Found art

Jon Strymish’s cluttered vision
By MIKE MILIARD  |  May 21, 2008

080523_strym_main
Josh Ritter photographed by John Strymish
Photographer Jon Strymish’s truck is a mess. “It’s a chaotic clutter of stacks of photographs and negatives, empty film canisters, [and] remnants of his past meals,” says friend and fellow shutterbug John Nikolai. “I’ve seen plants growing out of frightening dark corners of it, where there’s muck and filth. He could make an exhibition out of his truck as easily as he could his photography. It’s somethin’ else.”

Strymish is so scattered, in fact, that he’s been the subject of scholarly inquiry. Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman’s 2007 book, A Perfect Mess: The Benefits of Disorganization (Little, Brown) included a chapter parsing his unorthodox work habits.

And, as it happens, Strymish works with books. The whole reason his truck is in such abysmal disarray is that he spends so much time co-managing the towering and sprawling New England Mobile Book Fair (NEMBF) in Newton Highlands. “I work seven days a week, which doesn’t leave much time to clean the house or the car,” he says. “If I could have time to keep things straight, I would. But I work really hard to keep the bookstore straight.”

That said, NEMBF also exists in a state of near-entropy. “It’s sort of chaos,” admits Strymish. “It’s probably the biggest business in America without a computerized inventory system. Floor to ceiling books. As much as we can carry.” So how do they keep the place in order? “We mostly just work hard.”

You can thank that blithe but serious-minded approach to life for Strymish’s new photo exhibit, “These Are From the Negatives in My Car,” which is currently hanging at Club Passim in Harvard Square. When the club called up looking for some prints to hang recently, time was tight. Strymish didn’t have the leisure of being too discerning. So he had a thought: “What could I find in my car to print?”

While sifting through the flotsam of his truck, Strymish plucked negatives as he found them. Then he developed them. The results — 20 or so stately black-and-white portraits of local musicians, among them Josh Ritter, Rose Polenzani, Kevin Barry, Aoife O’Donovan, and Jennifer Kimball — prove that one man’s “trash” can be everyone else’s treasure.

In a way, the show is the “ultimate testimonial to [Strymish’s] unfathomable level of disorganization,” says Nikolai. “To make a show out of whatever was in his truck at the time, and be content with whatever was in there, and throw his favorite shot on the wall, is very Strymish. He doesn’t stress about anything when it comes to photography. Everything is just done out of a love for the music, and is reflective of the joy he gets out of listening and the act of taking photos. It’s not that he doesn’t work at it — but more that it isn’t work.”

So far, then, being a mess seems to be working for Strymish.

“I guess,” he laughs. “I’m not dead yet.”

Meaning he still has time to turn his untidy ways around?

“No, no, no,” he clarifies. “Being a mess hasn’t killed me yet.”

“These Are From the Negatives in My Car” will be up at Club Passim, 46 Palmer Street, in Cambridge, through June 15. Open daily from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Call 617.492.5300.

Related: Going on sale: October 6, 2006, The politics of songwriting, Welcome to Shangri-La, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Jennifer Kimball, Kevin Barry, Josh Ritter,  More more >
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