Seth Lower, Units

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 23×18 cm, 116 pages, with 81 color reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Seth Lower is a young photographer based in Los Angeles. Befitting his SoCal environs, his color palette favors sunbaked tones and his methodology is relaxed. Prowling the vernacular surroundings, he finds everyday material which he treats as visual Play-Doh for whimsical transformation. The resulting pictures tend to be self-contained, neutral, and open to interpretation. 

Lower’s first two monographs leveraged this flexibility to good advantage. 2010’s Man With Buoy And Other Tales bracketed Lower’s pictures with bursts of text and color. This was one of the first books from Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom imprint, which gave it high praise: “If Lydia Davis and Stephen Shore had a baby, it might grow up to look like [this]”. In 2014 came The Sun Shone Glaringly. Published by Ice Plant in Los Angeles, this was an homage to Lower’s adopted city (he is a Michigan native) and its best known industry. He combined photographs of the region with short text excerpts referencing Hollywood motifs. Although his images played the lead, the accompanying text provided a strong supporting cast. Together they explored film sets, the real world, and effect of mediation on both. 

In his third and most recent book Units, Lower’s photographs move into a solo role. The modest hardback contains 81 photos but nary a scrap of text aside from the perfunctory colophon. Not even page numbers. For the first time, Lower’s pictures are on their own, free to operate visually without interference from words or other intrusions. The book pulls from almost a quarter century of work —1994 through 2017— shot in an assortment of locations and countries. Unmoored from time and place, the onus falls on Lower’s observational skills to provide a common thread. In effect, the book asks the reader to suspend judgement a moment and put your fate in the hands of the author as he moves through the world. No emotional investment will be required. Seeing through his eyes will be its own reward.

The title Units provides a loose framework for curation. Units is a word accommodating both group and individual, and the photos here are given a long leash to act out even as they integrate toward something greater. They “depict a variety of everyday materials and situations, many seen in sets, parts, or multiples. Within such scenes, Lower seeks out a kind of integrity (or lack thereof): standards of measurement, materiality, vague questions about the boundaries of entities and experience.” This according to Lower’s publisher, Mack Books.

What that looks like in practical terms is expansive. “Boundaries of entities and experience” turns out to include just about anything. Street arrows, carpet samples, and thread cuttings, for example. Also: toes, rocks, tires, dog food, glass shards, masonry, beans, footprints, shells. Photos of all and more can be found inside. Each picture operates independently as a “unit”, without much dependence its neighbors in the book. Taken together as a monograph, they assume the title Units.

Mundane discoveries are the essential grist for Lower. Few people would find much noteworthy about a plastic sack spilling oranges into a patch of gravel. Captured by Lower’s camera, the scene blooms into an intriguing still life. A decaying real estate sign gets a deeper look as well, its peeling paint flecks blended by careful vantage into the far hillside. Such commercial signage is a recurring subject for Lower. It sprouts like weeds in the lesser tracked corners of the social landscape, along with chopped limbs, stacked products, empty containers, and blank facades. These things turn up anywhere you might poke a camera, and the fact they pass unnoticed only increases their photographic appeal for Lower. He confronts his lowly subjects with a clever knack for chromatic serendipity and layered vantage points. Both skills manifest in a confusing photograph of a short rock wall near ocean foam, for example, and also in a strangely layered zoo scene. A photo of two saguaros waiting calmly at a crosswalk is another subtle gem of lighting and perspective. A picture of spectators watching some skyborne oddity is a trope we’ve seen before. But it’s salvaged by Lower’s clever vantage point, which juxtaposes the posture of a foreground person with structures behind.

Lower’s understated approach works in his favor for most subjects but it occasionally becomes mired down. It’s hard to get much of a rise from shuttlecocks on beige carpeting or multicolored pillows in a row. The subjects feel too listless to motivate. The same might be said for some of the awkward pairings here. A fuzzy cloud set across the facing page from cottonwood seeds feels rather forced, as does a stovetop with yellow piping paired with three men in yellow ties. If these photos had been given more separation they might flourish, as do two well spaced photographs of an oddly mobile claypot tower. But in direct sequence, their combinations feel hackneyed. Thankfully these examples are the exceptions. For the most part, the book’s sequencing is engaging, sparked by the sheer variety of material on display.  

This working model—photographer as trophy hunter, gleaning two dimensional koans from cultural flotsam—is a fork in the road which contemporary photography has largely bypassed, but not completely. There is some life in the old dog yet. Of photographers working a similar vein today, the gold standard is probably William Eggleston. But he is only the tip of the iceberg. Mike Slack gets a shout out in the acknowledgements, and his photos come to mind browsing Units, as do those of Jason Fulford, Stephen Waddell, Huger Foote, Ricardo Cases, and Ed Panar, to name a few. Their patron saints might be Luigi Ghirri or Keld Hemler-Petersen (a white male crew, sorry). In a sense, these are photographers’ photographers, for whom the act of seeing takes primacy before words, curation, or planning. All possess an uncommon ability to translate casual encounters no matter how trivial into provocative color frames, and that is their raison d’être.

If cool objectivity is a notable aspect of this tradition, the other side of the coin is dispassion. If we consider Units as a visual journal of sorts, pulling bits and pieces from more than half of Lower’s life, it tells us remarkably little about the author himself. He seems to be having fun making pictures, and the joy of seeing is infectious when we look at them. But empathetic they are not. Instead, they’re essentially the artifacts of a flaneur taken in passing. 

This is the crux of the trophy hunting model. When practiced at a world-class level, such photography can be transcendent, but for less skilled observers it can descend into stock imagery. A photographer like Eggleston is able to put his mark on every photo. No matter how detached it may appear, his oeuvre remains integrated by his voice. Lower is not yet at that level—few photographers are—but his pictures are a far cry from stock. They have his stamp, a sensitivity for detritus formed from rust-belt roots, shaped by California lifestyle and its open-ended sense of possibility. It’ll be interesting to keep an eye Lower to see where he goes from here.

For now, Units might be considered a place marker in his development. Fortunately, the photographs are front and center here, and the photobook’s minimalist design stays well out of their way. The burnt yellow cover is prosaic. Most of the photos inside are landscape format, creating a wide white border when set in the book’s squat portrait layout. The effect is orderly and print-like, almost akin to leafing through a stack of pictures. One or two per spread, no text, no adventures in layout. Each image is given latitude to work independently —as a unit, if you will— while contributing to the whole.

Collector’s POV: Seth Lower 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 his website (linked in the sidebar).

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