Katerina Moschou, How to drive

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (here), in collaboration with Zoetrope Athens (here). Softcover, 26×19 cm, 80 pages, with 43 color reproductions. In an edition of 55 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

This project received a Polycopies & Co. publishing support grant.

Comments/Context: The photographic genre of explanatory imagery isn’t one that artists have embraced with much consistency or innovation. Each year, countless books are published with practical, deadpan photographs that show us how to grow a vegetable garden, how to bake bread, how to throw a baseball, or how to do yoga, and these books are typically filled with useful photographs illustrating each step in the process. When artists have engaged with this kind of picture making, it has mostly been with an edge of comedy or conceptual caricature, in a sense making fun of whatever behavior or activity is being documented.

Against this backdrop of subtle artistic mockery, Katerina Moschou’s How to drive feels altogether different, mixing a sense of understated reverence and affection with a seemingly genuine effort to see something familiar with fresh eyes. Moschou’s father is apparently a car mechanic, whose passion lies in vintage Italian cars and their hard to find mechanical parts, and Moschou grew up in Athens steeped in that automobile subculture. Her photobook steps back to look closely at a world she already intuitively knows, examining a single vintage car with care and attention and gathering together images she staged of how to operate it. Her photographs reference some of the mundane practicality of typical how-to imagery, but infuse the subject matter with an unexpected strain of tactile mystery and compositional complexity.

How to drive begins with a very slow reveal, almost like a ceremony, extended over ten photographs. The car to be driven is covered with a sewn fabric cover that has been patched with duct tape and tied down with bungee cords. Anonymous male hands dressed in some kind of work coat slowly pull back the cover with a gentle touch, and Moschou’s tightly cropped photographs revel in the changing folds, gathers, and wrinkles of the drapery. Eventually part of a wheel is exposed, and then a glimpse of a bumper and white side panel is offered, but we never actually see a full view of the car – its particular identity remains elusively unstated, perhaps only identifiable by true car connoisseurs. What we see instead are fleeting fragments, with Moschou actively playing with the possibilities of the surfaces and textures.

Soon we encounter a woman who will be our guide for this introductory session, and we see her take a seat behind the wheel, secure her safety belt, and generally familiarize herself with the driver’s controls. These images vaguely recall images from an owner’s manual, but are more intimate and somehow personal, turning the routine motions into more resonant gestures and experiences. Each movement of her hand and touch of her fingers feels intentional, our attention focused by Moschou on these tiny moments and overlooked details. Her eyes survey the dated flip cover ashtray, the hand crank window lever down at the side, various unmarked switches, the plastic speedometer marked in increments of twenty km/h (10, 30, 50, 70, etc.), and the sweeping expanse of black dashboard (with a bit of embedded grit and dust), and after a quick adjustment of the side mirror and a glance upward in the rear view mirror, she returns to the actual business of driving.

With the installation of automatic transmissions in most contemporary cars, the operation of a old school stick shift has become something of a lost art in many parts of the world, but this particular Italian car requires a driver who can operate a stick. Moschou’s photographs introduce the gear shift, the clutch, and the other accelerator and brake pedals on the floor, in some cases taking a worm’s eye view of the car’s floor. After a visual tutorial on releasing the parking brake, she then shows us the layered this-then-that choreography of gripping the stick and pressing the pedals, with various shots of hands and feet pushing and pulling, some seen from the passenger side, others from nearly underneath looking up through the steering wheel to the white sky behind the windshield. Our teacher starts wearing a light brown sweater and dark jeans, but after some physical twisting and turning, the sweater disappears and the sleeves of her white shirt are rolled up, almost in a gesture of “getting to work”.

Of course, for anyone who knows how to drive, these images will at first glance seem altogether forgettable and banal. But they are more cinematic than the pictures from a standard owner’s manual, and the framing of the details is tight to the point of near abstraction. It’s as if Moschou has forced herself to closely observe the humble interior of a car like it was something foreign to her, noting each detail and its possibilities for being seen with style or grace. While there seem to be moments of anxiousness and frustration in these pictures, they are balanced by the gentle caress of a hand on an arm rest, the casual hanging of loose fingers off the steering wheel, or the twist of a shirt held fast by a belt with a silver buckle. The book ends with absence, a spot of sunlight cast across the ripples of leather on an empty seat.

What I like about this photobook is its comfortable return to the first principles of photography –  of using a camera to look at something (however mundane) and therefore seeing it “photographically”. There is a sense of unexpected richness and presence in Moschou’s pictures of this car and driver, the kind that draws us into potential narratives and imagined situations and encourages us to observe the details even more closely as if looking for clues. It’s as if through sheer dogged attentiveness, she has rediscovered the magic to be found in learning to drive a car, while also highlighting the unlikely aesthetic beauty found in pulling back a dusty car cover or buckling a seat belt. How to drive is set in the disarmingly simple framework of an instruction manual, but is somehow also beguiling, visually answering obvious questions while still leaving plenty of room for nuance and open-ended interpretation.

Collector’s POV: Katerina Moschou does not appear to have consistent gallery representation. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her Instagram page (linked in the sidebar.)

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