This Week In Photography Books – Torbjørn Rødland

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was a wee bit angsty last week, I must admit. Trapped in an existential crisis of my own making, I freely rhapsodized about the meaning of it all. Quelle surprise.

I don’t want to imply, though, that everything in life is or should be earnest. We’re all doing the best we can, using our creative outlets to bring attention to deserving stories, release our pent-up mental tension, or allow joy into our lives. Art is process more than product.

Just yesterday, though, I realized that the string of books I chose to highlight recently was misery-laden. This space is well-utilized, I believe, if you come to read each week, and learn something about the world through the visions of talented image makers. But the human experience is not limited to death, chaos and violence.

Frankly, when we focus exclusively on the negative, we do ourselves a disservice. In a week like this, when terror again shook the United States, and an even bigger explosion battles for headlines, it would be easy to stick to the program; talk about what’s wrong out there. But since when have I opted for easy?

Humor is often misunderstood, seen as a less-than-intellectual response to external stimuli. Fart jokes are great, don’t get me wrong, but they give the impression that laughing is an LCD response. (If I were flatulent right now, and you were here to see it, would you laugh? Honestly?)

Many a great mind has come to realize that embracing the absurdity of our little dance with existence is the way to go. (As my Aussie friend Pappy used to say, “If you don’t laugh, you cry, JB.”) And I don’t feel like crying anymore. (Especially about my own lack of value to the human race. One week of whining is enough.)

So I was happy to pick up “Vanilla Partner,” by Torbjørn Rødland, published last year by MACK. I hated this book the first two times I flipped through the pages. I was in my austere, goatee-stroking mode, and just didn’t get it. Had I actually owned the copy, I might have hurled it against the wall, crunching its spine, while I shrieked like a coyote with its foot in a trap. But, as we’ve learned previously, sometimes you have to give art a little breathing space, and keep an open mind.

Today, desperate to leave my leaden spirit in an ash pile, I opened the book again, and nearly giggled in faux horror at the audacity. (It’s not LOL funny. More the “Oh no you didn’t” type of vibe.) The series of images within only makes sense if you lighten up. Octopi and sausages wrap around appendages. Bodies are contorted in uncomfortable positions. People are covered in paint, or writing, or plastic wrap.

Their faces are stoic through the silliness, like Thomas Ruff subjects who’ve been caught in a clown’s bad dream. (Though the picture of the smiling, breast-feeding mother is a keeper. Breastfeeding women don’t smile. Trust me.) The juxtaposition of levity and melancholy is fantastic; a solid metaphor for the dualistic nature of nature.

There are boobs, for sure, (Boobs Sell Books℠), but the nudity fits the overall mood. One guy has his penis hanging out while being body painted, and by the time I got to the girl’s butt with a rectal thermometer sticking out, my appreciation for the irreverence was complete. (This is certainly the kind of book that won’t make sense to everyone.)

Have you ever vomited on yourself, and blamed someone else? Or been drawn on while passed-out-wasted? (Some grown-up-frat-boys marked up my brother during his bachelor party, for heaven’s sake.) It’s the perfect symbol for the ridiculous-but-necessary side of our psyche. If that’s not enough for you, how about a child’s head covered with spaghetti sauce, or a girl with a woolen condom sticking out of her mouth?

I expect this book might offend many, if not most people. It’s ironic in such a dry way that you can miss it, as I did the first few times I leafed through. But really, when people die every day, severed limbs leaking blood on the sidewalk, and there’s no sense to the killing, sometimes, it’s a natural response to just say f-ck it, and spray someone with chocolate sauce.

Bottom Line: Edgy use of irony and humor, not for everyone

To Purchase “Vanilla Partner” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. I find this “subject matter” considerably more depressing than anything I’ve seen here recently reflecting reality. Depressing someone actually thought these inanities up, depressing someone photographed them- particularly depressing someone followed through publishing them…

    • I’d be vomiting on myself if I’d bought it.. does anyone actually collect this tripe ?

  2. Switched off after the third self-centred paragraph. Looking forward to a book review that’s more about the book than the reviewer. Not holding my breath though.

  3. Its a book review and yet you start the first two paragraphs with “I”. The sad thing is there are art students that look up to this work.

  4. I actually quite like this review. Last week’s review was probably what this could’ve been if Blaustein had written it after the first time he flipped through the book. But it’s nice to see that he’s given it some thought and in his defense one has to acknowledge that the many “I”s are not so much about self-centredness here but rather about expressing personal thoughts towards the book (whereas last week the book was just used as a vehicle for expressing thoughts towards the self).

    While I haven’t held Vanilla Partner in my hands yet, I have looked at some of Rodlands other books and time and time again my reaction is the same. Some pictures I like and some I just can’t stand. And I love it. Few other photographers manage to make books like that. It’s like you put the book away because you can’t stand looking at it but then you pick it right up again because you want to have one more look.

  5. A Photo Editor (Rob) may be great at editing photos, but he should learn how to edit text. No self-respecting publication would allow writers to insert so much of themselves so frequently. signed, open eyes to deaf ears.

    • Meh, it’s the shtick. Take or leave it. I think the editorial oversight here is that this is the one column every week that overflows with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors, to the point that it becomes a chore to read. I doubt these are edited at all actually, but a Strunk & White tossed his way would do us all a favor.

  6. scott Rex Ely

    Nan and Jo please recognize that to me, real identities of people on blogs are more important than mechanical errors in the host’s writing.
    It’s the” real” part that matters.
    I’d ask for your money back or maybe have a friend or peer not let you click on JB’s articles just to save your selves the grief.
    They do make a special mouse these days with a “wrong” click button that challenges your free will and can help curb your self abusive tendencies.
    As far as your identity issues you should probably see a therapist.

  7. Donnor Party

    This is what freshman at SVA were shooting for their end of year project in 2006.