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I know that Chris Felver lives in Sausalito, California, but I have never visited him there, despite our having known each for nearly 40 years. I know that somewhere in his house there are rolls of photographs he took one long night years ago of the American Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia and me sitting at Lamantia’s kitchen table in his modest North Beach apartment, not far from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. There were others there that night, but as the hours passed and dawn approached they began to fall asleep on the floor until only Philip, Chris, and I were still awake.
It was an all-night conversation with Philip doing almost all of the talking and Chris taking photographs and me sitting and listening as best as I could to Lamantia’s oracular flights of imagination. It is likely that I will never see these photographs, which I have reluctantly come to accept. Perhaps it is best they stay in the box where Felver consigned them. With his gravelly voice, Felver would have made a great gumshoe in a mystery serial during the Golden Age of American radio, which ended around 75 years ago. Luckily for us, he did not miss his calling, which is to take portraits of the people who make up the cultural backbone of America — its artists, writers, composers, and musicians — people in the public eye, even if that audience is tiny. Like the ubiquitous, wisecracking, fictional private eye of B-movies, Felver can be persistent and annoying, but in all the right ways and for all the right reasons. Given his pursuit, Felver needs to be as maddening and relentless as he is in order to accomplish what he has to do. It is why he has been able to compile one of the most extensive and substantial bodies of work produced over the last 40 or so years.
I don’t know how he gets in touch with all of the people he has photographed — hundreds of writers, artists, musicians, and other cultural figures — but, as I said, he is inexorable. I remember him going on about trying to make an appointment with a writer or an artist, but always being good humored about his relentlessness. This is where he departs from the stereotype of the dogged gumshoe. Felver is an optimist. He sets out to do something and odds are high he will eventually get it done. As the poet Robert Creeley said, in the foreword to Felver’s photography book, The Poet Exposed (1986): The photographer is a friend, the faces are remarkably open, and a reflective small grin echoes from page to page. I think it is that, for the most part, all are at home in the world, and this person come to call, with his camera, is there in like manner, equally open. What drama there is is muted, faces are extremely without artifice, look for the most part straight forward. So the man looking at them is by that defined. Felver didn’t just take a photograph, as each portrait is accompanied by a short poem or line of poetry written by the subject in his or her own hand. He finds another way to be a witness.
I cannot think of another person who has given us such intimate portraits of Sherman Alexie, Amiri Baraka, Louise Erdrich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Joy Harjo, Eartha Kitt, Jasper Johns, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith, and Anne Waldman. He has made photographic portraits of Native American writers, and of composers and musicians from John Cage and Doc Watson to Mavis Staples and Ozzy Osbourne. He spent a week in Nicaragua in early part of 1984 with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, five years after the 1979 July revolution there. The photographs in Felver’s book, The Late Great Allen Ginsberg (2002), were taken between 1980 and 1997, in which various other people make appearances: Philip Glass, Ray Manzarek, Ed Sanders, Norman Mailer, Robert Frank, and Gary Snyder. Each of these projects reveals another side of Felver’s capacity to engage with others and the world, as well as to stand aside and let his subjects speak. I cannot think of anyone who has been as devoted as Felver has been to his subjects. Perhaps it is time we find a way to return that devotion.
Portrait of an Invisible Portraitist “Tribute To Chris Felver By John Yau December 14, 2019