Review by Gerhard Clausing •
Very seldom do we encounter photobooks that not only are a total surprise but can serve to entertain us too. This is one such exceptional example. During the height of the pandemic, Kessels and Sauvin exchanged visuals from their extensive collection of anonymous ‘vernacular’ photographs with each other, and now we are privy to those surprises too, with creative verbal cues by Kingston Trinder making the mix even more intriguing. All the elements combined in this innovative photobook can involve the viewer/reader in more ways than one.
The images come from the vast collections of these two artists, who have saved many thousands of such discarded photographs, of unknown origin but of earnest and astute intent, and coming from two cultural realms, the West and the East. Erik Kessels of the Netherlands and Thomas Sauvin, originally from France, but now for many years in Beijing, are collectors and curators as well. Their selections – from the vast treasure trove of work created by unknown photographers and otherwise destined for oblivion – speak of their artistic acumen and their sense of humor too.
‘Vernacular’ photographs are by definition devoid of their specific context. Nevertheless, we can often discern an original motive for the creation of a particular image, and we also can often perceive some cultural underpinnings that might be worthy of attention or comparison, if for no other reason than to realize that we are all much more similar than we are different. The visual record of previous generations gets repurposed through books like this one, and by giving the issues of the past a new life through widespread visual exposure, we can connect previous everyday visions with concerns about our own present and future.
This photobook has a unique format as well. The images are all in small postcard size, bound by a spiral, with those from Kessels on top and those from Sauvin constituting the bottom half. They are perforated, which means they can be separated from the book and used individually or in groups, to which I will come back in a moment. The total set includes 120 pieces, 60 from each author. On the back of each image, as I am showing in sets 3 and 4 below, is a creative short phrase loosely related to the photograph, but you don’t see it until you turn the image over.
How does all of this go beyond the customary format? It gives the viewer/ reader the freedom to become a curator too. You can select a sequence of combinations that suits your own liking, as well as a content subset that suits you. I have written about the benefits of loose-leaf publishing in my discussion of Stockdale’s Bluewater Shore, Ramos’s From the Heart, and Sejud’s Hoax (the links to those discussions are superimposed on the titles). So you can flip the pages of this book one set at a time to see what the authors thought would go together. Or you can open any page pair randomly to see what fate has determined might belong together. Or you can remove all 120 pieces and get a seemingly endless number of possible combinations.
In the ‘anything goes’ mode, any and all juxtapositions of your own design are possible. You can match a toy seal with human swimmers in a pool, since anything goes. Your narratives are of your own design, your fantasy world can be applied to these pictures of the past. Using the image cards as game pieces, you could create and play some games with family and friends, such as:
- Each participant gets seven random images and needs to make a story out of them, in sequence or using them randomly.
- Each participant gets seven random pieces, needs to make a story or narrative out of the words, without having seen the photographs, then turn them over and relate the story to the images.
- Pick a piece, any piece, sight unseen, and create and present a TV commercial based on the image and/or its verbal cue.
- Caption game: what caption or utterance would YOU create for a particular vernacular image?
- Randomly pick a card, read its verbal cue, then pick a specific different image that you think it goes with. Then do this four more times, and finally make a story around the set of five images, using the other five verbal cues.
Creative writers may get the inspiration for entire novels out of such sets of anonymous photographs. These are just a few ideas that occurred to me in a few days; I am sure you will think of many more. In any case, congratulations to the authors and the publisher for setting this in motion. Might this start a wave of party games involving vernacular photography?
Gerhard Clausing is the Associate Editor of the PhotoBook Journal and a photographer and author.
Erik Kessels and Thomas Sauvin – Talk Soon
Erik Kessels (born in Roermond, Netherlands; lives in Amsterdam)
Thomas Sauvin (born in France; lives in Paris)
Texts: Kingston Trinder
Publisher: Atelier Éditions, Los Angeles & Montréal; © 2020
Hardcover with spiral binding; 120 tearaway postcard images with texts en verso, unpaginated; 15 x 18 x 4 cm / 6 x 7 x 1.5 inches (8 x 7 x 2” with spiral; individual postcards are 14 x 9 cm / 5.5 x 3.5 inches if removed); printed and bound in Italy. ISBN 978-1-7336220-5-9
Photobook Designer: Capucine Labarthe
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).