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Book Of The Week Aporia Photographs by Andrew Waits Reviewed by Jake Bartman “Andrew Waits’ photobook Aporia dissects the power dynamics that undergird America’s new urbanization. Its black-and-white images move from portraits of soon-to-be-demolished homes and urban homelessness to shots of sleek skyscrapers that reflect stratocumulus clouds. Taken together, these images explore how a changing urban landscape affects its population. Waits’ work also asks how city-dwellers can best understand certain kinds of oppression. In this sense, Aporia’s project is to seek a new urban epistemology.” — Jake Bartman

Aporia. By Andrew Waits.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZH851
Aporia  
Photographs by Andrew Waits

Dalpine, Madrid, Spain, 2018.
112 pp., 44 black-and-white illustrations, 9¼×12½".

One after effect of the Great Recession has been the reversal of a half-century’s trend toward suburbanization. “Suburban sprawl, that seemingly inexorable, inevitable spreading of the population to the outer edges of metropolitan areas, may well be over in the United States,” observed land use theorist John McIlwain as early as 2012. Faced with new barriers to home ownership and stable employment, people—especially young people— have spent the last decade flocking to cities. Now, more than 82 percent of Americans call urban areas home.

Andrew Waits’ photobook Aporia, which was released last year to plaudits including a 2018 Fiebre Dummy Book Award, dissects the power dynamics that undergird America’s new urbanization. Its black-and-white images move from portraits of soon-to-be-demolished homes and urban homelessness to shots of sleek skyscrapers that reflect stratocumulus clouds. Taken together, these images explore how a changing urban landscape affects its population. Waits’ work also asks how city-dwellers can best understand certain kinds of oppression. In this sense, Aporia’s project is to seek a new urban epistemology.


Aporia. By Andrew Waits.


Aporia. By Andrew Waits.




The dreamlike manner with which the photographer’s lens floats from subject to subject and place to place owes a debt to the French philosopher Guy Debord, whose Critique of Separation Waits cites at the book’s conclusion. Aporia’s movement calls to mind Debord’s concept of the dérive, or “drift.” First theorized by Debord in the mid-1950s, to drift is to wander, in an unstructured way, the urban landscape. It is an aspect of psychogeography, which aims to study the “specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behaviors of individuals.” In particular, the dérive is a way of exploring how a city is structured to control or confine its population.

Aporia. By Andrew Waits.
Part of Aporia’s interest derives from the tension between this drifting approach and the book’s narrative structure. Aporia has four sections that trace the changes occurring in an archetypical American city. In the first section, we’re shown several urban-dwellers—among them, a person in a well-worn coat, and another huddled among bags of possessions—alongside images of a city in the early phases of redevelopment.

In the third section, we see inhabitants of a different sort: the back of a businessman’s head, or a group of young men in button-down shirts and ties. By this point, the city has transformed into an assemblage of glassy buildings and electrical components.

Aporia. By Andrew Waits.
Aporia. By Andrew Waits.

It is the book’s second section, documenting the city in transition, which sets Aporia apart. Here, Waits takes dichotomies like classical vs. modern, highbrow vs. lowbrow, and organic vs. synthetic, and pushes their opposition to extremes. In one image, a crumpled plastic fence forms an ellipse around an empty plot of earth; in another, the capital of a Corinthian column, and an arch in bas relief, lie fallen beside a sidewalk. By turns mordant and earnest, each of these photographs is taut with paradox, examining the ways in which old and new inform, undermine, and reinforce each other. Ultimately, we’re asked to consider how this interplay affects a city’s inhabitants.

Aporia. By Andrew Waits.


Still, Aporia would fall short of excellence had not Waits balanced the book’s narrative arc with a conceit: a series of images, scattered throughout each section, of dancers emerging from, or disappearing into, a pitch-black background. These images’ vibrancy, and their varied placement, pose a self-conscious challenge to the book’s structure. Aporia suggests that while the impressions Debord sought to uncover via dérive aren’t enough to understand the shifting urban landscape, so narrative—confronted with the city’s perpetual interplay of past, present, and future—also falls short.

Aporia. By Andrew Waits.

Aporia’s aim is to explore the overlap between different ways of knowing, in a bid to unravel how power acts in a changing city. The term aporia refers to a state of puzzlement, so it isn’t a surprise that in the end, we’re left with questions, rather than answers. Thanks to Waits’ work, however, such questions should at least be better formed.


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Aporia. By Andrew Waits.

Jake Bartman is a writer and journalist living in Santa Fe. You can contact him at jbartman15@gmail.com.

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