JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by the(M) éditions (here) and Ibasho Gallery (here). Swiss bound hardback, 15×30 cm, 96 pages, including 64 split half-pages and three gatefolds, with 95 color photographs and 20 short poems by the artist. Design by Bureau Kayser. In an edition of 490 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Sean Lotman has been an ex-pat for nearly two decades now. After a politically progressive childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley, Bush-era jingoism eventually proved insufferable. Lotman set out in his early twenties to see the world, as many do at that age. He considered South America as a destination before settling on Japan. The initial plan was to explore there for a year or two. But one thing let to another. He fell in love, married, had a son, and settled down. It’s now 2022 and the three are comfortably ensconced in Kyoto, where Lotman’s wife manages the family’s centuries-old soba restaurant.
As it happens, his wife Ariko Inaoka is a serious photographer as well as a restauranteur. She approaches photography with the hand-crafted attention of homecooking, shooting film and enlarging C-prints in a traditional color darkroom. These analog skills have taken root in Lotman. Before moving to Japan, he had no interest or background in photography. He did not even own a camera until his late 20s. But wandering amid new environs he quickly caught the bug. He’s since developed into something of a photo otaku, shooting obsessively, with four books to his name. The Sniper Paused So He Could Wipe His Brow is the most recent and the most experimental to date, taking wide liberties with basic design and form.
The book collects 95 photos shot over a 15 year period. They cover a variety of locales, some 20 countries in all, shot by Lotman on various trips. Some capture famous landmarks. Most blend into a murkier travelogue, a Baraka-style tour of world cultures and sites. There are beach scenes and monuments, musicians and cobblestones, skylines and portraits. They form a rough sketch of the backpacker circuit, moving day to day, engaging new possibilities while resisting attachment. All were shot on 120 color film with a Diana F+ toy camera, then printed back home in Japan in the family darkroom.
Lotman calls his approach “psychedelic humanism”, and the the process of hand-printing in a color darkroom is integral. By experimenting with CMY levels and extreme dodging/burning, he can “pilot the colors and tones to a whole next level of chromatic weirdness,” as he once told me in an interview. “I probably enjoy printing more than taking pictures…What I am trying to do is subvert reality with color (and hopefully tableau vivant), in order to provoke an imaginative response to our environment.”
In the Diana, Lotman has found a tool to match his proclivity for subversion. The plastic camera’s signature quirks run throughout Sniper, unifying the disparate locations and subjugating their documentary value to its limitations. A street scene of masked pedestrians, for example, is blurred by camera shake, one of several such frames. The camera’s primitive spring usually creates a shutter speed around 1/60th second, but that figure is approximate and subject to change without warning. Even when the camera is held steady and fired cleanly, the Diana can interject irregularities. The plastic lens typically obfuscates margins, but not always in the same way. Color shifts can be expected, while strong backlight sometimes creates ghostly halos. Light leaks in the body can bleed film artifacts from backing paper to the negative. Several photos in this book mix exposure numbers and film types with exterior subjects. All of which is to say, perfectionists should steer clear. But for those open to happenstance, the Diana has its delights.
“I like art that has a dreamy aesthetic,” says Lotman. “Especially photography…a world composed of its own dreamy structure and language can be something worth escaping into. We all have fantasies where we all like to roam.” Diana is merely the starting point, its “dreamy structure” complemented by unusual design choices. At a lean 30 x 15 centimeters, the book is shaped more like a dinner menu than typical monograph. The oblong dimensions were developed during a 10-day bookmaking workshop with Teun van der Heijden and Yumi Goto—modeled after a poetry chapbook—then further streamlined by designer Laure-Anne Kayser.
In its interior pages, the book’s construction ventures further afield. Photos are divided into three sections of three dozen images each. The first and third section are printed on glossy half sheets, stacked in two divided rows. The tops and bottoms can be paged independently. It’s the book version of a photo deck which can be shuffled into hundreds of pairings. Lotman modeled the malleable layout after “choose-your-own-adventure” children’s books. The intention is to uproot photos from specific memories or events, opening the way for a less logical dream state. Paging through these sections of Sniper, one gets the vague impression of exotic sites. But it’s hard to glean much concrete information. Instead the view is inward, a snapshot of Lotman’s drifting thoughts, perhaps the dark recesses of his home darkroom, or the next bus to catch.
For the central section, the texture switches to matte paper and photos are singled out for full-bleed spreads, three of them expanding further into double gatefolds. Like the initial brush of foreign travel, this part is at first overwhelming. The photos are much larger, and less easily pinned down. One shows a cloudy torso in pink light. Another appears to record neon street lights near a light leaking window. An upward glance at a sparkling balcony centers the focus of another photo. Or perhaps it’s just optical play, a spectral diffusion?
I was so occupied at first trying to decode these middle photos that I scarcely noticed the tiny white texts inserted vertically at their margins. These are one-line haikus penned by Lotman to accompany the photos. For example, then the clouds parted — a ray of light burst the sky — no one commented. Another: in free time he tends roes, picking flared nostrils breathing too deeply. Still another lends the book its title: the sniper paused so he could wipe his brow and have a sip of water.
“I’m intrigued by the flaw of misremembered pasts,” says Lotman. “I wanted to give form to this bewilderment in my photo book.” Whether reflecting bewilderment or simply an alternate perspective, the haiku form (honed here into single lines) is intended to prick the subconscious. The accompanying photos reflect a similar aim. Both minimize information in order to tap deeper currents, in this case the simple joys of observation and reflection. These photographic basics form the ultimate theme of Sniper, the unifying vision that knits it together.
After a mini-revival about a decade ago, Diana cameras have once again fallen out of mainstream use. Color film is also in retreat, and color darkrooms and chromogenic printing are virtually extinct. All facets lend Sniper a bygone edge, fostered by its idiosyncratic design. The book is not overtly nostalgic, but is does capture a photographer glancing in the rearview mirror, trying to summarize and make sense of fifteen years of travel. Old pictures blur and interweave with memories, which are in turn shaken and modified by the Lotman’s toy camera. The resulting stew is amorphous and a challenge to untangle, resulting in a decidedly surreal book. But even if it operates by dream logic—or perhaps because of that fact—Sniper is a faithful recording of past journeys.
Collector’s POV: Sean Lotman is represented by Ibasho Gallery in Antwerp (here). Lotman’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail or the author’s website (here) are the best options for collectors interested in following up.