Photo Books

New Books by Patti Smith, Sam Contis, and Ursula Schulz-Dornburg

BY Vince Aletti, December 1, 2022

I missed more shows than I saw outside of the fair during the week of Paris Photo in November, including Evidence, a Patti Smith sound and image exhibition at the Centre Pompidou through January 23. But the show’s catalogue is an experience in itself. Evidence (Centre Pompidou) is a collaboration with Soundwalk Collective, a contemporary sonic-arts platform personified by its founder, Stephan Crasneanscki, whose conversations with Smith thread through the book. Though each went about it in their own way, Smith and Crasneanscki tracked the French poets and avant-garde avatars Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, and René Daumal through their writings and their travels to, respectively, Abyssinia, Mexico, and India. Crasneanscki actually made the often arduous journeys; Smith went vicariously but no less wholeheartedly or imaginatively. Together, they gathered and created “evidence,” including photographs, drawings, relics, rocks, maps, and illustrations – a wealth of archival and contemporary material they tend to imbue with talismanic powers. All this comes together in the book as a series of layered collages and installation shots, snapshots of a collaboration that’s clearly ongoing and unfixed. This gives Evidence the fluid, intriguing quality of a work in progress – something that will never be entirely finished. Speaking of Rimbaud, Artaud, and Daumal, Crasneanscki says, “We attempted to metaphysically access the way they perceived the world, to unlock the chain to their consciousness, and see through their eyes, hear through their ears.” It’s a fraught but irresistible ambition for the collaborators, and Smith can’t help but overstate things: “We are entering the realm of art, the realm of infinite knowledge, the tree of good and evil.”

Sam Contis, from Overpass, 2022. ©Sam Contis

Sam Contis, whose debut, Deep Springs, was one of the best photo books of 2017, is back with Overpass (Aperture), a book of rural English landscapes. Actually, Contis’s subject is a lot more specific than that. Rambling through the countryside, she searched out and photographed walls and fences with stiles – ad hoc, usually wooden steps or abbreviated ladders that allowed travelers access to private land while keeping out livestock. (In an engaging essay, the novelist Daisy Hildyard notes that the term stile is derived from an earlier word for climb.) Though not especially picturesque, stiles are often witty in their crude ingenuity; several look like benches shoved under fences: the ideal readymades. Contis is clearly captivated, if only because the stiles offer a focus for landscapes that can wander off at loose ends. Her barriers interrupt ordinary fields, meadows, and the remnants of forests – all unpopulated (only a cow lumbers into view), none flat-out beautiful. But Contis is never uninteresting, and the more time we spend with her, the more rewarding it is. Again and again, we sense her pleasure in the moment – in the dappled sunlight, a flowering tree in full bloom, a fresh snowfall. Here and there, we get the delightfully disorienting view one gets from the top step of a stile, looking down before landing – and moving on.

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, from Huts, Temples, Castles. Courtesy MACK

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s Huts, Temples, Castles (Mack) takes up another sort of ad hoc architecture: patchwork buildings constructed from scrap wood on a playground in Amsterdam after WWII. Jongensland, or Boysland, was set up in 1948 as a freewheeling postwar diversion – a place where kids could light bonfires, raise chickens and goats, and build playhouses from construction debris. When Schulz-Dornburg began visiting the site in 1969, many of these structures were as large as barns and far from simple shelters. For the kids, some quite young, they were sturdier, more long-lasting versions of the forts they might throw together at home from card tables and blankets, and they involved the same sort of inventiveness. For Schulz-Dornburg, even the most precarious huts were a welcome relief from the corporate modernism that had begun to erase all the idiosyncrasy from Düsseldorf, where she was based, and much of postwar Europe. Like the homeless population’s lean-tos and shacks that Margaret Morton photographed on the streets of New York in the 1980s, the Jongensland buildings represent a triumph of the imagination. Except here they’re far more splendid than pathetic – and no one was coming to tear them down. Tom Wilkinson’s postscript essay suggests these images “retain a utopian glimmer,” but it looks like Art Brut to me: the sort of marvelous outsider structures Jean Dubuffet might have built and James Castle would have lived in.

Vince Aletti, formerly a photography critic at the Village Voice and the New Yorker, reviews photography exhibitions and books for the New Yorker’s online Photo Booth feature. His book, Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines, was published by Phaidon in 2019. The Drawer, a picture book, will come out later this fall from Self Publish, Be Happy, distributed by D.A.P.