Borrowed Time: Photographs by Caroline Vaughan

Borrowed Time: Photographs by Caroline Vaughan

by Caroline Vaughan

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Caroline Vaughan’s photographs offer inspired and surprising visions of landscapes, still lifes, and the human form. In Borrowed Time, her images of nature and people, sometimes surreal and often arresting, follow each other to create a visual poem of opposition and likeness, physical beauty and balance. Compelling the viewer’s attention with delicate rich tones and meticulous technique, she holds the viewer’s gaze even when her subject is difficult. Most highly acclaimed for her psychologically complex but subtle portraits of family, friends, loved ones, and strangers, Vaughan’s work, though widely published and displayed, is collected here for the first time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399810
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 112
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Caroline Vaughan has photographed the North American landscape for twenty five years. A student of Minor White at MIT, she was also influenced by Imogen Cunningham. Her photographs have appeared in many publications, including Aperture, Parnassus, and Camera. Exhibited widely, her work has been on display at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Burden Gallery of the Aperture Foundation, and at other museums and galleries across the nation.

Read an Excerpt

Borrowed Time

By Caroline Vaughan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9981-0



by Reynolds Price

It may well be no coincidence that the invention of photography occurred in the midst of the flood tide of the European novel — the best work of Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Flaubert (to name only a few) overlaps the birth and early youth of the single image imprinted by daylight alone on a sensitized surface. For while photography is most often considered an outgrowth of centuries of sculptural and graphic mimesis — more or less realistic statues, drawings, and paintings — it seems equally possible that the immense power of visual imagery implicit in the indelible characters and scenes of the great nineteenth-century novels worked as an instigator on the pioneers of photography.

Perhaps that immense well of successfully imitative language, and the realer-than-real worlds of so many distinguished prose narrators, served to ignite a few amateur scientist/artists toward the creation of a parallel and equally potent medium (it's beyond doubt, for instance, that nineteenth-century fiction and drama played crucial roles in the development of the motion picture; and a film artist of the depth of Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated in a memorable essay the cinematic prophecies of Milton's Paradise Lost).

Who, reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, doesn't soon long for an actual likeness of each of those beautiful doomed women and clear reflections of the rooms and skies under which each sought her escape from a fate she was simultaneously and furiously weaving for herself? Despite the virtual disappearance, in the past fifty years, of illustrations from serious works of fiction, who wouldn't be interested in seeing, say, Gustav Nadar's illustrations for Bovary, Cecil Beaton's for Anna; or to come further onward, Walker Evans's for John Updike's Rabbit novels and Eudora Welty's for Toni Morrison's Beloved, not to speak of Henri Cartier Bresson's for almost anything in any language?

In fact, if I were given the choice of a single artist to illustrate a deluxe edition of, say, my own novel, Kate Vaiden, I would choose Caroline Vaughan. Not because she was a gifted member of a freshman class in narrative writing which I taught at Duke in 1968 nor because our friendship has continued to grow through ensuing decades as we've lived and worked together in the same town. I'd choose her for Kate because she shares, to an uncanny degree, my character's piercingly dry and unblinking vision and because, from her earliest apprentice work, Caroline Vaughan has managed the rare feat of incorporating our unquenchable human impulse to narrate — to tell stories — within her most potent single images. Even more remarkably, she has mastered the linking together of long runs of discrete images on the all but invisible chain of an uninsistent but headlong narrative.

Any thoughtful watcher would gain from at least a few minutes' exercise in studying the entire surface of a Vaughan image and coaxing a story out of its givens of illumination, place, summoned atmosphere, and living creatures (if any). Pictures on the order of "Constructivist Double Portrait," "An LaBarre, Bonnie and Jody," or even a near-abstract yet familiar sight like "Magnolia" would be fruitful subjects for almost anyone's careful witness — a careful patient witness in the hope, first, of building a story of one's own from the given facts and then, perhaps, of slowly guessing the arc of the narrative voice which is unavoidably implicit in the artist's own scrutiny of a person or thing whose time she has briefly borrowed.

Borrowed Time. What kinds of time? And borrowed in what sense? Most obviously, the time consists of those minutes or hours during which a living creature or an inanimate object is detained, studied, and registered on film. The simplest borrowing consists of the time demanded from a sitter's actual lifespan and in the photographer's demand for the living subject's emotional cooperation and for the live tree's or dead rock's stasis (after his release from prison, Oscar Wilde enjoyed taking pictures with a simple camera, and in a late letter he summarizes the finding of most of his fellow photographers when confronted with allegedly fixed subjects — "I'm concentrating on cows. Cows love to be photographed; and what's more — unlike architecture — they never move").

The simplest return which Vaughan can offer to the sitter for his time borrowed is the finished image itself, preserved not merely in a memorably arrested moment but enhanced by the darkroom skills of a printer without superior among contemporary artists. She has even pointed out, by way of an aside, how often the time devoted to her photography must be borrowed from the responsibilities of acquiring funds to continue her work (she has never lived on the proceeds of her pictures).

But given Vaughan's determination, her technical virtuosity, and the painlessly invasive depth of her scrutiny, it seems entirely possible that her best pictures of the living have borrowed all of a given sitter's past (every day of his or her history) plus a sizable piece of a particular creature's central vitality or soul and that she endows him in return with an altered but faithful image, floated on paper, which seems likely to prove watchable for at least a relative eternity.


I call them faithful images because, while I have known a number of her sitters and have sat for her often myself, I've never known Vaughan to attempt either visual flattery or the scarifying detraction that invalidates the work of so many others. She's a devourer, to be sure, but a benign devourer, transformer, and epitomizer of the actual world. And anyone who believes the camera incapable of falsehood should see how a few of her subjects fare in the photographs of others. Out of Vaughan's reach, each face invariably seems less alive, less likely to thrive beyond the frozen moment.

But here, though we have more than sixty self-sufficient images, we have also a selection from the prolific work of more than two decades. Her drastic selection, from many hundreds of possibilities, is offered to the watcher as a progression — an ongoing rhythm whose goal is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and narrative. For by intermixing pictures from nearly twenty-five years of work, Vaughan has required the watcher to respond either to her own story, as it's silently imbedded in an image, or to a story of his or her own invention.

Any stories that I may have deduced from individual pictures, or from the entire arrangement, will unavoidably say more about me than the images or their inherent subjects; so I'll stay well out of the watcher's path. I will, though, note what a watcher may not surmise from Vaughan's laconic captions — that she has begun and ended with her eagle-eyed father, that images of her benignly wary mother and of her parents together provide other turning points in the sequence, that many of the most recent pictures study both orthodox and unorthodox human couples, and that mute nature (the world of flowers, rocks, streams) is a hummingly live and intimate player and witness throughout.

In the number of Vaughan's pictures which are devoid of human beings, the inanimate or animate-but-mute things portrayed are watching the photographer and the photographer's later surrogate — you and me — with an intensity so strict that they'd threaten to pronounce a judgment on our lives and minds if Vaughan's choices of stance, distance, and the tone of her light did not imbue all her subjects with her own grave tolerance of the world's masks and faces (her pictures seldom accept the randomly offered light of a given day; they wait for their proper time).

To be sure, a detailed narrative was no conscious part of Vaughan's intent when the pictures were arranged in their present order. It's my own suggestion that a great many possible stories lie before a close watcher, and that the building of a story — a refinement of the second most important human pleasure — can sharpen and deepen a watcher's experience of the collection. Vaughan's own conscious principle of organization was largely emotional. The initial picture of her father by the huge bare tree — a picture whose blurred crescent top suggests the subject's own vision, as cataracts cloud the lenses of his own eyes — is the first hint of a quiet refrain of memento mori which hovers throughout. The world is this various, this beautiful, this appalling; it will soon expel or enfold us all.

Even more so than a portrait, a landscape painting, or a sound recording, every photograph — both here and elsewhere — is its own flayed skull. However calming or eye-stopping its subject, a photograph is unavoidably its own assertion of the mortality of all creation: sometimes the mortality of people and things already lost to us, sometimes of the achingly young and vulnerable (the fact that a photograph of the dying composer Frédéric Chopin survives from 1849 is at least as eerily surprising as the invention of one more postponer of death by drug researchers). For modern lenses and emulsions have steadily reduced the length of the moment in which an image is caught and held; and the instant in which that image is borrowed from life becomes a unique survivor.

The instant itself becomes an archeological prize quite different from all the other forms of preservation and survival available, from cave paintings to Cinerama to the wonders of Egyptian mummification and American undertaking. And since most of Vaughan's pictures imply elaborate prior calculations of pose, light, and angle, her results are as unlike snapshots — or skilled news photographs — as her medium permits.

Yet the intensity of the emotional content of each Vaughan image dispels any suggestion of frigid or overcooked perfection. Only an artist helplessly fascinated by her subject, if not in outright love with the person or thing pursued, could return from the world with pictures so technically masterful and yet so resonant of a care as steady and formidable as any hawk's of its nested young. Among her pictured couples, for instance, I know that one couple consists of two brothers, one of whom hoped to be changed into a woman and is now dead. One member of another couple is dying of aids; another consists of an older man and a younger who have nonetheless lived together for more than twenty loyal years.

Yet Vaughan's captions withhold such knowledge from the watcher, as I withhold specific identifications here — it is part and parcel of the artist's concern that you meet these honored faces directly, with no prior baggage of approval or rejection. If you deduce certain forms of strangeness from appearances, if some of them repel or disturbingly attract you, then you've made your own fresh story from visual evidence — What's the story you've told about yourself? Is it as remotely humane as the story Vaughan has offered? If you see the two brothers, for instance, as a husband and wife, then that understandable story becomes both an index to your sensibility and a question about your keenness, your tolerance. What has art ever been for but to lure all watchers, then test them down to the bone and marrow?

Against a good deal of twentieth-century fashion, Vaughan has always hunted down beauty in the world. Her lilies and pomegranates, nude women, Christ-like men and streams — though more blessedly opulent than most of us expect to meet in nature — are easy enough to sweep unthinkingly into that memory-bag we each call "Beautiful Sights." It's harder work, watching some of her couples, waiting in their presence till a whole distinct being flowers and states its name and purpose on the common Earth. Corpulent, maimed, self-victimized, or simply monumentally homely — how do they differ from a million pictures in dime-store frames on American shelves: Uncle Dave and Aunt Elma, Jim and Tim, Eve and Sandra?

First, to be sure, they differ in the brand of skill with which they're recorded. Second, they appear not at their own request but on the photographer's invitation. For reasons of her own, Vaughan has wanted to honor their faces and bodies, to borrow that moment which stands a chance of being the actual bud of their fullness, the instant that's ready to part its doors and show a patient watcher the strongest claim a solitary human or a human pair can make on our own time, our fellow feeling, our humblest mercy. Her pictures of individual faces are even more urgently charged with their demand, a demand made silently and slowly in a picture that — think of the strangeness of the complex transaction — we readily know as a fellow member of a sizable species, presently dominant on the planet, though not guaranteed for an infinite run.

So for more than two decades — while holding down a daily job that has no apparent relation with her work, through trials as earnest as most of us bear if we outlast the cradle — Caroline Vaughan has firmly persisted in a hungry aim that rose in her early. Her first papers in my course in freshman composition at Duke were intensely imagistic; but before she was much further on in her life, words had proven inadequate for her particular need. She was quickly off and passing through the hands of mentors as useful as Imogen Cunningham and Minor White as she searched the world — the palpable world in most of its guises — with visual tools, plus ample infusions of her sleepless curiosity. Her luck in possessing an inborn admiration and thanks for our common world — her fear of and trust in our visible round of things and people — required both exploration and capture in sights of her own making: a few of which sights are laid down for us here, an alternate world yet worthy of trust.

It's a realm I've trusted through trials of my own. When I feel myself rusting, corroding, flagging in a gray stretch of chores and repeated failure — worn by the blunt knocks of time on my own balky skull — the sight of any one of a number of photographs by Caroline Vaughan can clean my sight like a fierce but soon forbearing solvent. In her work, the Earth is its full best self — a self from all its billion selves, all things to all creatures: terror and joy, our hope of rescue, our eventual rest.


Excerpted from Borrowed Time by Caroline Vaughan. Copyright © 1996 Duke Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword Grounds to Stand on,
List of Plates,
Caroline Vaughan,
Selected One-Person Exhibitions,
Selected Group Exhibitions,
Public Collections,
Selected Publications,
Reviews and Articles About Caroline Vaughan,

Customer Reviews