The View from Here - Photographs of Black Mountain College
At the time of his death in March of 2008 at the age of 79, Jonathan Williams was the last of the group of writers known as the Black Mountain Poets. The label serves not as a specific designation of poets who taught or studied at Black Mountain College, but instead refers to those connected to the Black Mountain Review, which was started by Robert Creeley just prior to his brief stay as faculty at the school. The group included Creeley, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov (who never actually set foot on the campus), Joel Oppenheimer, John Wieners, and others. All of these writers had in common an association—call it a set of elective affinities—with Charles Olson, the rector of Black Mountain College during the 1950s, what is known as the school’s “literary period.” Indeed, the Black Mountain Review was begun as a way of attracting attention (and, Olson hoped, funding for the foundering college) to the ideas coming out of the Olson-Creeley circle of influence, as well as providing a forum in which these writers could circulate their work more widely.
Although primarily known as a poet and essayist, Williams was also an accomplished photographer, and his portraits of figures from his tenure at the school have come to define the image of Black Mountain College. Jonathan Williams had come to the school first in 1951 to study with the legendary photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. According to Williams, the two showed him the rudiments of his Rolleiflex camera and that was the extent of his practical education in photography. The college had been predicated on the ideal that one learned best experientially, through making work rather than being shown how to do things, and that only the artist him- or herself could convey legitimacy to the artwork, not some outside authority or institution. Meeting Olson changed Williams’s trajectory and he dedicated himself to writing from that point forward. Williams would, however, continue to take photographs throughout his life, concentrating on portraits of outsider folk artists and marginalized faces of the avant garde. His portrait photographs have been collected in A Palpable Elysium, published by Godine in 2002 and Portrait Photographs, published by Gnomon in 1979. Williams remained an advocate for the art for the rest of his life. From his impressive personal collection of images by figures such as Gerard Malanga, Frederick Sommers, Siskind, and others to his championing of photographers such as Rueben Cox, Guy Mendes, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Williams was tireless in his support and contributions to the art form.
Williams was a complex figure. He had an ear for anecdotes, peculiar phrases and linguistic textures, and the quick surprise of local vernacular and its rhythms, all of which he captured in his poetic measure. His student days were spent at the prestigious St. Alban’s prep school in Washington, D. C. but his family’s home was in Highlands, North Carolina. In 1951, Williams had already dropped out of Princeton, opting out of what he perceived as that school’s bourgeois conservatism. Williams was searching for an environment and milieu that would help him discover the possibilities of an artistic identity, one that was eclectic and purposeful enough to accommodate his esotericism and erudition. It was there that he became part of an aesthetic community that shared his belief in artistic spontaneity and the expressive possibilities of the local and of concrete particulars.
Black Mountain was a place artists and writers would stay for a while, leave, and then return when it became necessary to partake of the intense creative agonism that permeated that space. Williams would leave and return repeatedly between 1951 and the school’s closing in 1956. Beginning not long after his arrival at the college and for decades later, Williams was the publisher of the Jargon Society, which in publishing early work by Creeley and Olson, Buckminster Fuller and Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth became one of the most important small presses of postwar avant-garde poetics. Jargon became the main force for disseminating the Black Mountain poetics after the Review folded in 1957 (with Williams taking over the editorial responsibilities from Creeley for the final issue) and the school had closed. In fact, Williams would travel America and even Europe distributing these books as widely as he could, often from the trunk of his car, spreading the word of the Black Mountain writers far and wide. Not to be underestimated, however, is the crucial role Williams’s photographs participated in fashioning an image of what Creeley would call “the company” of writers and artists of Black Mountain. Williams’s portraits conveyed the fierceness and the seriousness of these writers and their desire to will their aesthetic values into the culture at large.
The photographs included here are a small sampling of Williams’s photographs of the college, its students and faculty from the archive now housed at the Yale Collection of American Literature at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. The images assembled here are not the most famous of Williams’s. His most well-known portraits of Olson, Creeley, and Duncan have become the definitive ones of these poets, and these are found on book jackets, in anthologies, articles, and everywhere on the internet. These photographs collected here, images no less masterful, provide testament to the ways that Williams sought to represent Black Mountain College to the world at large. Williams knew that the lens of the camera, by the sheer fact of its gaze, conveys an authority to whatever it regards. Whatever Black Mountain College’s enduring legacy may be, the fact remains that Williams’s photographs give it a human face.
These photographs appear through the courtesy of Thomas Meyer and the Estate of Jonathan Williams.
Jonathan Williams Photograph Collection. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.