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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Zines Photographs by Ari Marcopoulos Reviewed by Brian Arnold "With his signature date-stamp on each picture, these small publications read like personal sketchbooks or diaries, documenting Marcopoulos’ days during the rise of Trump, the pandemic, George Floyd and the 2020 elections and ensuing insurrection, noting the trauma, confusion and chaos experienced at such an unprecedented level..."

Zines. By Ari Marcopoulos.
Photographs by Ari Marcopoulos
Aperture, New York City, NY, USA, 2023. In English. 0 pp., 8¾x8¾x1".

I’d like to start with a confession — Ari Marcopoulos is totally new to me. I know this seems strange for someone so committed to contemporary photography, but for years I’ve been dismissive of his work. Of course, I’ve known of him but never took the time to really investigate his photographs and books. I’ve long resisted photographers with mass appeal to teenage hipsters, perhaps because I hated being a teenager (I’m embarrassed to say that I am just now discovering Ed Templeton too). Raised on a view camera, Marcopoulos’ work always seemed too casual, too informal for me. With this in mind, Ari Marcopoulos: Zines, the new Aperture monograph about the photographer, was my first real experience with his work, and I’m totally mesmerized by this book. It is both a document of the zines Marcopoulos has produced since 2015 and an ambitious, beautifully designed artist book.

With his signature date-stamp on each picture, these small publications read like personal sketchbooks or diaries, documenting Marcopoulos’ days during the rise of Trump, the pandemic, George Floyd and the 2020 elections and ensuing insurrection, noting the trauma, confusion and chaos experienced at such an unprecedented level. The stories in each zine are built on simple pictures of his life in Brooklyn — documenting his own creative practice, photographing newspapers and major headlines, diaristic looks at people and places and pictures of the friends and artists that helped sustain his life during these times (cameos include pictures of Robert Frank, June Leaf, Hilton Als and Kim Gordon). Central to all of it is his partner Kara Walker, the brilliant contemporary artist who made all of us confront slavery and racial history in ways we’d never seen or experienced before. Walker appears as muse, friend, teacher, mentor and partner, helping Marcopoulos navigate these turbulent times.

The book contains pages from 51 different zines, 19 originally produced on paper and 32 as PDFs (these were conceived as digital zines, developed when the pandemic denied Marcopoulos access to the printers and copy stores he needed for his usual productions), as well as an essay by MacArthur Fellow Maggie Nelson and an interview with Marcopoulos by LAXART director Hamza Walker. The texts provide great background for engaging his work, offering information about Marcopoulos’s history (I knew about his connection to Warhol, but was surprised to learn he worked as a printer for Irving Penn), strategies, and relationships (we learn how he and Walker befriended Frank and Leaf). The text also reveals how Marcopoulos adapted as an artist to the new social and creative paradigms wrought by the pandemic and how he tried to use these zines to sustain and create connections when these things felt lost to all of us.

The design is an essential part of the book’s success, and thus worth delving into. There are a lot of books about books, and while I love many of them, it’s rarely because of image layout and sequencing. Ari Marcopoulos: Zines, however, is innovative in its approach to translating one book page onto another book page. There are two different strategies for presenting the zines, one for those originally printed on paper and one for the PDFs. The paper zines are all presented like Ruscha’s book about Sunset Boulevard — like film strips laid across the paper and flowing cinematically from one spread to the next. Each spread features pages from two zines, one advancing on the top of the pages and the other on the bottom. The PDFs are presented in a more traditional way, with the zines advancing left to right, top to bottom. The pages presenting the paper zines are matte and the PDFs glossy. These different strategies for representing the two types of zines come in easily discernible sections, with large passages devoted to the paper zines intermixed with passages that document the PDFs. This does, however, manifest a bit like a labyrinth.

When looking at the paper zine sections, the natural inclination is to take in one page at a time, but that doesn’t necessarily fit their individual layout as they simultaneously advance different narratives. The individual narratives also begin and end somewhat randomly; each with different page counts and pacing as they advance across the page spreads. To complicate things, the glossy PDF pages are interspersed in the middle of matte paper zine sections, narratives still unfolding, and vice versa — the design of the book again switching before any one narrative is fully resolved. This might sound confusing — and it is — but it is also delightful; each time I open this book, I see something new. Making the effort to follow one zine from beginning to end, skipping across sections and ignoring parallel narratives, reveals one set of ideas, while finding patterns and relationships between juxtapositions of different zines shows something else entirely. Layering and mixing of all these different stories is also more than just a visual strategy, it perfectly replicates the incredible social and personal complexity and that define the times represented in the book. Collectively, this all provides an innovative and illuminating way to engage with Marcopoulos’s work.

I was so smitten with the design of Ari Marcopoulos: Zines, that I looked up the designer, Roger Willem, to learn a bit more about his work and how it manifests in this book. Based in the Netherlands, Willem has incredibly interesting style — specializing in books, zines, and exhibitions — and creates projects and publications that feel minimal, tactile and contemporary. Willem runs Roma Publications, a fine arts publisher based in the Netherlands, and has developed projects with a remarkable array of interesting artists and photographers, including Thomas Ruff, Mark Manders, Geert Goiris, Dana Lixenburg, Jan Kempenaers and Erik van der Weijde. Roma Publications also has a history with Marcopoulos, having published Upstream, an exhibition catalog and artist book published in 2022, Heterotemporality, an innovative publication about inside and outside, AINSI SOIT-IL “SO BE IT,” a book about a trip Marcopoulos and Walker made to Nova Scotia to visit Frank and Leaf, and Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament, a book about a summer basketball event in Brooklyn. All these books were designed by Willem, and thus it shows that he was able to execute Ari Marcopoulos: Zines with an intimate understanding of the artist’s work and its evolution.

There is a lot more to say about Ari Marcopoulos: Zines. It’s such a dense and interesting publication that confronts important issues of race, society and creativity, but given its investigation of such difficult subject matter, I think it is important to leave room for a more personal and visceral response. With so much material to engage with in the book it can be hard to focus on the individual projects represented, though I do want to point out: For Kara from Ari: Brooklyn August 2015, Making Books, a delightful zine documenting Kara drawing, and TC, a six-page zine about the brilliant jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, picturing Taylor sitting on his bed talking to Marcopoulos, a bottle of champagne in the foreground. Having connected with Ari Marcopolous: Zines, I took a closer look at some of his other books. I still feel the same hesitancy in engaging some of his work grounded in youth culture, but I also have a much clearer understanding of the photographer’s significance and see this new Aperture monograph as a masterful expression of the best parts of his work.

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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.