Matthew Connors and Lucy Ives, The Poetics

JTF (just the facts): Published by Image Text Ithaca Press in 2019 (publisher site here, no book link available). Softcover, 188 pages, with 130 color photographs. Includes writings by Lucy Ives. In an edition of 500 copies. Designed by Elana Schlenker. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Image Text Ithaca (ITI) Press, an innovative publishing initiative founded by Nicholas Muellner and Catherine Taylor, has a mission of bringing writing and photography closer together. Both principals felt that the literary and photographic worlds are parallel in many ways, yet rarely speak to each other particularly well. Since 2015, ITI Press has released a dozen titles, ranging from monographs and posters to pocket-size series, including such titles as Dark Archives by Andre Bradley, My Birth by Carmen Winant (reviewed here), and Wood River Blue Pool by Jo Ann Walters (reviewed here). Each publication has explored different possibilities in and approaches to merging reading and seeing. 

ITI’s most recent publication, entitled The Poetics, deliberately intertwines text and images into another unique hybrid, where the writing and photography are treated equally. This project is a collaboration between the photographer Matthew Connors and the novelist and critic Lucy Ives, both of whom teach at the MFA program at Ithaca College run by Muellner and Taylor. 

The concept for the project came in July 2017, with the straightforward yet somewhat ambitiously strange idea of cataloging all of the items found in Connors’s car, basically removing “everything not bolted down” from his 1992 Volvo 240 station wagon. They started this quirky endeavor without knowing exactly where it would lead, and the effort ended up taking two years. 

The Poetics is a pocket-sized book, that easy to carry around, browse, and read. It has a simple blue cover with the text and graphic elements, also in blue, slightly raised; the title and artists’ names appear in silver on the spine, slightly indented. The images and text take roughly equal parts in the book. 

The idea of the project seems like a curious exercise, but it also provides a space to explore a wider range of more complex questions. Where does narrative originate? How do we build stories in relation to objects? What is our role in creating these stories? The book opens with a sequence of photographs showing banal objects shot against a plain white background, almost like commercial still lifes or Taryn Simon’s contraband images: a collection of coins, a pair of gardening gloves, one flip flop, a crushed pack of Doublemint gum, a set of Allen wrenches, a pair of jumper cables, and a pile of parking passes, among many other forgettable things. Connors’ photographs, shot inside a bathtub (on an edge, inside, or next to a drain) are rigidly composed and executed. While the objects might seem uneventful at first, Ives’ writing makes us look at them through her narrative, which constantly adds more layers of meaning. 

The storyline that moves through Ives’ creative writing masterfully navigates between various styles as she unwinds the narrative. It is intentionally fragmented, yet it is intelligent, funny, and engaging. It brings unlikely excitement to the objects discovered in the car, as she poses questions and guides us through various dimensions of the exercise. Roughly two thirds of the way through the book, Ives confesses that many of the things found in the car are barely objects, yet the mission of cataloging them has added potential significance. The list of these found objects meticulously documents 97 items, including (15) Dried banana stem (some dried fibers at bottom); (24) Unidentifiable black plastic fragment, probably from car interior; (43) Beige plastic fragment; (63) Revolting lint-covered almond; (97) Paper towel wisp, to name just a few. Ives’ narration encourages us to see beyond a first impression, the objects becoming part of a wider story. Her act of cataloging is far from a neutral listing. 

Ives compares the act of removing everything from one’s car to “permitting acquaintances to read one’s dairy or search one’s home.” Another round of images includes a black umbrella, a water stained bill from ConEd, sunglasses, a light bulb, crumpled hair, a piece of wood, an IKEA shopping list etc. The act of meticulously documenting these unrelated objects, through text and photographs, ties them together, and a close examination of Ives’ list and Connors’ photographs reveals two rather different accounts of the objects.

The title of the book echoes Aristotle’s Poetics, and Ives brings his idea of recognition into her discussion. She considers how an action can contribute to our understanding of the world around us, ultimately suggesting that the hero of the story is the reader herself. As an integrated artistic statement, this book is a sophisticated exercise in collaboration, trust, and creativity.

The audience for The Poetics is definitely those who indulge in active reading, and who are intrigued by unconventional narrative structures – the book brings photographs and writing together in a clever way, making them interdependent. The book is also exciting in its mission of taking a simple, and somewhat amusing idea, and turning it into layered project with many more possibilities and discoveries than we might have guessed. It requires both reading and seeing, and rewards that combined effort with pleasing intricacy.

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

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