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Book of the Week: Selected by Christopher J Johnson

Book Review Image Cities Photographs by Anastasia Samoylova Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson "I bet you’ve got a favorite spot near your place if you live in a city..."

Image Cities By Anastasia Samoylova.
Image Cities
Photographs by Anastasia Samoylova

Hatje Cantz, 2023. 168 pp., 100 color illustrations, 9½x11¾".

Where I live (and probably everywhere else too), the public buses frequently have banners advertising healthcare, vacation getaways, banks, engagement rings, bouquets made of fruit but meant to resemble flowers, casinos and many other things. All feature either someone smiling or else a product in a highly sanitized environment, such as a villa or a grassy field or upon a plain white background. Often groups of models convene to show that life is shared, joyous and seemingly, somehow, always takes place on a weekend or a night out. All the banners are photographic, all the people are photogenic. Advertising’s biggest sale is a life of ease, a workspace streamlined for productiveness or a world without cares, a perpetual Sunday — to this point, unless a product or service is for kids, advertisements on the side of the bus are devoid of children.

Sometimes on the bus I see people dressed for a nice event, perhaps an art opening or a recital or a night of dancing or a funeral or church. More often I see people dressed for their occupations: students, construction workers, mechanics, people who sit in cubicles or who serve food. I see mothers and grandmothers with their kids. I see people hauling their groceries. I see the homeless and drunk. I’ve seen people cry on the bus. I’ve seen people watch porn on their phones. And amidst all the passengers a host of drivers; one who even has a bald head and a ZZ Top-style beard and who seems to wear his sunglasses despite daytime or nighttime or bright skies or overcast.

The bus as chimera. The bus as corrupted prism. The bus as both the company mission statement and the reviews of a company left on Glassdoor.

Okay, so as is typical for me, we’ve gotten about 300 words in and I’ve said nothing about Image Cities, but in fact I’ve given you its essence. Image Cities by Anastasia Samoylova captures global centers from around the world. We see how advertisements in these places increasingly focus on the rich and wealthy enjoying their upper-class, spacious-living, smiles-driven lifestyles in larger-than-life banners while the middle (is this a real thing or just something that gets said) and lower classes crouch, walk, sit and work beneath them or in front of them or even install the advertisements. Many of the images are amazingly composed so that the city-dweller and the advertisement appear to be in one and the same world, one and the same plane — an incredible feat, honestly. It is little wonder that David Campany says that the artist is, “at heart a collagist.” in his text for the book.

We’ve seen this collage-like work before in her two previous books Floodzone and Floridas. However, it was not the fulcrum of those books, this maximal collage-like style; so having it take focus so sharply in Image Cities is a nice progression for Samoylova. The viewer of Image Cities should expect to become disoriented, but in a manner that the artist, I feel, is intentionally creating: a certain myopic vortex where reality becomes helplessly blurred.

The result is something like Blade Runner by Kubrick, which sounds unlikely, but there’s an interaction here between glitz and grit, between have and have not and what is and what was only ever imagined.

I have a feeling that if a casual observer, say on a bus, saw me looking through this book from several seats away they’d think I was looking at a fashion magazine filled with Gucci bags and Versace cup holders, bras and keyrings, rather than at the oppression of such things upon the scarcity of today’s hand-to-mouth realities.

What’s a takeaway here? Not too sure. Money makes the cities, makes the buildings of those cities, makes the advertisements on those buildings and only wants to see itself in all it creates despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary toward the living conditions of the average global citizen in an urban environment? Yeah, probably. My takeaway, small as it may seem, is that the bus is the microcosm, the city the macrocosm. Riding the bus you don’t see the adverts; perhaps there’s some reality to them. I wouldn’t know. As a passenger on the bus, perhaps I’m not meant to know.

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Christopher J Johnson is the recipient of The Mountain West Poetry Series first book publication prize (2016). He has written on photobooks since 2012, and has been a bookseller since 2008. He is currently the manager of photo-eye Bookstore.