The Wellfleet Public Library in Massachusetts will host an exhibit of Martin Desht’s, Capes and Poets ,seascapes and portraits of poets from June 16th to July 6th. On June 20th at 7 p.m. Martin will present, Voices of Conscience, Then and Now, a reading from the works of 24 poets. Capes and Poets, front (1) Capes and Poets, back
Interview by g emil reutter
MARTIN DESHT’S interest in photography began in 1985 when he signed-on as an unpaid deckhand aboard the SV Harvey Gamage, a two-masted schooner out of Southampton, Maine. In 1989, after publishing photographs of the Canadian Arctic’s Baffin Island, he started photographing post-industrial Pennsylvania, a project that would occupy him for the next twenty-six years. Faces From An American Dream® was first exhibited in 1992 and has been on tour ever since. The book Photosonata, was birthed from this project. Harvard University, Dartmouth College, New York University’s Stern School of Business, United States Department of Labor, have all exhibited his work. In 2006, Desht accepted a teaching residency at Queen’s Univeristy, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His exhibit A Certain Peace: Acceptance and Defiance in Northern Ireland concerns post-sectarian war/ post-industrial neighborhoods of Belfast. He has also taught fine-art photographic printing at Cape Cod’s Truro Center for the Arts. Desht lived in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley for many years before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. From 1980 to 2002, he lived on an island in a renovated summer cabin along the Delaware River, in Raubsville, Pennsylvania. Martin Desht continues to work in black-and-white film and still operates a traditional photography darkroom. Along with portraits of American poets, his social documentary work is represented in collections at Harvard University, Lafayette College, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and in numerous private collections.
GER: As a young man working at the Electric Furnace of Bethlehem Steel reading the work of poets in between steel pours did you have any idea that love of photography and poetry would lead you away from Raubsville, Pennsylvania to documenting postindustrial Pennsylvania and into the world of poets and poetry?
MD: Well, in a very subconscious way, yes I did have an idea that I wasn’t going to spend thirty years in a mill. I was bird in a cage back then (1970s), and reading Faulkner and Blake during night-shifts was a way out of the mills and into the larger world. That I would one day photograph Phil Levine, Gerald Stern, and Jean Valentine, who were among the stars of American poetry—no, that never occurred to me. My grandparents were Czech immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island and found work in Pennsylvania’s coal country. My father was a miner and a factory worker, my stepmother a nurse, and my job as a crane electrician at the Steel was the best they ever hoped for me. To them poetry was a foreign word. Art was useless. Even college for me was as far from their minds as the moon.
GER: You began documenting the decline of Pennsylvania’s industrial economy in 1989. What led you to this project?
MD: In two words, reading and photography. First, books such as Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and Stern’s Lucky Life; then Robert Frank and Lewis Hine who, I later learned, may have photographed my father as a nine-year-old kid working in the mines. Not sure, of course, but the dates and locations are right. Anyway, books have always taken me places and inspired me to act. I read Arctic Dreams and then took off for Baffin Island. After publishing some Arctic photographs, Lafayette College’s History Department asked me about documenting the decline of Lehigh Valley’s industrial economy. In essence, what I was documenting was the decline of the American dream for skilled and unskilled workers as America’s industrial economy was being displaced by overseas manufacturing. Obviously, as you and Diane well know since you’re both poets of conscience, this economic transition would later have enormous social and political consequences.
GER: The results of the project, Faces From An American Dream®, an exhibit that has been on tour for a few decades and continues as well as the book, Photosonata, that was birthed from the project have been widely praised. How did the exhibit and the book come about?
MD: Lafayette College exhibited some of the early photographs in January, 1992, and newspaper and magazine articles followed, as were exhibit requests from Harvard, Dartmouth, New York University, Philadelphia, Washington DC. And so it went, with eventually a book based on the work. I was lucky. But, then, I wasn’t.
If you’ll pardon a digression here, I feel a need to explain something about my view of art. First, You have to want to work—all day, all night, all ever, if that’s what it needs. It’s Want and Will. For me, art isn’t something one just learns in school. It’s a way of life. It’s how I live. It’s living on levels of consciousness—personal, social, political, and artistic, if that’s your calling. There’s no other way for me. Put simply: You can not ask someone else to do your breathing for you.
GER: In 2006 you accepted a teaching residency at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. What was your experience like in Belfast and what led to your exhibit, A Certain Peace: Acceptance and Defiance in Northern Ireland?
MD: Belfast is a very artistically alive city, considering all the bombs and blood. To academically understand Northern Ireland one should read The Irish Troubles, by J. Bower Bell. Then sit in a pub with a few artists—poets and painters, photographers and filmmakers—to grasp somewhat the human experience of living in a war zone; to understand the consequences of racism and blind religion. Blind religion here means both Protestant and Catholic, each of which chooses to remain obstinately ignorant of the surrounding bleeding world.
GER: Your poem, Because You Want To Love, is full of imagery and passion about Philadelphia. The poem covers large swaths of a city that was then in decline and love for Philadelphia explodes throughout the poem with all its grittiness and suffering. Tell us of the inspiration and the time period of the poem.
MD: I think it was spring, 1997, when Gerald Stern had scheduled a reading at Temple University and asked if I would drive down Route 611 with him from Easton. (We were neighbors then.) Once in the city, we toured his old neighborhoods—North Broad from the Oak Lane Diner to Girard Avenue, then to the Liberties, Marvin Street, Fishtown, etc. All along the way, he’d point and say This used to be a laundry. That was stinky Sammy’s, the fish man. Here was Harry’s Grill, where the drunks used to piss and puke after hours while waiting for the bus. That used to be a synagogue. God. What the fuck happened here. Schmidt’s Brewery. Breyer’s Ice Cream. Mid-Vale Steel. Now all roof-less piles of brick half-burned to the ground. Who’d believe it. How, at the snap of a few corporate fingers, you could brutalize and impoverish an entire city.
You can read the poem here: _Because You Want To Love
GER: The Wellfleet Public Library in Massachusetts will host an exhibit of yours, Capes and Poets, June 16th to July 6th. The exhibit will feature your photographs of seascapes and poets and will be the first exhibit of these portraits and seascapes. In addition you will read the works of 24 poets on June 20th at 7 p.m. in a presentation, Voices of Conscience, Then and Now. How did the project come about and how did you select the works of the poets your are going to present?
MD: When I lived east I vacationed on Cape Cod, and still do. Last October the Library asked if I’d like to show anything I haven’t yet shown—they have a large exhibit area and I have two rules about exhibiting: 1. Never refuse an opportunity to exhibit. And, 2, love your audience. How I selected what to memorize for the recitation is … Hard to say. The poem has to reach me on a deep personal level, like Sekou Sundiata’s “Harlem, A Letter Home,” because it expresses his deep love for a fallen city; Levine’s “What Work Is,” because I do know what work is. Stern’s “Lucky Life,” for its compassion; Alicia Ostriker’s “Listening to Public Radio,” because its so pertinent today. Then there’s Neruda’s “Poetry” for its dream of relativity that I think even Einstein would envy.
GER: Since your days at Bethlehem Steel you have defined yourself as an artist, a writer of poems and essays.. It is an amazing story. What does the future hold for Martin Desht?
MD: More words and more pictures. I have a digital camera for fun work. But still use film and darkroom for love. There’s a project that’s long been on my mind. I’ve written some about my orphanage years, a rough-and-tumble place that had once been a cattle breeding farm and later donated to the Roman Catholic Church. I need to put all those words and old photographs together and then publish, if not the entire thing all at once then pieces of it, here and there. The whole of it is mystery, in a way. How I got there. Why. Who. Strange, and memory getting more remote everyday. Thanks for asking.
You can visit Martin Desht here: https://martindesht.wixsite.com/martindesht
g emil reutter can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/