Social Media

Book of the Week: Selected by Ryan Haley

Book Of The Week Please Photographs by Colin Stearns Reviewed by Ryan Haley The third photobook of the perambulation series, Please resumes the narrative of the loss of meaning in the search for hope and beauty. Photographed throughout Japan in 2014 and 2016, Please attempts to reestablish azimuth by intentionally inverting the world of visual uncertainty to find and recognize signifiers.
Photographs by Colin Stearns

self-published, 2018.
178 pp., 99 tritone plates, 6x8¼".

Please. Please. お願い致します. Onegai-shimasu. Also, please treat me well. お願い致します. Be careful with me. Do me no harm.

Please is the third and final book in Colin Stearns’s Perambulation series, the first two of which he photographed in France and the United States. Stearns photographed Please in Japan during two visits between 2014 and 2016. The book is slightly larger than a trade paperback and perfect bound in stiff paper covers. The text stock is thicker than I expected and quite smooth. This works well for the images, some of which are printed with some fairly heavy blacks. Tonal values are also well represented.

Intentionally, I first read Please against the Western mode (i.e., back to front). The book has two title pages and since we are nominally “visiting” Japan, it seemed an understandable path of entry. I liked that sequencing. It flowed with an understated logic. This version of the book moved through a series of correspondences, an attempt to first understand an environment via a visual comparison: a tangle of branches becomes dropped fabric outside a door; men behind glass solitary at their jobs; the back of a man in a white shirt smoking, and a broad chalk line in the dirt. Then an exploration of places: the city, of course, with its shrouded izakaya (pub) entrances, schoolchildren, and hurried pedestrians. But the book also includes wooded hillsides and concrete seawalls; lakes and empty roads, bundled wires that might also be thin stalks of bamboo. Finally, we return to a familiar place: a home, a bed, a couch, and a figure. This final image, a woman gesturing with two fingers pressed to her lips, stops us and our voyage.

Of course, one could enter the book the opposite way: starting with the women’s gesture. A silencing, a note of satisfaction or concern; the image printed in negative is calm and ambiguous. From there the images proceed from interior to exterior, from pedestrians to a close cataloging of objects with a particular focus on surfaces. These latter images are in some cases nearly abstractions of familiar things and are quite beautiful. City views and buildings are elegantly composed with lines strongly reinforced. And so on, until the book ends with the reader more progressively disoriented and lost in a tangle of branches, far from home.

Some of the strongest images in Please are when we apparently leave the city or look at it from a distance. Or even, in what is a recurring motif, when we look at a scene faded, inverted, reflected, or sometimes all of those at once. That is not to say that Stearns’s landscape photographer’s eye is lost in the close confines of Tokyo. In fact, he seems to have used it to his advantage, in a way that reminds me of Osamu Kanemura. Two images represent this mode: one is of a photographic developing and print shop, with a cluttered middle ground. The second is a masterful use of flat space, geometry, and tonal values. It depicts a billboard of a woman drinking a beer. The billboard is surrounded by the infrastructure and mechanical underbelly of the modern city: pipes, wires and cables, the steel truss of a bridge, concrete, and crushed stone.

We appear to be moving through a dream space, a symbolic country that is, on the surface, Japan, but might as well be “our” country. We try to make sense of the places and people. They are all strangers. We are strangers. There are markings, objects, and gestures. There are powerful figures from the present, such as Prime Minister Abe’s face on a poster, and past. We try to find solace in nature, but we try to control nature, a situation that reflects not only Japan, but everywhere.

Please, in total, is a careful book. It will treat you well.

Order your copy of Please Here.

Ryan Haley was a librarian in the Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs at the New York Public Library for 9 years. He currently travels with his wife, the musician and artist Marisol Limon Martinez, and they divide their time between Mexico and SE Asia. Although he’s skeptical of social media, you can find him on Instagram @highenergyobjects