Juan Brenner, The Ravine, The Virgin, & The Spring

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Pomegranate Press (here). Perfect bound soft cover, 8.5×11 inches, 72 pages, with 65 color reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As a genre, the photographic homage to the artist’s home city is nearly as old as the medium itself. And while New York, Paris, Tokyo, and other eternal cities have been the subject of literally generations of such projects, making them so familiar that we might assume there is nothing new to be discovered, city portraits seem to be almost endlessly renewable, with each new photographer seeing the beating heart of his or her hometown differently.

Juan Brenner’s photobook The Ravine, The Virgin, & The Spring falls neatly into this category of urban tribute, but it shows us a place – Guatemala City – that less of us will already know intimately. As a follow up to his well-received 2019 photobook Tonatiuh (reviewed here), it aims the photographer’s attentive eye for overlooked detail toward gentle wanderings through the streets and the small visual eccentricities and cultural hallmarks to be found there. But Brenner’s aesthetic is a far cry from the momentary juxtapositions and casual combinations of street photography – his compositions are tightly controlled and crisply ordered, even when softened by the glow of warm afternoon light. While his pictures document the bustling cacophony of the city, they do so with a sense of formal control that feels elegantly clear and unhurried.

Editing and sequencing are underappreciated facets of turning a body of work into a successful photobook, and The Ravine, The Virgin, & The Spring is among the most impressive editing efforts I’ve seen since Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX (reviewed here). In this case, Brenner proves that he is a very accomplished selector of photographic pairings – nearly every spread in this photobook resonates with rich visual sophistication, from simple visual echoes, color matches, and repeated patterns to more subtle and unlikely combinations. Of course, the structure of a photobook matters a lot less if the pictures are forgettable, but here we have not only consistently well-crafted photographs but an undercarriage that enhances their power by making their harmonies and interconnections more clear.

Many of the spreads put together two images that at first glance have little in common, but then reveal themselves to be kindred spirits. Large green leaves behind a fence and tarps covering a car don’t seem related, until we notice the echoes between the leaf ribbing and the cloth drapery, and between the regular repetitions of chain link and orange stitching. The same might be said for an unexpectedly elegant pairing of plastic bags knotted on a metal wire and overgrown weeds in a vacant lot, that is until the fluttery plastic and the feathery stems of the leaves seen through the sun seem to reach for each other, both now seen as wispy forms on angled stalks. Brenner does this kind of visual dancing again and again: between a stray dog and a man sitting on the sidewalk; between the spiky up close branches of a plant and the ivy covered stanchions underneath a bridge; between the upward reaching greenery near a building and a downward falling paint spill near a brick wall; and between shredded shards of paper and a busy pile of plastic toys.

In between these visual vignettes, Brenner comes back to the textures of the city as seen from above. His flow is bookended by images of tin roofed cement slums, the first image centering on a religious mural painted on a wall and the last capturing the sway of the valley, effectively envisioning parts of the book’s title. Other wide views highlight the dense repetitions to be found in the cement architecture, the blocky forms piled atop each other in impossibly overcrowded ways. Still others interrupt the continuous built flow with the twist of a muddy creek or the frenetic slashing of electrical wires. Brenner’s pictures make Guatemala City feel like a continuously morphing mass, the geometries seemingly multiplying in every direction.

Smart pairings and standout single images are found at nearly every page turn. A white bird in a cage of layered lines and shadows and a stubborn urban tree surrounded by a painted mural animate the cover and title sequence, and the spreads that follow use color matching – orange and then light green – to get our associative juices flowing. Brenner seems to see formal parallels around each corner, linking emoji balloons and plastic water bottles, hanging hooks and backpacks, and the white line structure of metal scaffolding, a roaring skeleton, and some sagging parking lot fencing. He draws more nuanced and complex parallels between a jumble of smashed glass and an overstuffed junk shop, and between a pickup truck filled with car parts and an intrepid mother selling candy from the seat of her baby stroller. This theme of creative repurposing then returns with plants arranged on the hood of a yellow car and Mickey Mouse given an altogether more sinister feel with a white plastic horror mask.

As a single artistic statement, The Ravine, The Virgin, & The Spring is consistently honed with precision. Both the photographs and their presentation have been thoughtfully considered, leading to an understated photobook experience that resonates with long term durability. Brenner’s ode to Guatemala City is outstanding, a singularly quiet knockout that gets better with each viewing.

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

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One comment

  1. Orestes Gonzalez /

    This is an incredible book. A feast for the eyes. It captures Guatemala City’s quirkiness and dualities in a very graphic but loving manner, w/o being maudlin or overtly critical.
    You can sense Juan is from there.

    A must-have to your photo book collection.

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