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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review OK, NO RESPONSE Edited by Aaron Stern and Lucy Helton Reviewed by Odette England "I’m sitting at our dining table typing an email and only partly tuned in to my daughter watching We Bare Bears on Hulu. The unmistakable sound of a dial-up modem in the episode she’s watching zaps me back to being twenty-five years old..."

OK, NO RESPONSE. By Aaron Stern and Lucy Helton.
Edited by Aaron Stern and Lucy Helton

Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, NM, USA, 2021. 192 p pp., 140 four-color plates, 9½x12½".

I’m sitting at our dining table typing an email and only partly tuned in to my daughter watching We Bare Bears on Hulu. The unmistakable sound of a dial-up modem in the episode she’s watching zaps me back to being twenty-five years old. I’m picking oats from a stale bran muffin in an Internet café near London’s Paddington Station, waiting to connect with my parents in Australia. My daughter covers her ears at the screechy noise. I laugh and begin a story of Once Upon a Time there were no laptops or Wi-Fi or streaming services. Once Upon a Time there were these things called d-e-s-k-t-o-p-s and big-ass cell phones that didn’t fit in your back pocket. And their good friend the facsimile machine was Once Upon a Time THE tech of the moment, a helpful device that turned the business world upside down. Remember the sound they made? How frustrating it was when they didn’t connect?

OK, NO RESPONSE, edited by Lucy Helton and Aaron Stern, revisits this invention through the faxed images of twenty artists. The sewn soft-cover at-size book contains 140 images in all their grainy glitchy glory. The project started with Lucy and Aaron exchanging pictures in spring 2020 as a way of staying in touch as the covid-19 pandemic gained momentum. Then they began inviting others to submit work to their analog thermal fax machine.

Fax machines allow you to send an exact paper-based copy of text or images by converting their light and dark parts into electrical signals. You feed an original document into the machine which processes the content and then sends it through a telephone line to another fax machine that turns the signals back into printed pages. Though less common in offices now, fax machines are still used in accounting, law and medical administration.

Image by Gabby Laurent.

At a time when many of us were not OK and longing for connection, I imagine this project was a welcome visual diversion, especially for the editors on the receiving end of some great pictures. It’s a simple and clever concept, using a machine like a camera to reinterpret photographs. In the book’s front-matter it states the artists are “like-minded”. What makes them so? Like-minded stylistically, aesthetically? Or in their desire to “connect in isolation”? It goes on to say that each body of work is different and though this is true, the fax machine’s treatment of the images also smooths and homogenizes them. So much so that you could have told me this was the work of just five photographers and, visually, I’d have no reason to doubt you. Details that might show a photographer’s style are obliterated through highlighting the lint and fuzz of a reductive process.

The photographs are grouped by artist but not in alphabetical order nor by date received. The layout is formal, a mix of full-page and half-page images with the occasional over-the-gutter spread. There is a variety of subject matter: landscapes, portraits, cars, animals, birds, bikes, powerlines, and open roads. The ones that stand out to me incorporate text or bear transmission errors. Examples include an image of a statue by Aaron Stern where the text strings repeat down the page, severing the statue at the neck and hips. Some of Gabby Laurent’s images of a person tripping in the street have red stripes (indicating the fax machine is running out of ink or toner) that match beautifully with the content. A photograph of a hand across a face by Matthew Genitempo recurs on the page as if a manual winder has failed to advance the film correctly. Images bearing signs of the times like NO SONGS (Jeremy Everett), SERVICE (Bryan Schutmaat) and Time is Running Out (Christian Patterson) act as perforations. As does Fryd Frydendahl’s repeating image of a young boy, faxed twice presumably to address banding defects.

Image by Pixy Liao.

At the start of the book, after the title and list of participating artists, is a copy of a fax journal dated March 18, 1994, 8.24am. It lists 35 individual transmissions with their start time, usage time, number of pages, and result. It is here that the book’s title appears to hark. Most of the transmissions are ‘OK’ with two listed as ‘NO RESPONSE’. I took a moment to research what made March 18 1994 significant. Among other data points, the number one song that week was ‘The Sign’ by Ace of Base in the USA and ‘Without You’ by Mariah Carey in the UK. A bittersweet coincidence if ever there was.

This project is a contemporary form of fax art, the first of which transmitted in 1980 as “a means of mediating distances”. Many of us in the spring of 2020 and since have used Zoom, Skype, and various apps not only to talk to each other but to see each other. Via a fax machine, artists from different places, of different backgrounds, interpreted their worlds for us to see and read. Where this project shines is in image selection and sequencing. And, in bookish aspects like the paper stock which feels like fax paper (though thicker and better quality). Even the font, the use of all capitals, the introductory page headers, all reference the fax machine.

Image by Matthew Genitempo.

Coming to the end of OK NO RESPONSE it occurs to me that ‘no response’ is also a type of response, one of the most potent. Sometimes we forget to respond to someone. At other times, it’s deliberate. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or where to look. Sometimes we simply don’t know. It is in contrast to the term COPY THAT, often used in military speak, which means that we’ve heard and understood the message. OK NO RESPONSE highlights that the way we react to varying situations is OK, and how others respond — or not — is outside our control. And that photography, which is all about control, could do with us letting go from time to time.

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Image by Christian Filardo.
Image by Christian Filardo.

Odette England 
is a photographer and writer based in Providence, Rhode Island and New York. Her work has been shown in more than 100 museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces worldwide. She has two photobooks out this year: Dairy Character, winner of the 2021 Light Work Book Award; and Past Paper Present Marks: Responding to Rauschenberg, her collaboration with Jennifer Garza-Cuen, which received a $5,000 Rauschenberg Publication Grant.