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Book of the Week: Selected by Christopher J. Johnson

Book Review Jan Groover, Photographer Laboratory of Forms Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson For the first time, this generously illustrated book traces the full arc of Jan Groover’s career, from her beginnings in America to her late years in western France.
Jan Groover, Photographer
Laboratory of Forms
Photographs by Jan Groover

Scheidegger and Spiess, 2020. In English. 192 pp., 8½x10¾".

How we perceive information and the abstraction created by the image framed; these two subjects more than any others, this — to me — is the work of Jan Groover. It’s like Wittgenstein became an optometrist and presented you with slides asking, How many cows in this image? Very good. Now, how many cows are in this image. Alright, but how do you know they’re cows? And this grist, this cow stuff, it’s only her earliest camera work… From there we go deeper into questioning what do we see and what can we know, and how can we see and know differently.

Groover is perhaps now best remembered for her tabletop still-life work; when mentioning her to someone they might say, the forks and spoons person, right? And while the series in question here is eponymous with Groover, there is just so much more to explore. For instance, the rate of speed of a car in motion and how a line, a simple crack in the asphalt, can alter our perception of that movement. Or how, when taking the body out of its expected composition — when framing it radically, the arms and legs and the trunk of a person can become a study of line and volume comparable to a Miro painting. A true experimentalist and a curious thinker, Groover took her interest in studio painting and bent it within a lens creating what is, to my mind, the closest thing to Paul C├ęzanne (color shapes and each different shade a different shape…) in photography.

Jan Groover, Photographer: Laboratory of Forms.

How original of an artist was she? That’s best left to Groover, in her own words. Here are her thoughts on the subject of fruit as a model in the studio, “What does a lemon do?  A lemon lies down. It can't do anything else but lie down. An apple sits. It doesn't lie down, it doesn't do anything but sit. A pear lies down and stands up.”

Jan Groover, Photographer is an exhibition catalog to be coveted — and one not bogged down with essay after essay and some curator’s personal mission driving the selections. The images are all wonderfully reproduced, left to speak for themselves, and present the entirety of her career, earmarking series from her earliest experiments to her late portraiture and work with the body as abstract form.

If you get only one exhibition catalog this year, this, in my opinion, should be it. If you’re asking yourself Jan who, then grab this book. And, if you’re feeling like post-modernist photography is all old hat, then this catalog will change your mind – or, even better yet, deepen your ability to see.

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Jan Groover, Photographer: Laboratory of Forms.
Jan Groover, Photographer: Laboratory of Forms.
Jan Groover, Photographer: Laboratory of Forms.

Christopher J Johnson is a poet and writer living in Santa Fe. He is the author of &luckier, from the center for literary publishing. He is currently manager of photo-eye’s Book Division.