John Myers

The Guide

Book review by David Moore

David Moore discusses John Myers’ documents of domesticity and de-industrialisation in the Midlands region of England whilst considering the value in revisiting an already-familiar view.

In his essay “The Artist as Anthropologist” (1975), Joseph Kosuth asked: ‘why not have the anthropologist […] anthropologize his own society?’ He concluded, some paragraphs later, that the ‘artist – anthropologist’ would make a better job of it, addressing territory familiar to themselves, mapping an ‘internalizing cultural activity in his own society and within his own social matrix’.

John MyersThe Guide arrived, an overview of differing collections of black-and-white photographs from the period 1972–88, published by RRB Photobooks. I am familiar with the territory represented; not only as a photographer but also as a fellow Midlander. Growing up there in the ’70s, I was a contemporary of some of the younger children portrayed. I recognise the patios, the Little Red Riding Hood coats (my sister had one), pet rabbits on suburban lawns and the general décor of the wider environment. Myers lived within this cultural matrix before photography had ever entered his life and because of this, as viewers, we find ourselves already beyond a particular veneer, already within the interior.

Yet, such proximity has to be negotiated. The work’s raison-de-etre is the everyday, and photography’s limitations are such that when we look at what is close to us, we might need reminding of its value. Myers opens up the process through a valuable first-person commentary that echoes the visual work in its deadpan style that helps avoid a simplistic reading of the series as any average survey of English suburbia, contextualising his methods and preventing some photographs from being overlooked, not because the images are badly made or too easily described, but because of their much-discussed banality.

That the pictures are ‘boring’ is continually emphasised, yet one viewer’s ordinary is another’s spectacle. To photograph something is to monumentalise it, allowing the uncanny to emerge. Of Myers’ work in this collection, this is most true of ‘The Bed’ (1976), where the cavernous tones of such a benign object propose latent fearsomeness within the candlewick bedspread that almost fills the frame. I’m reminded here of the surreal experimentation of Bill Brandt’s domestic interiors, but here, there is no such trickery with perspectives, just a fairly straightforward view.

The ‘Furniture Store’ (1974) photographs too are astounding in their revelations. A small series of photographs showing simulacra of family living rooms in shop windows; artlessly arranged and underlit, perform as an abeyance to a petit-bourgeois compliance and “Home in time for tea at 6” that sets the tone for much of Myers’ consumerist backdrop.

These, and the majority of the portraits from The Guide, are complex and understated photographs. Myers makes the point that, throughout the making of these works, whilst influenced by various histories of photography (and presumably a history of art), he was never funded and never intended for the pictures to form ‘a project’. He ‘just took them’, no exhibition in mind, no wanting to please anyone but himself and his sitters, no business plan. His own description of his practice gives the impression that photography is a thing that happened to him, and that the pictures were just there. This is also evidenced in an apparent non-interventionist method of working, as Myers tells us of a subject adjusting his sitting position. “Don’t move”, thought Myers, as though an entire contract would collapse if he actually directed a pose for the camera; all had to occur around him to be valid.

Myers’ photographs resound most impactfully when closer to home and working within familiar territory, and ‘The End of Industry’ (1981–88) series, that sees the book out, feels out of place in this collection, addressing a quite distant socio-political discourse, away from the suburbs. He writes, quite honestly, that he ‘ran out of steam’ and, in contrast to the aforementioned, non-interventionist position, was, at one point, out ‘looking’ for photographs. These images employ similar visual grammar to many of the ‘domestic’ images within The Guide and again are opened up by Myers’ commentary. The photographs of ‘The Female Brickworker’ (1983) particularly articulate this, locating the subject of the picture within an industrial context that, quite feasibly, might exclude her from the relatively affluent environs of Myers’ usual territory. In spite of the eloquent visual record of de-industrialisation during this period of history, one might consider that, within this publication, the idea of ‘old industry’ was a diversion; one with which Myers may not have needed to walk the extra mile, but sit it out at home, to see what happened.

Such inclusions raise questions of the book’s purpose beyond the commodification of a familiar view, particularly where the works have been previously published and are obvious best-sellers. Besides the fast-moving desires of collectors to acquire such objects, this may be understood in a variety of ways. But given the premium prices for his other publications, I was left thinking that this collection’s primary role is in making some of Myers’ work affordable to a larger audience.

As Myers acknowledges his influences, we find familiarity within the photographic precedent, and, as an admirable gesture of transparency by the artist, the roll-call of photographers is welcome. His straightforward list of snappers orientates the viewer towards Myer’s own photographs in a highly specific manner that opens up endless imagining.

As we regard Myers’ photographs in the 21st century, we can understand documentary photography as a particular artifice within the visual overload of the contemporary. The historical period represented here was, in reality, a flammable construct of new social realities in colour, offering entirely different interpretations of social history. Yet, Myers’ was a response that was satisfyingly redolent of the time; a confident interpretation of the histories within his own back yard and a reliable anthropology of the near.♦

All images courtesy the artist and RRB Photobooks © John Myers

David Moore is a photographic artist and the Principal Lecturer for Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at The University of Westminster, London.

Ming Smith

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani contemplates the ways in which Ming Smith’s self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – constitute a practice of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world.

Several years ago, in the hope of discovering early photographs by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, I opened, for the first time, the pages of The Black Photographers Annual (1973). While Moutoussamy-Ashe’s work does not appear in the first volume – but only from the second – starting my reading with the first issue meant I came across the name of Ming Smith and what was apparently her very first publication. Launched in 1973, on the initiative of the Kamoinge Workshop, the periodical operated as a unique space for African-American photographers to determine independently both the content and conditions of publication and give them control over words and images: something that had been denied to the vast majority of them up until then. In her Aperture monograph (2020), Smith – who was the first female member of the collective – recalled: “this group of Black male photographers wanted to take control of their own images – their humanity.” The empowering agency necessary for the implementation of such an editorial project is an effective way for photographers to come into existence as authors of their images. In the introduction to the first volume, Clayton Riley suggested that The Black Photographers Annual enabled an “awareness of self”. At the time, I understood this phrase in line with consciousness-raising practices in the broader political context of 1970s America and its possible links with the affirmation of the African-American photographers’ “photographic identity”.

Of the forty-nine photographers published in The Black Photographers Annual, I remember being struck by Smith’s portfolio. More specifically, the second photograph piqued my interest when I realised that the silhouette in the lower left corner could be the reflection of the photographer holding her camera with both hands. Through a game of reflections, that can sometimes make us lose our spatial cues, the figure of – what I still hope is – Smith comes into being. The relationship between the photographic process and that of the construction of an identity was asserted by Smith as early as 1973 as quoted in her bio from The Black Photographers Annual: “My photographs attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.” A passage Smith would take throughout her career, making her self-portraits some of the most interesting aspects of her work. Seeing herself, beyond imposed images.

As Neelika Jayawardane wrote: “When Smith picks up her camera and photographs the intimacy of her face and body in a multitude of situations and places, it is a response to her own beautiful aliveness, her situatedness within a moving world.” Framing herself at the bottom of the picture is something she would do again in the 1989 self-portrait with her Canon camera, where, against the backdrop of a floral wallpaper, she contorts her torso in order to aim at a mirror, the reflected image revealing the upper part of her face, the skin of her back and her hand, once again, holding her camera. This image ought to be considered in line with the long and popular tradition of women photographers’ self-portraits-with-their-cameras, as exemplified by one of Smith’s friends and influences, Lisette Model – from the 1955 half-naked bathroom picture to the 1982 Paris hotel room photograph.

In one of the interviews published in her monograph, Smith stated: “being a photographer was a journey that was about my conversation with my camera.” Smith’s photographic practice is undoubtedly marked by experimentation, offering several departures and different arrivals around her identity as a photographer, a woman, an African-American, a dancer, a music-lover, etc. – an idea echoed by Trinh T. Minh-ha in When the Moon Waxes Red (1991): “Since identity can very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity, heterologies of knowledge give all practices of the self a festively vertiginous dimension.” Time and time again, Smith dared to turn her lens towards herself because of the urgency of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world. For being the first African-American female photographer to be collected by MoMA did not, according to her, make much of a difference in her life, and certainly did not interrupt the process of her own recognition and self-affirmation as a photographer.

As a model, dancer and jazz-enthusiast, performativity played a central role in Smith’s self-portraits, as exemplified in Me as Marilyn (1991) or Self-Portrait as Josephine (1986), the latter serving as a clear homage to Josephine Baker but perhaps also to Katherine Dunham, whose “Technique” Smith learnt when she arrived in New York from Ohio. In his book In the Break (2003), Fred Moten pointed out that “black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus – invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation.” A quality we can also easily find in Smith’s 1990s Ellen Gallagher-esque collage of a 1972 self-portrait. The multitude of her self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – work as an emancipatory practice. Not published in the book, and yet essential in the construction of the self through the image, is her 1986 self-portrait as she is breast-feeding her son – an image taken ten years after Deborah Willis’ triptych, I Made Space for a Good Man (1975-76), entitled after a Philadelphia College of Art professor told then-art student Willis that “a good man could have been in [her] seat.” Performing maternity for their cameras states something about female photographic experiences, disobeying traditional considerations about the constructed image of The Photographer as male and White. As bell hooks wrote in Art on My Mind (1995): “to transgress we must return to the body.” We could also mention Diane Arbus’ 1945 self-portrait with her daughter, Doon, where, once again, the maternal body is at the centre of an experimentation with the photographic medium and still asserts desire and reflexivity.

I could write many more words on Smith’s self-portraits; I could also write about Smith’s photographic walks into the night, her spirituality, the blurs, the paint, the poetic titles, the light and the darkness, the phonic substance and the auratic nature of her photographs – and a lot of people have been very good at doing just that. But when reading the interviews Smith gave about her practice, I am struck by the lexicon of sensuality used by the photographer to describe her relationship to image-making. The inexpressible in the expressed. Smith often states that she “follow[s] [her] impulses”, or that photographic discovery is “a turn-on for [her]”. Yxta Maya Murray even wrote that “she picked up her Canon and held it to her face as if it were a lover.”

So I wonder, should we not start considering Smith through the prism of the erotic? Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (1966) and Trinh (1991) argued for “an erotics of art”; Moten too, speaking of Duke Ellington’s music (2003), spoke of an “erotics of the cut”. As such, should we not consider an erotics of Smith’s practice? After all, the cover of Smith’s monograph is her photograph entitled Male Nude, New York (1977). But what inspires me the most to make this point is Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, published in Sister Outsider (1984). For the African-American writer, poet, feminist and civil rights activist, the erotic needs to be understood as a creative power: “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” And she added: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Perhaps all that is left here for me is to invite you to have a look at Smith’s monograph, as an introduction to her work and an invitation to read between the lines, with Lorde’s words in mind.♦

Images courtesy the artist and Aperture © Ming Smith

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.

Obituary for the artist duo Broomberg & Chanarin

By David Campany

On the occasion of the posthumous retrospective of Broomberg & Chanarin at Fabra i Coats Contemporary Art Centre, Barcelona, David Campany elicits a co-authored obituary for the renowned artist duo.


Dear David, Olly and I are about to announce the official end of our collaboration with a show at Fabra i Coats Contemporary Art Centre in Barcelona called “The Late Estate Broomberg & Chanarin”. I would love you to write an obituary for this artist. I don’t know anyone who has had more influence on that artist and who has also been fearless as an outspoken critic of it. Would you consider writing a standard say NYT length obit. The show is on Feb 20 and we would like to pitch it beforehand so time is tight. Please would you consider it. It’s a really big moment for us and it would close a circle in some way and allow for a fresh new start. Let me know your thoughts D.


In the spirit of this authorial play, the artists should write it and Mr Campany will sign it. Graham Lee, secretary to David Campany 


Are you serious?
You will sign your name to anything we write?


I’ll check with him. 


Please do


He says “in principle, yes” but he knows that principles are for sale. 


Tell him no deal
We want his thoughts and emotions
Or nothing


No deal. He keeps his emotions pretty private. 


Then his thoughts


Feb 20 is too soon, I think. I’ve had a look at my schedule. I have so much to do here. 


We go back a long way David.  Those chats you and I had did influence many of the key projects Olly and I made. Likewise, us publishing your first book, me introducing you to Michael Mack were important to you. 


OK… last try… not even a few words? Literally just a soundbite?
I know it’s a big ask David but it’s a big moment
Please do this, life is short and these moments count
Let me know.


okok! (why all the pomp for this dissolution?)


Thank you
It’s not pomp it’s a celebration and a ritual. I’ve spent 23 years of my life working with that man. It deserves some dignity and celebration. 


Well, a bang, not a whimper it be. 


Are you happy for 1000 Words to publish your obit, D?


I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet. Try not to let the tail of publicity do the wagging.


David, You speak in riddles.
The separation of this partnership has been fucking gruelling and painful. It was 23 years of intense and beautiful collaboration. You know how much had to be negotiated between us and what a wrestle collaboration involves.  You also know the difference between our practices strutting, overconfident public performance and the very ordinary anxiety involved in the making of the work. I have asked a handful of people on the planet I love and who have influenced my work to put it to rest. Not to eulogise or publicise it but to put it to rest.
They have all been able to say yes or no. Just let me know.


Dearest Adam, 

This has been the obituary you wrote for Broomberg & Chanarin. I am happy to put my name to it.♦ 

Image courtesy the artists © Broomberg & Chanarin

The Late Estate of Broomberg & Chanarin at Fabra i Coats Contemporary Art Centre, Barcelona, 20 February – 23 May 2021. Curated by Joana Hurtado Matheu.

David Campany is a curator, writer and Managing Director of Programs at the International Center of Photography, New York.

Heba Y. Amin

When I see the future, I close my eyes

Exhibition review by Alessandro Merola

Alessandro Merola examines Heba Y. Amin’s investigation into the ubiquitous shadow of surveillance that prevails over the Middle East, giving rise to the fear of the skies above.

In 2013, an Egyptian fisherman spotted a stork with an electrical device, resembling a camera, strapped to its leg. Fearing Israeli tampering, he reported the bird to police officials and it was detained on suspicion of espionage. It later transpired that the “camera” was, in fact, a tracking instrument used by Hungarian zoologists researching the stork’s migratory habits. Foreign media outlets quickly reduced the episode into an absurdist spectacle, but there was something more profound at play; for no paranoia is borne out of thin air. From where, then, did such a paranoia – so consuming to trigger the conspiring against a “spy stork” – arise?

Almost one hundred years earlier, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George ordered Lord Allenby, Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to seize control of Jerusalem. Supposedly turning to God for guidance, Allenby found inspiration in Isaiah 31:5: “As birds flying, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it.” He launched planes over the city, instructing pilots to drop flyers demanding in Arabic: ‘Surrender the city today! Allenby.’ Yet unbeknown to the Commander, ‘Allenby’ can only be translated in one way: ‘Prophet’. The Turks, who were believers in the prophecy that their Holy City would not be lost until a man of Allah came to deliver it, surrendered without firing a shot. The campaign put an end to 400 years of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem, setting the foundations for modern Israel. Triumphant in his fulfilment of Biblical prophecy, Allenby returned to his villa in Cairo, eager to pose for the local press. However, he was not alone. By his side, he had a new companion: a “pet” marabou stork.

In her exhibition, When I see the future, I close my eyes at The Mosaic Rooms, London, Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin has drawn on this disquieting chain of events – bound by the avian augury – to trace the ubiquitous shadow of surveillance that prevailed over the Middle East thereafter, lending its skies an air of menace. On an upward-facing screen in the centre of the floor, Amin presents As Birds Flying (2016), a film splicing contemporary drone footage scanning contested territories with reconstructed audio sequences from Adel Emam’s political satire, Birds of Darkness (1995): “Is it your first time on top?” Towering on the opposite wall are the first aerial photographs taken of the Jordan Valley, Palestine (1900–20). Strategically framed as “untouched” landscapes by American Colony members, these images were subsequently sold to the British government and used to justify the very Galilean settlements as spied on in As Birds Flying. The dialogue between these various works reveals the ways in which such panoptic views from above – whether from a bird, plane, drone or God – can be deployed, beyond evidence, to push forward an ideological agenda. The language of imperialism is inscribed within the technology itself.

However, what is most unsettling perhaps about this collusion between bird biology and human machinery is its elision of the corporeal eye. Charting the osmosis between military and cinematic technologies within the context of aerial photography, philosopher Paul Virilo writes of the quite literal ‘deadly harmony’ that emerges when bombs and missiles are fitted with cameras and ‘open their eyes’.[i] These algorithmically-wired imaging machines, as Anthony Downey posits in the exhibition’s accompanying book, Heba Y. Amin: The General’s Stork (2020), have ushered in their own techno-aesthetic; a regime of viewing that topographically quarters the Middle East only ever as a site of ‘atavistic threat’, thus playing into a self-serving, neo-colonialist aspiration of unending war on terror.[ii] For this reconfiguration, and further securing, of the coloniser’s ‘imaginative command’[iii] over the colonised is a legacy of Orientalism in the digital age; a means of sustaining the West’s own vision of itself. Amin considers whether we can look down on these same landscapes today and extract the Oriental gaze embedded deep within.

In a bunker-like room downstairs, Amin redirects her focus from the sky to the sea. Across a table of lightboxes, archival documents – including engineering plans, maps and newspaper cut-outs – have been repurposed to plot the evolution of Atlantropa, a scheme devised by German architect Herman Sörgel to drain the Mediterranean Sea in order to suture Europe to Africa and construct a new ‘supercontinent’. Although dating back to the mid-19th century, when French officer François Roudaire proposed the diversion of the waters to push Arabs and Berbers south and open up trade with North Africa, Sörgel’s fantasy was embraced long after: Benito Mussolini declared he would ‘make the desert bloom’ by flooding the region, whilst Dwight D. Eisenhower, as leaked by a declassified CIA note, claimed the development of the Qattara Depression’s hydro-electrical potential would be ‘spectacular and peaceful’. Though Atlantropa was never realised, consistent were the ways in which this mercenary colonial project was redrafted, over and over, as an omnibenevolent unification of continents.

“Who were these megalomaniacal men who felt that [the Mediterranean] was theirs to control? Where does that entitlement come from, and what does it feel like?” These questions formed the basis of Amin’s Operation Sunken Sea (2018), which is projected onto the room’s rear wall. Stitching together broadcasted speeches by autocrats, from Nikita Khrushchev to Gamal Abdel Nasser, Amin unnervingly inserts herself in the centre as a quasi-dictator. She hijacks the grandiloquent rhetoric, gesturing and aesthetics employed by her predecessors, in turn satirising the staged elements of such modes of public address. However, pledging to feed the hungry, provide employment, end the migration crisis and pay reparations to Africa and the Middle East, Amin’s Mediterranean-draining proposal beckons a parallel era of human progress. Her blue-sky-thinking borders on the bizarre, but, upon learning her speech is mashed-up from actual quotes by fascists past and present, we are confronted by our own immunities to such masteries of the mechanics of propaganda.

Given that land-altering visions, as exemplified by China’s “New Silk Road”, Turkey’s Istanbul Canal and Saudi Arabia’s cross-border city Neom, have become alarmingly commonplace, Operation Sunken Sea scrutinises not only the continuation of techno-utopian – or indeed dystopian – imaginings, but also their normalisation through systems we are unable to think beyond. After all, stood at the podium, Amin finds herself complicit within a necropolitical logic – as internalised via the broadcasting apparatus – whilst asking: what happens when narratives are flipped by an African-Arab woman? One lightbox displays Sörgel’s portrait from Time alongside Amin’s own restaging of it (the latter now appearing after an Internet search of the German’s name), whilst another shows a map of the Mediterranean by the 10th century Persian geographer, Al-Istakhri. The water is rendered as positive space, and the surrounding land negative; a radical reversal of contemporary Euro-centric conceptions of the Mediterranean as a border impeding the movement of migrants from Africa.

Amin’s interest in tactics of subversion extends into the exhibition’s third body of work, Project Speak2Tweet (2011–ongoing). On 27 January 2011, three days after the Egyptian revolution began, the government put the Internet to sleep. In reaction, Google programmers developed @speak2tweet, an online rallying point in which citizens could dial in and post voicemails to Twitter through SMS. Amin has delved into this aural archive (no longer publicly accessible), juxtaposing the voicemails with video footage of Cairo’s failed architectural projects. The result is an elegiac and near-hallucinatory conjuring of the collective psyche of a people who were unplugged, yet not silenced. Here, their digital footprints are grounded within the urban realm, echoed by the room’s arresting steel bars on which the screens hang. “Please keep the flag flying for me when I’m gone,” records one protestor as he enters Tahir Square, not knowing if he would ever return. Amin’s ever-growing archive seeks to honour this wish; to ensure this slice of history does not disappear into the depths of cyberspace. What does it mean to listen to these voices ten years on? In light of the Egyptian state’s escalation of mass-surveillance and crackdowns on digital dissent during the pandemic leading to egregious spates of incarcerations, the symbolism of the bars is not lost.

In another voicemail, a woman addresses President Hosni Mubarak: “What would have happened if you gave up your greed? If you hadn’t listened to the voice of your devil? If you had invested in your children?” This speculative what if is at the heart of Amin’s When I see the future, I close my eyes (the exhibition title is a lyric taken from the song Excellent Birds which was co-written by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, first performed in 1984 as part of Nam June Paik’s international satellite “installation”, entitled Good Morning, Mr Orwell). With an eye towards our post-digital future, Amin asks: what if new technologies could, contra to Orwell’s 1984 (1949), indeed live up to their democratic potential? As one of her stork protagonists declares: “From now on, there is a new world.” What might this new world look like from above? Perhaps, Al-Istakhri’s rendition of the Mediterranean Sea, emblazoned on a flag that hangs outside the gallery front, speaks not only of what could have been, but also what could still be.♦

All images courtesy the artist and The Mosaic Rooms, London © Heba Y. Amin

Installation views of When I see the future, I close my eyes at The Mosaic Rooms, London from 1 October 2020 – TBC 2021. Photographs by Andy Stagg

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.


[i] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (New York: Verso, 2009), p. 83.

[ii] Anthony Downey, “There’s Always Someone Looking at You: Performative Research and the Techno-Aesthetics of Drone Surveillance” in Heba Y. Amin: The General’s Stork, ed. Anthony Downey (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020), p. 11.

[iii] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 94.

Mark McKnight

Heaven is a Prison

Book review by Eugénie Shinkle

Eugénie Shinkle considers the ways Mark McKnight turns the distance of pornographic and landscape photography back on itself, grounding the gaze in the fleshy material of the body.

Earth and sky – and in between them, a horizon, suggested but not seen. The first two photographs in Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison, published by Loose Joints, sketch out a landscape in elemental form, drawing the gaze skyward and then down again, to the ragged outline of a fallen tree against a backdrop of distant hills. In the third photograph, two figures occupy the middle distance, their bodies locked in an embrace, their skin smooth against the parched vegetation. The camera moves closer, glancing towards this intimate scene and looking away again in a steady rhythm that feels choreographed – the slow circling of a voyeur creeping through the grass. Set against the expanse of the surrounding landscape, the pair of figures seem almost incidental.

Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that these two male bodies, engaged in a raw act of lovemaking, are the subject of this work. As the camera draws nearer, the viewer is transformed from voyeur to participant, close enough to make out sweat and spit, hair and marks on the skin. But the faces of the two men are partially obscured, and their anonymity only serves to strengthen the intensity of the encounter. Is primal too strong a word? Maybe not. There’s something monumental about these two bodies, a vitality that they share with the landscape itself.

In the accompanying essay, poet and critic Garth Greenwell describes the landscape in McKnight’s photographs as a metaphor or an index of time passing, a backdrop for what is essentially a human drama. It is all of these things, but it’s also much more. The landscape is an insistent presence in Heaven is a Prison. Shots of clouds and rolling hills punctuate the story again and again: they are more than tangential, more than just a setting for the minor transgression of al fresco sex. In Western culture, a landscape view – not the ground, rock or water itself, but the pictorial order we impose upon it – is a manifestation of power. When we look out over a landscape, we do so, implicitly, from a place of safety: here, the place where I stand, is always set out in relation to the over there of the horizon. This distance privileges the rational eye and gives a known form to the shapelessness of unaltered nature.

It’s in his images of landscape that McKnight’s much-vaunted debt to photographic Modernism is most clearly felt: Frederick Sommer, Minor White, Ansel Adams – each put their own distinct spin on the Modernist archetype, and each has left a trace on McKnight’s practice. For Adams especially, the landscape was a theatrical space on which to stage the heroic expression of the self. Through his views – their classical structure bound to the Western landscape tradition – the rational gaze dominates space. McKnight’s landscapes hint at this ideal form, except for the fact that the horizon – the eye’s guarantee of detachment – is nearly always absent. For the viewer, this refusal of distance plays out as a kind of vulnerability: I can’t see, I can’t know, I can’t find myself.

Along with this loss of perspective comes an invitation – or perhaps an imperative – to surrender to sensation. There’s no shyness in McKnight’s depiction of sex, and the forthrightness of his photographs requires the viewer to navigate a powerful series of affects. There are moments of real tenderness in Heaven is a Prison, but there’s also hard fucking, chains and piss play – not glimpsed from a distance, but often, confrontationally close. The viscous stream of saliva running from one man’s mouth into his partner’s is exciting and disgusting in equal measure. It’s visceral stuff, and the exact nature of the sensations that we experience – shock, arousal, joy – is less important than the fact that they are so clearly summoned.

As viewers, we do not observe McKnight’s photographs from a place of safety. Instead, they meet the eye with acts so fiercely intimate that we are left with a stark choice: to be drawn in, or to look away. And if the earth, sky and empty pages interleaved with the more explicit scenes hint at a reprieve, what they really offer is a different kind of seduction – a slow, deliberate rhythm that lends these acts the solemnity of ritual. Looking through Heaven is a Prison is like witnessing an act of communion: earth, flesh and sky, merging into one another.

It’s telling that McKnight lists Sommer and White amongst his most significant influences. Both utilised elements of landscape in their work, but abandoned its spatial conventions in favour of something less secure, less easily knowable. Sommer’s Arizona Landscapes have no foreground or middle distance or horizon – nothing against which the viewing subject can measure themselves. For White, the abstract forms of water, clouds and other natural elements were ways of evoking a state of resonance or unity with the cosmos that surpassed rational knowledge. Both can be understood as invitations to unmake the self. McKnight’s work shares this sense of transport, this euphoric dissolution of boundaries – between one body and another, between the body and the landscape, between the look and its object.

Heaven is a Prison is a book about lust, desire and sadomasochistic sex, but it would be a mistake to label these photographs pornographic, just as it would be a mistake to label this a book of landscape photographs. As genres, pornography and landscape are crude articulations of a power that relies on distance – the privilege of a bodiless eye. McKnight’s photographs turn this distance back on itself, grounding the gaze in the fleshy material of the body. And if his work challenges archetypal images of queer bodies, it also touches on themes that are more ecumenical and potentially utopian: the idea that distance can coexist with closeness; that pain can be an avenue to pleasure and deeper intimacy; and that transcendence is a horizon that may only be approached by leaving a place of safety.♦

All images courtesy of the artist and Loose Joints © Mark McKnight

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer and writer living in East London. She is co-editor (with Callum Beaney) of the photography platform C4 Journal.