Stefanie Moshammer, Land of Black Milk

JTF (just the facts): Published by Skinnerboox in 2017 (here). Softcover with French fold dust cover, 112 pages, with 57 color and black and white photographs. Includes text by the artist. In an edition of 350 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Land of Black Milk is the second photobook by the Austrian photographer Stefanie Moshammer. While her first effort, Vegas and She (reviewed here), offered a closer look at the lives of Las Vegas strippers, presenting the city as full of ambiguous contradictions, this second book takes the viewer to the vibrant and diverse Rio de Janeiro. Land of Black Milk was published by Skinnerboox, an independent publishing house based in Italy.  

Moshammer travelled to Brazil just before the 2016 Olympic games, seeing it as a particularly intriguing time to visit the country. Rio de Janeiro already has a rich history of representation, and was poised for another round of attention during the Olympics. Moshammer wanted to explore the city, and create her own impression through personal experiences and observations. She spent a good amount of time wandering in the favelas; she was able to connect with the locals through a friend who lived in a favela and made the necessary introductions.

As a photobook, Land of Black Milk immediately stands out: while the book is vertical, white text (the title and artist’s name) runs horizontally and fills the front cover; an up close image of the leaves of jungle plants is used as a background. The large text continues on the back cover, serving as an introduction to the book and setting the atmosphere for the narrative: “You are a certain kind of wild if you are from here. <…> Rio de Janeiro is not so much one city as different worlds. Multiplied realities of one place and the space in between.” The cover design also sets the essential and equal relationship between images, text, and typography of the book.

The book is an exciting mix of architectural shots inside favelas, unexpected still lifes, curious observations, and portraits of local residents. As in her previous projects, Moshammer actively uses color to create and navigate her narrative. Pink, prominently featured in her first book, appears again, yet in this instance, its use is more settled.

As the book starts, the photographs appear full bleed on the right side, while the left page is white with lines of text running at the bottom. Occasionally the flow is interrupted by a full spread image. One of the spreads is a vibrant photo of drink sellers. We only see isolated parts of their bodies – the woman holds two colorful cans of soda, while the guy carries a styrofoam icebox, with a bright green rag on his shoulder and a corner of his hat with colorful details adding pop to the composition. The text on the left side reads “beauty and cruelty,”.

Another image depicts two dozen plastic bags of pink cotton candy hanging on a stick, with banknotes attached to each one. It is set against a blue background creating a dreamy and cheerful scene, yet the text on the left reads “Seduction and corruption,” making us consider the layered meanings and realities of the image.

In the middle of the book, the images turn to full spread in black and white, and the section has no text. The images are more intense and hint at Rio’s more violent elements. A close up face of a man with his eyes wide open and looking straight in the camera is paired with an image of two heavily armed men. This is followed by a shot of favelas from the top, its middle covered by an enveloping black cloud. As the narrative moves back to color photographs, this time the design is reversed, with the images placed on the left side, while the right page is black with the text at the bottom. 

Several of the pictures are use drapery as a recurring visual motif. One shows two iceboxes set against red cloth, the carefully organized gathering including a bag of plastic cups on top, a bunch of cans and plastic bottles attached on the side, and a blue plastic bag hanging in front. Another shows a vendor with a blue shirt tied around his head to protect against the sun. Moshammer explains that people from the favelas often travel three or even four hours to the wealthy South Zone to make a living selling drinks or sunglasses to the beach goers.

Land of Black Milk is Moshammer’s personal vision of the city, taken as an outsider open to observing and exploring beyond the obvious themes of stunning beaches, beautiful women, and spectacular carnivals. She mixes fragments of the dreamy mood of Rio with hints of its present problems of violence, inequality and discrimination. The noticeable placement of the text prominently adds another layer to the interpretation of the place. “Rio de Janeiro is not so much one city as different worlds. Multiplied realities of one place and the space in between. A two-ness, two warring ideals in one body with an inherently split personality. The two-ness of a land, vulnerable and powerful at the same time”. The visual narrative is elusive and poetic, presenting the city as the complex co-existence of multiple realities.

Collector’s POV: Stefanie Moshammer does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked above).

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