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Book Review: Look into My Eyes


Book Review Look into My Eyes By Kevin Bubriski Reviewed by Blake Andrews If you don't like a particular photograph, just wait fifty years and it will become more interesting. That's the theory posited by Portland photographer Chris Rauschenberg, among others. For the most part I think this idea is correct, although some strains of current conceptual photography might put it to the test.

Look into My Eyes. By Kevin Bubriski.
Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016.
 
Look into My Eyes
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Look into My Eyes: Nuevomexicanos por Vida, '81-'83
Photography by Kevin Bubriski. Foreword by Miguel Gandert.
Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, USA, 2016. 140 pp., 11x12".

If you don't like a particular photograph, just wait fifty years and it will become more interesting. That's the theory posited by Portland photographer Chris Rauschenberg, among others. For the most part I think this idea is correct, although some strains of current conceptual photography might put it to the test. But Rauschenberg's theory applies well to documentary photography, a style locked into history by its descriptive power. Every photograph correlates to a date, and as the past recedes yesteryear looks increasingly strange. It's only natural for antique fashions, technologies, and other visual ephemera to gain interest in hindsight. And the effect intensifies over time. If it were somehow possible to make photographs one thousand years ago, any banal picture of any forgotten subject would be of huge interest today.

Look into My Eyes. By Kevin BubriskiMuseum of New Mexico Press, 2016.

Kevin Bubriski's recent book, Look Into My Eyes: Nuevomexicanos por Vida, '81-'83, provides evidence for the wait-fifty-years theory. Not that the photographs were uninteresting when made. But three decades of waiting have shifted their impact and amplified their power. Viewed contemporaneously they might've been seen as a collective portrait of Hispanic culture. Which they are. But to a modern viewer, at least this one, it's the historical artifacts that fascinate and energize the photographs: the feathered hair and puffy clothes, the nylon vests and vinyl car seats, the paucity of consumer electronics. I'm old enough to remember all of it. Heck, I even visited New Mexico briefly in 1983, during which I distinctly recall wearing a nylon jacket with rainbow V-patterned chest.

The book's rear-view slant is bolstered by Bubriski's photographic style. The entire project was shot on 35 mm b/w film, then printed full frame with negative carrier creating a black border. This was common technique in the early 1980s, which was perhaps the apex of the b/w film era. From a contemporary perspective this style might seem dated or even primitive, and some publishers might be tempted to modernize the photos through cropping or misguided perfectionism. But to The Museum of New Mexico's credit, there's been very little alteration. Under David Skolkin's direction, the photographs are reproduced as-is, and very much resemble a bound stack of 8 x 10 darkroom prints. The reproductions are superb, large and detailed, allowing film grain and small imperfections to surface. "I loved the immediacy of connection and result I could achieve with a small hand-held 35 mm camera and a few rolls of film," writes Bubriski in the introduction. But he needn't have. The book's production says it for him.

Look into My Eyes. By Kevin BubriskiMuseum of New Mexico Press, 2016.

If the whole thing seems an anachronism, there's a good reason. The original book dummy was designed back in 1983 by Marilyn Garcia, but never published. It's a familiar story, but in this case one with a happy ending. Thirty-two years later the project was picked up again, this time enhanced by the wait-fifty-years theory. David Skolkin was brought on as a designer, and in 2016 the book was finally published in conjunction with a show of work at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe (on view through April 16th).

Look into My Eyes. By Kevin BubriskiMuseum of New Mexico Press, 2016.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What's in these photographs? Bubriski’s picture document various Hispanic festivals and gatherings in early 80s Northern New Mexico. "Burque", Chimayó, Española, and Santa Fe, among other places. Made mostly during newspaper assignments (but not used in news stories), they manifest a reporter's direct sensibility: get in, get the shot, get out. Various clusters of photos reference the same events. There are several documenting Chimayó Fiesta, San Gabriel Park, New Mexico State Fair, Easter Weekend 1982, etc. These are generally shown in sequence in the book, reportage style. This allows the photographs to work both individually and as components in multi-faceted coverage.

Look into My Eyes. By Kevin BubriskiMuseum of New Mexico Press, 2016.

Bubriski's main focus is people, sometimes photographed alone but more often paired or grouped. Using a 50 mm lens at close range, he fills the frame with his subjects and their immediate accouterments. He is comfortable getting in someone's face but not overbearing, allowing space for a graceful grin or gentle mug for the camera. Almost all of the photographs are environmental portraits. In the introduction Bubriski mentions Bernard Plossu (his former employer) as an influence. But for me the work more closely resembles Mary Ellen Mark.

Look into My Eyes. By Kevin BubriskiMuseum of New Mexico Press, 2016.

Bubriski's had a long and varied career. He's a Guggenheim fellow, a professor at Green Mountain College, collected by various museums. He's in good position to pause, reconsider past projects, and pursue the more meaningful ones at remove from their immediacy. Look Into My Eyes shows that the injection of a few decades into the editing process can provide a welcome spark.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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