If you don’t know anything about Allison Davies, Outerland is not going to help you much. There is no text apart from the colophon, and even that you might miss. On page one… (well, is it one?, there are no page numbers), there is a photo of a young woman, in a stylish dress. The website informs us that “for more than a decade Allison Davies has been quietly making landscape photographs and ambiguous self-portraits of haunting beauty.” So the lone figure in the white overall in some of the photographs - the likes of which you’d expect in laboratories handling hazardous materials, that would be the artist. (more)
We live in a day and age where a mystique - or narrative - is usually carefully crafted, as part of some PR package, so that excitement can be created by slowly revealing it. There is nothing real about most of these mystiques, they are as fake as the celebrities that need them so they can get into the spotlight. But of course, they work: This example is just one of the most recent ones making the rounds on the internet. I don’t even really want to talk about any of this. In fact I am profoundly sad that there are brain cells inside my head who are devoted to such nonsense, but of course, there’s no escaping it.
I will admit that I was not only tempted to treat the Outerland mystique just like any other mystique, but that I actually did attempt to find out what was going on. I Googled the photographer’s name, and I Googled the body of work, and I ended up with nothing. Of course, before there was Google (and before Yahoo and Altavista - anybody remember that one?) we would simply look at something and let it work on us. Outerland demands just that. Which means that it asks the viewer to be patient and to bring a willingness to discover something. A viewer unable to do that is sure to end up finding the book “boring”.
I’m about to digress more and more, but what the heck: Photography is a treacherous form of art. Just like any other art form, photography asks the viewer to invest time, but because a photo can be seen in an instant, it is tempting to conclude that, well, once you’ve seen the photo you know what it is all about. But that’s not how photography, or maybe I should say the photography I usually talk about on this blog, works: Photography needs to be read, so that it can reveal more and more with time. If you’re unwilling or unable to read photographs, then you will end up in the situation where you will demand more and more new photography all the time, resulting in a drive-by culture of photography.
In that sense, Outerland is a bold book: It refuses to conform to such a drive-by culture. The photographer and the publishers deserve a lot of credit for producing a book like that.
So then, finally, what is Outerland? I actually don’t know. The photographs show landscapes that look vaguely alien. In some of these landscapes, a solitary figure in a sealed laboratory suit is engaged in various activities. That figure is always turned away from us, so we never get to see a face (is there a face?). Some landscapes contain little traces of some of the activities, containers filled with earth or fluids. There has got to be an exploration going on. There are no page numbers, but on some pages, there are strange geometric patterns and symbols. There’s no text. It’s all left to us, the viewers, to decipher.
Even though I don’t know what Outerland is about I really like the book. I know I can get back to it, and I’ll see something completely different. It’s the complete opposite of the kind of photography that I called “entertainment photography” a while back: Where you look at the photography, and once you’ve seen it, there is nothing left to discover. Now that is boring!
And it certainly helps that yet again Charles Lane Press produced a book that, as an object, is a real beauty. Outerland isn’t cheap, but it’s worth every penny.
Outerland, photography by Allison Davies, Charles Lane Press, 2010