Intimate Distance and Materialities

  By John Veldhoen

This is the first time I have written anything for the store this year. It wasn’t the intention, things have sped up, and I haven’t been able to address the fact that books I have ordered are coming in quickly, even a few that I have purchased, and read. I think we have taken in a little more than thirty new titles since last appearing on the blog, and with gratitude we have received some acknowledgment from the publishers and customers, that our little book nook is becoming a bit more recognizably a resource for people interested in photography as an art form. So, in the next few months I hope to write a few reviews to highlight some of the great new books we have, and to respond to a few customers of the store have asked me to review certain titles.

To begin with, I received an advance copy of “Intimate Wilderness: Arctic Voices in a Land of Vast Horizons”, and this was last year. The store has since received copies. The store has since received copies. I was so impressed by the volume. Mr. Hallendy spent fifty years in the Cape Dorset region of Baffin Island, Nunavut, developing deep relationships with the people, and learning their language, customs, history, and culture. The book is not primarily a book of photographs, I must admit that, and there is a certain level of risk in my decision to carry it, but I was compelled, as I see Mr. Hallendy’s work is unparalleled, and I found it deeply rich, and compelling to read, and secondarily as a modern, practical example of anthropological field photographs; an area of photography that has been holding sway over contemporary art practices ever since John Szarkowski’s “New Documents” exhibition.

I think this bypasses the materiality of photographs in the context of anthropology, but I have no expertise in that area. The problem with a book like Hallendy’s is it is so valuable, and so good, and in this instance, I thought also for the average reader, it shouldn’t be abducted into this or that bracket. It is intriguing that the subject of this book is a vast space, paradoxically treated like an interstice, like a non-place, and maybe the photographs taken in field-work are treated that way too, as too earnest, as impossibly oriented to specialist audiences, and mere source material for discourse. There is a wonderful book, also new to the store, an anthology of essays from independent photobook publisher The Velvet Cell, entitled “Materialities” that addresses some of this. Especially an essay by John Wagner, called “Fieldwork, Archives and Photographic Materials” that offers well researched and thoughtfully annotated direction to pursuing documentary photography.

Wagner’s essay attempts to codify that approach, or delimit it into a definite category, while in the same, small and powerful book, Craig Campbell very intelligently diverges from that pursuit with a novel thesis concerning Claude-Levi Strauss’ “Saudades Do Brasil” and the surface of photographs, and wonderfully goes on to Bill Morrison’s “Decasia” and Peter Delpeut’s “Lyrical Nitrate”, but I am barely scratching the surface, but there is tenderness to this approach, acknowledging the fragility of the subject, life itself, which I found in “Intimate Wilderness”, as well. 

This nicely paired dyad in “Materialities” gave me a feeling I can only explain by analogy, or by resuscitating an old term like “stream-of-consciousness”. I have been watching some old videos on YouTube made by the MoMA, where a conservator paints in the style of various abstract painters. I feel like I have learned about as much as I can from the philosophy of art, and I want to learn more about practical processes. In one video, on Agnes Martin, the conservator flips his canvas, making marks on his canvas from the opposite direction, approximating the feeling I had reading these essays back-to-back. Maybe there is value in photographers approaching their art in a similar way, viewing photography from the perspective of another discipline, like anthropology, or painting, or somewhere else entirely. 

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.