JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by MACK Books (here). Silkscreen-printed softcover, 232 pages, with 232 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 2000. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Legibility is a quality that we generally take for granted in photography. Given that the vast majority of photographs are taken of the people, places, and things in the world around us, even when the subjects aren’t explicitly obvious, we can, for the most part, recognize what we are being shown, and from that recognition, begin to draw some reasonable conclusions about the situations being presented. Photography is, after all, a medium of communication, and our common understanding of how images function allows us to use pictures to transfer information, document realities, and tell stories. But what happens to this exchange when we deliberately reduce the legibility of photographs? This prickly question lies at the heart of Kristina Jurotschkin’s recent photobook Nothing But Clouds.
What is taking place in Jurotschkin’s black and white photographs is a bit difficult to describe. Her images are resolutely representational, in that they show us situations we can largely identify, at least in their component parts. Many hone in on fragments of our built environment, where concrete and brick become walls and steps, fences define boundaries, metal structures become towers and barriers, and natural features like greenery, sand, trees, and bodies of water stubbornly encroach on our human-imposed order. Here and there, a specific object becomes indentifiable – a rubber car tire, an overturned shopping cart, a light fixture, a bicycle rack, a set of stacked cafe chairs – but for the most part, the images wander away from straightforward documentation.
It’s not that Jurotschkin’s photographs are abstract, because they’re not; they show us actual visual snippets of our collective modern world. But the images have been roughly stripped of context, and composed in such a manner so as to highlight their formal qualities rather than their subject matter. There is a detached aloofness to her point of view that keeps us at arm’s length, as though she was looking at the world with a seaching scientific eye, almost as a foreigner might. Each picture feels intentionally reduced, not in the sense of being made physically smaller, but in terms of removing most of the informational (and emotional) content normally captured – the pictures show us things we can name, but what they might mean or represent has been made altogether mysterious and obscure.
The design of Nothing But Clouds contributes to this sense of pervasive reduction. If the images in this book had been printed in crisp glossy color, we might have assumed this book was a study of found oddities and architectural eccentricities, and it might have looked like countless other photobooks that traffic in these kinds of pictures. But Jurotschkin’s photographs are delivered in rough black and white, their resolution seemingly degraded a bit to soften the edges and fuzz the details. The pictures have been printed on thin paper, seemingly just one step up from newsprint, and all of the images are full bleed, with the vertical images shown vertical and the horizontal imges turned to match the vertical ones, without apparent regard for the twist in orientation. The covers are executed in enveloping matte black, the images silkscreened on top almost unidentifiable, except in raking light. And there is no text offered to explain anything. Every single design decision seems to have been made in an effort to dilute, and even discourage, our understanding of the imagery.
The large number of images that are included also contributes to the overall impression this book makes. Most photobooks have a kind of rhythm and pacing that tacitly communicates a beginning, middle, and end to the flow, but Nothing But Clouds is like a metronome, the images relentlessly piling up in page turn after page turn. After I had flipped a couple dozen pages, I was thinking that I generally had a feel for what Jurotschkin was doing, and then I looked down and realized that I wasn’t even half way through the book yet. What this unexpected thickness creates is a sense of the images starting to blend together, and of the viewer slowly being worn down by the continuing accumulation of pictures. By the final few pages, a flatness emerges, as though I’d been paging through an endless forgotten archive.
The title of the photobook is drawn from a scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 meditative science-fiction film Solaris, where researchers deny video evidence of alien life on a distant planet by calling it “nothing but clouds”. But there is indeed something “living” on that planet, it just exists in a realm far beyond the comprehension of the observers. Jurotschkin’s images are contradictory and misleading evidence of her own kind, where her documents of current life feel like some future archive of the present, largely inexplicable to those looking back.
As the photobook progresses, incremental estrangement sets in, as if we are moving further and further from a logical grounding in the images. This increasing distance makes the photographs look even more strange, and it led me to a distinct (but admittedly remote) echo of Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence – Jurotschkin’s images show us the surfaces of life at this moment but without providing any understanding of the reasons these situations exist. So there is a subtle build up of confusion and alienation that takes place, in the sense that everything that should look normal starts to appear incomprehensible, given the artist’s deliberately detatched perspective.
What’s thought-provoking about all of this is that Jurotschkin’s aesthetic isn’t a rehash of standard conceptual deadpan, it’s even more emptied and blank-eyed. In her hands, a sawed-off tree trunk, a cardboard box, the lines of tram tracks, and a volleyball net all become authentically perplexing. And in transforming our vision of these everyday finds in this way, she’s performed a clever inversion – by removing every single trace of a human perspective, she’s asking us to reintroduce our own, forcing us into the role of discoverers trying to make sense of the unseen.
Collector’s POV: Kristina Jurotschkin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).