Mike Mandel, Zone Eleven

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Damiani Editore (here). Hardcover, 112 pages, with 83 photographs by Ansel Adams. Includes an essay by Erin O’Toole. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: At the 1975 annual meeting of the Society for Photographic Education, as part of his remarks to the assembled crowd, Ansel Adams made an announcement that he had given his entire archive to the Center for Creative Photography. The newly formed organization, housed at the University of Arizona at Tuscon, opened later that year with five anchor tenants: the archives of Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer, all of whom were still alive at the time. And while photographers (and their families) had been donating their archives to museums and libraries since the advent of the medium, this felt like something different. From the ground up, the CCP was designed to offer the potential for more in-depth study and engagement with its key (and growing) photographic holdings. The fact that Adams, the crowd-pleasing patriarch of environmentally-conscious straight photography, had contributed his vast holdings to this new effort was the ultimate sign of validation.

At roughly the same time, Mike Mandel was working with Larry Sultan on a project that would eventually take form as the now classic photobook Evidence. The two artists were spending their time combing through various image archives, particularly those from corporate and governmental collections, pulling out mysterious photographs that they then sequenced and published (in 1977) as their own artistic statement. Evidence turned out to be a ground-breaking book, helping to solidify the validity of conceptual and appropriation-based photographic strategies and ushering in a Post-modern intellectual and aesthetic sensibility. To this day, Evidence remains a powerhouse, filled with perplexingly engaging uncertainty that forces us to think carefully about what a photograph can (and can’t) communicate, especially when its usual context is absent.

Zone Eleven, coming nearly fifty years later, brings together these two distinctly separate threads of photographic history in a tantalizing new project – Mandel would apply his incisive editing eye to the surely daunting Adams archive. But making a standard book of Adams outtakes and variants of grand landscapes wasn’t what Mandel had planned – that was much too easy (and likely forgettable); instead, he hoped to uncover a different side of Adams that hadn’t been seen before. But given how thoroughly and repeatedly Adams’ work has been shown and celebrated over the years, the avenues for new thinking weren’t entirely clear.

Mandel ultimately decided to limit himself to Adams’ commercial work – images that Adams had made for hire or on commission, to pay the bills, like nearly every other working photographer we might choose to name. While this decision chopped away the vast majority of the archive, it was in many ways a natural choice for Mandel, as sifting through commercial archives was what he and Sultan had done so successfully in Evidence. What was unnatural about this path was how un-Adams-like these pictures turned out to be – there were few majestic landscapes, many pictures with people in them (which is a rarity in the Adams master oeuvre), and lots of mini-projects made for magazine stories and commercial clients, filled with an eclectic range of mundane subject matter, from technical equipment and futuristic architecture to theatrical productions and swimming pool divers. Very few of the images that eventually find their way into Zone Eleven can reasonably be pre-identified as Adams compositions, even though we all know what an Adams landscape looks like. This unexpected reversal of aesthetic obviousness is part of what makes the photobook so engaging, and what leads to the tongue-in-cheek title Zone Eleven, which plays on the unlikely extension beyond the ten strict divisions of Adams’ original Zone System.

It might be tempting to set this book up as a clever “dialogue” between Adams and Mandel, but that seems vaguely misguided – Adams did indeed provide all the visual raw material, but the electricity to be found here comes not so much from Adams’ photographs, but from Mandel’s inspired selection and sequencing of them. After spending time with it, this book doesn’t seem aimed at being a discovery vehicle for the unseen Adams (which it is indirectly), but a constrained sandbox in which Mandel can play.

For the most part, aside from a walking intro and a few wide shots, Zone Eleven is set up as paired spreads, which allows Mandel the freedom to put the pictures together in unexpected ways. The resulting pairs are nothing short of ingeniously brilliant, with hardly a dull spread in the whole book. While those wanting to learn about how to sequence the images in a photobook can of course start with Evidence, Zone Eleven shows that Mandel hasn’t lost even a step in the intervening decades.

Mandel eases us into this alternate Adams universe with a simple pairing spread across a page flip. The first image gives us a little Adams familiarity – two tree trunks with a mountain vista in the far background – but what’s actually interesting about the picture is the contrast between the two trees, with one smooth and light colored, the other mottled and dark. Turn the page and Mandel has offered us a picture of two female drummers in uniforms, seemingly marching in a darkened gym somewhere. This image certainly doesn’t seem like anything Adams would have ever made, and that’s at least part of the point; but then we look closer and see the contrasts of light and dark between the two drums and the two shirts, setting up the same back and forth as the two tree trunks on the previous page. Drum roll please – and down the Mandel rabbit hole we go.

In the spreads that follow, Mandel finds a dizzyingly wide range of ways to connect two seemingly unrelated photographs – by subject matter, by tonality, by a notable shape or form, by compositional structure, or by something else entirely. Flipping the pages becomes a sharp-witted visual game, with each spread offering a fresh challenge to figure out exactly how Mandel made the pairing. One spread matches two images of puffs of smoke, one from a smokestack, the other from a train. The next makes the most of a sign that says “The Big Five”, with five men arrayed on the platform underneath; its companion looks up into the convex mirror of a library or bookstore, flanked by a sign with (you guessed it) five languages listed. Turn the next page and Mandel has given us two pictures veiled by screen doors, one a view of a barn, the other a doorstep kiss.

This kind of insightful visual playfulness continues throughout Zone Eleven, so it’s hard to single out particular standouts. There’s the link made between a curving light fixture in what looks like a museum to the arc in the sign atop a nightclub. There are the echoes between a portrait of an artist flanked by slatted wood walls and the same lines found in an abandoned iron bed frame in the desert. And there is the connection between the cross form of a wooden fence and the associated barbed wire, and a silhouetted electrical pole and its wires. They’re all engaging and unexpected.

A few page flips on, and this parade of inspiration continues, with a railroad switching sign and an artistic installation that both seem to feature dark human forms, and then two men with strangely lit scientific contraptions in their hands, that they are looking through. Mandel continues on with echoes of circles in turbines and satellite dishes, two dense clusters of words on signs (in what appears to be the Southwest and Hawaii respectively), and the match between sinuous black forms of black tar on a parking lot wall and fire escape shadows cast on brickwork. One particularly smart and unlikely pairing links a hand flipping pages with painted football players and a view of a stadium with chevrons of marching band arrangements on the field (with the paper edges and stadium seats similarly lined up), but nearly any spread chosen will deliver a satisfying jolt of nimble visual association. Mandel even links Adams images by their jumbles of intersecting geometric planes, putting a discarded pile of wooden boards with an overlapped view of trailers and Victorian architecture.

Along the way, Mandel isn’t afraid to tweak our collective assumptions and stereotypes about Adams, in a sense setting traps and then springing them on us when we react as he expects. He shows us a selection of moonrise pictures (over rocky ruins and observatories, instead of a New Mexico graveyard), selects landscape images that are deliberately blurred, clouded, or obscured, and wraps the photobook up with an image of a natural history diorama (from the man so associated with nature in its realest forms). Zone Eleven is the essential anti-Adams, made of course (at least indirectly) by Adams himself.

Would the traditionalist Adams have approved of this offbeat exercise, or enjoyed the results? Who’s to say, but it’s hard not to think he would have been at least somewhat enchanted (and flattered) by Mandel’s meticulous looking. The images in Zone Eleven won’t be remembered as Adams’ finest, but Mandel still treats them with respect – in fact, he engages with them so deeply and seriously that they begin to break down, losing their original context and becoming something else. Using Adams (of all photographers) to make an argument about the enduring power of appropriation and recontextualization is a flash of risk taking few would even consider, but Mandel has pulled it off with panache and grace. Zone Eleven is the kind of photobook that simmers with so much intelligence that you’ll want to push it on Adams fans and skeptics with nearly equal enthusiasm. It thoughtfully asks us to question not only what we think we know about Adams, but also to broadly consider the many ways a photograph can function.

Collector’s POV: Mike Mandel is represented by Robert Mann Gallery in New York (here). Aside from first edition copies of Evidence, Mandel’s work has only been available infrequently in the secondary markets in the last decade. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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