Disquiet - Book Review
These domestic photographs full of fear and foreboding are the very illustration of the book’s apt title. The work begins with a quote from Julian Barnes about the world collapsing, so from the start we know where this is going. We do not expect to be uplifted.
And we are not. These pictures are dark, mysterious, and unsettling. Dark, dark, dark even when the light is shining. Bits of light in a chiaroscuro world. The use of exposure is wisely advantageous: figures float, darks are dark; the lights look floodlit even in the daytime scenes.
Using his family as subject matter Willett makes intelligent photographs that amount to a carefully told story of dread. A suburban drama parked within the outskirts of the city, affected by the wider reach of world economics.
This well-produced and elegant book consists of four sequences of color photos framed (or interrupted) by four sequences of two pairs of black and white grainy photos from the days of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), appropriated from newspapers. In these gray images there is smoke, fire, and police in helmets holding clubs, standing in a line. There are protestors with flags and more smoke and photographic grain so dense we cannot breathe. These images set up a counterpoint to the series between them. Or is it the other way around?
The sequences of Willet’s own photographs are by themselves quite brilliant and disturbing. There are several gorgeous images that stand out from each one: multi-colored cheerios on a floor, an old woman’s hand in the light. An old man’s face, a baby sleeping. An empty lot; a man facedown on a rock. A dead squirrel. A napkin on the ground. Houses seen through the woods, both day and night. The pictures allude to a sense of domestic normalcy even as they are charged with tension and anxiety.
The list of titles at the back is nonchalantly descriptive, reading like a poem. The essay by Marvin Heiferman is also placed there - a wise choice, since he makes a case for the OWS photos that is not understandable at first viewing.
But that is also the weakness of this book. Do we need the OWS thread for this narrative? I’m not sure we do. Those double-page, full-bleed spreads, reminiscent of Goya’s Disaster of War seem like unnecessary punctuation. Or perhaps just overly dramatic. Blank white or colored pages with a bit of text would have worked as well. OWS is not/was not 9/11, or WWII, or Vietnam. History might prove wrong on this: time will tell.
In the meantime Willett’s work continues to impress and depress with its dark ominous beauty.