Ten Series/106 Photographs

Mathew Sleeth, ‘Ten Series/106 Photographs’, review in Photofile 82, 2007, p76

Matthew Sleeth Aperture 2007

Maybe there are two ways to present groups of pictures: either as stories or as series. Matthew Sleeth’s picture book Tour of Duty from 2002 told the story of Australia’s mission to East Timor in wonderfully ironic pictures with powerfully centrifugal compositions — and became an instant classic. Since then, however, Sleeth has increasingly used simple ideas to assemble series of deadpan pictures, which he has either published as limited edition artists books, or exhibited as large scale installations.  Ten of these series are gathered together for this handsome and rewarding book, under a title that doffs its hat to the patron saint of conceptual photography Ed Ruscha.

In most contemporary photobooks shots such as a red fire extinguisher wedged between two blue seats on a train, or an indoor plant’s drooping leaves illuminated by the same grimy sun that also picks out the smoke drifting from an unextinguished cigarette, would be used as occasional cutaways to add a psychological ambience of claustrophobia or ennui to the photographer’s unfolding drama. But in this book we find them in the two series 10 Fire Extinguishers and 13 Houseplants, where they can be nothing other than themselves.

Like countless photographers before him Sleeth is a traveller, a voyeuristic cruiser thorough the globalised world of Japan, China, Europe and Australia. His subject is the everyday, and everything about this book is understated, cool and downplayed. But his conceptual series are not as formally objective or archivally rigorous as in the ‘Düsseldorf school’ inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher — Sleeth’s series are idiosyncratic, provisional and incomplete, and his compositions fractured and fleeting. Nor is his vision of our contemporary corporate reality as dystopian as other photographers — it is not as overheated as Wolfgang Tillmans, say, or as sardonic as Martin Parr. This is not only a humanistic book, it is also a happy book.

It opens with a short series Women in Uniform. These portraits, the only direct ones in the whole book, are not of your usual exotic Japanese cyborgs, but real people who just happen to be wearing uniforms, some of them endearingly scruffy. It ends with a series Feet shot on a Tokyo subway. Similarly these images of dislocated shoes and knees and vinyl are full of personality and warmth.

Sometimes Sleeth’s conceptual conceits for his series work very effectively. For instance his series Red China is linked together by a political pun on the colour red — the colour of communism but also the colour of capitalistic triumph used by corporations such as coco-cola. At other times his conceits can’t sustain the series. Photographing all the signs in the Louvre pointing tourists to the Mona Lisa might have seemed like a cute idea on the day, but it makes for a low point in the book.

The high point of the book is the series Kawaii Baby, in which a cavalcade of Japanese smile and laugh and coo at Sleeth’s toddler daughter, who only ever appears as a puff of golden hair at the bottom of some of the frames. Many individual photographs are tour de forces of compositional complexity combined with restrained emotion. For instance in Pictured #36 a window reflection overlays a network of Christmas lights over a private scene between two people, all superimposed onto a lonely railway platform.

Martyn Jolly

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