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Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review Plumwood Photographs by Rory King Reviewed by Meggan Gould "It is rare to encounter a book with no context whatsoever, neither publisher’s brief description nor biography of an artist to establish a basic working understanding of who/what/where/why/how..."

PlumwoodBy Rory King.
Photographs by Rory King

Tall Poppy Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2022. 104 pp., 8x10".

It is rare to encounter a book with no context whatsoever, neither publisher’s brief description nor biography of an artist to establish a basic working understanding of who/what/where/why/how. I must confess that I usually succumb to this background curiosity — who made this, and why? — sooner than I should. I approach Rory King’s Plumwood without any explanatory language and deliberately seek none out; I allow myself a space of pure looking. This is an atypical indulgence for me, and a reminder to do it more often. As such, I will begin with some of my notes from an initial, and very linear, meander through this book.

A pattern reminiscent of reptilian skin, matte olive green and black, covers this Smyth sewn book. In lieu of colophon, a small photograph of a crocodile grins at me from deep shadows. The image is, perhaps, an analog test strip, with stripes of sequential density. I am thrown off guard.

I move through photographs that make me instantly forget the crocodile’s teeth. Everything is printed on, engulfed by, black paper. The photographs are gloriously dense — with foliage, with silver darkness, with the intensity of the underlying black. Forests are dense with undergrowth. I run out of words for some of this recurrent, lush plant life, so I keep writing the word foliage. Big leaves. Dripping, expansive greenery, rendered in a shadowy black and white. The aspect ratio of larger negatives, which slow me down as a maker, similarly slackens my pace as I absorb.

Two abutting full-bleed images jar me. We are flung headlong into a heavy structure of stone and wood, dense with wicker and books and vessels, a banjo on a couch. Decorative suns and books everywhere, both shelved and not. I want to inhabit this space.

Pulled outside from this comfortable, shabby chaos, we find a grave marker, half concealed by ferns. I glean: Dr. Val Plumwood, 1939-2008, philosopher and activist. Enticingly, only the words “never been one for…” are legible in the epitaph.

I’ve always been one for a good mystery. I do not know Dr. Plumwood. I continue. A figure hovers between interior and exterior spaces, caught in the purgatory of a double exposure. Another full bleed delivers a human in a white t-shirt, features obliterated by a deluge of light from above. To the right, a wheelbarrow full of cords; to the left, another shelf crammed with books, a lantern. The figure, about to be beamed up, is arm’s length from a brimmed hat with a beaded decorative band, a walking stick, a plaid shirt. Behold: adventure awaits!

The detail within these gorgeous, dark pages begs to be absorbed and itemized, and I linger on each, increasingly aware that I am untangling a mystery. Never been one for….? A hand blocks the sun, a hand wields a stick in an ambiguous gesture, somewhere between dousing and defending. We bushwhack through the vegetation, through bone, brick, skull, leaves, tree trunks reminiscent of the human form in ways that make me laugh. We stray into what must be the space of a laboratory, where I stare at a pair of tagged boots; forensics is glancingly invoked. A hint of pleasure via a figure lounging on a precarious vine hammock. Intermittent: a freckled face, figures crouching in forests, flowing water. Branches block the view. Boulders obfuscate.

Remember that crocodile, hovering on the first page? I am halfway through before I experience a sudden, acute awareness of lurking danger. This place is fecund and overgrown in a comfortable way… until…a revelation: wait, this is a dangerous swamp! Shadows become more ominous. And then, the climax: the crocodile, stretched to its full length, floating silently in the water. Impassive, it has been waiting here since the beginning. The many prior pages of fragile, fleshy hands flash through my mind. Watch your fingers.

The pace accelerates here. Fire in the relentless undergrowth, inscrutable machinery sinking into moist dirt. A figure sleeps in the grass, echoing my own exhaustion at the culmination of this epic adventure. A crocodile skull is possibly a secondary climax, held by a figure sinking into shadows. A singular brick wall stands, resilient.

My delight in an untethered wander through this book gives way, the minute I close it, to a need to assuage my piqued curiosity. I discover that crocodile encounters are not even the most interesting part of the eponymous Val Plumwood’s extraordinary legacy, steeped in environmental philosophy and ethics. I probably should have known of her, although I am grateful that I did not before encountering this book. Rory King’s visual homage to Plumwood strikes an exquisite balance in the individual images and the sequencing, subtly embedding sublime complexity and devastating cultural critique.

In perfunctory internet research, I did not find an image that filled in the epitaph’s fern-concealed words. Never been one for spoiling another’s adventures, I will leave you to your own journey through this surprising book.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.