I think that Mona Kuhn’s new photobook, Bordeaux Series, and her fourth with the publisher Steidl, may be her best to date. Each book has the nude as one as one her principal subjects, but in this book she intertwines the nude portraits of individuals with another theme to raise unanswerable and beguiling questions.
In her previous books, she explored a narrative that investigates time, although the duration appeared to be one day, it deviled into questions about change and permanence. In the current book, the subtext seems to be constructed around the meaning of a location. Although the photographs appear to be created at a specific location, the ensuing lack of specificity allows the viewer to create places of our making.
In this book Kuhn again mixes landscape with her portraits as she did in Native, but this time the landscapes are at a mid-distance and rendered in black and white, while the nude portraits are intimate with tight framing in color. An interesting intersection of two different bodies of work that perhaps at first glance seem dissimilar. Black and white photographs that lend to the more abstract and subjective narratives mixed with the objective and photo-realism of color. Landscape is also a more abstract reality that mankind constructs and which does not really exist without the viewers intervention, while an individual appears to exists entirely on their own merits. She seems to ask why is this and how do these two variations on reality mesh?
The very first photography in the book, a black and white landscape which crosses the two page spread, is a little blurry and suggests motion, that we are moving toward something and that we maybe in transit. It sets the tone for the book, creating a little unease and off-balance, hinting at a bit of kinetic energy that counter-balances the calm and still portraits.
The portraits are of her fellow naturalist who are again tanned, sensual and contemplative. The ages of her subjects appear to vary a little more in this book, but her emphasis is still upon young adults. Unlike much of her earlier work, she does not seem to direct or create faux situations, but only to ask for an individual to confront her lens, thus through the photographer to contemplate the viewer. I think that these are her best portraits to date, direct and unassuming.
As might be hoped, the pairing of photographs in the book creates interesting narratives, as individuals appear to be gazing at each other across the facing spread. One example, illustrated below, is of an older woman who warmly gazes out of the frame toward the opposite page, which is a portrait of two men. Why this pairing, who is she and why would Kuhn have this arrangement, could the two men be her son with his son? As Kuhn continues to draw on her family and friends as subjects, these three individuals are her subjects in her earlier books, thus creating a dimension of passing time, similar to Nicholas Nixon’s evolving photographs of his wife and her sisters.
Likewise, there is a pair of facing photographs of a young woman made at two different time points. On one page she stands facing the viewer, her gaze direct and unflinching, her face framed by some unruly and damp hair. On the facing page, she is younger and in the encircling grasp of an older woman, a wonderful image that recalls a Madonna and child. Perhaps they are mother and daughter, as this photograph brings to mind thoughts of maternal love, in which a mothers arms encircle the child, who is now in the other’s protective grasp.
Lastly, there are numerous pairs of facing photographs in which there is a black and white landscape on one side facing a color portrait on the other. I think that this is where Kuhn is directly introducing the possibility of equivalence. How do these two different photographs relate to each and how might a viewer read this? I find these combinations the most thought-provoking as well as where my gaze lingers and places I usually return to.
The photobook as an object, the hardcover is an image wrap that is beautifully printed and bound in Germany. The large size of the book provides wonderful interior images, but in conjunction with the thin contents does permit the entire book to flex a little more than I would care for. However, the book’s binding does allow this large book to lay flat, a very nice feature. Kuhn’s Afterword is provided in both English and French, the book is paginated. Although there is a list of plates, I am not sure why the inclusion as it provides minimal information other than perhaps as a reference for her collectors to order prints.
Many of the black and white photographs are printed full bleed across two page spreads, while all of the color portraits are on a single page with a classic white surrounding border.