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Book Review: Playground


Book Review Playground Photographs by James Mollison Reviewed by Karen Jenkins A “space of excitement, games, bullying, laughing, tears, teasing, fun and fear” is how photographer James Mollison remembers the school playground of his childhood. This is a loaded summary, and the photographs he made there and at other playgrounds the world over are similarly packed full of the complexities of these arenas of recreation and recess.

Playground. By James Mollison.
Aperture, 2015.
 
Playground
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Playground
Photographs by James Mollison. Text by Jon Ronson.
Aperture, New York, 2015. 136 pp., 59 color illustrations, 6x8¼x¾".

A “space of excitement, games, bullying, laughing, tears, teasing, fun and fear” is how photographer James Mollison remembers the school playground of his childhood. This is a loaded summary, and the photographs he made there and at other playgrounds the world over are similarly packed full of the complexities of these arenas of recreation and recess. During 2009-2014, Mollison photographed in Argentina, Bhutan, Bolivia, China, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Norway, Russia, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom, the United States and the West Bank. He visited schools for the privileged and the poor, private and public, and like his earlier project Where Children Sleep, the photographs collected in Playground are striking in their depiction of cultural and economic disparities amplified in their variation on the theme. The many photographs Mollison made during each school visit were source material for the composite photographs he made to represent each experience of play and the playground. He describes his technique as a type of time lapse, by which each photograph’s figures and groupings become summary of all he observed, rather than the emblematic representatives of a singular chosen moment.

Playground. By James Mollison. Aperture, 2015.
Playground. By James Mollison. Aperture, 2015.

Mollison’s series may be rooted in the evocative recall of his own experience, but it also utilizes the tenor of a more detached study. His elevated vantage point underscores his stance as an outsider looking in, as do the short didactic texts that conclude the book. They summarize each school’s history, the pupils’ ethnic and socio-economic background and the atmosphere and antics he observed. More even-handed in tone than the gut-feeling analysis of journalist Jon Ronson’s introduction, Mollison’s blurbs underscore the spectacularly disparate contexts for the play he observed. Playground boundaries vary wildly; open spaces may be the manicured lawn of an idyllic country manor or simply whatever place can be found just outside the school’s doors. Some enclosed playgrounds look like prison yards, with inmates reacting to a false and fleeting sense of liberation. At the Aida Boys School in a refugee camp in the West Bank, walls and barbed wire fences enclose a concrete courtyard where its pupils play against the backdrop of a politicized mural that their headmaster calls “a humiliation [and]… a kind of restriction on their future.” At the Eagle House School in the United Kingdom, pupils roam unsupervised in a wooded area and seem to play out power struggles worthy of the repressed and the confined. Kids playing in a public courtyard outside the Bhakta Vidyashram in Kathmandu, on the other hand, seem among the most uniformly happy and occupied in the series, simply running around and giving out rides on flattened cardboard boxes.

Playground. By James Mollison. Aperture, 2015.
Playground. By James Mollison. Aperture, 2015.

Despite the richness of his material, I found Mollison’s composite technique to be initially off-putting; a limiting counterpoint to the series’ cultural and geographical breadth. My formulation of meaning felt thwarted by the impression that every gesture and look in these complex scenes had equal weight; with no modulation of visual or conceptual significance. As if in recognition of my conundrum, small figural sketches derived from each image and printed in the corner of every spread in the book provide a suggested point of entry. Ronson likens this to a Where’s Waldo-style means of exploring the work, yet it’s the rest of his introduction that helps to reengage my own subjective response to Mollison’s photographs, free of these odd little travel guides. Based on his own rather uniformly troubling childhood experience on the playground, Ronson’s interpretation of Mollison’s images skews dark. He’s more apt to see violence and meanness in the interactions and encounters portrayed than perceive them as lighthearted play. Every flailing limb or loaded gaze is an assault, a provocation and narrative catalyst for the worst his imagination can conjure. Mollison has described to him benign alternatives to some of his sinister interpretations (a Norwegian child is not about to have his head kicked in), but this is really beside the point. Mollison’s work opens up in an embrace of the ambiguities and grey areas of play, in the idiosyncrasies of point of view and the vagaries of the mind’s recall.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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