Guy Bolongaro, Gravity Begins At Home

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Here Press (here). Screenprinted cardstock slipcase with stickers applied (each copy with a unique configuration). Contains four concertina books, each sized 24×17 cm., each with 32 pages, for a total of 112 photographs, and 1 sticker sheet. Design by Ben Weaver Studio. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: This time of year can be exciting for parents. The academic year comes to a close, and with the flip of a calendar page, kids transfer their base of daily activity from school to home. The domestic sphere might provide newfound room for companionship, conversation, and development. For those with prepubescent children—ages 6 to 12ish, say— it also brings a kinetic dimension. Kids possess enormous stores of potential energy. Confining them indoors is the rough equivalent of cramming wolverines into a milk crate. At some point you can expect explosive results, with the exact dynamics beyond easy prediction.  

Judging by Guy Bolongaro’s photographs, his kids have spent a good portion of the past two years bouncing off the walls. As pandemic restrictions forced the Bolongaros indoors, such events spilled over from summer into all other months. The resulting state of chaos forms the backdrop for Bolongaro’s recent boxed folio Gravity Begins At Home. Its title is borrowed from a 1959 lyric penned by Ivor Cutler, who claimed  “the theory of gravity is a lot of nonsense.” A spurious assertion perhaps, but one which Bolongaro makes no effort to disprove. If kids want to float airborne, his series shrugs, that’s their own business. And if childish highjinx inspire similar behavior in nearby animals, clothing, hair, lamps, moons, rocks, candles, fruit, and shadows, that’s fine too. All of these subjects make appearances in the series, sometimes airborne and other times grounded. But the primary protagonists are his son Ivor, daughter Rudy, and besieged wife Charlotte. 

Bolongaro is a social worker by trade, with a commensurate openness to alternative choices and lifestyles, as well as some qualms. “My social work really compounded my deep ambivalence about the family,” he told British Photography Journal recently. “I don’t think [the family structure] works. The last century has shown that the family is in breakdown – it’s very brittle, unsafe really, it perpetuates inequalities and oppression and is a hothouse for neuroses and dysfunction.”

That may be a startling opinion from a photographer focused on his children. Nevertheless, the Bolongaro family seems to be in fine working order. Their domicile is relaxed and kid-friendly, close to a childhood paradise as far as I can tell. Toys rest on most flat surfaces, while nearby crafts, books, and stickers are always at the ready. Perhaps this was a pandemic condition, or it might be chronic. In any case, young Ivor and Rudy appear to have the run of the roost. Many of their father’s photos capture their blurred limbs tearing through rooms. The settings sometimes branch out to parks, day hikes, and urban streets. There’s even a gymnastics routine on an airplane. At the other extreme of proximity, a visual subcurrent of celestial objects pulls attention to distant gravitational effects. 

Bolongaro captures and combines all of this material in ever-shifting permutations, with Charlotte (and perhaps Guy too, although he is never shown before the camera) scrambling to keep a lid on the boil. A twisted pretzel of arms and hands across a table hints at a kitchen whose food utility has long since been taken over by arts and crafts. Several photos show animal masks and their construction materials. Laundry piles double as animated sculptures, while screens, mirrors, and curtains divide spaces into cubbies, custom made for fantasizing or sneak attacks. Clothing seems somewhat optional in the Bolongaro home, depending on mood or time of day. And, as in many kid-centered spaces, inflated gloves, cardboard spaceships, pets on high alert, and bubbles are endemic. If you have raised young children at some point in your life, you may find yourself breathing a sigh of exhaustion as you thumb these pictures. Been there, done that. Whew!

Bolongaro joins a long tradition of photographers shooting candid family scenes. Alain Laboile, Trent Parke, and Sally Mann come to mind, to name three whose work falls in the same feral-kid ballpark. But Bolongaro’s distinctive visual approach probes even wilder territory. His snapshot aesthetic broaches the outer limits of bodily juxtapositions. Chance elements abound in every single frame, with odd cropping, flashed objects, layering, and hues in ever shifting arrangements. These are less childhood mementos than compositional experiments.

One wonders if Bolongaro wants to capture childhood memories, or merely cram graphic forms together. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. His frames are typically chock full with content as found in situ. But if he considers them lacking, Bolongaro is happy to spice scenes with new ingredients. A scene of a toilet and tissue rolls, for example, is livened up with a model solar system tossed mid-air. There is no logical reason for small planets to be in a bathroom, but they are dynamic and provocative, and that is enough for Gravity Begins At Home. Into another bathroom scene, peering down on Charlotte and Ivor in the tub, Guy has tossed a scrum of flying daffodils. Anything for a laugh, it seems…and bold forms.

If juggled objects throw the reader off-balance, the mood is enhanced with a novel design. This folio is not a “book” in the traditional sense. Instead it contains four concertina booklets stacked inside a cardboard slipcase carrier. Each one can be thumbed individually like a normal book, sort of. But the digestion of images is hardly seamless. Photos appear on both sides of the accordion fold, so it must be browsed twice to see everything. And even then the sequence is tricky, with cuts and folds on all four sides, like a child-made cootie catcher hiding secret pockets. I have studied all four booklets multiple times from all angles, and I’m still left with a nagging suspicion I’ve missed a few pictures. Meanwhile, the images themselves have a melange effect, appearing in a mix of sizes, color spaces, and formats. Some are full bleed, some monochrome, some spliced with others. Altogether the design feels like a child picking out clothes for the day. Maybe this shirt with those pants? Five minutes later, perhaps another choice entirely. No one’s keeping score, so why not cut loose and have fun? 

Bolongaro cites Michael Northrup as an influence, and his pictures pay direct homage to Northrup’s monographs Babe and Beautiful Ecstasy, both stuffed with great photos of airborne projectiles caught by flash. There’s a strain here too of Wolfgang Zurborn, and his eccentric compositional jigsaws. Bolongaro’s style bears similarity to both, but with a decidedly domestic twist. And whereas Northrup and Zurborn are content with “straight” captures, Bolongaro pushes the processing envelope, incorporating collage, silhouette, and patterned backdrops. Clipped and mirrored faces raise questions of basic appearance and representation. Perhaps personal identity begins to soften after being cooped up with family for months? Bolongaro applies these treatments with a deft touch. If his pictures threaten to spill out of control, they never quite achieve it. Perhaps a metaphor for balanced parenting.  

A few pictures have stickers on the surface, some of which some are rephotographed and restickered. In fact Gravity Begins At Home’s front cover comes with actual stickers applied in random fashion by Ivor and Rudy, spilling over and across the title. Each permutation is different, all 750 in the edition. If the reader feels so inspired, there’s a fresh sticker sheet included with the folio, including a fox mask, a leg, an apple, and so on. They might be pasted on the box, or on walls at home. It’s a whimsical touch, and a throwback to childhood. Bolongaro and his family seem to be enjoying themselves, and they want you to enjoy yourself as well. In a photobook environment which can sometimes bog down in melodrama and gravitas, I found the sticker sheet a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to turn serious matters on their head once in a while, especially during a pandemic. 

If Gravity Begins At Home is a tonic for readers, that also describes the creative path of Bolongaro. “I came to photography after a period of burn out and ill health,” he said in a recent interview. “I needed a simple daily creative outlet that wasn’t too cerebral or head-based. Something where I could just respond rather than having to carry a scheme or set of creative aims or anything pre-conceived; something to build new patterns and habits of mind, be more receptive and to quieten the internal monologue. Unsurprisingly photography was ideal, and it began to be very helpful and therapeutic to wander around with my gaze directed outwards just responding and capturing things that pleased me.”

After an initial phase shooting exterior subject matter, the pandemic’s confinement coincided with family dynamics to provide ideal photographic material. It was right before him. He just had to observe, position, and know when to push the button. Of course there was also the small matter of parenting, which can sometimes be tricky while photographing. Judging by Bolongaro’s results, that task seems well in hand.

Collector’s POV: Guy Bolongaro does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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