PHILADELPHIA — Once upon a time, we would document our travels to new places with photographs we’d paste into albums. Nowadays, this practice has migrated to the screen; Instagram and Facebook are our primary means of collecting and sharing pictures of our adventures. Thinking of a Place at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, curated by Josh Brilliant, explores the capacity of photographs, specifically those in photo books, to capture the texture of a location. The exhibition includes works by such luminaries as Daido Moriyama, Roni Horn, Viviane Sassen, and William Eggleston. In addition, it features books published by commercial presses and nonprofit publishers, as well as self-published books.
The books, from locations around the world, are displayed on shallow wood shelves with their covers facing outward. Vinyl wall texts throughout instruct viewers to “Feel free to remove books from their shelves.” A rare allowance in an art exhibition, even one centered on books, it transforms the show from an experience of distanced viewing into an active reading room. A table in the gallery is scattered with copies of a reference guide that lists all the titles, organized by artist, with a screenshot of a map indicating the location documented in the books’ photographs, along with excerpts from press releases for more information on the titles.
The titles offers glimpses into different locations with the slow and detailed pace of that comes with reading books. Oliver Hartung’s Iran, A Picture Book (Spector, 2016) is an oversized floppy book with matte photographs printed in a dreamy CMYK color palette. From 2011–14 Hartung photographed political monuments as well as domestic settings filled with posters of Western celebrities, granting foreign readers access to the everyday life and landscapes of a country Americans often see only as a tragic site of war and destruction. Iran, A Picture Book rests on a shelf near books like Andreas Gursky’s glossy Bangkok (Steidl, 2012), which features photos of the Chao Phraya River’s waters that resemble abstract paintings.
Such abstracted representations expand what it means to capture a place through photographic representations. In Bottom of the Lake (Koenig, 2015) Christian Patterson records the character and texture of his hometown, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, by superimposing images of matchbooks and scraps of paper into the seams of a facsimile of his family’s telephone book, like they got stuck. He also inserts photographs of the landscape, such as a lake and two-story houses in the snow. These interventions create a picture of the place through Patterson’s eyes.
I applaud Brilliant’s positioning of widely accessible books as art object — most of the titles are available in bookstores and online. But the exhibition also includes unique books, such as Laura Barrón’s Absentia (2019), a self-published artist’s book composed of seven booklets stored together in a sleeve. The books have the texture and color of heavy-weight cardboard, yet are fragile, with slips of smaller typed text pages sewn into the bindings between full-page pictures of water, brick walls, parks, and other nondescript but specific markers of place. Each booklet serves as travel journal, cataloguing the artist’s journey through Cali, Buenos Aries, Quito, Lima, Havana, La Paz, and her final destination, Mexico City, which marks her return to her home country.
By grouping the books according, apparently, to aesthetic affinities rather than place or publisher, Brilliant heightens the sense of travel that characterizes them. The exhibition’s mixed presentation makes it feel like the best type of reading room, one where browsing leads to unexpected discoveries, and one that reflects something about why many people travel to new places.
Collectively, the books speak to the myriad ways that photos can share our travel the stories, especially when seen in sequence. These images offer a temporal and intimate viewing experience, at the reader’s own pace, one encouraged by seating area at a table or a comfy chair. Like a friend or family member’s travel album, these photos are intensely personal documents of each artist’s journey. But unlike a travel album, the artful book designs and photographic methods and compositions can produce a sense of restless unease — a feeling that what we are seeing is just a slice of what’s out there — potentially leaving us with a desire to experience the full picture of place.
Thinking of a Place continues at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (1400 N. American Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through July 27. The exhibition was curated by Josh Brilliant.