JTF (just the facts): Published by Lyre Press in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 152 pages, with 75 color photographs and over 100 additional images/Polariods in fold out pages. Includes an essay by Hans Theys. In an edition of 3000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Max Pinckers is a Belgian photographer who grew up nomadically in Asia, and his upbringing was undoubtedly one of the essential elements in his formation as an artist. He started showing his work in 2011, and became Magnum Photos nominee in 2015, at the precocious age of twenty seven.
As an artist, Pinckers actively questions the commonly held neutral position of the documentary photographer, saying that he/she is not just “a fly on the wall” and can’t deny the reality of a directive and manipulative role. To expose this subjective element, Pinckers’ work uses a combination of almost theatrical lighting and staging, and he meticulously researches his projects and carefully plans their technical aspects, removing some of their spontaneity. For him, a photographer’s lack of objectivity expands the medium’s borders and brings an exciting element into the storytelling. “Fiction often teaches us more about reality than reality itself”, says Pinckers, and this mindset is visible through the gradual evolution of his own work.
Pinckers’ earlier photobooks, particularly The Fourth Wall and Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, have received plenty of praise. Lotus, Pinckers’ most recent effort, revisits an earlier 2011 project he did in collaboration with Quinten De Bruyn. It explores the world of the transsexual community in Thailand, while unpacking some of the inherent contradictions of contemporary documentary photography.
The photobook has a light blue cotton cover with white text on its spine and a graphic (also in white) showing the contours of an exhibition installation. The first part of the book sets the stage of sex workers and tourists at play in Thailand. The opening photograph depicts a table close to a pink curtain, probably in a motel room, decorated by a free Pattaya map, a bottle of alcohol, two glasses upside down on a napkin, a pack of cigarettes, and a bible; a slice of the nighttime lights outside is seen through the window. The next photo depicts a resort – an old man sits on a sidewalk bench next to a young woman, touching her back, while another man lies not far from them, wearing nothing but a swimsuit. This image is paired with a photo that peeks, from a distance, into the hotel room showing the spread legs of a man watching TV from his bed. In these pictures, Pinckers is playing with the idea of voyeurism and surreptitious watching, which he then proceeds to undermine. The next few images capture young girls (or maybe transsexuals), all dressed up and waiting. In one photograph, we see a few girls in a club lobby – one sits on a stool with her legs crossed, looking back at us as she holds the shutter release. Not only she is aware of the photographer’s presence, but she participates in the actual process of taking the photo. It’s hard for voyeurism to have its illicit richness if everyone is in on the game.
The mood of the pictures changes noticeably as Pinckers and De Bruyn move to making more overt portraits of the transsexual community. Many of the images were made in the local hospital, where people undergo gender changing procedures. Photographs find a patient in a hospital bed while the nurse is fixing the curtain, a doctor posing in his office, and a close up of postoperative bandages, all of the images explicitly staged and orchestrated. These then give way to images of transsexual people photographed inside their apartments and out in the vibrant city. We see them as they dress up, wait, getting ready to perform, or just spend time casually gossiping in a bedroom. One of the most striking images portrays Yoyo – she has just woken up and stands in her bedroom naked, rubbing her eyes, while her friend still peacefully sleeps in the bed next to her. It’s an intimate scene, meticulously choreographed by the artists.
Pinckers and De Bruyn also distributed disposable cameras to the various people they followed for this project and have incorporated the photos their subjects shot into the visual narrative. The participants were free to shoot anything they wanted (they were only asked to finish the film), and this has added a raw spontaneous element to the story, presenting additional sides of their personalities. There are images of friends and strangers, selfies, random moments, failed shots, and also snapshots capturing Pinckers and De Bruyn as they set up lights, made tests, and directed the photographs. These images are printed on bright yellow fold out pages, introducing layer of meta narrative that challenges and demystifies our understanding of documentary photography. The last spread in the book shows the Polaroid portraits of people the artists encountered while working on the project, with their names/nicknames written on the photographs – these snapshots remind us that Pinckers and De Bruyn weren’t just out shooting in the streets, but part of a larger, and more thoroughly conceived artistic endeavor, where all the subjects were known to each other.
In many ways, Lotus takes an unprecedented approach to photographic storytelling. Pinckers and De Bruyn use delicate artificial lighting and careful staging in their snapshot-like photographs, but unexpected elements and hints of improvisation also find a place in their work. While focusing on the serious and urgent subject of the transsexual community and its search for a place in society, the book also exposes the actual process of behind the scenes image making. This duality of surface and underneath, of appearance and actuality, animates both the subject and the artistic process. Pinckers and De Bruyn mindfully balance the thin line between truth and fantasy, allowing fiction to widen our perception of reality.
Collector’s POV: Max Pinckers is represented by Gallery Sofie Van de Velde in Antwerp (here). Quinten De Bruyn does not appear to have a gallery representation at this time. Neither artist’s work has much in the way of secondary market history, so gallery retail or direct contact with the artists remain the best option for those collectors interested in following up.