Review by Steve Harp •
I find surreal one of the most consistently misused of words, not only in art contexts but in general usage as well. Most often the speaker will mean visually fantastic or simply unbelievable. However, this is far from the concept of “surrealism” as offered by Andre Breton in his manifestos. For Breton, surreal meant “above” or superior to reality, as in a kind of heightening or intensification of reality as ordinarily experienced. The desolate Parisian street scenes of Eugene Atget are considered by some to be the most surreal of photographs.
Walter Benjamin writes in “A Small History of Photography” that Atget’s “Paris photographs are the forerunners of Surrealist photography.” Breton had another term he used as well for this “intensified” experience of the mundane, and that term is the Marvelous. The Marvelous, according to Breton, was the amazing beauty which is latent in the banal, the everyday, the overlooked. In this sense, Roger Bruhn’s book of photographs 8 ½ Garbage Cans, can truly be described as Marvelous.
My first reaction in considering these images by Roger Bruhn, was a jolt of familiarity and connection. Last spring and summer, while settling into the pandemic for the long haul, as my regular fitness activities ground to a halt, my wife and I began taking long walks each night through our neighborhood, passing through as many alleys as possible, getting to know our neighbors’ yards (particularly their backyards) as we were not able to get to know our neighbors themselves. This is so familiar! I thought as I viewed Bruhn’s images.
Imagine my surprise, then, in reading Bruhn’s Afterword (after walking through the photographs a number of times) to find that that is exactly why and how these images were generated, on family walks in the COVID evenings – those precious rituals that assume so much importance in times of limited possibilities. Though I’ve never met Bruhn, I felt a closeness as I looked at these photographs and remembered my own evening walks. Surreal, eh?
The monograph itself is perfect bound, square format, measuring 10” x 10”, and contains 89 images. It is divided into seven distinct sections, each section beginning with a full-page bleed, left page, looking down what appears to be a gravel alley or access lane. To me, the suggestion is of “the path,” literal and photographic, taken on each evening’s journey or exploration. Each section contains between 8 – 14 photographs. My assumption is that each section presents a different neighborhood explored. Perhaps I am being too literal or narrative, but to me it doesn’t really matter.
Though I’ve never been to Lincoln, Nebraska and I wouldn’t mistake these yards for those in my town, I still feel a wonderful familiarity. Each image is compelling in its framing and its offering of small prosaic details, things that are at the same time so recognizable and so overlooked. Bruhn shows a strong and solid formal photographic sense. The ways he establishes foreground/middle-ground/background relationships and uses the edges of the frame to construct these domestic tableaux are wonderful and visually engaging.
The very unobtrusiveness of the photographic organization lets the viewer enter the scene (the seen) and focus on the visual environment therein. Even so, despite the book’s subtitle (“The Sociology of the American Backyard“), I don’t reads these photographs as primarily documentary (though of course they are), nor do I see them as primarily sociological “research” or “data” (though in his Afterward, Bruhn makes the observation that. “. . . backyards in less prosperous and more diverse neighborhoods had a distinctive, idiosyncratic vibe that was absent in more upscale areas”).
Despite the differences of class and economic levels revealed (or suggested) through the images in terms of the amount of “stuff” in each yard and its organization, Bruhn’s photographs effect a kind of “transcendence” of the economic or the sociological to the “human in the time of COVID,” just as Atget’s “surreal” photographs of more than a century ago manifested a kind of transcendence from material images of late 19th century Paris to an ineffability of the transient, the soon to disappear and just as surrealism itself, in a more general sense, displayed a transcendence from the familiar to the Marvelous. In both Atget’s photographs and Bruhn’s we encounter a juxtaposition of difference and transcendence. Perhaps a better subtitle might have been “A Sociology of the American Backyard.”
For backyards are strange spaces, a kind of “outside of the inside.” More public than a home interior, yet more hidden than the front yard which is – generally speaking – the public display of a house, its façade. The backyard, instead, is a (more or less) open “secret” in a way front yards are not. In his depictions of garbage cans, gardens and construction; debris of various sorts; yard decorations and porch arrangements; toys and bikes and yard playsets; garages and storage sheds; fences and gates; signs and flags, Bruhn presents us with a Marvelous “sameness” (which, of course, is infinitely varied).
These unpeopled scenes, like Atget’s photographs, leave us as viewers free to speculate on – but mostly wonder about – the inhabitants of these spaces. Despite the chaos and clutter of (some of) the yards, each is a treasure; mysterious wonderlands presenting an out-turned, private public face of unique domestic worlds of individuals rich with histories, complexities, relationships and desires. Similar to Atget’s Paris, these “empty” worlds are anything but empty. Instead, they give substance to the idea that we are all more alike than different, and at the same time more different than we can ever imagine.
Steve Harp, Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul University
8 ½ Garbage Cans, Roger Bruhn
Photographer: Roger Bruhn, born Elkhorn, Nebraska, resides Lincoln, Nebraska
Publisher: Ginko Press (Lincoln, Nebraska, copyright 2020)
Foreword: Ted Kooser; Afterword: Roger Bruhn
Stiffcover book, perfect bound, printed in USA.
Photobook designer: Roger Bruhn
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).
Wholda thunk you could have produced such a great book out of showing people’s back sides?
When Roger was taking his walks, he would post many of his images on his Facebook page. One aspect of this project that doesn’t come through is the stories that were generated in the comments to those images. They created a whole other dimension to the project. When he walked my neighborhood, I recognized many of the locations and could relate the happy, funny, and tragic events that happened at them. It took what would otherwise be a temporally static image and gave it a sense of time and evolution.