Bold Centuries: A Photographic History Album

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Like an Oscar-winning speech, the first thing that hit me when I opened the pages of this almost-square format book is the list of acknowledgements. A whole page of them, stacked into categories. The most heartwarming, and also the longest, is the list of “photographers that I have never met but whose work had a direct influence on me when making photographs for this book,” as if Haruhiko Sameshima were making a disclaimer against an accusation of inappropriate appropriation.

Such a disclaimer might be perfectly apt. Sameshima has been known to adopt and adapt stylistic modes from others in his encyclopedic approaches to photography, by making both collegial references and posthumous homage. But the acknowledgements also indicate the way forward into the book, as a collection, an archive or album, indeed an extended list.

Bold Centuries: A Photographic History Album (Rim Books, NZ$60) is prefaced by a short text from Sameshima in which he lightly describes and introduces the project. “But there is no possibility that the project will ever conclude or that the archive will ever be complete. The collection of images can’t ever define reality, or act as an adequate representation of the world. So there is a hopelessness in what I do, and a corresponding freedom from the burden of fidelity to only one kind of truth.”

The book is unlike traditional photographic monographs. It includes libraries of found images as well as Sameshima’s own photographs, with little distinction between the two. The design is playful, but understated enough to let the images and essays do the talking.

The images often operate as photo essays or perhaps as search engine queries in an image library, which are subversively, humorously organised into chapter headings, such as “aesthetic science”, “eco-tourism” or “twin peaks.”

There are eight accompanying essays which operate in parallel to Sameshima’s images, without making direct reference to his practice. The connections to the works are oblique, seldom expository. Nevertheless each essay is carefully crafted and has a comfortable home in this umbrella of a book. The essays each reinforce the mandate of the book as an astute historical album inflected by a contemporary vision and filtered through the lens of a century or more of photographic activity.

The cultural loading of photographs is discussed in more than one essay. The writers describes the ways in which photographic images tell different kinds of truths, expose biases and reveal paradigms of contemporary thinking. In this way, the essays are each insightful in their own right, but they also signpost ideas about our relationship to photography and image-making as viewers and consumers. The essays draw attention to the way in which images can be dissected and rearranged in what Sameshima describes in his preface as “an open narrative”. The writers are Kyla McFarlane, Ingrid Horrocks, John Wilson, Tim Corballis, Aaron Lister, Damian Skinner, Fiona Amundsen, Claudia Bell.

One of the first images in the book is a photograph of a collection. A museum-styled tableau, Louise Lawler inflected—the image cites Sameshima’s book project as a collection, but also hits on the idea of photographs as collections—the vast archives of photographic images that surround us.

One of the largely unseen image libraries of our time are those that our newspapers are increasingly filled with, the stock imagery used to illustrate and humanise centralised news-feed. Claudia Bell’s evocative essay title “Heaven can wait: we’re shopping” springs to mind. Sameshima inserts himself into this open narrative, ”as a photographer and consumer of this image culture.”

The pages that will be leafed again and again are the 31 pages of fascinating captions and collected texts that appear at the back of the book. The publication is bookended by lists, the acknowledgements at the front, and the captions, another more textual form of acknowledgement at the back.

In other contexts it might be frustrating to have the captions so far away from the image, but for this book it feels appropriate for more than one reason. First, the captions are often quite extended, and not at all uniform in length. Second, this layout means that the images have more space around them, important when they are often ganged up on the page, and third, it feels right that you might have to go digging for the archival material to match the image. After all, the author has.

Bold Centuries is a highly personal take on photography, the product of enormous research. The book is lush, thoughtful, well produced, speculative, and the product of an original insight into photography and our cultural geography. Well worth the investment.