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Book of the Week: Selected by Kyler Zeleny

Book Review The Arsenic Eaters Photographs by Simon Brugner Reviewed by Kyler Zeleny With this new publication, comprised of contemporary photographs as well as archival material, Austrian photographer Simon Brugner investigates a surprisingly common historical belief that the consumption of arsenic, a deadly poison, could be beneficial to one’s health.

The Arsenic Eaters. By Simon Brugner.
The Arsenic Eaters
Photographs by Simon Brugner

The Eriskay Connection, 2018. 144 pp., 150 illustrations, 8x11¾".

In The Arsenic Eaters, Simon Brugner investigates the lost historical usage of arsenic as a poor man’s cocaine, which was purported to hold numerous health benefits. Brugner’s journey takes us to the eastern slopes of the Alps where, prior to the 20th century, the practice of arsenic ingestion was common amongst lower classes. Those who survived repeated ingestions reported that the practice enhanced their physical appearance and strength.

The taboo of arsenic consumption made this subculture reclusive. Once consumed by the practice and the perceived health benefits and a ritual and tolerance developed, these Medieval-like ‘meth-heads’ were unable to stop.

The Arsenic Eaters. By Simon Brugner.

Brugner shows us a secretive and pastoral subculture, as if we’ve walked into the Austrian Alps and upon traversing the correct isolated valleys and demanding peaks, we arrived in a magical world that is both pre-industrial and bizarre.

The blending of contemporary and historical images helps further this by obscuring the temporality of the work, challenging the reader to ask, is this the present and foreign in its location, or is it past and right under us? By supplementing his own images with archival pictures, Brugner delivers a deep dive into the topic and creates a work that is complete and moving. Arsenic Eaters exposes us to a secreted existence; we are seeing fables, history, and rumours, the whispers of events that occurred but are rarely recorded.

Brugner is documenting a practice that is no longer prevalent, with little existing documentation. A controlled substance, in the form of a Medieval sin, has very little associated documentation. Furthermore, the colorful images in The Arsenic Eaters offset the monochromatic nature of the historical images to keep the pace and add tempo.

Brugner is able to do what few photographers can pull off, when he succinctly integrates text and image as a mechanism to further enhance his storytelling. One of the great tests of photobook text is if, after reading it, the viewer feels compelled to return to the book for a second, enhanced reading. This emphatically occurs in The Arsenic Eaters.

The Arsenic Eaters is a contemporary exemplar of a post-photographic project that inserts, remixes and builds upon existing ideas and narratives by using alternative documentary methods, multiple sources, and mixed-media. For instance, the use of archival and found images read as a secret dossier, further aiding the narrative when combined with Brugner’s own visual work. Post-photography is a concept best explored by Joan Fontcuberta and often appropriated by image-makers who are unfamiliar with the concept’s ideological underpinnings. The emergence of a post-photographic condition is the result of growing skepticism towards photographic realism, abundance in image-making, sharing and the turn within creative communities to embrace alternative practices as a way to problematize the way we consume images.

The Arsenic Eaters. By Simon Brugner.

Time and distance remove our ability to observe directly. Brugner was not in the Alps when Arsenic consumption was prevalent, instead his narrative must be informed by the words and records of others as he acts as a compiler to tell an arresting visual story. This does not make his telling of this story any less true. As Fontcuberta writes on objectivism, truth is an opinion and not an obstinate obsession. In a post-photographic world images are less fact than fiction, and act as poetic forces. This is the world we are daringly invited to peer into in The Arsenic Eaters where narrative ousts the true objective elements of storytelling.

The Arsenic Easters is an exceptionally well-conceived and executed example of how contemporary work and historical archives can be blended together to tell a deep and intricate story of a unique place, where a subset of the population engaged in arsenic consumption.

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The Arsenic Eaters. By Simon Brugner.
The Arsenic Eaters. By Simon Brugner.

Kyler Zeleny (1988) is a Canadian photographer, educator and author of Out West (2014), Found Polaroids (2017), and Crown Ditch & The Prairie Castle (2020). He holds a masters from Goldsmiths College, in Photography and Urban Cultures and a PhD from the joint Communication & Culture program at Ryerson and York University. His work has been exhibited internationally in twelve countries and has been featured in numerous publications including The Globe & Mail, Vice, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Independent. He occupies his time by exploring photography on the Canadian prairies.