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Book Review: Astres Noirs


Book Review Astres Noirs By Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick Reviewed by Colin Pantall There’s a lot of black in photography at the moment. Awoiska van der Molen’s photobook Sequester shows us the gradations of blacks in her European landscape work, Paul Gaffney’s Stray takes us on a night-time journey through the forest in a psychological exploration that makes us part of the landscape we live in.
Astres Noirs. By Katrin Koenning & Sarker Protick. 
Chose Commune, 2016.
 
Astres Noirs
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Astres Noirs 
Photographs by Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick.
Chose Commune, Paris, France, 2016. 168 pp., 79 black-and-white illustrations, 6¼x8¾".


There’s a lot of black in photography at the moment. Awoiska van der Molen’s photobook Sequester shows us the gradations of blacks in her European landscape work, Paul Gaffney’s Stray takes us on a night-time journey through the forest in a psychological exploration that makes us part of the landscape we live in. From Spain, David Jimenez and Jon Cazenave are working with extremes of light to express the sensations of land, of belonging, of home, and of the metaphysical.

You can add to that list the work of Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick, the joint authors of Astres Noirs (Black Stars), published by Chose Commune. It’s a book of mobile phone pictures, which sounds godawful right from the start. Luckily, that impression is offset by a book that is a pleasure to hold and to look at.

The book has a black cover with a silver sheen to it. Open it up and it has black pages. “All colours disappear within black” reads an initial text that is spread word by word over several pages. And the pages are folded so you have to flip them up to see all the words, and all the images. The images are printed in duotone and they shimmer with a quality that makes you want to reach right into the page. So there’s some haptic metaphysicality going on right from the start.

Astres Noirs. By Katrin Koenning & Sarker Protick. Chose Commune, 2016

Start the book and you’re into images that, says the blurb, “…capture the commonplace such as water stains on asphalt, dust clouds and rays of light, and transform these into mesmerising frames — elusive fragments that evoke an imaginary creature, a milky way, a phosphorescent silhouette…”

Again, it’s not really selling it to me. But the book goes beyond that. It really is a beautiful thing, with its opening picture of an image of a hand holding a shimmering ball of light. In Astres Noirs, the light isn’t white, it’s silver, and it really does take you into a slightly mysterious place.

Astres Noirs. By Katrin Koenning & Sarker Protick. Chose Commune, 2016

An egg comes next, so we know we’re into birth, death, the four elements and the mysteries of life. Looming houses, falling bodies whited out on the black page, clouds, waterfalls and jellyfish follow.

We’re on another planet here, one where bodies glow in ponds, where crescents of light intersect mountains and forests, one where scratched glass and grains of dust shine like stars in some distant galaxy. But this is earth and we are the aliens on its otherworldly surface. Hill slopes, feral trees, cumuli nimbus, horse manes and white doves add to this voyage of discovery.

Astres Noirs. By Katrin Koenning & Sarker Protick. Chose Commune, 2016

There are lots of pictures of earth from above with mountain ranges, winding rivers and shimmering lakes adding to the sense that these are pictures from some distant, faraway planet. The book ends with a picture of a man in profile and then an image that looks exactly like an astronomical image of a galaxy.

So the message is clear, we are aliens in an alien land on an alien planet. It’s a photographic version of The Man Who Fell to Earth maybe. A Space Odyssey perhaps? With a little bit of Trent Parke thrown in for good measure.

I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I like it. The elemental themes are very familiar; the symbolism of jellyfish, waterfalls, and plumes of dust something that we have seen again and again in the last few years. So are the galactic themes. Space has crept into photography in a manner that questions our place, not just on earth, but in the entire universe.

Astres Noirs. By Katrin Koenning & Sarker Protick. Chose Commune, 2016

I thought I would have tired of this kind of photography by now, but I haven’t. With the introduction of human figures, there is perhaps more of a storyline here, more of an emotional involvement that grounds the metaphysical meanderings.

The printing quality with its silvers shimmering against the black pages also adds something, with the images bouncing off the page into a cinematic space that offsets what could have been a drift into the arts-and-crafty and downright cheesy.

Ania Nałęcka, the photobook designer, described a good photobook as being like a picture where you don’t draw lines. Instead you draw dots and you leave it up to the viewer to make the connections. That’s true of Astres Noirs, a book where the dots are stars and how you join them is left to the viewer.—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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