I’m an unapologetic sceptic when it comes to any amount of hype, particularly around something as reliant on taste and perspective as a book. This isn’t to say I am a contrarian though, I will still allow good reviews to influence me if I am fighting the inner “do I, don’t I” purchase battle, I just tend to feel slightly suspicious when a book is suddenly pasted everywhere and heralded as the book of the year.
I do not think of Missing Buildings by Beth and Thom Atkinson as ‘book of the year’ and I’m not even sure how close to my top 10 it would come (for what that’s worth. Remember: taste and perspective) but I do feel its a book that deserves to exist.
Its quite feasible that this book could have come from the recent pedigree of books made from successful Tumblr or Instagram accounts, with its prescriptive, methodic approach and simple modus operandi. But more than Facehunter, Cabin Porn, The Dogist or The Sartorialist, Missing Buildings emerges confidently, in a beautifully designed and printed hardback not reliant on web traffic built through “going viral”. This entire project could have been a light-hearted satire on these odd remnants of Victorian architecture but it instead sinks its teeth deeper into the reality of what these voids represent: fear, destruction and unimaginable devastation.
My first reading of this book was light, I skipped through the reverently photographed scenes playing a kind of “Where’s Wally” with the buildings, looking for the motif I was guaranteed to find on every page. Then I hit an image of some graffiti on the side of a building in Clerkenwell, portraying a kind of imaginary cross section of what the inside of the building looks like with all its imaginary inhabitants. I began to consider the lives that were obliterated along with the buildings that contained them; my game of “find the indices” became all the more disturbing. Absence acts as the blotting paper for the fountain pen of imagination: irresistibly it pulls the thick ink onto and into itself, purging the inkwell and allowing it to bleed without the rigid form and structure usually required of it. In We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the narratorial voice ‘D-503’ writes how “[the previous days writings were] like the paper that chemists filter their solutions through: All the particles that were in suspension, all the unwanted stuff, stays on the paper. And when I went down this morning I felt I’d been freshly distilled, perfectly clear.” Of course this is an account of writing a book, but it is in reading a book like Missing Buildings that I feel a similar venting achieved.
The essay by David Chandler goes further to jar a perspective of what this book actually depicts – and its not a light-hearted affair. And if I had missed the poignancy of the graffiti in Clerkenwell then this essay does a similar job right at the end of the series of images. I had to start the whole book again with my newfound reverence for the lives that ceased to exist alongside the buildings, for the horrors of a war that is so far removed from my own generation that its reality is rarely fully appreciated.
Beautifully designed and shot, powerful and surprisingly interesting (especially for a book that utilises methodical repetition, something I am usually not keen on). I take back my earlier statement, this is definitely in my top 10 for the year.
Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson can be purchased here.
Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.