If this is your first taste of Kessels, you have a lot of catching up to do.
Anyone interested in photography should know the work of Erik Kessels. He’s worked on more than 60 books, and, if you’ve see one, you’ll want to see them all. But unlike collector-photographers like Martin Parr, whose books either assemble his own work or curate the work of others, the majority of Kessels’ titles are collections of vernacular photography. In other words: most of Kessels’ books consist of photos he didn’t take himself. Yet he has such a keen conceptual eye that his projects are unmistakably his. Aperture’s thick but light-hearted tome The Many Lives of Erik Kessels is a welcome survey of his sprawling publication and exhibition history, a veritable Readers Digest Condensed Books of one of the great contemporary photobook makers.
“People consume photos – they don’t know how to look at them anymore,” Kessels explains. In a society saturated with images, it’s easy to ignore the potential for delight and power in even the most ordinary images. But this isn’t exactly akin to the William Eggleston school of ordinary subjects photographed with an eye towards art. The title of one of Kessels’s first projects fairly sums up his aesthetic: Useful Photography.
This magazine-sized series, which began in 2001 and is now in its 13th volume, gathers varieties of images with practical purposes; an early volume was nothing but page after page of images that depicted items for sale on eBay. That may sound like the definition of tedium (or consumerism), but Kessels, one of the series editors, found the beauty in the banal. A photo of the back of an audio speaker on a pool table was good enough for an issue’s cover, a deadpan piece of art that’s boring and hilarious at the same time.
The series In Almost Every Picture, now up to volume 14, documents larger series of found photos, like those taken by a Montreal restaurant of customers bottle-feeding a piglet at their table; or of a black dog whose owners struggled to get a picture of him that didn’t look like an indistinct blur. The series also covered the digital era, as in a book of images from an early photoblog about the rabbit Oolong, whose owner took advantage of his pet’s flat head by placing objects from a roll of toilet paper to a can of soup on its head and taking a photo of it.
But this series could also get tragic: a collection of photos depicting “sisters” – two female friends who liked to dress alike – turns poignant in later photos when you see only one woman, with space left for her absent honorary twin, whom we presume had died.
Despite the ironic distance in much of this work, Kessels also demonstrates the emotional weight of seemingly unremarkable images. One such photograph can almost be deemed an origin story. In 1977, when Kessels was still a boy, his sister was killed, and as part of his family’s grieving process, they tried to find the very last photograph taken of her. The photo was cropped and enlarged to focus on the girl, a reminder that you can look at an image of a group of people and have no idea of its inherent drama. This black and white photograph of a girl sitting on a pool chair makes up the entirety of One Image, an exhibit that compels the viewer to invest themselves in the history of a homegrown candid whose vintage camera patina magnifies the elusive, bittersweet nature of the image, summing up a family trauma in a way that words could not begin to convey.
Kessels even made a vinyl LP of people snoring. The Many Lives of Erik Kessels provides only a sample of his consistently entertaining and provocative publications. An Erik Kessels joint shows you the kinds of images you have seen a million times, but makes you look at them in a different way. Even if you already have a bookshelf dedicated to his work you’ll likely find something here that passed you by. If this is your first taste of Kessels, you have a lot of catching up to do.