Max Pinckers, Margins of Excess

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Softcover with 352 pages, includes 169 color photographs, archival images and screenshots. Also includes excerpts from newspapers and interviews conducted by the artist. In an edition of 1500 copies. Design by Rudy Latoir and Max Pinckers. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Max Pinckers, a Belgian artist raised in Asia, started showing his work in 2011 just after his graduation from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, and almost immediately started to gain attention and recognition (he became a Magnum Photos nominee only four years later, and in 2017 he lost the vote to join the collective as a full member). As an artist, Pinckers offers a refreshing approach to photography: while working within a documentary photography tradition, he actively explores the intersection between truth and fantasy. Pinckers deliberately questions the neutral position of the documentary photographer, pointing at a photographer’s lack of pure objectivity. “I want people to think about what and how they see. To think about the constructions behind photographs, how images in documentary are so much more about bringing a story and a narrative rather than the facts”. To stress the behind-the-scenes essence of his images, Pinckers’ own photographs are usually very stylized, bringing in delicate artificial lighting and theatrical staging.

Pinckers’ most recent photobook Margins of Excess is perhaps his most ambitious effort to explore the thin line between truth and fantasy, and this time he turns his camera to the United States. Pinckers is known for meticulously researching and planning his projects, gathering all of the elements together in an integrated conceptual and visual narrative. In the era of post-truth, when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, Pinckers’ exciting reflections on how images direct our perception of the truth are particularly urgent.

For Margins of Excess Pinckers, together with Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras, researched and compiled stories of six people who made headlines in the American media with narratives that question “objective journalistic media patterns”. The book is built around these unbelievable characters and their stories: Herman Rosenblat, who fabricated a touching Holocaust love story deemed “the single greatest love story” by Oprah Winfrey; Jay J. Armes, a double arm amputee and possibly the most expensive private investigator, a living legend and real life superhero; Darius MacCollum, a train hijacker; Richard Heene, who staged an elaborate television hoax; Rachel Doležal, a white woman who portrayed herself as black; and Ali Alqaisi, who pretended to be the “hooded man” in the iconic photo from Abu Ghraib prison.

The title of the book refers to a concept discussed by the anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney, arguing that photographs show what was there, but what was there can be much more complex than the idea presented by the photographer. As a result, Pinney states that photographs can’t effectively serve as proof, rather they are open, and can be interpreted far beyond the photographer’s original intention. Pinckers draws a parallel between his featured stories and these “margins of excess” in images, as we “ultimately see the things that we want to see”.

Pinckers deliberately includes stories in which subjectivity confronts objective reporting. When Rosenblat is asked why he told such a big lie, his reply offers rather a complex perception of reality: “Yes. It was not true, but in my imagination, it was true”. This opening story argues that the element of subjectivity complicates the line between truth and reality and Pinckers invites us to consider this theme as we move through the book. How do we regard the story of Ali Alqaisi, knowing that he is not the actual man in the photograph, yet he went through the identical experience?

Photographically, each story also evokes a range of perspectives through their visual representation: portraits of the main characters are mixed with reproduced media headlines, screenshots, archival images and metaphorical shots. The interviews conducted by Pinckers add context to the stories and also create space to play around; each interview is followed by a photograph (often from family archives) provided by the character. So we read a headline in The New Republic announcing the upcoming memoir of Herman Rosenblat, and the next spread is a photo of a Rosenblat from the back standing next to the tree holding an apple (a key element in the love story). This is followed by an image of a suit in a coffin surrounded by flowers, which is paired with a shot of a bed with red linens in a room with red walls. An excerpt from another newspaper then reproduces the details of Rosenblat’s fictitious love story.  It is followed by a shot of an orange thrown over a fence, and then another sequence of images that Pinckers associates with the story, reconstructing and expanding it with every added picture.

The portrait of Jay J. Armes brings in more of his personality: we first see him in an action pose in his office, wearing a suit and holding a handgun, his steel hooks clearly visible. One of the photographs is a suitcase full of dollar banknotes, another one is a close up of a car with a pile of cigarette butts next to it; later there is a spread pairing an old rotary phone with an unscrewed receiver cap with a shot of a car in a desolate landscape. Together these elements reference the investigative narrative. Through the interview, we learn more about Armes (from the bizarre fact that he has a replica of himself in his office, to his ability to solve the most extreme cases in the world and all his subsequent appearances on TV shows); he ends it with a fitting quote “I would like to tell you that you’ll be working with every type of situation, but remember one thing: the truth is stranger than fiction”. And again, the story expands as the next images show police cars, gun stores, a screenshot of the news covering a bomb scare in Times Square, a glass of soda with a straw on a table, and policemen detaining two young men.

Throughout the book, Pinckers has interspersed images staged with actors, using his typical theatrical staging and dramatized body language. In a close up shot, a woman hugs a man as her eyes show despair, and in another picture, a man looks straight into the camera as a tear rolls down his cheek. These images capture people as they express shock, anxiety, fear, sadness and other emotions too often seen in the news these days. Their obvious staging begs the question what is real and what is fake, and does knowing it make any difference?

As Pinckers interweaves factual details with layers of other visual materials, these stories expand and deepen in their references, posing key questions about identity and perception. They also play with the way we make associations and connections, and how one story can easily be turned to something completely different. Images throughout the book are filled with symbolism and hints: the weeping statue of the Virgin Mary; interiors of motels and newsrooms; polling places; cellphone towers disguised as palm trees; a UFO museum; billboards etc. The last photograph in the book seems only fitting: it captures a McDonald’s drive-thru in a small town, the sky washing to pink as the sun goes down.

Book’s elegant and functional design ties all the elements together, creating an exciting and clever photobook experience. The articles are printed on newsprint style paper, while the interviews are on yellow paper, while the images vary in sizes and placement, creating a sense of visual layers.

As we enter the age of hyper-individual truths, Margins of Excess thoughtfully digs into representative narratives that define our perception of reality, showing that the existing framework we employ to understand the world around us might no longer be relevant. Pinckers carefully orchestrates his multi-layered stories, boldly introducing fiction to expand our perception and understanding of reality. Given these risks, and as seen here as he fiercely challenges the boundaries of photographic storytelling, Pinckers is without a doubt one of the most intriguing photographers working today.

Collector’s POV: Max Pinckers is represented by Gallery Sofie Van de Velde in Antwerp (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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