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Best Books - Book Reviews: Distant Place

Distant Place. Photographs by Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczynski, 
Adam Panczuk, Michal Luczak & Rafal Milach.
Published by Copernicus Science Centre, 2012.
Distant Place
Reviewed by Christopher Johnson

Distant Place
Photographs by Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczynski, Adam Panczuk, Michal Luczak & Rafal Milach.
Copernicus Science Centre, Warsaw, 2012. Five softcover books in box. 197 pp., black & white and color illustrations, 11-1/2x9-1/2".

Distant Place is an attempt by five photographers of the Sputnik Photo collective to bring attention back to the Vistula river in Warsaw. This attempt was aimed at the local Polish citizenry by the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw who contacted Sputnik as well as a handful of writers in order to document and celebrate a natural resource that had fallen into disuse. The Vistula river, just to ruminate for a moment on this collection's star model, had once been a source of industry and travel for the inhabitants of Warsaw but, in recent decades its uses were subverted by new technology and the river was abandoned not only as a source of industry but, also as a source of natural beauty and local festivity.

The photographs represented in this collection undoubtedly capture something of that natural beauty, but they go well beyond that as well. The photographers add to the surroundings of their photos something of the people who inhabit the forgotten river, and the tools that were left behind as well as the industry it still inspires (however gruesome that industry might be).

Distant Place, by Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczynski, Adam Panczuk, Michal Luczak & Rafal Milach. Published by Copernicus Science Centre, 2012.

In the Collection entitled "About the Man Who Jumped Off a Bridge" by Rafal Milach, we are given a haunting collection of images of river trawling police whose job it is to continuously bring up the bodies of the drowned. Their work is documented from different angles; at one point we see them before a broken hole in the ice and, at another, we become privy to the little knick-knacks taken from the pockets and bodies of their patrons. These pictures darken the mind with grizzly possibilities and make a ripe metaphor for the river itself as a forgotten body submerged in the past. This particular collection is enriched with a macabre play included in the anthology's materials.

Distant Place, by Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczynski, Adam Panczuk, Michal Luczak & Rafal Milach. Published by Copernicus Science Centre, 2012.

In "Sudio Wista," a collection by Adam Panczuk, we are introduced to the inhabitants of Warsaw who still make pilgrimage to the Vistula. These photos are elegant and well framed. Panczuk brings out the beauty both of the river itself and the acolytes who pay it homage. Every individual who falls under his lens seems nourished by the river, healthy in their lives and, in one excellent photograph, their vocation. It is a startling revivification after encountering Milach's collection or "Ecosystems," the collection by Michal Luczak that deals with the homeless who have made the river their home.

Distant Place, by Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczynski, Adam Panczuk, Michal Luczak & Rafal Milach. Published by Copernicus Science Centre, 2012.

"Mission Completed" by Jan Brykczynski is far and away my favorite collection in the anthology. It takes for its subject matter the forgotten industries of the river. We see dilapidated boats and abandoned work fronts as well as a few people who still cling to the river's old ways. These photos are washed out by snow and an eeriness of open space rather than by any photographic process. Each one of these photos is startling as they place attention on the river's long but abruptly upended industrious history. They represent the strange high art of landscape, infusing natural settings with the human drama to heighten their emotional productivity.

Distant Place, by Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczynski, Adam Panczuk, Michal Luczak & Rafal Milach. Published by Copernicus Science Centre, 2012.

The whole collection is made up of eight separate booklets and pieces contained in a smart looking box. This style of presentation is becoming more and more common whether we encounter it in Pau Wau Press' limited edition photographic anthologies like Muses or Chris Ware's massively popular Building Stories and, as far as this type of display goes, Distant Place is a solid gold winner. Did I mention supplementary literature? I did, but if you missed it; Distant Place comes with interviews from the Sputnik collective, a few stories, a play and a poem. This collection is one of the finest that I have encountered and its socio-political aim is genuine and to be admired.—CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by Melanie McWhorter

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CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON is originally from Madison Wisconsin. He came to Santa Fe in 2002 and graduated from the College of Santa Fe majoring in English with an emphasis in poetry.

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