“I began then to understand – or perhaps, partly, to remember … – that Lyle’s considerable powers of articulation were dedicated almost exclusively to those matters that could fairly, or unfairly, be treated with levity and wit and hyperbole. Talk can conceal, the sages tell us, almost as much as silence reveals. BongÃ© becomes most adroit in his art of the conversational smoke screen at just that point at which the topic under discussion is most sacred to him.”
James Leo Herlihy (1959-1986) about the photographer Lyle BongÃ©. Both Herlihy and BongÃ© had attended Black Mountain College, “a magnet for artistic and academic pioneers hungry to plow new ground that yielded influences which continue to shape the modern arts”. Faculty included Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, John Cage;
Jim Herlihy became a writer (Midnight Cowboy) and teacher, and Lyle BongÃ© a photographer who preferred to stay down south, in Biloxi, where he became manager of the Dracula-Lagoon Motel.
Every year in the 50s and 60s, BongÃ© traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. In 1974, the Jargon society published a collection of his Mardi Gras photographs, under the fitting title “The Sleep of Reason”, which also includes a hilarious interview of Herlihy with BongÃ©.
Last week I found a copy of “The Sleep of Reason” in a second-hand bookshop in Trieste, Italy. The Great Grand Internet knows Lyle BongÃ© as the one who famously said “if you can kill a snake with it, it ain’t art”.
Herlihy: ... What does that moment have in it that makes you want to trap it inside of a picture-taking machine?
BongÃ©: If you’re talking about when I’m photographing people, I’d say it’s the moment when they open up their faces and you can see through to their souls.
Herlihy: Oh. Oh. Well, then …
BongÃ©: That was a shitty sort of a pretentious sort of a …
Herlihy: Let me ask you another question.
BongÃ©: ... statement for any pretentious sonofabitch to make.
BongÃ©: You were asking me …
Herlihy: I asked you, what was the quality of the moment you want to capture in your machine.
BongÃ©: And I said, the moment that showed us the efflorescence in one individual, the total efflorescence in one individual of what is the tiny germ among germs in another individual.
Herlihy: Is that what you said?
BongÃ©: And if that’s not obscure enough, I’ll talk some more.
Herlihy: Talk some more.
BongÃ©: Where was I?
Herlihy: The germs.
BongÃ©: Oh yes, the germs. Uh, after the germs surrendered to the Allied Command in 1945 … Oh now, stop nodding your head patiently like that stuffed Abraham Lincoln in Disneyland. You just stick right with me and I’ll get back to my …