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photo-eye Book Reviews: Home Work

Home Work, Photographs by Tessa Bunney.
Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
Home Work
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
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Tessa Bunney Home Work
Photographs by Tessa Bunney
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011. Hardbound. 112 pp., 53 color illustrations, 9-1/4x6-1/2".

The photographs collected in Home Work are a high point in Tessa Bunney's ongoing exploration of traditional rural ways of life increasingly encroached upon by modern industrial society. The series looks at the agrarian communities surrounding Hanoi, Vietnam slated to be systematically absorbed into this burgeoning urban center. Yet the resulting images represent neither a 'before' nor 'after' to the inevitable. Rather, they compel us to consider what it can mean to adapt, looking at how these "craft villages" are striving to survive the loss of land and livelihood by tapping into local resources and devising small scale industries to bridge the gap. The future is uncertain and a lucid account of the political and environmental implications of this transformation can be found in two scholarly essays and Bunney's introduction. Several images within Home Work echo this broad view, speaking overtly of the looming urban landscape via billboards and construction sites. These are not Bunney's best, but they set the tone for how we read her more intimate views. As the open fields vanish, work moves home and it is within this intersection of the industrial and the domestic that Bunney finds her richest material.

Home Work, by Tessa Bunney. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
This volume is my first in-depth exposure to Bunney's work, known largely in her native United Kingdom. What is first striking about these images is their sense of quiet and stillness. Working slowly with only available light, Bunney creates tight views of the working spaces and working lives of her subjects - primarily women laboring alone. Sometimes a child is included in the view, showing us that this home work - whether the creation of rice noodles or incense - is done in tandem with child rearing and other domestic duties. This interweaving is elegantly reinforced across images as well - in one, a baby is swaddled in a green hammock that resembles the banana leaves forming a delicate wrapping around a 'husband and wife' cake depicted on the following page. Pattern enlivens a variety of textiles - garments printed with abstracted leaves and floral designs emerge from lush fields or armloads of cuttings, underscoring the commingling of mass production and the homemade.

Home Work, by Tessa Bunney. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
Home Work, by Tessa Bunney. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
 There is a danger in creating images as beautiful as Bunney's - that the subject becomes glamorized or oversimplified through its superficial appeal. Yet the larger themes of interest to her, economic, environmental and social, are contained within subtle contrasts - light and dust, texture and decay, steam and grime, pattern and chaos. This monograph serves Bunney's project well; its 42 color images are thoughtfully sequenced and accompanied by writing that elucidates bigger issues while still allowing the photographs to speak for themselves. I enjoy that the viewer easily comprehends that this is Bunney's idiosyncratic view, underscored by the inclusion of excerpts from her travel blog. All the same, there is ample room for the viewer's own discovery of a fascinating aspect of contemporary Vietnamese life on the cusp of change through images of people and places rarely photographed.—Karen Jenkins

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Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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