Books

Worlds of Their Own: Winter Photography Books From Perceval Press

Melissa Fischer

'Deeply intimate and of a worth that far exceeds their cost, these microcosmic visual universes leave the reader feeling altered by having been exposed to the essence of another person's existence.' Melissa Fischer looks at the upcoming releases from Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press.

Books as objects -- or even artifacts -- can be fascinating. Notice the texture of their paper, the attention (or lack thereof) paid to their spines, the binding, the endpapers, the font of their text... the list goes on. Of course, with mass produced paperbacks, we've come to expect and accept unsatisfyingly pulpy papers and shoddy craftsmanship, or a complete loss of the book's visual artistry. Even in the case of artists' monographs, a predictable presentation of the material is delivered in such a way that a separation exists between the object displaying the art and the art depicted within: a dichotomous message is sent, telling the reader that the images viewed are but stand-ins meant to suffice in the absence of actual exposure to their original.


Furlough 55
Photographs by Stanley Milstein; edited by Viggo Mortensen
Perceval Press
Winter 2005, 88 pages, $30.00


Supernatural
Photographs by Lindsay Brice
Perceval Press
Winter 2005, 61 pages, $30.00


Linger
by Viggo Mortensen
Perceval Press
Winter 2005, 103 pages, $35.00


Skip
Photographs by David Newsom
Perceval Press
Winter 2005, 41 pages, $30.00

Not so with the newest releases from Perceval Press, the indie publishing concern founded by Viggo Mortensen in 2002. Perceval's titles are mainly photography, painting, and otherwise arts-related; however, Mortensen's decidedly fervent political bent and vocal opposition to the war is reflected in not only the bloggery displayed on the press website, but also in some of its previous releases. For example, Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation represents Perceval's refusal to accept as fact the conventional media's reportage on the war in Iraq. A "spirited and informed analysis" of the Bush administration's occupation of Iraq, Twilight features contributions from activists and journalists, photography by Lynsey Addario, and a forward by Howard Zinn. America's economic stakes in the war, the abuse of Muslim women, and Halliburton's position are just some of the targets of analysis.

Clearly, Perceval is an indie press with a unique angle: serious about providing a venue for artists that might otherwise remain unpublished, and yet equally if not more determined to give that same opportunity to political opinions of comparable subversion. However, strip away all background knowledge of the press and its founder and what remains is a collection of books so rarified in their beauty that they require no celebrity affiliation to augment their appeal. (Mortensen, of course, is a famous actor, most recognized as heroic Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.)

Perceval takes all of the benefits of an indie press and magnifies them to the greatest possible degree. With obvious care and individual attention in their crafting, Perceval's newest releases are experienced as little worlds of their own. Deeply intimate and of a worth that far exceeds their cost, these microcosmic visual universes leave the reader feeling altered by having been exposed to the essence of another person's existence. Rather than providing a format to show reproductions of some distant works of art, Perceval creates books that are works of art in their own rite. The following books represent the newest releases from the press, and all are bound in paper-covered board:

Furlough 55
Photographs by Stanley Milstein; edited by Viggo Mortensen

Furlough 55 features the photographs of Stanley Milstein, taken in the mid-1950s during his military service at a U.S. army hospital in France. Stanley's son, Hugh, is introduced to photography by his father, who provides him with all the equipment necessary for making prints from his 20-year-old negatives. In collaborating with Hugh on an exhibition, Viggo Mortensen became aware of the negatives and asked Hugh to see them; the results of this inquiry are Furlough 55.

The beginning of the book features introductory statements by both Hugh and Stanley Milstein. Photos throughout are inscribed with Stanley's pencil scrawled-descriptions, such as page 15's "water pump- water stopped by high speed exposure," and page 61's "Arc d'Triumph, Paris- Me and 2 Ladies." Turning the page, one's anticipation over discovering Stanley's next captions nears that of viewing his next image.

The handwritten captions are just one element of Furlough 55 that pushes the book beyond the realm of photography and into that of an experiential encounter. What completes the imagery are interspersed accounts of dialogue between Hugh Milstein and Viggo Mortensen, sometimes pertaining to the opposite page's imagery, and other times documenting the pre-publishing conversations the two had during the book's planning: Hugh asks, "You really want to make a book?" ... and Viggo responds, "Would that be O.K.?" The closing dialogue alludes to the existence of another set of negatives, this time in color, and the possibility of "a whole other book. Color..."

Supernatural
Photographs by Lindsay Brice

Lindsay Brice's eerie images of dolls reveal themselves, page after page, as still portraits that twistedly reflect the foibles of their human prototype. Looking into their confrontational eyes, one can't help but project animation onto the sometimes plastic, sometimes ceramic devils. Each page stands alone as a frame-worthy image; however, they gain collective power when viewed in succession. The best words to describe the overall sensation gained from the experience are used in the first sentence of Kim Gordon's foreword: "incredibly creepy." Gordon references the nearly-as-creepy photography of Dare Wright as well as the tragedy of Karen Carpenter, who "epitomized the tragedy of what can happen when a child's dream of doll-like perfection is internalized and becomes real adult expectation."

There appear to be two main categories of composition within Brice's work: first, the posed and semi-posed traditional portrait, and second, the careful location of a doll or dolls shown engaged in some activity within a specific environment. Exemplary of the first category is page 27's "The Bride," in which the torso of a doll stands against a blank, back background, peering back with huge green eyes and wearing a tattered white dress. Counterpart to this example is that on page 46, which displays a close-up of a wild-haired doll as it peeks "Through the Keyhole."

The dolls in Brice's collection read as individuals, and their dilapidation adds character as well as discomfort. Frizzy remnants of hair, smudged dirt patches, and even a shattered torso deliver the idea that these little "people" display their battle scars permanently and visibly, and have no ability to cover them up with the posturing and performance we mortals resort to when handling our emotional baggage. The inclusion of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" makes a perfect complement to Brice's photographs, with its perpetual barrage of vivid imagery and attention to the circumstantial interpretations conceivable only to children.

Linger
by Viggo Mortensen

In Linger, Viggo Mortensen's black and white photography is interspersed with profound passages of Mortensen's own prose and poetry as well as quoted material from James Joyce, Goethe, and others. Mortensen's writings shift from one genre and even language to another, creating a kaleidoscopic atmosphere of words in which his pictures are well situated.

In this collection, images speak of stillness, the passage of time, the inevitability of death. Mortensen's striking landscapes inject trees with the capability of both violent movement and unnatural paralysis, whereas the book's last pages, filled with portraits, are narrative gems that have their own stories to tell. Unlimited by adherence to any particular theme or technique, the collection that results from Mortensen's obviously multi-talented efforts is one that stealthily imprints its memory on the viewer's -- and reader's -- mind.

Skip
Photographs by David Newsom

David Newsom's Skip is a photographic essay that tells the story of the photographer's brother, who is his elder by fourteen years. Through images that work conspiratorially and in conjunction with text, we gradually perceive that there is something strangely unique about Skip; our suspicion is confirmed with page 11's revelation, "He was born with a learning disability that made him 'The Skipper' of his own ship." Newsom goes on to describe Skip's 17 years of living in an institution, a stay that would taint him with fearfulness and distrust, as institutions do so well. By the time he's released and eventually moves to Idaho to live with his sister, he's capable of walking the dogs, but still hasn't learned to brush his teeth.

Looking at some of Newsom's images, one strains to determine whether the structures presented are truly houses and not plastic models photographed in such a way as to look as though they were real landscapes. "Little Shack" is one such image, and Newsom's perfect focus on the foreground's dried and brittle plant life creates an almost supernatural contrast with the hue of blue sky in the image's background. Page 4's "Picnic in the New World" reads like a photo-realistic painting, and shows Skip in profile, sitting by the water as he looks at a map.

Newsom succeeds in creating a moving, thoughtful, and provocative collection of images that cooperate with words to form a unique object in the format of a book. After its last page, one has an experience similar to that felt after finishing a great novel, in that somehow, we've divined more substance than what words alone are capable of conveying.

For more information on Perceval Press, visit the publisher's website at www.percevalpress.com.


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