Review by Brian F. O’Neill ·
A Certain Logic of Expectations, published in 2021 with The Eriskay Connection is the second major book work from photographer Arturo Soto. The book is the result of a five-year odyssey in the city of Oxford, England. It contains 160 pages of 73 color images. The object itself is sized comfortably and with a genuinely welcoming linen wrapped hardcover (160 × 220 mm). The book was designed by Rob van Hoesel (with lithography by Marc Gizjen alongside printing and binding by Wilco Art Books in the Netherlands) and features a tipped-in image on the back cover. Contributing to the experience of the notebook quality of this object is the fact that it is an image-text project that utilizes a paper type and density (matte and physically light – 115 g/m2 on Munken Print White) that reminds one of a sketchbook – it is a place where thoughts and ideas about a place, and about one’s experiences in it, can begin to settle, however provisionally.
Interested in the themes of psychogeography as well as the history of photography, Soto borrows both methodological and theoretical inspiration about how one can bodily experience and investigate a locale through walking as a means of making observations. As such, his mapping of territory in A Certain Logic of Expectations is directed towards subverting dominant discursive traits and patterns of Oxford. This point of inspiration therefore locates Soto’s work in parallel with a number of authors who are associated with critical alternative intellectual/literary/artistic traditions, ranging from Guy Debord to Geoges Perec.
As the reader enters A Certain Logic of Expectations, one finds a considered logic. There are 73 color photographs. Looking astutely, one finds that 13 of these images are square in aspect ratio, often printed through the gutter and often coming in pairs (back-to-back pages). After multiple viewings, it is clear that these are Soto’s “university pictures” (sometimes this is quite on the nose, as in the case of the first image in the book being of a door and the last of the bars surrounding the school’s grounds). Specifically, these images are near-forensic scenes of Oxford. Often these are some banal details he has extracted of a texture, or perhaps a sign, that tells the reader something of the history, the weathered-ness, and the tradition of the place. The remaining images are horizontals, taken on his 6×9 medium format camera, but they are quite clearly not university town pictures. This contrast is at the core of Soto’s project. The images and the narrative juxtaposition are intended as an investigation of the wider confines, the unassuming, and the overlooked “species of spaces” (to use one of Georges Perec’s terms) in the greater Oxford area.
Photographers and artists interested in the recent trends in this kind of “unconventional street photography” will find much satisfaction here. The images are excellent in and of themselves. But, the overall political orientation of the work is what makes it stand out. A Certain Logic of Expectations is, I would argue, usefully read as photography against mystification, that sort of uncritical re-affirmative manner of understanding art, architecture, and the allure of certain places. Soto’s counter-narrative project is evident nearly from the beginning of the book. For example, on page 26, Soto “notes” that:
“Oxford has been very successful at selling itself to the world, with books covering every aspect of its history. This amounts to an exhaustive investigation of a small geographical area. As a contemporary city, however, the story differs. Unlike metropolises like New York or Paris, that continuously add new elements of their myths, Oxford’s capacity to renew itself symbolically seems to be constrained by its illustrious past.”
This text is accompanied by an image on the facing page of what appears to be a middle-class housing estate (some of the area was built as a company town for the manufacture of the globally popular Mini-Cooper car) with a cacophony of contradictory “sold” and “for sale” signage strewn on the grass and along a wooden fence post. Here, Soto has captured one of his dominant themes – political economy. The churn of market booms and busts, of the coming and going of specific industries and cultural values is implied visually, but at the same time in Soto’s own light, yet not comedic tone. Indeed, one of the dominant feelings one comes away with in regard to A Certain Logic of Expectations is Soto’s wry style of visual analysis.
Architecture is of course a key selling point for any university, and this served as a useful theme throughout Soto’s project. For instance, one of the more memorable combinations occurs on page 40-41. The left-hand page shows an image of a series of hand drawn signs that read “give a home” alternating with “help the homeless.” The pairing on the right-hand side of the page makes the sequence more intriguing, bringing the reader back to a discussion about the myth of Oxford itself. In it we see a beautiful burgundy door adorned with gold hardware and potted plants, and in the left window we see the reflection of some stately looking English abode. The text is especially revealing too, as a clear critique of the official Oxford narrative:
“As admirable as Arne Jacobson’s gifts as an architect are, many aspects of Catz are less than ideal. Students develop back problems because of the narrow built-in beds – the undergrads call them straitjacket beds- that are part of his original design. The rooms get unbearably hot over the summer, and you must be prepared to deal with an army of mosquitos if you dare open a window. Or how the beautifully designed lamps on the hall’s tables that turn conversation with people sitting opposite into a game of ‘hide and seek’? There are too many flaws to report here, yet the building is always commended by architects, probably because they never lived there.”
These and other examples show how A Certain Logic of Expectations takes patience to digest in as far as it requires the reader to sit with Soto and be allowed to wander through these beautiful visual and literary notes. With time, the reader comes to see and appreciate Soto’s unique eye and the way of analyzing that this book has to offer.
Soto also makes several more conventionally political observations. For example, a number of the pictures represent the various parties in the city – labour, conservatives, anarchists, socialists, etc. And so, via the images and the blurbs, one can read A Certain Logic of Expectations as an interesting historical document of the characteristic political polarizations and extremism constantly spurred and re-spurred by certain figures. However, Soto, perhaps wisely, never wades in too heavily on certain ideological dimensions of politics. He prefers to emphasize the materiality of the place he is observing.
By way of conclusion, I want to directly say why I think this book is laudable beyond the images and the other dimensions I have detailed. The first point is the fact of the scope and dedication of this project that I know, being a writer and photographer myself, were required. Soto, no doubt, has many volumes of journals, notebooks, digital files, images, and perhaps other ephemera, that helped form what became this book. Producing this book as an image-text book of considerable length and with the obvious care to each visual and diaristic phrase also adds a depth of perspective that demands serious attention and remains less common among photobooks.
At the same time, it is worth stating that A Certain Logic of Expectations is perhaps not a book for everyone. As mentioned in my introductory commentary, a significant aspect of Soto’s work is about how he is establishing a certain conceptual, and equally importantly, a playful framework. It is inspiring to discover a photographer with such ambitions, who places such obvious care in his products, and also is able to convey a passion and interest for the praxis of photography itself. As such, this book will be of interest to an array of photographers, artists, and scholars, but especially those who find themselves drawn into the world of bookmaking, and into the surprising and trying experiences of long walks to discover new and fruitful territories for image-making and reflection.
Arturo Soto was featured previously on PhotoBook Journal: In The Heat
Brian F. O’Neill is a photographer and sociologist based in Phoenix, Arizona.
A Certain Logic of Expectations, Arturo Soto
Photographer: Arturo Soto, born Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and residing in Los Angeles, California.
Publisher: The Eriskay Connection, Netherlands, copyright 2021
Hardcover book, Flexibound with stamped title, sewn binding, printing and binding: by Wilco Art Books, Netherlands, ISBN 978-94-92051-72-1
Photobook Designer: Rob van Hoesel
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