Friday, June 16, 2023

Crit: The Garden by Tony Fouhse

I like Tony and I like Tony's work, so as usual, assume a certain bias in what follows although, as usual, I will attempt to be fair minded and neutral.

Tony gifted me a copy of his latest, and as usual, I like it. It was one of several things that arrived in my field of view during my Crisis of Faith, and it is a nearly perfect exemplar of what I was talking about. It's open, it's built using the old methods (although the photos are modern); it insists on very little but permits a great deal.

So, what is it?

Well, it's a softcover book, about 8" by 10", more or less a magazine format but on heavy paper that's neither matte nor glossy. Colour (it's Canadian, so you have to put the 'u' in.) 66 pages, more or less (I may have miscounted and the exact count doesn't matter.)

The book opens with the phrase Once upon a time and closes with happily ever after. There is no other text, the rest of the book is photos and blank pages, one photo per page. The photos are all nighttime photos, although I suspect that a few of them may have been shot during the day and processed to look like night.

The text frames the book, literally, as a fairy tale. Those phrases mean very precisely that, without a shred of ambiguity. That leaves a great deal of space in between, though. We can reasonably expect some magic, but even that is optional. I decided to go with magic.

The book is filled with magic, but since it's open you have to supply it yourself. It allows you to, but doesn't demand it. The book isn't in the business of supplying meaning, or magic, it's a set of pictures you can look at, and some hints.

The photos. The photos contain a lot of brutalist architecture, which I like to look at but not to be in, some demolition sites, some things that might be construction, some general urban material. Trees, a lot of trees. The sequencing is, as noted, very old school:

Graphical repeats are a constant drumbeat, as are repeated elements, repeated colors, and so on. The whole thing feels very constructed for this reason, it has none of the flavor of laziness that so many modern books have. This is not to suggest that modern books are made lazily, they are not. The point is that modern photobook authors kill themselves over the sequencing, and the result appears essentially random and thrown together. They're so obsessed, I think, with defying obvious structure that the result descends into gibberish.

The key with abstract painting is knowing when to stop tearing down. A bad abstract artist produces noise. A good one stops short of the moment when the painting disintegrates into noise.

Back to Tony's book. It's old school, the graphical structure is clear, unambiguous. Graphical structure, though, does not impute meaning, only structure. The meaning we must find ourselves.

The book opens with four photos. A tree and parking lot, and then three views of concrete tunnel openings. The tunnels are single-lane roads, or possibly large pedestrian underpasses. They are similar enough that you wonder if they are the same tunnel-opening, but they are not. They look like they're in a park, perhaps. Possibly the parking lot in the first photo is attached to the park, in which the tunnel(s) reside?

The result here, to my eye, is a kind of unity. These are not all the same thing, they are different, and yet they look pretty much the same. Unlike a Becher typology, the tunnels are shot from different angles, the point is not to compare them, but to unify them. Thus, I find the magic. It's all the same tunnel, manifesting itself differently. It is one tunnel, but also many. There is a unity that arises from the many, somehow.

This becomes, for me, the template by which I made sense of the book.

The book strikes me as a series of episodes, each depicting a place which is made up of many places. Whether all the photos are different angles on the same thing or not, I do not know, and I do not care. The point is that, by magic, the photos in a group in a meaningful way depict the same place. Indeed, I rather hope that in most cases the singular place has been formed from photos shot in various locations, unified by graphical character and by magic.

Each of the places is populated by one or two people. The people are not lounging, they are engaged in something or other, but what they are about is not clear. The denizens of these places are doing something that you can't quite make out. Again, we're permitted but not required to see magic here. Maybe they're just curious tourists, or maybe they're performing a ritual, who knows?

In some cases I'm not even certain that the people are the same people. There's a blonde, and there she is again (but is it really the same blonde, or is she a different blonde who is, somehow, the same blonde?) It doesn't matter, though. That's kind of the point.

We don't really have a story here, that is (I think clearly) not the intention. What we have is a series of magic-imbued places in which magic-imbued characters are doing things that we do not understand.

It's always nighttime, the trees are always richly green and numerous, the built environment is entirely made from concrete but coexists seamlessly with the trees. There is a fairly clearly delineated world in which these places, there characters, exist, and it is not the real world (I have been to Ottawa, and it doesn't really look like this; for starters, it's daylight much of the time.)

The book ends with a kiss (?) and a departing blonde. That's all you get for narrative.

Figure it out yourself the book says.

It all puts me in mind of some Russian/Soviet film which was famously assembled from cast-off footage from other films, a film in which the same role is "played" by multiple actors, because footage was cast off from many different movies and re-assembled. I regret that I cannot locate the name of the dumb film, though, and it appears to be search-engine-proof to my annoyance.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen Tony's new book, except for some sample pages on his web site, so I will confine my comment to the presentation.

    Tony has opinions about photo book design, expressed in his newsletter ("Hypo") in the course of promoting his new book.

    These ideas aren't original or developed beyond a kind of studious functionality, but received; he likes the 'white box' default (in his newsletter, Tony admits he isn't a designer, and allows this conservative approach doesn't work for everyone).

    A missed opportunity!

    Graphic novels of more recent vintage -- those that eschew the comic book 'storyboard panel' method of exposition in favor of more expansive, daring and dynamic layouts, point the way (or a way) out of the same old, same old.

    There are other models that span a diverse range of media, from cinema to other print genres, that graphic novels freely borrow from.

    Maybe photographers can learn something from them. Look away from the viewfinder, it's a big world out there.