Alexandra Catiere, Behind the Glass

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Chose Commune (here). Hardcover, 256 total pages (with 32 four-page double spread foldouts), with 64 black and white photographs. The photographs included in the book were made between 2002 and 2018. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Bureau Kayser, Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, and Vasantha Yogananthan. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: It used to be the case that the construction of a photobook was generally predictable. Holding it in our hands and ready to dive in, we could assume that it would be built like most books from time immemorial, with individual pages bound between covers, with images and text placed on those pages in standard ways. But in the past decade, the simple formulas that governed book production have been broadly disrupted, with risk taking and innovation leading to a myriad of new fold outs, half cut pages, accordion folds, unbound pages, boxed sets, and other paper devices and unusual stocks that have been used to extend the range of creative possibilities available to photographers and designers alike.

The danger of course is that if these new paper features aren’t employed with thoughtfulness and care, they become empty gimmicks, their snappy trickery overwhelming the photography that is meant to be the main event. And while Alexandra Catiere’s new photobook Behind the Glass does have a surprisingly unconventional design, the complicated construction fits her material well, allowing her different bodies of work (made over the past two decades) to harmonize with each other.

Even before we get inside, Behind the Glass signals that it is something different. It is a chunky book, intimate in size but noticeably thicker than most photobooks. The reason for this becomes apparent once we flip open the cover and begin the journey through the images.

Each of the black and white photographs in the forward flow (32 in all) takes up both sides of the spread, the horizontal orientation of the imagery neatly fitting the available space, with no borders or edges. Each of these images then unfolds upward, revealing a second black and white photograph underneath (32 more in all) that fills what is now a continuous four-page or four-pane vertically oriented space. This occurs for every single image, so the logical progression is flip, open, reclose, flip to the next, open, reclose, and repeat until we reach the back cover, the movement falling into an obvious rhythm.

Most of the photographs on the main pages come from a series Catiere made in Minsk, where she photographed bus passengers from the vantage point of the stop outside, their anonymous faces peering out from behind the grim winter wetness encrusted on the glass. Catiere is by no means the first photographer to point her camera at passengers on public transit. On the contrary, many notable photographers from across the history of the medium—from Walker Evans surreptitiously snapping on late 1930s New York subways to Michael Wolf catching contemporary Tokyo commuters jammed into crowded trains (just to name two)—have used the social distance created by urban travel to look for the unguarded side notes of humanity.

Catiere’s pictures differ from these others most clearly in their moody expressiveness. The eyes of the passengers often meet those of the photographer, creating a momentary exchange between fellow travelers. And in this split second, we see mild curiosity, surprise, wariness, bored resignation, persistence, and intrusion, as well as lost-in-thought weariness, grinding despair, “save me” apathy, and passing hope. The faces are made indistinct by mists, fogs, droplets, and scratched window surfaces, moving the photographs from crisp documentary-style images into something more evocative and personal, almost painterly.

The images inside the folds come from other bodies of work, but it’s hard not, at least in some small way, to start to see the pictures underneath as some reflection of the inner state of mind of the passengers. Some of the interior works are elemental photograms, where pebbles become dots like single celled organisms in a petri dish or stars and planets in space, and wispy grasses unfold into sweeping gestures or dense thickets and tangles of energetic lines. Other more recognizable images find visual poetry in everyday sights, from flowers in a watery street gutter to the cracked windshield of a smashed car.

Given their poetic bent, many of the pictures feel like fragments of memories or fleeting thoughts—a laughing child, a young boy in a tent, a swim in a shallow river, a bunch of ripe summer cherries, or a marvelous tower of windswept hair—the opening of the folds like a thought bubble rising up from the passenger below. Still other images echo the implied movement of the buses, with Catiere offering images full of sideways motion, where rushing rivers, shaking trees, swiftly passing landscapes, and figures jumping out of the frame push us forward. And in some cases, Catiere’s moodiness falls into the trap of mannered romanticism, a symbolic black crow, a grasped dove, or notebook filled with leaves trying too hard to be poignant, but these misfires are few enough that they don’t drag the wider narrative too far into syrupy darkness.

Seen as an integrated artistic statement, Behind the Glass is a solid example of leveraging clever construction to generate excitement, and then using the natural framework that the design provides to enhance the potential connections between separate bodies of photographic work. It is a book executed with understated elegance, opening up a rich universe of potential thoughts passing through the eyes of strangers.

Collector’s POV: Alexandra Catiere is represented by In Camera in Paris (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. Some of the images included in Behind the Glass were on view at Sous Les Etoiles Gallery in New York in 2006 (here).

Read more about: Alexandra Catiere, Chose Commune

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