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Quest: Reviewed by George Slade

Book Review Quest Photographs by Alexandre de Mortemart Reviewed by George Slade The black-and-white photographs in Alexandre de Mortemart’s series Quest portray people in their daily routines among images of various textured surfaces — up-close shots of graffiti, peeling wall paint, the surface of water...
Quest. By Alexandre de Mortemart.
Photographs by Alexandre de Mortemart

Damiani, 2020. 160 pp., 120 illustrations, 8¾x12".

Don’t get too comfortable, Alexandre de Mortemart’s photographs suggest. The worlds you see herein have an elusive relationship with the truth. Don’t trust your eyes.

For a book that delves so deeply into aspects of the built environment in global metropolises (Calcutta, London, New York, and Paris), I find it fascinating that Quest opens and closes with images of a rock in Brittany, taken two years apart. Rock surfaces, to be explicit, purely nature-made, in which no sky appears and scale is purely speculative. Am I seeing a square foot, a square yard, or a microscopic fragment of sand? It’s wondrous, what bright light and contrasty black-and-white rendering will do to one’s sense of balance and surety. Quest amplifies this phenomenon in its austere, evocatively sequenced pages.

As one navigates the book’s dense urban landscape, an occasional moment of breath — relief from man-made claustrophobia — occurs. But you might be forgiven for thinking that a wall of rock, the sun glowing across ripples in the ocean, paint splattered on a dark background, or a grisaille of reflected and prismed sunlight all seem the same. You must look closely to determine whether you’re seeing a real leafless tree, or a mosaic version of one. (The book includes a spread offering just that enigmatic puzzle.) Be careful, once again, not to swing your arms too wide, lest they slam against a concrete wall you mistook for a tarp.

Quest. By Alexandre de Mortemart.

Not only are surfaces doing their best to destabilize you, but the lone human figures that emerge from shadows also offer minimal reassurance. De Mortemart’s cities teem with simulations of life. Draped wraiths and solitary inconnus play off commercially rendered faces. One fully fleshed human, clothed in a prisoner’s striped pajamas, stares back at us. What he sees may not be what we think. He appears to be somewhere out on a psychological frontier, and he is perhaps the sole exception to de Mortemart’s rules of disengagement.

There are echoes of Ralph Gibson, Aaron Siskind, and Ray Metzker in these images. The dimensional, material world becomes a planar abstraction, and vastness is reduced to an arm’s length. We lose our way and discover that such diverse cities have a lot in common. Particularly, the capacity to dazzle-camouflage themselves and undermine our bearings. For de Mortemart, the effect is more than visual; he lives in these cities and experiences the anomie day-to-day. Those distressed, distressing figures prompt distancing. Yet, there’s something vaguely affirming about his quest. As the Parisian gallerist Agathe Gaillard claims in a brief foreword, “it is a tribute, or so [de Mortemarte] would hope. It is unusual, remarkably beautiful, elegant, harmonious and also outrageous, unbearable but always a reflection of ourselves. Our human brothers, one says.”

Perhaps disengagement is a form of salvation. Whether intentionally or not, what the photographer describes is socially distanced space. Difficult as it is to obtain these days, there is always redemption in personal connection. Keep at it. If you can just open up the shadows a bit there may be some solace.

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Quest. By Alexandre de Mortemart.

Quest. By Alexandre de Mortemart.

George Slade, aka re:photographica, is a writer and photography historian based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. He is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization TC Photo.

Image c/o Randall Slavin