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Book Review: Early Works

Book Review Early Works By Ivars Gravlejs Reviewed by Colin Pantall ‘I often felt nauseous before going to school because of the humiliation that I faced with my teachers. The only way to survive school was to do something creative…’ says Latvian-born artist, Ivars Gravlejs. And that’s what he did; he got creative with a camera and he made a series of pictures centred around school that are now being published by Mack as a book called Early Works. It’s a great book.

Early Works. By Ivars Gravlejs
MACK, 2015.
Early Works = Early Works
A Review by Colin Pantall

Early Works
Photographs by Ivars Gravlejs
MACK, London, England, 2015. 144 pp., 8x10¾".

‘I often felt nauseous before going to school because of the humiliation that I faced with my teachers. The only way to survive school was to do something creative…’ says Latvian-born artist, Ivars Gravlejs.

And that’s what he did; he got creative with a camera and he made a series of pictures centred around school that are now being published by Mack as a book called Early Works. It’s a great book.

The book starts gently with a chapter called Experiments. We see Gravlejs’ attempts at photograms, his messings with chemicals, multiples exposures and lights. We can see a little bit of the history of photography condensed into these crude images. It’s kind of funny.

The next chapter is Montage and that’s where things get really interesting. There’s a picture of Supe, a classmate, glued onto a card ‘to show that Supe is a witch.’ The next page shows a series titled ‘Variations on the theme ‘in the fucking school,’ pictures of which Gravlejs writes, ‘I made these montages to show my dislike of my classmates and the preceptress.’

Early Works. By Ivars GravlejsMACK, 2015.

There’s something most people can all empathise with. We’ve gone from a book about photography to a book about boyhood, school and adolescence in a flick of the page and that continues in the next picture; a doctored photograph that shows the chemistry teacher walking on the lawn she forbids the pupils from walking on. Unless you’re one of those people who LOVED high school, this captures one of the universal truths of school; the stupidity of those teachers whose very being is identified with pointless rules.

That ability to identify and photograph the universal truths of the institution of school continues throughout the book. Sex gets a look in, and Gravlejs hits the adolescent male heterosexual button on the head in a series of pictures that stick the heads of the girls he found attractive onto naked bodies. You want to know what goes on inside a boy’s brain; Early Works is the cleaned up version! It’s puerile but it’s perfect!

Early Works. By Ivars GravlejsMACK, 2015.

Running parallel to this friction-burned depiction of boyhood is an exploration of the state of photography. Charlotte Cotton’s excellent The Photograph as Contemporary Art is a kind of bible for photography students eager to gain an overview of the most popular tropes of photographic practice, but Gravlejs does the same job through his photographic experimentation. In the conceptual section of Early Works, Gravlejs includes typologies, restaging, installation, text and erasure. It’s like a homage to a book on New Photography, but made by a kid in a Latvian high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The homage continues in the pop art section where we see pictures of cars and pictures of porn. It’s rephotography, it’s appropriation, it’s Richard Prince but done better and funnier. Go through Early Works and (with a bit of squinting) you can play a game of photography bingo ticking off the big names as their themes are hit; Kohei Yoshiyuki, tick — Jim Goldberg, tick — Don McCullin, tick — Stephen Gill, tick — Melanie Pullen, tick. It’s the history of photography in a soft-cover book.

Early Works. By Ivars GravlejsMACK, 2015.

There’s death (Serrano, why not!), soft drinks cans (Warhol) and playing cards (Sultan/Mandel), but then things really gather pace in the Performance section. Gravlejs hangs on a taxi post (Divola — sort of), he dresses like a ‘stupid grandma’ (Cindy Sherman), he shows how much money he has (Rich Kids of Instagram), and he pretends to be poisoned by Coca-Cola (Wendy Ewald).

Early Works. By Ivars GravlejsMACK, 2015.

George Orwell said ‘Killing things — that’s the nearest thing a boy gets to poetry.’ He was talking about the repressed English there. In Latvia, the poetry is sexual and comes in the Actions sections of the book. There are two pictures showing where Gravlejs and a classmate pushed open the door of the girl’s changing room and photographed. Others images show where Gravlejs and a friend strip naked and recreate scenes from pornographic magazines. In the original self-published edition (which this edition is an almost exact reproduction of), you see them lying on top of each other simulating sex. It’s funny rather than pornographic, but these pictures are censored in the Mack version on the advice of lawyers.

Early Works. By Ivars GravlejsMACK, 2015.

There are surprise shots in a darkened room (Sam Taylor Wood), a monument to a teacher who has has died and then we’re on to FIGHT! This shows boys fighting. ‘In front of the camera everybody started to act out,’ reads the caption. ‘Often the stronger boys started to torture the weaker ones. But also the reverse happened — the weaker ones suddenly attacked the stronger ones, just for the few seconds of the photograph. It was like a fight game. They were aware of photography’s importance and they wanted their expressions of physical power to be document.’

The last section of the book features the teachers. It’s an album onto which you project your own experience. There are depressed, defeated and desirable teachers, the sadistic and the sarcastic, the sad and the mad. They look like teachers and they feel like teachers, and the boredom and frustration of being both a teacher and a student seeps through in these simple, messed-up portraits.

Early Works. By Ivars GravlejsMACK, 2015.

But that’s the whole book. You can project onto it your own school narrative. It’s a book about growing up, about being in school, about being a boy. Many magnificent photographers have photographed childhood and got into the mind set of what it is like to be 11 or 12, what it is like to have dreams, desires and ambitions of a young boy or girl. Wendy Ewald did it admirably, for an older age you have Larry Clark. There are films, TV programmes and books such as Lord of the Flies, If or The Four Hundred Blows, Election, Educating Marmalade and the Adrian Mole diaries but these are all made by adults and have the distance of adulthood.

In Early Works, Gravlejs has both captured why school was so tedious and depressing, but also preserved the playfulness (and childishness; it is infantile at times and that is what makes it so great) of being in school. So Early Works is marked by what it doesn’t have; an adult earnestness that really doesn’t fit the subject or a censorship that makes everything saccharine. Early Works isn’t cuddly and Gravlejs doesn’t always come out of it well. He’s a little shit at times (especially if you’re a girl), he’s annoying and probably deserved a slapping on many an occasion. But that’s what boys are like — they’re little shits — and that’s what Gravlejs communicates without prejudice. Early Works is original, and brilliant, but at the same time, you get the feeling it’s a beginning rather than an end. It’s a photobook that should be a novel, a musical, a film or an installation, part of a creative output that goes way beyond photography. It’s the Early Works.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.

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