artists whose images probed “the covert corners of the psyche,” visualizing its “subterranean beauty.” In 2018, after entrusting SHOTS to its current owner and editor, Douglas Beasley and Elizabeth Flinsch, Joslin moved to Oslo, the new headquarters of his own publishing house, Skeleton Key Press (SKP).
Alone Forever Sometimes, SKP’s second publication and Joslin’s first full-length monograph, is a handsomely designed photobook—as gray as the stranger’s wardrobe and, when it comes to embellishment, just as restrained. Like the unassuming oak in “Self-Portrait as Stain” (2008), you might even think it inert. Though, like that same tree, nothing could be further from the truth. Spirit, distress, melancholy, kindness, and wonder layer the photographs within the book’s modest exterior with much tension and drama.
Woods and windowsills may set the physical stage, but the physical is only the first layer of the image, a sketch in crayon, as it were. As the image called “Stronger by Night” (2016) suggests, the stranger’s surroundings are not nearly as substantial as what’s going on in his own head. Working in the tradition of photographers like Cindy Sherman and Lucas Samaras, Joslin’s self-portraiture narrates the image’s second layer, an inner journey of dream and introspection.
Or if “journey” implies, a little too strongly, the idea of destination, then think of Ron Padgett’s sonnet, “Nothing in that Drawer,” where the title simply repeats itself fourteen times. The whole point of a sonnet is to resolve a problem or confusion. But in Padgett’s poem, the quest ends where it began, which is to say, with nothing. So too does Joslin’s stranger look into the doors of other people’s homes as if opening, endlessly, drawer after drawer.
What he’s after may not be entirely clear. But there are clues. The final image is of an empty bed (“The Depths” 2016), the very same bed in which he lies supine (“Through the Night” 2016) a few pages prior. In that earlier image, however, we see him only by way of reflection in a mirror—a self-reflection, an attempt to remember, recall, or even imagine something quintessential about himself. The real bed remains empty. Equate that bed to a place of belonging, a place to rest one’s head at the end of the day, and the narrative of Alone Forever Sometimes, like the story of the man in the gray flannel suit, begins at what only seems to be the ending.
It’s no wonder, then, that the stranger’s head in almost every photograph does one of two things: being alone, it scans incessantly, a mere blur of scattered attention above the shoulders, or it resigns itself to the chopping block, forever. These two motifs speak to the first two words of the book’s title.
But just as important to this narrative, in my opinion, is the final word in the title, “Sometimes.” The stranger is not always alone. Though family and home and a sense of belonging may, in the end, elude him, sympathy and affection do not. In one of the more tender images (“Umberto R.” 2008), the stranger stands on a railroad with a small dog folded into his coat, the dog’s head emerging from the lapel against the stranger’s chin. In its usual distracted state, the stranger’s head is out of focus, while the dog’s remains composed, steadfast. It’s as if the two have come to an understanding: you help me see where we’re going, and I’ll do my best to keep you safe. In another photograph (“Missed” 2008), the stranger’s hand gently bends the thin, fragile branch of a mulberry tree. Nature and the stranger yield to one another sometimes without trouble, without harm.
Home, or whatever it is the stranger is looking for, may remain forever elusive, but the loss doesn’t mean there are no more drawers to open. And this is what fascinates me most about Alone Forever Sometimes. It’s not what you’d expect of a work that foregrounds the isolation we all experience in the maddening disorientations of modern life. It’s not all darkness. Its reflections are not all subterranean. The stranger walks the earth in the light of day and finds at its edges no monsters, no precipice, which does not mean he will ever know where he’s going, only that nothing stands in the way.