Interior worlds - Three photobooks reviewed
Interior worlds - Three photobooks
Horse by Karen Crisp
The Reality Principle by Yvonne Shaw
I don’t squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube by Carly van Winkel
Self published, 2019
Reviewed by Caroline McQuarrie for PhotoForum, August 2019
It could be argued that every photograph is a photograph of ‘the everyday’, yet the concept of photographing the overlooked in everyday life has held much currency in photography in the last few decades. Charlotte Cotton, in The Photograph as Contemporary Art states: “In recent years, there has been a trend to include objects and spaces that we may ordinarily ignore or pass by” the idea being that what is photographed is “conceptually altered because of the visual impact they gain by the act of being photographed and presented as art”. Yet there is a trickiness to this type of photography, a danger. How not to make photographing the mundane a mundane photograph?
Karen Crisp, Yvonne Shaw and Carly van Winkel recently exhibited together in the exhibition State of Nature (along with Caryline Boreham). At this exhibition they all launched self-published photobooks, which this review will consider in relation to each other. All small, soft cover books, in differing ways they all present something of the mundane and the everyday, although it is a specific everyday in each instance. All three books are without a contextualising text, while van Winkel’s book contains poetry (we assume is written by the photographer) it is quite enigmatic and otherwise, none of the books go beyond a short quote from another writer in elucidating the imagery for the viewer. Their exhibition catalogue includes some explanatory text linking the somewhat disparate projects together by invoking a variety of theories including Hobbes and Freud: “In a ‘state of nature’ we are ungoverned, free to make our own choices. But what if we want what is not possible? ... These artists are making photographs out of difficult times... Conflicts within the self and between others can be resolved without adhering to some of the traditional institutions of the state.” However these publications are not exhibition catalogues, so will be considered independent of the exhibition here.
Karen Crisp’s book Horse is the smallest at only 14.5 x 19cm, in a plain grey cover with the title in black. Colour, square format photographs appear throughout, mostly one to a page but occasionally enlarged to full bleed across into the second page. Technically the book is produced well, if simply, the images appear to good effect on the matte paper. The overall publication appears more like a well-produced zine than a full-blown photobook, which is appropriate for a first foray into the genre. The book starts with a Charles Bukowski quote about the ‘9 horse’ (in reference to horse racing). The photographs which are set semi-rurally are mostly of animals; dog, horse, kingfisher, a dead rabbit, and plants; mostly introduced, some weeds such as thistle and daytura along with hydrangea, grass, fallen maple leaves and the cut end of a conifer hedge. A couple of native plants make the cut, but largely what we are looking at are gardens and buildings and animals in a colonised land. This is emphasised by an almost silhouetted tattered New Zealand flag, the threadbare union jack standing out against the bright antipodean sky and cirrocumulus clouds. There is also a drawing of a snake eating its own tail in naïve style filling one page.
The work is suggestive of a slow pace of life, we are aware of the photographer noticing the small moments around her in a kind of visual mindfulness. The snake drawing suggests a circularity to life, which the semi-rural setting and inclusion of so many plants adds to. The title suggests that horses are important but they don’t feature heavily in the work, although I worried for them when I saw the large daytura plant. The Bukowski quote at the beginning seems to be connected because of its reference to ‘the 9 horse’: the horse photographed has a ‘9’ branded onto it. However, Bukowski as a writer seems far removed from the life depicted in this work, as an urban American counter-culture figure it is hard to see his relationship to what has been photographed.
There are no people here, yet there are indications of them. We see shadows in one photo, the dog is being taken for a walk and the horses will be ridden. The hedge has been unceremoniously chopped in half and the buildings are in various states of care. Overall this is a simple, quiet little book that grows on you if you give it time. It would be great to see the photographer’s name on either the cover or the title page, and perhaps more consideration of the book design along with a little more text might do more to draw the potential viewer in.
Yvonne Shaw’s book The Reality Principle is a very differently conceived project. Made up largely of constructed portraits, the slightly larger than A5 publication with an image wrapped around the cover mostly pictures a range of women in their 30s – 60s in motel rooms. Opening with a quote from Marc Augé’s Non-places about spaces he considers ‘non-places’ creating ‘solitude and similitude’, the full-bleed portraits are interspersed with the interiors of the rooms. For anyone who has travelled in New Zealand these are familiar spaces. Indeterminate décor, deeply depressing in their similarities and blandness rather than welcoming to the weary traveller; no wonder these women aren’t smiling. In the exhibition text Shaw posits that the images “point to interiority and a kind of freedom in being able to sit with uncertainty, and ambiguity”. There is ambiguity but I don’t see freedom in this work, the motel rooms here certainly create a particular psychological space; enclosed, trapped, stuck, but also outside of the women’s actual lives with no belongings of their own. These women exist in a liminal time and space, isolated from the outside world. In some ways I am repulsed by them and their surroundings, but only because I recognise them and empathise with their situation – I don’t want to end up one of them. The women are all Pākeha, they look neither overly wealthy or overly poor. We are left wondering why they are sitting sadly by themselves in mid-range motels behind closed curtains and blinds. The mind wanders to sinister places.
Shaw employs the deadpan aesthetic, described by Charlotte Cotton as a style that ‘moves art photography outside of the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective. These pictures may engage with emotive subjects, but our sense of what the photographers’ emotions might be is not the obvious guide to understanding the meaning of the images’. This is very true in Shaw’s case, we are given no indication of the intention of the photographer in this publication. Beyond the Augé quote there is no text at all. This project is photographically complete in and of itself, it creates a very contained world. However, the imagery doesn’t invite the viewer in as much as some other imagery might, it is intentionally aloof, and as such some small contextualising text at the end of the book might have been useful for a less photographically literate audience. I am aware that this publication sits within the current trend of photobooks not including text but sometimes I just want to know a little bit more, especially about a project which has been so carefully conceived and executed; there has obviously been a lot of thought behind this work.
The book ends on the only photograph taken outside, it is of a younger woman, probably in her 20s, standing in a swimming pool in a very Stephen Shore-like image. She is backlit, with the warm sun on her shoulders. The image is either out of place or is suggesting something hopeful at the end of all the bleakness. She isn’t smiling either but at least she is outside in the sunshine. Perhaps she is gazing into the nearby rooms, contemplating her imminent future.
Carly van Winkel
Carly van Winkel’s book I don’t squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube is the largest of the three, at 20 x 25.5 cm (or 8 x 10 inches) both bigger and thicker than the other two books. Made up of only black and white photographs with 2/3 width pages scattered throughout containing hand written poetry that we assume is the photographer’s. The imagery is very domestic, and comprises almost entirely photographs of beds, windows and piles of washing. This domestic detritus is interspersed with empty beaches and the poetry. At first the poems don’t elucidate the intentions of the photographer; the second poem alludes to guns and shootings and it takes reading a few more to realise this is a metaphor for a waning relationship. Combined with the domestic imagery this begins to make sense, and also explains the title – a petty argument between a couple or perhaps the final sad reason for the relationship’s end.
Van Winkel’s project is in many ways the most difficult of the three to execute well. Such a personal project is always challenging to gain the perspective needed to judge what should be included or not. This isn’t a deadpan aesthetic which seeks simply to record and make a point about the repetition in domestic life, the photos are dark and moody. The images in the book vary in size from quite small to full bleed across a spread. This book could have been edited back and would have perhaps been stronger for it. The full bleed photographs across both pages with their obvious grain and ominous darkness work well. A whole book just of those would have been powerful and communicated the feeling of unease, of knowing something is wrong but not being able to put your finger on it that the end of a relationship engenders. Overall this book does give me the feeling of being trapped; in the relationship, in the house, however that feeling could have been heightened further with a design which doesn’t give the reader any respite.
Making a photobook is a tricky business, a great photobook needs strong photos as a starting point, but the surrounding elements; title, design and text can make or break the success of the overall book; in a world currently being flooded with photobooks you need a way to stand out. At last year’s Photobook NZ event Yumi Goto from the Reminders Photography Stronghold in Japan suggested every photobook should go through 18 roughs before landing on the final result. Shaw’s book is the most well resolved of the three here as an already resolved body of photographs which have been well presented in this publication. Crisp and van Winkel had a harder job, to resolve both the photographic project and the conception and production of the publication. This is no small feat particularly when self-publishing without the help of professional editors. Both their publications have good bones, but could perhaps undergo further development.
All three books give us a window into the everyday life and interior world of either the photographer or the protagonists in the images. Charlotte Cotton is correct in her assertion that through being photographed the meaning of the mundane objects and scenes around us are bestowed a deeper connotation. In selecting particular pieces of the world and elevating them above others photographers can manipulate the reading of them to suggest emotional states. Each of these photobooks creates its own world, and one achievement of all three books is that they successfully operate within those worlds.
 Pg. 9. Cotton, Charlotte. 2009. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Thames and Hudson, London.
 Pg. 81. Cotton, Charlotte. 2009. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Thames and Hudson, London.
Caroline McQuarrie is a Lecturer in Photography in Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University, Wellington, and a founding member of Women in Photography NZ & AU. She is a skilled maker, fusing an engagement with the natural world with a fascination with our shared history. She creates photographic and textile-based exhibitions which explore home, histories and land use through a female perspective. She occasionally even branches out and makes a video or a drawing. She is currently working on various projects exploring how small stories in out of the way places can reflect on what happens in the wider world.