Luke Le, What are you looking for?

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Perimeter Editions (here). Softcover with poster dust jacket, 25.5 x 17 cm, 170 pages, with 170 black-and-white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 400 copies. Design by Sasha Taylor. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Depending on where you put the emphasis when reading the title of Luke Le’s recent photobook, the question it asks – What are you looking for? –  can be interpreted differently. One approach puts the weight on the “what” of the phrase, focusing our attention on the subject matter or the object of the photographic search; another puts the weight on the “looking” itself, leading to a more open-ended investigation of the “why” of photographic picture making in the first place. In thinking through a photographic project, both versions of the question need to be addressed, and in a sense, the Australian photographer’s book offers us his own particular answers.

Our current moment has produced a flood of photography whose “why” is rooted in social, political, and historical realities that the artist needs to unpack for one reason or another. Some photographers are searching for or reclaiming parts of their own identities; others are using their pictures to expose truths, interrogate pasts, or advocate for much needed change.

Le’s photographic “why” is much more elemental, and in a sense, inward looking. His photographs express a need to find ways to see and process the world around him, and to notice and share the details of the everyday that catch his eye. His “why” is about capturing the surfaces, textures, shapes, fragments, and visual echoes that command his attention, and his photobook is a way to organize those found details into a more layered and thoughtful expression.

The design and construction of What are you looking for? feel perfectly matched to this kind of texture-centered seeing. The images were printed using Risograph printing and then rescanned, before being reprinted on a subtly rough paper stock. The resulting black-and-white images (and the cover, which has been printed in monochrome green) have an amplified sense of tactile surface, in some cases becoming washed out and softened with visible variations of ink application. Particularly in images of grasses, wood grain, concrete, and rock, the intentional Riso degradation makes Le’s images less directly representational and more sensory.

Le’s tight, cropped-down framing makes most of his photographs studies of selection and isolation. His subject matter includes both the natural and man-made worlds, each frame evidence of attention paid to something largely overlooked. When he sees the formal elegance in the wings of a butterfly, the curve of a steel urinal, the twist of a hanging rope, the zippered fly on a pair of pants, or the geometries of a windowed building façade, his pictures offer echoes to the 1920s studies of Albert Renger-Patzch, albeit with a more 21st century edge. Other images – of curtains, rock piles, clouds, grassy undergrowth, dense thickets of trees – degrade toward all-over abstraction, becoming fields of pattern and surface. His choices never feel like a parade of “found oddities” or clever ironies; instead, they have a sense of genuine astonishment at the unexpected in the world, especially as discovered in the dissonance of ugliness and beauty found in scarred plastic trash cans, repaired window screens, broken building materials, sawn off tree trunks, and discarded soda bottles.

The photobook form, with its page turns and spreads, allows Le to then pair his images into two picture combinations that unlock unlikely formal connections. It is these inspired relationships that give What are you looking for? its elegant visual punch, and there are far more knockout, wrong-footed, look again spreads in this photobook than in most. I returned several times to the pock-marked window and the bruised thigh, the curving tubes and the wavy hair being braided, and the thistle heads and the towers surrounded by barbed wire – each finds an unexpected repetition that feels almost magical.

And there are many more of these smart call and response pairings. The angled rocks surrounding a resting man and the electrical wires, the white picket fence and the tire spoke shadows, the alligator tails and the sweeping succulent leaves, and the worm eaten tree bark and the tar-ribboned crosswalk all find unlikely visual reverberation. And even more of these links can be listed without any trouble – the veiling of the dense evergreen branches and the floral curtains, the pulled lines of dog leash and the chain bolted into the rock face, the common angle of a modern building and a forked tree trunk, the knife points of a mysterious tool and the tops of an iron fence. The sequencing here is consistently spot on, leading to a lightness of touch in the flow that makes What are you looking for? feel sneakily clever.

Part of what I find most refreshing about this photobook is its straightforward lack of mannered posing. It isn’t trying to be oblique, or tricky, or confrontational, or postmodern – it simply revels in the joys of close photographic observation, and then the enchantment of discovering the in-between order within that chaos. The pairings are so good here that if I was Le, I might consider organizing them as permanent diptychs and displaying (or formatting) them as such. His sophisticated eye for the intricacies of photographic association could end up being his most important artistic differentiator.

Collector’s POV: Luke Le does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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