Arnis Balcus, Myself, Friends, Lovers, and Others

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Dienacht Publishing (here). Open spine binding with French fold softcover, 15×20 cm, 160 pages, with 109 color reproductions. Includes a preface by author. In an edition of 500 copies. Designed by Calin Kruse. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ah, youth. To be 23 again, put future worries on the back burner, and indulge the carnal pleasures: food, sleep, sex, and aimless cavorting. Who wouldn’t enjoy the chance to relive that time, to prance naked in a Ryan McGinley meadow for just a few hours? Translated into photos, such scenes offer vicarious enjoyment without the mess of actually being there. Indeed, photographers of all stripes have leveraged this equation for centuries. Smooth skin, hard bodies, and untapped potential energies are the bedrock elements of advertising, fashion, design, and aspirational culture, not to mention a sizable slice of the fine art pie.

Arnis Balcus’ photos will never be mistaken for aspirational, but they do traffic in adolescent archetypes. His recent monograph Myself, Friends, Lovers, and Others offers a diaristic sampling of the Latvian photographer’s life between the ages of 22 and 26 (roughly 2001 – 2004). The content is exactly as promised by the title, various members of Balcus’ immediate circle—himself, friends, lovers, and others. Judging by Balcus’ photos, this was a crowd which didn’t require much arm twisting to get naked. Perhaps a third of the subjects are in titillating states of undress. Throw in scenes of drinking, peeing, guns, bubbles, jumprope, and ice forms, and the permutations careen into excess. Ah, youth.

Ironically no such revelry seems possible yet at the book’s outset. A brief journal entry from 2000 serves as the preface. Balcus broods over his monastic life at an artist residency in Weipersdorf, Germany. He is restless and lonely. “I would love to meet and shoot some people,” he writes, “but where do I find them?” Out of sheer boredom he begins fooling around with a small point-and-shoot, an Olympus Mju II. At first he captures selfies and still lifes, but it isn’t long before he branches into the wilder material of nearby Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg. He engages the nightlife there, then with newfound energy returns to his immediate surroundings. As the journal entry winds down, he’s at the doorstep of fresh possibilities: “One evening I went to Jamilia’s room and showed her a book I had bought earlier – it was ancient erotic photography. She said ‘How nice, first we watch this and afterwards…’”

From this point the photos lead where one might expect. Balcus falls in with a group of young artsy cohorts, among them a seemingly endless chain of nubile partners which he beds in serial fashion. When not gamboling nude, they enjoy trips to the coast or nearby farms. His male friends are equally up to the task, parading their goods with hands halfcocked, or perhaps just lolling in bed with a beer and a rifle. Even his mother gets into the act, her youthful bemusement fitting seamlessly with the others, especially when rolling under the covers. Spicing up the mix are several photos of meals in a state of mid-consumption. Life is a smorgasbord awaiting inhalation! For Balcus, that outlook dovetails with the photographic impulse, which he addresses with physical relish. The result is a visual style which is brash, quick and dirty. His compositions are carefree and his colors garish. But in his loose snapshot aesthetic is a candid kernel of truth.

Perhaps the best summation of the series is a photo midway into the book. It’s a nude self portrait of Balcus in bed staring back at his camera. Roughly half the frame is obstructed by his brightly flashed, out-of-focus erection. The graphic force of this image is unsettling, but also revelatory. We might consider it the equivalent of a middle finger to the world. Take that, ________! Fill in any authority figure here: Grown ups, teachers, experts, gatekeepers, naysayers, boomers. Yes, unfocused rebellion may be a common trope among twenty-somethings. But this photo seems more life-affirming than antagonistic. The expression on Balcus’ face is bland, the nearby phallus simply a statement of fact. It is interjected into the scene with some degree of pride, the elephant in every adolescent male room but rarely addressed so directly. For Balcus it might be viewed as his activating principle, and indeed the same appendage appears elsewhere in the book.

Camera in tow Balcus rushes headlong into various engagements with friends, lovers, and others. The book’s pace is so relentless the reader might suffer a heart attack were it not for several well-timed breathers. Every twenty pages or so, he puts on the brakes for a calm establishing shot. We see his apartment complex, an icy pier, a quiet riverside, a snowbound plaza, and other clues to the physical environment. These are shown full bleed across a double spread, and provide interesting context for the interior shots. Compared to social hijinks, the outer world seems rather less unexciting. 

Other photographers have mined similar territory. Ryan McGinley of course, mentioned above. Also Dash Snow, Larry Clark, Corrine Day, Igor Samoset, and most famously Nan Goldin, the queen of diaristic snapshots. Balcus falls into the youthful end of this spectrum, his perspective limited by the fact that only so much life experience is acquired by one’s mid-20s, much of it filtered through solipsistic veil. If Balcus’ world seems to revolve around him, it might be taken as a metaphor for historical imperative. Creative expression has gravitated around individualism for decades, the orbit spiraling tighter over time. The Me generation begat Gen X begat Millennials, and so on. Generalities be damned, everyone wants their own story told now. and with Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, that’s finally possible. The phrase “Myself, Friends, Lovers, and Others” might be considered the calling card of social media.

If those platforms had existed in the early 2000s, Balcus’ might have ridden them to fame. As it turned out, he did very well with the conventional route. His film was hardly in the can before his racy young pictures began to circulate internationally. They starred in several European exhibitions between 2002-2005, but strangely they’d never made it into book form until now. Previously the shooting, editing, and presentation were nearly synchronous, providing little room for perspective. But with Dienacht’s publication, the opportunity for reevaluation arrived. Balcus is 42 now, approaching middle age. “Fifteen years later,” he recently told Dienacht, “I am looking at these images and I feel it has become something bigger than just a personal diary. It’s kind of a portrait of the whole generation, probably the last one before social networks and over-conscious self-representation, when people were much less aware on how they should look on pictures.”  

Following the lead of the photos, the design of the book is not overly self-conscious. Its modestly sized softcover format fits well with the low-key snapshot aesthetic. The reproductions are on the scale of small work-prints, their fidelity to negatives quite good, excepting a very slight magenta tint. In frugal, youthful fashion, the list of captions is printed right inside the front cover, tucked behind a French fold. On the outer jacket is a scattering of sample snapshots, each one indented slightly for tactile effect. There is no spine text, just a wordless photo spanning its middle. It’s a selfie headshot of Balcus, a huge bubble of gum erupting from his lips. He seems to have not a care in the world.

Collector’s POV: Arnis Balcus does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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