Simon Brugner, The Arsenic Eaters

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Softcover with yellow vinyl sleeve, 144 pages, with 108 color photographs, archival images and illustrations. In an edition of 1250 copies. Includes various texts and notes by the artist. Design by Rob van Hoesel. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Arsenic is a chemical element (symbol As), typically found in water, air, food, and soil. Today, it is often used in electronic devices, pesticides, and wood preservation, among other modern applications. But arsenic is also almost a byword for poisoning, as it was the poison of choice for murderers for many centuries. It is known to cause cell death, and even in small doses, increases the risk of cancer.

For centuries, however, some people have stubbornly believed that arsenic also has a beneficial side. Some sources suggest that the residents of Styria, a region in the southeast of Austria, have been eating arsenic since the thirteenth century, and the Austrian photographer Simon Brugner became fascinated by this strange story. As an artist, he is interested in research-based projects with a strong historical background, and he often combines archival materials and contemporary photography. The story of the arsenic eaters seemed like an exciting subject to explore, and as he realised that this phenomenon was primarily known by the older generation, Brugner decided to properly research and document it. He published the project as a photobook last year, appropriately titled The Arsenic Eaters.

As a photobook, The Arsenic Eaters stands out with its elegant design and its attention to detail. The book has a yellow cover (one of the colors of arsenic), the title appears in all capital letters in black, and the text underneath it describes the project. The design creates the impression that we are looking at a dossier or an official report. The book consists of two parts: the first contains contemporary and archival images, and traces (and imagines) the arsenic eaters and their reality, while the second presents Brugner’s research on the subject (it is printed in black and white, on a newsprint type of paper).

Eating arsenic was “considered a sin and forbidden by law,” and thus there are very few public traces of the arsenic eaters and their existence – the limited records that are available come mostly in medical journals and newspapers. Brugner spent considerable time collecting information from various sources, particularly the details about arsenic eaters in the Styria region, in hopes of helping him to understand their surroundings, reality, and lifestyle. His collection of archival photographs and illustrations is interwoven with his own photographs, while his extensive research, rich with references and additional archival illustrations, appears in the second part of the book. The second part adds context to the visual narrative and gives us hints to interpret it.

The book opens with a text from an archival article published in The New York Times back in 1885. It mentions people who eat arsenic in secret – ingesting a very small dose at first, and then gradually increasing the amount, noting that “when a man has once begun to indulge in it he must continue to indulge; for if he ceases the arsenic in this system poisons him.” This introduction helps us find our way into the narrative. It is followed by photographs of mountains enveloped in a light fog. Apparently, this is how the area where arsenic eaters lived looked; they lived in remote isolated areas, in demanding physical surroundings, and could only rely on themselves to survive. The consumption of arsenic seemed to make them stronger, kept them healthy, boosted their sexual potency, and made breathing easier (essential if you live in the high mountains). Over time, they developed a certain tolerance for the poison, and thought it was a magical remedy.

Photographs of the forest landscape, rocks, close up of leaves on the ground, and images of sheep alternate with various archival portraits. A full spread black and white photograph depicts a young boy with his father, sitting in the forest with a slain deer behind them; another shows a woman standing with a stick in the forest. Later, there are historical shots of people in the villages, shown next to their farmhouses, or with horses.

The visual flow then moves to photographs of caves and details of their surfaces, showing a range of colors and textures. The arsenic was mined from the mountains, then it was roasted, and the residue from the smoke was collected for consumption. One spread pairs a horizontal image of fir tree branches shot from below with a vertical image of a hand in a cave holding a white rock. Another combines a full page photograph of a man holding a mug with a spread that pairs a vertical photo of a snowy pile of branches in the dark with a horizontal archival photo showing three woodcutters preparing a meal. Through these juxtapositions, Brugner intertwines myths, reality, and imagination.

An archival photo of a few men outside flexing their muscles and a close up shot of meat is paired with a photo of the hands of a man in white (a butcher, or a doctor?). In the contemporary photographs of people, we don’t see their faces, and their hands become central: holding an illustration of a skeleton or a piece of meat, touching a napkin, or covering a face. Through a clever sequence of photographs, Brugner combines the past and the present, looking for tenuous connections in the narrative.

As a photobook, The Arsenic Eaters is a well-conceived, deeply researched, and thoughtfully produced object. Brugner takes the position of a curious (and tenacious) historical researcher, hot on the trail of a discovery: he combines contemporary and archival images in a visually exciting narrative, while providing extensive background research on everything from the mineral itself to the particular practice of arsenic eating in Styria. All of his work comes together in a kind of intellectual investigation and re-enactment, where he tries to piece together the links between the lives, surroundings, and behaviors that might have led to this peculiar practice. The photobook blends fact and analysis with a splash of creative reconstruction, finding a whole hidden world to explore tucked away in the mountains.

Collector’s POV: Simon Brugner does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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