I’ve been thinking about how the form of photography books is informed by the concept around which the book is conceived. This was certainly the case for two publications that I reviewed in Fraction in recent months: The Canadians, a page-by-page rejoinder to Robert Frank’s The Americans, with images drawn from the archives of The Globe & Mail; and Documentum, Fall Line Press’s transposition of Instagram to newsprint, which played with notions of what is necessary and possible in both print and digital media. Cristina de Middel’s This is What Hatred Did, reviewed last year, was designed in direct response to its source material My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the photobook building on the mythologies of Amos Tutuola’s novel.
The structure of a book becomes essential to the reading of the material in situations where the generating conceit of the project is strongly conceptualized – where content is chosen according to the concept, rather than the concept emerging from the material. The edit becomes like a game where the images are pieces slotted into the appropriate position. The pleasure of the book resides to some extent in a conscious engagement with the logic of the book. In some cases this can detract from the experience of the images themselves, in other cases this won’t hurt the images at all.
Recently I received a copy of Nariz, an independently published record by Eduardo Arénas. Arénas, bass player for the Los Angeles band Chicano Batman, produced the solo album over six years and Lorena Endara, his wife, created a modest 10” square photo booklet to accompany the 12” vinyl. The music on Nariz is a mix of styles including blues, funk, and Brazilian Tropicalía, the latter itself a mélange of traditions brought together in an act of “cultural cannibalism.” The photographs similarly draw on different styles and approaches, the twelve images corresponding to each of Arénas’ twelve tracks. The album is bright and vibrant and beautifully produced. My first question to myself was: can this small book stand alone, and if not, how is it like or different from album art?
The twelve photographs run across a range of references and modes - abstract, figurative, notational, and sensorially immersive. The Nariz images remind me a little of surrealist photography of the 1920s and 1930s, where symbols are appropriated both for their power and in order to see them repositioned. They feel like, but don’t look like surrealist photographs; the overarching feel is psychedelic. We see a lizard without its tail, cacti with their leaves perforated, a nude with her back painted, trees with colors digitally dropped in. The pictures don’t necessarily seem to belong together – but they don’t seem to not belong together either. With the images linked to the music more than they are to one another, the photo book does not want to be read as a narrative on its own; without the music it’s hard to imagine why one image would follow another.
Alongside the music, however, the photographs make sense. Just as entering a gallery primes a visitor to encounter the pieces on the wall as art, and not information, the music brings forth the images’ assertive intention to be read in this specific context, which then opens up the opportunity for a very focused experience of both music and photographs. Visual mood and tone shape the hearing of the music. Each photograph could be the cover art for an individual single.
Last month I considered reviewing Nariz alongside Darin Mickey’s Death Takes A Holiday, set in used record stores, and both related to vinyl, but it didn’t seem fair to either. The idea felt awkward as Nariz is so different from the traditional idea of a photobook and the kinds of cases that photobooks make for themselves. Tied so closely to the music, the success of the images lies in their ability to enhance the experience of the music. Like the examples I cited earlier, Nariz draws attention to its own structure. In this case, the awareness of the structure is a pleasure, because of the warmth of the total work, and also because the design helps the listener to experience the pictures in relation to the music.