The subtitle to Lewis Koch’s Touchless Automatic Wonder is “Found text photographs from the real world”. There is no doubt that Koch is attuned to the abundant text that we swim through on a daily basis, to notice those juxtapositions that naturally occur, or with a little sleight of framing, creating poignant stories. Many times, like the photographs of David Carol, these are humorous, witty, and ironic.
Much like a classic newspaper story, Koch utilizes black and white photographs to tell his photographic stories, not allowing color to become a distraction to the viewer and perhaps verve off the intended track. Distilling his images down to black and white ensures that his textural messages have the necessary contrast and delineation for readability and potential comprehension.
Although most of the individual images work well, Koch is also very adept at editing and pairing photographs across the page spreads to provide a little more biting story. The combinations can be very subtle, such as the spread illustrated below. The photograph on the left includes a poster of a smiling Reagan and Bush shaking hands, while on the facing page is a full bleed (hope you note the implications) photograph of a gray statue containing two soldiers, arms crossed and appearing very grim and unapproving. The added external context found in the accompanying captions identifies that this statuary is part of a war memorial. It is probably not a random or chance event that the photograph of the Reagan and Bush poster reveals that the poster itself is faded, torn and deteriorating.
In this regard to Koch’s photographs, I find myself thinking of Terry Barrett’s description of the photographic work of Martin Parr as someone who “unites a political awareness with humor focused on the mundane.”
Upon first reading, many of his images seem humorous and ironic, but occasionally when referring to the accompanying index of captions provided at the conclusion of the book, the photographs take on a sad poignancy as you begin to comprehend the external contexts. Probably none more so than the photograph of the nude sunbathers in Germany enjoying a leisurable day soaking up a rare summer sun. The copy of Der Taggesspiegel being causally read does not fully divulge all of the critical events of the day, as it was this day “as the Chernobyl cloud passed invisibly overhead” (1986).
Meanwhile, the singular images read very well. A dour looking white-face clown stands facing the photographer with the ironic text We Ha Fun Yet written on his shirt. At an apparent sales lot, multiple OK signs are festooned on the abandoned and rundown property. A pair of doors on the side of a building, with a number 3 on both doors and a giant spray-painted 3 and arrow pointing to the same doors, belabors the obvious.
There is a Walker Evans element to a photograph of a billboard poster that has been composed to extract the paired text of Alive with Pleasure in juxtaposition with Cancer, Heart Disease & Emphysema. Subtlety located within the in the lower corner of the frame, a smiling face of a woman’s face is being reflected on the windshield of the car. So does this inclusive face provide approval or disapproval of the message, perhaps as though laughing at this new contextual combination? Upon closer examination, there is the realization that because of the orientation of the windshield, this smiling reflection appears horizontal, perhaps similar to a prone position of lying in a hospital bed. I will admit that this photograph is difficult for me, as I recall my dad lying with advance cancer in his hospital bed, joking about his “cancer sticks”. Regretfully this was not a humorous occasion.
There is the photograph of the heart-shaped clock, which is situated such that the heart provides the missing O for the surrounding word LOVE and adjacent to the Free Tibet sticker on the window. Another photograph includes three plumb paper covered figurines are hanging in the foreground, and then subtly in the background on the edge is a cartoon of a laughing chef who appears to be very amused by this sight. There is pair of facing photographs which if the text would continuously flow across the spread, reads Elmer, Randy and Harv (are) Lookin’ For Love.
The words within the title photograph when you string the text across the adjacent signage reads Touchless Automatic Wonder, but yet looming overhead is a suspended hand, with a giant index finger extended out, pointing straight down. The finger, as though in direct contradiction to the implied message, appears that it is about to touch something. One implied message is that regardless how ardently automatio is pursued; some human intervention always seems to be required.
The hardcover book has a text wrap cover and is a nice example of a photobook still printed and bound in the United States.
By Douglas Stockdale
Update: additional resource link for Koch is here.