Review by Steve Harp •
Among the many poetically posed, yet ambiguously explained, concepts found in the writings of the German essayist and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, one of the most provocative is that of the “optical unconscious.” Introduced in his 1931 essay “A Small History of Photography,” Benjamin compares photography “with its devices of slow motion and enlargement” to what is able to be revealed or discovered in “the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.” This seems simple enough yet, at the same time, remains maddeningly unclear. Is he only referring to technical capabilities of the camera, or is he suggesting something more, something about the way that the camera (and photography in general) both presents what is literally visible in the image itself and suggests that which goes beyond the immediate into history, memory, myth, association? Such are the charms (and challenges) of Benjamin’s writing at its best.
I felt this same, rich tension while considering Phillip Kalantzis-Cope’s 2020 publication Middlescapes. Admittedly, I was nudged toward this connection by the introductory text, written by Kalantzis-Cope. On the first page inside the cover (the book is not paginated) he begins: “Here the grid frames the subconscious mind.” That said, I think I would have made this link in any case. What follows are 24 images, spread over 50 pages (the book’s publicity material gives the length as 36 pages, but my hand count totaled 50) of scenes depicting the American Midwest, the country’s “middlescapes.” The book opens and closes with images of corn fields – arguably the quintessential “midwestern” image. (How can one not find it a beautiful morning, as we are told in Oklahoma, when “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye”?) Yet, the general tone of this “survey” of the “American vernacular” (to use terms from the introductory statement) seems strangely silent.
Other than the introduction, the book is without text. That is, unless one considers (and one should consider) the various images of signage throughout: “Welcome to Buckley, Ill. ‘A Good Place to Live’ “ (p. 6); “Chubby’s Bar and Grill We Give You Health and Strength” (p. 9); “Illinois” banners hanging from the rafters of an arena where a basketball game is being played (p. 11) . . . I’m reminded of the depictions of signage in many of Walker Evans photographs, but the presence of text in those images seems to comment more on the increasing role of advertising in American life and visual culture in the 1920s and 1930s. The signage in Middlescapes, instead, seems to conjure disembodied voices from a much later era, fragments speaking from a void, from a place both familiar and distant. The general sense is of a space both specific and metaphorical, solid and ephemeral. Think of the space of dreams – resolutely there (within the dream world itself) and at the same time obstinately ethereal. In Freud’s view, a space of the unconscious.
One can, of course, only write (and look) from one’s own history. As a lifelong Midwesterner, currently living “just up the road” from the spaces in southern Illinois Kalantzis-Cope has photographed, these images return me to spaces of my growing up in rural Wisconsin. These images might be described as archetypal in the sense that they point to a kind of colloquial view of the middle west, a set of “ordinary landscapes.” Unlike the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher though, whose grids of functional architectural “types” – water towers, grain elevators, barns, warehouses, etc. – draw attention to slight differences through visual similarities, Kalantzis-Cope’s images are both familiar and strange, mundane and elusive. And as with any image implying a remembered view, it may be (or seem) recognizable, but such views are fraught and ultimately inaccessible.
Middlescapes is a “small” book. Its 24 images (a mix of horizontal and vertical views, all in color) are presented in 10 sections, each separated by a blank sheet, recto-verso.
Most sections contain only two or three images (one has five, one section – the last – contains a single image). The book object measures 8” x 9.5” and is spiral bound with brown, paperboard covers. The images are printed on a brilliant, white cardstock. My only qualm about the layout is the shifting positioning of the horizontal images. Some are placed high on the page, some low, some nearly centered. I was unable to discern a reason for these variations. The presentation – though I find it overall visually quite attractive – is emphatically not precious. Instead, the spiral binding suggests a kind of notebook, a container for observations, passing thoughts, unfinished musings. The presentation of the images reads as “an inventory of the ordinary . . . a survey of objects” (as Kalantzis-Cope writes in the introduction).
On the one hand, we can read this as a sociological document, an archive or record of an American middlescape of agriculture, small towns, flags and carnival entertainments. On the other hand, it can be seen as “. . . a collective dream . . . an imaginary place found in reality . . . the subconscious of the everyday” (as described on the publisher’s website). As Benjamin writes in reference to the “optical unconscious” – “For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.” Between the sociological world of the photograph as document and the dream world of the instinctual unconscious, we find the optical unconscious of Phillip Kalantzis-Cope’s Middlescapes.
Middlescapes, Phillip Kalantzis-Cope
Photographer: Phillip Kalantzis-Cope; born Athens, Greece; currently resides in Champaign, Illinois.
Publisher: Immaterial Books (Champaign, Illinois; copyright 2020)
Introduction: Phillip Kalantzis-Cope
Spiral bound, four color digital printing, 100# Cougar interior paper and 100# Kraft-Tone for cover, printed Champaign, Illinois. Edition of 100.
Photobook designer: Phillip Kalantzis-Cope
Photobook editor: Tamsyn Gilbert
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).