Photo Books

Joshua Lutz’s Mind The Gap Meditates on Mental Health Amid Constantly Troubling News

September 7, 2018

By Conor Risch

Sandy Hook. Columbine, CO. Pulse Night Club. Charlottesville, VA. These are place names that we all know; they are etched into our memories as signifiers of tragedy and suffering and intolerance and terror, and as flash points in conflicts between political ideologies. They are also titles of images in Joshua Lutz’s new book, Mind the Gap (Schilt Publishing), an exploration through photographs and text of how our society and the things we experience affect our mental health. It’s a personal story about Lutz’s own attempt “to understand more about my relationship to the world and the things around me…and all the various things that are pulling me away from actually coming to some sort of understanding and clarity,” Lutz says. It’s also a universal story because we as readers recognize the references and relate to the themes, including depression and suicide, economic inequality, the cost of healthcare, gun control, racism and misogyny.

Lutz chose to use several styles of photography—portraits, still lifes and documentary images—because “individually, no mode of production was doing the thing that I wanted it to do,” he says. “It’s a documentary project in a way, and in a way it’s really just a story. It’s fiction and reality, and I wanted the mode of production to reflect that.” His portraits depict people close to him, such as his son, and people he met and spoke with and asked to photograph, such as a homeless veteran, a man dressed as Jesus and a girl in an American flag-themed dress.

© Joshua Lutz

“GBFD, Levey,” an image from Joshua Lutz’s, Mind The Gap. © Joshua Lutz

Lutz chose to photograph at the sites of history-making events such as Sandy Hook, Charlottesville and the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH. His intent was not to document these locations and events “in the traditional sense,” he says. Instead, he was trying to put himself “in positions where I could discover things,” about what had happened, or was occurring. He says he was “trying to tap into something that our country is going through, maybe I’m going through.” The image he made at the RNC shows a mass of reporters, and a line of state police facing them. “Sandy Hook” is a photograph of a short staircase in the interior of the school where 26 students and teachers were shot, while “Charlottesville, VA” depicts a black man in a dark suit, his face in shadow, holding a bright white protest sign with nothing written on it. The photo “1%” shows a pristine pool deck and manicured lawn; it is placed in the book opposite an image of tents beneath a freeway underpass.

Lutz mixes black-and-white and color photography as a way of referencing how the mind functions. Viewers don’t generally think they’re missing anything when they’re looking at black-and-white images, he explains. “We accept it; we’ve gotten used to it as a way of looking.” It’s only when viewers see color mixed into a sequence that the black-and-white images begin to look odd. Lutz sees this as similar to how, in his day-to-day life, he gets “wrapped up in story, all of these narratives going through my mind about my existence… and briefly sometimes, occasionally, there’s something that pulls me out of that.” The book sequence begins in black-and-white. Gradually, color begins to seep into the edit before the entire book turns to color. Lutz says he’s not using color to represent clarity, per se, but rather the moments that can occur in life that “pop” you out of one way of thinking and create a different type of experience.

As he had done with the photographs, Lutz chose to write the texts in a variety of formats and from different perspectives—short stories and lists and poems and surveys, in both male and female voices. For example, “Voluntary Admission” is a short story about someone with symptoms of schizophrenia being asked by a psychologist about checking into a mental hospital. (Lutz’s previous book, Hesitating Beauty, explored his mother’s schizophrenia.) The narrator of the book’s opening text is a father who worries about an unnamed illness that ruins him financially and burdens his children with his care. There is a “Suicide Self-Assessment” questionnaire, a poem about an AR-15, a transcript of a real estate agent trying to sell a house where a father murdered his family, a conversation between a father and son about planting tomatoes that is also about passing knowledge down through generations.

In the context of the book, the images and texts come to represent stories that are part of a larger narrative about American society. A photograph of Boy Scouts marching in a parade calls to mind the organization’s highly publicized struggles with inclusivity and President Trump’s bizarre speech at their 2017 Jamboree. An image of a sign for a city called Cherokee Park evokes a history of genocide and oppression.

Lutz uses two illustrations in the book’s endpapers: One is a Tibetan Buddhist bhavacakra or “wheel of life,” a diagram of Buddhist teachings about worldly existence, which is characterized by suffering. The other is an appropriation of the bhavacakra that depicts American life. How, the book seems to be asking, do we make sense of this society we live in? How do we understand that which defies understanding? Lutz offers no easy explanations.

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