“Among the rain / and lights / I saw the figure 5,” wrote William Carlos Williams in one of his most famous poems. This book features fifty-five photographs of what Williams called “the great figure,” the number 5. It invites questions about commitment and obsession, repetition and variation, and photography in the age of social media. It skirts humor (via Freud) and tragedy (via 9/11). And it pays homage to other artists of the number 5: Charles Demuth, William Christenberry, and Jasper Johns.
Why five? As Kathryn Lofton says in her introduction to the book, “five has a weird intrigue” for students of religion: the Torah has five books, Islam has five pillars, and Sikhism has five virtues. But the number 5 has authority, too, for reasons closer at hand: we have five senses, the hand has five fingers. And the number 5 is charismatic in its design--the ampersand of numerals.
As Lofton argues in her introduction, these photographs, in their form and quality of attention, “cannot be understood without acknowledging the quiet critique that they mount of an Instagram universe.” 55x5 exploits the technology of cell phone photography: although captured with professional cameras, most of the images in the book are processed through a smartphone app to produce "fauxlaroids." The book fixes one physical version of these otherwise ephemeral images, while exhibition prints of the “originals” fix quite another.
The most famous 5 in the history of art is arguably Charles Demuth’s 1928 painting, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is a visual tribute to Williams’s poem, which is itself an ekphrastic vision of a sign—a number 5 on the side of a firetruck passing through the streets of New York City. In Greenwich Village in 2016, I encountered the hook-and-ladder truck belonging to FDNY Ladder Company 5, idling on Sixth Avenue. I asked the crew if they knew that the Met had a painting of their very own number 5. Of course, they said, we have a poster of that painting framed in our station house. I visited their firehouse that day. I found the number 5 assuming yet another religious significance—enshrined as memorial to the men of Ladder Company 5 who perished on 11 September 2011. Their 5 is in the book, too.