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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Crit: Endless Plain by Tony Fouhse

I vaguely know Tony, and I read his newsletter (one of the two not-boring newsletters by photographers) so when he finished his latest book, Endless Plain, I immediately went and bought a copy. It arrived a couple days ago, and I've been looking into it from time to time.

Almost immediately I realized that reviewing this book is philosophically sticky for me. I have painted myself into a kind of corner. The one sin a photo book, or more generally any piece of Art, can commit is to pretend to be saying something when in fact the artist has nothing to say. It happens that I believe there's a lot of this around in the land of photography projects: someone has a pile of pictures, but cannot for the life of them figure out what, if anything, they have to say. They do not let this triviality stop them publishing it, to everyone's detriment.

Why do I have a problem here, then? Well, having attended to Tony's writing over the last year or so, I know for a stone cold fact that he's trying to say something with this book. What, exactly (or even generally) I do not a priori know, but I know he has something in his head that he's trying to get out, and that this book is his best effort at doing just that. In a sense, therefore, it cannot be bad by my own criteria. It might fail to communicate what's in Tony's head, it might fail to "read" somehow, but ultimately that's my problem.

Also, as occasionally happens, I like Tony and am inclined toward generosity.

With these caveats out of the way, let us examine this object. Let us see what we can see.

There is essentially no front-matter, only blank pages and a title page are properly "front matter." There is a colophon page, but that is extremely spare and stylishly placed at the end. The design is lean to the point of an Amish plainness. The book opens with blank pages, then a few photos, and then the title. In general, there are things that feel like chapter breaks, but I am unsure whether they are or whether that's just perception. Certainly some real attention has been paid to pacing. Mostly single photos, usually but not always recto. A small number of spreads. Quite a few blank pages, which I appreciate, photos need some breathing room. All photos horizontal.

The initial impression I got was something of the "I hate Germany" theme I so dislike, glum black and white photos of glum things. Tony's a little more willing to let blacks and whites creep in, so it's not a dismal swamp of grey, though, and there are some people, and a few other hints that there's maybe more here. Even from the outset.

Visual themes emerge almost immediately. Grids, brick walls, demolition, thickets, caution tape, doors and passages underneath things (culverts, underpasses, etc.) Occasional people. Actually, people pretty often, but usually so slight that they don't register as being central, even though many pictures contain a person.

The vegetation is almost invariably dead, dormant, or dying. Demolition might be construction, but if construction it is the tearing-down, the digging, to make room, to prepare for the lifting up of construction. There is no lifting up, here. Just piles of broken material, dirt, holes, mud, equipment, and more caution tape.

There are some visual jokes. A billboard with Celine Dion, arms outspread, also contains power lines, power poles with their own arms spread out to bear the wires. The few spreads all have a geometrical echo, left to right.

The geometrical and visual games tie the thing together, and make you wonder if that's all there is. Is this just a set of loosely allied visual themes, tied together with repeated shapes and txtures?

Maybe. I can't be sure.

This is the kind of thing I struggle with. If there is something more going on here, it's not easily expressible in words, it's not even really an emotion or a reaction. It might be purely visual, or mostly visual. Which makes me question, again, if it's all just games of repeated/related texture and form? What else would there be, if it's just visual?

There are two photos of people that suggest something more. One, a group of young women in quite short skirts, out in some thicket of dormant shrubs. They strike me, somehow, as witches. It's daylight, the women are clearly cheerful, there is no cauldron in evidence, and they're just standing around. Somehow, though, they're a coven.

The second is a person in a mask and robe, in a similar thicket, standing over another person, who is photographing them from a low angle. The mask is a ram, or something similar. The reference to pagan magic here is a lot clearer, perhaps even unambiguous. The photographer in-frame makes it clear that this is not an actual goat-god, but rather someone dressed up as one. Neverthless.

I do not think it is too much a stretch here to see these things as some reference to something mystical, something of magic, an older nature-magic/religion/mysticism. Maybe you wouldn't see it the way I do, but I think you'd have to be something of a blockhead to not at least grant me this take as one way to see it.

So we have some sort of theme of demolition and of dormancy-in-winter, and something of magic. Something of caution, or warning. Perhaps there's something of a notion of the rest before the growth, before the upheaval, before the change of season, before the workings of magic.

Another photo that strikes me is of an industrial building, a largely blank wall, with some truly terrifying Keep Out spikes atop the wall. In front of the wall, a small tree or shrub, one of the few living plants we see in the book. A tiny sliver of life, maybe, striving against the unfeeling blankness of the wall, of the brutal intimidation of the spikes above.

Is the book hopeful, or portentous? I don't know, and as near as I can tell there's no help in the book here. Is Tony acknowledging that Gaia will sweep us all away as a failed experiment in a few years, or does he hope that after the cataclysm all will be renewed and good? I'm not at all sure this is even what's on his mind, and if it is, I'm not sure he knows the answer.

What I do know is that the book is semiotically rich. This is the kind of Serious Art thing I think a lot of Serious Art Photographers strive for, but which I suspect they're unable to make work.

Does Tony's book work?

I don't know. I had to fight to get deeper than a pastiche of visual games, and I am not at all sure I ended up anywhere real. But maybe it's enough that I found my way to a place of my own making; perhaps I merely found an idiosyncratic, deeply personal, way to make sense of this book and maybe that's enough. Is that success?

I'm certainly not mad about the money I spent, and I am pretty sure that anyone with an open mind and an open heart would find something in here. It's semiotically dense. I cannot tell you with any certainty whether it is coherent, beyond the visual games, but it's rich.

Some Notes: Commenter David Smith has provided me with his own review, which I will publish perhaps tomorrow. I have not yet read it and rather look forward to doing so. Also, I have not yet read the short essay containing in the book itself, by Daniel Sharp, and look forward to reading that as soon as I press the Publish button here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for spending time with my book, Andrew.

    I'm heartened that in the end you arrived at an interpretation that's exactly what I was trying to do/say with Endless Plain. And, bonus, you ended up "somewhere real" and, paradoxically, "of [your] own making."

    What more could I ask for?