Monday, April 17, 2023

Crit: Depravity's Rainbow by Lewis Bush

I backed this thing on kickstarter ages ago, because I wanted a copy to look at, and here it is! My wish has been granted. Lewis is more or less the best of the Serious Academic Photography weenies that I pay attention to, and as such I have somewhat mixed feels on him. He's sometimes very very stupid, sometimes quite bright, and most of time he's plugging along doing OK. Kind of like most of us. Takes himself a trifle too seriously to really be taken seriously, if you know what I mean, but other than that he's ok.

So what about this book? It purports to explore the dark side of space exploration and whatnot, and it took Lewis 5 years to research and produce. I've been a little bit of a space nut myself for most of my life, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Was Lewis going to dig up deep mysteries and reveal dark histories never before seen? Or at least unknown to me? Or was it going to be a paint by numbers Space History with the Glum dial turned up and a lot of bitching about colonialism added?

Well. It's a bit of this and a bit of that. I don't much like the book, but in the end he does actually manage to land the plane after a fashion. I like his book Metropole a lot more, though it suffers from some of the same issues. He wasn't overthinking it quite as much. But let's look at this thing.

There are, roughly, three major chunks to the thing. One is a set of archival photos with captions that sketch the life and career of one Wernher von Braun, Nazi Rocket Guy who came to the USA and more or less ran the programs that eventually put dudes on the surface of the moon. The second chunk is a set of cyanotype photos of sites relevant to the Nazi rocket program, photos made by Lewis in the present. The third piece is a 15,000 word essay that kind of tries to tie it all together.

As a side note, it's faintly interesting to me that Lewis photographed German stuff, but not American stuff. I realize that the USA is a little farther away and harder to get around to all the sites, but I feel like this is an asymmetry. A few pics of Huntsville would not be amiss.

Let's take the chunks one at a time.

The archival photos, interleaved in chunks with the cyanotypes, make up the first section of the book. The format is pretty consistent, this pattern is repeated: 6 photos, each on a page with a nearly blank page opposite bearing only a date, for a total of 12 pages. This is followed by 2 more pages with captions for the 6 photos. The 6 photos in each block alternate, 3 and 3, between a history of von Braun leading up to and through the war, and a history leading from WWII through the moon landing. The second one runs backwards, so the two narratives land together (the end of the German story and the beginning of the American one) at Operation Paperclip in which the USA recruited a bunch of Nazi scientists at the end of WWII.

This is, inevitably, the "Memento" trope, and it always feels silly to me. It worked in "Memento" for very specific reasons. Copying the trope usually comes across as merely copying the trope for the sake of the trope, not for the extremely idiosyncratic storytelling capability it offers.

The dates opposing each photograph are just indicators, not necessarily the date of the photo, which is confusing. For example, the photo of Wernher von Braun as a toddler is marked with his date of birth. The dates serve only to lead you to the correct caption, found in the last 2 pages of the 14 page archival-photo block. In order to read the captions with the photos, you are endlessly flipping. It's worse than putting all the captions at the end of the book, which you only do if the captions don't have any content anyways. This structure is maddening.

The captions are actually a narrative, only loosely related to the photos, so in theory you could just read them separately. You'd have to read half of them forward, and the go backward to read the others, in order to assemble the tale in chronological order. This is also maddening.

Lewis has some ideas here, "it resembles the trajectory of a ballistic missile, up, and then down" and "it represents the duality of good and evil" and "I have found that people flip through photobooks backwards" but none of these explanations is, to my eye, satisfactory. This is just some doofus overthinking structure, desperate to make Something New, and inventing a mess.

His other explanation holds a little more water. By folding von Braun's life back on itself like this, he wants to locate parallels between the first half and the second. In a way he does, there are photos that pair up — three von Braun kids, three astronauts; German rocket blowing up, American rocket blowing up; and so on. It's not clear to me that these parallels are meaningful, but they do lend a kind of visual structure if you ignore the captions.

The result is, after you laboriously unpack it, a sort of thin bio of Wernher von Braun. It is also pretty neutral, which will turn out to be important. You will literally learn a great deal more from the Wikipedia page on the man, and the photos somehow fail to even give you an impression of what the man looked like. They're overly enlarged, often indistinct, and only occasionally relevant. Blurry photos of rockets blowing up. A picture of some Nazi standing, we are told, in front of von Braun. It's impossible to tell which of the several blurry fellows in the background is von Braun.

It is frankly unclear what the hell Lewis is trying to accomplish here. On the face of it, he's sketching a bio, but the bio is so thin and this material is so physically large in the book that he simply has to have something more in mind than simply sketching a bio. In other venues he tells us he's trying to present the two halves of von Braun's career in a kind of evil/Nazi vs. good/USA light, while simultaneously contesting that simplistic understanding of von Braun, and I guess that kind of comes through? Given that this is the standard modern understanding of von Braun, it's not clear how much of what's coming through is Lewis, and how much is just stuff that I know? And there are just so many god damned pages of this stuff!

Well, moving on. Let's look at the cyanotypes.

Between each block of archival photos, we get a set of full bleed double-truck cyanotypes taken by Lewis in the last couple of years, of sites and whatnot in Europe relevant to his story. They're mostly just trees and shit, maybe some broken down railroad tracks, a crumbling building, some tunnels, etc. This is where prisoners did this, this is where rockets were launched, etc. They feel a lot like Sally Mann's Battlefields, to be honest. Those are also "look, it's a scruffy field" photos, where something awful happened a long time ago.

Sally Mann has earned a little more generosity, and the wet plate process she uses adds a meaningful layer of crud to her photos. The many many defects look a little like the ghosts of bullets or shells, that kind of thing. At least, if you're generous and squint a bit.

Lewis hasn't earned much, and honestly the shenanigans with the archival material are so irritating it's hard to be generous with his cyanotypes. It's also not clear what meaning, if any, the cyanotype process adds. Perhaps he's citing engineering drawings? It's not clear, but that is exactly the sort of twee gibberish he'd be getting up to. If I had been doing that, I'd have rendered them in high contrast, to make the connection clearer, but Lewis seems to have actually worked quite hard and skillfully to make "good prints" using the terrible cyanotype process. If engineering drawing is in fact his reference, he's undermined himself here. It does not help him that every asshole is doing cyanotypes this year, so he feels like a trend-follower.

Anyways, ok. I will accept the cyanotypes, albeit grudgingly. They're not brilliant, I think that idea could have been handled better, but at least the pictures make a point about the reality, the recency, the, no really right here no shit slave laborers were dying while building V-2s. Stipulated.

Onwards now to the essay, which occupies the last third of the book. It's on (sigh) different paper stock, because of course it is. This fucking "must have several paper stocks" shit drives me nuts. There's no point to it and it makes handling the book weird, but all the cool kids are doing it. This is definitely trend-following.

The essay is a great long thing that backs out a little and covers the same material from a more general point of view. Kind of a geopolitical history of rocketry.

The way you normally write an essay like this is that you read a bunch of shit, and then you go off and have a think. Then you write a new essay with your own thoughts and ideas, your own spin on the details, and so on. You cite relevant bits and pieces of the things you read. You do synthesis.

The other way to write it, which is traditionally how Master's student's write their theses, is you collage up bits and pieces of stuff more or less as you read them, stringing together chunks of your research material in what you hope is some sort of narrative, and then you try to wrap it up with a Big Finish of your own devising. This is pastiche rather than synthesis.

Lewis's essay feels a little too much like the latter. He read a lot of stuff, which, well good on him I guess. He does mortar the bits together competently, so it does read pretty well, and good god does he have a lot of citations. There's a cite for every 100 words, more or less, which seems like rather a lot and rather betrays the collage-effect.

The content of the essay is more or less fine. It's more detailed than the von Braun sketch bio the first 2/3 of the book occupied, and more general. There's a general flavor of "OMG colonialism is just sooooo bad" throughout, but it's not too awful. Yes, war is bad, and yes, US policy around rockets is pretty warlike, and that sucks. Insofar as the essay has a politics, I agree with it.

In the end, though, when Lewis does wrap up with a couple hundred words of Big Finish in the approved style, he does actually land the plane. Kinda. He concludes that after 5 years of research he's found the official modern position on von Braun to be correct. There's really no way to know if he was fucking Nazi scum, or just an enthusiastic rocket guy swept along with the rest of the ordinary blokes in Germany in the service of a totalitarian nightmare. Lewis doesn't really mention that this is the standard reading, but I suppose we can forgive him that. von Braun was rather lionized at various times, to one degree or another.

I can't really decide if the book is doing any kind of service. It's obviously very much over-designed and overthought, so there's no way I can actually like it. It's not really revealing anything at all new, an hour on Wikipedia would give you 99% of the material in it, and you might come away knowing a great deal more about rockets. It doesn't actually present a particularly new or surprising point of view, we've been wrestling with von Braun's past with some degree of seriousness for some decades, and everyone's arrived at the same conclusion.

If you're not interested in space, you probably don't know any of this shit, though. It's possible that you'll learn a bunch of really interesting stuff, and for the intended audience the over-designed photobook is probably the only way they'll ever learn this material. I do rather think Lewis oversells his own point of view. His view is almost precisely aligned with the consensus view, and I'm not sure that this comes through, and that could be a bit dicey.

Taken purely as a "photobook" I really dunno. There's the visual structure of formally similar frames in the archival photo section, and the cyanotypes kind of work to a degree. I don't really think it's particularly notable, though. It's kind of ringing the changes on some overworked territory in a pretty lackluster way. Not that "hey, let's make a book of archival photos" is ever very successful, it's a pretty shitty idea that basically never works; but it doesn't particularly work here, either. Reaching for an alternative process to try to invest your pictures with meaning is also dicey, but it does actually work sometimes. I don't know if it's working here.

Taken together it's a sort of meh photobook with a kind of meh conglomeration of writing and kind of overdone design. I'm not seeing it as any greater than the sum of its fairly dubious parts.

I think Lewis ultimately wants to be Allan Sekula, but he's just not. He seems unable to formulate a novel or even interesting point of view. Metropole, which I like, presented a 100% standard prog-left view of real estate development. Huge swathes of Londoners hold precisely Lewis's values here, and most of them know in broad strokes the kinds of things his research turned up. He's got an ongoing project on offshore finance that feels very much the same. He's digging up publicly accessible and ultimately boring details that reify what everyone Lewis socializes with already "knows" and adding in a few pictures that don't really contribute anything.

To be honest, I don't really know Sekula as a photographer at all, and what I can recall is at least as underwhelming at Lewis's pictures, but as an essayist and researcher he could really pull some shit together. He had actual ideas that went beyond merely reflecting his social circle.

Lewis, I think, needs to spend more time with himself, trying to figure out what he himself actually thinks about things. My take is that he views research as an expedition to find things that confirm a point of view he already has (although, to be fair, I think he started out aiming to "expose" von Braun as Nazi scum, so maybe I have this backwards.) If he treated research more as a way to fill his brain up with material which he would then digest, and thus produce a novel frame, a synthesis, I think he'd be a lot better off.

This isn't that book, but he's still pretty young and he's out there trying. He pretends to not give a shit what people think, and eventually maybe he'll actually get there. I don't think he's going to be Sekula, but he could get a lot closer if he shook free of a few habits.


  1. Hi Andrew,
    I think it's fair to say he is referencing Pychon's Gravity's Rainbow with his title. I'd be interested to see how much he is relying on that novel's structure in his book.


    1. There are some unintentionally (I guess) hilarious details in the Wikipedia entry for the Pynchon book (full disclosure: Wikipedia is my go to for everything, because I'm lazy and stupid), and now you got me wondering ... "In the original editions of the book, the episodes were separated by a row of seven small squares. Many readers, reviewers, and scholars [...] have suggested that the squares resemble the film perforations known as "sprocket holes" [...]."

      The cyanotype thing, I have no fucking idea.

      Good review, probably, for a book I'll likely never see. Praise Jesus.

    2. Yes, I think the Pynchon reference is on purpose! Since I have no idea what the structure of Pynchon's book is, though, I have no insight here ;)

      My understanding is that Pynchon's book features a lot of V-2 material, so there's that connection at least?

    3. Agreed.
      The narrative arc of the main character mirrors the flight arc of a V2. The character disaggregates at the end.
      The reverse time sequence could referencing Time's Arrow by Martin Amis. It took me a while to remember the name, otherwise I would have mentioned that yesterday.
      I guess I'm curious enough to buy it myself now!

      Cheers, Nigel