Review by Rudy Vega •
The cover of Mark Gill’s photobook The Airborne Toxic Event shows a solitary figure crossing an intersection dressed in a red, full-length hooded jacket wearing a mask, carrying a couple of tote bags and, oddly, wearing open-toed sandals. The man in red, as it turns out, is also the only figure to be wearing a mask – an interesting side note, to be sure. The photographs comprising The Airborne Toxic Event were taken between February 29 and May 31 of 2020, thus contextualizing the content in no uncertain terms – the global pandemic COVID-19, which by the time of this writing has left an indelible mark on most if not everyone on the planet. For anyone who picks up The Airborne Toxic Event, the images become relatable on a personal level. In addition to being the cover photo, this image is also the first of the 41 photographs making up the collection. It is an apt introduction, foretelling the approach Gill utilizes to present the book’s overarching goal, which is to document the effects on everyday life on the small town that is his home.
The photographs of The Airborne Toxic Event are documentary in nature and utilize a street photographer’s ethos, careful not to have his camera’s presence be acknowledged by his subjects; all the while highlighting quirky details and looking out for odd or interesting juxtapositions. The images are composed straightforwardly, with only a couple of examples where the camera is pointed anywhere but straight ahead. Gill takes a deadpan approach to his photography; the images lack obvious embellishment or flourishes of photographic hyperbole. Instead he opts for a more honest appraisal of what the pandemic has manifested in the streets of this small town. Photographs are taken day and night, often depicting individuals walking the streets, while a number of images are of individuals just passively waiting. Only a single photograph exhibits more than two people together in a group – evidence, perhaps, of the social splintering effect of COVID-19. Other photographs point to the effects of a mandated lockdown: businesses are shuttered and empty, or establishments with available seating are eerily vacant instead. These photographs succeed at making clear the negative economic impact brought on as a result of the pandemic.
With a couple of films to Mr. Gill’s credit, one can view a number of Gill’s photographs in The Airborne Toxic Event as establishing shots awaiting narrative possibilities for the viewer to entertain. This in turn provides added curiosity to what lies just outside the frame hidden from view.
Images of The Airborne Toxic Event carry a patina of dread. The joy of everyday life is leached out of existence, yet as in the cover photo, Gill looks for humor or comic relief – however dry – where he can find it, suggesting an alternative take to the constant “white noise” that is the pandemic. Examples include the fourth photo, depicting three individuals – a woman seated looking at another woman crouching with phone to her ear while peering inside some kind of business establishment. A third person, a man with his back to the camera, with arms folded across his chest as he watches the scene unfold. This image could almost belong to Martin Parr – but only if the saturation levels had been turned up to eleven. Photograph #11 has a merchant patiently waiting for a sale of individual rolls of toilet paper (an early casualty of the lockdown in terms of shortages) for a mere 50 pence – roughly $.62 for those of us who reside across the pond. In another humorous scenario, two gentlemen sit across from each other ostensibly conversing in a small plaza-like space. The exaggerated example of social distancing nonetheless provides an example of new spatial relationships among acquaintances, as dictated by the pandemic. These examples do offer a nice counterpoint, a respite if you will, to what would otherwise be an overcooked emphasis on gloom and doom.
At 41 images one could hardly call The Airborne Toxic Event an exhaustive photo essay. Instead we look at the images as an abbreviated sample from which we can extrapolate, and then arrive at a narrative that satisfies Gill’s photographic objective.
Throughout The Airborne Toxic Event, Gill strives for a quiet objectivity to his images. His formalist aesthetic shows careful consideration to what lies within the frame. Color, light and shadow are used to full advantage, all three playing a prominent role within a given composition.The photographs shy away from being judgmental, as there’s modesty at work, the photographs omit individual titles or specificity of location, as well as being not numbered and lacking a legend at the back of the book. None of these things take away from the impact of the collective whole, for the book succeeds in creating a tableau of what life has become in the small town due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Returning to Gill’s foreword, it must be noted that the title The Airborne Toxic Event was a chapter from Don Delillo’s White Noise, in which the protagonist is exposed to a potentially lethal amount of a toxic substance, leading to an existential dread and obsession with mortality and death. Gill cites the passing of two of his family members. In this loss, the pandemic becomes no longer white noise but a force to be reckoned with. His camera then becomes a tool of choice in order to provide documentation of life in his local environment, and the impact on what used to be known as normal.
The years 2020 and 2021 will surely provide ample opportunity for photographers throughout the globe to document the effects of COVID-19, and photographers will surely put their own personal stamp on the proceedings. Mark Gill’s The Airborne Toxic Event will be one such volume of images from the small corner from where he resides. It is one that will make a lasting contribution for our times.
And finally, the last image in The Airborne Toxic Event Mr. Gill points his camera to the heavens to photograph the constellation Orion. An interesting choice to offer viewers, a sign of hope perhaps that the Great Hunter will ultimately protect us? An image to ponder …
The Airborne Toxic Event, 2020, Mark Gill
Photographer: Mark Gill (from Manchester, United Kingdom)
Publisher: D–CHAN books, © 2020
Hardcover, 59 pages with 41 color photographs, 12 x12 inches (30.48 x 30.48 cm);
edition of 100, signed and numbered; printed and bound in United Kingdom.
Editor: Alan Aboud
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).