In Emmanuel Carrère’s My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir, the narrator chronicles how he destroys a relationship with a woman through a series of rather ill-advised decisions. One of them involves traveling to a town in Russia repeatedly, first to try to find traces of Andras Tamas and later to produce a documentary about something, where it’s never quite clear what that something is (the narrator makes it clear he doesn’t quite know). The relationship is one of the threads running through the book, there are more. I ended up enjoying the events – or rather non-events – in Russia the most, in part because I have a weakness for travel writing when it’s done well (many of the other parts of the book, especially near the end, are a bit too gratuitously self-indulgent for me).
The idea of going somewhere without a real purpose or with the flimsiest of purposes appeals to me because a lot of what will happen results from chance and not from planning (it is probably for that reason that I’m a lousy tourist – I just can’t go somewhere with the plan to see something very specific and enjoy the process). The drawback, of course, is that if you don’t plan anything you don’t know whether something is going to happen. It might, and it might not. You just have to be open to the gifts such trips might hold in store for you, whatever those gifts might be (unexpected opportunities and/or discoveries, however mundane).
Some time in the early 1990s, Emile Hyperion Dubuisson traveled to Siberia to work on a documentary. Finding themselves in an actual polar vortex (gift #1), the crew didn’t get much filming done (gift #2), so Dubuisson walked around with a camera and took photographs. Back in Moscow, processing the film turned into a bit of a nightmare (gift #3), and for a while he thought the negatives were ruined.
Now, you will realize that what I labeled as gifts aren’t really gifts in the standard sense, and they’re not independent. But that’s photography for you. There are gifts everywhere, and you “just” need to be able to spot them, accept them, work with them. And it’s not even always clear right away whether you’re dealing with a gift or not. Often, you need to have a good look at what you got after the fact, back home, maybe years later. (Just as an aside, that’s why digital cameras are such a pest: they often turn photographers into such lousy recipients for gifts.)
This is what Dubuisson did with his photographs from Siberia, eventually producing Far, which is now available in book form. Given the project’s history, the fact that it ties in nicely with The New Pictorialism is a coincidence. But there is a lesson to be learned from looking through Far. For any choice of aesthetic to work, the photographs have to offer more than just that. Fake Polaroids made with some app are not good pictures per se, regardless of the appeal of their aesthetic. In much the same way, Far wouldn’t work if the photographs’ appeal only resulted from the fact that the film was badly developed. You could, in fact, imagine these pictures to work just as well without the aesthetic.
Of course, that’s a somewhat dangerous statement to make, and I’m sure a lot of photographers will object to it. But at the end of the day, it’s about the pictures. I’ll say it again: A cool aesthetic will not give you good pictures. It will only give you pictures with a cool aesthetic (for more on this, see the article about process that I wrote about a year ago).
Far, the book, successfully assembles the photographs and turns them into an attractive package, which – crucially – does not fall into the trap of trying to be too insistent on exploiting the aesthetic. In other words, the book treats the photographs as photographs in their own right, with a somewhat subdued, possibly slightly conservative and careful design. And it works very, very well. Its a very engaging and attractive book, with many very good photographs, a book whose overall experience transcends the work itself. And that’s what good photobooks do.
Far; photographs by Emile Hyperion Dubuisson; essay by Boris Mikhailov; 96 pages; ADAD Books, 2013
Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.7
(ratings explained here)