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17 18 19: Reviewed by Brad Zellar

Book Review 17 18 19 Photographs by Thomas Sauvin Reviewed by Brad Zellar The series 17 18 19 is drawn from a bag of negative film salvaged from a recycling plant on the outskirts of Beijing in 2010. The bag contained an archive of over 15,000 scratched black and white negatives, shot at one of the city's detention centers between 1991 and 1993...
17 18 19. By Thomas Sauvin.
17 18 19  
Photographs by Thomas Sauvin

Void, Athens, Greece, 2019. 224 pp., 6x8"

Since its first splash in 2013, Thomas Sauvin’s ongoing Beijing Silvermine project (which has involved repurposing some of the more than 850,000 negatives Sauvin salvaged from a recycling plant on the outskirts of the Chinese capitol) has become a rare and reliable source of archival alchemy. With each new publication (most of which can’t properly be called publications—Sauvin makes beautiful and fascinating objects) what’s emerging is a sort of exhaustive visual Library of Babel—an analog precursor to Instagram—and a vast repository of proletarian dreams, desire, and deviancy.

17 18 19By Thomas Sauvin.
I’m of the opinion that archival/vernacular/found photos don’t often enough get transformed into cohesive, compelling, or (especially) beautiful photobooks. Sauvin, though, has got it down. His aesthetic runs from the playful (verging on kitsch) to the purely elegant. The original Silvermine publication, a set of five, brightly-colored miniature albums, each containing a selection of themed photographs, was immediately irresistible to me. The photos in each of those albums—taken between 1985-2005 in post-Cultural Revolution China—were also instantly relatable to anyone who grew up in a Cold War-era working-class household where things like new cars, color TVs, birthday parties, vacations, weddings, and other special occasions were dutifully documented with a Kodak Instamatic camera, whose finished rolls of film were developed at the local drugstore. Such photographs were taken by people merely trying to preserve memories rather than consciously attempting to capture some Decisive Moment, and their pictures were often the most prized inheritances for pre-internet/cellphone families whose parents left behind little else of any value.

17 18 19By Thomas Sauvin.

Sauvin’s latest book, 17 18 19, is dark and different and magnificent, but—unlike most of his other projects—it’s also difficult to write about without resorting to art mag jib-jabbery and hogwash. Mainly because these are pictures—not even really photographs, but grainy transfers of scratched and often puzzling negatives—that elude either facile analysis or high-minded blather. They practically scream out for a Walter Benjamin quote, but I don’t feel like quoting Walter Benjamin. The book is an especially beautiful object, beautifully designed and beautifully made (the sort of thing I expect from both Sauvin and Void, his publisher this time around). So much so that this is one of the rare photobooks that I’m reluctant to take out of its plastic sleeve and thumb through again and again. Instead, I made my way through it very very slowly, slowly turning the pages, and staring at the images for longer and longer stretches of time with increasingly forensic detachment. Because the images in the book are all—or so I presume—evidence of some kind, extracted from a bag of negatives shot at a Beijing detention center from 1991-93.

17 18 19By Thomas Sauvin.
No more context is provided, and the negatives are printed—as negatives—in dusty silver ink on black paper. They look like they could be blown off the page or erased with a swipe of the hand. There’s a dark and banal vibe to the whole thing, yet it feels very much a piece with the other Silvermine projects, in much the same way that the best film noir gets so much of its power to shock by exposing the flipside of Hollywood’s happy and wholesome version of American prosperity. The blunt and often puzzling evidence presented in 17 18 19 read like a series of X-rays from the grimy underbelly of China’s burgeoning consumer class (all those TVs in Sauvin’s earlier work? There was somebody out there waiting for an opportunity to steal them).

17 18 19By Thomas Sauvin.

Sauvin launches the inventory with a succession of apparent weapons—razors, shivs, clubs, iron rods, a baseball bat, all manner of knives, machetes, and meat cleavers, and even what appears to be a chunk of concrete—and eventually segues to accessories and items of clothing. The book goes on to assume the feel of a disturbing catalog for a company that specializes in bankruptcies or IRS liquidations. Yet every single item, floating in a sea of darkness, looks strange and inexplicable. There are boom boxes, VCRs, Walkmen, cassette tapes, jewelry, tools, bicycles, folding chairs, tires, a hairdryer, cigars, cigarettes, decks of cards, cameras, and a pair of handcuffs. By the time you get to the mug shots, they seem to be dissolving and mutating before your eyes and it takes a moment to even process that what you are seeing are human beings in profile.

As I was thinking about the book and trying to figure out if there was anything else I could find to say about it, I remembered a conversation I once had with a guy who spent his days staring at a TSA security screen, watching the ceaseless procession of mysterious and luminous images that were beamed to him from the conveyor belt. “Sometimes you get numb and start to space out,” he said. “But then you’ll see something you’ve never seen before, and it usually turns out to be something you’ve just never seen in that way before. It’s a messed-up experience looking at the world that way; it changes the way you dream.”

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17 18 19By Thomas Sauvin.
17 18 19By Thomas Sauvin.

Brad Zellar is a writer who has collaborated with photographer Alec Soth on a number of projects, including The LBM Dispatch, a series of seven newspapers devoted to American community in the age of cyberspace. Zellar has also made books with Adrianna Ault, Raymond Meeks, Tim Carpenter, and Jason Vaughn, and is the author of Suburban World: The Norling Photos, Conductors of the Moving World, House of Coates, and Driftless. He lives in St. Paul.