book review Him Photographs by Alice Zukofsky Reviewed by Kim Beil “Carmen Winant is coining a new term, ‘Instructional Photography,’ with the title of her new book. Her neologism is so apt that it doesn’t even sound new to me. The term is as direct and instrumental as the photographs themselves. .”
Photographs by Alice Zukofsky
Gato Negro Ediciones, Mexico City, Mexico, 2019. Unpaged illustrations in black and white, 4¼x5¾x½”.
by Alice Zukofsky Him, a book printed in Riso by Gato Negro Ediciones, speaks directly to the hands. Its smooth, chalky paper cover is comfortable, worn. French-fold pages flip easily, like a deck of cards. Instead of the slow, stately procession of glossy pages that many contemporary hardcover photo books demand, this book begs to be flipped through, perhaps even at high speed. Throughout the pages, this creates an atmosphere, a mysterious aura, which is reminiscent of the fantastic universe of Chris Marker’s slideshow film. The Pier.
But the minute I sat down to write about it, I was hit with uncertainty. What are the pictures of? And, if not, who is the photographer?
The promotional material for the book bears an enigmatic blurb: “chronicle of a long night”. Indeed, the images are filled with darkness, the Risograph ink pages dense with shadow. One type of image returns: a silver circle on a black background. The circle appears to be filled with organic material, reminiscent of Irving Penn’s cigarette butts. Zukofsky’s biography of the editor – “Photographer and mychologist [sic]” – tilts the images in another direction. Do they represent the basis of mushrooms recently uprooted from the earth? There are more circular images – a stain, a broken pill on a sidewalk, a warrior’s shield in a marble frieze. The book ends in a field of tall grass.
Not many photographs stand up so well to words. In Alison Rossiter’s abstractions, the writers lovingly catalog vintage materials she finds on eBay. In the color abstractions of Ellen Carey or Walead Beshty, critics focus on the process of working with giant sheets of colored paper in the dark.
Abstraction in photography is not really new. What, after all, is this jumble of shapes and shadows in Nièpce’s plate, described as the “first photograph” and taken around 1826? With a little help from the title “View from the window of Le Gras”, the spirit sees the angles and says “Roof”. Its imprecision is not the result of erasure; scientists now understand that the image was underexposed. There must have been other images that received too little or too much light, images that faded or shifted, images made accidentally, images that bloomed with chemical spills or reactions to light. But, when you put words to one of them, they become something. They lose everything when they are nothing.
So the problem is not with photography. Photography can resist words. It is writing that cannot. What do you say when you’re not sure what you’re seeing? Most reviews focus on the artist. But what happens when the artist is as elusive as his images?
Here is what the editor told me about Alice Zukofsky: “Interested in the microcosm and the planets beyond, Zukofsky’s travels took her on a journey around the world, having lived, studied and worked in places like Tangier. [sic], Paris, Kolkata, La Habana, Buenos Aires, until she arrived in Mexico City in the mid-1990s where she met her lifelong friend and mentor, Leonora Carrington, and where she stayed the same. from. On the surface, there is detail: a map of places, an artistic lineage. But, as soon as you tug on the strands, they come loose, like crumbling dirt.
Carrington, in his 1974 surrealist novel auditory trumpetdescribes a room in which the furniture has been painted, optical illusion, on the walls. Like Zukofsky’s photographs, the images in Carrington’s novel are dreamlike images of the world, which dissolve when you try to hold them. It’s fitting that this book, which delights in the tactile, also resists identification with the three-dimensional world. There is a floor, but you cannot stand on it.
I was simultaneously drawn to the depths and the surface of this book. He asks to be touched. It celebrates the surface. The thick black pigment of the Risograph process promises depth, even if it denies access to it. In Mexico City, where I first got my hands on it in the spring of 2022, most stores were still applying a sticky squirt of hand sanitizer. The world has been a waking nightmare for the past two years. There are deadly, unseen, but natural forces that threaten our very being. The picture of this world changes every week. It’s a mythical tale, told and told like a collapsing landslide. Scientists are presented as mythical heroes. Their task is to demystify folk remedies straight out of a surreal satire by Carrington. As Luis Buñuel said of Carrington’s novel, “auditory trumpet frees us from the miserable reality of our days.
Zukofsky’s book is also liberating. It frees us from the domain of meaning, of reference, of the index: these austere lands of photographic non-fiction. Instead, this book is a new land where touch can be fantastical, dreamlike, otherworldly. Will we see more of Zukofsky? The publisher’s biography concludes inconclusively: “Rumors of his presumed death have been growing since he last appeared publicly in 2011.”
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Kim Bell is an art historian who teaches at Stanford University. She is the author of Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography.