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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week Maine Photographs by Gary Briechle Reviewed by Blake Andrews Gary Briechle has forged many long-term relationships with the people he has photographed since moving to Maine nearly 20 years ago. This gives his work a peculiar intimacy, as if the pictures were made by a family member. He lives and works in midcoast Maine and doesn’t see a need to travel to make photographs.
Maine. By Gary Briechle.
Photographs by Gary Briechle

Twin Palms, Santa Fe, USA, 2018.
124 pp., 63 full-color plates, 8x10".

A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing Gary Briechle's Maine (Twin Palms, 2018). After removing the book from its packaging and giving it a quick once-over, I set it on top of my reading pile near the piano. That's where my wife found it. Tab spent her first 18 years in western Maine and considers herself something of an authority on the subject. When she noticed a new photo book called Maine in the house it was irresistible.

Over dinner that evening Tab described to me her initial shock. Briechle's book was most definitely not the Maine she expected to see. There was nary a sailboat in it. Nor any black labs prancing on lawns. No quaint harbors, lighthouses, lobster pots, or fall foliage. In fact, all the LL Bean scenes seemed to be missing completely. In their stead was a seedy underworld of vice, mobile homes, and things that sagged. The mood throughout was downbeat. The tone was set by the cover shot of a dark figure retreating into an icy patch, and the opening pages offered no letup. First came a grimy snowbank piled with debris, then a closeup of old cigarette stubs. And so on. You get the picture. My wife sure did. Somewhat rattled, she put the book back in its place after a few minutes.

The items above describe Maine, of course. Just not the one of popular imagery. But in Gary Briechle's world these things assume primacy. His photo subjects are pulled from his immediate surroundings: friends, family, neighbors, and local events. "Most everything that inspires me is within a few miles of home," he writes on the Twin Palms site. "Sometimes I think that Maine is like my foster family; I'm not really entirely comfortable and will probably never feel completely settled, but Maine keeps feeding me."

The feeding frenzy has been happening for nearly two decades, ever since Briechle resettled in Maine from New Jersey in 2001. Most of his photos since then have employed the wet collodion process, an archaic monochrome practice of long exposures and rushed development. Ghosts and glitches are endemic to the method, and they often imbue a dreamy quality all its own. Such was the style of his wonderful debut book from 2012, Gary Briechle Photographs, also published by Twin Palms. That book was followed in 2015 by a Guggenheim. Judging by what came next, it may have precipitated some artistic restlessness.

Subject-wise, Maine covers similar territory to the debut, but the approach is radically different. Instead of long exposures, Maine catches subjects in the moment, snapshot style, with digital color. Whereas the debut slyly hinted at subversive doings, Maine puts them on full display, sometimes with the help of flash (a near impossibility with wet collodion). There are photos of guns, scabs, butts, tats, needles, debris, cash, filth, malaise, cobwebs, and one beautifully frosted butterknife. While most photographers might bypass such things, Briechle seizes them as narration devices.

The youngster clutching this rainbow icing, who appears a few times in the book along with various other tots, gives the reader pause. Just what lies ahead for these Maine youth? The reader isn't sure but a penny-loafered yacht outing seems improbable.

The mix of innocence and experience is the same concept used to great effect in Larry Clark's Tulsa, both extremes tangled together in a foreboding blend. As we know, Tulsa did not end well. Maine too ends on a sour note, with a grim finishing sequence: a prone smoker, an aging invalid, and a blood-soaked animal. Then the final photo, a grim winter domestic scene. Lobster roll, anyone?

Throughout the book Briechle's desaturated palette is thin and waifish, the flesh drained of life. As with wet collodion —whose orthochromatic sensitivity dramatizes skin tones— this approach heightens certain flaws. Blood vessels, peeling sunburn, and grime are pronounced. And I suppose the many tattoos in the book would be too, if they weren't already so commonplace. The approach is revealing but not quite sinister. "I don't ever set out to take harsh pics," he says in a recent interview. " I like a good belly laugh with my sons as much as anyone. But people actually don't spend the majority of their lives smiling. This is real life."

So it is. Tagging alongside my wife, I've spent a bit of each summer over the past 30 years in backwoods Maine. Physically the state is gorgeous. But Briechle's view strikes me as fairly accurate. Drive inland a few hours from the coast and you're basically in Appalachia, with miles upon miles of steep hills separating homespun hamlets. Pry under the surface of these towns and you'll find Briechle's stern, unsmiling Maine: Debris, cobwebs, rusty trucks, and such. If the conditions are right, on certain days you might see a rainbow over the town. The icing on the cake.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at