Rahim Fortune


Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

In his new book, Hardtack, Rahim Fortune compiles nearly a decade of work, blending documentary with personal history within the context of post-emancipation America. Through coming-of-age portraits that traverse survivalism and land migration, Fortune illustrates African American and Chickasaw Nation communities. As Taous R. Dahmani observes, the iconography of the American South is drawn between Fortune’s Hardtack and Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, released only a few days after — both of which raise questions that serve to redefine ‘Americana’. 

Taous R. Dahmani | Book review | 17 Apr 2024

At the end of March, something very odd happened: Loose Joints dropped Rahim Fortune’s second photobook Hardtack, and, a few days later, Beyoncé released her eighth album Cowboy Carter. I can almost hear you – yes, you, reader – wondering, what’s the connection? Well, there are several. Firstly, it serves as the perfect soundtrack to look at Fortune’s photographs. As if sound was taking form. Beyoncé’s extensive 27-track list echoes Fortune’s 72 photographs; her lyrics resonating with his visual language. Both artists delve into the iconography and sound of cowboys, churches, southern mothers and daughters, rodeo, sashes and Fortune even closes his book with a “Queen Coronation”. Besides this serendipitous overlap, both artists also actively reclaim, redefine and adjust the notion of “Americana”. Wrapped in a denim-like cover, Hardtack speaks of a specific geography and moment: Texas today, the USA in the 2020s.

Beyond the anecdote of their shared Texas origins, both explore the history of the American South – one through music, the other through photography – connecting its past with its present. 2024 is a pivotal election year, with the southern states bearing a significant responsibility in shaping the country’s future (and, arguably, the world’s). Therefore, there is an urgent need to disseminate an alternative understanding or narrative of what the US might be. After all, the title of Fortune’s book, Hardtack, refers to an emergency survival food, made from flour, water and salt, signalling that we are in the midst of a critical juncture. At a time when states are banning books to erase chapters of US history, Hardtack feels like a welcomed defiance.

In her proudly made-in-America “country” album, Beyoncé embraces the soundscape of the southern states and her Black musical heritage, blending blues, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel. Similarly, an incredible living encyclopaedia of American photography, Fortune quotes – or samples – his ancestors, from Walker Evans’s depictions of southern architecture to Roy DeCarava’s intimate portraits of Black life. Just as Beyoncé pays homage to Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music, Fortune channels the social documentary style of Milton Rogovin, his portrayal of African-American communities akin to Earlie Hudnall Jr, and mirrors the political consciousness embodied by Consuelo Kanaga. Furthermore, Fortune examines Arthur Rothstein’s documentation of African-American families in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, originally captured for the Farm Security Administration and later featured in Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941). With Hardtack, Fortune engages in a self-conscious dialogue with photography’s history.

The parallel between music and photography transcends mere coincidence; its potency lies in their shared democratic practice and dissemination, but it also resonates with what Tina M. Campt described in A Black Gaze (2021) as a ‘broader commitment to understanding visual culture through its entanglement with sound, and highlighting the centrality of sonic and visual frequency to the work of Black contemporary artists.’ Already, in 2017, Campt beckoned us to listen to images, and more recently, she revisited the idea employing the concept of frequency to challenge ‘how we see’, adding that ‘the physical and emotional labour required to see these images gives us profound insights into the everyday experiences of Black folks as racialised subjects.’ Listening to Fortune’s Hardtack is to pick up on various stories and histories such as the legacy of Gee’s Bend quilts, crafted by descendants of enslaved individuals who toiled on cotton plantations. These local women united to establish the Freedom Quilting Bee, a worker’s cooperative that enabled crucial economic opportunities and offered political empowerment. As Imani Perry eloquently states in the book’s concluding essay: ‘What we know as Black Texas was birthed through captivity. This land has been a bounty; and also a burden.’ Fortune captures the architecture of past power and oppression – the grand plantation houses alongside the slaves’ huts –and the remnants of this legacy, showcasing what barely survives in the wake of US history. Beyoncé’ sings in “YA YA” (2024): “My family lived and died in America, hm / Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh / History can’t be erased, oh-oh / Are you lookin’ for a new America? (America).” In “Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida” (2020), Fortune kneels down to capture the sunlight beaming on the old train tracks, which bear witness to the 1928 Rosewood massacre during the era of Jim Crow laws. In “AMEN” (2024), Beyoncé’s reminds her listener: “This house was built with blood and bone / And it crumbled, yes, it crumbled.

On the following page, Fortune presents a captivating portrait of his partner, Miranda, underscoring that his documentation of the American South is as personal as it is political. With roots in both the African-American and Chickasaw Nation communities, Fortune traverses rural towns that are close to his heart, pausing to engage in conversations with friends. Fortune embraces the formal conventions of documentary traditions whilst ushering us into novel sensations and uncharted emotional territories. Opening the book, we can almost grasp the wind, and, as we delve deeper, we feel the humidity of the Mississippi enveloping us, the scorching sun on the road casting its light upon each image. His photographs record what stands proud, what is forced to break, what disappeared but can still be traced. In Fortune’s photographs, people are praying, watching, playing, waiting, celebrating, caring and driving; leading an unremarkable life because ‘attending to the infraordinary and the quotidian reveals why the trivial, the mundane, or the banal are in fact essential to the lives of the dispossessed and the possibility of black futurity.”’ Texas also serves as the backdrop for Fortune’s personal grief – as depicted in his first book I can’t stand to see you Cry (2021) – and serves as a place where remembrance holds paramount importance, as evidenced by the tattooed dates of key life moments on his friend’s skin. Fortune’s Hardtack is a poignant tribute, both a requiem for those lost and a homage to those whose actions altered the course of history. Yet, it is also a celebration, capturing the essence of joy found in everyday moments and special occasions alike. It is this unique and delicate coexistence of remembrance and revelry that imbues Hardtack with its profound resonance, showcasing the depth of Fortune’s artistic maturity.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints. © Rahim Fortune

Hardtack is published by Loose Joints.

Taous R. Dahmani is a London-based French, British and Algerian art historian, writer and curator. Her expertise centres around the intricate relationship between photography and politics, a theme that permeates her various projects. Since 2019, she has been the editorial director of
The Eyes, an annual publication that explores the links between photography and societal issues. She is an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Dahmani’s curatorial work was showcased at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France, where she curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2022). Dahmani is set to curate two exhibitions at Jaou Tunis, Tunisia (2024).


1-Rahim Fortune, Windmill House, Hutto, Texas, 2022.

2-Rahim Fortune, Praise Dancers, Edna, Texas, 2022.

3-Rahim Fortune, Willies Chapel, Austin, Texas, 2021.

4-Rahim Fortune, Hardware, Granger, Texas, 2018.

5-Rahim Fortune, Highway I-244 (Greenwood), Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2021.

6-Rahim Fortune, Gas Pump, Selma, Alabama, 2023.

7-Rahim Fortune, Deonte, New Sweden, Texas, 2022.

8-Rahim Fortune, Ace (Miss Juneteenth), Galveston, Texas, 2022.

9-Rahim Fortune, Night Ride Tracks, Archer, Florida, 2020.

10-Rahim Fortune, Tinnie Pettway, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 2023.

11-Rahim Fortune, VHS Television, Dallas, Texas, 2021.

12-Rahim Fortune, Abandoned Church, Otter Creek, Florida, 2020.

Taysir Batniji


Book review by Elisa Medde

Disruptions, a new book from Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji published by Loose Joints, collates two years of glitched video calls with his family in Gaza while living in Paris. In solidarity with the struggles of the Palestinian people during the latest act of devastating destruction and erasure by the state of Israel, all proceeds will go towards the NGO Medical Aid Palestine providing critical medical care and support on the ground. Elisa Medde considers this evocation of the emotional and physical separation that occurs across borders.

Elisa Medde | Book review | 5 Feb 2024

The lives and paths of images are often elusive. We perhaps should approach them suspiciously, certainly with hesitation, wary of what they could be carrying: power, meaning, even truth of their own. Evidence. The understanding that they actually contain none of these in themselves, but rather tend to reflect, expose and manifest the contexts, meanings and evidences that we build and consign into and about them is sometimes liberating, sometimes confusing and most regularly confronting. Confronting is an apt word: it implies reflection, which is something images are very good at. They reflect well, and they reflect back.

Between 2015 and 2017, Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji assembled a series of images titled Disruptions. Forced in a condition of displacement because of the difficulties in travelling to besieged Gaza from his Parisian residency, Batniji maintained contact with his mother and other family members via video calls on WhatsApp, which were constantly disrupted and interrupted by poor and shaky line connections. Network issues would destructure and dismantle faces, streets and rooms into clusters of pixels, blurred lines or solid blocks of colour. Initially interested in the formal phenomenon, Batniji started taking screenshots on his mobile device. Curious about these glitchy, seemingly random effects, he transformed them into an archive, noting their dates and ordering them as an inventory.

Being displaced, being exiled, being far away means, first and foremost, being absent. This condition carries a shift in time, in how the flow of life is experienced. One’s life is split in two, between the lived space, which flows through the present tense, and the other, distant space, which flows through the narrated tense. Life happening in the latter is mediated by accounts and recounts, filtered by phones, letters and screens. It depends on a means of communication, and is deferred from real time, compressed into clusters of time and forced into synthesis, fragmented in interrupted flows. In Batniji’s long-distance relations, one end lives a life in waiting, split between two conditions while the other lies in an occupied and besieged land in which communication infrastructure is itself subjugated to dynamics of power, apartheid and retaliation. The mere existence of such infrastructure is just one of the fragilities excruciatingly trying to keep together life itself in spite of all, in spite of the constant attempt to erase it altogether. The very idea of real time communication feels like an impossible privilege, with the present tense constantly postponed and prevented.  

Disruption became a series of 86 screenshots, taken between 24 April 2015 and 23 June 2017. In 2019, it was exhibited at MAC/VAL in Vitry-sur-Seine in the group exhibition Lifelines – an Exhibition of Legends, which proposed reflections on identities and their processes of construction and legitimation. Installed as a chronology-based grid of 16 x 24 cm ink-jet prints, their impact was described by curator Frank Lamy: ‘A possible connection is established between the disturbed conversation and the violent events taking place simultaneously in Gaza. The artist thus delivers a part of this common intimacy that stretches between two territories.’

The series has now been published in photobook form by Loose Joints, representing an act of solidarity with the struggle of Palestinian people during the latest act of devastating destruction and erasure by the state of Israel, which has produced, at the moment of writing, about 26,700 Palestinian victims, of whom an estimated 40% are children. Approximately 70% of homes in Gaza have been demolished, and its complete education and health system has been wiped out. The surviving population in Gaza remains with no access to basic survival level of food, water, electricity, health care or shelter, all while the silence and connivence of larger part of the international community threatens the very existence of human rights, and of the agencies and systems created for its protection and guarantee. Batniji’s family itself, as we learn from the book dedication, has been decimated by Israeli bombings, together with all who sought refuge in their family home in the Al-Shijaya neighbourhood of Gaza. All proceeds from the book will go towards the NGO Medical Aid Palestine, which provides medical care and support on the ground.

Batniji is an artist who has kneaded his own story with the histories of his motherland, Palestine, constantly shifting back and forth between private and public, pointing his sharp eye towards the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of dominance, control and survival in the face of colonial violence. His work ultimately revolves around consequences: he detaches himself from the narration of events to look at the effects they produce and force – on bodies, souls, landscapes, memories, connections and communications. His whole artistic production functions as an inventory of traces, a testament to the irreversibility of events and their remains. The dates, stretches of time and recurrences become crucial elements of a life and an artistic production that also takes the shape of a ‘chronology of displacement’, as writer Taous R. Dahmani powerfully describes in her essay, included in the book in English, French and Arabic.

The book sequences the images chronologically, with the dates setting the pace of the narration into sections. The almost unreadable photographs initially confuse and frustrate the viewer into searching for visual anchors and understanding, forcing one to slow down, to go back and forth. The sequence powerfully transmits a growing, helpless tension, with the pace of looking increasing as the pages turn, compelling the eye to almost frantically search for something that is not there – anymore.

These images inevitably resonate differently today than they did in 2019. Whilst war and destruction and disruption were always the backdrop and the filter through which we experience them, they assume a different weight, a different meaning, a different evidence in early 2024. Our visual context has changed: we now see them after having spent the past four months helplessly watching the sheer horror live streaming from Gaza, witnessing the real time destruction of an entire city: houses, bodies, cars, trees, animals, streets and children. Looking at Disruptions today even more powerfully recalls what is behind these interrupted conversations: these glitched images scream shattered buildings, torn bodies, disintegrated lives, missed last goodbyes. They are images of war. To quote Dahmani: ‘Digital tension grips his attention – a screenshot would have been a mere portrait a few minutes earlier. Glitches are errors, defects that shatter the quality of an image. The pixelated screenshots engage our mental images of what war does: images of destruction, the ruins left by combat zones, the elimination of persons, and disappeared loved ones.’

The images in this necessary, urgent book leave their latent imprint in our brains and keep haunting us, as probably Gaza will. Their abstract nature feels like the only way to fathom the unspeakable, to make sense of the unbearable. They arrest us, confront us and reflect on us our responsibility in all of this – the passive spectatorship we all will have to reckon with. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints © Taysir Batniji

Disruptions is published by Loose Joints.

Elisa Medde is a photography editor, curator and writer. She has a background in Art History, Iconology and Photographic Studies, and currently serves as a lecturer for the Photography MA at ECAL, Lausanne, Switzerland. Medde has nominated for prizes and chaired juries, including the Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award, Prix Elysée and MAST Photography Grant on Industry and Work, and her writing has appeared in FlashArt, PhotoEye, Time Magazine, Foam Magazine, Something We Africans Got, Vogue Italia / L’Uomo Vogue, YET Magazine, the Aperture PhotoBook Review and artists’ books. Between 2012–23, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Foam Magazine, twice the recipient of a Lucie Award for Best Photography Magazine. She is the recipient of the Royal Photographic Society Award for Photography Publishing 2023.

Felipe Romero Beltrán


Book review by Tanvi Mishra

The Foam Paul Huf Award 2023 and 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize winner Felipe Romero Beltrán has released a new book with Loose Joints titled Dialect. Presenting the temporal dimension of the period of asylum which a group of nine young minors from Morocco navigate as they wait to be validated as documented citizens of Spain, it offers a possibility of restoring a personhood to the immigrant body, writes Tanvi Mishra. His solo exhibition at Foam Amsterdam runs until 1 May 2024.

Tanvi Mishra | Book review | 4 Sept 2023

Borrowing from the structural divisions of theatrical works, Felipe Romero Beltrán’s image-based series Dialect unfolds over three acts. Balancing between reality and recreation, it lies in the interstitial space of speculation. The photographs are not made in service of representation, but to gesture at the pace of a time. Flanked by two companion pieces – Recital and Instruction – which serve as prologue and epilogue, Dialect intersects with other theatrical forms of performance, choreography and film. Bringing these multiple pieces together, the book presents the temporal dimension of the period of asylum which a group of nine young immigrants from Morocco navigate as they wait to be validated as documented citizens of Spain.

The photograph has played a central role in the context of the recent migration to Europe and the refugee crisis. At certain times, to showcase its precarity – countless visuals of inflatable vessels at sea carrying tightly packed Black and Brown bodies. At others, its eventuality – images of people docking on the shores of Italy, Turkey and Spain, only to be confronted with the fortified system of border control. And this is with reference to those that make it alive. It is not just the photojournalistic image that has presented us this reality. Artists have staged the horror of bodies washed ashore, with an apparent motive of raising awareness. In these repeated acts of “bearing witness” or stirring a public conscience, there has emerged a surplus – thousands of images of groups of people in overloaded boats, in never-ending queues, in overcrowded refugee camps. They are not afforded names, nor any individuality, only pictured at the edge of a land that supposedly bears promise. Whilst the photograph no doubt serves to makes an incident visible, its repetition creates a numbness. Catalysed by this anaesthetisation, and depersonalisation, a public sentiment takes shape – the imminent “threat” associated with the immigrant from a foreign land.

In this archive of excess, the narrative often ends at the physical border. The immigrant is rendered nameless, but racialised. The border itself is imagined as the line that separates political boundaries, not one that extends far beyond it into detention or asylum centres or what Caterina Borelli refers to in her essay in the book as the ‘documentation regime’ that confronts every refugee. Beltrán’s commentary is located within the “custody and control” exercised by this extended border system, and the State’s desire – either by physical force or bureaucratic procedure – to organise the bodies that enter its territories. Both spatially and temporally, Beltrán expands the image archive beyond the repetitive documentation of the transgression of geographical boundaries.

Beltrán’s three-part act situates itself in an internment house in Seville, where a group of minors who have illegally crossed the border into Spain are housed until they reach adulthood and wait for their immigrant status to be shifted to naturalised citizens. It opens with, and periodically returns to, the impermeability of this edifice. All walls leading to a corner, the irony of doorways permanently sealed shut: serving as reminders of the futility of escape and the inevitable acceptance of the wait. Sociologist Pierre Bordieu recognised the act of making people wait, especially in anticipation of a favourable outcome, as an act of power and dominance. Youssef Elhafidi, one of the boys Beltrán photographs and author of one of the book’s essays, speaks about the desire for economic opportunity that motivated him to leave his family in Morocco and jump aboard a boat headed for the cold, dark Mediterranean in the dead of the night. It is this desire that is capitalised by the State as he enters its borders. The currency here is of time, or the ‘interlude’ as Albert Corbi refers to in his accompanying essay, which migrants must pay with to earn themselves a place in society. ‘[Illegal migrants] are exposed to an Interlude in which the language of the law and the language of Otherness are indistinguishable,’ Corbi states, referring to the limbo of one to three years that minor immigrants must endure once they reach adulthood in order to achieve a change in citizenship status. This process of waiting in and of itself, and the ‘strategy of delay’, serves to maintain the racial hierarchy of society[i].

Limbo, as an intermediate state, does not offer “incidents” to be photographed. It is in waiting, for the next condition that holds the prospect of movement, and freedom. In focusing on this period of suspension, Beltrán’s images oscillate between banality and theatricality. Mixing classical reportage with re-enacted scenes recalling the young men’s journey to Seville, the image-sequences allow us to speculate upon the documentary image, and the futility of these binaries imposed to evaluate its “truth” value. Moving through the three acts, the aesthetics deployed amplify the mundane – a pale colour palette, centre-weighted frames, often men looking back into the camera, reminiscent of images purposed for biometrics. In others, they are seen performing banal rituals of daily life. Unlike the theatre of the European coast, there is no drama in the images of the asylum walls, the unmade beds or the decaying fruit.

But the placid tenor of the edit is routinely disrupted by images charged with a speculative tension. A young man attempts to release two hands that grab his neck; two young men carry a third on their shoulders; another points two fingers to the right as if to aim fire. In these scenes of seemingly violent situations, the threat, however, appears to be muted. One of the two hands that grabs the neck holds the back of the head with care; the apparently collapsed body is carried against the backdrop of the familiar asylum walls; the hand that points beyond the frame has no weapon to hold. In collaboratively restaging experiences from the boys’ journeys to Spain, Beltrán places the record of waiting in the asylum in ‘dialogue with the crossing.’[ii] It is this dialogue, perhaps, that may offer a cathartic potential. Academic Zoé Samudzi refers to revisiting trauma as a space of potential knowledge production. In rejecting its ‘performative reiteration as a kind of re-wounding’ she advocates for a possibility to imagine healing ‘by learning how to refuse to reproduce it.’[iii]

The three works in the book borrow from reality, however, do not claim to be representative. Drawing from the experience of the body, each work elicits specific temporal characteristics of the immigrant ordeal. In positioning Recital as the precursor to the opening act of Dialect, Beltrán locates the narrative within the monotonous drone of bureaucracy and the legal system. Presented as a grid of screengrabs of three young men reading the first four pages of the Spanish immigration law, the book’s translation of the videos reinforces the repetitive burden and the simultaneous struggle to navigate a system built on the language of othering. Here, time acquires a circular characteristic, offering only an illusion of moving forward. Progressing from here to the three acts of waiting that follow, circular time mutates to dead time, and comes to a halt.

In choosing Instruction as the epilogue piece, Beltrán takes us back to the point of crossing, as if to initiate a recall to the initial point of rupture. Unlike Recital, the repetition of its frames is frenetic, and the pace charged. Performed by two dancers – one of whom, Bilal Siasse, is also one of the young immigrant men Beltrán photographs in Seville – the choreographed piece maps the movement of the body in response to an external destabilising force. Drawing from Siasse’s actual experience of crossing the border, Instruction is described as a ‘gesture performed within the jurisdictional limits of the State.’ In its visuality, however, it is reminiscent of the unpredictability of a body at sea and the surrender to its chaos through involuntary somatic responses. Whilst the legal border may begin near the shore, the impact on the body precedes its arrival on land.

In the description of this final piece lies the core inquiry of the work: how to translate a body? In contemplating this with respect to the performance, and the translation of Siasse’s visceral experience – for the choreographers and the dancers through the Stepanov notation [iv] – Beltrán acknowledges the impossibility of its complete representation. The book, then, can be seen as a compendium of praxis that records the movement across, and within, the border on multiple tenors. Piecing them together, Beltrán offers a possibility of restoring a personhood to the immigrant body that has for long been dispossessed – of the complexity of its identity, the dignity of its humanity and of the faith in the validity of its imagination.

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints © Felipe Romero Beltrán

Dialect is published by Loose Joints.

Felipe Romero Beltrán: Dialect runs at Foam Amsterdam until 1 May 2024.

Tanvi Mishra works with images as a photo editor, curator and writer based in New Delhi, India. Mishra has served as the Creative Director of The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture. She is part of the photo-editorial team of PIX, a South Asian publication and display practice. She works as an independent curator and has recently curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award for the 54th edition of Les Recontres d’Arles (France). Mishra has also been part of the curatorial teams of Photo Kathmandu (Nepal), Delhi Photo Festival (India) and BredaPhoto (The Netherlands). 

Her writing on photography has been published in various platforms including Aperture, FOAM and 1000 Words. She has served on multiple juries, including World Press Photo, Chennai Photo Biennale Awards and the Catchlight Global Fellowship, and is currently part of the first international advisory committee of World Press Photo.


[i] Shahram Khosravi, “Waiting bodies in dictatorial and bordering regimes” in The Funambulist (2021), available at thefunambulist.net/magazine/they-have-clocks-we-have-time/waiting-bodies-in-dictatorial-and-bordering-regimes, accessed 1 September 2023.

[ii] Felipe Romero Beltrán, “Stepanov Notation for the piece Instruction” in Dialect (Loose Joints, 2023).

[iii] Zoé Samudzi in conversation with Noor Asif, “Breath Back: An epistolary introduction to reparation and repair” in Parapraxis (2022), available at parapraxismagazine.com/articles/breath-back, accessed 1 September 2023.

[iv] Developed by the Russian dancer Vladmir Stepanov in the late 19th century, the Stepanov notation is a way of recording dance or body movement based on musical notation. By doing an anatomical analysis of movement, it deconstructs complex movements into elementary ones performed by individual body parts, identifying each of these moves as notes.

Oliver Frank Chanarin

A Perfect Sentence

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

In response to Oliver Frank Chanarin’s new exhibition at FORMAT23, Mark Durden argues that the artist’s conceptual trick of revealing the printing process is a means of vivifying a conventional photographic portrait practice and chimes with the project’s quirky index of Britishness. 

The photographic portrait is arguably the central genre and tradition of photography. Oliver Frank Chanarin offers a new take on this important and longstanding tradition through an old process in A Perfect Sentence, his exhibition at The Museum of Making, as part of the 11th edition of Derby’s FORMAT International Photography Festival.

Chanarin’s portraits of people in Britain have been drawn from multiple journeys across the country over the last year, commissioned and produced by Forma, in collaboration with an impressive network of partner arts organisations and funders. This show of around 100 colour photographs amounts to about a third of the pictures that make up the total project. It will be followed by further exhibitions as well as a publication from Loose Joints.

August Sander was an initial point of departure, but, as Chanarin acknowledges, “the cool archival approach” soon stopped being helpful. As it evolved, he felt his work was closer to that of Sander’s contemporary Helmar Lerski. An actor and cameraman, Lerski made multiple portraits of his sitters, with a variety of expressions, people drawn from the streets of Berlin — beggars, hawkers, street cleaners, housemaids, porters — but abstracted from their social roles through his aesthetic vision. Chanarin’s portraits are not as manipulated as Lerski’s. But in the theatre and dramaturgy of many of his subjects, one senses the Lerski connection. Chanarin is not so much interested in people’s social role; despite having visited factories, there is little interest in describing labour and working conditions but instead a presentation of British life as bizarre spectacle.

The work sets up a friction between the familiar convention of the photographic portrait and a conceptual strategy that makes visible the process of C-type colour printing. The colour casts, bands of differing exposure, double printing, as well as all the markings and annotations upon many of the prints, affirm and display the darkroom work of making these portrait pictures — the craft and labour and time integral to this now vintage, noxious and disappearing chemical process. In resisting the closure and fixity of the final image, these imperfect images, according to the wall text that accompanies the show, are intended to “allude to the mercurial nature of identity and the subjectivity inherent in image-making.” But great photographic portraits have and will always continue to draw attention to the mercurial nature of identity. I don’t need to see the process of the portrait’s printing production to be made aware of this.

What then does making the printing process visible do? Is the disclosure of the colour printing process intended to revive interest in an old and disappearing process? Chanarin’s turn to the darkroom does seem to chime with the way in which he describes this project. After a successful two decades’ long artistic collaboration, he wanted to return to what drew him to photography in the first place: “encounters with strangers and the beautiful accidental moments that come with getting lost in the world with a camera.”

The visibility of the printing process does make us aware of colour as a filter, as an artificial application. In this respect, it links up with the make-up abundant and excessive on some of the faces he has pictured. There is a certain aesthetic pleasure and joy in the deviation from the straight colour print and it could be seen in keeping with the Photoconceptualists’ dismantling and disclosure of photographic form. At the same time, it could also be seen just as a gimmick, a means of vivifying a conventional photographic portrait practice.      

Drawn to the theatrical, the strange and the unusual, Chanarin’s is a carnivalesque portrait of Britain — encompassing carnival troupes, protestors dressed as chickens, model railway enthusiasts, a volunteer couple at a local zoo with snake and tarantula, the bondage rituals from the Shibari class for a local fetish community and pictures he has made with volunteers of the Casualties Union, people who use make up and acting skills to play the role of casualties for the emergency services and medical profession. The latter portraits introduce a realm of simulation, confuse and unsettle the documentary basis of the project. Chanarin’s interest in performance and dramaturgy in the portrait transaction is evident not just through all those he pictures costumed and made up. It is also there in less adorned subjects: his brief sequence of portraits made in homeless shelters, the calm communique of the man who makes enigmatic gestures and signs with his hands to his photographer (and us) or the woman whose nervous energy means she cannot hold a pose.

For this show, the photographs are all printed the same size (10 x 8 inches) and framed the same way. Their arrangement and sequencing are however playful and break uniformity — pictures are hung in corners, above eye level and, in one, presented as a diagonal drawn out across a long wall. The diagonal line of pictures presents us not with portraits but with photographs of a seemingly random assortment of objects and details drawn from the communities he has been given access to and places visited — a quirky index of Britishness ranging from stacks of buttered white toast to a Rolls Royce plane engine.  

None of the photographs on show have labels or captions. Instead, there are a series of 12 short, condensed stories delivered as a spoken narrative by the photographer and accessed on our mobile phones through a QR code. Chanarin’s poetic, open-ended and suggestive auto-narratives provide an effective alternative to captions and convey often interesting reflections, thoughts, ideas and observations from his travels across the UK, meeting and photographing different people. They are also refreshingly open and honest in their admission of the difficulties and problems of picturing people. After a photography workshop with teenagers and posting a portrait of a student helper on Instagram, he tells us how he had to remove the image and destroy all photographs made with the teenagers because he had broken safeguarding issues.

A happier story is attached to his portrait of three young women in bikinis standing before rocks on a beach, all hands raised shielding their eyes as they look into the sun. When he wrote to them with a copy of the photograph, one of the bathers said how proud and happy she was to have her picture taken, how the picture gave her confidence in her own looks, without make up. Chanarin exhibits two versions of this photograph side by side, one clearly printed and the other with bands of different exposures darkening the picture and the faces of the bathers. In the anecdote about the picture being liked, he does not say which version he sent her, which raises questions about the interest his subjects would have in the prints bearing marks of the process of their production. One picture of a housing estate has the words “bad” written up on it, a commentary that inevitably could also be taken to not just be a remark about the print.

Funding bodies love art with social impact but much art that is “community-driven” or “socially engaged” tends to be over-determined by the worthiness of its cause and message, and often does little more than replay prejudices and assumptions about the communities represented whilst never really overcoming the gulf and distance between the artist and the people that have become their subject. From the long list of credits and acknowledgments given in a wall panel for this exhibition, this project, made in collaboration with no less than eight UK organisations, would appear to have been both well-funded and supported, involving teams and networks of people to make it happen, right down to the designer and graphic artist (two people, not one) of A Perfect Sentence’s identity. Yet while there are reflections on the problems and issues around representing people within his spoken narrative, it is still dominated by a rather conservative and romantic portrait of the lone artist photographer as “wanderer”, losing himself in the strange experiences and encounters opened up by life in regional towns and cities in Britain. The canny conceptual trick of showing us the printing process also nicely matches the project’s overall romantic premise: implying a freedom from rules and templates. It fits with the eccentricities of the folk on show and Chanarin’s left-field vision of Britain. ♦      

All images courtesy of the artist, The Museum of Making and FORMAT International Photography Festival, Derby © Oliver Frank Chanarin. Commissioned and produced by Forma, in collaboration with eight UK organisations. Supported by Arts Council England, Art Fund and Outset Partners.

A Perfect Sentence ran at The Museum of Making, as part of FORMAT International Photography Festival, until 3 September 2023. A Perfect Sentence (Part II) runs at KARST Gallery, Plymouth, until 18 Match 2024.

Mark Durden is a writer, artist and academic. Together with David Campbell and Ian Brown, he works as part of the art group Common Culture. Since 2017, Durden has worked collaboratively with João Leal in photographing modernist European architecture, beginning with Álvaro Siza. He is currently Professor of Photography and Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales, Cardiff.


1-Oliver Frank Chanarin, Marine Academy (Year 10) (2023) © the artist.

2-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Elaine (2023) © the artist.

3-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with anon (2023) © the artist.

4-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Untitled (2023) © the artist.

5-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with June (2023) © the artist.

6-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Mark (2023) © the artist.

7-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Fay, Maisie and Robyn (2023) © the artist.

8-Oliver Frank Chanarin, Untitled (2023) © the artist.

9-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Adam (2023) © the artist.

10-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with L Cpl Oliver (2023) © the artist.

11-Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Joshua, anon and Andrew (2023) © the artist.

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. 

Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by 1000 Words

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by 1000 Words.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter

Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.

Sarah Piegay Espenon

Humanise Something Free of Error

Loose Joints

From the critique of science which arose in the field of post-human studies and in writing about the anthropocene – those studies which bring to bear a consciousness beyond the human of forces natural, animal, technological, or, in the case of artificial intelligence or technological singularity, still somewhat hypothetical – we have come to take the notion of scientific measure as a complex if limited means of apprehending the world. Science gives us forms of measure, but it also appears a strikingly arbitrary mode of knowledge production, reductive in places and unnecessarily abstracted in others. To critique science is not to dismiss it entirely, but to know its capacities and limits. We know that science takes the frenetic instability of the lives of things and, in the place of that messy reality, identifies constants, patterns, and control conditions – measures from which variation might be observed and knowledge deduced. But whilst it produces facts, science leaves behind questions of how we come to understand the place that we inhabit – a space with unbounded complexity, affected by different actors human and non-human. What, for example, can science’s role be when it attempts as a central method to omit the human from its processes of deduction? When it fails to acknowledge its own constructs and impacts?

Sarah Piegay Espenon’s Humanise Something Free of Error, published by Loose Joints, is a collection of images in which photographs of natural phenomena – for example, the strange formations of materials – mix with scientific experiments, acts of measurement and study. On the surface, it recalls iconic projects exploring and disassembling the systems and politics of technology – from Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, through Lewis Baltz and more recently Trevor Paglen. It begins with an echo of Baltz’s Sites of Technology, in the dustless room of computer servers. But you sense quickly that Piegay Espenon draws attention to something a little more essential, away from Sultan and Mandel’s comedy, Baltz’s silent detail, and Paglen’s geographic scrutiny: she observes the peculiar distance of the human from the world.

Throughout the book, human subjects are seen as observers – looking at strange rock formations, debating over long sheets of printed data, standing atop the edges of collapsed bridges, and scratching heads in offices full of folders. They are testers, taking samples or acting as guinea pigs. It might appear momentarily that humans are subject to natural phenomena, observers at a distance. But closer observation and consideration reveals they are making the world in their image. The world has come to revolve around the scientist – an example of manifest anthropocentrism – but alongside its population of scientists, the books shows the wake of their labour in specimens captured, disciplined and then discarded. The marks of human impact are everywhere.

The protagonist of the scientist is a gateway to Piegay Espenon’s concerns, standing for our encounter with the world. Our approach may be curious but it is also threatening; capable of understanding, it also risks alienating or undoing the nature that it claims to value. Objects of scientific and military study pierce and wound the landscape, disciplining nature and bringing it under control. Humanise Something Free of Error shows that if the anthropocene is to be comprehended, it should begin with how we push and pull the world we occupy, whilst placing it at a misleading objective distance. Piegay Espenon suggests that beyond our control, we might and think and act in the world. She places a small book in our grasp at a scale that is not overblown or reactionary, but both present at and ready to hand.

Duncan Wooldridge

All images courtesy of the artist and Loose Joints. © Sarah Piegay Espenon

Marton Perlaki

Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato

Interview by Tim Clark

A picture has the ability to mislead the mind, opening a door to alternative narratives that exist within the viewer’s subconscious. I wish to access these moments of subjectivity and navigate the viewer towards a game of associations.” So says Marton Perlaki, a Hungarian artist whose ongoing series Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato has now made the journey into book form entitled Elemer, published by Loose Joints.

His intriguing publication presents a rich array of seductive and sardonic imagery, drawing principally on two main photographic genres – still life and portraiture. Perlaki’s process involves carefully planning and creating unique arrangements, wherein he makes everyday objects and scenarios undergo an absurdist upheaval. Some images show a pale, macabre-looking man – Elemer – as he strikes equally unusual poses or exhibits various states of uneasiness. Some show stuffed birds wrapped in string, their eyes pierced with needles while others reveal constellations of bubbles delicately emerging from laboratory apparatus – these are but a few examples of the jarring mix of views and subjects that chafe on our mind. His work summons the idea that discontinuity and dislocation can be powerful strategies to defy viewer expectations and thus force a reflection on photography’s randomness and incessancy, as well as its ability to control the disorder of the natural world through repetition, juxtaposition and artifice.

“I was always drawn towards variety in a series and never really interested in linear story telling,” Perlaki says. “I find it important to make the viewer participate and invite him/her to make connections between seemingly unrelated images. Everyone can create their own personal narrative which seems like a fun process to me.”

Interspersed with his own photographs are a handful of pictograms of mundane items, both natural and man-made, including a balloon, a lock and key, a vice, a bucket, a garden hose, a potato, a worm and a brush. Deadpan yet also playful in tone, these functional illustrations serve as visual and symbolic equivalents to his imagery, often precipitating the appearance of certain motifs and manifold shapes that give rise to meaning – or at least short-lived thematic runs.

“The whole project started as a stream of ideas,” Perlaki explains. “The trigger was a series of cards that companies used to include in packs of cigarettes. They were actually called ‘cigarette cards’, in the first half of the century. The cards would display useful household tips. On first glance the images look silly and nonsensical but when you flip them over and read the corresponding text the pictograms suddenly make sense.”

Providing both senseless and factual situations, Perlaki conjures up visual poems or private performances, yet records only one remote moment, such is the nature of photographic capture. On the surface of things, his photographs are relatively simple and innocent – childish even. Perhaps photography, given that it is relatively naïve and young compared to the other visual arts, is really a childish medium after all. At least this is what Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa posits in his afterword to the book. The writer goes on to encourage us to consider photography as childish in its dogged determination to record nothing more than the instant on which its attentions are focused. Childish in its disgust and delight, clarity and uncertainty, or for swaying from the fleeting to the ineffable. He surmises: “Photography’s capacity to register anything to which it can be exposed is similar to a child’s capacity to treat dog shit and diamonds with an equal measure of fascination.”

Indeed, Perlaki’s results are equal parts capricious and witty, menacing and hallucinatory. But, above all, it is the human element that finds its way into the imagery via the portraits that is key to both heightening and further complicating the sense of disquiet. This obviously relates to Perlaki’s specific choice of model, who, despite his outward impression, is in fact a happy family man and a teacher living and working in Szolnok, Hungary. What is evinced here is the notion that the reflection of reality reveals nothing about reality. The photograph is at once a portrait of Elemer and not Elemer. It does not disclose anything about the individual. He is a person with an entire life, with dreams, desires, worries and fears – complexities that we will never know from the photograph.

If, as Bertolt Brecht famously remarked, “photography is the possibility of a reproduction that masks the context……So something must be built up, something artificial, something posed,” then Perlaki’s work shares a kinship with this sense of photography setting out to experiment and instruct, exemplified by his photographic constructions and flagrant theatricality. “My idea was to use one character throughout the series and I was struggling to find the right fit when I accidentally came across a photograph of him while I was browsing on Facebook,” he explains. “Elemer’s peculiar appearance in these staged moments adds a mystical quality to the series. He is simultaneously sculptural and enigmatic, which for me was a perfect combination for the series.”

As he moves and appears before the camera, Elemer’s gestures reveal nothing of his essence, but reveal to us the charm of a gesture – the type Milan Kundera obsessed over in his seven-part novel from 1968, Immortality. Establishing his characters, the writer states that a gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it be considered as that person’s instrument. On the contrary, it is “gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.”

Ultimately, Elemer and his gestures become just another one of the photographer’s props. He is part of Perlaki’s inventory of objects, collected and composed through photographic form – their particular sequencing and repetition across the series offering a focus that is restless and multiple. In accumulative effect, arrays of images either contradict or compliment one another in a critical or reflexive way – similar to Brecht’s insistence on the built up – all the while embodying a nominal relationship to the world. After all, a bird is to bald, as book is to bubble, as brick is to potato, is what Perlaki’s art suggests and provokes.

All images courtesy of the artist and Webber Represents. © Marton Perlaki
Excerpts of this interview were originally published in the FOAM Talent issue 2015 and have been reproduced with kind permission.

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.