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The Genesis of Vagabond
Posted By Grant McClintock On June 13, 2012 @ 1:00 am In Featured Home,Read,Read Featured,Single - Wide Photo | 2 Comments
In the early 1970s, Tulsa delivered two of the world’s most promising young photographers, Larry Clark and Gaylord Herron. One of them, Clark, went on to international fame. The other, after early acclaim for his 1975 book Vagabond, seemingly disappeared. Now nearly four decades later, he is re-emerging with a body of new work—one that could reshape the artistic landscape of Tulsa. This current work, along with a renewed appreciation of Vagabond, may finally garner Herron the attention and appreciation he has long deserved. Where has he been hiding? In plain sight, it turns out.
When the art book Vagabond came out in 1975, I was running a photo gallery in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The art community was stunned into a pensive silence of admiration and envy by the sheer power of Larry Clark’s 1971 book Tulsa—one of the more evocative and influential photography books ever published. Suddenly people were interested in my hometown.
“Did you know these guys?” they would ask. To New Orleanians, Tulsa was a cozy village up in the plains where surely everyone knew everyone.
When Vagabond arrived on my doorstep, I lent my copy to my partner in the gallery. He took it home to check it out. The next morning he handed it back to me.
“Incredible,” he said, “What the hell’s going on up there?”
What indeed. In the early 1970s, Tulsa arts yielded up three legitimate international stars, Larry Clark, Leon Russell, and J.J. Cale, along with an extensive cast of supporting talent. David Gates, Mary Kay Place, Gailard Sartain were hitting their stride, and what they had in common was Tulsa. Gaylord Herron fell into no easy category, neither leading man nor supporting cast. Vagabond was a true one-off—there’s been nothing like it before or since.
Whereas Clark’s Tulsa rolled into the room like a live grenade, Vagabond was quiet, subtle, and not readily decoded. Vagabond was warmly received by critics and other photographers. Bill Burke at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston listed Vagabond as one of the most important photography books of 1975. English critic William Messer labeled it a “contemporary masterpiece.”
“Photographer Larry Clark named a powerful book Tulsa, but he only scratched the city’s skin while mainlining in another vein that might have gone down similarly in a hundred other locales,” wrote Messer. “In the Tulsa of Vagabond, Herron leans into the place’s chest and makes it breathe back.”
But the book never made that leap into the public consciousness necessary to become a commercial success. Over the years it disappeared from book lists and faded into obscurity. In an interview fifteen years after its publication, Robert Frank, the godfather of American social landscape photography, said, “There was a book, Vagabond. I liked him a lot. A guy from Oklahoma? Not Larry Clark. I think he’s very good. It’s a wonderful book. I think it’s hard to get now.”
Since publishing Tulsa, Larry Clark has directed movies (Kids and Wassup Rockers, among them) and recently released a new collection of work, “Kiss the Past Hello,” which debuted at Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Clark’s muse, Tiffany Limos, is preparing to release a documentary about the making of Tulsa that is scheduled to appear at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The Gaylord Herron story, on the other hand, remains nearly as obscure as Vagabond itself.
Herron has been right here in Tulsa for the last four decades, diligently photographing and documenting his hometown with hardly a note of fanfare, nor a care for it. You’ve probably driven past his business downtown, or walked by him as he hid behind a camera. Now, after four decades of shirking the spotlight, Herron is reemerging with a body of new work, one that could reshape the artistic landscape of Tulsa. In order to fully understand Herron’s significance, though, you first have to know Vagabond.
“Behold, thou has driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth.”
Vagabond opens with Cain’s words from Genesis 4:14. The quote supplies both the title of the book and the maypole around which Herron entwines his work.
In a fit of breathtaking jealousy, Cain killed his brother Abel after God rejected Cain’s offering of produce while accepting Abel’s offering of sheep. God cursed Cain for the deed, sentencing him to endlessly wander the earth, in search of peace, redemption and a return to the father. Even by Old Testament standards this comes off as grim stuff. As Herron interprets it, we are all thrust like boomerangs out into the world, straining to return to the purity and simplicity of original existence. The story of Cain and Abel provides the author an apt metaphor with which to examine this universal journey.
* * *
The genesis of Vagabond seems almost as improbable as the genesis of man as depicted in the Bible. Vagabond is indisputably Gaylord Herron’s book, but without the contributions of two additional characters—Dan Mayo and Bill Rabon—it would have been, at the very least, greatly altered and, more probably, nonexistent.
Herron has depicted his childhood home in Vagabond. In 1970 he photographed his mother standing on the front porch of their house. Her face is lost in a monotone of gray grain. A light by the door bleeds down into the house number, 1024. This is North Florence Street in Tulsa. Herron refers to that part of town as “near northeast.” This small area of Tulsa has been fertile ground for artists, yielding up Johnny Cale, Leon Russell, Elvin Bishop, and David Gates—not to mention such polarizing notables as Bobby Dean Morris (one of Clark’s Tulsa players) and Anita Bryant.
I cannot cite a page number for this or any photograph in the book because, in a nod to the ongoing lighthearted eccentricity of Vagabond, only one page in the book is numbered, the last, 132. These little oddities and visual jokes run throughout Vagabond. Near the end of the book Herron had written, “I have one son, one wife, one car …” The typesetter mistakenly converted this to, “… one wife, one ear …” The boys, ever disciples of the happy accident, liked the typo better than the original and just left it. So Herron arrived on the world stage shy one ear.
Herron attended Cleveland Junior High School on North Birmingham, where he became fast friends with one Buster Craft. They sang duets at the Nazarene Church at 12th and Delaware and wrestled in Buster’s backyard after Sunday school, swapping take-downs. They set pins at Huckett’s Bowling Alley, trading out labor for lane time.
One afternoon Buster brought along another kid who lived somewhere around 15th and Peoria. He and Herron wrestled. A bit over a decade later, Lustrum Press would publish this kid’s book, Tulsa—by one Larry Clark.
Herron attended Webster High School. He had good SAT scores and, in 1961, he was accepted at the University of Tulsa to study engineering. He flunked out and joined the Army, who shipped him to Korea for two and a half years beginning in 1962. There he was transformed into a devoted photographer.
“I was just like everyone else,” he says. “I bought a camera as soon as I got there.”
But unlike everyone else, Herron became a shutterbug extreme. He pored over Popular Photography magazine, checking out the new gear, trying to duplicate the work of Art Kane or Eugene Smith. He first upgraded to a Pentax and then to a medium format Mamiyaflex. He learned to print in the base darkroom. He shot rolls and rolls of Tri-X, the black-and-white film de rigeur at the time. The world became an endless photo op. He showed his buddies the pics. They nodded. They liked them. So he shot more film, lots more film. By the time he returned to the states in 1964, Herron was, and always would be, a dedicated photographer. Totally hooked.
While in Korea, Herron wrote a poem to this father, “Bits and Pieces.” He had a vague idea of delivering this poem on his return home as a first step in the long overdue reconciliation he envisioned. The original, complete with corrections and the circular swirl to get the ink flowing, is reproduced in Vagabond. “Bits and Pieces” is a cry from the heart of a man who never acknowledged nor even recognized the worth of his father, the love he felt for him nor the debt he owed him:
I observe, of course, the Irish face,
The auburn hair,
The sharp blue hunters’ eyes,
I observe the forearms bare and sweat,
Working the tools,
Breaking the lids
Too tight for a woman’s hand….
I apologize for being an ingrate,
moreover I apologize for being
something I can never retrieve.
The poem was not delivered, the reconciliation and return to the father never achieved. Herron’s father died just ten days after his return to the states in 1964.
“Vagabond had to do with the death of my father more than any other aspect of my life,” Herron says.
He set up a little darkroom in his garage and began cranking out his Korea work. After his stint overseas, a garage darkroom in his hometown began to feel a little unimaginative. Growing restless, he finally packed what belongings he had into a 1957 Desoto and headed for the buzz of New York City. He landed a good job as studio assistant for Vincent Lisanti, lugging around an 8×10 Deardorff, reflectors, tripods, all manner of gear. Lisanti primarily shot interiors for high-end magazines—Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies’ Home Journal. The scenes were fully lighted, the perspectives corrected and everything front to back in focus. Lisanti schooled Herron in the peculiarities of the view camera. Herron would use a view camera for the rest of his life, producing with it many of his most compelling images.
At one point down the road Herron ran short of cash so he began using paper, in place of more costly film, in his 8×10. These paper negatives yield soft, other-worldly prints that glow like 19th century work—perhaps Julia Margaret Cameron. For a fine example of this technique, see the shot of the Arkansas River in the Washington Irving spread in Vagabond. I’d give you a page number, but there isn’t one.
Herron slept in the back of Lisanti’s studio. He schlepped equipment, set lights, took meter readings. He subsisted on a diet of English muffins and street food. But he was still broke all the time.
“Even paying no rent I couldn’t afford to live in New York,” he says. “I don’t know how people do it.” He returned to Oklahoma.
Herron moved into the Vogue Apartments next door to Bob Hawk’s photography studio on Main Street. (A half a century, Herron’s bicycle shop and studio is now located in that very building.) Herron dropped by Hawks’ studio looking for work. By chance, Hawks had gone to Brooks Institute with Lisanti. After a phone call to Lisanti, Herron had a job as photo assistant to The Hawk.
Bob Hawks was a tree-shaking money-maker. He and Herron shot product for Zebco, massive amounts for ORU, architecture of all sorts, anything that paid. One of Hawks’ dependable income streams came from the Sweet Adelines Conventions—a women’s barbershop quartet singing convention. The Adelines were big on Lawrence Welk. Herron travelled the country photographing these songbirds. He sent the negatives back to Hawk who then peddled them to the Adelines. One of these images, in scary living color, appears in Vagabond. After a while, Herron left Hawks.
“For some reason I applied to TU,” says Herron, meaning that he re-applied.
* * *
The university offered him a scholarship in the journalism school in exchange for shooting the yearbook. The Tulsa Tribune noticed his photos and asked him to join the staff. Happy to be shed of school, he readily joined the Tribune staff. He stayed with the Tribune from ’67 to ’69. Here, Herron’s photography appeared before the public for the first time. Much of the “landscape of the absurd” perfume of Vagabond derives from photos he produced for the Tribune: the fat man looking very pleased having shot himself in the gut; “Jerk,” the straining weightlifter; the surreal opening of Sheridan Lanes. At the Tribune Herron found his voice, or at least he began to share it. The Tribune proved an ideal landing pad. Herron was forced to produce every day, and his work was being published.
Larry Silvey was the editor at Tulsa Magazine at the time. He hired Herron to photograph numerous spreads for the publication.
“Larry was a perfect editor,” remembers Herron. “He picked interesting and relevant subjects and turned me loose.” Among many other jobs for Tulsa Magazine, three spreads stand out. Silvey assigned Herron to photograph two Tulsa landmarks before their destruction—the Orpheum Theater and the Cimarron Ballroom. These, and so many other elegant (or at least intriguing) buildings in Tulsa, have fallen in the name of progress. What remains of the Orpheum are Herron’s photographs to remind us that we will never again slip by the “Balcony Closed” rope and sneak up into that particular paradise. Neither will future generations do the funky chicken on that supremely funky dance floor of the Cimarron, depicted in its decay in Vagabond.
On the positive side, the Tulsa Magazine photo essay of the Union Station played a role in saving that iconic building.
In 1969, Herron moved over to KOTV, taking up the feature-reporting slot created by Dino Economis. It was a colorful crew. Gailard Sartain operated a camera at the station before transmogrifying into “Mazeppa” and achieving Tulsa immortality. Bob Brown was an investigative reporter. He advanced to 20/20 on ABC News. Then you had “Lee and Lionel,” Mac Krieger and Bill Pitcock. To Tulsans of a certain age, you might as well say Penningtons, the Will Rogers, and Jack’s Barber Shop. These people and places defined our town and sense of well being.
Herron produced about 900 stories for KOTV over three years. I asked him to sum up the KOTV experience. He gazed off into middle distance for a moment, considering. He came back with one word: “Frantic.”
* * *
As Herron was spreading his images across town in print and broadcasting his words through the televised ether, a young photographer named Dan Mayo was lurking. “I followed Gaylord’s work for years,” says Mayo. “Finally I decided I had to meet him.”
Attempting to reconstruct the initial meeting of Herron, Mayo, and Rabon compounds the geometric confusion of three aging minds, innate good manners, and chemical reorganization—a seemingly impossible task. The memory of three fellows crowded around either side of 70 years old is slippery by definition. But then, of course, Herron has a photograph, and who can argue with a photograph? As Susan Sontag observed, “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality.”
Mayo, Herron, and I gaze at the photo. This particular one imprisons a winter day in 1973. Judy Herron, Gaylord’s wife, is building a fire in the background. An out-of-focus woman no one can identify stands to the side of the frame. She has arranged this meeting at Herron’s house. Who is she? Several guesses lead us to no definitive identification.
Mayo spent the next three days going through boxes of prints at Herron’s house. He remembers, “It was an incredible turn-on. I really wanted to do something.”
Herron approached Vagabond from North Tulsa, passing through public schools, fundamental Christianity, and the Army. Mayo came from the other pole—the south side, through Holland Hall, secular humanism, and Southern Hills. Mayo, heir to the eponymous hotel and Okie oil money, grew up in privilege. But as Leon Russell said to him many years later from behind the wheel of his Rolls Royce, “Dan, you and I have something in common now. I’m rich too … Ain’t so easy, is it?”
Great photography first arrived in Mayo’s life through the pages of his mother’s subscription to Vogue. These were the tasty years with Alexander Liberman at the helm of Condé Nast. In Vogue, Mayo discovered the images of Richard Avedon. The Avedon influence was to emerge in Mayo’s portrait series from the late ‘70s, which was the match of anything anyone was doing anywhere.
After Holland Hall, Mayo went to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and promptly failed out. In New York City he saw Steichen’s Family of Man show at MoMA and was dazzled. He came across Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy—in Herron’s view, the ultimate vagabond.
Mayo shipped out to chilly Colorado Alpine College, which he loved, and then back to TU, which he did not. He dropped out of TU, unable to hack the requirements.
“No science, no math,” Mayo recalls. “I liked literature. I didn’t even like history—just fantasy and alcohol.”
In the summer of 1970, Mayo discovered Cartier-Bresson through his book The Decisive Moment. No artist had a greater influence on photographers of the Mayo’s generation than did Henri Cartier-Bresson. His ability to perfectly frame his images time after time approached the miraculous. When Mayo first opened The Decisive Moment, a card advertising a Minor White workshop at the Hotchkiss School fell from it. In the pantheon of photo heavy-hitters, Minor White got in line right behind Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and he was becoming recognized as the bossman of Zen photography. “Sensitivity awareness” he called it. Mayo said, “That’s for me.” Minor White was the first in a string of major photographic artists under whom Mayo studied.
He learned of the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, New York, through White. Apeiron was of prime importance to the development of Mayo’s work and to the birth of Vagabond. Apeiron was opened in 1970 by Peter Schlessinger, a former assistant editor at Aperture Magazine (Minor White was a founder). Schlessinger gathered an A-list of art photography talent to demonstrate their craft to the hungry few at Apeiron. The leaders included such luminaries as Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Paul Camponigro, Judy Dater, Robert Frank, Burk Uzzle, Ralph Gibson, Lee Friedlander, on and on. It was like working out with the Yankees at spring training.
In 1971 Mayo signed up for a workshop with Diane Arbus, but Arbus killed herself shortly before the workshop was to begin. “Crushing blow,” recalls Mayo, “I was so excited to get to meet her.”
Paul Camponigro filled Arbus’ spot, and a felicitous substitution it was. Camponigro, an acknowledged master photographer, was Italian-handsome, confident and open. Like Ansel Adams, he was a classically trained pianist. He and Mayo hit it off immediately and remained friends long after Apeiron ended. Camponigro took an engaging portrait of Mayo while they were at Apeiron. Mayo owns an admirable collection of photography and art—nothing dearer to him than that portrait by Camponigro.
That summer, Mayo also took workshops from George Tice and Emmet Gowin.
Mayo returned to Tulsa and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Heady times. Leon Russell was emerging as the genius he proved to be. The Tulsa Sound was going national. Great musicians were thick on the ground: Cale, Karstein, Raffensperger, Tripplehorn, Radle, Simms, “Taco” Ryan, Blackwell, Mike Bruce, Keltner, Oldaker. Heady times, indeed.
Emily Smith introduced Mayo to Russell. Something like, “Hey, this is a good kid who loves photography. You ought to give him a try.”
And he did. Mayo eventually shot the covers for Carney, Hank Wilson’s Back (Emily Smith contributed the art work), and Stop All that Jazz. Mayo also photographed the St. Louis gospel duo nonpareil, The O’Neal Twins, when they recorded for Shelter Records.
Mayo became the court photographer of the Mad Dogs and Shelter Records movable celebration—the MDAE party at Mayo’s parents house, the Kool Aid acid picnic. Denny Cordell, who had started Shelter Records with Leon Russell, arranged for Mayo to print his material at the superb Capitol Records darkroom in Los Angeles. Mayo ended up with hundreds of images from the period, which still appear from time to time in music publications.
Even in the throes of rock ’n’ roll, Mayo was keeping track of another Tulsa photographer. He had admired this guy’s stills in the Tribune and in Tulsa Magazine. Now he was on TV. There’s something happening here, thought Mayo. And it’s not all music.
* * *
Mayo and Herron agree that Tulsa painter Bill Rabon played an important role in the creation of Vagabond but neither is certain what that role was.
“Muse?” says one. They consider this.
“No that wasn’t really it.” Another pause.
“Bill is a poet. Mostly it was just the things he said …” They nod.
When I put the question of his role in Vagabond to Rabon, hemanswered, “Appreciator.”
The book is dedicated “to Cain and to Bill Rabon,” which in Rabon’s mind is redundant. “I’m a vagabond, a Cain, a gypsy.” He should know. Herron’s dramatic portrait of Rabon appears on the dedication page—a visage that might well belong to a vagabond, a Cain, or a gypsy.
“It was an honor having this book dedicated to me,” says Rabon.
Rabon was born in Muskogee on the 4th of July, 1938, into a fundamentalist, Bible-reading home. Along with the requisite prodigious party skills, Rabon brought to the project a thorough, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of the good book. I asked him to run down the Cain and Abel story for me, expecting a couple of minutes of Wikipedia. Not at all. The main events were supported by off-shoots of twisting chronicle and fascinating factoids. The troubling issue of Cain’s wife was settled with conviction. Various theories regarding the nature of the mark of Cain were put forth and batted around.
“Cain built the city of Enoch to stop the judgment,” says Rabon. “We have to become aware of the city today. We must work with the city or it will overwhelm us. Tulsa is an exact model of Enoch.”
“A model city?” I ask.
“Not a model city. Tulsa is the model city. Big things can happen here,” Rabon says. “We are given to abstract thinking.”
Rabon’s educational pedigree is as Tulsa as you can get: Eliot, Central, and TU. He liked to hang out at Skaggs smoking cigs and watching the downtown bustle. In 1961, he began painting and fell in with a group known as the Bohemes. They gathered at the Bob and Barbara Bartholic’s gallery on Cincinnati. Or at Id, Inez Running-rabbit’s gallery on Carson. There was Alice Price, John Kennedy, Paul England, and a gaggle of other painters, poets, and folks just hanging out. Cigarettes and booze. Joe Brainard and his crew were walking up and down 11th Street eating candy bars and looking ragtag. Art and talk—all suspended in that idyllic interlude between the Beatnik era and the drugged-driven hippie onslaught. Rabon remembers the Tulsa art world of the early ‘60s with real fondness and gratitude.
Rabon’s reputation as a painter and hipster expanded with the decade. He and Mayo became friends. Herron met Rabon separately. The three came together for Vagabond.
* * *
Mayo went through Herron’s work for three days.
“We should do a book,” he told Herron.
This wistful sentence is uttered millions of times a year across the country, usually without result. But this was different. Mayo had the funds not only to produce a book, but to produce a book of the highest quality.
“I wanted the finest printer, the most beautiful paper, everything,” he says. “I had a lust for ink.”
Herron was certainly ready. He had been casting about for an artistic project to give expression to the loss he felt at the death of his father—his grief over the unresolved dual abandonment. Now Mayo was throwing a book deal in his lap. And God knows, Herron had the work to fill it.
Herron was all-in immediately.
“Nobody was knocking down my door,” he says. Judy Herron’s enthusiasm was tempered and, well, rational. Herron had a solid job. He was gaining a local reputation. She thought the book was a fine idea but don’t quit the day job, honey.
He quit the day job.
In a flurry of fast talk and high excitement, the boys loaded up Dan’s Volvo with boxes of prints and such supplies as a couple of Okies might need in the big city, and they headed off for New York. One moment in the trip is chronicled in Vagabond. Mayo sits
behind the wheel of the Volvo consulting a map. The clock shows 1:15 a.m. They are in Indianapolis, driving straight through from Tulsa. It’s raining.
This was the fall of 1974. Between this time and the publication of Vagabond in 1975 there were five or six trips back east all involving some combination of four people—Herron, Mayo, Rabon, and Judy. The triangle route was always the same: Manhattan to visit the printer and raise hell, Apeiron to seek advice from the gurus and Tulsa to resupply and work on the photo selection, layout and the concept.
First they traveled to Apeiron to get the opinion of the heavy hitters—something of a nervous moment. The possibility of rejection was not so farfetched. “Sorry fellows. This stinks.” But when they showed the photos to Paul Camponigro and Peter Schlessinger, both men loved them and were enthusiastic about the concept. Schlessinger ran Mayo and Herron through the gauntlet of potential problems that lie ahead. He provided some much needed practical advice. Camponigro put a small “P” on the back of the prints he especially liked. Herron, who seems to know where every photo he has ever taken is located, has since lost them.
The boys contacted Ralph Gibson. Gibson opened a decade of remarkable photography books with The Somnambulist in 1970. His Lustrum Press then published Larry Clark’s Tulsa. These two books hit the photo art world like Sgt. Pepper’s. Everyone was looking at them, carrying them around, talking about them. Ralph Gibson was the man.
When Gibson was consulted about Vagabond’s potential, he answered, “Yeah, it should be a great book, but don’t expect to make any money.” Prophetic on both counts.
Mayo insisted that Sidney Rappaport in New York print the book. Rappaport worked on all the most important photography books. He was the best in the business. Mayo contacted Rappaport and set things up. They then returned to Tulsa and began to assemble a dummy.
The photo book design convention at the time demanded a certain look, a style that announced, “This isn’t just photography, this is art.” It was known as Aperture monograph—clean and simple, one photo per page, lots of Helvetica. Even the iconoclastic Gibson held to the Aperture monograph standard. Herron wanted to go a different way. He envisioned an “artist’s book” more along the lines of Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha—more free-form, less constrained.
At this point, the influence of Mayo and Rabon came into play. Although the book was Herron’s vision, Mayo contributed significantly to the overall aesthetic, for example, designing the collage on the right side of the “Bits and Pieces” spread. And Rabon was on hand to help Herron flesh out the Cain metaphor and keep the vibe on the tracks.
In New York, Mayo rented Eugene O’Neill’s old suite in the Hotel Chelsea, home at one time or another to a wild variety of artists, musicians, actors and writers—a real Bohemian sanctuary perfect for the Vagabond crew.
“Great hotel,” recalls Rabon. “You could pass out flat on the sidewalk and they’d pick you up and carry you to your room. Larry Rivers paintings all over the lobby.”
Herron spent as much time as he could with Sidney Rappaport, at the shoulder of the master. He was absorbing the printing and composition side of bookmaking. Vagabond was coming together.
“Gaylord was working hard while Bill and I partied,” says Mayo.
But here and there Herron did manage an evening out. One grueling night found them at the Carlyle digging Bobby Short with New York café society. Mayo knew Short through his hotelier dad, Birch, who knew everybody. Now and then Mayo barked out, “Play it, Bobby.” Bobby nodded. The boys were fried. Okies on the loose in the big city. They left the Carlyle and headed for the Chelsea, but overcome by drink, they decided to bed down uptown at the Plaza. “Could you bring me a room?”
“Vagabond was very much about fun,” says Mayo.
In 1975 the book was finished and in hand. It was boxed and sent to Light Impressions, the company in charge of the distribution. The books sat in the Light Impressions warehouse for years, a relatively small number of copies sold. Eventually Peter Schlessinger picked up the unsold Vagabonds and drove them to Tulsa where they took up residence in Mayo’s house. Some years later Herron retrieved the boxes from Mayo’s and carried back them his studio and that’s where most of them they can be found today.
* * *
Distance anoints a work with historical significance. This is true of Vagabond. These photographs arrive from the lost past, from our lost past. Photographs are documents. One of the prime values of Herron’s work will be to serve as an accurate record for future generations to examine, not unlike the Beryl Ford Collection. That alone gives them value.
But these photographs move far beyond documentation. Herron’s work unveils the unseen, not just what we observe but how what we observe works on us—not just the world as it appears but what it feels like underneath. The people, the place, are familiar but they exist at the level of dreamscape, pared down to a wobbly essence. One hesitates to trot out that shop-worn word, but in Herron’s case, it applies … mystical.
Today, Mayo shoots more than ever, but now with an iPhone. His primary subjects are those close at hand: his granddaughter, his home, his garden, himself. His primary gallery is the Internet. His work remains fresh and untethered to convention.
Rabon lives in a very modest north side apartment. A cat wanders in and out. He willingly shares his wealth of Tulsa anecdotes, cosmic theory and good cheer. He owns one coffee cup and an antique microwave on the floor to heat things up.
“I’ve got all I need,” he says. “I get up every morning and paint.”
Despite the accolades Herron’s work has received over the years, his photography is rarely seen in Tulsa. Instead of attending art openings, Herron has been running a bike shop, G. Oscar, in the old Bob Hawks studio where he learned a few tricks of the trade. He has recently finished a monumental work, photographing 250 Tulsa buildings with his much loved 8×10 paper negative technique.
Herron pours over his old photographs in the studio above his shop. He is undertaking the daunting task of converting a lifetime of solid silver prints into insubstantial pixels. He scans the past for hours each day after work. I asked him if he could sum up his thoughts on the entire body of his work from 1962 to the present.
He answered, “The older I get, the less I know. The work leading up to Vagabond was freer, more inspired than that which came after ‘75. Artists learn to imitate themselves and that drags them down. The inspiration of youth is like a dream now—a dream I sometime wish I could return to.”
You can’t blame Herron’s yearning for the energies of youth. His unique vision and talent set Vagabond apart and assures it a place among the most important art books of the last half of the last century. Vagabond was a spot in time, a distinctive gem dropped in our laps. With a new body of work forthcoming, the vagabond behind Vagabond may yet come to be appreciated as one of Oklahoma’s most important and enigmatic artists.
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