This Week In Photography Books: Carolyn Drake

by Jonathan Blaustein

I didn’t sleep well last night. Forgive me if I ramble on. I’ve got no other options.

That’s the thing with a weekly column. The deadline is always there. Over the years, you learn to live with it. Rather than a demarcation of stress, the looming responsibility becomes a comfort, as my young daughter always clings to her fuzzy pink blanket. (Which she calls Cokie.)

It’s been years now, that I share my musings and life experiences with you: the nameless audience. You’ve been around for my ups and downs. As I write, some of the downs come back around again, like a decrepit ferris wheel in a faraway carnival.

The cages creak, in need of oil. The rust has overtaken the paint. Soon enough, it will all be a cacophony of textured brown. Like the desert, if it were only slightly darker in color.

Why didn’t I sleep last night? Because I’ve caught one hell of a wicked virus. The kind that makes my throat feel like a thousand tiny knives are puncturing my skin, every time I swallow. I had one of these bugs a few years ago, and wrote about it then. (Do you remember?)

Now, I’ve gotten another. Not two seconds ago, I swallowed, and the scratchy pain flooded my brain with cortisol. Yet the ferris wheel keeps spinning, and the book pile looms in the background, filled with goodies about which I expound, for your pleasure, every week.

What about today? Can you tell that I’m half-bonkers? Does it matter? What if I found a book, on my very first try, that matched my loopy mood perfectly, like yin abuts yang, forever in harmony?

Would it be possible? What would such a book look like?

I’m glad you asked.

“Wild Pigeons” is a new book by Carolyn Drake, recently produced by Colour & Books. That is was one of two books in my stack with pigeons in the title seems beyond coincidental. That it is the second book in a week that dares to “Put a Bird on It” is less surprising, as there would not be a cliché, there would be no smoke, without the fire.

I didn’t know it was Ms. Drake’s book though. Her name, and the title, are on the spine only, and I didn’t bother looking. So all I got was three white birds on a white cover. Honestly, such a book could be about anything. Presumably birds, but last week’s bird book was about the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, so I was curious.

Oh yes.

It opens with a section of pages that are shorn shorter than what will come later. Two text pages greet us, the second states “I cannot tell if I am dreaming or awake.” Which is exactly how I feel at the moment, hopped up on honey tea and pain killers.

Then, we see a grave, below prayer flags, in a desert. After, a portrait on a wall: four boys with their heads covered with a certain kind of hat, like a yarmulke, only bigger. Then, more desert. And more desert still. A brown-skinned man on a motorcycle. A woman on the ground. A boy perched upon wires, tied by rope to a man on the ground.

Where are we? What is going on?

Time to guess, I thought. I supposed we were in Central Asia, though Mongolia did pop in my mind as well. Not enough grassland for Mongolia, though. We see headscarves, and farmers, yet lush things grow as well.

The words “fever dream” popped into my head, but that’s really not a phrase I ever use.

We get to the wider pages, and the orientation shifts entirely. You flip the book sideways, and are met with collage images. Some have text written on them. It is trippy, this book, and I like it very much. Very much indeed.

At some point, I see the word Uyghour, and then it makes sense. The asiatic features. The vast deserts. The head scarves. We are in Western China, I realize, and it has all been hinted at perfectly, so far.

Eventually, the pages shrink again, and we are back to straight photography. Apple carts, and pit bulls lunging. Cow throats slit in the streets, blacksmiths, and billiard games too. There are still blacksmiths in 2015? (Of course, silly American. Of course.)

Holy shit. This book is wild. If I were in a normal state of mind, I’m sure it would induce a sort of temporary insanity. As I am already temporarily insane, I feel like this book was made just for me.

The pages widen again, the orientation flips. Again. And now the photographs are at night. The close of the story. When the bats fly, and trouble canvasses the streets like a beat cop trying to avoid boredom.

Eventually, we reach the end text. A long story, translated for our benefit. A statement by the artist, who explains that the collages were her way of getting the local Uyghurs in Xinjiang to participate in her project. Anonymously. (She spent years visiting the place, and dug deep into the culture.)

Stranger still, there is a brief interview between the artist, an old grandfather, and an interpreter. Why is it stranger still? Because it’s printed on the back cover.

Somewhere, the ghost of Jack Kerouac is reading this review. He is judging me, and unfortunately, I’ve come up short. (“Listen, man. I get the vibe you’re grooving for. I do. I do. But it doesn’t feel quite right to me, man. Like, maybe you were trying too hard? Or maybe you weren’t on enough drugs? You know what I’m saying? The book though… it’s pretty hip. Hip, man. Hip.”)

Bottom Line: Amazing, innovative, mind-altering book made in the true hinterlands of Earth

To Purchase “Wild Pigeons” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 2 Comments On This Article.

  1. Well i couldn’t sleep, too, as some wild Cambodian pigeons were noisily attacking my outdoor lighting, maybe to get some bugs for a nighttime snack? They have just come back, walking cunningly through my front yard while i read your book review and soak in the splendid images.
    Cheers.