Sean Lotman, The Sniper Paused So He Could Wipe His Brow

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by Éditions(M) (here) and Ibasho Gallery (here). Swiss hardcover, 15×30 cm, 96 pages, including 64 split half-pages and three gatefolds, with 95 color photographs and 20 short poems by the artist. Design by Bureau Kayser. Printed in 490 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Sean Lotman has been an expat for almost two decades now. After a politically progressive childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley, Bush-era chauvinism ultimately proved unbearable. Lotman left in his early twenties to see the world, as many do at that age. He considered South America as a destination before settling in Japan. The original plan was to explore there for a year or two. But one thing gives way to another. He fell in love, got married, had a son and settled down. It’s now 2022 and the three are comfortably settled in Kyoto, where Lotman’s wife runs the family’s centuries-old soba restaurant.

His wife Ariko Inaoka happens to be a serious photographer as well as a restorer. She approaches photography with the artisanal attention to home cooking, shooting movies, and enlarging C-prints in a traditional color darkroom. These analog skills took root in Lotman. Before moving to Japan, he had no interest or training in photography. He didn’t even own a camera until his late twenties. But wandering into new surroundings, he soon caught the virus. It has since become a kind of photo otakuobsessively shooting, with four books to his name. The sniper stopped so he could wipe his forehead is the newest and most experimental to date, taking wide liberties with the basic design and shape.

The book brings together 95 photos taken over a period of 15 years. They cover a variety of locations, some twenty countries in all, photographed by Lotman during various trips. Some capture famous landmarks. Most merge into a more obscure travelogue, a Baraka-style tour of world cultures and sites. There are beach scenes and monuments, musicians and cobblestones, horizons and portraits. They form a sketch of the backpacker’s circuit, moving from day to day, opening up new possibilities while resisting attachment. All were shot on 120 color film with a Diana F+ toy camera and then printed in Japan in the family darkroom.

Lotman calls his approach “psychedelic humanism,” and the process of hand-printing in a color darkroom is integral to it. By experimenting with CMY levels and extreme dodge/burn, he can “drive colors and tones to a whole new level of chromatic weirdness”, as he once told me in an interview. “I probably enjoy printing more than taking photos… What I’m trying to do is subvert reality with color (and hopefully a living tableau), in order to provoke an imaginative response to our environment.”

In the Diana, Lotman found a tool worthy of his propensity for subversion. Plastic camera quirks are everywhere Sniper, unifying disparate places and subjecting their documentary value to its limits. A street scene of masked pedestrians, for example, is blurred by camera shake, one of many such frames. The camera’s primitive spring typically creates a shutter speed of around 1/60th of a second, but this figure is approximate and subject to change without warning. Even when the camera is held steady and shot cleanly, the Diana can squeeze in irregularities. The plastic lens usually hides the margins, but not always in the same way. Color shifts can be expected, while strong backlighting sometimes creates ghostly halos. Light leaks into the body can bleed film artifacts from backing paper to negative. Several photos in this book mix exposure numbers and film types with outside subjects. All this to say that perfectionists should stay away. But for those open to chance, the Diana has its delights.

“I love art that has a dreamlike aesthetic,” says Lotman. “Particularly photography…a world made up of its own structure and dreamlike language can be something worth escaping into. We all have fantasies we all like to wander into. Diana is just the starting point, its “dreamy structure” complemented by unusual design choices. At a paltry 30 x 15 centimeters, the book looks more like a dinner menu than a typical monograph. The oblong dimensions were developed in during a 10-day book-making workshop with Teun van der Heijden and Yumi Goto, inspired by a book of poetry, then simplified by designer Laure-Anne Kayser.

In its interior pages, the construction of the book ventures further. The photos are divided into three sections of three dozen images each. The first and third sections are printed on glossy half sheets, stacked in two divided rows. Highs and lows can be paginated independently. It’s the book version of a photo game that can be shuffled into hundreds of pairings. Lotman modeled the malleable layout after the “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books. The intention is to uproot photos of specific memories or events, paving the way for a less logical dream state. Going through these sections of Sniper, one has the vague impression of exotic sites. But it is difficult to glean a lot of concrete information. Instead, the view is interior, a snapshot of Lotman’s drifting thoughts, perhaps the dark recesses of his darkroom or the next bus to catch.

For the middle section, the texture changes to matte paper and the photos are selected for the full-bleed pages, three of which develop further into double gatefolds. Like the initial brush of overseas travels, this part is overwhelming at first. Photos are much larger and less easily pinned. One shows a cloudy torso in pink light. Another appears to record neon streetlights near a leaky window. A look up at a sparkling balcony centers the focus of another photo. Or is it simply an optical game, a spectral diffusion?

I was so busy at first trying to decode those middle photos that I barely noticed the tiny white text inserted vertically into their margins. These are one-line haiku written by Lotman to accompany the photos. For instance, then the clouds parted – a ray of light burst the sky – no one commented. Another one: in his spare time, he nurses eggs, picks up flared nostrils from breathing too deeply. Yet another lends the book its title: the sniper paused so he could wipe his brow and take a sip of water.

“I’m intrigued by the flaw of poorly remembered pasts,” Lotman says. “I wanted to give shape to this stunning in my photo book.” Whether reflecting bewilderment or simply an alternative perspective, the haiku form (honed here in a single line) is meant to sting the subconscious. The attached photos reflect a similar purpose. Both minimize information to capture deeper currents, in this case the simple joys of observation and reflection. These photographic bases form the ultimate theme of Sniperthe unifying vision that unites them.

After a mini-revival about a decade ago, Diana cameras have once again fallen into disuse. Color film is also in decline, and color darkrooms and chromogenic printing are virtually extinct. All facets lend Sniper a past edge, favored by its idiosyncratic design. The book isn’t overtly nostalgic, but it does capture a photographer looking in the rearview mirror, trying to sum up and make sense of fifteen years of travel. Old images blur and intertwine with memories, which in turn are shaken up and altered by the Lotman’s toy camera. The resulting stew is amorphous and hard to disentangle, resulting in a decidedly surreal book. But even if it operates by the logic of the dream – or perhaps because of it –Sniper is a faithful record of past travels.

Collector’s point of view: Sean Lotman is represented by Ibasho Gallery in Antwerp (here). Lotman’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail or the author’s website (here) are the best options for interested collectors to follow.

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