Carol Munder’s Broken Fingers
She shoots black-and-white film with a Diana camera, a cheaply made, medium-format, plastic-lensed device first produced in the 1960s, sold to five-and-dimes by the gross, and often given away as novelties.
Diana cameras are the original fuzzbox of the photography world. They distort, they vignette, they are riddled with light leaks, and their ability to focus is largely theoretical.
Munder was attracted to these cameras after she went to photography school. “Everybody had about twelve camera lenses and three bodies. And it was the gewgaws that everyone got into,” she says. “The stupid fisheye lenses, and all that stuff. Everybody became absorbed with it.”
The Diana is the opposite of that.
For a long time, Munder searched for the cameras at garage sales and flea markets. She kept a large box of broken ones around for parts.
In recent years, Diana cameras have made a comeback in a school of photography known as Lomography, the proponents of which tend to be young, raised on the easy fidelity of digital equipment, and now entranced by the textures and vagaries of film and rough lenses.
But Munder has been shooting with gimcrack plastic boxes for over thirty years. She was Lomo when Lomo wasn’t cool.
She owns one of the second-generation Dianas, but thinks it’s a little too well made. “I prefer the old ones, because each camera almost has a different personality,” she says. “There’s a right out-of-focus and there’s a totally wrong out-of-focus. Blurry has to be blurry in the right way.”
Munder makes her prints on a gravure press she bought a decade ago from a woman artist in Sanibel who’d grown too old to use it. It came without a manual, but she got it for a song.
It was unexpectedly huge and heavy and murder to get into the truck. It strained the leaf springs all the way across the Everglades and down the Overseas Highway to Munder’s studio in Key West. Getting it to her second-floor space was more difficult. It helped that she shares the building with her longtime partner John Martini, a sculptor who creates outsized works cut from inch-thick steel plates, and who had a crew of usual suspects he could call on to wrangle things.
Munder worked the press for a long time with her head down, trying to teach herself how to use it. This was before
the Internet became what it is, and her only source of information, other than trial and error, was a five-page section in an instruction book she had found. She frustrated herself for eight months, making lousy print after lousy print. In a last-ditch effort, she tracked down the book’s author and called him up.
“He was the nicest guy. He talked and talked and talked,” Munder says. “And at the end of a forty-five-minute conversation, he kind of cleared his throat and he said, ‘By the way, in that book, you know, there is a misprint in one of the formulas.’”
The amount of potassium dichromate listed needed to be ten times greater.
With that bit of information, things got better.
I lay all this process out because Munder is one of the most focused and deliberate artists I know. And the production of her work relies on melding two highly variable, unreliable, and rickety artistic processes.
“My problem is that I have ideas,” Munder says. “It’s almost preconceived what I want. Which is not good, because then you have to find that to photograph.”
If you ask her if she is a photographer or an artist who takes pictures, she doesn’t have a clear answer.
“Even when I went to photo school, I never felt like a photographer,” she says. “I kind of say ‘photographer,’ then I slide into, ‘and I do this process called photogravure.’ Which is an avenue off of photography. For me, it’s more than taking the picture. It’s the image. For me, the image is an object. And I think that is why I can get uncomfortable with ‘photography’ and ‘photographer.’ But I’m proud to be a photographer. I don’t feel inferior. It’s just that my work more and more is now, really, an object,” she says.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s line about seeking “the decisive moment” is one of the most shopworn lines in photography, but it is shopworn for a reason. He, and most photographers in his wake, laid in wait for the world to present itself, for the bicycle to arc down the alleyway in just the right way, for the man in the trench coat to leap across the puddle in the perfect silvery winter light. The camera, for them, was a fermata or a freeze ray, a way to grab a thin slice of time and hold it up to the world.
Munder’s moments are decisive, but they are organically anachronistic moments that never happened, or happened in an a-historical era in which cameras couldn’t possibly exist. If they are not primordial, they are at least antediluvian. Her images seem not so much developed and printed as unearthed, maybe banged carefully against a tree to break loose the layers of mud and ash.
“It’s a very primitive way of doing photographs,” says Valerie Hird, a New York painter who visits Key West several times a year. “Her process is very indirect. And the whole object of a process like that is to break down context,” she says. “You’re taking that object away from a normal association, and you’re building a new one, because your process is so labor-intensive that it removes you from everything else.”
When Hird was a young painter in art school, she had deft fingers that could render images quickly and easily. One of her professors came up to her and said, “It would be really great if you could break your fingers. Because you actually need to think about what you are doing.”
In Hird’s estimation, the camera and the press are Munder’s broken fingers.
Munder rolled into Key West in a Volkswagen Microbus in 1978, the fin-de-siècle era of hippiedom, just before the Mariel boat lift and the Bubba Bust, just before a lot of money came in and the town got all renovated and respectable. When I first met her, she said the thing she really missed about the old Key West was the smell of rotting wood when she rode around on her bike.
She got a job at the library and spent the next eight years driving the bookmobile up and down the Keys, taking pictures when she could.
She quit in 1986 when she received a residency to put together an artist book at a small press in Atlanta. She came back with “Fierce Power Bad Fate,” the story of the making of a voodoo zombie, told in text, drawings, and low-angle, shadow-filled photos, shot in Key West, Miami, and Jamaica.
Munder and Martini started to make regular trips to Europe—they now live about half the year in rural France—and Munder started photographing in museums, sometimes with permission, sometimes without.
“I don’t like the light of the outside world so much. I think the light in my imagery is a lot of times self-created. It’s not the real light that’s happening in front of me. You know, in the outside world there is too much light,” she says, laughing. “There’s just too much out there. It’s too specific, maybe.”
Initially she focused on nineteenth-century statuary, primarily taking pictures of French romantic work, repurposing the sculptors’ narratives into her own. She then she moved on to Etruscan figurines—small, mysterious, and primitive statues that are some of the few remnants of a northern Italian civilization that disappeared without explanation two-and-a-half millennia ago.
Hal Bromm, Manhattan gallery owner who was one of the first to show Keith Haring’s work in the early 1980s, has followed Munder for years and has included her work in group shows he’s curated. “In most of her works there are figures or shapes or creatures that don’t particularly have a sense of scale, nor do they have a particular context,” he says. “They are kind of floating in a way that lets you free associate with what they mean. I’ve always just looked at those works and thought, you bring your own story to it.”
Discussing Etruscan statuettes in the American Scholar, Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and a long time friend of Munder’s, writes, “Munder’s prints seem to wake them. The figures find themselves in a fix. Their gaudy world is gone. Mute, they prayed or pray to gagged gods of whom we know nothing.” She adds that in Munder’s prints, “bodies dissolve into nothing, beginning at edges, as dead people do. They blur into silence.”
Before the gravure press, Munder made large silver gelatin prints. When Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, a seven-foot storm surge flooded her small house on Sugarloaf Key, destroying almost all her work that wasn’t in galleries or collections.
While there is a market for her older prints—back catalogs can be profitable for photographers—Munder has declined to revisit it.
“I’m not interested in reprinting,” she shrugged. “I’m not.”
Largely inspired by the work of Giorgio Morandi, Munder moved from ancient figures to images of vessels and bottles, obsessing for several years over shape, form, and shading. It was the first time she’d worked with subject matter that didn’t have eyes, or human or animal form.
Talking to her last winter, following a retrospective show of her work at the Studios of Key West, she seemed to have come to the end of some things.
“I don’t look at vessels so much anymore. I still glance at them, but I’m looking for something else and I don’t know what that is. I’m kind of everywhere, looking at everything, but I’m not sure what I have,” she said.
It was disconcerting. For years, she’d been working in this vein that no one else had seen, and now she was at a loss. Things seemed a little grim.
“In any art. . .the vein of originality or excitement runs out and you have to lie fallow while something grows in you. You know not what,” said Dillard recently. “The fallow periods are tough. Carol had a hell of a time.”
Things did not get immediately better when Munder returned to France in July.
“I couldn’t produce anything. I mean I had like three images or something, and I couldn’t make anything look like how I wanted it to look. Plus I was rehashing old ideas,” she says. Munder and Martini had been visiting French flea markets for years, picking up odd toys, carvings, and sculptures.
“There was just stuff around the studio,” she says. “I actually started trying to photograph all the wrong things at the beginning. It’s funny, I look at it now and I think, why didn’t I just go for this great stuff right away? But there was this little road that I had to go down, trying different things that were just terrible. There was nothing to the pieces, and the film sucked, and I literally had to keep looking. There was nothing conscious on my part,” she says.
Eventually, patterns began to emerge.
At her show at Lucky Street Gallery in Key West in March, she presented a tight cluster of a dozen new images, recognizably hers but with a palpable redefinition of the terms. Carved humanoid heads were montaged with photos of old wallpaper patterns. A figure of a running man bolting for the edge of the page hummed with motion. A toy house, set on its roof, came off almost like a readymade, and is probably the most modern image she has produced. A little bit of a sense of humor had begun to creep in.
“It was this long process. It was a matter of just keeping on doing it until it got right. And there was no way to tell,” she says. “Where was that focal point? Where is it right? Until you develop that film, you just don’t know.”
MARK HEDDEN is a writer, photographer, and semi-professional birdwatcher who lives in Key West.