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Best Books - A Closer Look: Dive Dark Dream Slow

Dive Dark Dream Slow by Melissa Cantanese
Every year we see trends in the selection of books picked for our Best Books list. Some of what we see may be related to what we're interested in, and what stuck out to me were the number of titles that were created from or incorporated vernacular photography. I counted over a dozen titles in a recent scan of the list, though I may have missed a few. They are a diverse bunch, including an album of photographs discovered on the street in Found Photos in Detroit, the scrapbook assemblages of Down These Mean Streets, the appropriated Google Street View images of A New American Picture, and the pristine and obsessive precision of life documented in Lange Liste.

Dive Dark Dream Slow was among the most frequently selected books on the list, and is a rather brilliant example of the rise of the snapshot in contemporary photographic practice, exhibition and study. The images in the book were culled from the massive vernacular photography collection of Peter Cohen, who has become one of the foremost collectors of the form. Cohen's collection has recently been made the subject of exhibitions and publications, and part of his collection was also recently donated to New York's Museum of Modern Art. In Dive Dark Dream Slow, Cohen's collection has been put in the hands of photographer and bookseller Melissa Cantanese. The resulting book captures a feeling that I imagine must be quite similar to wandering through such a vast photographic archive. One seems to enter a meditative state where the faces and scenes before you begin to fill a waking dream.

From Dive Dark Dream Slow by Melissa Cantanese

The physical book itself is a beautiful production. The size and stippled texture of the cover make it reminiscent of an old hardcover picture book for a child -- one where the dust jacket has been long since battered and forgotten. This sensual quality only enhances dream-like nature of the volume. It opens with an image of a man in swimming trunks on a railing. Caught mid-stride, he seems to be preparing to dive, though no water is visible. Partially obstructed, the face of a woman smiles up at him, caught in the excitement of his balancing act. It’s a joyous photograph, a feeling complicated by the image on the next page – a large building engulfed in flames, burning in the night. The juxtaposition of these two images initiates the viewer into the complicated nature of these images. Immediately our minds try to draw them together, and any dissonance that may have initially resulted from the first two images is smoothed over by the following photographs, which all show a diving figure. Within the first few pages, a tone has been set, and we see an assortment of bathing figures – women and men, some actually in the water, others simply laying down as if floating. A story seems to be established, but it is a story that suddenly drifts outwards.

From Dive Dark Dream Slow by Melissa Cantanese
From Dive Dark Dream Slow by Melissa Cantanese

The clusters of thematically similar images give way to striking photographs with little apparent relationship beyond their proximity: lighting strikes, fighter planes, the moon. With the connections loosened up, the book replicates something closest to the free associative state one enters when falling asleep. Images appear and we draw connections, finding meaning in the abstraction between photographs.

From Dive Dark Dream Slow by Melissa Cantanese

The photographs in Dive Dark Dream Slow could easily be misidentified as something out of one’s own family album, which speaks to why such images are so resonant. Our cultural connection to the snapshot is deep; it’s how many of us encounter our past and what came before us -- how we get to know our parents and grandparents in their youths -- documents of personal history before our time. Our minds are primed for empathizing with these images, creating back-story, filling in gaps. In Dive Dark Dream Slow, Cantanese has shaped the assortment of images into a work of art, almost a photographic poetic cut-up, and as such, it seems to be a bit of a Rorschach test – you take from it what you see in it. Dive Dark Dream Slow isn’t my personal favorite book of vernacular photography on this year’s Best Books list, but it is a fine example of power of the vernacular image. -- Sarah Bradley

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by:
Adam Bell
Miwa Susuda
Shane Lavalette
Todd Hido
WassinkLundgren

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