This isn’t a meta photobook review. That is to say, it’s not a photobook review about photobooks. And it’s not about me reviewing photobooks. It’s about the terror of stillness and that, “That’s what calls me to the Midwest,” writes Nathan Pearce in conclusion of his latest Midwest Dirt iteration.
But first I should mention that I do not usually start a photobook review with my outside and/or prior knowledge about the work or photographer. If information is not present on the pages of the book, as relevant as it might be, it is not pertinent to how I read and therefore review the book. I’ve often wondered if when artists send me their photobooks they expect that I contact them to discuss the photobook or ask questions. I know it happens—I occasionally read other reviews that include information that could not have been arrived at any other way. And I have had on occasion a photographer offer to answer any questions I might have—but I do not usually take them up on the offer. Such information gleaned is often not thematic, tonal, or crucial to arriving at any sort of conclusion about the photobook but rather is often demographic: when the photographs were made, where the photographs were made. Or technical information: how the book was manufactured, how the pictures were made. Information that feels like the equivalent to a remastered album that includes a band’s outtakes, demos, and liner notes. It’s parlor chatter, geek talk, fodder for the uberfan. This sort of information is often entertaining, occasionally insightful about the artist more than the work, but such details should not provide information needed to read the photobook. Consider this easy reference—The Americans by Robert Frank. There are a number of stories regarding the making of The Americans. Frank being arrested in Louisiana, that his family was present with him for a portion of the road trip. And although Frank’s arrest confirms among other things what we collectively already knew about certain parts of the country and their treatment of outsiders, it adds little to the work itself. Such information adds a perspective one could not have arrived at otherwise. The photos look different upon consequential viewing. But if one cannot glean that the photographer who made the photographs within The Americans was an outsider then one should spend more time with the photographs.
We want to be privy of what goes on behind the curtain. Like the television series VH1 Behind the Music or literally, the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which the curious little Midwesterner dog Toto pulls the curtain back on the great and powerful Oz who as it is revealed, in secrecy carried on as a sorcerer worthy of revere by the people of Oz. But isn’t what Oz did for the land of Oz still great and powerful regardless of his true identity? Do racist cops in Louisiana make The Americans better? Perhaps the great and powerful Oz hid his identity lest the story of his creation be about the story of him. Perhaps Nathan Pearce doesn’t let on—within the pages of this photobook—that these photographs have been part of other iterations of a larger collection of photographs that fall within the scope of a body of work titled Midwest Dirt lest they become about the artist not the art. There is a bigger story to tell.
I am not even sure the title of this photobook. Frankly I don’t care. Printed on the cover is the words “I’m drawn to the stillness and also terrified by it” spaced widely across the page like trepidatious thoughts. That’s enough of a story for me. The words read less like a title and more like a preamble. It’s followed by a title page if you will, on which is printed the words Midwest Dirt and Nathan’s name below (one shouldn’t hide fully behind a curtain). Next is approximately twenty-five black and white photographs. Some I have seen printed elsewhere—prior Midwest Dirts. Prior hauntings, portraits, fields, cars—like stories retold with friends every time this group of friends get together. Some photographs are new—like the guy just moved to town who you invited out for beers after work. The guy who will recall the old stories the next time this group of friends get together. The details might be slightly different next time but the story’s tone will remain the same. Like Nathan Pearce’s photographs, this is delineation of life—the camera describes the Midwest.
Just past halfway through the edit—past dead deer, Jesus and a ridiculously foreboding giant roadside cross, stashed money in a hollowed book, a young girl’s hairdo and hairspray—is a man leaned against a solid door. His ear pressed against it. The next image on the next page is of a large fire. Something, brush it looks like, engulfed in flames. The photographs burn brightly. So brightly that one is attracted to the combustion of memory, recall, history and recounting and everything else that makes up every incarnation of life each time it is retold.