Charles Johnstone and Lea Simone Allegria, Je ne sais quoi

JTF (just the facts): Published by S_U_N_ in 2017 (here). Hardcover, 56 pages, with 24 color photographs and 15 illustrations. Includes an afterword by the artists. In an edition of 150 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many photographers, the freedom and immediacy of the Polaroid process offers an intriguing alternative to their normal picture making activities. For Charles Johnstone, this is very much the case. In 2013, he self-published a photobook entitled Libby, based on a selection of Polaroids from his archive, from pictures that were never intended to be published. Libby takes his muse and long time collaborator Elizabeth Schoettle, an artist and an actress, as its subject, and the publication marked a notable departure from his obsessively precise documentation of Ruscha-influenced typologies (his earlier books documented basketball courts, empty pools, handball courts, Brooklyn fences, and NY storefront churches). Finding unexpected inspiration in the project, he published his second Polaroid book The Girl in the Fifth Floor Walk Up in 2015, a collaboration with another artist and friend, Heather Malesson, and Johnstone’s most recent photobook Je ne sais quoi concludes this impromptu trilogy.

Je ne sais quoi was produced in close collaboration with the French illustrator and writer Lea Simone Allegria. Johnstone found Allegria through Instagram and became fascinated with her drawings. They started up a conversation and later connected in the offline world, discovering more common interests. In the end, Johnstone suggested they collaborate on a book, and Allegria agreed. He used expired Polaroid 600 film to photograph Allegria in Paris (her hometown), and she responded to his photographs with illustrations and drawings, some of them coming from her collection, while others (including the cover) were produced for this particular project.

The photobook has a greenish cloth cover with a black drawing of a woman (the title appears on the spine). She is nude and her hair is collected in the back; she looks right back at us, both confident and cocky and also a bit vulnerable. This drawing, simple and sharp, makes a quietly powerful cover. The endpapers of the book feature silhouette drawings of dozens of pigeons against a grey background, standing in contrast to the generous white space inside. The Polaroids are reproduced full sized, one per page, while Allegria’s drawings are more diverse in their sizes and more flexible in their placement within the flow of the book.

The book begins with a drawing in a notebook of a young woman in blue trousers and a blouse, with her hair floating in a messy sweep behind her – and while we haven’t been officially introduced, we assume it is Allegria herself. This is followed by a Polaroid of Allegria, who is seen smoking out a balcony window with a cup of coffee. This first image sets the pattern for how we will see Allegria – she is young and daring, and Johnstone’s photographs of her are casual, intimate, and often voyeuristic. We see her taking the stairs to her apartment, and most of the photographs are shot inside her place. There are portraits of her in the tub, drinking coffee on a sofa, wearing various bathrobes and kimonos, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, and reading books. She looks very comfortable in front of Johnstone’s camera; it seems like she doesn’t actively pose, but rather allows Johnstone to follow her.

The combination of drawings and photographs offers an exciting back-and-forth visual narrative, where external mixes with internal, and reality gives way to interpretation and imagination. One spread pairs an illustration of a woman wearing only a pair of red stockings embracing a white swan (a Leda and the Swan allusion) with a photo of Allegria in a white robe sprawling in an armchair. Both visuals have similar shapes and the juxtaposition creates a call and response reaction. In another spread, an image of a nude Allegria relaxing in the tub with a cup of coffee is paired with a drawing of a head with floating hair appearing above water, the themes of engulfing water and drowning given two distinct visions. A few spreads later, we see a drawing of a nude woman with a cigarette and a towel around her head matched a photo of Allegria looking at the mirror, both images seemingly considering modes of observation and self-criticism. In each case, the two artists have found ways to influence each other, the images and drawings interwoven into an integrated whole.

A few of Allegria’s drawings appear with hand written text. One full spread shows a young girl on a bed hugging a pillow, and looking at us with one eye. The text above reads “Someday i will give up on everyone i know”, the pose both resigned and a hair defiant. While Johnstone’s photographs set Allegria in her daily surroundings, the illustrations seems to reveal more of her inner world, with her feelings and thoughts coming through in the nuances of the drawings.

The last image captures Allegria sitting on the floor and reading a book next to a bookshelf. Perhaps this is a hint at an absorbing passion for books, or the combination of photography and art that brought these two artists together. The success of of Je ne sais quoi lies in the thoughtful collaboration and visual conversation between Johnstone and Allegria. The surfaces and edges of her personality are presented from Johnstone’s vantage point, and her delicate and assertive drawings complement and reinforce that portrait, revealing some of the inner voices and improvisational dreams that rumble around in her head.

Collector’s POV: Charles Johnstone is represented by Julie Saul Gallery in New York (here) and Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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