John Gossage's new book(s) The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler / Map of Babylon is notable for at least a couple of firsts. It's his first book produced and published in cooperation with Gerhard Steidl and it's also his first full body of work in colour.
First things first - publishing with Steidl. Over the last few years John Gossage has published a number of books through his own imprint Loostrife Editions. John is a real believer in the importance of the photo book, as well as a first rate book designer and Loostrife has produced some fantastic books. But I would also imagine that it's a heck of a job (as well as a money black hole?) running a small press - even if it gives a certain level of freedom and control as far as your own books go. So I would imagine that if a good working, creative relationship can be developed with someone like Gerhard Steidl then that is probably a good place to be.
But on to the book(s).
I keep saying book(s) because The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/Map of Babylon is actually two books in one. If you start with The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler it finishes two thirds of the way through the book. At that point the pictures are upside down. So just flip the book over and start at the back (now the front) and you are in Map of Babylon. A nice added touch being that you can reverse the dust-cover and you get the cover for Map of Babylon if you prefer to view the book that way round. It all runs together nicely and the whole book works beautifully. There is plenty of the feel of John's precise and careful design, along with (and I've always tended tp liked the the design of most Steidl books) a bit of the Steidl/Göttingen touch as well. Design-wise this is a very nice, beautifully printed, book.
Photography-wise this is a bit more enigmatic than many of Gossage's books, although not quite as enigmatic as a select few (e.g Dance Card or Hey Fuckface!). So it takes a bit of context and some careful, extended, reading of the pictures as a whole to get a real sense of it. It takes time for the pictures to sink in - while at the same time still being able to get lost in any particular single photograph.
The context the publisher provides us with is this:
"John Gossage, the renowned American photographer and photography book-maker, presents two companion volumes and his first ever books in color. Engaged in a dance, neither book comes first, there is no hierarchy or sequence to the pair of volumes.
Gossage is one of the most literary of photographic book authors and in The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler, the narrative, whilst not autobiographical, is about a neighborhood in which he lives; one that is singular in the United States. At the same time provincial and international, it is a neighborhood populated by ambassadorial residences, embassies, and the lavish private homes of those who are in positions of power and influence in Washington. A project he began with the arrival of a new neighbor, the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and made over a full year’s cycle of seasons, these are images from the drift of privilege. The streets, cars, homes and yards of this neighborhood are photographed on perfect spring or autumn days, with sparklingly clear blue skies, and flowers or foliage accenting the order. These are photographs about how one might wish the world to be, how beauty might be seen as desire. In the same year Gossage made the Map of Babylon, photographing digitally from Washington, to Germany, to China and places in-between. This look away, to places beyond the immediate and local, is a classic exploration of particulars of the outside world."
I must say I found the accumulation of the pictures in Thirty-Two Inch Ruler conveyed a sense of dread, of oppression after looking through them two or three times, even without having dug any deeper into the context beyond the short publishers comment. Which surprised me for a couple of reasons.
First, the pictures being in colour. During the 1980's and 1990's Gossage didn't seem to get sidetracked by the whole New Colour thing or massive painting sized photographs or such, but continued with his black and white work which continued to be a valid, contemporary and creative way of seeing, of investigation.
The way he has seen and shown us the Berlin of the Wall, or Maghera or the streets and neighbourhoods of several American cities has always seemed absolutely contemporary - yet rarely threatening. They may be a bit grim; they may be beautiful in ways that surprise us, in ways we normally rarely notice; but even the view Gossage gave of the Berlin Wall, while often dark, was very rarely as ominous as these delicately lit suburban views. Yet that's the sense that developed as I looked through these pictures. And that John should chose this particular subject for his first full body of work in colour seemed almost perverse. Surely it's so much easier to convey 'dread', 'oppressive', 'ominous' in black and white? But then, on reflection, I realised what better way to convey such things. What better way to convey what appears at first glance to be an ordinary upper middle class, civil service sort of neighbourhood than in the ordinary, everyday colours of a suburban summer or fall. An ordinary place with ordinary (if rather well appointed) homes yet which contains within it - more than partially veiled or partly hidden - aspects of a global conflict which reach far beyond the suburb or city and with consequences and ramifications still as yet unknown.
And as for John Gossage in colour - that's just what these pictures are - John Gossage in colour. It's as if he has just taken a step sideways and there he is in the dimension of colour. There are many of his usual touches - a way of seeing that is both unique and familiar - and yet he has also been able to use colour as colour - to let it break out of the dominance of line or form so that the colour itself is allowed to be. He seems very much at ease with being able to "colour outside the lines" as it were. In this way each individual picture can hold its own ground as well as being an integral part of the story being told.
But returning to the unease, after a few pages I also found that the pictures started to feel quite voyeuristic so intimate do they become. Then I read one reviewer who made perfect sense of it when he described Gossage as a spy, working undercover as it were, reporting back to us on this strange yet ordinary place. (Besides which, of course, almost all photography is voyeuristic to one degree or another - usually far more so than most photographers like to admit. Indeed one of the great attractions of photography is that it allows us to be voyeurs, peering over the photographer's shoulder, but from a nice safe distance - in time as well as space).
Rather more briefly on Map of Babylon. These seem a collection of related yet unrelated pictures - "Photographs with qualities, but no real explanation" - pictures taken as Gossage has travelled over the last while. They are fascinating in that they show his experimenting with colour as he goes and - I believe I'm correct - his first real experiments with a digital camera (did that old Texas Leica finally wear out and die I wonder??). It has the intriguing feel of a photographer's sketchbook or workbook.
Overall a very worthwhile book to get hold of (and I don't know large the print runs is in this case, but Gossage's books often go out of print pretty quickly).
There is also a good review and conversation here: The Devil in Kalorama: A Tour of John Gossage’s Neighborhood as Hell