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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review In Plain Air Photographs by Irina Rozovsky Reviewed by Odette England "Few are more excessively, irrationally obsessed over, nitpicked, and misjudged than the teenage girl. Teenage girldom and all its visible (and invisible) terrors are the subject of Deanna Templeton’s What She Said (Mack), which exposes the perky and murky realities we lived with at that age..."

In Plain Air by Irina Rozovsky.
In Plain Air
Photographs by Irina Rozovsky

Mack, London, UK, 2021. 96 pp., 9½x11¼".

Do you know That Light? That Light, the light we get two, three, four times a year if we’re lucky. Sometimes after a storm, often after 5pm. Not to be confused with golden hour light; rather, the light you need a Pantone book to describe because all attempts to explain it otherwise end in ‘ish’: Orange-ish, pink-ish, gold-ish, honey-ish, no-the-other-honey-ish. That Light, the light you try to photograph with your phone until you resolve you can’t capture it because your phone fails to render it realistically. That Light.

It’s That Light I notice from the get-go, beaming from the pages of Irina Rozovsky’s latest photobook In Plain Air (MACK, 2021), so much so that I want to Google what a ray of light is made of. Rozovsky herself shares with us the question she posed during her first visit to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where she spent almost a decade making these images: “Is it the light bouncing off the lake or a certain peace that glows on every face?”

Long-term projects, however we define long-term, often deliver the most satisfying visual rewards. When we discover a new place, and revisit it time and again with a camera, we become familiar but simultaneously surprised and delighted by what we find. We may even pull the camera away from our face to see if what we’re seeing really is ‘there’ or as good as we think it is. Each step we take adds to a collective knowing-our-way, yet we un-know it through the lens of movement and change. In Rozovsky’s case, the visual rewards are abundant: a frozen puddle hugged by tree roots and shimmering like a mirror, a man clutching a fish in a sandwich bag, a reassuring hand on a friend’s shoulder, all flanked by glorious images of nurturing, hanging, exercising, kissing, rehearsing, and breathing.

Every photograph belongs in this edit. I make this point because selecting and sequencing are their own mysterious processes that we artists (and publishers) angst over. I’ve heard photographers use phrases like “killers, not fillers” or “A-sides only” to justify or explain how and why they include the images they do. Some folks argue for the importance of images for the reader to rest on, or images that build up to the “winner-image”. I’ve heard many a metaphor for sequencing, that a ‘good’ photobook should be paced like your favorite song; that it shouldn’t bolt out of the gates like a racehorse; that you need carefully-chosen condiments to make the meal taste good. You’ve probably heard some of these too.

When I buy a best-of or greatest-hits album, that’s what I expect. With any photobook, one of the many questions I ask as I turn the pages is: Why is this image here, in this book, on this page, next to this other image, or text, or whatever its nearest neighbor is? In Plain Air is not a best-of-Rozovsky, but for me it depicts, with deceptively elegant ease, a best-of ten years of those big photographic W’s: Wandering, wondering, watching, waiting and weighing, none of which answer fully the who, what, where, when and all-important why of her images. And that’s a very, very good thing.

With too many images to love, I turn my attention to the recurrence of the mute swan, a character that like That Light, is all its own in this book. Its long s-curved neck echoes in the many images of Prospect Park’s trees. Its white feathers reverberate in other images with white details; snow, plastic bags, sneakers, a t-shirt, a bride’s dress, a young girl’s headdress, a cigarette or two, and a daisy-like weed stamping its authority atop a large rock. Rozovsky’s eye makes known that the devil is in the details but so are angels.

As Rozovsky’s photographs permeate and warm me from the inside out. I can’t help but think about what it means to quietly, tenderly interrogate space, especially that of a public park, a very specific type of space that is both mythical and real. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1967 described this space as a heterotopia: A ‘somewhere’ that is physical and mental, a space felt and seen, open and remote, universal and specific, collective and personalized. A space in which there is much more than that represented on the surface, like photographs. The more I look, the more Foucault’s explanation of heterotopias corresponds beautifully with In Plain Air. Prospect Park is a place with an impermeable boundary. Not to the actual park, but rather to Rozovsky’s mental state. I suspect the park is now so familiar to her that she could build it over and again in her mind, but the characters and nuances that comprise it would otherwise fade into the fabric of place (and time) without photography. Rozovsky instead weaves them into her life through experience and recording. In closing the book’s cover, I realize just how much time I’ve lost in its pages, that time being a type of heterotopia, too.

I never did Google what a ray of light is made of, instead falling foul of a deep dark hole of semi-related research more accurately known as clickbait. When I climb out, I do so with the knowledge that not only do light and magnetism have a special scientific bond, but that the Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell — who helped to explain what light actually is via its electromagnetic properties — unveiled in 1861 the first durable color photograph, produced using a three-color filter system that still forms the basis of many forms of color photography today.

Of course, magnetism! That unexplainable factor or force that draws us in, towards the light like a bug on a dark summer night. When we find ourselves in the company of something or someone so compelling, strong yet vulnerable, transparent without pretense, if only for a moment. Something is exposed to us and vice-versa. And that is what Rozovsky’s images bring to light, That Light, that lusters from within.

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Odette England
is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.