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Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review Current Condition Photographs by Nina Strand Reviewed by Meggan Gould "Here in my house, we spend a lot of time projecting human language and emotions onto our dogs. Anthropomorphizing is a fixture of our relationship with these patient canines (see?), doomed to inhabit elaborately spun personae and affectations..."

Current ConditionBy Nina Strand.
Current Condition
Photographs by Nina Strand

Journal, 2023. In English. 106 pp., 95 color images, 6x8¼".

Last year, reviewing Re’gis de Gasperi’s Box of Illusions, I delighted in a minor coincidence: a forty-six-year-old-me looking at a book by a forty-six-year-old artist contemplating the particularities of his age. One year later, I pick up Nina Strand’s Current Condition, and I flinch: now I find a forty-seven-year-old-me looking at the work of a forty-seven-year-old artist also contemplating the particularities of our shared age. Perhaps photo-eye needs to stop suggesting such irritatingly age-appropriate books to review.

My current condition: forty-seven, and often cranky at the world. But cheered by this book, somehow.

A succinct description on the back cover sets the stage:
According to a recent study, ‘stress’ is the word most commonly used by today’s forty-somethings. What is this stress about? What do we want? 
Current Condition is a photo-novel in four chapters, on how to navigate adult life.
If only my adult life looked a bit more like the one Strand presents at surface value herein — a life of Parisian flânerie and relaxed philosophizing. The artist, in the company of a different interlocutor in each of four (seasonal) chapters, wanders the storied streets of Paris. They walk and chat, enjoying the occasional respite of a sidewalk café or one of the city’s iconic, green-slatted benches. I admit to some acute stirrings of jealousy. I say to myself, with some rancor: that could have been me, if I had stayed. Later, to my family, dreamily, over dinner: can we move to Paris?

Each page presents a photograph with conversational text as caption. The photographs are 35mm in format, vernacular in effect. Each couple is dispassionately presented in the center of the frame, often frozen with mouth agape, mid-word, mid-gesticulation. Sometimes they face the camera or are in profile, other times we stalk them, Sophie Calle-style. There are exactly two exceptions within the photographs: in the first, a sticker on a municipal sign pole, a crude outline of a facepalm. The caption: “— Maybe there’s a reason to be ashamed? — We should probably do something.” In the second, a singular vertical image of a bookstore display, books on feminism on display in the vitrine. The caption: “We don’t. We never win.”

The rhythm-breaking difference between these two images lends them clout, despite their ostensible banality, and together they summarize the conversations: Bourgeois shame and existential angst are splayed against a backdrop of middle-aged feminism. The dialogue is delightful in its pithiness, meandering from despair to protest and change, with invocations of dick pics and hashtags along the way.

Underlying stressors, as noted, are pervasive in image and text alike, despite the relaxed perambulation visualized in the photographs. These are pandemic times, and the protagonists mask up in the métro and upon entering restaurants. The irony, however, of sitting at a café with coffee and eau plate in a glass bottle while discussing how to “take a stand,” to “actually say something,” is clearly not lost on the artist.

I write this in a coffee shop, sipping on a mug of coffee, the size of which one would be hard-pressed to find in Paris. My own current condition, stressed by heat and traffic and scheduling sports and playdates, is one that is quickly consumed by trivialities. I’m not solving much, it seems, but I can indeed commiserate with middle-class, middle-aged anguish over how to self-actualize while watching humanity self-destruct. I eavesdrop on several tables of conversational coffee-friendships around me, wondering if I will find any similarities to Strand’s fictionalized discourse between peers, looking for shared snippets of muddled existential crisis, pierced with moments of clarity. I catch one about debt, another about the bible, a third about bartending. I stop listening.

Later in the day, I think of this book while my partner and I discuss the merits of dental floss iterations. We wonder, aloud: How many dead turtles is our oral hygiene worth? I think of Strand, and imagine someone lurking behind us, photographing our ablutions while we casually throw around the weight of individual and societal needs. Which takes me back to daydreaming about Paris. About a Benjaminian stroll with Nina Strand. In it, I would acknowledge the immensity and banality of our shared concerns, perhaps, and commiserate over the futility of solving them.

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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.