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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Mike Chisholm: Boundary Elements, revisited

This is a review of a book by occasional commenter Mike Chisholm. His wonderful blog, Idiotic Hat, is found here, and is worth reading.


Walker Evans pictures have this quality to them which I think of as "foursquare". They are frequently dead-on to the subject, and there are exactly no cute mannerisms. The camera is not positioned carefully to align this thing with that thing, there is no cutesy shadow play to add interest, there is no clever emphasis of foreground/background distinctions. The impression one gets is of a camera simply dropped into place to record something.

In fact, Evans was as fussy as anyone else about his camera position, and experimented widely. The results are excellent, but slightly puzzling because they are so foursquare, so artless. (see comment below re: "artless" for further clarification.) There is no gimmick visible, no cleverness, no flash of genius. And yet, they work. The pictures are pretty great.

Mike's pictures in general, and certainly in this book, have something of that flavor. Occasionally one feels a little cleverness (especially when two pictures appear of what is, upon inspection, the same wall with different framing), but generally the pictures have that same foursquare artless quality, and (this is important, obviously) they work. The subject matter is completely different, a sort of semi-abstract collection of scenes with certain graphical motifs repeated. It is, perhaps, a little like Evans doing his peeling paint/peeling posters thing, but with a quite different feel.

These pictures document certain semi-rural and, to my eye, quite British, rambles. At any rate, not particularly American, but perhaps by a process of elimination. It's too "small scale" to be west of the Mississipi, it doesn't feel like New England, and it's too cold to be The American South, so it's pretty much got to be either Pennsylvania or England. There's a real charm to the smallness of scale, in those pictures where scale is visible.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not bought the book. I kind of want to, but my budget is infinitesimal, and the pressure to not fill my house with yet more objects is high. I probably won't buy a copy, but I'm kind of on the fence.

Also, these are a kind of picture that I absolutely dislike.

Altogether too often we see these semi-abstract things as pointless exercises in form. In this case, though, Mike has convincingly persuaded me that this is a document of a path rambled, these are the things a roving eye might pick out. Very few vistas, a lot of little details. Each detail alone is a well-executed exercise in form, and by itself might be not much of anything. Taken together, they're a convincing document.

It's not a sprawling essay on Man's Place In The Universe, but it might be a diary entry on one man's place, in this season, this year.

So, while I dislike the genre, I quite like this book. You might as well.

Here's the link: Boundary Elements, revisited

Note that if you live outside the UK, blurb will (evidently?) print and fulfill as close to you as possible, so you're not paying to ship the thing from the UK, despite Mike's Imperial Residence.


  1. Yikes, you might have warned me, Andrew, I've just had to clean coffee off my screen. Thanks for the kind words, though "artless" is not one I'd choose to read. Those pictures are artful, *artful*!

    Thanks, from Southampton, "Gateway to Empire",


    1. I debated the use of "artless" but in the end, by golly, it means exactly what I wanted to say (the definition I intend might be #1 or #3 depending on your dictionary). "without guile or deceit", the opposite of "artful" in the sense of Artful Dodger.

      And while you're welcome, I'm really just trying to be a bit more of a grownup and a proper critic these days. If I'm going to appoint myself as such, I ought to do the job.

  2. ... Also, I would not recommend buying the physical book in its current state -- there are a lot of dark tones which don't separate well on the printed page, something which (after 10 years of practice) I can do rather better now, and should sort out. The PDF is a bargain, though...