Vince Aletti, The Drawer @White Columns

JTF (just the facts): A total of five rectangular tables, installed edge to edge with printed ephemera and covered with protective plastic. (Installation and detail shots below.)

The Drawer was initially published as a photobook in 2022 by SPBH Editions (here). Softcover, 28 x 37.7 cm, 144 pages, with 75 full spread arrangements. (Cover shot below.) The book was the winner of Photobook of the Year at the 2023 Paris Photo – Aperture Photobook Awards.

Comments/Context: Though he likely doesn’t know it, Vince Aletti was one of the primary inspirations for the creation of the publication you are now reading. In the years before Collector Daily was born, when I was “just” a passionate photography collector and not yet a writer myself, Aletti’s short reviews in The New Yorker, and before that his reviews in The Village Voice, were essentially the gold standard for New York-centric photography criticism – if you wanted to know what was worth seeing (photographically) in the city, you looked for what Vince had to recommend. His ability to capture the essence of a show in just a few short sentences was often sublime, but the space limitations he was up against in the front section of The New Yorker generally prevented a larger and more thorough discourse. Collector Daily was initially envisioned to fill that gap, to go beyond the summaries Aletti was already so elegantly providing and offer a deeper, more collector-centric dive into what was on view.

Across his many decades in the photography world, Aletti has been a critic, an editor, and a curator (among other things I’d expect), and in his own way, he has also been a voraciously active collector. It isn’t hard to imagine that in his various roles, Aletti would have amassed an overflowing cache of gallery announcements and other printed invitations and materials, but he’s also clearly been a bit of a visual magpie, stashing away magazines, tear sheets, newspapers, advertisements, film flyers, artist zines, posters, photobooks, and all kinds of other printed ephemera going all the way back to the 1960s and 1970s, which he has stored in flat files and towering stacks in his densely cluttered East Village apartment. For those in search of some obscure bit of New York photography history in paper form, Aletti’s massive archives are quietly renowned.

In the years since Aletti left the weekly grind at The New Yorker, he has been exploring a variety of book, catalog, and curatorial projects, tapping into his private stash of printed matter as a resource for photographic histories of everything from disco to fashion. The Drawer (in photobook form, and then as installed here) is quite a bit more expressive and improvisational than Aletti’s other projects. Mind bogglingly, the layered arrangements found in The Drawer came from literally just one drawer in Aletti’s many flat files. Aside from some reshoots, all seventy plus spreads in the photobook were staged in a single afternoon, and I can imagine a vaguely meditative or rhythmic (and perhaps even a little nostalgic) process taking place as the pages were continuously shuffled and reshuffled by Aletti into exacting positions.

While Aletti’s process might seem straightforward, categorizing it isn’t. His approach doesn’t involve cutting and pasting like much of collage, nor does it involve any John Stezaker-like combinations, abstractions, or interruptions of the visual content – in general, Aletti has left the images whole and intact, with no physical editing of the source materials that I could detect. We might try a label like scrapbooking, but that feels a bit more amateurish and craftier than what Aletti is up to. Putting together an artistic inspiration or mood board on a studio wall seems closer in tone to what Aletti is doing, but strangely enough, I think a word like choreography might best approximate his process – he’s selecting a group of visual “dancers” and then formally arranging them as individuals in space, the entirety of which provides a particularly sophisticated and allusive atmosphere or experience. Along the way, there are overlaps, juxtapositions, partnering, and separation, the visuals in constant flux, echo, and recombination, albeit with clear intention, precision, and care. As visually dense and busy as these arrangements are (in both the book and the gallery install), there is never any sense of chaos or randomness.

Upon seeing Aletti’s installed arrangements in the gallery space, my first impossible-to-ignore instinct was to try to identify the various photographic pieces that I could – a gallery show I had attended, an invitation card I had in my own office, an album cover I could recognize, a newspaper clipping from an event or sports game I remembered, or a familiar portrait by Avedon, Sander, Muybridge, Hujar, Steichen, DeSana, Von Gloeden, Mann, Samaras, Siskind, Edmonds, Misrach, Prince, Sherman, Ruff, Godard, or someone else I could name. And while this discovery process was entertaining, I’m pretty certain it was exactly NOT what Aletti wanted me to be doing; he didn’t provide a “map”, captions, or explanations of any kind for these arrangements, and so I assume he wanted us to resist this seductive checklist mentality and instead let the entirety of the imagery flow over us.

If we follow these more contemplative instructions, what emerges is a wide ranging visual meditation on maleness and masculinity across time and place, in forms that include hetero, queer, and various other identities and desire profiles. What also becomes clear very quickly is that Aletti had (and has) a very well trained eye for photography – he was pulling well made imagery from countless sources, both “high” and “low”, the insatiable curiosity of his looking unearthing great photographs in plenty of unexpected places. These arrangements are undeniably the work of a persistent visual scavenger, with examples drawn from beefcake strength and fitness magazine covers, newspaper sports photography, gay porn, underground album covers and music shoots, Tom of Finland drawings, queer zines, surf magazines, fashion covers, photographs of artists at work, comics, movie publicity stills, and even ancient statuary. The overarching message seems to be that there are plenty of ways to be a man, and plenty of ways to express masculinity, and that those expressions swirl around us in visuals we encounter every day. That said, in an interview, Aletti admitted he “was conscious of raising or lowering the erotic temperature of the mix; I wanted it to simmer without boiling over.” And indeed, all of these arrangements thrum with active looking and controlled desire, especially since the individual images are placed into such intimate dialogue with each other.

As installed here, the close-up interactions between individual images found in the photobook sprawl out quite a bit further, encouraging more of a browsing flaneur style of looking rather than a meticulous examination of minutely layered relationships. In this way, Aletti’s compositions seem to morph and replicate across the tables, with one vision of masculinity transitioning to another (and another) in a multi-dimensional kind of immersive wandering that wasn’t really present in book form. Two tables provide a single point of perspective but the other three incorporate a structural turn, encouraging us to circulate rather than to stand and take it all in as one experience. This creates a nuanced sense of fluidity that links one visual idea to another without trying to make definitive statements or assertions – Aletti has left things deliberately open-ended, so we can move in whatever direction or follow whatever path from picture to picture that we want. There is an inherently easy going inclusiveness to this democracy of vision, as it makes room for not only alternate masculinities but alternate amplifications and interpretations of those versions of maleness (or the beauty of maleness). Aletti clearly also had fun with formal and art historical echoes, positional links, color call and response, and brash juxtapositions, using variations of size and scale to keep things balanced and visually exciting.

As one collector being drawn into the lifetime of collections built by another, what I see in The Drawer (in both its gallery and photobook forms) is the evidence of a patient and insatiably curious visual mind. Only a collector who has passionately followed his visual instincts and interests in nuanced and serendipitous ways would build a collection like Aletti’s, and only one who is feeling settled with his choices would share remixes of his collections with so much thoughtfulness and audacity. Mostly I take away from this show a feeling for Aletti’s deep reverence for photography as experienced on the printed page. His arrangements are richly present, overtly celebrating the tactile qualities of pictures, in ways that our increasingly digital art world hardly seems to remember or understand.

Collector’s POV: The installations in this show are not for sale.

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Read more about: Vince Aletti, White Columns, Self Publish, Be Happy

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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