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Book of the Week: Selected by Owen Kobasz

Book Of The Week The Beautiful Flower Is the World Photographs by Jerry Hsu Reviewed by Owen Kobasz Documenting his journeys through the high and low trappings of our culture, Hsu’s work captures everything from bootleg t-shirts and bathroom stall graffiti to unexpected truths and the occasional startling moment of humanity.
The Beautiful Flower Is the World 
Photographs by Jerry Hsu

Anthology Editions, Brooklyn, USA, 2019.
288 pp., 440 color and black-and-white illustrations, 6¾x9½x¾".

The Beautiful Flower Is the World is the most recent monograph by skateboarder-turned-photographer Jerry Hsu. Although Hsu primarily uses 35mm film, the photographs in this book were taken almost exclusively on BlackBerry cell phones. They originally appeared on his Tumblr, “NAZI GOLD,” a photo-dump of sorts for Hsu’s beautiful and bizarre snapshots.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.
The disorienting title is taken from a t-shirt which has “the Beautiful flower is the world Its Love is be beautifid flower life in the oioersot…” printed above a bedazzled rose. The nonsensical text is almost poetic. It’s weird snapshots like this, torn from the mundane, that give us pause: Who made this? Who bought it? Or, more directly, why does it exist? The following stream of photos goes on to explore the bizarre, consumerist landscape of contemporary America through a light, almost whimsical, gaze.

The book itself is overwhelming. Behind the black cover and gold text are 440 images packed into 288 glossy black pages. The images are uniformly boxed into spreads of 2 or 4 images. They are grouped thematically or juxtaposed against each other to capture an ironic dissidence. Leafing through I found myself actually laughing at times and moved by a subtle beauty at others, as I became lost in the sea of images.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.
Hsu’s photographs incorporate lots of appropriated imagery. From tabloid headlines to poorly drawn graffiti, fast food menus to YouTube thumbnails. In one, a pamphlet reads “WHEN THE FUN STOPS” in all caps over a moody sunset. Below it is a Globe headline “Who Will Die Next?” Later on, a taco ad spells out “HURT” in flaming letters. Devoid of context, these snapshots chop up the city landscape into bits and pieces that highlight just how weird things are right now.

Jerry Hsu also blatantly embraces the use of brand imagery. Large red flames painted in a fast-food window. The view is just wide enough to show that the business is, in fact, a Chick-Fil-A. A Honda CR-V extravagantly painted to look like a menacing storm, breaking into a blue sky before a cheetah’s head. These outlandish scenes are actually augmented by the frame of reference provided by the brand’s inclusion. We as consumers, and what we consume, are Hsu’s subjects.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.
One of the many lingering themes is that of solitude. The first image pictures a child reading a book in a shopping cart. A busker is pictured playing the saxophone before an empty grey highway. Later, is a boy standing in the produce section with a shopping basket over his head. These photos are not necessarily depressing, but rather slow and reflective. People reading, alone or together, make frequent appearances throughout. In these moments they are in world of their own worlds. The final image is of a bridge with “Honk if you’re lonely” crudely spray-painted below it.

Mixed in with snapshots of unusual cars and offbeat church signs are also examples of serious street photography. For example, in one photograph a man is sitting below a light pole, his face and most of his body obscured by the newspaper he is reading. He has one shoe off, placed behind him. Some of Hsu’s compositions are exceptionally abstract in their use of the subject and background. One of my favorites shows a kid riding a Ripstick — he is dressed up in all black from head to toe, including a large black hat, and carrying a white bag. His shadow stretches out before him, parallel to the sidewalk, which meets the bright grass on one side and a brown wall on the other. The inclusion of these more traditional photographs highlights the variety of Hsu’s work, especially within the technical limitations of a BlackBerry Pearl 8100.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.

“Technological boundaries gave the photos a charm and uniformity I wanted to figure out and explore. This book is a physical manifestation of the same impulses that inspired the blog: to transcend the limitations of terrible phone cameras, and to share the resulting images with others.” — Jerry Hsu

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.
The Beautiful Flower Is the World is truly a book of its time. The birth of camera phones, and then phones with relatively decent cameras, enabled Hsu to take quick snapshots anywhere, effortlessly. Tumblr then provided a place to share them. They were consequently archived, saving them from the digital abyss, as a fortunate side effect. In the afterword, Hsu reflects, “These photos were never meant to exist in a nondigital space. Ironically, I archived them more efficiently than I did my film photographs — a medium meant for material objects.” And so, the project has matured into a new thing altogether, a book.

The Beautiful Flower Is the World. By Jerry Hsu.
Owen Kobasz edits the blog & newsletter at photo-eye. He holds a BA in the liberal arts from St. John's College and takes photos in his free time.