Book Review by James R. Hugunin
TOUCHLESS AUTOMATIC WONDER, a photographic book by Lewis Koch
(Borderland Books, Madison, WI, 2009) ISBN: 978-0-9815620-4-9
112 pages, 79 duotones, hard cover, edition of 1500
. . . the fragment [is] not simply . . . the static part of some once-whole thing but as itself something in motion. It is my understanding of physics that atoms behave in certain predictable, rational ways, but when they are shattered, their pieces go off in all directions to perform spectacular acts of creation and destruction. It is precisely this volatility, this unpredictability, these reverberations that I see in the fragment and in its effects in history. . . . It is the fragment and the fragmentary state that are the enduring and normative conditions; conversely, it is the whole that is ephemeral, and the state of wholeness that is transitory.
-- "Introduction" to The Fragment: an Incomplete History, William Tronzo
For further documentation of projects, and images:
Garageography 3.0.7, a virtual tour of a 2006 public art project
(note: allow 20 sec to load)
Touchless Automatic Wonder, an overview of work prior to 2001
"I like seeing things and I like words. There is something revelatory about the two together, an almost pentecostal feeling of seeing in tongues," writes Madison, Wisconsin-based photographer, Lewis Koch, in the introduction to his photobook Touchless Automatic Wonder (2009).
Lewis Koch (2008) James Hugunin
Seeing in tongues -- an incisive metaphor for this carefully considered sequence of seventy-nine images redacted from photographs made on four continents over a period of twenty-five years. Right-brain and left-brain rub against each other, sparking enigmatic word-in-image productions, leaving us, well, wondering. Rejecting modernist, purist photography's aversion to the encroachment of language, embracing the late John Gutmann's passion for a language-suffused world, Koch has made the postmodern "linguistic turn," seeing our mass-mediated world today as a complex scripto-visual topology, fragments of which are wittily caught in the net of his camera's frame.
Automobile covered with political signs, San
Francisco, California, USA (1938) John Gutmann
Working with these visual fragments, the "ruins" our postmodern life-world, Koch constructs a concatenation of truths about our contemporary damaged world, a visual parallel to Theodor Adorno's insight that the "fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality," such that in our damaged world the "whole is the untrue" (Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, Adorno). For instance, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, USA (1981) a four-legged sign seems to graze like a cow on a rolling Wisconsin slope, its message wholly discombobulated, a creature babbling its first attempt at words. Formally, the image is constructed out of various line segments: the arrow-topped sign with legs, telephone poles, that tall pole whose supposed sign on top is cropped out of frame, and the added touch of a jetliner's contrail far above; below, that gentle curve of the horizon contrasts nicely against all those straight lines. An incisive composition which asserts itself as a fragment made out of other fragments.
Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, USA (1981) Lewis Koch
As if to suggest a kind of "Rosetta Stone" in relation to this and other images that follow, this handsomely-printed book's frontispiece depicts a stone tablet, a fragment found in the Catedral Vieja, Salamanca, Spain on which is carved a jumbled, dyslexic version of he Roman alphabet; on the title page opposite one notes the book's subtitle: "Found Text from the Real World."
Catedral Vieja, Salamanca, Spain (2002) Lewis Koch
Further into the book, Preacher's signboard, Tracy City, Tennessee, USA (1994) depicts these letters, now formed into fragmented words -- Come, Steal, Destroy, Might -- a tightly-cropped array of words with a powerful range of possible meanings depending upon context; here context is made ambiguous through cropping. Other times, Koch achieves the same by obscuring the text with people and objects, or through the fact that the text has partially peeled off. The found text is freed from its semantic moorings, letting the textual fragments float connotatively into our minds where we are challenged to make our own sense of it.
Preacher's signboard, Tracy City, Tennessee, USA (1994) Lewis Koch
What follows in the book are some of the most thought-provoking images (signs) one has seen-read; a carefully arranged collection where the-play-of-the-signifier ("Sign ever[y]thing," reads J. L. Nipper's studio door in one of Koch's photos) has been given maximum latitude by scene chosen, manner of cropping, and the unseen machinations of human agency behind the textual component of the image. In turn, one's latitude of possible responses range from laughter (that "almost Be S" looking like judgmental margin gloss next to the image of the blonde hitchhiker on the sign-painter's ad), to head-scratching puzzlement (the question mark sign on a barren, frozen lake), to utter wonder (a math problem worked out in what looks like fragments of rolled dough).
J.L. Nipper's studio door, Hoodoo, Tennessee, USA (1994) Lewis Koch
Sign painter Glen Seidner's shop sign, Hermann, Missouri, USA (1990) Lewis Koch
Minocqua Lake, Minocqua, Wisconsin, USA (1999) Lewis Koch
Young monk's math practice, Upper Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India (1995) Lewis Koch
Many of the images in Koch's book could be generally described by the phrase "things fall apart," so prevalent is the theme of entropy. Small town Vietnam war memorial,Wisconsin, USA (1990) is startling in that a list of names on a war memorial have been permitted to be reduced to state of utter dishevelment. Soldiers' names, the memory of their sacrifice, are given the same kind of indifference they were subjected to by their government in the first place. In a succinct visual statement, Koch is able to say as much or more about war, memory, and death than Edward Kienholz did in his controversial installation, Portable War Memorial (1968).
Portable War Memorial (mixed media installation, 1968) Edward Kienholz
Small town Vietnam war memorial,Wisconsin, USA (1990) Lewis Koch
Koch's production bears comparison with other significant artistic production, especially as not a few of Koch's images pay homage to earlier photographers. Photo studio storefront, San Francisco, California, USA (1998) is an obvious homage with a twist to Photographer's Window Display, Birmingham, Alabama, USA (1936), an image in Walker Evans's classic photobook, American Photographs (1938). Whereas Evans's image presents a perfect grid with the word STUDIO clearly rendered across it, Koch's grid of portraits is found in disarray and the text is fragmentary, peeling off.
Photographer's Window Display, Birimingham, Alabama, USA (1936) and Billboards and Frame Houses,
Georgia (1936), cover of the 1975 edition of American Photographs (1938) Walker Evans
Photo studio storefront, San Francisco, California, USA (1998) Lewis Koch
Both Evans and Koch level a critical eye at commercial America during times of national distress; both offer a new view of the American vernacular through minute particulars of the world. But Evans composes his subjects quite formally with a view camera, often frontally. Koch's hand camera is wielded in a freer fashion like Robert Frank did in The Americans (1959). Moreover, where Evans's subject was the changing face of American society in his day, Koch's reach is global, indicating the inexorable march of American late-capitalism and popular culture into foreign lands and the suffusion of the foreign into our homeland as seen in Thai restaurant, New York, New York, USA (1990), where such disparate symbols as the Buddha and U.S. currency are shoved up against each other, a visual comment that recalls similar imagery in Frank's photobook, The Americans. Recall such images as Santa Fe, New Mexico (1955-56), where the SAVE sign oversees an anthropomorphic congregation of gasoline pumps (the word is semantically ambiguous and could refer to saving one's soul or saving money at the pump, suggesting a corrupting of religious sentiment); and St. Francis, gas station, and City Hall, Los Angeles (1955-56), which figures that symbol of poverty and piety gesturing his crucifix toward a decadent postwar capitalist society in need of salvation.
Santa Fe, New Mexico and St. Francis, gas station, and City Hall, Los Angeles (both 1955-56) Robert Frank
Another fruitful comparison can be made. Koch's Madison, Wisconsin, USA (1986) is an obvious reference to Margaret Bourke-White's well-known Great Depression document, At the Time of the Louisville Flood (1937). Similarities and differences between these two photographs are instructive. Both contrast commercial boosterism with a harsher reality: poverty and breadlines in Bourke-White's case, disease-plagued society in Koch's. The exacerbation of cancer, heart disease, and lung disorders in our fast-food glutted, polluted environment referenced in Koch's image contrasts with Bourke-White's focus on natural disasters.Yet in Koch's version, the car's windshield reflects a virtual image simpatico with Jean Baudrillard's famous conception of automobile windshields as "screens" on which our reality is projected as we are propelled through our visual simulacrum; in contradistinction, the window in Bourke-White's billboard is transparent, revealing a firmer sense of reality, the nuclear family within. Where Bourke-White's image asserts an empirical epistemology appropriate for her day, Koch's gives us a conventionalist epistemology resonant with our postmodern world where simulacra are fast edging out "the real."
Thai restaurant, New York, New York, USA (1990) Lewis Koch
At the Time of the Louisvillle Flood (1937) Margaret Bourke-White
Madison, Wisconsin, USA (1986) Lewis Koch
The absent-real and the political run through Koch's book; for instance, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, USA (1999) that much-despised store, Walmart, has seemingly vanished and its entrance sign uprooted like a tree hit by a Midwestern tornado. The sign pitches out toward us from a black night sky, but its shadow retreats backwards and to the side. The actual store is replaced here with an unruly fragment, its abjected signage. Anti-big-box store advocates can rub their hands in glee at this instance of a damaged world.
Manitowoc, Wisconsin, USA (1999) Lewis Koch
This dark, damaged world of Koch's Walmart shows up in Chicago photographer Barbara Crane's Monster Series from the early 1980s -- just seen by this writer is her traveling retrospective -- but in a more concentrated form. Another image in Touchless -- Watermelon Days midway, Pardeeville, Wisconsin, USA (1990) -- shows Koch similarly using close-up to render fragments enigmatic, but now textual elements absent from Crane's approach -- a tic-tac-toe grid, the word "fuck," etc. -- are featured.
Monster Series (1982-83) Barbara Crane
Watermelon Days midway, Pardeeville, Wisconsin, USA (1990) Lewis Koch
In summary, Koch takes the "garbage" of our everyday life, the fragments of surviving stuff scattered about, and takes responsibility for it, in a visual sense. He's a bricoleur making intelligent pictorial concatenations of our cultural leftovers, conferring different meanings and possible functions on these fragments and pieces, permitting us the pleasure of joining him in wondering about all that stuff out there.
Tibetan Uprising Day, Upper Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India (1996) Lew Koch
Koch's conception of the fragment as developed in these photographs puts in question the very idea of a unified totality and leads us toward a new conception of totality as non-unified, fragmented or dismembered, however paradoxical that notion may seem. This new book will be a welcome companion on your bookshelf next to those classics, Evans's American Photographs and Frank's The Americans.
-- The End --
James Hugunin teaches Photographic History and Critical Theory at The
School of the Art Institute and is the Managing Editor of U-Turn E-zine