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Book of the Week: A Pick by Laura M. André

Book of the Week Book of the Week: A Pick by Laura M. André Laura M. André selects Commonplace, edited by Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder, as Book of the Week.
Commonplace, edited by Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder.
Fourthwall Books, 2018.

Laura M. André selects Commonplaceedited by Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder, from Fourthwall Books, as Book of the Week.

"Commonplace is a unique book of vernacular photographs from two private South African collections. The oldest of these reaches back to the mid-19th century and belongs to the white Drummond-Fyvie family, who settled in the former Colony of Natal in 1905. The other collection comprises the mid-20th century work of two black South African photographers: Ronald Majongwa Ngilima and his son Thorence. The Ngilimas photographed in the African, Indian, and Colored communities near Johannesburg during the heart of the apartheid era. 

The book's editors, Sophie Feyder and Tamsyn Adams — the latter actually a member of the Drummond-Fyvie family 
 initially were working on two separate research projects in which they were investigating how family photographs shape our understanding of history.  Their conjoined work, Commonplace, exists ''to suggest the varied ways in which lives lived in different times and places, and under very disparate circumstances, might nevertheless be tied to each other — if not in a common place then at least in their commonplaces.'

As the publisher explains, the book presents a range of images from the two collections 'in an imagined and creative dialogue, [which] gives the reader a new way to consider the relationship between peoples’ ordinary, everyday experiences, and larger socio-political forces in South Africa. The people in these photographs are unlikely to have met each other, but in bringing the collections together, unexpected visual connections begin to emerge, suggesting the varied ways in which these different lives might resonate with each other. This exercise in juxtaposition does not claim to transcend the political, but brings to the fore the unremarkable, commonplace details that also make the political deeply personal.'

While this strategy might dangerously background social, political, and economic realities and inequalities in favor of a facile search for similarities (not unlike critical responses leveled at The Family of Man exhibition), I found the project to be surprisingly effective. In her review of the the book, curator and scholar Oluremi C. Onabanjo questions 'how a 'commonplace' can provide a prudent point of parallel, or contact, while still honoring the heartbreaking ruptures and tensions writ large throughout South African history. Perhaps Adams and Feyder prefer to leave these strings untied, as we continue to reckon with the social and spatial aftermath of the apartheid area in contemporary South Africa, and instead focus their offering on a more careful consideration of the country’s history through personal images — an exciting and worthwhile endeavor in itself.'

I have a strong affinity — or obsession — with vernacular photographs, the stories and memories they convey, and their material histories. Commonplace is an immensely satisfying and complex presentation of these image types. The book's brief closing essays and illustrated list of plates provide just enough context to the 160+ illustrations that make up the majority of the book's content and supply its rich intellectual and emotional fodder." — Laura M. Andé

Purchase Book

Commonplaceedited by Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder. Fourthwall Books, 2018.
Commonplaceedited by Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder. Fourthwall Books, 2018.

Laura M. André received her PhD in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught photo history at the University of New Mexico before leaving academia to work with photobooks. She is the manager of photo-eye's book division.