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Book Review: Haboob

HaboobPhotographs by Anderw Phelps.
Aperture, 2012.
Reviewed by Faye Robson

Photographs by Andrew Phelps.
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2013. Hardbound. 80 pp., 42 color illustartions, 12x9-3/4".

The emblem, or key image, of Haboob appears in a photograph placed early in the book's sequence. A metal cut-out frieze – the rusty remnant of some signage or decorative architectural element – shows four (presumably wild) horses galloping across an open plain, snow-capped mountains looming in the background. However humble its context – the screen has been dumped on a scrubby stretch of suburban road verge, along with some abandoned tyres - the image it presents remains a potent one. It is evocative of freedom, the romance of the wilderness and, in the context of Phelps' book, the dream of the West. The epic landscape it describes no longer exists here, however, except by an act of imaginative effort. Phelps has subtly composed his shot so that the horizon of the frieze matches that of the landscape behind it. The horses gallop over the dusty ground of Higley, Arizona, with a lowering sky visible behind their rust-red heads.

The image of galloping horses reappears – hidden in plain sight – as a silhouette, niftily applied as a transparent spot varnish to the case of the book. Here, it floats over the ostensible cover image – a photograph of DIY-store paint colour strips scattered on sandy, stony ground. Themes that have recurred throughout Phelps' career – the opposition between romance and the banal, past and present, wilderness and civilisation – are restated here, but with a developed subtlety and flair. This is a book that you have to 'work out;' it demands the presence of the reader.

Haboob, by Andrew Phelps. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

One of the photographer's early books, Higley looks to the same landscape and milieu as Haboob; pre-financial crash this time, however. Perhaps because of the changed circumstances of Phelps' subject-landscape, perhaps because of a simple change in creative approach, he has abandoned some of the tics that, for me, make that early work the less remarkable. The deadpan, snapshot aesthetic used, Eggleston-like, to capture details of teeming family homes has disappeared in Haboob, as have direct, frontal portraits, of both people and buildings. In his foreword to the more recent book, Phelps describes it as something of a parable; the suburban American middle class newly destabilised in the wake of fiscal crisis, subject to the vagaries of capitalism. Even this, however, understates the effect of this new work, which is, yes, more melancholic, but also more allusive, varied and self-conscious.

Haboob, by Andrew Phelps. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

The title of this book – Haboob – refers to the Arabic word used in Higley for the violent sandstorms that 'blow in summer,' bringing sand from the desert into the town. This poetic image references the flux and uncertainty that is, thematically and formally, at the heart of Phelps' project. One way in which this is expressed is the dextrous use of light, which often works to puncture any complacent sense we might have of Phelps' political or cultural sympathies. The slightly over-familiar use of artificial light – its shiny, deadening quality – to throw artificial environments into relief against softer, implicitly preferable, natural landscapes, is confused by photographs in which Phelps creates ambiguity, romance even, from the use of artificial light. One image, picking up on preceding images of a painted seascape and a landscaped plunge pool, is a soft close-up of rushing water, lit (from below?) by a bright yellow lamp - mixing up, within the photographic frame, the hierarchy of man-made and natural.

Haboob, by Andrew Phelps. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

Light also works, allusively, to situate both reader and photographer as readers of a fluctuating landscape. A monumental building looms out of the twilight, the dramatic evening sky gathered behind it somehow lending an epic grandeur, even religiosity to our reading of the architecture. Simultaneously, the road lighting dominant in the foreground expresses the more mundane possibility that this is a municipal, contemporary structure. On close inspection, there is actually no way to tell, and an almost comically tall and spindly crane towering over the building itself highlights the fact that this is a landscape 'in progress,' waiting to take shape and meaning.

Haboob, by Andrew Phelps. Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

Phelps repeatedly confronts us with the possibilities of the suburban landscape, and the way in which it has become a testing ground for human effort and imagination, as well as natural forces. The spirit of adventure, these photographs often suggest, has perhaps been replaced by the spirit of 'venture' – one photograph shows an artist’s impression of a restaurant interior; a sepia-toned temporary mural draped over a building entrance. What is there is the vision of what might be there. In another shot, Phelps has photographed an amateurish painting of a neon kraken, dragging a ship down to the deep, stood square against a painted suburban fence – the epic 'wild' of the imagination set against the landscape we have to hand. He has turned his attention to the views we choose to frame and framed an original, unsettlingly vision of the present in the process.—FAYE ROBSON

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FAYE ROBSON is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London, and writes a photo-blog called PLATE.