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Book Review: Billie


Book Review Billie By Ofer Wolberger Reviewed by Adam Bell All portraits are impossibilities. Each frame is full of shifting variables that reveal and conceal in equal measure. Billie, the latest book by Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press, begins with a simple premise, but is mercurial in nature, defying easy categorization. At its most basic level, it is a portrait of a woman, the artists’ wife and titular Billie, but it is also a collaborative performance with the subject.


Billie. By Ofer Wolberger.
Horses Think Press, 2014.
Billie
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Billie
By Ofer Wolberger
Horses Think Press, 2014. 240 pp., color and black & white illustrations, 6½x9".


All portraits are impossibilities. Each frame is full of shifting variables that reveal and conceal in equal measure. Billie, the latest book by Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press, begins with a simple premise, but is mercurial in nature, defying easy categorization. At its most basic level, it is a portrait of a woman, the artists’ wife and titular Billie, but it is also a collaborative performance with the subject. All portraits involve an exchange, and as the Wolberger states, “I took the pictures, she made them.” This collaboration is essential to the meaning of the work as it both sets the terms of the images and gives them different legitimacy, but also acknowledges their own limitations. Yet, Billie is as much a exploration of the limits of portraiture as it is a fugal love poem — repeating and echoing, notes are picked up, taken forward and abandoned, but the melody always returns to its subject.

Billie. By Ofer Wolberger. Horses Think Press, 2014.

In some ways, Billie is a follow up to Wolberger’s Visitor, which was part of his 12 Books project. In Visitor, the artist took pixilated corporate ID badge photos of his wife and compiled them in a similarly performative work. As he has explained about that work, he first took the badges surreptitiously, but once found out, Billie became an active participant — wearing hats or posing slightly for the robotic cameras. Like Visitor, the images in Billie have a casual quality to them. Shot entirely with a 35mm half-frame camera, there is a raw impressionistic quality to the work. Shooting against the sun, incorporating haze, lens flare and soft focus, the work moves back and forth from partial glances to a more directed gaze. The book’s generous inclusion of images is an assertion that no one image will suffice, nor can any one contain all the possibilities.

Billie. By Ofer Wolberger. Horses Think Press, 2014.
Like Visitor, which gathered a smaller collection of images, the larger volume of pictures in Billie belie their informative value. Instead, each picture takes us further from what appears to be a singular truth. Hairstyles change, the light and expressions shift, outfits evolve over time, and the photographer constantly changes position. Each move takes us further away and somehow closer. While the focus of the work is Billie, the book also contains other subjects — incidental landscapes, flowers, still-lifes, a dead cat, and a man sitting on a park bench, are just a few. Despite this fact, the book never strays too far its subject. These details and seemingly tangential images form pauses in the musical structure of the book, a break or silent beat in the work’s almost relentless stare.


Although different in many ways, I was immediately reminded of Roni Horn’s celebrated body of work and book, You Are The Weather (1994-5), which brought together a series of close-up photographs of the artist Margrét Haraldsdóttir Blöndal. Submerged up to her neck in the waters of a geothermal pool in Iceland, the work is not really about Margrét, but about her shifting presence. Typically installed in a small room, the unframed images wrap around the viewer and offer subtle differences of expression — each frame is not only a discrete exposure taken moments apart, but traces emotional changes in the subject and our own perception. Billie is much less minimalist in its approach, but offers a similarly deconstructed portrait. Cycling and repeating, it loops back on its subject from different angles and at different times — an evolving diary and collaborative love letter.

Billie. By Ofer Wolberger. Horses Think Press, 2014.
The book is simply designed with single or double image spreads, and comes in three different colored covers — pink, teal and red, with the red cover reserved for the special edition. In keeping with the work’s disavowed authorship, or rather collaborative nature, there is no name on the spine or in the book. The front shows a hazy indecipherable backlight portrait, while the back is a cloud of smoke. There is no text or information in the book besides the title, although it comes with a small pamphlet with statements that appear to be by Billie. Divorced from their original context and with the questions redacted, they are somewhat cryptic, but the fragments of information tell us what the photographs could never reveal.

Billie. By Ofer Wolberger. Horses Think Press, 2014.

We’ve grown accustomed to a default for contemporary portraits — sad men and women, blank pensive faces, sitting on couches or beds. Vacant stares allow the viewer to occupy a comfortable space and suggest understandable meanings, profound truths, or at least known unknowns, yet they never seem to tell us anything. The problems of a portrait are not easily solved. No person can be defined by a single image, but they can easily be turned into a symbol or empty metaphor. The portraits of Billie are made whole and complicated by her participation and their volume. Each image and sequence offers the possibility of something, but like the backlit silhouette or tendrils of smoke on the front and back cover, we can project ourselves into the darkness or concoct metaphoric readings, but it can easily fall away like smoke.—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, Afterimage, 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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