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photo-eye Book Reviews: black apple

black apple. Photographs by Thatcher Hullerman Cook.
Published by Obscura Press, 2012.
black apple
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

black apple
Photographs by Thatcher Hullerman Cook
Obscura Press, 2012. Hardbound. 64 pp., 33 illustrations, 11x9-1/4".

It’s easy to imagine why Thatcher Hullerman Cook was drawn to the Fergana Valley of Kyrgyzstan. Having honed his photographic vision in the service of humanitarian aid groups and other non-governmental organizations, he has traveled the world in the wake of life’s harsh offerings. In his first book, black apple (the second title from the young Obscura Press), Hullerman Cook creates a lyrical album that distills the elemental conditions in this detached former Soviet state. Those he meets are working hard at living in an austere landscape with humble resources and few comforts. Clearly rooted in the traditions of the documentary essay, this book strives to convey universal themes without suppressing the compelling particulars of this time and place. Toward that end, Hullerman Cook chose to engage with the narrative imagery and philosophical motifs of nineteenth century Russian literature – hoping the heroic tales of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy would enhance the reading of his photographs.

black apple, by Thatcher Hullerman Cook. Published by Obscura Press, 2012.
black apple, by Thatcher Hullerman Cook. Published by Obscura Press, 2012.
Essays by the scholars Nicholas Fox Weber and Raymond Miller bookend a group of thirty black and white photographs. Each suggests resonances between the world Hullerman Cook explores and those inhabited by the protagonists of such Russian classics. In the detailing of certain recurring struggles and punishing backdrops, a type of shared gravity and tonality emerge. Hullerman Cook’s views are powerfully atmospheric and describe a relentless and often inadequate pursuit of food, shelter and warmth as well as diversion, solace and community. The cold is itself a main character in this tale; as a force that both isolates and draws people into intimate contact and communion. While I don’t share Miller’s opinion that these photographs further reveal these individuals’ apparent love of life, I am moved by a certain determined stoicism and tender perseverance to be seen here. The lovely opening image of pomegranates seems an apt metaphor in their tough, weathered casings that resist an easy yield.

black apple, by Thatcher Hullerman Cook. Published by Obscura Press, 2012.
black apple, by Thatcher Hullerman Cook. Published by Obscura Press, 2012.
More intriguing is the Russian notion of the sobornost’ – here referring to a type of community or cooperation achieved at the expense of the individual. The contrast between the solitary figure and various group formations has much to do with how these photographs come to mean – from the shepherd alone on the hillside with no flock in view to the women tightly huddled around the brothel stove. Hullerman Cook’s repeated reference to the taxi driver is a fitting analogy (echoed in the shepherd, miner and prostitute), for that role’s particular blend of the solitary and communal, where driver and fare are alone together, independent and dependent alike. While these themes take solid root in black apple, the edit nevertheless feels a bit severe. With only thirty photographs and many rich contextual insights relegated to a section of endnotes (where is the flour-covered miller he photographed for an afternoon?), the burden is heavy on those chosen images to satisfy my piqued interest in all that Hullerman Cook has seen.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.