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Book Review: The Night Climbers of Cambridge


Book Review The Night Climbers of Cambridge By Thomas Maileander Reviewed by Sarah Bradley The internet has made many of us aware of the furtive exploits of urban climbers; we’ve all seen those vertigo-inducing videos shot from the tops of the scaffolding of unfinished skyscrapers, right? (If not, I recommend this one.) As evidenced by a new book from Archive of Modern Conflict, this type of activity has been going on for a while.

The Night Climbers of Cambridge.
By Thomas Maileander. AMC Books, 2014.
 
The Night Climbers of Cambridge
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley

The Night Climbers of Cambridge
By Thomas Maileander
AMC Books, 2014. 88 pp., 64 tritone illustrations and 14 inserts, 10x13¼".


The internet has made many of us aware of the furtive exploits of urban climbers; we’ve all seen those vertigo-inducing videos shot from the tops of the scaffolding of unfinished skyscrapers, right? (If not, I recommend this one.) As evidenced by a new book from Archive of Modern Conflict, this type of activity has been going on for a while. The Night Climbers of Cambridge is a collection of nocturnal images made in the 1930s of men scaling the buildings of Cambridge University — a photographic archive acquired by artist/photographer Thomas Mailaender. The book borrows its title from the volume for which these images were made, first published in 1937, which served as guide to both the art of night climbing and the buildings themselves. The original book has been reprinted several times, each iteration becoming a coveted oddity, leading someone to decide that it’s time for it to resurface. The most recent reprint was in 2013. For those interested, it’s a fun read. Written under the pseudonym Whipplesnaith, it’s composed in an easy helpful manner, filled with precise instructions guiding the would-be climber handhold to foothold, punctuated with a dry, at times melancholy, humor. You’ll find most of the images in the AMC book in the original, but in Whipplesnaith’s document, they are merely photographic examples. Reproduced full bleed in the pages of the AMC book, the photographs are given room to exist on their own, revealing a distinct quality.

The Night Climbers of CambridgeBy Thomas Maileander. AMC Books, 2014.

The attire of the climbers is initially startling. Men cling to drain pipes in Plimsolls and trousers, clamber up ornate decorative work barefoot, wedge themselves between pillars in suits and dress shoes, looking all the more strange in their 1930s street clothes. Occasionally, a policeman shouts feebly from the ground like a scene out of Keystone Cops. Sometimes funny, other times outright goofy, the photographs never shake an unsettling eeriness that accompanies the deep blacks and extreme variants of grays in the edifices. At times, the climber can be hard to spot within the photograph; periodically they appear like apparitions on spires, hanging precariously off gutters and window ledges.

The Night Climbers of CambridgeBy Thomas Maileander. AMC Books, 2014.
The Night Climbers of CambridgeBy Thomas Maileander. AMC Books, 2014.

The scale and shift in focus of the AMC book allows the images to be reproduced not only larger, but also uncropped. Instead of just the climber, we also glimpse the light source — a man standing on the ground shining a spotlight, which makes a striking addition to some of the photographs. But the smart design never takes us too far away from the original photographic object — smaller images are intermittently leafed into the pages, revealing handwritten notes and typewritten captions on the backside. The book’s design is both excellent and notable; aside from the aged-white of the backsides of these smaller photographs, the book doesn’t contain a white page. From the gorgeous velvety cover with title blind stamped in drop shadow block letters, through the end paper and imageless pages, everything is black. Even the brief essay is reproduced in gray ink on a black page. This chromatic uniformity enforces and maintains a conceptual tone for the images; they seem especially mysterious.

The Night Climbers of CambridgeBy Thomas Maileander. AMC Books, 2014.

Which is kind of remarkable when you consider that unlike other publications from Archive of Modern Conflict, these images are readily available elsewhere — in a book that gives ample explanation to wipe away all that mystery. But eerie and mysterious they remain. Encountering these images in this way, outside of the context of illustrations — enlarged, uncropped, printed at full bleed, the faces of the models unobscured by darkroom tricks — they look undeniably different. A glance at Mailaender’s other work indicates that he deeply understands the power of context. Take even the exhibition of this collection at the Roman Road Project Space — the room was painted entirely black with the small photographs scattered up and down the walls near climbing holds placed at convenient intervals, allowing the viewer to scale the walls to take in the photographs. Ultimately, I am left with this: The Night Climbers of Cambridge is playful, funny, a bit confounding, a touch creepy, and entirely enjoyable.—SARAH BRADLEY

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SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. Some of her work can be found on her website sebradley.com.

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