photo book review: Michael Abrams, Strange and Singular

I’m going through the pile of photo books I blogged about earlier this month, and, somewhat amazingly to me, here is the third book review from that storied pile in less than two weeks. This article was first published as Book Review: Strange and Singular by Michael Abrams on Blogcritics.

There seem to be almost as many collections of vernacular photos as there are pictures in your shoebox archive. Michael Abrams’ Strange and Singular (Loosestrife Editions, 2007), designed by Abrams and photographer John Gossage (who knows a thing or two about a great photo book himself) dispenses with the usual categorization and compartmentalization that can turn a book of snapshots into something quaint and predictable.

Strange and Singular is not a narrative of the family or of America, but is a poem for the voyeur. In this way it is similar to my favorite book of “found photos,” Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection (Twin Palms, 2000 – currently available for the bargain price of $25 at Amazon). Also like Other Pictures, there are plenty of “mistakes”: blurred photos, double-exposures, faces completely obscured by shadow. One two-page spread simply reproduces the back of four vintage prints, with and without inscriptions. Such pages celebrate the mechanics of the camera and the photographic print, the kinds of mysterious, provocative shots that make addicts out of people like me, haunting flea markets for that elusive image — the kind you can’t describe, but you know it when you see it.

The design of the book brings this disparate material into a cohesive whole. Strips of snapshots are aligned along the middle of a page spread in order to organize visually if not thematically. Startling juxtapositions arise to form intense narratives, like a beehived blonde with her back to the camera as a rifle aimed from a photo years and miles away threatens from the opposite page.

Pages are littered with quotations in a variety of fonts, some streamlined, some elegant, and lead the reader without holding their hand. The title quote is from Foucault: “a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.” In other words, there is no index. Quotes also come from photographers like Nan Goldin (who waxes on the snapshot as the very foundation of her work) and Stephen Shore, critics like Gerry Badger, and even Chuck Berry.

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