photo book review: Jason Fulford, The Mushroom Collector

Welcome to the next to the penultimate (or penultimate if I combine the remaining and eminently combinable volumes) episode of That Pile of Photobooks I Bought in January. Article first published as Book Review: The Mushroom Collector by Jason Fulford on Blogcritics.

Jason Fulford’s The Mushroom Collector was featured on a number of lists of the Best Photobooks of 2010, and was at the very top of photographer Alec Soth’s top ten. But it was with some trepidation that I opened up this volume’s collectible hide. (It’s already going for more than twice what I paid for my copy just two months ago. It’s not hoarding, it’s investing.) Would it be worth the hype? Skepticism grew to awe and jealousy and then again awe aas I followed the elliptical and ingeniously subtle narrative. What kind of visual tissue sandwiches a mushroom collector’s picture postcard between photos of a shirtless hipster smiling from a refrigerator compartment (milk in the door beside him) and a rusted iron fence whose bars had been peeled away in some Incredible Hulkian feat of escape and/or rage? The best kind, that’s what kind.

This unusually structured yet completely logical book consists of the artist’s images alternated with a collection of mushroom trading cards a fellow photographer friend picked up at a flea market. Thus an unassuming collection of ephemera was the germ that infected this book, and there’s your metaphor. It’s a feature-length photo essay whose numbered photos are accompanied by the briefest of captions if any at all: “65. Locals had abandoned their birthnames after learning new ones,” is the simple but evocative text that frames the photo of a giant seashell emblazoned with the words “Class of 1971.” The strangeness of the natural world and the overlooked strangeness of the man-made world and their unexpected intersections grow out of these pages like a fungus indeed, spoors of inspiration carried in a breeze that takes you from here to an unknown there.

Fulford’s previous books have been keen design studies as well, and like Raising Frogs for $$$ (The Ice Plant, 2006) and Crushed (J&L Books, 2007) this latest tome is bound in a sturdy cover that recalls old library books. His eye is a descendent of the William Eggleston/John Gossage vision that finds the mysterious in the ordinary, but he takes his visual cues in directions his spiritual forefathers would have never dreamed of. This is one of the few photo books for which that you should be wary of spoiler alerts – the narrative, however obscure, will surprise you. The Soon Institute/Publishing House, distributed by D.A.P., have put together a monograph that is both challenging and highly entertaining. The project has also spawned a companion website with appendices that trace the book’s progress from concept to proof to delicious final pudding.

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