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 Alex Merola and Tim Clark

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, with words from Assistant Editor, Alex Merola.

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. ♦

Alex 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.