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Youth Without Age and Life Without Death by Laura Pannack weaves the narrative of a Romanian folklore into succinct and evocative photos, drawings, and text, that takes the viewer on a full exploration of the Romanian countryside and its aesthetic. As I started turning the pages of this book, I could feel an uneasiness but I couldn’t figure out exactly why. The opening text describes the story of the folklore; a boy is born to a king and queen that promise him youth without age and life without death, as he grows up he marries a princess from a far off land and they live happily for years and years, but when the prince feels it’s time to visit his parents he learns that over 200 years have gone by and he is left with nothing, then he crumbles to dust. The photos in this book showcase an interplay of young people, older people, and old people and they situate the setting as a driving force of the mysticism inherent in the space. Photographs of kids and adults are usually presented in color and the landscape is often black and white. An element of unease and uncanniness that emits from the photos comes from the way the subjects look into the lens of the camera. Throughout the book the images of people straddle the line of portrait and caricature. These are real people but Pannack has a knack of making them look like movie characters or people who may have been plucked from a story. Furthermore, there is this thread, literally, that shows up over and over in these images, inexplicably so. It’s a red thread that is wrapped around the slaughtered pig next to the farm. It is strung around an old lady’s ax. It hangs in an empty room, almost apocalyptically. The thread is a way for the artist to tie the book together but also to show how connected the elements of this town are. 

The other ever present theme is time. Time as in aging, time as in the past and present, time as in decay. Regarding format, Pannack skillfully uses expired film throughout a few spreads right in the middle of the book. In contrast to the first third and the last third of the book, these images taken on expired, dusty, discolored film are printed on rich black paper, with multiple images per page. It’s a very scrapbook-like feel, as if one of the subjects in the beginning or end of the book took these pictures themselves many years ago. There is also text sprinkled throughout the book referencing time and distance, like the formula for speed. There’s images of apples and eggs and animals, referencing birth and growth. There is also a long linearly horizontal image of mountains expressing time passing on a grand scale. This matches the black and white images of the landscape and very strange colored double exposures of a pond and the moon and balloons on a beach. There is one image of dusty and decayed clocks that perhaps feels a little too on the nose. The end of the book features handwritten notes from the artist as she traversed the Romanian towns, talking about places she’s been, people she’s met, thoughts on time and space, drawings and sketches and diagrams. The whole book is a push and pull of reality versus fantasy, and each image (and even drawing and note) could be read as either reality or fantasy and I think that is the success of the book. 

A few images really stand out to me, the first being one of blind man leading a blind horse. Neither creature knows where they’re going, but they have each other and they’ll get there when they get there. The colors are beautiful and muted, foggy and moody like many photos in the book. There’s a landscape image of a grove of lush trees in the background and stark, dead, chopped up stumps in the foreground – this is one of the main themes in one image (with no people or animals at all): all things that live all become death and part of the earth. There is also a great diptych of a scene of familiar men smoking. In one image two men smoke on the left and one man takes a phone call on the far right and in the other image all three men are talking with one’s back to the camera. These two photos back to back imbue humanity into the book, showing these men really living their lives in an organic, somewhat humorous way, standing in contrast to much of the rest of the book. There is still an air of artifice but the implied interaction comes through as more genuine than fake. Although they stand out, the images of these men fall nicely into that tension of reality and fantasy ever present in this work. There is another diptych towards the end of the book where one photo shows a group of mothers holding their babies and the second photo is almost identical but the babies are wiggling and moving. This plays as an even more genuine display of real life than the men smoking and talking.

Desire Lines (2023) by Lara Shipley is a dense, evocative book, full of photographs and collages centered on the journeys and lives of those that cross the US-Mexico border and those that live in the border region. This book is all about layers; the visual language is made up of layered images, the chronology is layered from archival photos and contemporary photos by the author, the landscaped are layered with man-made objects and naturally occurring topography, the pages are layered with images and text mixing together words of migrants with depictions of the world they inhabit. 

Shipley shows us a world where migrants traveling to the US have to choose their own path. The book begins with a foldout of the Sonoran Desert landscape with an archival portrait of a mounted law enforcement officer, all in sepia tone. As the viewer moves through the first few pages there are black and white images mixed with color images, often layered on top of one another. Full page spreads of a vast color landscape of small jagged mountains and black and white spreads of dirt paths. Every few photos there is emphasis on the sky, then back to the desert earth. Shipley paints a picture of perspective – the grandness and vastness of the desert, the imposition of time as unending, even circular. Images from the archive flow so seamlessly into Shipley’s photographs that sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. The viewer is being told that this is not a new experience, that this desert and this landscape has been around for a while, and so have the people who live and traverse it. I thought this notion was explained rather poetically by the author when she describes the Border Patrol officers as also living a somewhat migratory lifestyle. They are not native to the borderlands, they are here seeking work, living in motels. The photographs used to illustrate all this sublimity are as diverse as possible: black and white, color, night vision, collage, maps, documents, text, and foldouts. The author uses every simple method of visuals possible to show this landscape in all its beautiful, but simultaneously dangerous, grandeur. 

On top of all of the landscape imagery, Shipley also brings the viewer’s eyes into the details; details of the objects and infrastructure that make these journeys possible and also perilous, and details of who these people actually are via beautiful portraits and text from interviews. There is one object that is shown over and over in many different images and that is the water jug. The desert is hot and people need to drink! This emphasis is what drives home the idea of a never-ending journey. There will always be people seeking a better life on the other side of the border and there will always be challenges standing in their way. 

There are some noteworthy photos and spreads that stood out, both of the landscape and of the people. Shipley spends time at the end of the book discussing a group of nuns whose mission it is to plant crosses at the locations of migrants who have died and mourn them for the individual they are. There is a great portrait of a friar standing in the land, overlaid onto the mountains behind. The photographer leaves the portrait slightly translucent so there is a little bit of a mixing of the landscape and the person. She does this throughout the book and it creates a beautiful cohesion of people and place. There are a few images created out of one or two photographs, torn up and reassembled, demonstrating another way the photographer is constantly evaluating and reevaluating what this landscape represents. The paths and ridges and routes nature presents to us are not necessarily the paths and routes a human would take on their way through the desert seeking opportunities. Finally there is one collage of a Border Patrol helicopter that caught my attention. The helicopter flies closer and closer to the foreground over four unique frames. They are not lined up or overlaid in perfect rectilinearity, but they evoke a real sense of aggressive motion. This helicopter is looking at you and it’s coming for you. All four of these frames sit on top of a black and white desert, giving the impression that this tool of oppression is going to land right in front of the viewer.

First Stop Last Stop by Rita Nannini

(2023) is a journey through the NYC Subway system via the first and last stop of every train. Nannini began shooting images of the subway in 2013 and over the past decade has been intentionally riding the subway, end to end, to capture the feelings, mood, lighting, colors, architecture, and community of the surrounding area. The layout of the book is the first thing to catch my eye: it’s long and thin like a subway car. The images are usually one per page but sometimes there are two square-like photos to take up one page. Nannini connects with each space she’s in, which often means photographing the people in that space. People eating, people working, people hanging out, people looking directly at the camera and the photographer. This book is a collection of moments of joy on the subway, not the traditional isolation photographers have made it out to be in the past. It’s a celebration of the Subway. (There’s even a fold out of the Subway map when you get to the back of the book!) Certain images that pop out to me are the ones without people in them. A study of the subway seat’s color scheme, the design of the ceiling inside the station. Infrastructure at the end of the line is not something the everyday New Yorker will see, but Nannini makes sure we see all the various stop signs, yellow iron bollards where the tracks stop, and staircases leading away from a terminal. There is a great sense of verticality and the separation of above and below. Of course the subway runs under the city, but as it gets out of Manhattan and into the outer boroughs the train often becomes elevated, looking down on the streets below it. The photographer does an excellent job showcasing the levels of the system, highlighting stairs going up to quirky exits and the green paint that covers the stairs down from the elevated tracks. There are four trains that terminate at Coney Island in Brooklyn, and Nannini takes this opportunity to show us the boardwalk, over and over. Half of these images are successful, a full spread of the boardwalk with the ocean fading in the background and a man holding a giant snake like a carnival barker, and the other half kind of fall flat – only due to their redundancy. Another spread that jumped out at me was the one at the southern end of the E train,World Trade Center. There is a little bit of writing noting that no one died on 9/11 inside the subway system and the image that accompanied it was a group of women in headscarves standing inside the Oculus. I don’t think Nannini was trying to make a political statement here but it definitely evokes stronger political feelings than any other page in this book. As I was going through this book I thought, “How wonderful, a book about the subway that doesn’t include Midtown!” But I was wrong. The Shuttle between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square naturally begins and ends in Midtown. That said, this book is an excellent collection of images that shrinks the distance from the bottom of Brooklyn to the top of the Bronx to just two pages. It makes the edges of New York feel like the center of the world.

The first picture in the book is for the 1 train and it is taken from the perspective of the Staten Island Ferry looking at the Battery of NYC, a great way to open a book about the New York. I love the image for the 2 train at Flatbush Av, which just seems to be a yellow painted college cafeteria. The color pops and the lack of people is both eerie and inviting. The image used for the 6 train is the old ceiling at City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge and what I like about this image is that it calls to the yesteryear of the subway and is in direct contrast to the images at Hudson Yards and the Q train terminal at 96th St (both built in the 2010s). The Prospect Park Shuttle train has a beautiful image of a cyclist in silhouette underneath a park underpass, and the Rockaway Shuttle train features a photo of houses built on stilts at Broad Channel, an image one wouldn’t normally associate with the NYC subway. The last image to highlight is of a man standing outside the SIR, Staten Island’s subway line, smoking a cigarette and wearing a shirt that reads NYC. It brings together the thesis of the book that shouts, “This is all one city, end to end, top to bottom, and we’re all connected via this massive project our city has built and maintained for over 100 years.”

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