JTF (just the facts): A series of three photobooks.
Should Nature Change: Published by Steidl in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 68 black and white reproductions (with location captions). Includes a short essay by the artist and a quote from William Maxwell. Book design by the artist.
Jack Wilson’s Waltz: Published by Steidl in 2019 (here): Hardcover, 144 pages, with 69 black and white reproductions (with location captions). Includes a short essay by the artist and quotes from Arthur Chapman and James Brown. Book design by the artist.
The Nicknames of Citizens: Published by Steidl in 2020 (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 70 black and white reproductions (with location captions). Includes a numbered list of titles. Book design by the artist.
This body of work was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet “Disorder” (here). (Cover and spread shots of each photobook below.)
Comments/Context: For many photographers, the combination of the changing political winds and the deteriorating climate have generated a common imperative: to stop and look around, to take stock, and to reassess where we are and where we might be going. This is being done on a variety of levels – as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as humans on this planet – and in a multitude of ways, but the urgent observational impulse is the same. The world around us has changed and is continuing to change still more quickly, and so we feel compelled to reorient ourselves.
John Gossage’s recent series of three photobooks (Should Nature Change, Jack Wilson’s Waltz, and The Nicknames of Citizens, all published in the last year) is the artistic result of just this intention to set out across America to see what he might find. Made in the past few years (one of which was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship), his new photographs traverse the his home country, generally avoiding the obviousness of landmarks and big cities, and instead setting into the rhythms of mundane suburbs, outskirts, and back roads. And while the three books contain different sets of images, they travel similar conceptual pathways, with repeated refrains of subject matter, motif, theme, and overall mood.
The covers of all three books reproduce the same image, albeit in slightly different positions – a large group picture from a school or camp, perhaps from the 1960s or 1970s, its clarity eroded by time. While we can pick out some faces and perhaps guess at a few personalities, the world it captures seems to be dissolving right in front of our eyes. It seems to be implying that even if we can connect to the past (and the bygone America) it documents, that legibility is quickly fading.
Gossage seems to have headed out on the road with remarkably few pre-conceived notions and perspectives. We might have guessed he would be drawn to visual evidence of downturn, polarization, and decay (in any number of guises), in effect finding just what we was looking for, but that isn’t at all the case in these books. He does make pictures of the ominous billowing smoke of wildfires in California, of dark clouds overhead more generally, and seems to be drawn to squint-inducing flares of hazy apocalyptic light, but these photographs don’t feel heavy handed or too often repeated – they are visually part of our new “normal”, but he doesn’t obsess over or exaggerate their quiet gloom.
Many of Gossage’s photographs are instead rooted in everyday suburbia (and exurbia), and in the subtle visual discoveries to be found there. He travels down suburban streets, taking in the spatial arrangements of strip malls, parking lots, storefronts, and highway traffic. He looks down typical suburban sidewalks, into alleys, across quiet intersections, and down long roads, paths, and walkways. And he stops to notice the layered geometries of fencing, stairs, front stoops, and open garages, the interplay of lines, planes, and textures becoming his primary subject.
When Gossage slips deeper into the forest, or at least into the nearby greenery, his views often get densely blocked and frustrated. Thickets of woods, overlapped branches, and tactile closeups of bushes and front gardens bring nature right up to his lens. In a few cases, he discovers traces of human intervention, from piles of sticks and makeshift lean-tos to a small American flag in an otherwise deserted glade, making these places feel loosely inhabited and feral. But then when he looks up, he catches a glimpse of birds in flight, or geese in the low brush, or a deer jumping through a field, as if startling them; there is the sense that he is alone in these places, and a few pictures capture other isolated figures from afar, making their own way through.
In general, there are few people to be found in Gossage’s photographs, which makes his portraits of young artists from various schools around the country all the more unexpected. Art school kids may have a certain more expressive look on the whole, but his engagement with them uncovers moments of individuality, from tattoos, jewelry, and clothing, to the fleeting nuances of glances and body language. What is mostly evident in these pictures is a sense of reflected hope, a connection between Gossage and those who may follow in his footsteps; there is kinship in the images, and honest respect for the tentative steps being taken toward finding a personal voice.
These portraits continue a much larger theme in Gossage’s work, one that is found throughout these three photobooks – a consistent interest in the eccentricities of the everyday or the unremarkable, where an image is built on an unexpected visual discovery (in whatever form) that turns something ordinary into something worth looking at more closely. He does this in hotel rooms and other vacant interiors, seeing the nuances of the placement of a lamp, a box of tissues, a bunch of placements on a kitchen table, or a pair of animal print cushions of a chair. And he does it looking down as he walks, noticing patterns of oil spots, a grocery flyer on some stairs, a swarm of ants on a curb, a worn rubber welcome mat, and a series of bricks toppled like dominoes.
Gossage’s approach isn’t the entirely same as the more typical “found oddities” effort that we see again and again in the world of contemporary photography. He tries much less hard to be clever, and doesn’t emphasize his eccentric findings with attention grabbing centered framing; instead, he is visually understated, allowing his quirks to quietly linger in their surroundings – only when we look more closely do their wonders reveal themselves more fully. This is true of his images of a rusty BB gun and some padlocks, a toppled dashboard dinosaur, some knives on a magnetic kitchen rack, a chain for a swing, a white panel on an otherwise dark car, a McDonald’s sign on a trailer, a parking spot for JAKE, a cast shadow in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, and another in an unlikely triangle. Instead of isolating these finds, he encourages them to lay in situ, making his pictures more subdued and low-key, even when they are meticulously arranged to show us what he’s seen.
The design and construction of these three photobooks is lushly elegant. The images are shown one to a page, only on right hand spreads, the numbers and captions shown on the left side, against a soft light green tint that directs attention back toward the photographs. Aside from an introductory essay and a few quotes for each book, there is essentially nothing more; just exquisitely printed black and white photographs on high quality paper. It’s a “photographs first” design, and it matches Gossage’s aesthetic perfectly. That said, given the parallels between the three books, I’m not sure why the three books weren’t boxed together more obviously as a set or integrated into one larger whole, rather than separated out as discrete siblings with so much commonality.
Mark Power has recently been working through his own multi-volume examination of contemporary America (the first photobook in the series was reviewed here), so there is an intriguing opportunity to examine Gossage’s work in relation to what Power has observed at roughly the same point in time. In the end, Gossage’s attentive eye is far more muted and malleable, allowing his impressions the space to settle rather than framing them off with Power’s rigidity and structure. Gossage’s pictures offer a comfortable, almost secretive, intimacy that gathers us alongside, rather than holding us at arms length. And even with all its faults and failures, America, at least from Gossage’s vantage point, remains filled with moments of quiet optimism. The heat may be rising and the storm clouds may have gathered, but his photographs richly remind us that an empty road that stretches on ahead can still represent an opportunity.
Collector’s POV: John Gossage is represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago (here). Gossage’s work hasn’t regularly appeared at auction in past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.