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Book Reviews: Uncle Charlie

Uncle Charlie. Photographs by Marc Asnin.
Published by Contrasto, 2012.
Uncle Charlie
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Photographs Marc Asnin
Contrasto, 2012. Hardbound. 288 pp., 60 black & white illustrations, 8-1/2x11-1/2".


Tell Eugene Smith to make a family album and you might end up with something like Marc Asnin's Uncle Charlie; a book that is like one of those good, old-fashioned mega-projects without beginning and without end. Uncle Charlie consists of several hundred black and white pictures spread across 370 pages. It tells the story of Marc Asnin's Uncle Charlie, a man whose life, partners and family roller-coaster through a cross-family cocktail of insomnia, alcoholism, addiction, AIDS and mental illness. A family album with a difference then; like Richard Billingham's Ray's a Laugh, but on a grander scale with a lot of love and tenderness thrown in to confuse the viewer.

Asnin's old-school pictures are accompanied by Charlie's text, a stream-of-consciousness recounting of his life all laid out in a mix of sizes, weights and typefaces. Charlie's childhood is marked by academic success at the Jewish orthodox school he attended. So Charlie's a clever boy and he knows it. His father meanwhile is involved in gambling and the Gambino crime family. All is good in the world of Charlie until his father has a stroke; a family picture shows him 5 years after the event, sitting in an armchair in a white nightgown, a man who (in Charlie's words) "...spent his life in the street and wound up with nothing... it was easier for him to sit in a chair."

Uncle Charlie, by Marc Asnin. Published by Contrasto, 2012.
Charlie's first big knock in life comes when he goes to a classmate's party. "Everyone else kissed this girl for her birthday and when I stepped forward there was an objection. There was no kiss. I feel today it had something to do with being Jewish."

Asnin shows Charlie's decline; the wives, the children, the disintegrating world of the interior. We see Charlie with his new wife, Blanca, a heroin addict. She sucks on his penis while Charlie sucks on a cigarette. Asnin takes the picture.

Uncle Charlie, by Marc Asnin. Published by Contrasto, 2012.
Uncle Charlie, by Marc Asnin. Published by Contrasto, 2012.
One day, Charlie's son Joe comes home with a rash. "He showed it to me; it was around his abdomen. Shingles. Twenty-three –year olds don't get shingles. I knew." We see the AIDS develop, Joe lying gaunt and skeletal in a bed and on a sofa. We hear of Charlie's protracted grief then see him lying on a pillow, his eyes closed, his hand holding a pistol, his son dead.

Uncle Charlie, by Marc Asnin. Published by Contrasto, 2012.
And on it goes. It's a monumental work where nothing is quite certain, where the text and the pictures and the life are not clear cut and don't always tally in the linear way in which we're accustomed. Charlie's words provide a parallel narrative to Asnin's pictures and take his life out of the usual documentary discourse of disability and death. They are a eulogy to neighbourhoods that have transformed; to a way of life that once was but is no more. The whole book feels like the death of an era, a way of life, the fuck-you mentality that Charlie encapsulates, of Charlie's failure ever to escape his neighbourhood or his intelligence. The book ends with Asnin's most memorable picture; Charlie is naked, but for shoes and socks. He's smoking and holding a gun. Like his father before him, he sits in his armchair and looks out of the window.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of Wired.com’s favourites earlier this year.

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