Review by Steve Harp •
Searching for Stillness Vol II is Michael Behlen’s 2019 follow-up to his 2013 Searching for Stillness Vol I. Volume II is a delightful object which challenges the notion of what might be meant by photobook. In fact, it might be better described as a photobox.
The book itself is a slim, perfect bound edition, 4” x 6” (the same size, of course, as a traditional, commercially printed consumer snapshot). The 56-page volume contains 45 images of what on a first consideration, seem to be banal vacation landscape Polaroids. The printed size of the images, 3.5” x 4.25”, is the same size as the Polaroid 600 series image that is ejected from the camera, including the classic white borders. (To contextualize: Searching for Stillness Vol I also consists of Polaroid imagery, but includes urban scenes and portraiture as well as landscapes, and is printed as a larger 5.25” x 8.25”). The book object is presented in a black cardboard box (4.75” x 6.75” x .75”) with title and author embossed in silver foil. Included in the boxed set as a kind of “bonus” are 4 postcards featuring images from the book (these postcard images being just slightly larger than an actual Polaroid 600 print).
Searching for Stillness Vol II opens with a short introduction by Behlen describing the book as “an examination of the experiences that make us alive . . . [a] symbolic journey of mental transformation”. . . Interspersed among the photographs are two brief quotes – one by Henry David Thoreau and the other by Kahlil Gibran – addressing the importance of solitary searching. This search is visually presented through the book’s sequencing of images as a movement from mountain to lake to ocean. As Behlen remarks in his introduction, “We must commit to reaching the sea beyond the mountains.”
In considering this project, the word that immediately comes to my mind is “precious.” I mean that in a positive way, as in “highly esteemed, dearly beloved” as opposed to “affectedly or excessively delicate, refined or nice,” i.e. overly “fussy.” Paradoxically, what makes this book precious is its flaws, which are all too familiar to anyone who has used Polaroid materials. Early in the pandemic, I became exhausted by the amount of time I was spending on screens and felt the need for an analog “sanctuary.” I began using various instant photographic materials, and quickly became enamored of the inherent “flaws” in Polaroids: the inevitable color-casts, the streaks, bubbling and light-leaks around the edges, the overall softness of focus that makes every image a generality, about something else rather than about the specific subject photographed. The flaws that make each image a metaphor.
The images by Behlen evidence these qualities in absolutely beautiful ways. As mentioned above, the photographs call to mind the always disappointing images brought home from family vacations, never quite matching or recreating the experience. The diminutive size of the book and loose images, the protective box containing these “flawed” views, seem movingly metaphorical for the journeys we are all on, flawed as we all are.
The only problematic aspect I find in this wonderful volume is Behlen’s introduction (and to a lesser extent the quotes by Thoreau and Gibran). To this reviewer, these texts are unnecessary and even counterproductive. The poetry of this object, of its structure and organization, of the images themselves, makes these texts superfluous. The reader/viewer leaves the introduction to encounter a spread with, on the verso, an image of what seems to be an overcast, foggy mountaintop. A spot of light breaks through in the center of the frame. The ambiguity of the image mesmerizes while the development flaws at the bottom of the image render this view particularly human. Recto is a simple line of text: “the search is on”. No more need be said.
Searching for Stillness Vol II, Michael Behlen
Photographer: Michael Behlen, born and resides in Fresno, CA
Publisher: StaticAge (United Kingdom, copyright 2019)
Stiff cover book, printed heavy on silk paper and perfect bound, size A6. Limited to 100 copies with 25 of those as limited edition boxsets. Boxsets include limited edition postcard set in a black box with silver foil print edition of 25. Printed and bound in the United Kingdom.
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