Man Unraveling by Alice Wong measures a diminutive 11.5 centimetres by 10 centimetres; I have two other photobooks of similar size, one a flipbook of Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse Galloping (1887), the other a Chinese photo-novel of an unknown film. Both are relevant to Wong’s publication, which is based on a series of photographs of the designer Valentino Garavani. You can flick through the pages as with a flipbook or movie projection, reintegrating each shot into a longer sequence. The twist is that Wong has messed with these images, using bright and heavy-handed paint to abstract and add clownlike touches.
Wong created these images at San Francisco’s Creative Growth Art Center, an organisation for artists with developmental disabilities; TBW Books recently published another book by Wong, Painting Photographs, which includes an interview with outsider art collector Bruno Decharme. I didn’t know Wong worked at Creative Growth, or think of her as an outsider, when I first saw Man Unraveling. For me, the book plays directly into concerns around photography and objectification, the camera’s ability to slice the world into frames and put it behind a fourth wall.
In particular, I’ve been thinking about how photography objectifies as I work on the Photoworks organisation’s Annual publication, which I’ve given the theme ‘The Thing’. I’ve been wondering how artists push back at this technology, messing with the surface or frame of an image to demonstrate that it’s there. Drawing on theorists such as Ariella Aisha Azoulay, Martin Jay, and Aimé Césaire, The Thing is an attempt to de-familiarise a particular perspective, associated with imperialism, commodification, and, I’m arguing, photography.
I’m also drawing on bell hooks and her essay ‘marginality as a site of resistance’ (1989), which argues that those on the margins have extra insight into social norms. I find terms such as ‘outsider’ complicated, bound up with questions of power and which perspectives get to be heard. In unpicking photography so concisely, elegantly, and humorously, Man Unraveling seems to me a sophisticated insight into something fundamental.
Photoworks Annual 29: The Thing will be published in October. Man Unraveling by Alice Wong is published by TBW Books: <https://tbwbooks.com/products/man-unraveling>.
Note to the reader. This article is part of Trigger’s 2023 ‘Summer Read’ series. We invited writers, researchers, photographers and curators to share what is currently occupying their mind through one publication they have been (re)reading during summer. What matters to them is now being recast as a challenge for today. Highly personal entries to a diversity of publications (photobooks, studies, monography, essay, historical research) lead us – readers of these readers – to reorient our gaze on (the history of) images and photography.