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photo-eye Book Reviews: House of Coates

House of Coates. Text by Brad Zellar. Photographs by Lester B. Morrison
Published by Little Brown Mushroom, 2012.
House of Coates
Reviewed by Judy Natal

House of Coates
Text by Brad Zellar. Photographs by Lester B. Morrison
Little Brown Mushroom, 2012. Softcover. 118 pp., 68 illustrations, 6x8-1/4".

Little Brown Mushroom (LBM) is the imprint alter ego of wunderkind Magnum photographer, book publisher impresario, blogger and writer, Alec Soth. In an ongoing exploration of everything conceivable that is photobook, Soth expands our ideas of book, photograph, fiction and nonfiction, what is believable or not, and why we should care, and how photographs and books can fit together. Inventively blurring the boundaries between the veracity of the photograph in relationship to the veracity of the text/story, Soth -- and the LBM team, that includes Soth, Brad Zellar, Carrie Thompson, Charlie Ward -- are deft at sleight of hand, all the while romping through a variety of book structures, bindings, and innovative designs. Utilizing everything from zine formats, spiral bindings, folded pages, to books within books, LBM creates memorable books that are affordable, with more than a tinge of DIY mentality. Though small in stature, LBM is huge in its influence on contemporary photographic practice.

Case in point is House of Coates by Minneapolis writer and LBM collaborator, Brad Zellar. House of Coates is also the name of a real life, much beloved bar & grill in Rosemont, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities where the LBM crew resides, famous for their Swanee burger. This is not a direct ode to the bar, but instead, an exquisitely haunting, melancholic treasure of a book about people who drop out and populate tiny towns and rural communities, and the longing and loneliness of the human condition. Lester B. Morrison is credited as the author of the snapshot-like, drugstore-esque disposable camera photos, though most suspect Soth as author. The photographs accompany the text tangentially, with image and text together creating an indirect, perfectly balanced, poetic resonance, at once haunted and haunting. They seem to linger in the reader's mind -- an overturned white truck on a field of snow, contents of drawers open for the viewer's inspection in a cheaply paneled dark room. The landscapes more often than not are of chilly snowscapes on pale, overcast days drawing ranch houses and truck plazas in bleak, weakly lit chilliness. When people enter the photographs, it is unexpected and ambiguous. The interior snapshots frequently consist of poorly lit fake wood paneling and cheap furniture with the detritus of human occupation, of empty wire clothes hangers and scraps of notes, lists and cartoon cutouts.

House of Coates, by Brad Zellar & Lester B. Morrison. Published by Little Brown Mushroom, 2012.
Lester, whose initials are LBM like the publisher's, may or may not be a real person, and he may or may not have actually made the photographs, and this may or may not be a true story though he has made stealth appearances in Soth's Broken Manual. But one thing for certain is his simple eloquence in examining his life and how he got to where he is. And so the mystery begins. The settings of the writing and the photographs are made in and around the communities near Pine Bend refinery, near Rosemont, and both text and image are about forgotten, off the grid, by choice or destiny, people who have dropped out of sight and out of mind of contemporary society. Longing and loss runs through the book -- of what might have been -- and broken dreams and aspirations.

House of Coates, by Brad Zellar & Lester B. Morrison. Published by Little Brown Mushroom, 2012.
Zellar's text relates to Lester’s photographs when defining a character and narrative, though by proximity, not direct reference. The photographs act like dreams or glimpses of realities that you might vaguely recall, small details that seem to tuck into our subconscious, like Lester himself. The book's design is small and unpretentious, with cheap spiral binding the style and size of a personal calendar with a plastic cover.

House of Coates, by Brad Zellar & Lester B. Morrison. Published by Little Brown Mushroom, 2012.
Now available again in its second edition, House of Coates (brown cover is second edition, green cover is first edition) is beautifully designed book whose simplicity belies its elegantly, poignant story and deceptively, complex photographs. The photographs play beautifully with the text in enigmatic juxtapositions. There is a part of Lester B. Morrison in us all. Perhaps the next time we meet a "Lester" we will remember as Zellar writes "...every truly lost man knows exactly where he is".—JUDY NATAL

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JUDY NATAL is a Chicago artist and author of EarthWords, and Neon Boneyard Las Vegas A-Z. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and are in the permanent public collections of the the Museum of Contemporary Art, California Museum of Photography, Center for Creative Photography, among others. She has received numerous grants and fellowships including a Fulbright Travel Grant, Illinois Arts Council Photography Fellowships, Polaroid Grants and New York Foundation for the Arts Photography Fellowships. Natal has also been awarded numerous artist residencies nationally and internationally, most recently in Iceland and the Biosphere 2 for her current work Future Perfect. Her work can be seen at her website http://www.judynatal.com.

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