JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Self Publish, Be Happy (here). Hardcover, 334 pages, with 150 color and black and white photographs. Includes texts by the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Nicholas Muellner has been experimenting with the combination of text and images for some time now, bringing an innovative and creative approach to the intersection of these two artistic fields. Muellner’s most recent book (with the melancholic title In Most Tides An Island) is a complex and clever body of work where visual and textual narratives overlap, creating exciting layers. It is a thick solid book, whose extended narrative is based on an intimate account of the lives of closeted gay men in contemporary Russia, a country where discrimination and persecution of the gay community has intensified in recent years. Experimentally mixing the real and the fictional, the personal and the political, Muellner offers an insightful reflection on elusive human connections in a digital world.
In Most Tides An Island is divided into twelve chapters, where the narrator, Muellner, shares his experiences interacting with gay men in provincial Russian towns. They start by corresponding online and eventually he travels to Russia and meets some of them in person, giving us a glimpse into their often isolated and misunderstood lives in their homophobic societies. As they get to know each other, they talk about love, ambitions, feelings, and sex, making simple human connections.
The book has a striking cover: wispy palm trees in blue and gray sway against a silver background with the title sprinkled over it, the colors and reflective surface making it slightly elusive yet appealing. The opening image shows a completely dark silhouette of a man from the back as he faces another man in a suit, with mountains, a green landscape, and parts of villa architecture serving as the background – in a way, this photo can work as a symbol for the whole book. The next few images are full spreads of landscapes that work as scene setting; one of them shows a rocky hill, and a closer look reveals a silhouette of a man looking up (as the images overlap).
The chapters separate the stories into individual encounters. One of Muellner’s acquaintances is Vasya – he is in his early thirties and works for a local branch of a media company. He had a long-term boyfriend, but “they’d broken up after eight years of living in their parents’ respective homes, pretending to be just friends”. Vasya wanted to leave the town but he “felt that his professional skills were not sufficient to support him in a western country, or even in competitive Moscow”. So he is trapped, in more ways than one. Timur had many questions about the life of gay men in the United States: do people at work know? Did your family accept you? Are there gay bars everywhere? And while the Internet does provide answers to all these questions, asking a real person gives such inquires more credibility, turning isolation into interchange. And when the narrator asks another man named Artem if he wants to find a man to be with, Artem answers that it is impossible because the town is too small, and “it is too dangerous even to try”. He also added “I have my family, my job, my friends … and at night, I have the Internet”. This dual life confession is a common reality for many gay people around the country.
The images and text take roughly equal parts in the book: they overlap but they also function independently. The layout reinforces their ongoing dialogue: sometimes the writing and a photograph are placed on the same spread, while other parts have continuous visual flow. Muellner constantly plays with the relationships between images and text. In a chapter titled “Photography is not allowed”, he finds himself in the public men’s bath, but since he can’t make photographs there, instead describes what he sees. Another time, in correspondence with Seva, when Muellner asks questions about romance, fear and the future, he silently replies with photographs. “Golden light on a coastal cliff, tulips in an alpine meadow” is Muellner’s description of a photograph answering the question if Seva had been in love before. Sometimes images say more than words.
The photobook also includes photographs of empty places, isolated landscapes, and industrial construction lit by early morning sun. These images seems to transcend the feeling of loneliness and disconnection described so vividly. One of the pictures captures a slightly scratched bust of a man with golden blinds behind it, bringing together associations of power and helplessness at the same time.
Isabel, a mysterious fictional character on an isolated island, offers another dimension to the story. She appears in four chapters, and is surrounded by black and white images of tropical nature inspired by the idea of an island: close up of leaves, a spider web in the sun, palm trees, and sunlight. We learn that she has a daughter and a husband, yet she is always alone, keeping her distance from the world. As she interacts with the narrator, she never looks his way, shows emotion, or truly engages in the conversation. “Only the ocean can see her face”. In her last chapter, the visuals change to tall and thin palm trees (in color) shot from the bottom up, with more direct sun and lightness.
Photographs of men do appear throughout the book, yet their identities are hidden by their poses or by digitally obscuring their faces. As they are stripped of their most personal features, their nude bodies become stand ins for personalities. One photo shows a naked man on a balcony staring at a mountain covered in snow; another depicts a man on a beach in an orange speedo, his head digitally blurred by the blue water of the ocean. The last few images in the book show landscapes and sunny beaches populated by the silhouettes of overexposed men, as if revealing their dreams or taking them to safe places, if only in the digital world. In the end, the Internet offers an outlet for digital escape and the illusion of elusive human connection. Muellner writes, “We are alone together. Or was it: together, we are alone”.
In Most Tides An Island is a clever example of an innovative kind of contemporary photographic literature, where text and images are deliberately intertwined into a unique hybrid. The work requires an active reading rather than a quick flip, as its multiple layers and links only revealed through attentive engagement.
Collector’s POV: Nicholas Muellner does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).