JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by PogoBooks (here, no book link, PogoBooks #116). Hardcover with unique hand marbled covers, unpaginated, with 226 color reproductions. Risograph printed and produced by Outer Space Press (here). In an edition of 150 numbered copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Ever since the Pictures Generation artists began to appropriate photographs from mass media and to reinterpret and reuse them in their artworks, we have been struggling with how to think about the photographer who doesn’t use a camera but instead mines archives of existing imagery. As digitization efforts over the past few decades have made much more material available and the Internet has made it easier for artists across the globe to find and employ this subject matter, the use of archival imagery in contemporary photography, and its continual remixing and reshuffling, has become altogether commonplace. And yet, there remains a tacit misunderstanding (and discounting) of this kind of photographic activity, as if the selection, editing, and re-presentation processes that lie at its core are somehow less creative.
Magdalena Wysocka’s new photobook RÓŻE is a fine example of what can happen when an artist actually fundamentally transforms a selection of archival imagery. Wysocka took as her source a 1967 book of horticulture by Drs. Jan Augustynowicz and Inż Antoni Gładysz, fetchingly entitled The guidebook for those who fancy roses. Apparently the first of its kind published in Poland, it gathered together a botanist’s dream of some 150 varieties of roses, photographed in full color. While likely of interest to the ametuer gardener, it sounds like the kind of hopelessly dated coffee table book (or better yet mass audience scientific guide) that now languishes in your local used book store with little hope of ever finding a buyer.
But RÓŻE takes the original specimen photographs and turns them into something else entirely. The process begins with a radical dose of enlargement, cropping, and reframing. While there are plenty of early 1920s Modernist precedents for photographers getting in close to floral imagery (Blossfeldt, Renger-Patzsch, Cunningham, and others), Wysocka’s reworked images tend more toward the luscious abstraction of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Blossoms are examined with sensual clarity, diving into the delicate folds and curves of nested petals. Wysocka’s croppings are bold and inspired, cutting away whole areas of the flowers, leaving behind fragments and slices that lean toward their more formal qualities of line and shape.
The resulting images were then printed in one of two sizes – a full page size (with a small white border) that further pulls us into the interior details of the remainders – or a smaller thumbnail size that Wysocka then uses in various tiled combinations. In some cases, she selects just two or three views from a single specimen and gathers them together on unbalanced sheets of white, while in others, the images are clustered into dense 9 image grids, where fragments twist and turn, telescope in, or simply shimmer against each other, refusing to resolve, their geometries rotated into complex arrays and arrangements.
Wysocka’s choice of the Risograph printing process then gives these pictures another twist. The enlargement and rephotography would already have begun the process of breaking down the saturated colors from the original source images, and the Risograph ink layers further undermine their clarity. Between the small mis-registrations of the colors to the inconsistencies of the roller marks, the images are filled with crackling degradations, turning petals into abstract color studies. Up close, fuzziness is balanced by dotted patterns, with the color elements dissolving into topographies of texture. Each and every turn of the page in RÓŻE delivers examples of tactile strangeness, the recognizable drifting away, leaving mottled color fields that want to break down and head toward an undulating kind of printer-Pointillism.
Other production choices reinforce the transformative attitude of RÓŻE. The sequencing begins where we might expect (a single, recognizable image of a rose) and ends at almost complete blackness (just a sliver of a petal in the corner), but the progression from front to back isn’t linear. The images wander through various color themes of whites, pinks, salmons, and reds, and back again, using the movement around the page of the smaller tiles and groups to propel the page turns. Each cover is wrapped in a unique, hand marbled cloth, the swirls and puddles of pigment (in light grey) foreshadowing the kind of unstable color experimentation found inside. And the end papers are covered with halftone black and white images of people and their roses, rooting the abstractions in Wysocka’s artworks in a deliberate (and somewhat kitchy) sense of archival history.
What makes RÓŻE so successful is that it systematically destroys the obviousness of its subject. The best of Wysocka’s constructions and enlargements turn the cliched flower into something unrecognizable, where edges and negative space tussle with subtleties and mysteries of color. While the central idea here may seem simple, the execution is anything but – it takes a sophisticated eye to break down single images into fragments that retain their own individual sense of compositional interest. This a photobook that gets better with each visit, as we slow down and look ever more closely, the images reveal further layers of gloriously rich disintegration.
Collector’s POV: Magdalena Wysocka does not appear to have consistent gallery representation, nor does she have an artist website to link to. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with her publisher PogoBooks or her Risograph production company Outer Space Press (both linked above).