Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology is a set of poems, consisting of 244 elegiac monologues written in 1914, all of which are told by citizens who have risen from the dead to tell the stories of their demise in the mythical Illinois town of Spoon River.
I first discovered Masters’ book when it was performed my freshman year of high school for our annual fall play. Cara (my twin sister) wanted to audition but as I paged through the Anthology I found myself overwhelmed by what seemed at the time to be overly formal monologues of dead Midwesterners I couldn’t connect with. At the last moment I canceled my audition. Forward to November and as the curtain opened on the play, I sat with Cara, who was still angry with me for not auditioning. I was horrified by the sight of the actors who made the cut and remorseful, too, for not being up there myself. We sat in the dark surrounded by parents of the cast members looking in on teenagers who were made to look old with black penciled wrinkles on their foreheads wearing absurd costumes fashioned as unlikely impostures for turn-of-the-century dress. These were children yet to know real worry. But here they were a perfectly perplexing village already defeated by death in child birth, murder, failure, alcoholism, adultery, overdose, suicide–many of the situations that have claimed some of them now, my beloved twin among them.
Years later I came back to the Spoon River Anthology because I was searching for a piece of American literature that would allow me to portray uneasy perspectives, in which the vicissitudes of the everyday leave lasting stories and silences, where fact and fiction converge and can exist simultaneously. With an eye toward the spiritualist movement in photography, which tapped into the devastation of the First World War, I sought to engage the literary gothic movement of which Masters was a part.
The current climate of fear and death which pervades our culture led me back to these movements for a means to rearticulate, reengage: human suffering leads necessarily to the pursuit of a reason, of an explanation. I believe that Edgar Lee Masters understood this when he set out to write The Spoon River Anthology. Given the advent of digital technology and the prevalence of the tableaux, photography no longer exists as a convincing and indisputable documentation of fact, yet, the necessity for the illustration of loss remains. The series as it exists now creates a fictional world for the fictional dead, a resting place that relies on the absurdity of its own description.
In creating the images for Whatever I was in Life: Spoon River I found myself immersed in the moral of Masters’ poetry one apt for we who steal some to create a fiction for ourselves, and the illusion of the strength of power and praise.
Christa Parravani was born in Albany, NY in 1977. She studied creative writing and photography at Bard College and earned her MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University. She has exhibited work at the The Hood Musuem at Dartmouth College, 31 Grand Gallery, Photo New York, The AAF Contemporary Art fair in New York, Photo San Francisco, Julia Friedman Gallery, Gallery 400 in Chicago and the Kassel Academy of Art in Kassel, Germany, among others. She was awarded the first Mortimer Frank Travel fellowship for her series, Other in 2003, and is the recipient of two MacDowell Fellowships. Her work has been published in PEN America, Time Out New York, The New York Times, Vision Magazine China, and in French Photo. She is currently a visiting professor of photography at Dartmouth College.