Eli Durst, The Community

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Mörel Books (here). Hardback (9¾ x 11¾”) with tipped in cover image, 80 pages, with 37 black and white reproductions. Includes a brief afterword by Eli Durst, and an inset pamphlet with text by Maddie Crum. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Eli Durst and Ria Roberts. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Eli Durst’s The Community has a cover design which is unusual for a photobook. Instead of a conventional photograph or photo-based image, the cover sports a chainlinked ring in graphic form. It’s a tightly cropped icon in bold blocks of color, as simple and economical as any corporate logo and, as logos are wont to do, symbolizing content. A circle stands for any social gathering. A link symbolizes the interlocking relationships that form such a group. Rainbow colors signal diversity. Most importantly, the use of iconography is a tip off that the book is not meant as a literal representation of reality. “These images aren’t faithful documentations of these spaces, and I don’t intend for them to be,” Durst said in a recent interview. “It’s almost like filmmaking; constructing a fictional world, but using real-world tools to do so.”  

So the book is a fantasy of sorts, with one foot planted in fact and and one in fiction. Its disparate scenes are meant to describe a single imaginary entity: The Community. But when Durst initially began the project, his motivation was less metaphorical. He was simply curious how various social groups in America operated. “What is everyone after?” he wondered. “Why, in the twenty-first century, congregate at a rec center or church basement? What is at stake? What do people gain from being together in physical space? What do people need from each other, from a community?” Those questions drew him initially to church basements, then to scout meetings, corporate retreats, and multipurpose rooms. Anywhere that public gatherings happened became the grist for Durst’s camera. He shot in his native Texas initially, and then further afield.

Little did Durst suspect when executing the project (2015-2018) that community meetings would undergo a radical transformation in 2020, along with everything else post-COVID. Viewed from a contemporary social distance, his pictures of hugs, hand-holding, and team-building exercises appear exotic, like missives from some barely remembered world. Even in the current era of Zoom meetings and virtual community, the social instincts of humans remain unchanged, and Durst’s scenes have gained ironic resonance. When you investigate “the search for purpose and meaning in a world that both demands and resists interpretation,” as Durst describes his project, there’s no danger of asynchronous concerns or dearth of material. That hunt coincides with all human history.

Durst lures the reader into The Community casually, with humdrum scenes at first. Hey stranger, there’s nothing to be scared of, come in and join the meeting. A photograph of a bland-looking table kicks things off. A backlit apple glows in its formica center, encircled by simple table settings: styrofoam cups, agenda copies, half eaten hors d’oeuvres on napkins. A scout meeting follows, then a man demonstrating a pose, a woman in some sort of group exercise, a man counseling someone. Buffeted by a backdrop of bulletin boards, motivational posters, and file folders, these opening scenes are beyond generic. It’s hard to glean from them any ideology or judgment. They might be illustrations in a how-to manual or corporate report. Yet their blandness belies a deadpan absurdity, and a hint of what’s to come. Something is off, but the reader is not yet sure what that is. 

It’s not long before the latent sense of surreality bursts to the surface. A photograph of a loaf of bread recalls the apple picture in basic form. But this loaf is the hub for a wheel of human arms. There are mementos and loopy signatures on the skin. Perhaps they belong to teens in a bakeoff? It’s hard to tell. The scene is electrified by Durst’s nimble use of strobes. Multiple light sources mixed with shadow help foster the illusion that the bread is floating. It’s a centralized ethereal magnet, subtly referencing the cover icon.

If the bread picture seems unusual, the one which follows is stranger still. It’s a man on a cramped stage in a mask, performing a lonely soliloquy to a scattered assembly. We’ve arrived at amateur hour in all its awkward glory, but the exact time is uncertain. It might be 2pm or midnight. The audience waits expectantly for some bit of info, but they’re out of luck. A photograph of two people lying stone-faced under a table doesn’t clear anything up, nor does the next one, a gorgeously lit montage of parrots, guinea pigs, balloons, and a cat so black it’s almost invisible. Presumably this scene was part of a community meeting of some kind. The exact circumstances defy conjecture, as do the photographs which follow. By now the moral tone of the book has been established. It is an open-ended inquiry creating more questions than answers, circling around minor absurdities even as it locks them in place.

Durst mines the commonplace for the absurd. In his world decontextualized banality is oddity. The more normal and happenstance his scenes, the stranger his frames. In this way he operates a bit like Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, whose landmark book Evidence revealed the unwitting serendipities hidden in scientific documents. Some of the photos in The Community might indeed pass unnoticed in Evidence. A helmeted man tossing a fluorescent bulb to the ground, for example. Or a curtained window which seems just unclever enough that it might be an insurance appraisal. A mockup of an Israeli airplane could be part of a child’s science report. Durst records these scenes clinically, as a lab technician might. He prefers physically removed vantage points, and avoids subjects looking into the camera or other tip offs toward the consciously photographic. All of these facets help transform documentation into bewilderment. But what finalizes the twist toward absurdity is the absence of supporting information. Like Evidence all these various situations have been stripped of context, then reappropriated into a novel sequence. Is it possible they were all shot in one community? If pushed one might answer yes. But it takes a mental leap to get there.

Although Durst employs an incidental style, I don’t meant to cast him as an amateur. With a Yale MFA and experience printing for Griffin Editions, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and so does Mörel. The Community’s tones are precise and deeply realized, almost painterly in their subtle attention to detail. Durst has a keen eye for chance juxtapositions, and is skilled with mixed lighting, deftly combining multiple strobes, or none at all, depending on what each picture requires. Careful illumination reminds the viewer that these are not simply found scenes. They often involve coordination and planning by Durst. To what degree is not clear, and probably varies from picture to picture. But their casualness may be a manufactured effect, no less artificial than a strobe or wig. “I seek to blur the line between documentary tradition and conceptual practice,” he says coyly, “taking subjects that are often represented in a documentary style and infusing them with an ambiguity and strangeness that asks the viewer to reconsider their understanding of reality and its relationship to the truth.”

In the ambiguity and strangeness departments Durst has succeeded. But to what extent these scenes gel into a single cohesive community is less clear. What possible space could hold all the bizarre happenings depicted here? And what is this outside observer’s role there? The fiction of a single entity is a stretch, and maybe insurmountable. But perhaps that’s not the right viewing filter, for The Community is a metaphorical vehicle, not any actual place.

Beyond that construct, Durst seems hesitant to characterize it. “The Community is a series about the pursuit of enlightenment,” he told one interviewer. “I hope the book remains a mysterious object,” he told another. To a third: “I’m interested in how the space between the photographs can create confusion and ambiguity.” The book checks all these boxes. It is mysterious and ambiguous. It may possibly (although my experience is limited in this area) refer to enlightenment. But its root lesson would seem to run counter to such an individual experience. In pointing out humanity’s social bonds, The Community reminds us that, as much as we might feel self-contained, we remain interlocked by communal links.

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

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Read more about: Eli Durst, Mörel Books

One comment

  1. Janet /

    Evidence: Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
    Published 1977

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