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Book Review: The Longest Way Round


Book Review The Longest Way Round By Chris Dorley-Brown Reviewed by Colin Pantall There was a suitcase filled with letters, photographs, folders and boxes that sat in Chris Dorley-Brown’s studio year after year. In it were images, notes and memories from his parent’s past lives that weren’t quite ready for the family album. They were eventful lives.
The Longest Way Round.  By Chris Dorley-Brown.
Overlapse, 2015.
 
The Longest Way Round 
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

The Longest Way Round
By Chris Dorley-Brown
Overlapse, London, England, 2015. In English. 168 pp., 183 colour and 43 black-and-white illustrations, 10¾x8½".


There was a suitcase filled with letters, photographs, folders and boxes that sat in Chris Dorley-Brown’s studio year after year. In it were images, notes and memories from his parent’s past lives that weren’t quite ready for the family album. They were eventful lives. His father, Peter Dorley-Brown had been in the British army during the Second World War. He was captured by the Germans while fighting on Crete in 1941, and spent the next four years holed up in Stalag VIII B, a prisoner of war camp 30km east of Krakow. “For you Mr. Dorley-Brown, the war is over.”

In the suitcase there are pictures of Chris Dorley-Brown’s mother, a beautiful young woman who married Chris’ father in 1947; he was her third husband. Her first husband died in the war, her second husband was an American GI who returned to Indiana at the war’s end. It didn’t work out. She had two children, one from each marriage. Three were to follow from her final marriage, with Chris being the “latecomer.” “I have secretly always liked the idea that I was a mistake, the result of a drunken April Fools’ party,” writes Dorley-Brown Junior.

The Longest Way Round.  By Chris Dorley-Brown. Overlapse, 2015.

Stuck in there somewhere are pictures of the wartime jailer his father befriended while in Stalag VIII B. His name was Conrad Barnack and if that sounds familiar, it’s because he was the son of Oskar Barnack, creator of the 35mm (Leica) Camera and so possibly the most influential designer of the 20th century. Dorley-Brown Senior and Barnack stayed friends after the war, so there are images in the suitcase of Conrad and Lotte Barnack in front of their Munich camera shop.

All this material sat in Dorley-Brown’s studio for many years. The question was, what to do with it? It’s the basic question of old pictures, of how you reinvent them and make them into something new. Or do you simply recycle them as something that belongs to the past?

The Longest Way Round.  By Chris Dorley-Brown. Overlapse, 2015.

In The Longest Way Round, Dorley-Brown does a bit of both. He takes a variety of texts and images (including prisoner-of-war records, letters, Polaroids and film stills) and reorganizes the story in a fairly straightforward way and (as the blurb says) forms it into a story of his parent’s love and eventual meeting.

And it works well. Both Brenda and Peter were born in 1920 and so there is a parallel narrative that joins in during the war years when we see the picture that Brenda sent Peter during his time in the POW camp; an image of herself lying in a bathing costume in the sand dunes. It’s the full Betty Grable and creates a sense of mystery over what exactly went on in her life; we see images from the two marriages, made in the years before she eventually married Peter in 1947.

The Longest Way Round.  By Chris Dorley-Brown. Overlapse, 2015.

So there is a construction of a narrative here, but it’s quite low-key. This is a very gentle retelling of the story, one where the archive images are put back into places that they very easily fit. There is neither the deconstruction and recontextualization that you find in archival projects (Sultan and Mandel’s Evidence springs to mind) where the original meaning is almost lost, nor is there the conscious reworking of key elements in the image through integration with other materials that you find in books like Wisconsin Death Trip or Redheaded Peckerwood.

Instead Dorley-Brown glues it all together with images of his own. The old is mixed with the new to create a scenario where the past is visually connected to the present through images of lakeside restaurants, Warsaw roundabouts and Hackney demolition jobs. In Philipp Eberling’s Land Without Past (a project that combines Eberling’s contemporary landscapes of Germany with pictures from his German wartime album), the purpose of the contemporary is to create a layering effect, to show what lies beneath the skin of the present.

The Longest Way Round.  By Chris Dorley-Brown. Overlapse, 2015.

In The Longest Way Round, the contemporary images bring the project round to Dorley-Brown Junior and provide a personal context that makes it clear the project, and his parents’ lives, ultimately connect to him and are part of him. The book ends with a picture of father and son posing near Beachy Head (which also happens to be Britain’s most famous suicide spot) to echo the point. It’s a closure, as Dorley-Brown tells us in the notes he writes at the end of the book. It’s a supremely ambitious book and it is rather lovely, with the pictures of Brenda being particularly noteworthy. At times the parts don’t always connect, though. There’s a reliance on both Dorley-Brown’s notes and the captions (both of which come at the end of the book) to make sense of who is who and what is happening. Rather than having to always flick to the back of the book it would be nice to have the captions and text integrated in a more speculative manner with the images to create a smoother narrative and viewing flow. That being said, it is a lovely book that brings a personal archive to splendid life in a book form that is a pleasure to hold and to touch.—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. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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