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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review P.North Photographs by Kathryn McCool Reviewed by Blake Andrews “Who the heck is Kathryn McCool, and why have I not heard of her before? That’s what I kept asking myself as I paged through her astonishing debut P.North..."

P.North. By Kathryn McCool.
Photographs by Kathryn McCool
Perimeter Editions, Melbourne, Australia, 2023. 96 pp., 7¼x8¾".

Who the heck is Kathryn McCool, and why have I not heard of her before? That’s what I kept asking myself as I paged through her astonishing debut P.North. After all, photographic voices this assured and distinctive do not just fall from the sky (excepting occasional savants like V. Maier). They generally take years to mature. But McCool was still a young adult when she shot much of P.North in the 1980s and 90s. Her photos flew under the radar at the time, and that’s still the case. She’s had a few photo exhibitions in Australia and her native country New Zealand, directed short films, and sung harmony as half of The Haints of Dean Hall. A renaissance woman down under.

For a while, McCool’s pictures came in fits and starts. She shot b/w film diligently — “I could spend maybe a month getting 12 shots” — but rarely had the time or funds to make prints or proof sheets. Gradually her negatives accumulated into a long-running project called “Jubilee Years”. An invitation to show at Photo Australia in 2021 helped catalyze their curation and put them on Perimeter’s radar. P. North is the resulting photobook. The title is adapted from a McCool photo of “Palm North” scrawled on an old car door. Abbreviated into a cypher, P.North becomes an amorphous catch-all, a dreamland into which McCool can slot all sorts of odd findings.

Although much of P.North was shot in New Zealand, McCool’s photos are not necessarily about that country or any specific location. “I really worked hard to have a sense of non place in the book,” she explained in a recent interview. She photographed road crossings, signs, animals and buildings, all “strangely directionless even though they’re headed somewhere.” But her primary focus was people, and portraits comprise the vast majority of P.North. She had a natural instinct for poses and expressions. That applied humans of course, but also buildings and animals. Wherever she aimed her Rollieflex, it seems she filled its square frame with easy command, the photo equivalent of Cinderella’s shoe.

Although McCool photographed a range of ages, she was partial to children. “Childhood was a place I just recently left,” she says. “Basically I was dragged screaming out of childhood.” Photos of a freckled boy under a parasol or teen hunters by a truck bed might be an effort to turn back the clock. Both exude a timeless magic. In other frames, she documents a young girl with an armband matching a trailer, a go-carting kid with a penetrating stare, and a turtlenecked boy floating in a ghostly light leak. None are captioned. If that leaves them resistant to dates, names or memories, they are spellbinding as pure images. They prick the subconscious ineffably, in the vein of Rosalind Fox Solomon, Diane Arbus or Lisette Model.

There are adults too in the mix, along with their lyric documentary backgrounds. All are expertly composed, then placed into heterogenous sequence. Taken together P.North has a cinematic quality, as if its photos are stills from a strange feature film. They appear in the book one per spread on uncoated stock. If the tonality is slightly flattened and muddy, it doesn’t detract much, because everything else about them is perfect.

In a contemporary photobook culture that seems increasingly centered on rhetoric and conceptual theory, it’s refreshing to encounter a no-frills monograph of simple observations. This is a plain white book of photos rooted in the pleasure of seeing. What makes it work is McCool’s unique photographic voice. Her debut monograph is an unexpected treat. She may have worked in the shadows until now, but the photo world is officially put on notice.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at