Melissa Catanese, The Lottery

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2023 by The Ice Plant (here) and Witty Books (here). Hardcover, 170 x 240 mm, 80 pages, with 66 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes short texts by Shirley Jackson and Virginia Woolf. Design by Giulia Boccarossa. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over the past few decades, as more and more archives of photographs (of all kinds) are made more readily available, we’ve seen an effervescent blossoming of photobook projects that leverage and reimagine these visual assets. In some relatively simple cases, a photographer might add in images from a family album or an anonymous vernacular source as a way to broaden the context or fill in the back story to a set of his or her own pictures. But in others, photographers have used these expansive caches of ready imagery (both digitized and not) as the starting point for entirely new artistic explorations and book projects, sometimes without including any of their own original photographs.

For a few photo purists, there has been a temptation to label this group of artists as editors, collagers, scavengers, or curators instead of photographers, as if this definitional exercise might somehow usefully separate them from what the “real” photographers are doing. But of course, the bright line between creating photographs and appropriating, using, or reusing them becomes muddy very quickly, making such categorizations feel altogether dated and backward looking. We need only look back to Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s now-iconic 1977 photobook Evidence to be reminded that these editing techniques can produce sophisticated (and mysterious) artistic brilliance.

Melissa Catanese’s photobook The Lottery is one of the strongest examples of this type of inspired artistic editing and organization of photographs that I’ve seen in the past few years, mostly because it isn’t particularly literal or obvious, even after several turns through its pages. It isn’t a taxonomy of like imagery, a sequence of personal family moments, a newly unearthed revelation, or a historical resurrection of a specific place or time; in fact, it has no narrative through line at all. Instead The Lottery opts for a more nuanced kind of atmospheric mood setting, where pairings and sequences of images evoke elusive instincts and feelings, that Catanese then slowly coalesces into a richly open-ended kind of ominous dread.

The Lottery takes its title from a 1948 short story by Shirley Jackson. For those that might not remember, Jackson’s story is a powerhouse of slowly revealed desolation, following the events of a single summer day in an unnamed seemingly Midwestern farming community. The “lottery” refers to a traditional process of selecting one person from the population of the village, with names drawn from a black box. Jackson’s narrative unfolds patiently, with a growing sense of grimness and panic as the selecting occurs. The end result, which is referred to only obliquely, is the ritual stoning to death of the lottery “winner”, a married mother of three children as it turns out in this case. Jackson’s story is filled with shifting crowd dynamics, with the resigned and unwavering mob mentality leaving the reader with less than optimistic conclusions about the fate of humanity.

Catanese applies some of these simmeringly bleak ideas to her own precisely arranged gathering of images, mixing vernacular pictures from the collection of Peter Cohen with images drawn from the NASA archives and even some of her own photographs. Catanese’s book is designed with a consistent sense of simplicity and economy that keeps the attention on the photographs. The first section is fronted by a quote from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and all the images are vertically oriented, shown two to a spread with modest white borders. The second section again starts with a quote from Woolf (this time from To the Lighthouse), and the images are all horizontal, printed full bleed across the spread. Flanked by a text-only cover and bright orange endpapers, the book features no other texts, essays, or explanations, pleasingly leaving us to find our own connections and imaginings in Catanese’s selections.

Given the allusion to Jackson’s short story, Catanese’s inclusion of several photographs of crowds reinforces a set of questions around the rhythms of collective behavior. One crowd grimaces, covering their ears; another seems more patiently jovial, waiting in their seats; and a third densely-packed throng seems to have reached a point of frenzy, with arms raised and mouths open. Still other images document smaller groups of people watching things outside our view, looking out, looking up, and in one case, looking down at what appears to be an injured or dead man. With Jackson’s story lingering in the background, these crowds seem to take on a dulled sense of potential menace, or at least an unpredictability that might go badly.

What exactly could these crowds be watching? Catanese’s juxtapositions offer a darkly ominous answer – Mother Nature, not in her warm and cuddly mood, but in her most violent and unforgiving frame of mind. Catanese selects images of sulfurous rocks, smoking sinkholes, erupting volcanoes with flying rocks and spilling lava, dark cave entrances and hollowed formations, sharp dripping icicles, lightning strikes, seething sunsets, melting icebergs, and various other cloudy explosions of unknown origin. To my eyes, the pairing of these powerfully uncontrolled natural forces and the do-nothing entertainment of spectacle seeking crowds felt like an indictment of our collective disregard of climate change, but your mileage may vary.

Catanese goes on to expand this threatening spirit with a handful of images of animals at their most savage: a spider waits in its web, a bear scavenges in a trash heap, a dark bird circles overhead, and two birds fight over a leafy branch while the rest of the flock lingers nearby (not unlike one of Catanese’s passive human crowds.) When people enter this flow, they behave no better. Wearing kerchiefs to hide their faces, they playfully toss wedding rose petals while oil wells spout, trains derail, and bombs drop from the sky. Where this all leads isn’t left to our imagination; Catanese offers us an inverted world of mountains turned orange and hands turned into X-ray skeletons, with a skull left in a thicket of undergrowth like a forbidding tombstone. One of the first images in the book features a young girl holding a toy gun, seeming searching for someone to shoot; given the flow of pictures in The Lottery, I’m not sure that she isn’t looking for me.

Given these perilous circumstances, Catanese seems to offer only two responses: attempted escape or distracted resignation. Swimmers thrash through the water, breathing (or screaming) with mouths open, while climbers scale huge sand dunes, steep rock inclines, and various rock faces with seemingly tenuous grips; one image offers three men looking down into a deep misty abyss and pointing, perhaps at one of their own who fell on the way out. The other option seems to acknowledge that there is nothing more to be done. There are images of tender embraces, comforted crying, aimless drifting in the water, and reclining lost in thought, enjoying the last of the warm sun. Couples tickle and play or notice the beauty of a single flower blossom, a ripple in a still pond, or the moon overhead, but when the bodies start to pile up, some men are forced to carry them onward.

The last section of The Lottery, where the images turn horizontal, feels like a post-apocalyptic coda of sorts, or perhaps something of a new beginning. Mother Nature seems to have survived, albeit as a dusty moonscape or a craggy desert, with some sparkles of light across icy water and a few new poppies growing in a grassy field to provide a hint of optimism. A lonely figure strides across an enveloping lava field, almost like the last human on Earth, and the final image in the book shows a gathering of hands, ambiguously waving, clapping, or beckoning him home.

It isn’t easy to make a photobook that feels this haunted or nightmarish, or that seems particularly relevant to the big questions that face contemporary humanity. I think Catanese’s success with The Lottery lies in not only her careful editing and sequencing (highlighted by several inspired formal pairings), but in her willingness to take a chance on her readers’ openness to being guided through the fragile struggle she has crafted. She encourages us to fill in the deliberate blanks and in-between spaces between her chosen pictures, and at least in my case, that made the journey all the more memorably harrowing.

Collector’s POV: Melissa Catanese does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar.)

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