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Book Review: A City in the Mind

A City in the Mind. Photographs by Peter Fraser.
Published by SteidlBG, 2012.
A City in the Mind
Reviewed by Adam Bell

A City in the Mind
Photographs by Peter Fraser
SteidlBG, 2012. Hardbound. 80 pp., 50 color illustrations, 11-1/4x12-1/2".

Photography is one of the most alchemical of the arts. Beginning with the world as it is, photography can transforms even the most mundane details into something beautiful, strange or perplexing. More often than not it can also fall flat. As Winogrand stated, "there is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described." Peter Fraser has always been a poet of the quotidian and overlooked. A pioneer of color photography in the UK, his work celebrates and extols the mysterious facts of the world. Inspired by Italo Calvino's hugely influential book Invisible Cities (1972), Peter Fraser's latest book A City in the Mind is a witty and poetic exploration of the real and imagined London that Fraser calls home.

Calvino's Invisible Cities has inspired many artists, including photographers such as Ken Schles, whose own book, Invisible City (1988), was named after the book. For those unfamiliar with Calvino's work, Invisible Cities offers a fictional retelling of Marco Polo's encounter with the Emperor Kublai Khan. In each chapter, Polo describes a different city he has visited in during his journeys in marvelous and poetic detail. Since neither Polo nor Kublai Khan speak the same language, Polo also uses objects to help narrate his adventures. As the book progresses, it slowly becomes apparent that each city may actually be Polo's native Venice. Like Polo's fictive city, Fraser's photographs of models, toys, dioramas, books, and set pieces construct a portrait of London, which weaves together past and present, fact and fantasy.

A City in the Mind, by Peter Fraser. Published by SteidlBG, 2012.

Throughout his books and career, Fraser's images have exhibited a directness that belies their intelligence. They sneak up on you – not only in their seeming forthrightness and descriptive detail, but also in their sensuous articulation of space, volume, texture and color. Describing his own work, the photographer Robert Adams noted, "For a shot to be good – suggestive of more than just what it is – it has to come perilously near being bad, just a view of stuff." From his work on scientific laboratories, construction sites and super computers, Fraser has always photographed stuff. The stuff most of us ignore or cast aside; the stuff we step over; the cheap tchotchkes we use to decorate our homes; and the humble and utilitarian objects that occupy our lives. He transforms even the most mundane details and illuminates their poetic potential. His work skirts failure in ways that would seem perilous to most photographers. Some viewers may become puzzled… Why photograph that? Why so obvious? But he always pulls us back from the brink and forces us to look again.

A City in the Mind, by Peter Fraser. Published by SteidlBG, 2012.
A City in the Mind, by Peter Fraser. Published by SteidlBG, 2012.

The images alternate between obvious models of the imagined past and/or future, and less direct signifiers of different and/or alternate worlds. While there are numerous models, dolls and dioramas, which suggest concurrent histories and fantasies, more indirect examples like a 'Who's Who' book offers a city bound and shelved, a catalog of important people carefully gathered together each and every year for easy access. In another image, a distended and broken red plush pillar leans against plastic office furniture – an abrupt collision of faux opulence and corporate pragmatism. The image is paired with an Edward Gorey cutout diorama, which offers its own take on Edwardian mystery, sexual repression and the macabre.

The oversized book is simply designed with single and double image spreads. The larger size not only allows the rich details in the images to breath, but also affords closer inspection. The purple endpaper contrasts nicely with the golden yellow cover and gives the book a faux regal look. The book contains two pieces of text – Fraser's own endnote, which is brief and to the point, and a longer introductory text by Brian Dillon, a writer and the UK editor of Cabinet magazine. While Dillon's essay is smart and insightful, it feels like a superfluous afterthought. Like many essays in photobooks, it seems to argue a little too earnestly for the importance and significance of Fraser's work. Fortunately, Fraser's work easily holds its own.

A City in the Mind, by Peter Fraser. Published by SteidlBG, 2012.
A City in the Mind, by Peter Fraser. Published by SteidlBG, 2012.

Photography, like alchemy, is mercurial. It is capable of producing gold in skilled hands, but yields lumps of lead with far more frequency. Fraser works in a terrain that is often explored, but where few succeed. Despite his pioneering role in championing color photography in the UK, and such recent honors as a nomination for the Citibank Prize, Fraser really has not received the recognition he deserves in the US and elsewhere. While his books are well received and readily available, it is still difficult to see the work outside the UK. Fortunately, there is an upcoming retrospective at the Tate, which will give more people a chance to see a larger sample of his work. His new book adds nicely to his long and rewarding body of work.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.

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