Review by Brian F. O’Neill •
The origin of the term mise-en-scène, while it is now most commonly used within media and cinema studies, is attributed to the French writer Alexandre Dumas. Dumas financed and helped design his Château de Monte-Cristo in Port-Marly, France on the outer suburban fringe of Paris, and in so doing named it after his immensely popular serial turned novel, The Count of Monte-Cristo, and throughout this process the design of the castle and its landscape were carefully conceived, with attention to the last detail. Mise-en-scène, thus refers to the arrangement of various elements within some demarcated space.
As art historian Jesús Ángel Sánchez-García indicates in his analysis of the relation between the writer and the Château de Monte-Cristo, it can be “interpreted as a reflection of Dumas’ literary ambition, as a complex aesthetic portrait. Dumas’ mise-en-scène of his whole life as artwork prompted him to create an elaborate display of visual rhetoric, an interplay of images and words developed through a physical and allegorical relationship with a place now appropriated by and absorbed into his persona.”
This brief etymological excursus has utility in permitting a certain reading of Mise-en-Scène: The Lives and Afterlives of Urban Landscapes (hereafter Mise-en-Scène), the 2021 release by Chris Reed and Mike Belleme by Oro Editions. As I will discuss below, the notion of a complex aesthetic portrait intermixing images and words is especially apropos. Mise-en-Scène is Reed and Belleme’s first major collaboration. Chris Reed is Professor of Practice at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the founder of Boston headquartered landscape architecture firm Stoss Landscape Urbanism. Mike Belleme is a photographer based in Asheville, North Carolina who has done a number of notable reportage projects.
Mise-en-Scène is a handsomely designed book with tipped-in black and white images by Belleme on both the front and back covers cast within a green fabric cover and black stamped text. At 340 pages, including interior essays, which are very nicely laid in with alternate paper and size, by critic/curator Mimi Zeiger, artist-activist De Nichols, architecture scholar Julia Czerniak, ecologist/planner Nina Marie Lister and landscape designer Sara Zewede as well as statements by Reed and Belleme, the reader is treated to tremendous value for the money. Save for some color reproductions in Reed’s opening essay that mark out some inspiration and reference points, as well as various drafts of wireframe designs of the architecture featured within the book, the interior images of Belleme are presented in black and white with excellent attention to the tonality. It is a book that one keeps wanting to come back to, and is rewarded for doing so, as the wealth of material in the book register on both intellectual and aesthetic levels.
The book proceeds along the axes of a series of case studies and in the following order, moving roughly West to East across the United States: Los Angeles, Galveston, Saint Louis, Green Bay, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Boston. While it is not thematically evident why Michigan received the honor of twice being featured, the locations were selected based upon various design projects for which Reed and his firm were commissioned.
Beyond that, Belleme’s images are presented with attention to arrangement and placement, often complimenting, and sometimes contrasting with one another (in terms of both form and content) alongside occasional quotations from various other authors and books, such as that of writer and photographer Teju Cole, and more, all of which indicate some interpretive clues to the images themselves. In addition, Belleme has interspersed some of his own fieldnotes throughout. This articulation of notation and more formal texts within the book provide a depth portrait of each place, but also offer a certain descriptive and theoretical density that is as enjoyable as it is informative and thought-provoking.
Furthermore, this is no mere photobook, and it is clear that the authors did not wish for it to be – this is all for the better. Indeed, at a number of points the book strikes an explicit critical tone that resonates with the accompanying texts, all of which display a richly textured ecological and political consciousness that will be approachable across a gamut of readers, from the more academically inclined to the casual consumer of photographic and design books. This is summed up succinctly in Reed’s opening essay, in which he writes, with certain dramaturgical allusions, that:
“You might think of our work as understanding the scripts and dialogues as they play themselves out; interacting with those on stage and the forces behind the scenes in ways that both respond to and shift what is at work; re-setting the trajectory of the play in ways that sometimes reveals what is hidden; and giving new voice to those who have been off-stage – all allowing for new and healthier interactions among urban dwellers, their cities, and the environments in which they live” (17).
The photographs of the book pick up on many of these ideas. Belleme’s images are extremely capable and exhibit thoughtful variety, from (urban) landscapes to portraits, to the gritty textures and street scenes. The photographic aim appears to be to probe into realities of precarious social life in these cities. Belleme’s socio-cultural eye is especially worth noting. For example, at different junctures, he has photographed the artifacts of the residents with whom he came into contact. Often enough, these are presented in the book in a typological fashion – as specimens for comparative examination.
However, these are not typologies like those of Hilla and Bernd Becher and their students, i.e., of various types of infrastructure. Instead, Belleme was drawn to the more micro-cultural specificity of the places he was photographing. In one instance, a certain coastal disposition is on display with the veritable totems of dogs, angels, and family members cut out of downed trees within lawns, all of which have some relation to coping with the losses of Hurricane Ike. While these may not be “great” individual images in and of themselves, they are presented in a way that aids the comprehensive structure of the book and its narrative. These typologies are a smart contrast with much of the remaining imagery, where in other places, Belleme captures moments of play and joy on the streets, as well as worship, leisure, and urban decay.
I have no doubt that the editorial work involved in this book was immense, and Belleme and the other collaborators have done a beautiful job with this by crafting a form of variable sequencing of images and text. This keeps the reader guessing, while providing coherence. Furthermore, the variety of imagery is also complimented by the numerous design features of the book itself in addition to the small-scale mock-ups and “brainstorm” architectural pieces that are also featured. As such, not only does the reader receive insights into the places and people of these locales, but to the procedures of architectural design and how to possibly construct a more just and sustainable future.
Overall, this playful mise-en-scène operates at the interface of the textual, cartographic, and representational and provides a comprehensive portrait of these American cities. It does so without prejudice to subject matter. Indeed, Reed and Belleme’s message seems to be that in order to imagine what kind of society might be possible, it remains an important and significant task to understand it as it presently exists.
Mise-en-Scène a wonderful achievement of image and text, architecture and theory, activism and art. As a truly interdisciplinary work, it is my hope that this book serves as a call for more of its type that break the boundaries of the artist book and to do so with a critical eye.
Brian O’Neill is a photographer and sociologist.
Mise-en-Scène: The Lives and Afterlives of Urban Landscapes, Chris Reed & Mike Belleme
Photographer: Mike Belleme, born and residing in Asheville, North Carolina
Urbanist: Chris Reed, born in New Bedford, MA and resides in Cambridge, MA.
Essays: Mimi Zeiger, De Nichols, Julia Czerniak, Nina Marie Lister, Sara Zewede, Chris Reed
Publisher: Oro Editions, Novato, California, copyright 2021
Hard cover book, tipped-in black and white images, printing by Oro group Ltd., China, ISBN 978-1-951541-44-6
Design: IN-FO.CO (Adam Michaels, Shannon Harvey, Marina Kitchen)
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.