The first thing you notice when looking at this book is the cover, nothing new there you may say, but in this case the cover is striking for a number of reasons. Covered in blood red faux snake (crocodile?) skin, the cover is a visual and tactile experience, especially when coupled with the gold leaf lettering. It all adds to a sense of luxury and otherness of the book that by having no photography on the cover doesn’t prepare the viewer in any sense as to the books content.
Upon opening the book the first thing noticed was the bright green inner covers that shouldn’t work in oh so many ways yet actually looks fabulous. The second thing was the complete lack of any text, no inner title page (this comes later) and no written introduction (in a clever move there is no introduction/foreword to this work that will help us understand what we’re looking at) so our first experience of the work itself is a striking portrait of a young woman, returning our gaze. There is something slightly disconcerting about this image that sets the tone for the work that follows. It is difficult to read this image clearly. The girl, emblazoned with orange/red hair sits in an uncomfortable pose, with an expression that falls somewhere between vacant non-involvement and something else (possession?). It is this something else that pervades the ensuing work at every level. The first image in the main body of work features a strange (maybe concrete?) structure that most closely resembles some form of space vehicle or portal; this is immediately followed by the image of a burnt circle of earth in the middle of a farmer’s field. These two images create a sense of other worldliness. How are we (as the viewers) meant to understand/interpret what we’re looking at?
What follows are a series of striking environmental portraits (or what at first glance appear as portraits) that somehow all manage to convey the same sense of other worldliness. One image of a man in a torn t-shirt shows a hole in his skin behind the tear, does this symbolise some form of body invasion? Are we to understand that the inhabitants of this town have been taken over by some unseen (alien?) force?
The growing sense of unease is cranked up as we move through the image sequence; men brawling in the street, another man meditating, lost in his own space and tellingly a white sheet, covering what we presume is a dead body, with a stream of blood trickling out from beneath the cover.
We then experience a series of street portraits that all, in their own way, convey some sense of surrealism, disconnected hands appearing around windscreens or from the collars of shirts, two headed women who, on second look, are twins stood together; people sitting expressionless in cars and an image of a young woman in the middle distance carrying a broom (are we meant to see her as a witch and therefore part of the uncanny sensibility we are perceiving?).
Tellingly one image features a group of footballers, all dressed in their team strip, who are all flat out, as if unconscious, on the ground. Again what’s happened here? This is followed by an image of a neon sign propped against a grey anonymous build. The sign reads “Destroy”.
There then follows a final series of portraits and domestic still lives before the book ends with the image of a wooden house that could’ve come straight from the work of Walker Evans or William Christenberry.
There are numerous spot the influence moments throughout the work (which are inevitable I suppose) from Eggleston to Stephen Shore and others. None of this detracts from what is a fascinating and intriguing book.
It is unsurprising that in the only text in the book there is an acknowledgements page that includes movies ”Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “Logan’s Run” and “The Quiet Earth” in its list, as it is undoubtedly in this area of strange (other worldly?) events taking place in non descript, ordinary, locations that the work locates itself.
This is a book that makes me think in a number of ways and I’ve come to see it as a detective story (or more accurately a puzzle). Am I looking at constructed images in a Jeff Wall type way or of a series of well observed real life events cleverly edited and sequenced? Am I reading the images correctly and if so how am I (we the viewer) meant to react to that?
This book more than any other I have seen recently forces me to question the nature of what I’m looking at and of the photographic image itself, and leaves me reflecting and returning to this work on a regular basis, as each time I do I discover some new conundrum within the puzzle.
This book was the winner of the 4th RM Iberoamerican Photobook Competition (2013) and is in my opinion a well-deserved accolade. I shall look forward to seeing where this fascinating photographer/storyteller takes us next.
Open at Noon is available to purchase here.
John Darwell is an independent photographer working on long-term projects that reflect his interest in social and industrial change, concern for the environment and issues around the depiction of mental health.
To date he has had seventeen books of his work published, of which the most recent are a number of collaborations with Cafe Royal Books and the Velvet Cell including: : ‘Sheffield: In Transition’ (Cafe Royal Books 2014) ‘Chernobyl’ volumes 1 and 2 (the Velvet Cell 2014) ‘Things Seen Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe’ (Cafe Royal 2014), ‘Desert States’, images from the South West United States (the Velvet Cell 2014) and ‘Grangemouth and the Forth Estuary’ (Cafe Royal Books 2014). Other recent books include: ‘Sheffield: Hyde Park, Meadowhall and Ponds Forge (Cafe Royal Books 2013) ‘DDSBs’ (mynewtpress 2013) and ‘Sheffield: Tinsley Viaduct’ (Cafe Royal Books 2013). Previous books include ‘Dark Days’ (Dewi Lewis Publishing 2007) documenting the impact of foot and mouth disease around his home in north Cumbria, and a twenty five year retrospective ‘Committed to Memory’ (Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery 2007), ‘Legacy’ (Dewi Lewis 2001) an exploration of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and ‘Jimmy Jock, Albert & the Six Sided Clock’ on the Port of Liverpool (Cornerhouse 1993).
His work has been exhibited, and published, widely both nationally and internationally, including numerous exhibitions in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, the USA, (Houston Foto Fest, New York and San Francisco) Mexico, South America and the Canary Islands, and is featured in a number of important collections including the National Museum of Media/Sun Life Collection, Bradford; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 2008 he gained his PhD for research into the visualisation of depression for his work entitled ‘A Black Dog Came Calling’. He is currently Reader in Photography at the University of Cumbria in Carlisle.