The sins of the father
are visited upon the son.

Karl Edward Johnson

An old but popular metaphor for history reads, “History is to travel down a country road and watch the landscape from the back of an open wagon”. Historians and artists alike have used this idea of facing the past while moving backwards into the future. But when artists use it, at least three other ideas come to mind; illusions having a history of their own, diminishing and developing realities being somehow similar, and using the present like an instrument on the past. Such ideas enrich James Higginson’s photo essay Inheritance.

Apart from producing different types of photography, Higginson also creates prints, paintings, sculptures, and performances. This makes it less suprising that a variety of visual atmospheres populate Inheritance. Yet each atmosphere is linked to a carefully devised version of contemporary life; each is strangely enchanted with something unsettling or unspeakable, and each contains a portrait. The work “portrait” is used here in a broader sense. The 2005 publication of Higginson’s photo-essay POV(Portraits of Violence) is further proof that his work often surpasses the boundaries of portraiture. Even when depicting only one person, the image suggests the workings of an entire classification system. By engaging the people, objects, and staging in his photography, Higginson creates an artistic arena in which viewers are confronted with things sacred, profane, and spiritual. In this arena-never restricting himself to a single mode of expression, and never creating visual prose or visual poetry alone-Higginson works as a “bricoleur”, someone who constructs an entity using whatever is available.

In Inheritance the bricoleur’s job is time-based activity directed at postmodernism. His work not only reflects “a stripping away of authority,” but also an “ exchanging of authorities”. Here, too, Higginson’s sociopolitical vision-and-metaphor comes to the surface. He sees postmodernism “as a family quarrel, as sons castrating their fathers in the name of power, and as the outline of political and social commitments better left ignored.” He tells us; “Postmodernists advocated the end of authority and truths, but they merely replace their fathers’ truths with their own and created new territories as closely guarded as the old ones.” Those who once called themselves postmodernists, Higginson says, “were modernists in sheep’s clothing in search of a change of power. But this change only reinforced the prevailing values and-even worse-reinstated the white-male power structure.” By comparison, post-postmodernists commit themselves politically, and they challenge the traditional power structures. They succeed where their predecessors failed.

Inheritance boldly visualizes the shortcomings of postmodernism on the one hand, and investigates human lives entangled in concepts of history on the other. While doing, so, it also defines the boundaries of the real and the psychological without resorting to a classical storytelling mode. Yet it searches for one by conceptually asking; “How should a story be told?” Here the answer is obviously a multiple-choice answer; a story should be told using a variety of psychological atmospheres/ a story should be told as a construction part prose, part poem/ a story should be told as a story among other stories.

Image by image, the cinematic daydreams contained in Inheritance generate a suite of visual moments that suggest a message being transmitted from one generation to the next. At first glance the viewer imagines stills from movies, video clips, and TV melodramas-and later De Chirico-like images in which objects say as much as human beings. For being so many things at once-discomforting, tender, funny, and symbolic-Higginson’s “moments of inheritance’ function like information-ridden psychodramas, and even their number seems telling; Inheritance consists of nine visual moments-like the nine lives of a cat.

The fact, truth, and metaphor in one. “The sins of the father are visited upon the son” is the haunting subtext of Inheritance. While running its course through the photo-essay, it assumes the form of nine “photographed” one-man performances. The choice of used objects and characteristics of the photographed subjects tell us that these performances take place in a real or imaginary United States. Here Inheritance insinuates a curiously logical progression: the first plate, “Inheritance 1,” as though addressing a pretended political correctness, shows a man, wearing only a fake Native American Indian headband and white diapers, whining among Wild West memorabilia; and the last, “Inheritance 9,” perhaps addressing a fully-Americanized state now, shows a middle-aged Cracker Jack Boy, wearing diapers and a sailor’s cap, curled up on the floor of his cozy home with a fuzzy poodle.

The progression from Plate 1 to Plate 9 leads through the construction and combining of whatever real, artificial, borrowed, found, or invented fragments of (American) history and human psychology Higginson chooses to work with. In the process, he shows us nine adult males of different ethnic groups. These men have one trait in common: their facial expressions imitate those of small children. Fearful of the outside world, one man peers out of a window; another holds a hand puppet and sulks; another throws a tantrum in his pajamas; another finds solace in sucking his lollipop under the branches of a tree; another ponders over the surface of a mirror, and the remaining four men seem equally infantile and isolated.

In expressions too young for faces so mature, and body languages too helpless for limbs so heavy, we see today’s so-called “postmodern sons,” each forced back on to his own “exhausted” postmodern self. At the same time, however, these are also “child-men,” engendered and restructured by their fathers’ sins and those of history itself. And not only do they seem psychologically trapped in the past; they seem visually trapped in it as well. Each man appears in a kind of adult playpen where many of his playthings are historical artifacts: American flags, the peace sign of the Sixties, a framed portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Wild West memorabilia, the trusty five-and-dime store mousetrap, The Liberty Bell, and many other history or memory-laden objects.

In the nine plates of Inheritance we see sons visited upon the sins of another time period-a formerly “fathered” period now a “fatherless” one. These transmitted sins test the limits of each son’s psyche, unhinge his identity, and transform his soul. But most of all, these invisible sins from Before create the bulk of each fatherless child’s sometimes disturbing, sometimes contemplative inheritance in the present: his altered well-being with a sly touch of “Welcome Home” thrown in for good measure. All this makes Inheritance a “spiritual” metaphor for history, and James Higginson not only a visual historian but also a post-postmodern photographer who looks forward into the past.

Karl Edward Johnson - First printed in EYEMAZING, issue 03-2006.