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Book Reviews: Album Beauty

Album Beauty. Edited by Erik Kessels.
RVB Books, 2012.
Album Beauty
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Album Beauty
Edited by Erik Kessels.
RVB Books, 2012. Hardbound. 140 pp., 98 color and black & white illustrations, 5x8-1/4".

The phrase 'found photography' seems entirely too passive a label for the anonymous images that Eric Kessels has culled from so many antique shops or auction lots and presented anew in Album Beauty. Anyone who shares his enthusiasm for vernacular imagery will recognize some recurring themes among those orphan photos and albums collected within, including the ill-conceived vacation snap, the propped-up baby and the often stilted formal wear by mantelpiece portrait. When found individually, these wayward photographs are fodder for fanciful musings on their path through the world and many echo something of the earnest energy of a runt puppy vying for selection (Pick me!). Discovery of an intact album feels like both a lucky break and a violation of the semi-private aspect of this form. Album Beauty is crafted from both these singular images and unaltered album groupings to delineate Kessels' conception of beauty as particularly manifest in this mode of collection and display. Christian Bunyan provides a brief articulation of Kessels' view in the book's few paragraphs of prose, describing a beauty tied not to the flawless, but to the rare. The reward is found within the inevitable "cracks" in these constructed best versions of self and family, rooted in the belief that such idealized views will hold up to scrutiny and time.

Album Beauty, by By Erik Kessels. Published by RVB Books, 2012.
Album Beauty, by By Erik Kessels. Published by RVB Books, 2012.

These access points – be they technical flaws, errors in taste, or awkwardness of pose – provide a certain thematic structure that recalls Kessels' wonderful series In Almost Every Picture, and connects the otherwise unrelated singular images in Album Beauty. The full album pages carry these themes, but are also revealing of a wealth of unintended meanings via the idiosyncratic choices of the makers of these volumes. Some feel immutable in their careful curation of every angle on a prized car while others are fixed in a rigid chronology born of the gradual, cumulative filing of each year's school portrait and other predictable photographic commemorations. In one spread, a piece of interleaving tissue provides some modesty for a figure dressed in a towel, and in a bathtub; making these photos more suggestive in both their partial shrouding and situation opposite utterly banal, fully clothed shots of the same. Album Beauty also emphasizes the voids within – those gaps and blank spaces that mark revisions of sentiment or shifting taste and stand in for images yet to come. And peppered throughout are the altered photos that remain after someone has been cut out of a group shot, prompting a questioning of whether those who remain were the chosen or the rejected.

Album Beauty, by By Erik Kessels. Published by RVB Books, 2012.
Album Beauty, by By Erik Kessels. Published by RVB Books, 2012.

Bunyan's essay also contrasts the album's traditional audience and ways of meaning with contemporary digital capture and online image sharing. In Album Beauty, Kessels emphasizes both the tactile, ephemeral qualities of the photo album as object and the intimacy of the viewing experience – from the quaint paisley cover of this small book to the tears and stains that mark each photograph's physical vulnerability. Image "sharing" in the twenty-first century is often instantly far-reaching, decidedly less private and no longer ties album viewing to a physical proximity to its creator. While the album has evolved via web platforms such as Instagram and tumblr, its twenty-first century form perpetuates Kessels' notion of album beauty as a combination of propaganda and unintended revelation. Just as interesting to me is thinking of Kessels' publication in light of the trend of creating vernacular photo books via website such as Blurb or Shutterfly. There is a messy, overlapping and unexplored continuum from the traditional amateur's album to more sophisticated self-published photo books and I enjoy how Album Beauty hearkens to both.—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.