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America on the couch

What do you get when you transport a 200-pound red velvet couch nearly 100, 000 miles around the United States during a four-year period, photographing it along the pathways of everyday life? In this case, you get a thought-provoking, visually exciting, and very unusual book - The Red Couch: A Portrait of America (New York: Alfred van der Marck Editions. 208 pp. $29.95).

As I began this book, I wondered just how many places, besides a living room, one could put a red couch. In these 100 photographs, the couch, with people seated on it or standing nearby, appeared on a lobster boat off the Maine coast, was helicoptered to the top of Merry-go-round Pinnacle in Arizona, resided under a tree on a Louisiana alligator farm (the alligators were there, too), and sat in the center of the New York Stock Exchange.

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Although there are photographs of Jesse Jackson, Larry Hagman, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and the Eyewitness News anchor men, most people in the book are not celebrities but ''everyday'' Americans: children on a basketball court, firemen from Manhattan, an Amish couple, a family living close to Three Mile Island.

Captions appear with each photograph. Written by William Least Heat Moon and based on tapes and interviews with the photographers, they are reminiscent of diary entries. Whether they include comments about the lighting or composition of a particular image, relate something unusual about the person photographed (like the investment banker whose Gucci loafers were decorated with solid gold bars), or record a personal observation (''After a few years of watching people sit on the couch, I learned how to tell a social class by the way its members sit''), they are a fascinating addition to each page.

Before their travels, Kevin Clarke and Horst Wackerbarth, the photographers who conceived the idea and created the book, had long brainstorming sessions. ''We wanted to give a face to many aspects of America,'' Clarke told me in his Manhattan loft. ''We mentally went through every state in the country and talked about the towns and cities, the history, and the people we associated with those places.''

The actual work was not easy: Sometimes people were apprehensive about sitting on the couch; many shots took several days to do; red tape slowed progress and sometimes prevented a photograph altogether.

As Clarke said, ''We took a lot of risks doing this book.'' There were physical risks - he cited the shot of the Georgia window washer who willingly sat on the couch without his safety line, suspended 17 stories above the street. ''We also endured strains in our professional and personal lives by being on the road so often.''

I think the risks were worth it. ''The Red Couch'' is both an intriguing book and an imaginative work of art. As I became more involved in it, I realized what Kevin Clarke meant when he said, ''The meaning of the photographs doesn't begin and end with the couch.'' The placement of the couch in unexpected contexts produces a new environment in which the everyday world looks very different. And the entire collection of photographs does, indeed, create an unusual American portrait.

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