Review: Lewis Koch, Touchless Automatic Wonder

Lewis Koch, Postered road sign, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, 1996 "I like seeing things and I like words. There is something revelatory about the two together, an almost pentecostal feeling of seeing in tongues" Lewis Koch

Lewis Koch's Touchless Automatic Wonder started out as a web-based project quite a few years ago (the site is optimized for Internet Explorer 5, so it shows its age) and has recently made the leap into book form. For more than 20 years, Koch has collected fragments of found text from all over the world with his camera. As someone who obsesses about what font to use every time I open a Word document, I was naturally curious to see Koch's textual world. After a first viewing of the book, I realised that this is a much more difficult project than I had initially thought. Finding bits of quirky or visually interesting text around the world is one thing, but there is a lot more required to go beyond visual gimmickry or typology (in both senses of the word) to create a coherent photographic project that says something about the world in which these fragments of text are found.

The text does not always take center stage in Koch's photographs, and instead often acts as an element of intrigue that is there to enrich the photograph. The book jumps from India to the Deep South, from Paris to Mexico, with a big chunk of time spent in Wisconsin and there is a feeling of universality which this nomadic wandering brings to the series. More interestingly, Koch has collected text in very different forms: this is not just a succession of amusing billboards or old peeling posters, but also of dollar bills, broken bottles, TV subtitles, children's sanskrit scrawl on a blackboard, and a peeling stencil in the window of a photo studio that felt like a nod to a certain Walker Evans. Importantly I found a lot of these images to be interesting photographs without whatever textual element they might contain. There are a couple of weak points and I felt that the book would have been benefited from a slightly tighter edit, but overall Koch succeeds in weaving some very disparate elements into a world that feels like his own.

The quote at the beginning of this review is also revelatory of one strong characteristic of this work. Koch's photographs do not contain many people, or no more than a hand, a silhouette or a few shadows. Often the words that appear graffitied on a wall, carved into stone, or plastered across a billboard feel almost like direct pronouncements from some kind of God. ART, MODESTY, THE PROMISE, SEE, STOP. They don't combine into any form of coherent message, Koch is not trying to unlock the codex of life, but instead I think he succeeds in creating a real feeling of (touchless automatic) wonder.

Cafe window, Ladysmith, Wisconsin, 1989

Lewis Koch, Touchless Automatic Wonder: Found Text from the Real World, (Madison: Borderland Books, Hardback, 267 x 222 mm, 112 pp, 80 duotone illustrations, 2009).

Rating: Recommended