By Lucy Mulroney.
One of the earliest functions of photographically illustrated books was to chart lands, both known and unknown. In the 1850s and '60s, photography was often used to index a nation's cultural heritage, to document travel in foreign locales, and to report back to colonial governments. During this time period, Captain Linnaeus Tripe of the British East India Company produced the four-volume Photographic Views in Madura; the French Commission des Monuments Historiques enlisted a troupe of photographers to preserve, in photographic form, the bridges and buildings of France; Francis Frith and Maxine du Camp were independently photographing Egypt and Palestine; and the American government deployed Carleton E. Watkins into the Sierras under the auspices of the Geological Survey of California. These archaeological, national, and often colonial projects - among dozens of similar ones underway from the Arctic sea to the Yucatan Peninsula during this period suggest that perhaps the earliest concerted ambition of the photobook was to convey a sense of place.
Nearly 160 years later, Bertrand Fleuret reminds us of this fundamental and ongoing impetus. His new book speaks in a shadowy voice of the experience of travel. His photographs track an entrance into an unknown, and often unknowable, land. The book returns us to the history of the photograph as an index of place- and to the book as a record of travel. But in reminding us of this historical lineage, Fleuret's book points to the very suppositions that underlie our urge to know a place. This trip leaves us unsettled. Fleuret reveals that the city and the garden are everywhere and nowhere at. once. The only-voyage is the one that occurs in our imagination.
Fleuret's book signals its topic immediately in its title, Landmasses and Railways, which, with non-descriptive banality, brings to mind the lasting influence of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher on contemporary photography. Reading the title printed on the austere, gray, cloth-bound covers, one might suspect to find a bureaucratic typology of boulders, buildings, and railroad stations within the book. But a quick flip through Landmasses and Railways reveals instead moody, mysterious, and evocative photographs printed in a saturated black ink. This is no list of forms; it is a narrative with a dramatic arc. Fleuret gives us the story of a voyage that unfolds in live acts. As we enter, we are presented with a photo of a vessel for travel: a sedan chair, those enclosed scats with little windows that were used to transport wealthy Europeans one by one upon the shoulders of men during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Fleuret entitles his first act "The Melancholy of Departure." This is the most captivating and poetic of the five parts of the hook. It begins with two double-spread photographs. The first offers an image of lights leaving tangled worm lines in the dark. The second moves us with sparks of concentrated brightness toward an abstract starburst. Then, suddenly, at the turn of the page, we are submerged. Jellyfish float above us. Eventually finding air and land. Fleuret's orchestration of camera and page then puts us on our feet. The clouds hang low in a large sky and we see a city in the distance. The second act then begins: "Approaching a City." Following a sequential method akin to montage, Fleuret manages to provide a sense of arrival, but at the same lime renders this location unreal. On one page we watch rowers on a clear lake and on the next, we observe ice skaters wearing sweaters and caps. We are left to wonder what kind of place this is. Once we reach the narrative's climax in the third act, "Inside the Walls," we find ourselves in a composite city. Page after page depicts high-rise apartment buildings, creatures and mannequins displayed behind glass, and people engaging in banal activities. This is simultaneously nowhere and anywhere. The black-and-white photographs printed nearly to each page's edge reverberate upon each other. But here, at the height of Fleuret's journey, the cacophony of images convey a sense of indecision rather than the articulation of place. In the fourth act, "An Empty Building," things are trimmed back. Fleuret takes us into a metaphorical space that suggests the emptiness of modern life. And then finally, we find resolution. In the final act, Fleuret deposits us into "The Garden"-- where sky, forest, fern, blossom, domesticated animal, and abandoned carcass reside.
In Landmasses and Railways, Fleuret takes us on a journey And while that journey speaks to the fragmentary and subjective nature of both photography and knowledge, the images are at times so obscure or abstract that they fail to effectively communicate despite the momentum and logic of their sequencing. Thus, the voyage continues at times without carrying us along, The reader's willingness to independently form associations and withstand visual repetition is what sets up the work for success or failure. In this way. Fleuret's book not only refers to the history of the photographically illustrated travel book, but also to the project of Surrealism. When Andre Breton took nocturnal walks along the streets of Paris, the chance convergence of places and people became not only a chain of arbitrary fragments, but also the texture of his own subconscious. I get the feeling that Landmasses and Railways is as much a projection of Fleuret's subconscious as it is the subjective representation of any place. One needs only to peek at Fleuret's website and its index of "inspiration" to see how craggy, expansive, and captivating this psychological terrain is. It is our task, his book suggests, to create our own path of associations and meaning. Isn't that what travel books have always been: the manifestation of desires, fantasies, fears, and affinities in unknown lands?
© Lucy Mulroney and Afterimage
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