Review: Adriaan van der Ploeg, Mont Purgatoire

After Mariken Wessels' two mysterious tomes (one of which was reviewed here) which seemed to make most 'best of 2010' photobook lists, our Dutch friends have done it again and produced a book which really should not exist. I couldn't help but try to imagine this book idea being pitched to any halfway-sane book publisher, "I want to do a big, 150-page book of portraits of out-of-shape, middle-aged men who try to cycle up this mountain that most people have never heard of, but which has a cool name. The portraits will all be taken from the same head-on perspective with some kind of telephoto lens, they'll be tightly cropped and really flat and even out of focus sometimes because they're cycling up a mountain and the guys will all be sweating and in varying degrees of pain. Oh and as a bonus feature, I'll throw in a promotional website with a background video of one of the cyclists throwing up on the side of the road while some other guys ride past him." 99% of the time he would literally be escorted out of the building, possibly with a restraining order thrown in for good measure, and yet the good people of Habbekrats decided that there was some part of this project that was actually a good idea. The funny thing is that they were right.

There is nothing about this book that should interest me. I'm all for the odd bike ride but serious cycling leaves me cold... sweaty middle-aged men trying to reach their physical limits leaves me even colder. And yet, I was drawn in. Like it's non-illustrated cousins, 2008's Netherland about New York cricketers and current favourite The Hare with Amber Eyes (a 350-page book written about a collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny bone or ivory sculptures), Mont Purgatoire is not really about its (not particularly sexy) subject. Although the book comes with a number of essays written by cyclists, cycling poets and sports writers, the photographs it contains provide no context of the gruelling cycle that these men undertake to make it to the top of this mountain. For all we know, Van der Ploeg never even went near the place. I don't think it's going to reach quite the same sales figures as its fictional cousins, but what I found interesting is the way that it goes beyond its apparent subject to become a kind of study of the way we express feeling. Thumbing through its pages, you can't help but wonder what is going through these men's minds and why they are attempting this punishing climb. Their expressions convey the emotions that you would expect determination, exhaustion, focus, but often also a strong sense of introspection, as if this was less about proving their physical resilience or strength and more a process of self-flagellation.

As with most of the Dutch photo-books I've set my hands on of late, the book is very well made, with a really simple but intelligent and appropriate design. I particularly enjoyed the way that the essays were printed on newsprintish paper and designed to look like excerpts of a fictional (?) local Dutch newspaper. In its own (tongue-in-cheek, faux-Hollywood) words "Mont Purgatoire is an extraordinary photography-project about ordinary men, voluntarily battling their own strength on the steepest slopes." If you're curious to find out more, check out the book's website and I also recommend a trip to Van der Ploeg's website to get a view of his interest in the human face and what he has been doing with it in other contexts.

Adriaan van der Ploeg, Mont Purgatoire. Habbekrats (Soft cover, 144 pages, colour plates, 2010).

Rating: Recommended

Review: Mariken Wessels, Queen Ann. P.S. Belly Cut Off

Mariken Wessels, Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut off

From the moment you hear its title, it becomes clear that Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut off is not going to be an 'easy' photobook. By 'easy' I mean a book that gives itself to you on first viewing, immediately hitting all the right buttons. To use one of my favoured musical analogies, in the case of LPs (when people still used to listen to those) people often talked about growers, records that required several listens before your ears became accustomed to their particular register or sonic world.

The first time I went through Mariken Wessels' new book, I couldn't really make head or tail of it. This is a book that raises more questions and narrative possibilities than it gives information or makes statements. The experience of going through Queen Ann is akin to finding an old shoebox full of snapshots of a stranger's life. Why are some of the images scratched, cut, defaced or painted on in a childlike way? Who scribbled these few messages and to whom were they destined? The book even contains a little piece of this shoebox in the form of a sealed translucent envelope containing a few small prints. Why is the envelope sealed? Are we expected to open it or to peer at the prints it contains through the translucent paper?

The book follows the life of a woman named Anneke from childhood to her troubled later life. Through Anneke's "personal materials" Wessels draws us into this (fictional?) woman's inner world. She appears as a tragic figure, but one who is capable of joy, love, humour and her fair share of craziness too. As the title suggests, she appears to have struggled with obesity throughout her life and the book is infused with a sense of looking back to the past and of what might have been. Many of the images have been written, scratched, drawn or painted on, as if this woman was desperately trying to change her past by refashioning these photographic memories.

This is not a photobook in the conventional sense, but rather an artist book that makes use of photography to create a character. For me the book's greatest strength is that in the process of bringing 'Queen Ann' to life, Wessels also plays on our understanding of the nature of photographs and how we relate to them as personal documents. She succeeds not only in creating a complex character through a handful of snapshots, but also in making us question the unreliable role of the photograph as a memory.

The book is extremely artfully composed and sequences different elements successfully, from smaller snapshots, to sequences of hazy blow-ups and collages giving the book a rhythm, but also several distinct changes of pace. Queen Ann is a fine example of the benefits of the current independent photobook publishing boom: no mainstream publisher would ever dare to produce a book like this. It is both difficult and confusing and, for these very reasons, extremely rewarding.

Mariken Wessels, Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut off. Alauda Publications (Soft cover, 80 pages, 75 B&W and colour plates, 2010).

Rating: Recommended