It is said that to understand if a photograph is well-taken, it is useful to look at it in black-and-white and to possibly turn it upside down. In this way it is easier to evaluate its composition and balance between the full and empty spaces. Perhaps it is true. What I know for sure is that when I find myself in front of a black-and-white photograph, I can perceive its contours and volume more easily as there is no color to distract the perception of what is in front of me. I take pleasure in the shapes and consistency of what I observe; I feel connected in some way.
It’s just me, photography, and my brain. I’m not sure how it works, but it seems like I am somehow able to communicate with a side of me that I don’t know very well. A hidden and trivial side that is purely connected to my nature as a living being. After all, this is what I look for when I approach an image: a way to relate to the unfamiliar impulses inside me.
The images presented in the book Primal Sight, released by Gnomic Book this January, do just that. They emerge from a black hole that has materialized on my desk. They breathe, and they look at me. They tell me something about myself, something I don’t know yet. They speak a language that I don’t totally understand – but I’m sure I will learn. They will teach it to me.
“That is what photography has always provided: to upset established order,” writes Efrem Zelony-Mindell, the editor and curator of the book, in the introduction. And looking at the images he has selected for this book – comprised of a collection of works by 146 artists and essays by David Campany and Gregory Eddi Jones – it makes me think that Zelony-Mindell’s quote is one of the truest truths about photography I’ve ever heard. Photographs that leave their mark are the ones that show subtly an uncommon reality revealing the primordial state of things: they are, indeed, primal sights.
Through the works of intergenerational, interdisciplinary, and intersectional artists – with a great inclusiveness and attention to diversity – this photobook questions the perceived order of things. The images presented center on issues of race, gender, philosophy, and praxis, subverting traditional notions of black-and-white imagery into something queered and possessed of previously unimagined possibilities.
Primal Sight is a photographic journey inside the feral part of ourselves: it reminds us that however hard we try to solely think egotistically of ourselves, we are all inevitably connected to each other. Indeed, we share something unique and pristine: the nature of being a human, together with its contradictions and compulsions. Beyond our habits and constructed identity, we are just that: flesh and blood. And it’s good to remember it.
We tackled these issues – and many others – in this conversation with editor and curator Efrem Zelony-Mindell and publisher Jason Koxvold of Gnomic Book.
The first question is for Efrem: why did you edit a book about black-and-white photography?
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: I’m not sure it was all that complicated when this all began, by which I mean, there wasn’t a huge conceptual basis when I first started collecting images for Primal Sight. It was in 2016 that I first started noticing black-and-white images that felt very much like they were breaking out of a canonical and modernist lens that has come to be so expected of black-and-white photography. These pictures felt… wrong, upside down, inside out, backwards. That also just so happens to be a list of my six favorite words.
Looking at Primal Sight now, I think WHY a book of black-and-white photography because now is a time to stand up and look at things that are unfamiliar. Now is the time to be filling in gaps and learning how to see what we as individuals may be missing. In my mind black-and-white imagery is in and of itself a metaphor, an opportunity to question how we see and construct our worlds and embody our lived experiences.
Jason, in your opinion why can a book like this be interesting for the photographic community today? Why did you decide to publish it?
Jason Koxvold: I’m always interested in publishing work that subverts viewers’ expectations. Black-and-white photography is often accompanied by a certain baggage; an expectation of homage, of harkening back to some different time; in today’s environment of everything-as-commerce, we see those tropes exploited in the service of profit. Primal Sight is diametrically opposed to that, practically crackling with electricity. It is a tremendously diverse project not just in terms of who participated in it, but also in terms of the visual vocabularies expressed.
So I appreciate the aggressive angle of attack, and in conjunction with that I wanted to subvert the way we typically see black and white photography, using black ink on white paper; instead we would use white ink on black paper — which radically changes the way the experience the image and the series. It’s not like seeing a work the artist made as you would in a gallery or in a monograph, but rather it unifies all the participating artists’ work, visually, into a different language.
Can you tell me how the very first idea of the collection of black-and-white images came about? When did you realize that it could be expanded into the form of a book?
Efrem: I’ve come to realize that a project’s ability to adapt and change is something I’m very committed to as an artist in general, always. I want to change, I want to experience new ideas, I want to participate in my own re-education about cultures and peoples that have been historically silenced, and I want to see images I could have never imaged previously. I want to be a never ending constantly adapting idea. That drive to grow is so deeply true to my personhood and my humanity. How could it not be steeped into the work I make?
From the beginning Primal Sight was built to take on and become different iterations of itself. It’s been a collected portfolio in a magazine, it’s been an online exhibition, and both of these collections never included the same images. And all the while, as I mentioned since 2016, I had been collecting images for something bigger.
You selected a particular kind of black-and-white photography, visceral, and feral. What drove you to do this selection? How did you recognize these sorts of pictures? I mean, is there an element, an intuition, something that leads you to say “Ok, this is the kind of image, this has the unfamiliar factor I’m looking for”?
Efrem: Madness. I like this question. I like it because it lives in a space in my head that doesn’t have clearly defined borders. I like this question because the answer isn’t clean or shapely. I like this question because it makes me feel like I’m off the rails dancing off somewhere without limits. That place in my head is a revelation as much as it is a privilege I have. I can’t perfectly define your answer and I’m grateful for that because I don’t think there’s one kind of photography that lives inside Primal Sight. Further, I don’t think photography should be locked to groups, categories, and cubbyholes. Not that you were suggesting that, but I think stating that is key to getting to the answer.
If I can’t understand something right away. If I feel insecure or cautious. A picture is worth looking at, worth considering, worth researching and figuring out. This sounds incredibly convenient, but with the amount of research I do on an artist I hope to work with and the work they make I truly believe that we all (myself, the artist, and the picture) find one another. It’s not easy, it requires more time and focus than I’m able to orate here. But the work that artists make, and the stories they tell, is worthy of that sort of focus. Somewhere in all that madness an image emerges so clearly that it can’t be ignored.
In the introduction, you say “That is what photography has always provided: to upset established order,” and I completely agree. When we talk about photography we often focus on how images “teach” us and get us used to looking in a way following certain visual standards and archetypes. However, I think there is a lot of photography that instead does the exact opposite, that is, it goes to dig where our mind has not yet arrived, creating images that speak to a part of the unconscious that is still unknown to us. Many of the images featured in the book succeed in this feat. Do you want to tell me more? Is there any image that you think does this in a particular and incisive way?
Efrem: Firstly, Rica, I appreciate you saying that on a deeply personal level. It’s one thing to have the ability to make a book and an idea come to life, but it is something completely different (though tethered) for someone else to see what you see because it’s what I see when I look at Primal Sight. Acknowledging that is important because I think all too often in the art world, both commercial and fine art, we’re trained to not have a whole lot of feelings and if we do we should punish ourselves for sharing them. So I would like to celebrate you and thank you for entrusting me with that!
The unknown is my seventh favorite word. The unknown is the deep end of a pool. In that space there’s all the room necessary to try new things, to experiment, to fail, to float, to spin and thrash, and figure out who a person wants to be. In that deep a person can build character and take their time. With practice, in the unknown there becomes a place of absolute clarity where secrets about ourselves, who we want to be and how we want to go to new places, emerges.
There are some images that stand out as achieving this, certainly. But to me it’s all in the pictures and, more importantly, the artists together that creates that space for us as viewers. Drawing connections is key. Taking time to not just look, but see the threads that are sewn between images on spreads and in motifs throughout the book. Allowing ourselves that time is why that feeling of upset and figuring out lives inside Primal Sight. The book isn’t positioned as an answer, it’s a question.
In his essay, David Company talks about a kind of ‘heaviness’ of the photographs featured in the book, or also a ‘thingness’ as he calls it. He also emphasizes how many of these images are square or vertical and have a ‘thing’ in the middle. Can you tell me more about it?
Efrem: I’m happy to come clean about that, as I think starting simply is the best place to start with anything. I personally have a fixation with stuff in the middle of photographs. It’s a pleasure I’m guilty of one hundred percent.
Beyond my own obsession and that confession, the Mona Lisa comes to mind actually which I have a complicated and loving relationship with. It’s a painting I have no real interest seeing in person, but I have a very good and large framed reproduction sitting on a shelf just above my computer. It’s something I look at a lot and think about a lot. It’s broken, nonsensical, and bombastic. It’s shrouded in every kind of myth and secret that an object can be entrapped by. The figure may not even be real, the land defies geography and gravity, the gesture is somehow three-dimensional, the history of the object itself unimaginable—its great escape from the hands of fasicm. Everything about it is centered around its thingness.
In its spectacle, the Mona Lisa embodies something that reaches outside its pigment, canvas, frame, and maker. It’s now an idea. It beholds certain secrets that, as Robert Frost would say, sit in the middle. The eye of a hurricane is most still, surreal and looming. And where I’m absolutely sure that the amount of images I inundate myself with everyday also plays a part, if we really want to dig into the subconscious, all these factors play into the pictures of Primal Sight and why they’re present in the book. There is no straight and narrow, the center is merely a homebase. The fluidity of reality bounces around outside the center of a thing allowing information to imbue and imbibe what sits at the heart of anything.
Many young photographers are now dabbling in black-and-white photography, with surprising results as we also see in the book. In your opinion, is black-and-white photography going through a period of revival?
Efrem: Anyone who takes their cues from an answer in an interview, and anyone who gives an answer for an interview with the hopes of speaking definitively, when SO MANY variables exist in the world, should probably stop reading or answering right now. Art, like life, is contanstanly undulating. It takes what was and mixes it, transforms it, and consumes it only to dig it up later to see what it’s become. Revivals are great, they’re cost effective and give starlights a chance to make their rent when they’ve fallen on hard times. What we see contemporary artists make are the echoes of what they saw in their head mixed with a million things and influences that one would be hard pressed to list in their entirety.
Black-and-white imagery is still being made because it will always be made. It may not be executed and used the way it was. Good! A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. Change is beautiful when it can be celebrated together with others who want to see differently, more differently than before. Black-and-white photography is a part of the galaxy of mediums used as a way to express visual narratives. It will not be bound to the white men who created it and taught it for so long. Those exploitative histories will always be a part of photography, but like so many things filed away into boxes with labels, its potential lies outside its controls.
Talking about the authors selected, I guess you must have made very drastic choices. Did you have a particular thought about diversity and inclusiveness when choosing?
Efrem: To start, it’s important to acknowledge that as a white curator and editor I will always need to do better. I will not be absolved because as a white person I bring those histories with me to everything. The space I create will always be stronger and truer when I commit harder to recognizing my own supremacy and my own ignorance. “Who am I not thinking of?” It is small and it is fragile, but this question is drilled in my mind as often as I can think of it. It will never be whole, but it will seep it’s way into me because it needs to, because I want it to.
Of all the uncertainty I’ve expressed over the course of this interview I think this is the most difficult. I can’t tell you, or anyone, how to do the right thing, or how to do something like prioritize diversity. Those words rot in my mouth like fruit. There isn’t a road map. Making a thing is a steep mountain, rough and dark. Research till my eyes hurt seems to truly bring me some sort of clarity. Being curious and knowing everyone and everything, caring, really working hard to care about others. Making sure that I’m looking for who I’m forgetting first is where it starts for me. Always prioritizing change and uncertainty. There are faults in Primal Sight in terms of diversity. I own that. Recognizing that the job of a curator and editor is one of acknowledging those failures so that I can be more thoughtful next time is what I’ve learned from this book and every project I work on.
Like I said, I won’t ever fully arrive. I’ll keep trying and finding new ways to make sure that who I’m not thinking of comes before me and those who have historically always been handed everything, namely white cis heterosexual men. I know I’m going to screw up, but narratives that are not mine are worthy of the eyes and love of strangers.
The experience of browsing through the book is really immersive, probably also due to the black background framing each picture. Can you tell me more about the design and your collaboration with Gnomic Book?
Efrem: I vividly remember putting together the original PDF of images to pitch to Gnomic with the pictures on black backgrounds thinking, “There’s just no way this is going to happen. But this is how I’d like to see this book executed.” Three days after sending that file, Jason Koxvold’s exact response was, “If we can print the whole thing in white ink on black paper – much like your initial layout appears – I’m in.”
I feel so much joy typing that and being able to look back on and share that from our emails dated January 2nd to the 5th of 2020 that I can’t completely describe what that moment felt like, or still feels like. It comes in waves and shouts. It epitomizes the way that Jason and I work together. The idea and sequence of the book is mine, but the design is all Jason, with little concessions and conversations along the way. Our commitment is to the object and it’s never ceased to amaze me how true that is. I’m sure we’ve gotten on each other’s nerves, but what healthy relationship doesn’t have its winces? But he and I have never fought, we have never had a spat, and have never lost sight of how excited we are about the projects we’ve worked on together.
Working with Gnomic Book has been a dream come true because I know, for me and the two projects I’ve now done with them [Primal Sights and Newflesh], there’s no one else that would treat the work more thoughtfully and more in line with what I saw in my head. I don’t know exactly how Jason was able to do that. I do remember telling him that the reason why I wanted to work with him was because of the way Jason designs books. Looking through the Gnomic library I know Jason sees the way I want to see. I recognized that I was in the hands and presence of EXACTLY who I wanted to work with. That is an incredibly wonderful reality to recognize and not let pass by.
And on your part, Jason? How was the collaboration with Efrem?
Jason: Efrem and I have become good friends over the course of these two books. When they first approached me with the idea for Newflesh, I was excited to collaborate on a project that fell further outside the realm of straight photography. I think of Primal Sight as a continuation of the same ideas, but which could be expressed very differently.
I noticed that you ran the pre-sale campaign directly on your website, which is a pretty brave choice (not to be supported by a crowdfunding platform!). Are you satisfied with the fundraiser?
Jason: I’m very happy with the pre-sale! We achieved everything we wanted to do, and despite this being our most ambitious project so far, I don’t think there was ever a moment when it looked like we might not make it — perhaps with the exception of the days of the attempted insurrection in Washington DC. It’s impossible to ask people to care about art on days like that, despite that exact subject matter being touched upon in Gregory Eddi Jones’s essay you find in Primal Sight.
This was our first pre-sale that we’ve operated on our own platform, and I was a little apprehensive about it at first – but it went fine, and it’s better for us for several reasons. We just started our second pre-sale using the same system, for Al J Thompson’s Remnants of an Exodus, and it’s going exceptionally well, too.
Efrem, what do you expect from this book? Are you planning to make an exhibition as well?
Efrem: I’m through placing expectations on my relationships with things and the groups of people I’m grateful to interact with. These folx [the artists] have shared their labor, and I won’t hold anything over our heads. Primal Sight is filled to the brim with every person I love, look up to, and grow from. The object itself is a reflection of that. I won’t bind it to what I want, I will push it out as hard as I can so we all together will find what’s right for it, and for us. We will reciprocate with the strangers who bring it into their lives.
Yes, I want an exhibition, I want the whole damn world, but that’s not respecting what a thing is capable of. I want to expose what sits in the center of the thing. What sits at the core of this book. The only way to expose that is to release it into the world as thoroughly in every direction as we can. With smiles and systems that grow into myths and tell stories outside of what anyone involved could have ever imagined. I want it to unfold in front of us and consume different readings, different forms, and different minds than any of us could have placed on it with our expectations.