In itself, even the most detailed photograph, decontextualised as it always is from its physical and temporal surroundings, carries minimal meaning. But in a book, photographs accrue additional connotations via their mutual relationships, lending each other context, which, individually, they intrinsically lack. However, where the associations between the pictures are loose, there is a danger of incoherence. At worst, and most often, this approach results in a non-committal, confusing or even annoying photobook. At best, but more rarely, it can produce a fascinating, enigmatic work of art.
Fortunately, Guillaume Simoneau’s Experimental Lake tends towards the latter category. Made in a pristine region of north-west Ontario, in and around a world-class research facility exploring human impact on the natural environment, his elliptical, mainly colour photographs seldom vex and mostly intrigue. It certainly helps that Simoneau has a strong command of colour and a sophisticated eye for visual correspondence. A recurrent tangle motif runs right through the book, from the front cover to the very last photograph: a wire model, sewing, grass on water, a screen saver… they all suggest that everything is interconnected, and perhaps validate the need for the research Simoneau documents.
But there isn’t a clearly discernible position taken by the photographer, or even a dominant mood. In typically postmodern fashion, any overall meaning isn’t made obvious by the artist, and must be ascribed by the viewer. Is this research important, or inconsequential in the face of human activity and its effects on the planet? Will these scientists’ work have an impact, or are they just messing about in boats, fiddling while Rome burns?
The latter is suggested by the book’s afterword, a tiny found photograph tipped into the back cover: three youthful carefree figures crowd in a little boat on the water, while on the shoreline beyond, the forest is ablaze.
But perhaps we should not be so swift to judge. This image is not unlike Thomas Hoepker’s controversial 9/11 photograph, in which young people seem to be lounging indifferently across the water from a smoke-spewing Manhattan. As the widespread and heated discussion of Hoepker’s picture has demonstrated, photographs are at least as mendacious as they are meaningless, and we should draw conclusions with care. ♦