Drew Nikonowicz, This World and Others Like It

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2019 by Yoffy Press (here) and Fw:Books (here). Softcover, 98 pages, with 1 gatefold and 2 inserts, with 83 black and white images. Includes an essay by Paula Kupfer. Design by Hans Gremmen. In an edition of 800 copies. In 2015, the photographer received the Aperture Portfolio Prize for this body of work. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Prior to the invention of photography in the mid 19th century, if a person wanted to “see” a place with a high degree of detail and fidelity (more than was available via a drawing, painting, or oral description), he or she had to physically travel to that location and look around with his or her own eyes. As a document with unrivaled precision and, at the time, largely unquestioned authority, a photograph effectively decoupled the ability to see the world at large from the requirement of physical presence – someone had to have gone there (wherever “there” might be) to make the photograph, but given the print in our hands, it no longer needed to be us.

And so it didn’t take long for the intrepid explorers of the quickly shrinking Earth to bring along photographers (and wagon trains of bulky gear) to document their findings. The images they brought back astounded (and educated) us – broad vistas, mountains, rivers, deserts, and other natural wonders, most of them echoing in a kind of silent emptiness, free from the obvious presence of humans. But what also quietly crept into our experience of this ever expanding world was an assumption of mediation – to travel vicariously to distant lands, we had to accept, and in a sense place our naive trust in, the vantage point of whoever actually did the hard traveling.

Drew Nikonowicz’ first photobook This World and Others Like It roots itself in the aesthetics of this early survey photography, but then forcefully expands outward to bring its sophisticated conceptual analysis of photographic mediation into the present. Like an explorer, Nikonowicz does indeed physically venture out into the mountains, making what we might now call “straight” photographs of rocky peaks, snowcaps, misty clouds, and river valleys with his analog 4×5 camera, in essence removing any mediation between the picture and his own experience, or perhaps just making himself the mediator. But from there, his path gets altogether more interwoven, iterative, and complex, to the point that his mediations are so piled up, we can hardly comprehend the intricate layering of what we are being shown.

From the comfort of his own home in St. Louis, MO, Nikonowicz visits other mountains via pictures sourced on the Internet, and he makes pictures of those pictures as they are displayed on his monitor. Some of the pictures have been made by other people, including Neil Armstrong’s famous image of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, while others likely have a more mechanistic origin – scientific documentation, space rovers, drones, and the like, whose perspective or visual agenda isn’t entirely knowable. Some of his pictures (or pictures of pictures) he then further manipulates digitally, often leaving behind a small trail of visual breadcrumbs to help us recognize his interventionist handiwork – pixelization, stitching together of images that don’t quite fit, erasure, warped distortion, and other glitching techniques. In all of these works, he is, of course, showing us mountains, but he’s also overtly reminding us that we’re many iterations removed from the physical experience of the originals.

Many of the mountain images share a spread with an up-close image of a rock specimen of some kind, tacitly making the logical implication of “this mountain is made of this kind of rock”. Whether that is actually the case isn’t verifiable, which makes Nikonowicz’ evidence just like Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s – evidence of something, but of what is less clear. Other images reproduce topographical maps, scientific designs, mechanical drawings, and other mystifying setups, further confounding our ability to make sense of them or to unpack their mediations. And each of Nikonowicz’ photographs is time and location stamped with exacting precision, but this too is an exercise in subtle misdirection – the locations and times don’t necessarily match where the underlying image was taken, but where and when Nikonowicz made his endpoint picture, so we are trapped by all the data into a matrix of contradictions.

Nikonowicz opens up a different avenue for exploration when he photographically dives into the virtual worlds of video games. These “locations” are realistically imaginary, so much so that it is often hard to distinguish the digitally rendered peaks and vistas from the straight ones, and often, the sense of emptiness found in 19th century survey photos is replicated in the vastness of these unpopulated, yet to be settled virtual worlds. In terms of mediation, they offer a distinct alternative to sophisticated digital manipulation or reordering of the existing “real” world; in the games, Nikonowicz is reframing another human’s (or AI’s, I suppose) vision of nature (in the form of the coding choices that produced the simulation), instead of using nature itself (or a recursively nested human vision of that natural world) as the raw material. And so down the rabbit hole into the depths of inner worlds we go, and when we see the running deer outside the truck window, the wavy digital jitters and echoes tell us we’re now “seeing” in an alternate plane.

Nikonowicz then twists the crank another notch or two with pattern-matching images that cleverly replicate the formal qualities of mountains and rocks. He shows us peaks made out of paper, cloth, graphed data, and skin and hair pulled to a point, and mixes them with painted murals, printed vinyl behind chain link, and a movie set backdrop. He draws visual parallels between dappled clouds and smudged fingerprints on a smartphone, finds the dark center of a cave in the conical twist of a coffee filter, and sees tumultuous watery peaks in a cup of icy soda. Even a spotted wet sheet of Plexiglas from his darkroom fools us for a moment into thinking it might be a slab of stone. Seen interleaved with all the other forms of image mediation he has already shown us, our trust in the representative “truth” of the imagery is further undermined, the look-alike jokes and tricks wrong-footing us again and again.

The design of This World and Others Like It has a vaguely scientific air, with numbered images that tie back to the timestamp and location coordinate list, but with no further explanation or footnoted context. Two transparent acrylic sheets are included in the photobook, but are unbound from the actual pages. One shows us an unidentifiable specimen in a vitrine, but is printed as diagonal stripes, so the object dissolves into a kind of screen that can be used to interrupt or mediate other pictures in the book. The other is covered by a netted mesh filter pattern similar to one that Nikonowicz uses to break up a image of mountain sheep locking horns; we can then use the sheet to create the same effect on top of other images, essentially making ourselves mediators as well.

For a first photobook, This World and Others Like It is a remarkably sophisticated artistic statement. It operates on several conceptual levels, understands the photographic history that sits underneath it, integrates a handful of different technical and aesthetic approaches into one whole, and offers a variety of photographs that only reveal their complexity with sustained looking and consideration. It’s a brainy photobook that forces its viewers into twists and turns of discoveries, and one that seems to get even better the more we unpack its ideas.

Collector’s POV: Drew Nikonowicz does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Drew Nikonowicz, Fw:Books, Yoffy Press

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