Chasing Dragons [Review]

“At six, I did not have (or need) discreet language. I possessed insatiable sense and sight. Pure seeing. This was the experience of meaning and moment, sensation that went directly to feeling before it became tethered by brain and thought.” – Bill Hayward

They say you can’t tell a book by its cover, except when you can. The moment I opened the plain brown box from Glitterati and saw the jacket of Chasing Dragons, I had a feeling that this work was going to speak to me. Based solely on the design, the colors and the typography—the feel, if you will—I knew this “uncommon memoir” by artist and photographer Bill Hayward would ring deeply familiar. Reading through the first few pages of the book, I was taken back to similar experiences from my own childhood, searching for magic, for meaning, perhaps even dragons, hidden in the clouds over the long stretches of empty Arizona highways that featured so prominently in the summers of my youth. The prologue, the introduction that follows it, and the brief section titled Mise-en-Scéne—which begins with a poem reminiscent of William Gibson’s writing in Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)—set the hook, tapping into my own decades-old sense memories. “From my dedicated right-rear of the Chevy, I could scan the panorama of window frames,” Mr. Hayward writes in the introduction, “I could “see” whenever and wherever—to engage with the vast and vigorous ways of light and shadow, color at dawn, midday, evening, at night, soft, hard, and with sky and stars.” I found myself a fan of the work without even having seen it. I simply connected to the manner in which he prepared the reader to experience it. The words. The context. The feel.

ACT 1 In the introduction, Mr. Hayward tells the story of how he acquired his first camera (the spoils of a trade for a Lionel electric train) and how, with the help of Fellini’s La Strada, he became aware of “the incredible depth of expressive possibility available in working with and shaping visuals.” There’s definitely process at work here and while the portraits in Act 1 are good, they feel safe, strangely out of place within the context of the rest of the book—as if the photographs have been included simply to provide a roadmap, a vehicle to get the reader to Act 2, and maybe that’s enough.

ACT 2 This is probably my favorite collection of work in the book, though the images in Asphalt, Muscle and Bone from Act 5 are a close second. “Tired of repeating myself and what I knew,” Mr. Hayward begins, “I commenced “bushwhacking” in the darkroom (this is way before digital) and experimenting with print, paint, paper and scissors and following real “brush strokes” of accident—disrupting what I knew of visual technique and tradition.” It is here we see the work in Act 1 form a bedrock for experimentation, where boundaries like standard or commercial don’t really apply. Mr. Hayward expands outward into fine art, manipulating composition, color and texture both in and out of the darkroom to create a number of unique bodies of work. There’s a deeper sense of collaboration here; the line between creator and subject begins to blur. In “Gesture and Invention”, for example, shapes and forms of figures are explored again and again, using a variety of materials and techniques to create multiple facets of expressing a single subject. Throughout the bodies of work, the viewer is allowed to see Mr. Hayward’s process evolving— a peek behind the curtain at the interim steps between happy accidents.

“I have learned to stop “taking” pictures—a futile effort of surface gloss at best—and have reinvented a way of seeing that affords far greater depth and fulfillment…” —Bill Hayward

ACT 3 The work in Act 3 sees the barrier between subject and photographer all but obliterated, replaced with a collaborative relationship that begins with a conversation which ebbs and flows, culminating with the subject (collaborator) physically creating the environment from which the portrait emerges. It’s a fascinating body of work, one that feels intimate and raw, without feeling trite or contrived. The work in 17 Bedrooms is particularly compelling to me, though I can’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it’s the dog.

ACT 4 This work is about motion, specifically the motion of dancers. It feels like a necessary bridge to Act 5, where the stills come to life. “I see huge rhythms operating,” Mr. Hayward writes. “Energy furnaces in her perpetual body. A fierce chiaroscuro and flight.”

ACT 5 As of this writing, Mr. Hayward is at the Venice Film Festival with his film Asphalt, Muscle and Bone, which, from what little I have seen, is perhaps the most experimental work to date. “The film,” Mr. Hayward writes on his blog, “….ie. the project is made up of words and visuals, but in this case, the words are not given the usual priority over the visuals…(ie…write a story and build a visual world around it)…trying to make the evolution of the process as visually organic and predominant as possible…I’m making sets and scenes and then seeing what happens when I turn the lights, cameras and actors on…” As it is presented in Chasing Dragons, the project is a collection of work in a variety of media, which spans portraiture, experimental vignettes and fine art. As with much of the other work in the book, it is difficult to put into words and instead must be seen and experienced firsthand.

Chasing Dragons is one of the more unique books in my library in that it challenges and inspires me on a number of levels. It’s not a traditional photo book per se, despite the fact that the work is deeply rooted in traditional photography. Nor is it what you would typically call an art book, though the work is, at least in my opinion, fine art. It’s more of a poetic expression, a chromatic equation of sorts, whose sum total is yet to be realized while so many variables are still in motion. Mr. Hayward is a poet, a photographer, a painter, and perhaps a shaman who has created a fantastic body of work—one that will capture the interest of artists and technicians alike.

All images © Bill Hayward. Thanks to Glitterati for providing me with a copy of Chasing Dragons to review.

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