2.17.2012

Photographers on Photographers: Thomas Roma by Daniel Echevarría


© Thomas Roma

In one of my favorite quotes about art, the 19th century critic, John Ruskin, describes the importance of seeing. He writes, "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one." The essential goals of any visual artist in seeing and creating shouldn't stray too far from Ruskin's valuation. To eventually see properly, though, requires more than just wandering and lucky eyes — I believe seeing requires discipline, training, and study.

Over the years (and so far as my budget has allowed), I've had the opportunity to build a small but nevertheless personally beneficial photobook library. Each book, in its own way, is an invaluable reference. My collection includes a few rare and out-of-print titles, most of the books are 1st editions and signed, almost all are in pristine shape. But one is bent with a split spine, coffee-stained, pages wavy and earmarked, and that's how I know it's the most important book on my shelf — the one I've used the most as a guide on how to see.

I received a copy of Thomas Roma's Found in Brooklyn as an unexpected gift from a professor during my Introduction to Photography course in my second year of university. At the time, I had no intention of practicing photography other than as a passing interest. I had recently moved from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, to New York City, and I was studying print journalism and history. Photography was always a hobby, but it wasn't until I was enrolled in that class (taught by the extraordinary photographer and teacher Anibal Pella-Woo) that I even considered the idea of photographing seriously. Pella-Woo handed me a shrink-wrapped copy of Found in Brooklyn one day after class, and he said that judging from the photos I had presented, I might enjoy Roma's work.

© Thomas Roma

Years later, it's difficult to write anything too analytic about the photographs in Found in Brooklyn. I feel I've seen them so many times, I've internalized and personalized them. Writing about Roma's pictures is like trying to explain to a stranger why week after week you still get drinks at the same bar sitting in the same stool with the same friend with whom you typically have variations on the same conversation. Still, it's through this sort of comfort that you can sometimes learn the nuances of a person, or work, or even yourself.

Although I didn't grow up in New York, the Brooklyn I saw in Roma's photographs (a Brooklyn that was at times almost 20 years younger than the one I first witnessed) was the Brooklyn with which I immediately connected. Roma's Flatbush is a lovely and chaotic mix of cyclone fences, exposed electrical wires, clotheslines, imitation Greek statues, and graceful shadows, all constantly at play with each other. I might not have actually wanted to live in this neighborhood, but I knew I'd be happy living within any of those pictures' edges. In the introduction to Found in Brooklyn, Robert Coles writes that Roma is a "poet of the camera, a localist poet" who gives us "what he 'found,' the soul of a place as it is, and as it gets lived daily." I couldn't agree more. What Roma created is a succinct but expressive distillation of the characters and characteristics of a specific place at a specific time.

© Thomas Roma

Much has been made of the link between Roma's Found in Brooklyn and William Carlos Williams' poem Paterson (even Roma explored the artistic connection through his later book House Calls with William Carlos Williams, MD). I suppose there is a good deal in common with Found in Brooklyn and Paterson, but the difference in scope of the two works never quite allowed me to fully accept the comparison. In Williams' five book poem, New Jersey's Paterson is both a city and a not-so-abstract allegory of the prototypical modern man. The focus of Roma's Flatbush is a bit narrower — which is not to say it isn't as effective — and accordingly, Roma's photographs emit a special immediacy and intimacy to their viewers. These are transcendent photographs of ordinary people, ordinary buildings, and ordinary nature.

© Thomas Roma

When I lived in New York, I visited Flatbush a few times hoping to catch glimpses of the neighborhood I knew so well from Found in Brooklyn. I especially wished I could find that convertible parked at the gas station. I wished I could invite myself for a ride with that blonde basking in the passenger's seat with the summer sun pouring over her (or at the very least, console myself with a warm loaf of bread from Santo's truck after my swift rejection). But the truth is, I never saw what Roma did, and that's because I still don't see as well as he can. Maybe after I study this book a thousand more times, I'll be a few steps closer to seeing clearly myself.

Daniel Echevarría is a photographer and the co-founder and co-editor of One, One Thousand | A Publication of Southern Photography. He lives and works in Atlanta.