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Book Review: Past Perfect Continuous


Book Review Past Perfect Continuous Photographs by Igor Posner Reviewed by Collier Brown In Past Perfect Continuous, the quest continues but on Posner’s home turf. The book documents a series of visits Posner made to St. Petersburg between 2006 and 2009. But the St. Petersburg he encountered was not the Leningrad of his youth. The disorienting arrangement of places and faces in the book deny us, and Posner, the comfort of a homecoming long overdue.
Past Perfect Continuous 
Photographs by Igor Posner. Red Hook Editions, 2017.
Past Perfect Continuous
Reviewed by Collier Brown

Past Perfect Continuous.
Photographs by Igor Posner. Short story by Mary Di Lucia.
Red Hook Editions, Brooklyn, USA, 2017. In English. 160 pp., 6¾x9".  

“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory,” writes Thomas Wolfe in his posthumous novel, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). Few efforts are more futile than trying to return home. Igor Posner reflects on this difficulty in his new book, Past Perfect Continuous.

 Posner moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in the 1990s, and began photographing the nighthawks of L.A. and Tijuana. Much of the work from this period found its way into Posner’s series, No Such Records (2004–2006), a title that hints at the transient and placeless themes that would come to define his work. As is often the case with street photography, Posner’s dark, sensual photographs tell us more about the photographer than they do about the streets. The sex workers and vacant hotels are what we’d expect to find. But what haunts the photographs is the man behind the camera who has chosen to be nowhere over somewhere. Nevertheless, there’s method here. After spending time with the images, you realize that the series is not so much about seeing L.A. or Tijuana as it is about rediscovering oneself in the last place you’d expect yourself to be — 6,000 miles from home.

Past Perfect Continuous. Photographs by Igor Posner. Red Hook Editions, 2017.

In Past Perfect Continuous, the quest continues but on Posner’s home turf. The book documents a series of visits Posner made to St. Petersburg between 2006 and 2009. But the St. Petersburg he encountered was not the Leningrad of his youth. The disorienting arrangement of places and faces in the book deny us, and Posner, the comfort of a homecoming long overdue. In fact, Posner never returned to his actual childhood terrain, preferring instead to play the stranger — or to accept the stranger he’d become.

Past Perfect Continuous. Photographs by Igor Posner. Red Hook Editions, 2017.

If it weren’t for the familiarity of Russia’s raw, frozen demeanor, the bars and stragglers and stray dogs of St. Petersburg’s streets at night could be mistaken for those of Tijuana, which says something about the seven years it took Posner to edit this series. During that time, Posner manipulated the narrative to leave impressions of places rather than recognizable indications, moments rather than memories.

Past Perfect Continuous. Photographs by Igor Posner. Red Hook Editions, 2017.

Instances of clarity in this book are rare. But that infrequency adds something quasi-philosophical to the mix. Almost exactly halfway through the book, a two-page spread of a dining room appears. Though not quite in focus, it’s more precise in detail than most of the images. Damasked walls vie for attention with the domestic bric-a-brac of saucers, vases, and clocks. Only in picture frames, propped ornamentally here and there, do we see any people. Relatives? Loved ones? It doesn’t matter. The background patterns fold into the medley of household possessions. The closer to home we get, the further it removes itself. The more focused the space, the more it resists being seen. The photograph leads the eye everywhere and nowhere at once. Such is the enigma of “home” and of this book.

Past Perfect Continuous. Photographs by Igor Posner. Red Hook Editions, 2017.

A short story by Mary di Lucia titled The Return of Not Returning ends the collection with a nod to Posner’s theme. “There is unfolding the impossible map in mind while following the old footsteps,” the story says. And each of those footsteps “invites the possibility of the false hope of return.” Posner’s return home is truly an impossible map. But I’m not sure there’s any “false hope” in Past Perfect Continuous, at least not to the extent that we see it in No Such Records. Anxiety is tempered with acceptance. The stressed shadows and pinhole quality of the photographs add a slight sense of urgency, as if the walls might close in, but no real panic. Life moves in one direction in this book, closing all the doors behind it. The photographs accept their own momentum.

Past Perfect Continuous. Photographs by Igor Posner. Red Hook Editions, 2017.

Posner toyed with the idea of naming this series, Notes from Underground, after Dostoevsky’s classic novel. And though Posner’s bleak, adumbral atmosphere might evoke Dostoevsky (or any number of Russian writers), I think the connections, in the end, would be superficial at best. Past Perfect Continuous is not pathetic. It’s not sad. Neither does it speak directly to oppression, suffering, nor the plight of the refugee. Its dilemmas are beautifully introspective and poetic. Posner’s St. Petersburg is a city conjured. It is a place for strangers and strangeness. But it denies the returner his sentimentality and nostalgia. That denial is “continuous,” which is what gives this book its wondrous and wandering energy. — Collier Brown

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Collier Brown is a photography critic and poet. Founder and editor of Od Review, Brown also works as an editor for 21st Editions (Massachusetts) and Edition Galerie Vevais (Germany).

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