As is usually the case when I decide to review a book that was published a while back, I will spend some time looking for how it was covered (or not) by other critics or writers. Criticism, while grounded in having an obligation to deal with its subject, also cannot (or I’d argue: should not) exist in a vacuum. Someone else’s opinion might help me see, might help me think, might make me reconsider what I was planning to write.
Given I tend to spend time with photobooks before reviewing them, there often exist other takes. But that’s not a given. Sometimes, I find absolutely no earlier review or even mention of a book. This could mean all kinds of things, and I tend not to make any assumptions about it. There are, after all, hundreds, if not thousands of photobooks being published every year, and there are only so many people writing about them.
I have been going back to Landmark by J.W. Fisher and J.T. Leonard for a while now. It had founds its place on top of one of my “to review” piles ever since I received it in the mail. It’s a book that resists quick and easy takes on it — something that I have come to appreciate more and more, given that so many photobooks tend to operate along one liners. So what this book is really “about” (we will have to go there) isn’t so obvious, and that’s a good thing. Whatever I found online about it, and this includes its makers’ words, didn’t help me much. And that’s a good thing, too. If there’s one thing that’s even worse than a one-liner book, it’s a one-liner book that comes with grandiose statements.
A book that defies easy classification ultimately is a promise. It presents an opportunity for its viewers to find themselves in it, in some way that is both tied to the pictures and to whatever she or he might bring to the table. Needless to say, such a book requires work on part of the viewer, and that is their challenge. That work comes with rewards for those willing to spend the time.
In the broadest sense, I would say that Landmark is more concerned with what happens if someone or something is turned into a picture than with the actual people, landscapes, or things depicted. There is quite a bit of work produced around this particular topic these days, much of it, sadly, being too concerned with its own self-importance to take the world outside into consideration (see the New Formalism craze). These photographs here do not suffer from that problem.
Instead, this particular body of work finds itself in the sweet — or maybe I should say: relevant — spot, where the photographs touch upon what is being depicted as much as on how the depiction itself, the photographic treatment, might make us think or feel something that’s coming out of both. There currently appears to be a growing awareness of this particular fact. Pictures are always first and foremost that, pictures. They are taken from the larger world, so they tell us something about that world. But they do so in a distorted or manipulated or selective way.
That distortion, manipulation, selectiveness is key for most photographs made — the only exceptions being scientific photographs. We would, I think, not be particularly interested in photographs taken by robots or machines, other than maybe in some sort of intellectual way. Photographs without human makers aren’t photographs. And photographs without human viewers aren’t photographs, either. They’re nothing. So the only thing that makes photographs interesting is the fact that all the various ways of human folly play into them, when they are made, and when they are being viewed. Photographs give us a chance to learn something about ourselves first, and about what they depict only second.
What makes Landmark particularly interesting for me is that many of its photographs are magically seductive: I want to look at them, again and again. I enjoy looking at them, even though I also know and see what they’re trying to do. They’re not New-Formalism style exercise in formal/visual cleverness. Ever where they veer a little into that territory, for the most part they don’t look as if they had been made to look like a picture. That’s a good spot to be in if you’re a photographer, when you can make pictures that don’t look like as if they were made that way (elsewhere, I probably called this “effortless”).
That’s really how this book sets itself apart from many other books that explore this topic. It’s a clever book, but I never thought it was concerned with its own cleverness. And in a few years, when we’ve moved on to the next photo fad, Landmark might be one of the very few books coming out of this particular concern of photography that still holds up, that doesn’t make us cringe and wonder what we could have been possibly thinking being so obsessed with this beautiful medium itself.
Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.6
Landmark; photographs by J.W. Fisher and J.T. Leonard; texts by Blake Stimson and Lisa Larson Walker; 92 pages; Daylight; 2015
Ratings explained here.