Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Crit: Hereafter by Federico Clavarino

I read a review of this book on Conscientious, a couple of months ago, and was inspired to buy a copy for myself. I confess, largely on the grounds that I suspected Jörg of writing a lightweight review.

So, here it is. It arrived some days ago, and I have accordingly spent time with it. It's not a small book, although contrary to reviews it is not too large but rather just as large as it needs to be. You can examine it briskly but completely in an hour.

I will be taking it apart in some detail, so read no further if you would prefer the pleasure of discovering it for yourself (which is no small pleasure). It touches heavily on the British Imperial project, in a nuanced and adult way, and takes an approach which is I will allow not entirely fashionable. The book is not, though, some sort of apologia. If it sounds like something you'd enjoy, stop reading now and go get a copy for yourself.

The material in Hereafter is various. Photographs made by the author. Family photographs. Official portraits. Newspaper clippings. Children's drawings and writings. Poems and letters. Also included are a series of what the kids call "texts" which are in this case, quotations. These form the core of the book, with all the visual material acting as supporting material, working in counterpoint with the quoted remarks. There are maybe a couple thousand words of this textual material, paired with many hundreds of visual elements.

It is instantly obvious that this is one of those books which is intended to create an impression by accretion of detail. Very few of the individual elements are particularly weighty. With few exceptions, you could drop this one, or that one, or even 10% of the total selected at random, without much changing the book.

Not to suggest that Clavarino is Dickens, but it is also true that any Dickens novel could be trimmed by 10% without anyone really noticing, and any one could be condensed to a taut 192 page novel, as well. Neither of these operations would ruin the book, but they would render it lesser and, more importantly, into a different book. Hereafter is not Dickens, but it has some of the same sprawling bigness, to much the same purpose.

The quotations mentioned earlier are attributed, a cast of characters emerges as you read. John, Mary, William, Susan, Elizabeth, and Robin. They are set as if in a play, but no quotation leads directly to the next. This is not, alas, a conversation, but a sequence of remarks, each loosely related to its neighbors, telling, elliptically, a story. We never learn the source of these quotations. There is some hint that John and Robin may have written some pieces of length, and that their remarks may be lifted from those. But perhaps all the quotes are transcribed interviews. It's unclear, and it doesn't matter.

The material surrounding each quoted remark appears to be related to the remark, at least loosely. And so we have an elliptical narrative given us loosely, rambling, by the remarks from the cast, and in parallel we have visual material filling in, fleshing out, reifying, the facts and feelings laid out in the words.

The work can be divided into pieces for our consideration in at least two ways.

The first is simply the chapters as given. The narrative concerns, largely, the service of John in the British Diplomatic Service in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when his children (the other characters) are unborn or quite young. The first chapter is really an introduction to John and Mary, something of how they met and so on, with some of John's family history. His ancestors, it turns out, served in the British military supporting the apparatus of the Empire. John's service as a diplomat is, therefore, something of a family legacy, this corps being essentially what remains of the Imperial apparatus.

The next three chapters cover three of John's postings. Oman, Jordan, and Sudan. We see in these chapters something of the mechanics of British influence in this era. We learn, if we are attentive, that John and Mary are perfectly well aware of the essentially ambiguous nature of these things. That the influence of the British is in many ways harmful, but in many ways beneficial. These people are, after all, the people on the ground. It is impossible to take seriously the notion that they knew less about the situation than, say, some professor ranting from a comfortable office in an ivy covered university building, somewhere west of Cyprus.

Mary chimes in with light details about diplomatic life, but occasionally also sidles up to ugly realities. Slavery. Female circumcision. Infanticide. John and Mary are working in and sometimes against cultures with some habits that they, and we today, find odious, deplorable. If in this modern age we were honest cultural relativists, we would not mind; but we are not, and we do. As they did then, and they strove against these things. British Colonialism was many things, many of them terrible, but it was also this striving against darkness.

I did promise you, though, that Hereafter is no apologia, and I shall redeem that promise. Patience.

John remarks, at one point, early on:

A period of colonialism, or imperialisn, or whatever you like to call the subordination of one country to another, can, despite the humiliation of being subordinate to foreigners, be an effective means of bringing an underdeveloped country more quickly into the 20th century. Just as Lenin said that war is the midwife of revolution, so imperialism can be an efficient midwife of progress.

This is a fairly clear-eyed man, he is not a mere ignorant tool of Empire, although assuredly he is a tool of British influence. One does not cite Lenin if one imagines the situation to be entirely champagne and canapes.

This is also roughly the sentiment expressed by the novelist Nicholas Monsarrat, who served in the diplomatic service a couple of decades before John. This provides a little parallax for me, and leads me believe that, perhaps fairly broadly, British diplomats were aware of the ambiguities inherent in their work.

The last chapter is a meditation by Robin on the nature of death, and of personal history. Arguably a kind of loopy essay, connecting life and memory to quantum mechanics in that way that feels like it might be illuminating and wise, or possibly just sheer nonsense. It makes a kind of oblique comment, here, on the nature of family history, of the collective memory that is family history. It is either the weakest or the strongest chapter, I think. It certainly does not land anywhere in the middle.

The second way to divide up the work for critical consideration is at right angles to the chapter-based dissection. There are categories of supporting material that flow throughout. That is, we see the same types of materials, as well as the same motifs, repeated throughout the book. Clavarino's photographs, aged family photographs, poems by John, and so on. It is not unfair to imagine that each type of material carries its own thread of meaning.

If the quotations, the words, provide some sort of basis, Clavarino's still lifes provide a secondary theme, his portraits another, his photographs of the land a third. The family photos, the poetry, and so on. Each connects forwards and backwards to its likes that precede and succeed it, and each connects vertically (if you will allow the musical metaphor) in harmony with the unlike material to which it is adjacent.

In any small handful of pages in sequence we might find Mary talking about the Sultan of Oman; modern photographs of Oman by Clavarino; a modern portrait of a resident of Oman, ditto; family photographs from John's time in Oman; a poem written by John about the diplomatic service.

Clavarino signals his meaning in two distinct ways. First, he selects archival material with care. I assume, because of the words from John and Mary that he's selected, that he wants us to be aware of the complexity of colonialism, the ambiguity of it. Second, he gives us his own photographs. He depicts the countries in question not in their best possible light. Clavarino favors a bit of ruin porn, albeit well done (Clavarino has a sound eye for graphical design and for color). He engages in his own project of Orientalism, depicting the people as noble, serious, and mysterious (the portraits are all taken from a fairly low angle, the subjects are invariably wearing an expression that is mostly neutral, slightly proud).

Clavarino intends us to see these countries, in the aftermath of John's labors for Great Britain, as genteel ruins populated by noble, distant, people.

A couple of Clavarino's still lifes deserve mention. One is a book, an older book. Looking closer, you see that it is Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, one of the most British of his books, rather than one of Kipling's collections of stories of colonialism. A second is an inscription on a book, something about the Nuba people of Sudan. Looking closer, one notices that it is inscribed by the author, Leni Riefenstahl, who spent decades in Africa photographing the people there and did not quite redeem herself in the eyes of the world. Kipling I might take as an accident. That two such characters arise in Clavarino's documentation of John and Mary's things seems well into the realm of the deliberate.

I believe that Clavarino wants us to understand that his personal view of John's work, and the work of the British Empire, is less positive than John's already ambiguous and uncertain position. And yet, he lets the words of John and Mary and the others stand.

This is not a one note book. This is not some simple screed, this is a nuanced and multi-faceted study.

The themes of Clavarino's photos of land and people are not always harmonious with the themes of John's words, Mary's words, the family photo albums.

The book is not really a family history. There is nothing of the time Susie sprained her ankle, or when William learned to swim. The family history which we learn, while rich, is entirely the history of family as it intersects with the geopolitics of the Middle East. On the flip side, the geopolitical history we learn is likewise slender, concerned almost entirely with the same intersection.

I spent some time reading up on Oman, and the situation there was vastly more complex, and in many ways far more awful, than Hereafter's sketch would suggest. This is not the history of Oman, it is the family's memory of that time in Oman as it overlapped with that dreadful unfolding of history. The Sultan was much much nastier than Mary's remarks might suggest, and the British were absolutely correct to back his removal.

Other reviewers have suggested that Clavarino should have ditched these pictures, or those, and tightened the whole book up.

Those reviewers are wrong. Each of the themes serves its role in filling out a more complete impression of this whole episode, of that intersection of family and geopolitics. Even as limited as the scope is, this subject is nevertheless extremely complex, ambiguous, and filled with conflicting details. The ground truth here is fractal, if you will, and is represented here by a kind of printed visual fugue.

The photos are often very appealing. Clavarino gifts us with many well designed spreads, with visual themes that repeat and repeat (watch for the serpentine line through the frame). It's a visual design treat, quite apart from its meaning. You can and should enjoy the book purely on those grounds, as a kind of coffee-table scrapbook thing about subjects you don't even care about.

It's also a nuanced and worthy piece of meaning, of Art. It does not resolve anything, the questions in play here have no answers, but it does remind us of the depth and complexity of reality.

In short, the book hits all the right notes. It is visually pleasing, almost arresting (my wife picked it up and enjoyed it as a visual treat with no trouble). It handles a complex subject with both nuance and depth. It does what Art ought to, and it does it much better than the vast majority of Serious Photobooks being made today.

+1 would read again!


  1. Out loud: Clavarino, Clavarino, Clavarino, Clavarino!

    Calvarino must be his church-going protestant relatives.

    1. God DAMN it. I knew that was going to be a problem, so I cleverly made sure I'd spelled the name consistently throughout, without first checking that I had the damned thing right in the first place.


  2. Wow, what a contrast in the two 'reviews'! Both of you know colonialism is destructive, yet Jorge was 'irritated' by the writings of the diplomat/ancestors, and you actually read them and thought about them. Oh, how easily I could accept either of your views if it were the first one I encountered.

  3. I have mixed feelings about these kinds of projects, they seem clever and appealing, but aren't notably edifying (full disclosure: I haven't seen or read the book, just some online pics of it).

    Tasty and unfulfilling, like a Krispy Kreme donut.

    I wouldn't call this sort of book a "photobook", or even a "photo book", but a book illustrated with some random, pretty photos and ... donut sprinkles, if you like.

    Of course there are those who are bored with photography in general and wonder why they plod on. This is the result. They are 'pushing the envelope' -- if the envelope is a grease-soaked paper bag crusted with icing sugar.

    The photos in this book are visually competent, the selection random, like so many other such books. Like too many such books.

    1. I like the term "visual book" best, and am attempting to school myself to use it. When a book is sold as a "photobook" or for that matter a "platypus" one is confronted with the problem of whether and when to respect the author's usage, and when to substitute one's own.

  4. Best review of the book I've read so far. Thanks.