Ellen Korth, Charkow

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2016 (here). Includes 7 booklets of photographs and text in Dutch, plus 1 booklet of translations in English and German, all housed in a printed cardboard slipcase. Each of the booklets has a sewn thread binding in one of a rainbow of colors. 6 of the booklets are each comprised of 17 color photographs; they are respectively titled Cora, Tine En Per, Gerard, Hans & Lisbeth, Henk, and Jan. The images in these booklets are full bleed (with the exception of the image in the center of each booklet which has a white border) and are reproduced on cut gradations of paper that become smaller/larger as the pages are turned. The seventh booklet, titled Nadya, is comprised of 7 black and white archival photos with white borders (with captions in Dutch) which cover the full spread; the center spread is blank. The entire package is protected by a folded cardboard box held together by two rubber bands. In an edition of 750. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The trend of making a “photobook” as an accumulation of smaller booklets in a special box or case has been gathering momentum over the past few years. There is certainly something seductive about unwrapping such a package and having the contents spill out in your hands, but engagement with works like these requires patience and deliberation, as sometimes it isn’t immediately clear how all the parts fit together. These kinds of books push their physicality further than most single volumes, and often revel in the creative proliferation of materials and textures. Many end up feeling like puzzles that must be thoughtfully and meticulously assembled.

For photography projects that have an internal structure or logic that fits this kind of discrete, piece-by-piece thinking, such a construction plan can help to clarify and organize the work – it makes it easier for readers to follow along, especially when there is a sense of sprawling breadth or complexity that needs strict organization. But on the flip side of this argument comes projects that don’t require this careful slicing and dicing to be coherent and are simply trying too hard to be clever, the dividing up of the photographs into neat little packages feeling over-thought and precious rather than integral to the delivery of the overall artistic message.

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse set the bar extremely high for this kind of aggregate photobook construction with their superlative Ponte City (from 2014, reviewed here), but Ellen Korth’s Charkow doesn’t shrink from being mentioned in the same breath. What’s most important about what Korth has done in her self-published book is that the photographs she has made and the story she wanted to tell required the complex book construction she chose – if she had jammed it all into one volume, the elegance of the project’s structure would have been lost.

Charkow is made up of 7 separate booklets (plus one more for the text translations into English and German), but we can really think of the whole project as having a 1 and 6 structure, where one booklet sets the stage/framework and the others respond to it. The Nadya booklet tries to tell the story of the artist’s mother, but this turns out to be harder than we might have normally assumed. The booklet contains a series of archival photos of the mother from different points in her life, posed with various friends and relatives. As the text explains, Nadya Subtschenko was largely a mystery to her daughter. Apparently, she came from Ukraine, was employed by the Russian army in World War II, was taken to Germany as a prisoner, found her way to France, and ultimately settled in the Netherlands, where she married and had her child. But much of this history was never told, at least not directly – torn photographs in a suitcase were clues but not answers. So the Nadya booklet is elusive – we see glimpses of this person, but we can never figure the story out. The images telescope in getting smaller and smaller as the time passes, finishing in the center with the smallest spread, which is entirely blank. There is no payoff – we are left just as wrong footed as her daughter, unable to fashion a portrait out of so few usable details.

It is clear from the text that these gaps and mysteries in her mother’s history have left the artist feeling rootless, and her response to that sense of unease leads to the contents of the other six booklets. In them we find six separate stories, each one chronicling an individual or couple (all from the Netherlands and if not elderly than certainly aging) and trying to capture how they have found their own definition of place or home. The structure of the work creates a strong feeling of searching, of looking to these people and their choices in the hopes that they might offer some comfort for one who hasn’t had the same experiences.

Each booklet is organized as a series of visual impressions, documenting the kind of things we might notice if we wandered into their homes and looked around with care and attention. The pictures once again telescope in, starting with an image at full size (the same dimensions as the cover), and then stair-stepping in, with each page turn leading to a smaller page. It is not until the center of the booklet that we actually see the person (or people) who live in the particular place (the image has a white border as if to remind us that it is different), and then successive page turns take us back out via additional impressions and details of the surroundings, the images reversing the pattern and growing incrementally outward. The effect is quite gentle and lyrical – we circle around the subject, seeing hints of his or her life before we actually meet, and after we see a face, we then step back away once again, seeing more aspects of the life, but now with the added context of the real person who animates that place.

Unlike Korth’s mother, many of her subjects have stayed in the same place their entire lives, and their homes have the cluttered density of decades of thrifty reuse. Jan collects old toys that threaten to overrun his small flat, and while there is loneliness and sorrow in his eye, he has the birds on his balcony as companions. Henk lives in the house his grandfather built, and sleeps just steps from where he was born; he lives alone in his sparsely furnished flat, seemingly content with his work bench and quiet conversation. Gerard lives in an old house and seems to have matched his life to its hand made aesthetic – he saves and recycles, finding a use for old china and forgotten silver and repurposing concrete scraps in his leaf strewn garden. Cora’s house is eccentrically bursting with family heirlooms and cast offs, her garden of 40 years now overgrown. Tine and Peer’s garden has a similarly scruffy look, with leaves strewn among the cheeses on the table – they live in a cooperative community, where sharing, tinkering, slowing down, and growing old all seem natural. And Hans and Liesbeth have made their home in their camper van, where small routines and travel provide their own personal sense of home.

The smart contrast Korth has set up comes between the Nadya book, which is austere and arms length, and ultimately empty at the center, and the other six, which teem with individual quirkiness, bright color, and mindful richness. Her subjects are folks who have deliberately chosen lives that prioritize context, that surround them with memories, echoes, and deep connections with family, friends, work, and the small joys of life. Korth’s photographs are consistently attentive, to an extent that feels not only respectful but almost loving. The pictures brim with compositional tenderness, finding the understated beauty in jumbles of treasured junk and scavenged left overs.

When placed in dialogue with the frustratingly incomplete story of the artist’s own mother, these pleasures remind us of their opposite or absence, and therein lies a measure of sadness. It’s not so much that any of her sitters represents the winning formula of some kind – many are on their own, or face their own challenges and struggles. But her multi-image portraits are steeped in unspoken longing, and that emotional undercurrent gives the whole project its layered and sophisticated resonance.

In the end, the many intricate and innovative design elements of this excellent photobook feel fully integrated into its narrative – they aren’t bolt on flourishes or distracting features. Both the discrete booklets and the telescoping pages reinforce Korth’s thought process and increase our understanding of her point of view. She has leveraged finely wrought impressions of the lives of others to amplify the traces of hollowness in her own, and that back and forth contrast is what gives the project its durable interest.

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

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