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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Ecology of Dreams Photographs by Ewan Telford Reviewed by Brian Arnold "Manifest Destiny was the name given to the cultural doctrine that said we, as Americans, were a righteous people, and that it was our duty to expand our resources and take control over the land we envisioned as the United States of America..."

Ecology of Dreams By Ewan Telford.
Ecology of Dreams
Photographs by Ewan Telford

Velvet Cell, Berlin, Germany, 2022. In English. 176 pp.

Manifest Destiny was the name given to the cultural doctrine that said we, as Americans, were a righteous people, and that it was our duty to expand our resources and take control over the land we envisioned as the United States of America. It was the time of Deadwood, and together the railroad industry and the federal government strategized ways to take over the American West. In my mind, Los Angeles is the perfect metaphor for westward expansion, truly pushing us from east to west and north to south. It provided all the opportunities, vistas and dreams that characterized our ideal vision of the west — mountain views, some of the nation’s best beaches, a rich agricultural climate and plenty of land for the coming settlers. And at the heart of Los Angeles is Hollywood, the perfect expression of the American Dream — here even a small-town man can find stardom. Los Angeles is, after all, the city of dreams.

Of course, this was destined for failure, as was every other vision of empire. With Hollywood ever present as a backdrop, the city’s demise has inspired many incredible photobooks — Robert Adams’ Los Angeles Spring, ZZYZX by Magnum photographer Gregory Halpern, Karin Apollonia Muller’s mysterious color work in Angels in Fall, the rigorously mundane Candlestick Point by Lewis Baltz and Larry Sultan’s The Valley all come to mind. I’ve only been to LA once and don’t really have a desire to go back. I am sure there are lots of amazing things about the city, but it’s hard for me justify places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles — who had the idea to conquer these parched, sunny lands by invading them with swimming pools and glamour?

Born and educated in Scotland, photographer Ewan Telford’s newest book The Ecology of Dreams presents another look at the mythic city of our westward dreams. Telford has an interesting background — he’s from Scotland and finished an education in philosophy and film production before coming to New York to pursue a career in film and video production. Perhaps an itinerate career in the field, Ewan now lives in Los Angeles and works more as a photographer, exploring text/image narratives. The Ecology of Dreams, Telford’s second book, is full of beautiful photographs and ideas, true to all the icons, symbols, and tropes of the city. Made primarily with pictures of landscapes and interiors (very few people are to be seen), Telford juxtaposes photographs of Hollywood, wildfires, highway systems, wax museums, invasive species, water pipes, petroleum refineries and pedestrian neighborhoods, collectively creating a multilayered portrait of the city and all its contradictions and complexities, a dystopic vision of the American Dream. Each page spread is just one photograph, always on the right side, with the left page presenting different textual experiments Ewan developed in an attempt to encode the images with unexpected ideas.

I am much more engaged with Telford’s pictures than by his text. He is clearly a photographer always ready to make pictures, anywhere and anytime, and he couples this promiscuous style with a keen sense of light, color and photographic metaphor. Despite many great pictures, at 176 pages The Ecology of Dreams feels too long and the photographs under edited (I understand the need to include a picture of the iconic Hollywood sign, but more than once feels redundant — this happens with a few different types of images). I feel this way even more about the text. At times it coaxes surprising and evocative ideas from the photographs, at other times it feels forced and unnecessary, more a distraction than a benefit. After several viewings of the book, I feel like Telford was compelled to provide text for each image rather than having something unique and important for each page spread. For the most part, I find Telford’s photographs strong enough that they don’t need the textual supplements, and the range of pictures included in The Ecology of Dreams provides enough layers for a complex and interesting perspective on Los Angeles.

The Ecology of Dreams
was my first introduction to publisher Velvet Cell and looking over all their books I can see they have a unique vision within the glut of photobook publishers working today. Based in Europe, Velvet Cell’s books all look at urban landscapes around the world — with interesting books on cities as different as Beirut, Okinawa, Yangon, Phenom Penh and Budapest — and with a roster that includes some fantastic and well-established photographers like Toshio Shibata, Steve Fitch, Alejandro Cartagena and Peter Bialobrzeski. I will definitely keep an eye on future publications, and I am eager to see how their vision continues to develop.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.