Guy Bolongaro, Gravity Begins At Home

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Here Press (here). Screen-printed cardstock slipcase with applied stickers (each copy with a unique configuration). Contains four concertina books, each 24 × 17 cm., each with 32 pages, for a total of 112 photographs, and 1 sticker sheet. Design by Ben Weaver Studio. Printed in 750 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: This time of year can be exciting for parents. The school year is coming to an end and, by turning a calendar page, the children transfer their base of daily activities from school to home. The domestic sphere could offer a new place for companionship, conversation, and development. For those with prepubescent children – ages 6 to 12, say – it also brings a kinetic dimension. Children have enormous reserves of potential energy. Confining them indoors is like cramming wolverines into a milk crate. At some point, you can expect explosive results, with exact momentum beyond simple prediction.

Judging by Guy Bolongaro’s photographs, his children have spent much of the past two years bouncing off walls. As pandemic restrictions forced the Bolongaros indoors, such events spread from the summer to every other month. The resulting state of chaos forms the backdrop to Bolongaro’s recent boxed folio Gravity starts at home. Its title is taken from a 1959 lyric written by Ivor Cutler, who claimed that “the theory of gravity is a bunch of nonsense”. A fallacious assertion perhaps, but which Bolongaro does not seek to refute. If kids want to float through the air, his series shrugs it off, that’s their business. And if the childish highjinx inspires similar behavior in nearby animals, clothes, hair, lamps, moons, rocks, candles, fruits, and shadows, that’s fine, too. All of these subjects make appearances in the series, sometimes in flight and other times on the ground. But the main protagonists are his son Ivor, his daughter Rudy and his beleaguered wife Charlotte.

Bolongaro is a social worker by trade, with commensurate openness to alternative choices and lifestyles, as well as some scruples. “My social work has really deepened my deep ambivalence about family,” he recently told the British Photography Journal. ” I do not think so [the family structure] works. The last century has shown that the family is broken down – it is very fragile, really dangerous, it perpetuates inequality and oppression and is a hothouse for neuroses and dysfunctions.

This is perhaps a surprising opinion from a photographer focused on his children. Nonetheless, the Bolongaro family appears to be in good working order. Their home is relaxed and child friendly, close to a childhood paradise as far as I can tell. Toys sit on most flat surfaces, while nearby crafts, books, and stickers are always ready. It may have been a pandemic or a chronic disease. In any case, young Ivor and Rudy seem to have the wind in their sails. Many of their father’s photos capture their fuzzy limbs tearing the pieces apart. Settings sometimes extend to parks, day hikes, and city streets. There’s even a gym routine on a plane. At the other extreme of proximity, a visual undercurrent of celestial objects draws attention to distant gravitational effects.

Bolongaro captures and combines all of this material in ever-changing permutations, with Charlotte (and possibly Guy too, though he’s never shown on camera) scrambling to keep a lid on the boil. A twisted pretzel of arms and hands on a table alludes to a kitchen whose food utility has long since been taken over by arts and crafts. Several photos show animal masks and their construction materials. Piles of laundry double as animated sculptures, while screens, mirrors and curtains divide spaces into lockers, custom-designed for fantasizing or sneak attacking. Clothing seems somewhat optional in the Bolongaro household, depending on the mood or time of day. And, like many kid-centric spaces, bloated gloves, cardboard spaceships, high-alert pets, and bubbles are rampant. If you’ve raised young children at some point in your life, you might find yourself heaving a sigh of exhaustion as you flip through these images. I went there, it’s done. Phew!

Bolongaro joins a long tradition of photographers shooting candid family scenes. Alain Laboile, Trent Parke and Sally Mann come to mind, just to name three whose work falls into the same wild child stage. But Bolongaro’s distinctive visual approach probes even wilder territory. His aesthetic of the snapshot approaches the outer limits of bodily juxtapositions. Random elements abound in each image, with odd cropping, flashy objects, overlays, and hues in ever-changing arrangements. These are less childhood memories than compositional experiences.

One wonders if Bolongaro wants to capture childhood memories, or simply cram graphic shapes. It may be a bit of both. Its frames are usually jam-packed with found-in-situ content. But if he considers them lacking, Bolongaro is content to spice up the scenes with new ingredients. A scene of toilets and toilet paper rolls, for example, is animated by a model of a solar system launched into the air. There’s no logical reason for the little planets to be in a bathroom, but they’re dynamic and provocative, and that’s enough to Gravity starts at home. In another bathroom scene, watching Charlotte and Ivor in the tub, Guy launched a melee of flying daffodils. All for laughs, it seems… and bold shapes.

If juggled objects unbalance the reader, the mood is enhanced by a new design. This folio is not a “book” in the traditional sense. Instead, it contains four concertina booklets stacked inside a cardboard slipcase. Each can be flipped through individually like a normal book, sort of. But the digestion of the images is hardly homogeneous. Photos appear on both sides of the accordion fold, so you have to flick through it twice to see everything. And even then, the footage is tricky, with cuts and creases on all four sides, like a child-made cootie catcher hiding secret pockets. I have studied the four booklets several times from all angles, and I still have the nagging suspicion that I have missed a few photos. Meanwhile, the images themselves have a blending effect, appearing in a mix of sizes, color spaces, and aspect ratios. Some are full bleed, some monochrome, some glued with others. Overall, the design feels like a child is choosing clothes for the day. Maybe that shirt with those pants? Five minutes later, perhaps a completely different choice. Nobody keeps score, so why not let loose and have fun?

Bolongaro cites Michael Northrup as an influence, and his photos pay direct homage to Northrup’s monographs baby and beautiful ecstasy, both packed with great photos of aerial projectiles captured by flash. There’s also a strain here of Wolfgang Zurborn, and his quirky compositional puzzles. Bolongaro’s style resembles both, but with a decidedly domestic twist. And while Northrup and Zurborn content themselves with “direct” captures, Bolongaro pushes the boundaries of processing by incorporating collages, silhouettes and patterned backgrounds. Cut-out and mirrored faces raise questions of basic appearance and representation. Maybe personal identity is starting to soften after months of being locked up with family? Bolongaro applies these treatments with skill. If his images threaten to spiral out of control, they never quite succeed. Perhaps a metaphor for balanced parenting.

A few images have stickers on the surface, some of which are rephotographed and re-pasted. In reality Gravity starts at home the front cover comes with real stickers randomly applied by Ivor and Rudy, spilling over and through the title. Each permutation is different, all 750 in the edition. If the reader is feeling so inspired, there’s a new sticker sheet included with the folio, including a fox mask, leg, apple, and more. They can be stuck on the box or on the walls of the house. It’s a whimsical touch and a throwback to childhood. Bolongaro and his family seem to be having fun, and they want you to have fun too. In a photo book environment that can sometimes get bogged down in melodrama and gravity, I found the sticker sheet a breath of fresh air. It’s good to flip some serious stuff once in a while, especially during a pandemic.

Whether Gravity starts at home is a tonic for readers, which also outlines Bolongaro’s creative journey. “I came to photography after a period of burnout and poor health,” he said in a recent interview. “I needed a simple daily creative outlet that wasn’t too cerebral or head-based. Something where I could just respond rather than having to carry a blueprint or a set of creative goals or anything preconceived; something to build new mind patterns and habits, to be more receptive, and to calm inner monologue. Unsurprisingly, the photography was ideal, and it started to be very helpful and therapeutic to walk around with my gaze directed outward responding and capturing things that appealed to me.

After an initial phase of filming exterior subjects, the confinement of the pandemic coincided with a family dynamic to provide ideal photographic material. It was just before him. All he had to do was observe, position himself and know when to press the button. Of course, there was also the little question of parenthood, which can sometimes be tricky when photographing. Judging by Bolongaro’s results, that task seems well in hand.

Collector’s point of view: Guy Bolongaro doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist via their Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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