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Book Review: Oben

Book Review Oben By Diane Vincent Reviewed by George Slade When a young man from the Midwestern plains takes up residence in Manhattan, a significant perceptual change occurs. The world rotates 90 degrees — from landscape mode to portrait, in contemporary photographic parlance. The vertical dominates in urban settings; horizontals must be sought.

ObenBy Diane Vincent
Self-published, 2015.
Reviewed by George Slade

Photographs and text by Diane Vincent
Self-published, Berlin, Germany, 2015. In English.

When a young man from the Midwestern plains takes up residence in Manhattan, a significant perceptual change occurs. The world rotates 90 degrees — from landscape mode to portrait, in contemporary photographic parlance. The vertical dominates in urban settings; horizontals must be sought. Back home, finding the earth/sky demarcation was simple. Look out, absorb what lay at eye level, some distance away. In the bigger, denser cities (New York City isn’t the only one, by the way), horizon-seekers become more giraffe-like, craning necks back, or out and up from a low apartment window into an airshaft in order to find the line.

Or so it was with me. I shouldn’t speak for all twenty-something émigrés bound for New York from along or west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. There is, however, this longing many of us encounter, and there are a few ways to assuage it.

Rooftops were the most reliable. I discovered that this last experience was one I shared not only with my cohorts from the Plains, but with New Yorkers. They may have other, less biological longings for perspective from tar-beach domains; nonetheless, city and country share the love for these elevated landscapes.

ObenBy Diane VincentSelf-published, 2015.

Apparently, Diane Vincent has realized her own, Berlin-based version of this proclivity. Her black-and-white photographs in Oben reveal an attitude of, if not exactly appreciation, then fascination or obsession with these functionally pure spaces. The utilitarian quality of Vincent’s incidental landscapes is quite accurate. Oben’s images stress an absence of drama; insofar as lighting is concerned, the photographs tend to shun the spectacular. When skies are evident they are either uniformly grey, or printed to appear overcast. Strong shadows are present, but are bound by the roof and printed with sufficient detail to dispel hidden drama. In the featureless and materialistic presence of its subjects, Vincent’s Oben recalls the typological continuity in which Bernd and Hilla Becher cast their frame buildings, coal mine tipples, cooling towers, and other elements of the industrial world. Distinct from the Bechers, however, is a freedom of framing, an allowance for the varying compositions constituting these typically unseen spaces.

ObenBy Diane VincentSelf-published, 2015.
ObenBy Diane VincentSelf-published, 2015.

Oben is intentionally more artists book than monograph. Vincent not only made the images, she collaborated in the design and binding. All reproductions bleed fully off the page, and many of them run across both pages of a spread. Reading the book, holding it between your hands, there’s a sense of pulling a fabric by the edges or corners, or holding something fragile, something metallic but frail; the planar surface of the rooftops is a thin membrane between exterior and interior. In one lovely, environmentally sensitive case, mentioned below, the illusion is perfect; the corners of the building disappear under your thumbs. Since this is the penultimate spread in Oben, it symbolically implies that a greener future is in your hands. The book object itself extends the trope; printed on what looks and feels like a paper grocery bag, a posterized version of a Vincent image contains the codex and supports the concept. The final spread closes the narrative. A portal back down into the building itself is the exit from a journey entered on page one, an image looking up, toward the rooftop space.

ObenBy Diane VincentSelf-published, 2015.

While rooftop expanses offer New Yorkers, Midwesterners, and countless others a way to soothe their vertically jangled sensoria, Vincent demonstrates how alien these spaces truly are. They’re not meant to be seen, even less to be trod upon; little provision is made for human passage, and what is there is minimalist, purely functional and low maintenance. Antennae, satellite dishes, and lightning rods proliferate; chimneys loom like dead trees awaiting felling. The occasional skylight. Vents and HVAC tubes. All of these appurtenances settle between grids formed by grounding wires for the lightning rods. Two more lovely spaces — a verdant green roof and a well-tended balcony garden — show up, but they are at a distance. Not the building Vincent stood upon to make the picture. And these more natured spaces are below our vantage point. Remember, the title of this book is German for ‘above;’ we viewers must cast our gaze downward to take in a natural scene.

ObenBy Diane VincentSelf-published, 2015.

That quality of hovering recalls another sense I had on rooftops. Without being able to see the streets a dozen or so floors below me, I could envision fantastically deep canyons that positioned me at some unknown height above ground. I imagined flying, navigating above and down into these crevasses and the roof as my natural domain. Vincent alludes to something along this line. On the unpaginated recto preceding the title page, a seemingly accidental cluster of tiny black dots settles. This array is intentional foreshadowing; the dots, connected by very thin, straight lines, reappear as Oben’s penultimate image. A bee’s frenetic, pollen-driven path through a flower patch, perhaps. A constellation. A child wandering about in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. The path a frantic parent might take in search of a wandering child. A bird’s map of favored rooftops. (Writing elsewhere Vincent explains that the interconnected dots were roofs she had visited in the course of her project: “Eventually I realized that I had compiled a personal map — an imaginary walk in another dimension.” The map charts a path that only flying creatures could follow.)

Despite the succor rooftops provide, they withhold comfort or safety. They are zones of exclusion. They serve transience, and transients — like many of us Midwesterners, once New Yorkers, destined to fly back to our natural environs.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at

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