by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, from Knives, by Jason Koxvold
Is this a book that sets out to tell a story about knives? Is it a book that tells a story about the town of Wawarsing in Ulster county (pop. 13,1574), situated at roughly equal distances from Albany and New York city in central New York State? If you have arrived at this page in Jason Koxvold’s book in chronological order, then the answer may already seem clear. The sort of story this is plainly depends on more than the elements Koxvold has marshalled in its telling—it depends upon the various changeable relationships between what the images show, and those of us now in a position to read them.
‘Now’ adds a crucial nuance to our sense of this unfolding interplay. To grasp the shape of the story requires reckoning with how many ‘nows’ orbit around these images:
There’s the now of this moment—not just the moment of my writing, but the last full bloom of summer 2017. There’s the now of this book’s publication, and the now of your first journey through its pages. There’s the now measured in the months since the inauguration of the forty-fifth president of the United States5. There’s the now of the fourteen years since Wawarsing’s standard-bearing industry shuttered its doors. There’s that now of a decades-long deterioration in an already decimated industrial base—a generational now—a changeless now where diminishing economic opportunity bolsters ever-accelerating capital returns6. There’s the century-long now of a categorical inversion in the balance between the rural and the urban, in which farmers moved from being a majority of the pre-World War I population to being a dwindling minority by the turn of the millennium. There’s the now of combustible and deeply fissured race relations in a country built on the systematically unequal (and too often violent) exercise of power. There’s the now of single-industry towns, which is the now of fracking, the now of the maximum-security prison wage, the now of big box retail, of unattainable healthcare, the now of white collar sprawl in hospital and university towns, the now of service centres, transhipment hubs, the now of absolute dependence. I could go on…
If any of these ‘nows’ weighs singly in taking the measure of this work, it will invariably and disproportionately shape the book’s meaning. In a moment of such profound territorial struggle in our political and social life, no fruit hangs lower than the single issue, so the question arises: how are we to look at a series of photographs made in Wawarsing in the now of late 2017?
To imagine that we might see this work outside of the parameters of a political convulsion that has tensed virtually every national sinew is as naïve as to imagine that we might each look at this work and see the same thing. The matter of power, inseparable from the many histories—local, national and global—of disempowerment, courses through these pictures, these clippings, these knives and through all the spaces in between them.
“Not since Watergate has so much uncertainty and potential disorder infected every institution, network, and power relationship” 7 writes historian Mike Davis. In aligning ourselves with or against power, in seeking recognition under the terms of its temporary embrace, we risk severing the links that bind us one to another. Kelly Oliver writes that if “recognition is conceived as being conferred on others by the dominant group, then it merely repeats the dynamic of hierarchies, privilege and domination. Even if oppressed people are making demands for recognition, insofar as those who are dominant are empowered to confer it, we are thrown back into the hierarchy of domination.” 8
We should therefore do away with any notion that those of us who read this book are in a position to confer recognition on those represented within it. Similarly, we should also do away with the notion—deeply embedded in much of the history of documentary photography—that those people shown in these pages seek anything from us as their audience. To fail at this is to risk further entrenching a set of antagonisms that have been dangerously weaponised in the very recent past.
Koxvold gradually came to know the outlines of Wawarsing’s history through the anecdotes and conversations he had with those who had lived in the town for many years, after he set out to build a home there during the recession of 2008. In late 2014, he began photographing Wawarsing in response to what he had come to know: that it has a classically American immigrant history9; that like much of central and upstate New York, its 19th century prospects were underwritten by the expanding economic effects of the Erie Canal; that the town’s oldest—and for generations—its single largest employer, the Schrade Cutlery Corporation10, had been founded by English immigrants in 1871; that this company formed part of a regional manufacturing hub with extensive knife-making expertise, and that this work drove the local economy for one hundred and fifty years; that on the 30th July 2004, the company abruptly and completely closed its long-foundering operations, and soon after declared bankruptcy.
The aftereffects of these events are a palpable structuring feature of the landscape, and of the changed circumstances in its communities. While, at the last, the factory took with it only 260 jobs, the rippling effects of this closure in the context of regional de-industrialisation were severe11. They have also proved thus far to be irreparable.
2015 Census data indicates that 83% of Wawarsing’s population are of working age12, and that 46% of those are aged between 35 and 59 years old. The Census estimates that, as of 2015, only half of Wawarsing’s working age population participated in the workforce, so the 260 lost jobs represent employment for nearly one in ten of those below the retirement age who no longer work. In a town where more than one in three residents live below the federal poverty level, what seems like a little can prove more than sufficient to change everything else.
The knives in this book are thus remnants of a deep cultural history around which a sense of collective identity developed over a century and a half13. By opening the book with an 1886 portrait of Dwight Divine, Koxvold thus signals a continued elaboration of two parallel lineages: that of the chronological development of the town’s most famous product, and that of its residents. The interweaving strands raise the questions of whether a town can be reduced to the singularity of its emblem, and what is it that remains in the wake of its dissolution?
To begin with, people. In this instance—which is to say in this work, rather than in the world from which the pictures were fashioned—what remain are preponderantly men. Men who appear to be well into, or past their middle age, and who are depicted with a consistently statuesque kind of stillness. They are generally photographed up close and within the limiting field of shallow focus, so that the extension of their arms, the weight of their bodies, the textures of the spaces that they occupy are abridged, condensed into fractional cues, which we can read out from inside the tight space that frames them.
It is tempting to elide this photographic effect with the overarching reality that the pictures and documents reflect. The constraints of the narrowly drawn frame heighten the intensity of minute gestures: a squint against direct sunlight, or a wide-eyed gaze in patient anticipation of the shutter seem to open up a route through the actual, through the perfunctory, toward the rich grounds of metaphor. This is the necessary deception of the photographic portrait: to confect a set of circumstances in which an appearance might rise to the surface whose genesis matters far less than its rhetorical effect.
This is to say that we should exercise some caution not to lapse into a “perceived anthropological condescension”14 in our viewing. We should avoid any temptation to conflate the clarity of an image with a human experience we then take to be singular, solely on the photograph’s terms. These men are not monoliths. While Koxvold’s photographs reflect a post-industrial silence coursing through the landscape, where there is weariness in the portraits it is inseparable from the accumulated traces of a complex life.
an irremediable absence.15
The knives shown in the book come from the Wawarsing Historical Society, in which examples from virtually every phase of the region’s history of knife-making are regularly on public display. The knife museum there mirrors the double-bind characteristic of much rural de-industrialisation: it reflects the obligation to preserve in effigy that which helped to build the town—that which the town may now no longer produce, but nevertheless cannot afford to lose. Such small cities and towns too poor to be able to “leverage the hollow shells of a [once] productive economy”16 must then lay down with their architectural ghosts, which rest in a state of decrepit inaction that looks both dated and sudden—like a solid echo.
This is a way of retaining loss. It resurfaces in much of the poetry of Galway Kinnell, whose Last Songs serves as an epigram for this essay and this book. In his poem Lastness, he writes:
is brightness. It is the brightness
gathered up of all that went before. It lasts.
And when it does end
there is nothing, nothing
in the rust of old cars,
in the hole torn open in the body of the Archer,
in river-mist smelling of the weariness of stones,
the dead lie,
empty, filled, at the beginning,
and the first
voice comes craving again out of their mouths.17
Kinnell’s rendering of our irresistible mortality is not linear but cyclical: after the end, when “there is nothing, nothing/ left/in the rust of old cars (...) the dead lie,/empty, filled, at the beginning,/and the first/voice comes craving again out of their mouths.” This bears on the question of the ruin—a term that accurately defines the hollow carapace of the Schrade knife factory, which sprawls out in a picture here at the edge of town. To revisit it in pictures, within the context of the fabric of the town that surrounds it, is to reckon with the recurrence of those voices that go on sounding more than a decade after its closure.
The question of Koxvold’s treatment of these ruins—the possible charge that this work represents ‘ruin porn’— colours the likely reception of his work. A quick search of Google’s Trend analysis tool18 for popular search terms in the United States shows that after relatively limited use between 2004 and 2008, the phrase has steadily grown in popularity up to the present day. Beyond its immediate confirmation of the recession’s effects, this data suggests a concomitant concern with how we look at the visible marks of the recession—marks which are themselves deeply historical, and part of a longer ‘now’ than the spectacle of the 2008 financial crash might encourage us to believe.
John Patrick Leary writes that “much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them,” pointing to the essential role of decontextualisation in the production of the ruin’s characteristic “hollow shells”19. The interweaving strands of the story of the knives and the present conditions of Wawarsing thus reject the romanticised melodrama of ruin porn. Koxvold has opted instead to grasp for a sense of the imbrication of past, present and future through the conjunction of economic and social life.
The photograph is both an apt and cruel method for dealing with such circumstances. It addresses the frailty and mortality of those things that it invariably outlives, but in that preservation it heightens our sensitivity to the irrecoverable moments crystallised across its vivid surfaces. We see our own ageing, our own transformation, in the mirroring encounter with the changeless elements of the photograph, even as its meanings continually shift. The photograph retains a dynamism and a persistence beyond the scope of our mortal lives, such that “the image, bearing as it always does several memories at once, is never closed,” and “the true picture of the past is the one that is always in a state of passing away.” 20
In this way, in one of Koxvold’s photographs, the congregation of green weeds pivoted toward the light of an open doorway mimic the bowed lines of the wooden wall panelling, whose grain seems to drift and droop while old living rooms, old offices, former places of work and play, surrender to a gradual rewilding whose beauty signals a cruel and irreversible reclamation. Loss and reclamation are indivisible; the present is discernible through the immanent distance of the past. Koxvold’s recurrent focus on the ground in these derelict rooms, on floors fading back toward the raw condition of earth, recalls a history of illegible footsteps over and in which he steps in the making of this work.
In Galway Kinnell’s poem The Shoes of Wandering, his narrator purchases a pair of second-hand shoes at the Salvation Army, wears them out of the store along the streets to his hotel, sets them beside his bed before falling asleep, and finds himself at each point wrestling with the ghosts of their former owners. In “putting on, one after one,/these shoes strangers have died from, I discover/the eldershoes of my feet,/that take my feet/as their first feet, clinging/down to the least knuckle and corn.” 21
The narrator curls up on the bed, but finds that “the old/footsmells in the shoes, touched/back to life by my footsweats, as by/a child’s kisses, rise”, so that all of a sudden if he groans or wheezes, “it will be/the groan or wheeze of another” 22. He is visited by dreams of the room’s former residents, and by the echoing voices of the shoes’ former owners. Even on waking and setting out into the streets, he finds
each step a shock,
a shattering underfoot of mirrors sick to the itch
of our face-bones under their skins,
as memory reaches out
and lays bloody hands on the future, the haunted
shoes rising and falling
through the dust, wings of dust
lifting around them, as they flap
down the brainwaves of the temporal road.23
For Kinnell, the foot may be “this lowliest/of tongues, whose lick-tracks tell/our history of errors to the dust behind,/which is the last trace in us/of wings.” 24 In Kinnell’s poetry, grace must be fashioned from, or uncovered in and through our repeated contact with the matter that surrounds us, even as that matter is itself seeded—better yet, suffused—with vivid traces of the past. Another reading of Warwarsing’s imbrication with that past can be elaborated not only in the chronology of these knives, but also in their names.
I cannot mourn the history that produced the Allen Cutlery Company’s Nigger Chaser knife, shown earlier in the pages of this book. Nor can I disregard the haunting presence of that history in this work. The tremendous utility of these goods to the US government (and its many citizens) since the mid-nineteenth century all but guarantees that such implements—designed for hunting, tree-scoring, spudding, skinning and pruning—also scored and pierced the black flesh of American citizens, irrespective of the impetus of a given knife’s name. They are tools designed for specific uses, but their utility does not end with the completion of routine tasks: they are also phallic symbols of American male virility and danger, latent or explicit threats of incipient male violence. Some pride in this lingers on in their aspect, and in their names.
So too do Schrade’s ties to prisons linger in the panoply of knives, as in the commemorative Barlow Scrimshaw knife from 1983, or in the Custom Scrimshaw knife awarded for 25 years of service as a prison guard, or in the rusted devilish tip of the Improvised Shank (details unknown). These knives were intended for use within the opaque interiors of the two correctional facilities that squat in the centre of town. Given the subsequent disassembly of Schrade—given its dismemberment by de-industrial pressures—these knives seem symptomatic not only of structural economic decline, but of a male tradition whose symbolism has lost much of its once-vaunted vigour (although little of its lethal capacity).
In the elision of images of the prison, readouts of its inmates and images of these knives, Koxvold’s work threads together lassitude, ceremonial stillness and rigid order with incarceration and rehabilitation. At least, that must be the hope: that past violences are foresworn and new possibilities cultivated in a town whose losses equal those of many of the prison’s inmates. The prison layers loss onto a landscape shaped by its generational imprint. While it offers employment for some, and economic opportunity for those serving inmate’s families, it nevertheless reiterates a logic of reduction, retrenchment and repression, which bonds the inmates to the knives, and which bonds those two in turn to the town.
That knives with these histories, once the fulcrum of the lifework of this region, are now a glowering absence in this small town—its trademarks auctioned off in the firesale of bankruptcy—redoubles symbolic (and actual) violence back on the inhabitants who live in its wake. The demise of Schrade is, in this sense, also a profound mark of emasculation, and while its effects are plainly indifferent to the gender of their victims, Schrade’s cessation, its degradation, represents a cut into the psyche that may not heal for generations.
Beyond the litany of personal conversations and local news stories, the loss of Schrade has been discussed and debated online for many years. The contextual factors have been wrung for any salient and overlooked detail. The chronology of events has been rehearsed and re-rehearsed. In a forum titled “Prologue at the Funeral” from March 2006, a commenter named “relodr36” cuts to the heart of it all:
“A lot of this off-shoring is being justified in the name of “share-holder value”. The CEO’s,etc.,are sure raking in big money while they’re also closing pension plans.”25
Another commenter named “lt632ret” remarks that “my only problem was dealing with a government which has sworn our extinction.” It is hard to argue with the fundamental accuracy of such claims in 2017. Obsolescence is tremendously profitable, and at a federal level, the fate of post-industrial regions is more a political than an economic concern.
Nevertheless, it is hard to swallow the recurrence of racist vitriol in these forums, as it arises in and among the many lucid critiques of regional neglect. The sheer frequency and spread of factory closings, the number of intimate friends and co-workers affected, the sums of debt and sales and profit and loss, the depth of the jobless abyss that follows on the heels of this devastation: these are phenomena whose enormity can bring contextual thinking to a standstill, opening the door for phantom Others to be pressed into remedial service. But it would be naïve to presume that this animus has a singular cause, much less a single historical origin.
Despite a 50% jobless rate, Wawarsing’s story did not end with the closing of the Schrade factory. As Jeremiah Horrigan wrote on the tenth anniversary of the closing:
“The workers from Schrade? They have moved on — to other places or other jobs and other lives. To where? How many? Are they OK? No one seems to know exactly. No one has tracked them. (…) The village — the entire community — has moved on too. It has gone all-in on casino gambling as the answer to its decades-long decline.”26
Beyond this ultimately unsuccessful venture, the town has come to depend upon employers such as Wal-Mart, local healthcare providers, and two correctional facilities. But a dependence on state funding for correctional institutes premises economic survival on the mass incarceration of others. Such a need may well (quite logically) translate into a deepening political commitment to the ongoing war on the poor, the black and the brown (otherwise known as the Drug War). I think here of lines from Richard Hugo’s famous poem Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, where his narrator reminisces in the shadow of “two stacks high above the town,/two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse/for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.” 27 He asks:
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?28
In the absence of a unifying narrative that bonds the residents—indeed the region—at its very core as manufacturing once did, in the absence of those working men and women, and of that constructive labour, what fills the void in the aftermath collapse? Gambling and crime? Casinos and prisons? Addiction on all sides of an equation in which genuine effort and expertise are mobilised around the ceaseless production of loss?
It might be better to turn back to those faint footsteps, and to spend a while listening for ghosts.
1 Eduardo Cadava ““Lapsus Imaginis”: The Image in Ruins” OCTOBER Vol. 96 (Spring 2011) p. 36
2 Eduardo Cadava ““Lapsus Imaginis”: The Image in Ruins” p. 41
3 Galway Kinnell “Last Songs” Body Rags [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1968]
4 A figure that likely includes a prison population of approximately 1,200 inmates
5 Who reportedly lost Ulster County in the 2016 election by just shy of a 10% margin: http://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/new-york/
(Last accessed: 31st July 2017)
6 As a commenter with the handle “relodr36” on the Schrade Knives Collectors forum observes: “A lot of this off-shoring is being justified in the name of “share-holder value”. The CEO’s,etc.,are sure raking in big money while they’re also closing pension plans.” BladeForums.com, “Prologue at the Funeral” http://www.bladeforums.com/threads/prologue-at-the-funeral.394611/ (Last accessed: 1st August 2017)
7 Mike Davis “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class” Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Spring 2017) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/the-great-god-trump-and-the-white-working-class/ Originally published in Jacobin, 7th February 2017
(Last accessed: 31st July 2017)
8 Kelly Oliver Witnessing: Beyond Recognition [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001] p. 9
9 Built on British colonial expropriation of indigenous populations in the 18th century.
10 Later known as Imperial Schrade Corporation
11 Nearby competitor Camillus, in Syracuse, NY, declared bankruptcy two years later in September 2006.
12 Above sixteen years of age.
13 As Jeremiah Horrigan writes in the Times Herald Record: “Schrade was more than a job. (…) And what the men and women of Ellenville made there was special. And it was something you could hold in your hand, a gift handed down through the generations, something many sons of Ellenville carry with them to this day. The workmanship the company demanded and got from its workers was the bulwark that allowed it to thrive in competition with other domestic knife-makers like Camillus and Gerber and Case.” Jeremiah Horrigan “Ellenville’s anniversary of sadness”
14 Mike Davis “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class”
15 Galway Kinnell “Last Songs”
16 John Patrick Leary “Detroitism” Guernica magazine, January 15th 2011 https://www.guernicamag.com/leary_1_15_11/
(Last accessed: 31st July 2017)
17 Galway Kinnell “Lastness” The Book of Nightmares [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971] pp. 71 – 75
(Last accessed: 31st July 2017)
19 John Patrick Leary “Detroitism”
20 Eduardo Cadava “‘Lapsus Imaginis’: The Image in Ruins” p. 41
21 Galway Kinnell “The Shoes of Wandering” The Book of Nightmares, p. 19
22 Galway Kinnell “The Shoes of Wandering” p. 20
23 Galway Kinnell “The Shoes of Wandering” p. 21
24 Galway Kinnell “The Shoes of Wandering” p. 21 – 22
25 BladeForums.com, “Prologue at the Funeral”
26 Jeremiah Horrigan “Ellenville’s anniversary of sadness” Times Herald Record, 27th July 2014 http://www.recordonline.com/article/20140727/NEWS/407280319
(Last accessed: 1st August 2017)
27 Richard Hugo “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo [New York: W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2007]
28 Richard Hugo “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” p. 217