Watched, photographed, painted.
Publisher: Negative Press
First Published: 10th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 23rd April 2016
Taken by her father’s instruction that she may hold his camera but never click the shutter, an East German girl living at the time of the Cold War cannot quite ignore her inclination to disobey.
In Camera is a short-story-length historical art book that pairs fiction with oil paintings. Gledhill found a photo album from the time of the Cold War, decided to create oil paintings from it, and asked Royle to compose fiction around his work. It is very much a concept book and a lovely one.
The story is told in a series of vignettes, different episodes in the girl’s life, moving in a linear fashion except for a few times when we move to a more modern time, perhaps this present day, for added context and to tie up the various tales. There is only one name given in this book – the father’s – everyone else is afforded but an initial. This helps to keep each vignette short and nicely presented – most scenes happen in the space of one page and there is a painting to accompany each. It also suits the time period, the initials conforming to the idea of filing, tracking, shorthand, secret synonyms.
It’s all about surveillance in the Cold War, but it’s subtle. This is a book wherein there is a lot packed into a mere handful of pages, much to learn and discover lying under the surface. Again, it suits. The camera at the centre of the story means that the girl is effectively taking records of things that we can assume could be used as evidence; it’s an innocent pastime with an uncanny significance. Spying is the name of the day – presuming the father knows about the photography, which we can expect as she appears young and doesn’t understand that there’s a film inside to show that someone’s been using the camera, he doesn’t so much as mention it – one could say the borrowing is condoned.
Everything layered is rounded off by the simple day-to-day of the girl’s life, her games with her brother and her life as an adult wherein the camera is in full use. We hear about the modern efforts to find out what was noted about people, gaining knowledge – the reader gaining knowledge – from another perspective.
The only thing not in the book’s favour is the size of the prints of the paintings; they are often very small and because of Gledhill’s photographic-like talent, end up looking more like actual photographs than paintings, which makes sense in a way but does negatively impact the point of them. This said, on the size of the paintings the publisher says something worth baring in mind: when it came to designing the book I wanted to make it subversive and circular, for the paintings to appear almost as photographs again, to add to the idea that things are not often as they seem.
In Camera is a wonderfully imagined piece of writing, and size aside, the paintings are lovely. If you like the idea of combining art and literature, you’ll like this book. If you like books with many layers, subtle stories that appear simple but have much more behind them, you’ll like this book. A lot.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
Edited later in the day to add the note about the publisher’s design.