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photo-eye Book Reviews: Elementary Calculus

Elementary Calculus. Photographs by J Carrier.
Published by MACK, 2012.
Elementary Calculus
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Elementary Calculus
Photographs by J Carrier
MACK, 2012. Hardbound. 128 pp., 74 color illustrations, 9-1/4x7-3/4".

From the decentralized production and exchange of commodities to radical shifts in migration, globalization has transformed the world in numerous ways. What is often lost in these abstract discussions is the effect these changes have on people throughout the world. Shuttled and tossed about, lost amidst the shuffle, and driven by new economic opportunities, or the lack thereof, they are forced to survive and find a new place in environments that are often foreign to their own. In Israel, the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only defines our perceptions of the region, but also masks our recognition of its own demographic and social transformation in the face of globalization. Shot in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, Elementary Calculus, J Carrier's new book explores the unseen and unspoken consequences of migration, exile and displacement in the region with intelligence and sophistication.

Elementary Calculus, by J Carrier. Published by MACK, 2012.

Captured in a loose style and muted tones, the book is full of reoccurring motifs. Telephones and telephone wires, pigeons, stray cats, fruit, flowers and migrants fill the pages. Carrier's landscape is also filled with symbols and signs. Hearts and Stars of David appear as graffiti on walls and in the designs of wrought iron fence. Posters and flyers advertise housing and products in multiple languages. The central characters in the book are migrants from Africa, South Asia and East Asia. Clutching their cell-phones, they seem to wander bewildered through a landscape and city foreign to their own. Alone or in pairs, they crouch and huddle in phone booths or carry groceries home to their apartments. Strangers in a strange land, the phones offer links home, small oases, and connections to loved ones far away.

Elementary Calculus, by J Carrier. Published by MACK, 2012.

Although there is a narrow range of images and subjects, the book's focus and edit creates a powerful narrative of displacement and longing. In one image pairing, miscellaneous cell-phone parts strewn across the sidewalk for sale are juxtaposed with another sidewalk full of pigeons – two opposing technologies of communication. The cellphone parts offer the hope to repair and fix existing and/or outmoded technology, while the pigeons suggest that some old technologies never truly disappear – they just get pushed aside. In addition to the repeated subjects, image sequences of successive frames pepper the book. One such sequence shows a crane operated vending machine filled with money. Like the fraught circumstances of their existence, it teases the imagined players with money that is so close, yet just out of reach. Fortunately, the repetition and limited subjects never becomes tiresome, but gives the book a rhythmic pace. The gaps and blank pages function like pauses or line breaks. The image sequences build, reflect and expand upon Carrier's themes like rhyming stanzas in a poem.

Elementary Calculus, by J Carrier. Published by MACK, 2012.
Elementary Calculus, by J Carrier. Published by MACK, 2012.

The book is almost text free, but opens with a quotation from Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet. Although Darwish was a passionate advocate for Palestinian self-determination, it is his eloquent words about the anguish of exile, rather than his politics, that matter here. The only other text is three words that appear on two discarded cigarette packs and a polyester jersey. TIME, DISTANCE and INFINITY – three words that define and shape the lives of the individuals in the book. The oxymoronic title also touches on the complexities of being a foreigner in the Holy Land – simple in theory, but much more complex in lived reality or practice. Never truly a part of the region's political, religious and cultural history, and denied the possibility of full assimilation, the migrants hover and float at a distance, co-existing on the margins, like the cats and pigeons that fill the book and streets.

Elementary Calculus, by J Carrier. Published by MACK, 2012.

For the better part of the past decade, J Carrier has traveled from Ecuador to Africa to Israel. A self-described nomad himself, Carrier shares an affinity and affection for the men and women in his images. Tightly focused and smartly edited, Carrier has created a compassionate and thoughtful meditation on exile and migration. Two similar images of doves on a wall begin and end the book. Taken seconds apart, they transform the book into a loop and summarize its themes. The solitary doves, like the migrants, inhabit the fringes and cracks of the Holy Land. Nestled between historic landmarks and ancient walls, surrounded by symbols, hampered by economic and social restrictions, they are virtually invisible, yet always in plain sight.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are and

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