JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Here Press/The Photographers’ Gallery (here). Soft cover (perfect bound with silk screened spine), 180 pages, with 46 color photographs (by the artist), 37 black and white photographs printed on black paper (sourced from police archive of Ragnar Vignir), 8 illustrations, and 9 press clippings. Includes explanatory texts and captions by Professor Gisli Gudjónsson, diary entries by Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, and a sequenced set of thumbnails at the end. In an edition of 1000 copies, with a special edition (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Back in 1977, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan published a puzzling and now iconic photobook entitled Evidence. In it, they collected a variety of photographs they had found in the files of research institutions, government agencies, and corporations located in the San Francisco Bay Area, sequencing them into something akin to a narrative flow. Groundbreaking in many ways, it raised new questions about the nature a value of vernacular photography, added a layer of conceptualism to found imagery, challenged the prevailing traditions of classic photography, and introduced archive mining as a valid artistic practice. But its enduring strangeness is perhaps its strongest legacy. Each head scratching picture reminds us that photographs taken out of context have a life of their own, and that even though the title of the book ensures us that these images are genuine evidence of some kind, we can’t help but wonder “evidence of what, exactly?”
I was reminded of the deliberate open-endedness of Evidence when diving into the depths of Jack Latham’s swirlingly inconclusive Sugar Paper Theories. Latham’s photobook investigates Iceland’s most famous true crime mystery – the 1974 deaths of Gudmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson (same last name, not related). In separate incidents, the two men went missing, their bodies never found (which isn’t entirely unexpected given the options of tossing a body into the water or burying it in the endless lonely lava fields that cover the land). Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the investigations take a dizzying array of twists and turns over four decades, with suspects charged and exonerated, confessions given and recanted, stories told and changed, and conspiracy theories and unlikely conjectures piling up until the “truth” seems impossibly muddy.
The case(s) turn repeatedly on crucial details learned from interrogations of suspects kept for long periods of time in solitary confinement – there is no hard evidence (no bodies, no murder weapons etc.), remember. The problem is that all that punishing solitude (measuring in months and even years in some cases) seems to have addled the brains of the variously accused, leading to endless retellings, changed conclusions, and provocative new developments. By the end of the book, some of the suspects are so disoriented that they genuinely seem not know whether they were involved or not. So the whole project revolves around the central idea of distrusting memory.
Latham has organized Sugar Paper Theories as a layered compendium of often conflicting information. His own images are shown in color, and capture precise modern views of key people, places, and things in the ongoing investigations, giving us a contemporary echo of the events of the past. Like others who have documented the sites of past murders and other atrocities, Latham has given his photographs an emptiness that we can fill with our own conclusions. He has then interleaved a flurry of historical evidence (that slippery word again) and reenactment photos taken from police archives (on black paper), related newspaper articles (on pink paper), diary entries from one of the suspects (on thin white paper), and detailed explanatory texts (on yellow paper), forcing the reader to jump back forth in time, trying to put it all together (the thumbnails at the end of the book help). The results are satisfyingly inconclusive. Just when the cases appear to resolve into the everyday simplicity of smuggling or alcohol abuse, they shift back into stubborn convoluted complexity – things are and are not what they seem, repeatedly, and at the root of it all is the inability of anyone to actually remember.
Latham isn’t the first photographer to use the archive of an unsolved mystery as the basis or artistic exploration and improvisation, but his approach seems contrary to the prevailing tendency to “find an answer”. Sugar Paper Theories revels in its inconsistencies and mistakes, and its overt embrace of blind alleys and dead ends gives the photobook its originality. It’s a smart example of an intentional, unsolvable muddle, giving form to the vexing uncertainty of human memory.
Collector’s POV: Jack Latham does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).