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Inner Strength: The Photography of Peter Reiss

by Schuyler Ingle
(from L.A. Weekly May 7-13, 1982)

By the time Peter Reiss has positioned Ruth next to the fence, the sun on her face and his camera ready, he has already photographed Hilda and Jewell’s daughter and five other foster daughters. Quite a day at the Trumbo household. Hilda didn’t tell the girls Peter was coming. If she had, she said, they would have waited all day by the door. As it was, when Peter arrived there was a combined scurrying, both shy and gregarious, to say hi, then a dash to the bureaus and closets for fresh blouses and favorite sweaters.

Peter ReissIf the pace seems rapid, blame it on his peculiar drive. “I look at what I’m doing each day,” Peter says, his tone level and his words carefully selected, “as if it’s the last thing I will do.”

Peter is having his problems with Ruth. He wants to snap her picture on the count of three but when he counts, she echoes the numbers. And she keeps smiling a smile that squeezes her eyes shut. Her round cheeks are as fat as chipmunks rolled into hibernation balls and, with the smile underneath pushing up, her blue eyes don’t have a chance.

She has monitored all the other girls being photographed, chattering a jackdaw monologue about bowling and camp and getting her ears cleaned and keeping her side of the bedroom neat: generally filling Peter in on all he has missed in the year that has passed since he last came to take photos. Just as he is about to squeeze the shutter release, Ruth says in her slight drawl, “I love you in a way.” Peter lowers the camera and says, “Well I love you, too.” In part he is just a photographer saying what he must to maintain the rhythm of the shoot. In part he really means it. Ruth isn’t smiling. She is looking right at the lens, just as Peter had asked.

They are all retarded, the Trumbo girls, in some respects equivalent to twelve-year-olds, in other respects, like the attention span necessary to follow direction, much younger. The oldest is 41. Ruth, 31, is one of the youngest. She is barely five feet tall and is built like a schoolroom globe of the world. Peter Reiss, 27, is not retarded but feels a tremendous affinity for these people and their world. It is apparent in his finished portraits. Reiss is epileptic and is physically handicapped and he knows that one day, any day, he could become much like the subjects of his photography. If not worse.

It is as though the right side of his body has wilted. It is, he says, like it isn’t even there. A kiss is only half a kiss, the numbness affecting the right side of his face. He has a beautiful face, wide, open. The arched brows and high cheekbones lend a slight felinity to his blue eyes. His lips are full, sensual, delicately outlined. A slight cleft notches his chin. It is a face that easily dissolves into the stunningly radiant smile Peter says he has had all his life.

To walk he must think for the muscles of his right leg. To lift he must think for the muscles of his right arm. They no longer work on their own. He wears a plastic brace on his right hand to keep the fingers from balling into a fist. He has a noticeable limp, the motion like that of a man with an arm full of packages continually stooping a bit to the right. Reiss has lived with this body for the past five years.

Had his life followed a normal course he would be a film-maker today and probably not involved with either still photography or retarded people. The first signs of what would be diagnosed as epilepsy appeared his freshman year at Kenyon College. Peter began having trouble writing and speaking. Until the first grand mal seizure, the campus physician felt his problems were psychiatrically based. “That first seizure,” Peter says in the slow, steady cadence of his mellifluous voice, “was the strangest sensation ever. I came back to my room, after an exam and in the middle of writing a letter my right hand took off. Not just a tremor or a shake, but really being thrown around. And then I felt this same thing move up my arm and into my face and down the right side of my body. I stood up and screamed. And then I blacked out.”

He graduated a film-maker with cum laude honors despite his recurring seizures. Tests by then had revealed a far more insidious problem underlying and perhaps triggering the epilepsy. Six days after graduation, Reiss checked in to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. for corrective surgery. He had an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, a condition growing worse since birth and so critical that were it not repaired, the result might be a cerebral hemorrhage and death. Blood was attempting to surge from arteries to veins in his brain with no normal drop in pressure. By the time he arrived at the hospital the affected blood vessels had grown weak, their walls stretching like balloons.

In the jargon of surgery, the a-v malformation in Peter’s brain was incompletely resolved. During the operation blood clots formed in his brain and he suffered a stroke. When he woke up in his room the right side of his body was paralyzed and he had lost the ability to speak. He was 22, helpless, and very, very frightened. When the surgeon, followed by his students, came to the room, Reiss experienced a sense of terror that would realign the axis of his life, a terror that turned into the pain and rage that would take years to appear in his art.

**

“I was the person,“ Reiss says, his lips pursing, the muscles along his jaws tightening, “they were all supposed to look at because here is what happens if you do the surgery wrong. They all stood around my bed looking down at me, talking about me in third person, like a case, talking about my chances of survival, whether or not I would recover, what I would recover, if I would be a vegetable. I don’t know whether or not they knew I was conscious of what was going on * But those kinds of questions were being asked and answered and I wasn’t a part of it. I I was lying there unable to speak and I felt like my life was out of my hands, no longer my own. I thought, ‘God damn you sonsabitches. I am. My mind is engaged, I can hear what you are saying, and I am going to come back. I am going to overcome these things.’”

There is a photo in Reiss’ most recent body of work that is an emotional epicenter with so immediate an impact it can be difficult to view. He has used a Diana camera, a $5 toy with a plastic lens that adds distortion to the image and mutes the color. The photo is a portrait of three toddlers lying on a large, padded mat in an institute for the profoundly retarded. They are all dressed in bright colors and are surrounded by brightly colored toys and pillows.

In the foreground is a black child lying on his side and staring off the edge of the mat, his face slightly out of focus. In the background is a child on his back with a teddy bear wedged between his legs to prevent a leg deformity. The child doesn’t have the IQ to turn himself over. His hand is in his mouth. The child in the center of the photo is lying on his stomach with a vomit stained white cloth under his head. It is a child burnt by the camera flash and absolutely lost in a scream. Though occupants of the same large mat, though grouped within the confines of a photo, the children are utterly cut off from each other and from the viewer, utterly alone in their own worlds. It is a portrait of Peter Reiss stripped to his core, revealing his deepest horror.

By the time he was able to leave the hospital, Reiss was the star of the physical therapy unit, his progress far outstripping any of the other patients. And though sufferring a slight aphasia, the inability to retrieve words for known objects, he had regained his speech. He moved from Washington, D.C. to what had been a dairy farm outside the city. It belonged to a Mrs. Rea, who rented several of the outbuildings; Reiss’ friend Michael lived there and worked in Washington as a commercial photographer. Michael had studied with Walker Evans, then had taught photography at Kenyon College. Peter and Michael’s dogs had been fast friends on campus.

At first Peter concentrated on his convalescence. He worked at the hospital’s physical therapy unit twice a day learning to walk, rebuilding his gait, learning how to get up off the floor, how to climb stairs, how to write and eat left handed. He was still grounded in film, couldn’t imagine himself anything but a film-maker, but he and Michael carried on about photography, who was good and who wasn’t, why one photograph worked and another didn’t. When he was able he began assisting Michael on his shoots.

There was a swimming pool at the farm. Buoyed by the water Peter could spend more time working on his walk without tiring than he could at the hospital. His companion at the pool and for most of the day was Charley, Mrs. Rea’s son, home from his school. Charley Rea was in his late thirties and retarded. He had the mind and persona of a boy in a man’s body. Peter still corresponds with him, Charley writing on school stationery in large block letters. Living with Charley Rea was Reiss’ first real exposure to a retarded person. When Mrs. Rea left for a week, he discovered that Charley wasn’t as simple as he first appeared. Once Peter had gained his trust, he found that if he asked Charley questions in the right way, Charley would answer with more than what he thought Peter wanted to hear. He would let Peter in on his real world.

It turned out Charley had secret names for all the outbuildings on the property. People and dogs had secret names as well. Charley would tell Peter about his girlfriends, his “lovebugs” at school; about the special pleasures of cigarettes and coffee and eating meals in restaurants. He was always after Peter’s dog, crawling up to it to stare into its eye, chasing after the dog when it tried to get away. There was a whole other world he could see in there, Charley explained, a world with other people and other dogs. The world was round, after all, and so was a dog’s eye. Charley also had a facility for dates and names and getting him going was like plugging into a computer. He not only knew when everyone was born and what their middle as well as their first and last names might be, he could tell you the day someone quit smoking. But he couldn’t count money. Or he wouldn’t. Peter isn’t sure why. Maybe money was too powerful, too special.

**

The surgery didn’t eliminate Reiss’s seizures. If anything they came more frequently. “I can usually tell when they are coming,” Peter says, “and try to lie down. If I am with someone I try to warn them and have them stay with me, just hold my hand or touch my face, talk to me. The contact with another person seems to be very important. Because when the seizure comes, it takes control and I am cast adrift and I don’t know if I will surface. It starts in my hand, moves up my arm, into my face, and down my right side and I am helpless. I lose my sense of sight, like a black hood pulled over my head. And I lose the ability to speak. All I can do is hear, really quite acutely, and feel this intense pain throughout the length of the seizure. Sometimes I lose complete consciousness for the few minutes of the seizure. Sometimes I half linger. But when I feel it coming I become intensely frightened. This might be it, might be the one, and I will never come back out. I could go into intractable seizures. Or I could have a cerebral hemorrhage. And if it didn’t kill me, if someone were able to get to me in time, I might recover only to be a vegetable or so completely helpless I would need care the rest of my life.”

It wasn’t the first twin-reflex camera Peter had ever used. His father had been a press photographer for several rural newspapers in Ohio and had brought home twin-reflex and Speedgraphic press cameras in need of repair. By eight Peter was using the cameras to take photos and helping his father with repairs. He snapped pictures of a friend holding up a dead snake, of the neighborhood kids up to hijinks, of all his brothers. His father introduced Peter to the newspaper darkroom and taught him to develop film and print photos. When Peter produced a finished piece, his father would look it over with his photo-journalist’s eye and give Peter unsparing criticism. Was it just another snapshot, or did it tell a story?

It was a religious family. Reiss’ mother was forever moving from one congregation to another, attracted by any new slant on fundamental Christianity, towing her husband and the boys along in her wake. (To this day Peter gets letters from his mother telling him to go to Melodyland near Disneyland where, upon accepting Jesus as his savior, his body will be made whole again. The letters come from Alaska, Jesus having told Mother to go live in a cold climate.)

Right and wrong in the Reiss household were as crisply defined as an Edward Weston photograph. So when Peter’s father told him he was not to examine the Playboy calendar another photographer had tacked to the darkroom wall, he wasn’t simply testing the timbre of his voice. Peter had to use a stool to get close enough for a thorough inspection. He figures he was about 11 at the time. When his father caught him, he gave Peter so sound a thrashing, still photography slipped right out of the boy’s life. Seemingly forever.

As film-making had before, freelance and commercial photography took too great a toll on Reiss’ health. And he was frustrated at the split between taking the photos that would fulfill someone else’s requirements, and taking the kinds of photos he liked. The only solution, he decided, was to earn his living teaching and to pursue photography as an art form, a means of self expression. So he enrolled in the MFA program at Cal Arts and by his second year was attending on a full scholarship.

Judy Fiskin, a Los Angeles photographer, was one of Peter’s teachers at Cal Arts, and is now one of his close friends. She recalls: “Peter stuck out at school - certainly to me and the other faculty, if not to the students. He stuck out because his work was well on its way and because he was very articulate about it. Also, he conveyed a general sense of great maturity by the way he conducted himself and by the things he was concerned about.”

Peter made two films after the operation, but he found the stress so great he decided to give it up. He could no longer operate the camera or the Moviola and had to hire people to work for him. The stress seemed to affect his seizures and it simply wasn’t healthy to continue. So he switched to still photography and began working, first with Michael, then on his own. He bought a twin-reflex camera and had special braces made for it that allowed him to steady the camera, focus, and trip the shutter release, all with his one good hand. He was determined to support himself.

Reiss was concerned about retarded people. From his own experience, from his friendship with Charley Rea, he felt a kinship with them, glimpsed what their pain might be, understood how truly separated they are from the rest of the world. “Though I hesitate to say it,” Peter offers, “I think I share their world. There’s some kind of overlap. If I had come out of that operation and been totally fine, I don’t think I would have had that to share with them. I’m often enough reminded of their world. Sometimes in elevators people think I am retarded and back away from me. Or if I am with a group of retarded people, even with a camera hanging around my neck, they lump me together with the rest of the group.”

“When Peter first came in with his black and white work,” Fiskin explains, “he would talk about showing how mentally retarded people were like normal people. After I got to know him better, and subsequently felt braver, I could say, well, they aren’t like normal people. So then he came back and said, ’OK, they’re not like normal people, but I am going to show they have more of an inner life than normal people understand.’ I couldn’t challenge that because there was truth in that.”

**

Of his early black and white work, Reiss now feels that perhaps too much happiness and contentedness pervade the images, letting the viewer off the hook. Happiness or no, what is clear in the images is the photographer’s compassion and empathy for his subjects. “In a way it’s like dealing with children,” Peter says. “But it’s really more like photographing people who aren’t afraid or reticent to let you see the flaws in them. So what you see in the pictures comes from their very gut and they’re not at all ashamed of that, They’re conscious of it, I think, depending on their mental capacity. But there’s no reserve. They’re willing to give that over to you. There’s quite an innocence to it.”

Judy Fiskin speaks of Reiss’ black and white photos not so much as finished work, but as a step along the way. “I always felt he was skirting something,” she says. “And then he went to the Diana pictures which really put a step more distance between him and those ideas of social relevance and showing the actual life of retarded people.”

Because it is a toy with a plastic lens, the Diana camera cannot reproduce a crisp image. It focusses at the center and distorts out to the edges of the lens. Light is filtered and permutated in odd, often unpredictable, ways. Not only was Peter switching from black and white to color film, He was leaving behind finely ground glass lenses. “The glass lenses were so good,” he explains, “They reproduced all the flaws in any person, the blemishes, a twisted arm, whatever. And when a viewer looked at the final print, that’s what hit first, not the whole subject.” The results of the switch were immediate, the images revealing a new, expressionistic poetry rather than the prose of the documentarist’s portraiture. The shadows of Peter’s own world began to invade and merge with the world of the retarded. He began storyboarding photographs, then using people he had come to know to create the image and complete the process.

“Some of the pictures have a man in the foreground,” Peter says of the middle work, “and there are other people in the background. A retarded person turned to ’ ward the camera in the foreground, and behind him a whole other scene, balloons being blown up, babies being attended to. I didn’t have it right in mind at the time, but after, when the pictures-came up in the developer, I was reminded of a painting of Icarus falling ’from the sky. There is a plowman continuing on his way, oblivious, and a ship in the ocean continuing on its way, because these thing were about a world grounded in rational thinking where you couldn’t have something like Icarus failing from the sky. Two different worlds trying to come together, but still separate.”

After leaving Cal Arts Reiss turned to the profoundly retarded, children with IQ’s below 20 and in need of constant attention. The viewer gets no breaks. The images are simply raw. “When Peter began photographing profoundly retarded children, my reaction was that’s what you’ve been after all along,” says Judy Fiskin. “it seems to me that the work is really about the experience of a kind of extreme anguish and helplessness and fear of finding yourself waking up totally paralyzed. It’s just naked pain. I feel like that’s what he was always going toward and he was just too polite at the beginning.”

“For five years,” Peter says, “I tried to move on to something else, but I had to thoroughly explore what happened to me and to those people. Now, I think, I’ve come to the end of the cycle. I will be doing one more series on the profoundly retarded. Then I think that’s it. Recently I’ve been thinking about babies. I’d like to photograph them in a way that doesn’t show them as all cuddly and cute, but more an individuals whose personalities hadn’t quite formed, individuals who reveal themselves in the most fleeting of expressions.”

Despite the fact he only began showing his work in 1977, Reiss is beginning to make significant inroads into the world of fine art photography. He left California Institute of the Arts in 1979 with a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography and was a National Endowment of the Arts grant recipient in 1981. He currently conducts classes in photography at the University of Southern California and at UCLA Extension and in the Otis-Parson continuing education program.

There are times, Peter says, when he begins to feel sorry for himself. But then comes his intimate knowledge of people in a lot worse shape and he is jolted back to reality. It is a reality that includes an essence of living, a spiritual quality grounded in human terms, what Peter calls strength. “I think that particular strength comes solely from within the individual,” he says. “That’s where I look for the meaning. When I see people like the Trumbo girls, I come away so buoyant just being with them and the life that just exudes from them. And if I can feel that way about them, it gives me faith and makes me believe more in all of us.”