Barry Schwabsky’s Picture Library: Appearances and Disappearances, Truths and Fictions

Karla Hiraldo Voleau, Chrissy Lush, Carla Williams, Francesca Woodman, Myriam Boulos, Samuel Gratacap, Steven Seidenberg

Autofiction is one of the main genres of contemporary literature. Everywhere the reading public believes that, as Oscar Wilde’s Gilbert said (in The Critic as Artist), “In literature mere egotism is delightful.” While staged and constructed photographic scenarios have been important to photographic art since the 1980s, and so have diaristic modes, the two haven’t blended often; artists who set out du côté de chez Wall or via le côté de Goldin never reach the point where, like Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, they meet. But something like that is what happens in the Swiss-based, Dominican- French artist Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s book Another Love Story (MÖREL Books, London, 2023, edition of 750), which developed from an exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris in 2022 (but feels quite autonomous, not like the printed representation of an exhibition). It starts out with an exchange of text messages: “‘Hi, this is Karla. I don’t know if you know who I am: X’s girlfriend. He told me something extremely shocking a couple days ago regarding you two, and I’d like to talk to you to clarify the situation. Is it ok?’ ‘Hi Karla, yes please call me.’”

The sequence of photographs that follows traces the story of Karla’s relationship with the duplicitous X. They are raw and seemingly unfiltered, all taken with a cell phone, then printed out, taped to the wall and rephotographed—a distancing that, paradoxically, serves to lend even greater immediacy of effect. Amidst the images, a transcript of a phone conversation appears; the two women agree to meet and together confront X … But the confrontation is not pictured. We never see the other woman—just incessantly, obsessively, Karla and X. But as we learn from Clothilde Morette’s interview with Voleau, which closes the book, the man we see in the pictures is not her deceiver. She made the book by recreating the pictures she’d made with him, substituting an actor. X really is, you might say, the variable in an equation. And then of course one has to wonder: In that case, how much more fiction might there be in this tale? We’ll never know, probably, yet the anatomy of blind yearning these images convey feels completely true.

Karla Hiraldo Voleau, Another Love Story, edition of 750, published by MÖREL Books, London, 2023.

Another kind of performative autofiction turns up in Hold Me Tight (self-published, 2022), by Chrissy Lush, a photographer based in Florida. It evokes a different kind of infidelity: not a lover’s betrayal, but rather the factitiousness of recollection—the disconnect between oneself then and oneself remembering and judging now. All but a handful of the book’s 20-odd colour images show interactions between a pair of identical women: Lush playing both her younger and her present (40 years old) self—“my present self revisiting a memory,” as she puts it. (Presumably this was done using digital means.) The results are at once funny and poignant. One’s younger incarnation can be neither helped nor judged, only at best (with luck and some forbearance) accepted. Probably the smartest decision Lush made in creating this series was to eschew any attempt to make her two selves look different, let’s say through makeup. The viewer is left to wonder who’s really looking back at whom. And some of the most memorable images are the ones where just a single figure appears. In one, we see her, surreally, in a mirror, turned away from it: a visual emblem reminding us that you can’t really see your reflection in the looking glass of the past. Particularly fascinating is another where—her face mostly out of the frame, with just a single eye enough to convey subjectivity—she’s lying on a carpet listening to a vinyl record spinning on the turntable. Vinyl? Surely that’s the old—that is to say, the young—Chrissy? But no, I don’t think so. Twenty years ago, vinyl was passé and hadn’t yet come back into fashion. And that glass with what looks like whiskey in it? It’s got a ball rather than a cube of ice in it. That, too, feels today. Dreaming about how one used to be: like spinning your old records in the streaming era.

Chrissy Lush, Hold Me Tight, self-published, 2022.

But you don’t need to become your own doppelganger to seek a perspective on your past. Sometimes you just need to sift through the evidence. That’s what Carla Williams has done with Tender (TBW Books, Oakland, 2023, signed edition of 1500), which deservedly won the 2023 Paris Photo–Aperture PhotoBook Awards First PhotoBook Award. “Made in private between 1984 and 1999 and kept mostly to herself for more than 30 years,” as the publisher explains, the 80 mostly black and white pictures amount to a deeply emotional effort at self-discovery by examining the archive of a previous effort at selfdiscovery through an obsessive encounter with the camera. In a brief essay, Williams traces the seeds of this oeuvre to the “indelible influences” of her childhood discovery of her dad’s hidden cache of Playboy and Penthouse magazines. But the results are nothing like the slick, seamless availability of the ideal pin-up model, few of whom unlikely, in any case, to have been Black like her. As feminist scholar Mireille Miller-Young summarizes in a brief, eloquent essay in the book, the young Williams we find in its pages is “ungendered, hyper gendered, pretty girl, bold girl, crying girl, frustrated ready-to-go girl, big girl, new girl, veteran, ancestor, that tender girl … she’s always been there.” My favourite thing about these pictures? It’s the intense, always demanding, sometimes sparkling, sometimes burning gaze they sometimes reveal. She directs it at—who, what? Her own camera, and therefore herself, I guess. It’s as if she’d simply decided that she could depend on the apparatus to do what she needed, even if she wasn’t sure what her need was, as long as she never let it forget that she mistrusted it. Wary of the camera, she didn’t need to be wary of herself. You’d have to go back to Francesca Woodman to find such raw and beautiful self-portraiture by such a young artist, but looking back with Williams at these images with a mature eye—evident in the book’s sober, ruminative pace and sequencing—is something that Woodman denied us. “I had launched into something I hadn’t yet begun to understand,” Williams says. “But I kept photographing.” I hope that means more books to come.

Carla Williams, Tender, signed edition of 1500, published by TBW Books, Oakland, 2023.

Speaking of Woodman, I should at least mention a publication that deserves a much longer and deeper consideration than I can give it here—in fact, at one point I’d thought of devoting this entire column to it: Francesca Woodman: The Artist’s Books (MACK, London, 2023), which reproduces eight unique handmade books (some of them previously unpublished) that the artist made between 1976 and 1980 by inserting her own photographs (and sometimes texts) into found notebooks—“beautiful, nostalgic, yet ordinary objects from the 19th and early 20th centuries,” as Katarina Jerinic writes in an afterword, valued for their “material qualities and their found character rather than the specifics of their content.” But maybe one of the captions Woodman inscribed on the margin of an image in one of the books, showing a woman holding a cat in one hand and a wreath in the other, better sums up their aesthetic: “I want this to be a memorial.”

Francesca Woodman, Francesca Woodman: The Artist’s Books, published by MACK, London, 2023.

If Voleau, Lush and Williams, each in her own way, follow Woodman’s intuition that the self as manifested in the body—its appearances and disappearances, truths and fictions—can become the locus for a vision of being as such, the Lebanese photographer Myriam Boulos instead takes bodies, in the plural, as manifestations of a shared condition. “My friends and I used to take pictures naked in the streets of Beirut,” she writes (in Arabic and English) in her book What’s Ours (Aperture, New York, 2023). “It was our own way of reclaiming our streets and our bodies.” And then, “the place of the body changes in times of crisis.” Her book is as full of crowds as it is of solitude. Her eye is voracious. It doesn’t want distance; it wants tactility. It wants, even, to devour its subjects. At first, I thought Mona Eltahawy was somehow exaggerating, in her essay for the book, in her emphasis on the sexual dimension of these photographs. But the more I look, the more I understand that she is right, that there is something profoundly libidinal in the urge to overcome the boundary between oneself and others that suffuses this book. It’s an urge that can feel violent. Time itself seems to explode, and one notices that while the opening of the book carries the dates 2013–2023, specifying “Images, journal entries, and fragments of conversations in nonchronological order,” the journal entries throughout the book are all dated between 2019 and 2022, while the publisher’s sheet of press images dates the photographs to 2017–2020. I think that means What’s Ours contains not just the immediacy of each of the moments when a picture was taken or diary entry written down but something of the recent past and near future as well.

Myriam Boulos, What’s Ours, published by Aperture, New York, 2023.

Bilateral by Samuel Gratacap (Poursuite, Arles, 2023) begins with a sequence of images semidissolved into dot matrices and sometimes overlapping. Most of them show men wearing suits and ties, their faces expunged. Only after 16 such pages does a title page appear, so that the book proper can be said to begin there, in media res, first with seven blurry, double-page images of hooded figures seen from behind as they trek, at times on all fours, through a snowy mountain landscape, followed by a single-page image of some of them, for the first time seen from in front—but their faces are entirely hidden under the shadows cast by their hoods. What follows are scenes of the rough, inhospitable landscape itself; people appear in only a few of them and, although the season seems to have changed and they are dressed less warmly, their faces remain unseen. From the concluding essay (in French and English) by Michel Agier—anthropologist and director of the Centre for African Studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris—we understand that this is the Alpine border between Italy and France where (although within the Schengen zone that is nominally an area of unrestricted movement) migrants risk their lives to cross undetected. The men we don’t exactly see in the book’s overture are presumably the bureaucrats who make the rules that deem the migrants undesirable; perhaps turnabout is fair play and Gratacap’s depersonalization and dehumanization of them simply mirrors their own actions; but it makes me uneasy, whereas the pages showing the effortful progress of the migrants arouse sympathy without any need to show their faces. Instead, the book evokes bodies—“caught between sufferance and movement, stalked, exhausted, sometimes merely shadows, but always with the drive to advance,” as Agier writes—and the terrain through which they move, a terrain that can never be a home and only a place of hazardous transit.

Samuel Gratacap, Bilateral, published by Poursuite, Arles, 2023.

The people who might once have inhabited the spaces pictured in The Architecture of Silence: Abandoned Lives of the Italian South (Contrasto, Rome, 2023), by the San Francisco-based photographer and poet Steven Seidenberg, are more than faceless— they are absent. As explained in an introductory essay by anthropologist Carolyn L White, Seidenberg’s subject here is the ruins of a failed post-World War II land reform project: impoverished rural families were given houses but on plots of land too small and too unproductive to farm economically, so the buildings were abandoned and fell into ruin on a landscape that’s now owned by huge agricultural industries. As seen through Seidenberg’s lens, these decaying, long-unused spaces still seem eerily inhabited by the traces of their former occupants. Actually, what dwells in these images are the artist’s intent gaze and what, in an interview with White, Seidenberg calls the “laborious circumspection” with which, in search of visual evidence that can find a place in the larger sequence of pictures he constructs, he homes in on the scenes this historical folly has left in its wake. In a companion volume, edited by White, Distant Voices: On Steven Seidenberg’s Architecture of Silence (Contrasto, Rome, 2023), interpretive essays by 15 European and American thinkers frame 16 of Seidenberg’s images. This division of the project into two books, one dominated by photographs and the other by text, represents an unusual and productive way of handling the dialectic of picturing and writing. ❚

Steven Seidenberg, The Architecture of Silence: Abandoned Lives of the Italian South, published by Contrasto, Rome, 2023.

Barry Schwabsky’s recent publications include a monograph, Gillian Carnegie (London: Lund Humphries, 2020), and the catalogue for the retrospective exhibition “Jeff Wall” at Glenstone Museum, 2021. His new collections of poetry are Feelings of And (New York: Black Square Editions, 2022) and Water from Another Source (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2023).

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