Carlos Alba, The Observation of Trifles

JTF (just the facts): Published by Fabrica in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 110 pages with 91 color photographs. Includes texts by Laura Kaye and Rodrigo Orrantia. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Carlos Alba, a young Spanish photographer, made the decision to move from his native Madrid to London, he knew it would pose a series of opportunities and challenges. Finding oneself in a foreign city, with no close friends and little mastery of the language, how does one navigate and connect with the new place? His answer was to start a photo project, and use it as a way to document his arrival and his ongoing adjustment to the contours of his new life.

Alba’s landlady obviously noticed he was new to the area, and she helpfully left him a hand drawn map of the neighborhood identifying various streets and landmarks (the gym, a museum, a bank branch, the tube stops, a designer outlet, etc). This unassuming map became Alba’s inspiration to start getting to know the neighborhood. As he walked around East London taking pictures with his medium format camera, Alba started to pick up random things he found on the streets, treating them as mysterious signs, directions, and ultimately physical connections to the neighborhood and its residents. These found objects were like bread crumbs that led him to yet other unexpected stories. Alba’s playful first photobook, The Observation of Trifles, is the result of three years of work, and mixes his street photographs with still life images of his humble discoveries.

The book itself is bound in light beige, and the hand drawn map that was his guide appears on the cover reproduced in gold – to see the details, one has to look closer, just as Alba did. The book opens with a text by Laura Kaye, which is placed directly on end paper. Written from Alba’s perspective, it poetically describes the day when he found himself in East London adrift with the map. As he walks outside and strolls around the streets, he notices curious details, signs, and objects around him. “As I carry on up the street I see a variety of things that must have belonged to someone at some point”. He orders a toasted cheese sandwich at the local cafe, where the girl at the counter winks at him, passing him the plate. As he continues his meandering journey, all these little details start to coalesce and make sense. “Suddenly it all becomes clear. I remember all the objects I passed by. None of it was an accident. They were all placed there for me to see. They are clues to something that I must work out for myself”.

A found photograph of a child holding a pack of chips and curiously looking to the side serves as an introduction to the visual storyline. It is shot against a grey background and printed on thin paper (slightly narrower than the book), showing both sides of the photo. Perhaps this is how Alba felt when he started working on the project? It is followed by a selection of images giving us a flavor for the neighborhood: buildings, a pile of garbage bags, a Christmas tree against the wall, a covered vintage car with a few rocks on top. His pictures convey two messages – the ordinariness of the surroundings, and the extraordinariness of his attention to the details.

Among Alba’s pile of discarded treasures are letters, photographs, postcards, pieces of paper with notes, negatives, a playing card, etc., and he has gathered these talismans with consistent reverence, imagining that they all have stories to tell connecting them to the local residents. One is a colorful drawing with hearts, a flower, a pencil and few words; it looks like a teenager’s love letter. Using it is a jumping off point, Alba wandered around the local school looking for these imaginary lovers. One day, he came across a couple smoking under the bridge. He shared his project with them and they agreed to participate. His photograph depicts them standing in that very spot – the boy with bright red hair, the girl with a long pony tail holding a cigarette for him. It is an intimate sensual portrait, which has then been paired with the image of the love letter, closing an imaginary loop.

A found slide depicting a young man in a black hat is followed by a portrait of an older man who wears a red shirt, black trousers with suspenders, and also a black hat. Did Alba see any connection or are we starting to play his game making new links? His images are filled with the everyday observations of a curious outsider – people waiting at the bus stop, three pensioners chatting on a street corner, two man in a car with an open roof, and a boy passing by, interleaved with photographs of buildings, trees covered with shoes, and outside doors with eye-catching designs.

In terms of design, The Observation of Trifles is simple and elegant, and that clarity is enlivened by several exciting elements. Texts are printed on the end papers, different types of paper are used in combination, and page numbers appear only on the blank pages. All of the images, both found and taken, are meticulously indexed at the end of the book, providing the background information of the location and the year when they were discovered/taken. It is, in effect, a personal archive, like a shoe box of memories stuffed under a bed.

Motivated by the serendipity of positive-minded randomness, Alba explores the city and connects with its residents, ultimately finding himself as a photographer and a member of the community. The Observation of Trifles is a playful book which reminds us to be curious, as even seemingly insignificant things can widen our perspectives. The book captures the intimate character of that particular corner of the city, and extrapolates stories about its people. “I am the immigrant. Taking objects that I found on the streets and using them as a kind of visual archaeology, I discovered East London and its denizens.”

Collector’s POV: Carlos Alba is represented La Fabrica in Madrid (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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