Perhaps it’s because I’m a novelist, because I studied lit in college, but what moves me most in a potentially great photobook is what moves me with a great novel or poetry collection (or even record album): shape, depth, coherence, narrative, flow … simply a reason for all the shots to be there other than that of a catalogue or some artist’s current work gathered up. But of course more than that, too: vision, enlightenment, and emotions larger than we ourselves can imagine.
That is, the weight and richness of literature.
I’ll be writing soon here about the Mack reissue of Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens (photography’s own Moby Dick), but now I’m looking at Igor Posner’s Past Perfect, and just a dozen photos in, I’m back on my thin, lumpy undergraduate mattress, my brain spinning all night through Crime and Punishment, following Raskolnikov down the murky streets and up the cramped stairways of St. Petersburg as murder and conscience bedevil him.
Past Perfect is set in St. Petersburg, but that’s not why I think of Dostoevsky, it’s the rich black and white tonality, the blurred figures in remarkable poses, the deep mystery to the art of Posner’s photobook. There’s also no crime at the center of Past Perfect, but it also isn’t for any sort of murder mystery that we read Crime and Punishment. What sticks with us are lives tortured and unredeemed, and morality twisted until it bleeds.
Yet Past Perfect isn’t really a novel at all (though the info included with the book does refer to its setting as “a fictional city”), but a photographic work of intentional memory, Posner’s visits from 2006 to ’09 to St. Petersburg, the place of his birth (then Leningrad); visits that appear to have stirred up the most extreme memories and emotions.
Past Perfect itself is full of beautiful, lush black and white printing, in high contrast, and with a definite Japanese Provoke blur and energy. If the book is predicated on Posner’s remembrance of St. Petersburg, the way the photos are shot and printed invokes perfectly the essence of memory: clear moments, faded moments, true moments, reinvented ones. Each photo is just representative enough—we know what’s going on, buses in the snow, a haunted woman crouched naked in the corner of a room—but always filtered through layers of murk and shadow, excrescences of the past overlaying the present.
Which makes the book truly powerful. We see both what’s there, and see how Posner sees what’s there, and what time passing has laid upon what may or may not ever have been there. In Past Perfect, the past is perfect only in the way the photographer has rendered it: true to memory if not to anything else.
The book’s powerful underlying story: the way the past creeps inevitably into the present. Let me invoke another great novel, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. For Proust, it’s that infamous madeleine that sweeps him back into his lost world. For Posner, well, that’s part of the intrigue of the book, what is his most vital touchstone? My first guess, the faded, speckled cameo of a woman, circled by a halo of light. Or maybe it’s the evocative opening photo, a shroud-wrapped flower lady, offering up her winter blooms in sad-looking buckets. Perhaps it’s the scarred wall with a crude invocation of eyes, nose, mouth. Or the work’s inspiriting shot could just as easily be an ornate room further into the book, with vivid wallpaper, a candle and pen and writing paper—tools of non-photographic recollection—on a checkered tablecloth. Presumably this is a room with strong implications for Posner, else why would it be there.
The picture of the room is followed immediately by one of a woman, head tilted back, hands raised, a necklace on her neck, wearing what looks to be a somewhat see-through blouse … and clearly lost to some form of rapture. That’s the thing with great photobooks: We rarely know all the contexts behind the pictures. What is she feeling? What’s inspiring, or terrifying, her? No way to know; we only see that this photo leads to a photo of a young man against a wall, holding a can, looking both resolute and dismayed. (Throughout Past Perfect emotions run high, always vividly expressed through Posner’s camera.) The next picture is a man in a café, cigarette raised to his mouth, an indistinct woman in the foreground. Friends of Posner’s … old friends? We don’t know, but it hardly hurts to imagine these characters walked out of his own past into the book to proclaim their presence in the tortured present.
Nobody in Past Perfect appears calm or innocent, all seem riddled with streaks of rapture or despond. (Dostoevsky would know these people; perhaps he half-invented them.) Take the older man, standing blank-faced to the right of the photo of another woman, in an almost Caravaggio pose of religious exaltation. Two photos later we find a presumably naked man, on the page mostly a big splash of white against a mottled black background, his head clutched desperately in raised hands, an expression not quite blurry enough to conceal his absolute despair.
I’m not making Dostoevsky allusions lightly: The range of emotions in Posner’s book is wider and richer than almost any other photobook I can think of. This is not a book for the fainthearted. Here lies a full expression of humankind, and if the photos in Past Perfect are merely shards of Igor Posner’s memory reinvented through his camera, his vision is as wide as any artist working today—and at least as serious.
But what makes the book truly impressive is that Posner is somehow telling all our stories, at least those of our darkest dreams and broadest literary imagination.
Big props to Jason Eskenasi and his Red Hook editions for putting out Past Perfect, and printing it so brilliantly. (Eskenasi is the force behind the transcendent celebration of Robert Frank’s Americans, The Americans List: By the Glow of the Jukebox, in which dozens of photographers comment on their favorite shot from Frank’s book; not to mention an extraordinary chronicler of things Russian in his own photobooks.)
But of course Past Perfect is all Posner’s vision. Doubt a photobook can read like literature? Then take up The Americans in the spirit of On the Road, Ravens while considering the obsessive drive of Ahab after that damn white whale, and Past Perfect as all your Dostoevsky hallucinations come to life.
That important, that essential.
Past Perfect Continuous by Igor Posner is available to purchase now here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here). In Spring 2017, Dunn started teaching a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.