Book Reviews W15/2019

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With Spain having established itself as the newest powerhouse of photobook making, it might be Poland’s turn next. I’ve noticed how over the past few years there have been more and more books coming out of the Central European country, with cutting-edge book design having spread beyond the Sputnik Collective. This is a most welcome development and the richness of photobook publishing in these and other countries makes it an obvious statement to say that Europe is at the forefront of the medium — certainly as far as contemporary productions are concerned.

Łukasz Rusznica‘s Subterranean River reached me shortly after my first trip to Japan. With my impressions being so fresh, I was unable to approach it on its own terms for a while. For sure, I thought — and still think — that the photographer got enarmored with some of the very same things I noted there. I found Japanese cities to be thoroughly unphotographic at first: it’s almost as if they resist being photographed, which might just reflect some of their society’s underlying culture. But eventually, there will be an opening through which one can approach what is on view.

In Rusznica’s case, the opening was provided by the country’s folk legends, which tie in with many religious aspects, and which were indeed also the subject of Japanese photographers’ work (think Eiko Hosoe’s Kamaitachi or Daidō Moriyama’s Tales of Tono). I’m personally not opposed to appropriating a culture’s folks legends as an outsider, but obviously your mileage might vary.

Whether you’ve read any of Haruki Murakami’s novels that contain portals to a parallel world right in the middle of ours or simply watched any of the Yokai Monster movies, the basic idea might be pretty clear, and Subterranean River dives into it in part through its monochromatic blood-red middle section filled with a variety of staged portraits. (As an aside, I’d pick the movies, given I find the writer’s output way too calculated and pretend-cool. Again, your mileage might vary, but you might want to read this fantastic essay on the Murakami Effect.)

There are nods to other artists here and there, and maybe some of the visual effects are a little much — the inverted colour images are both conceptually and visually a bit too obvious. Still, it’s a thoroughly engaging book and a very beautiful production indeed.

Subterranean River; photographs by Łukasz Rusznica; text by Olga Drenda; 120 pages; Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych, Palm Studios; 2018

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.6

I suspect that if you looked at Lynn Alleva Lilley‘s Tender Mint you would figure out the rough location where it’s photographed somewhat easily. And maybe inevitably that location will set off all kinds of thoughts or ideas in your head — how could it not? Aren’t we conditioned to view what we call the Middle East in very specific, biased ways?

But this is a different Middle East. Almost exactly in the center of the book, halfway through, there’s a photograph that shows a monkey clinging tightly to her baby. The two are easy to miss, given they don’t take up much space in the frame. But once discovered the pair forms a magnetic focal point. Elsewhere, in a short piece of text next to a photograph, the narrator (who we must assume is the photographer) describes an encounter with a donkey. “There we were,” she writes, “in this imperfect sanctuary with only ourselves as witnesses to this unexpected communication.”

One might wonder how we, as humans, will ever treat ourselves with more dignity and compassion when our relationship to the living world at large is one of exploitation and murder, where animals are slaughtered willy-nilly so they can be eaten or simply just because some people are entitled pricks lacking an inner life. Tender Mint amplifies this question by blending portraits of people with those of zoo animals, adding quiet photographs of seemingly meaningless moments.

What are we doing to each other? How are we relating to each other? Could there be a different, better way? In and with this very meditative book, Lilley asks its viewers to discard the many preconceived ideas we tend to put on the world, to engage anew with it: differently. Otherwise, every day will just be another day along the lines of I read the news today, oh boy.

Tender Mint; photographs by Lynn Alleva Lilley; text by Lynn Alleva Lilley; poems by Samih al Qasim, Jane Hirshfield; 144 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2017

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.3

Terje Abusdal‘s Slash & Burn tells the story of a group of Scandinavians called Forest Finns, a recognized minority group in Norway. The book, the colophon informs the curious reader, was “developed in the 2016 photobook-masterclass by Yumi Goto, Sandra van der Doelen and Teun van der Heijden”.  I had an inkling while looking at it. I’ve seen quite a few books made there (whether in 2016 or at another time), and they somehow all resemble each other. Specifically, they mix up a wide variety of source materials to create what we might consider the current default of narrative-photobook making.

Where it works, it works very well. But I personally would caution against using the same formula for every book, because the risk is that the viewer will be looking more at the formula than at the actual work in question. And I found myself doing that here. There is what comes across as a randomness to some of the decisions the trio applied to the work, and some of the design decisions feel as if they were done merely to create unnecessary ornamentation. That’s too bad.

After all, the underlying body of work is very interesting. Abusdal has more than enough very good pictures that maybe ten years ago would have made a very good Hatje Cantz book (that’s before that publisher appears to have changed out their whole staff to arrive at whatever it is they’re doing now): something a lot more conventional. It’s not that I suddenly developed a craving for more conventional books. It’s just that I don’t want to look at what essentially come across as random design decisions. After all, the goal of any photobook maker should be to make the simplest possible book and not chase after the latest trends.

Slash & Burn; photographs by Terje Abusdal; texts by Aaron Schuman, Birger Nesholden, Terje Abusdal; 180 pages; Kehrer; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 1.0, Edit 2.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 2.5

Ratings explained here.