Evidence was at the crossroads of a number of ideas about art and photography that, in the ‘70s, were still struggling to find mainstream acceptance.
During an oral history project with the Oakland Museum, photographer Larry Sultan, who died in 2009, explained to an interviewer that photography is “like a big finger pointing and saying, ‘look at that’…when you take away all the mystification of craft, and all of the concerns of aesthetics there is something quite blunt and wonderful about ‘look at that, isn’t that amazing?’” This is the spirit behind the photobook Evidence, which Sultan and Mike Mandel first published in 1977, and which has now been reprinted by D.A.P. This slim volume is an essential and highly influential photography book. Particularly remarkable is the fact that the authors didn’t make a single photo inside it.
Evidence was at the crossroads of a number of ideas about art and photography that, in the ‘70s, were still struggling to find mainstream acceptance. Think of the deadpan projects of artist Ed Ruscha, whose Twentysix Gasoline Stations documented a distinct American aesthetic that nobody would have thought was worth recording. Consider such photographers as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston who found beauty in the mundane and ordinary. The dryly hilarious conceptual art of John Baldessari and Robert Heinecken’s use of appropriated images created an order out of a seeming visual chaos that has only become more overwhelming in an era where it is impossible not to be oversaturated with images. It was in this context that Mandel and Sultan sought out images which were not intended for art and, by judicious selection and sequencing, created something that was far more than the sum of its parts.
One of the book’s most startling page juxtapositions is of a disembodied arm holding a stretch of rope, against a blank background. On the opposite page, a massive, deformed foamy shape takes prominence in what looks like a sterile laboratory setting. What is going on here? Mandel and Sultan don’t provide the narrative or even the source of these images; they just present them as formal puzzles, unsolvable mysteries that enchant and perplex.
As originally released, the book came bound in plain, navy blue boards with an embossed title, a design that suggested the official publication of some government agency. Armed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Mandel and Sultan made the book by sorting through some two millions images in the vaults at NASA and various fire, police and utility departments as well as universities and private tech companies.
The artist’s access was granted in a more transparent time, when such agencies and institutions had old photos that they didn’t know what to do with. They didn’t care if a pair of grad students simply wanted to walk away with prints that might just as well be trashed. While both Mandel and Sultan went on to publish notable photography books with images they made themselves, for this project they captured an elusive poetry in images that were made strictly, as the title says, for the sake of evidence.
Taken out of context, photos that were used as empirical, scientific evidence are utterly enigmatic. The first image is of bare footprints stamped in some kind of mess on an oddly-shaped sidewalk, a pencil placed for scale. Yet more than the formal charms of individual images, it’s the juxtapositions that make the book so challenging, frustrating and fascinating.
The artists began their search at NASA’s photo archives, though they weren’t at all interested in pictures of the moon landing. What appealed to them was an image of an astronaut caught, not in space, but on an industrially-bland carpeted floor, doing what looks like push-ups. This is right next to a shot of unidentified metallic scraps with a ruler included for scale; the following pages, of more scrap in some desert scene and finally what looks like the corner of a concrete bunker suggests a narrative of space travel and alienation. But then, what are we to make of the presumably public lawn (with figures sitting on park benches) decked with three hospital beds at odd angles, with trashcans and fire extinguishers nearby. Is this the scene of a testing ground for firefighters?
While the original’s dense essay by Robert Forth, who asks more questions than he answers, is reproduced in the new edition, a more informative essay by Sandra Phillips traces the careers of Mandel and Sultan and the book’s placement in the history of photography. Supplemental material includes a “fake” image that the artists made to see if a colleague could tell which was the odd one out (he could). D.A.P. previously reprinted Evidence in 2004, and both the first edition and reprint have become expensive collector’s items. The only flaw with this new printing is the placement of footnotes in the final essay, but text is beside the point. With a boundless investigative curiosity and a dry wit, this quietly profound book will make you look at the world in a different way. We are all used to photographs that tell us, “look at that!” Evidence doesn’t give you easy answers to that question, which makes you look and ask and think harder.