Review by Steve Harp •
One of the few things – perhaps the only thing – I remember from high school chemistry is the teacher referring to water as “the universal solvent.” That concept or image has stuck with me, the idea that if left in water long enough, everything will dissolve, fade away, disappear. That memory returned in looking through Brad Temkin’s monograph, The State of Water. In considering these images, it struck me that a potential alternate title for this work might be “the industry of water.” For mostly these images depict the processing of water, the environments and operations through which water moves in its lifecycle: rainwater, runoff, sewage, potable water.
The State of Water is a physically striking volume, suggesting the monumental infrastructures many of the images depict. Weighing in at seven pounds, measuring 11″x14″ and nearly an inch thick, the book covers are 1/8″ cardboard, the edges unfinished but covered by a clear glassine dust jacket. I go into such specific detail to emphasize how the physical presentation of the book echoes the imposing structures involved in the transformations of water from state to state. Also noteworthy is the fact that the spine runs horizontally, its pages turned from bottom to top (rather than standing vertically as with most folio volumes, whose pages turn right to left – or vice versa), like a calendar. The volume is thus truly a “table book” (coffee or otherwise), virtually necessitating a stable support for its viewing.
In an extended interview with Anne Wilkes Tucker, included as a separate softcover ‘zine slipped into a pocket at the back of the book, Temkin and Tucker discuss the concept of “biophilia.” Biophilia, Temkin explains, “says that everything in nature exists because of collaboration and connection.” “Collaboration” thus suggests, as Temkin’s images explore, the fact that nature and culture, far from being antithetical concepts, are intimately intertwined. This entwinement is reflected in the title’s duality; “state” can be taken in either of two related but distinct ways. The state of water might refer to the condition of water, as Tucker comments in the interview, remarking on Temkin’s “fascination with the properties of water.”
Yet another understanding of “state” is as a political unit or dominion. The massive infrastructures so prominent in these images would seem to reveal the presence and workings of such a state, places created by corporate or government entities, as Tucker suggests, with water seen as both product and agent of “industrial” processes. The ambiguity of water’s function is what is most compelling about these images – it is both actor and acted upon. An uneasy duality indeed. Something of Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime is evoked in certain of these images – notions of vastness and “the terrible uncertainty of the thing described.” Yet the cryptic (and crypt-like) spaces (such as “Sewer – Philadelphia – 2018” and “Slow Sand Filters – Philadelphia – 2017”) and puzzling objects (“Screen – Chicago – 2017”), ambiguous as they are, cannot distract us from the dominating power of this “state,” that meets the aquatic vastness with an equally vast machine of conquest, challenging the water’s depth with a steely face. “Collaboration” seems an uneasy term for these reflective surfaces.
In the opening of the “conversation” (as the interview is termed), Tucker remarks on the importance of Temkin’s “aesthetic commitment to beauty [through] control of formal relationships, tonalities, color and shapes.” These concerns are apparent as visual considerations throughout The State of Water in both the images and the presentation. Later in the interview Temkin discusses the importance of beauty and its allure in his approach to photography: “ . . . if I’m seduced by beauty, other people can be too. I use that to get people interested in the subject. . . . I’m trying to seduce people to become interested in the subject, and if they’re interested in the subject, then they’re going to research it, and hopefully find things . . . ”
I wonder, though, if beauty’s seduction necessarily works that way. While seduction can be a kind of attraction, it can also lead astray. Does the seduction of beauty lead deeper into the subject or leave the viewer to remain hovering on the surface of the visual? I’m reminded of the photographer-protagonist in Atom Egoyan’s 1993 film, Calendar. Hired to photograph a series of abandoned Armenian churches for a calendar, the photographer is resolutely uninterested in their history or spiritual importance. At one point he remarks about his way of seeing, “. . . they were very beautiful places . . . very well-composed, beautifully lit and very seductive.”
For me the most compelling – seductive, if you will – image in the book is “Floating Spider – Seattle – 2017.” In it, we look down on floating archipelagos of bubbles. Scale is ambiguous, as is distance. We could be looking down from space, or the printed image may be larger than life-size. Initially, I took the reference to a “floating spider” to be metaphorical, as the clusters of bubbles seem almost web-like. But on looking closer, barely visible and smaller than any of the individual bubbles, I notice a small black speck with legs – a spider, seemingly. What is water to that spider? This seductiveness is of uncertainty and discomfort rather than formal beauty. How long do I need to remain in this water for the image to “resolve” – or dissolve – conceptually? Which brings up a third way “state” might be taken – to utter, as in to make an assertion. What do we hear in these photographs? What is water saying?
Brad Temkin was previously featured in PhotoBook Journal; Rooftop
The State of Water, Brad Temkin
Photographer: Brad Temkin, born and currently resides in Chicago, IL
Publisher: Radius Books (Santa Fe, NM, USA; copyright 2019)
Interview: Anne Wilkes Tucker
Hardcover book, Printed by Editoriale Bortolazzi-Stei, Verona Italy
Design: David Chickery, Montana Currie
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).