Constellations, compositions, and a caring look at one’s family life make up the mass of Thomas Manneke’s melancholic and melodic ode to often-overlooked photographer Francis Bruguière. Bruguière, an American artist who studied painting at the turn of the Twentieth Century, is known mainly for his photographic abstractions. In line with artists like Alvin Langdon Coburn, László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes, and Frederick Sommer, Bruguière used eloquent compositions to illustrate light, shadow, and reflection during the height of photographic modernism. His experimental and insistent motif that photographs be viewed for the light that shapes their visage was a maverick gesture in a time when photography’s debt to pictorialism and painting itself had yet to be fully shed. It would take several proceeding decades for the invention of Concrete Photography and the rise of Abstract Expressionism before artists would lean into these themes of abstraction with full force.
Bruguière is a starting point of reference for Zillion, a beautiful book of photographs by Dutch artist Thomas Manneke, whose last volume Mutatio, was the catalyst for the artist’s change from a more documentary-informed style to his more passive, quiet, and ruminating series of open-ended, if lyrical monochrome images. His previous books Liege, Odessa, and Vilnius while sharing a brilliant production and consistent decorum exist in a slightly different and in comparison to Mutatio and Zillion, impersonal world where Manneke acted as an outside observer to the site-specific European cities. With Mutatio and Zillion, he is an insider, an artist who spends his days at home and in the direct observation of the small miracles found in family matters.
This tectonic shift in the artist’s approach to making art is significant. Gone is the feeling that Manneke is trying to describe the world from the point of the outside and is instead perfectly secure in trying to transmit an inner subjectivity. It is mature work and hints at themes of universal understanding, namely that compassion and care for the world at our doorstep is as relevant as any cityscape beyond our horizon. It suggests that the power of making work can stem less from a need to gratuitously over-explanation than the subtlety of a passing hint, an affirmation of life.
This feels very much like a companion book to Mutatio. His daughter Laurie is his close collaborator in both projects, though it is in this book where her presence is felt more profoundly. She has crafted a number of the “sculptures” found in the images with her father from 2020-2023 and the collaboration becomes an imaginative journey through found objects, assemblage, and geometric musings that refer obliquely to Bruguière and the world of abstraction. The possibilities, as the title suggests are abundant and almost infinite.
I think many artists hope to find a project like this in their careers. It is one that is indulgent to a minor degree as it incorporates family, but in the case of Manneke, it is a logical extension of his profound shift toward an inner world and he has found a way to bring a larger, more extensive conversation to the book, from Bruguière to the epidemic. That his style has become more refined is fascinating and I truly believe that in making these two books, he has advanced his vision toward something renewable and bordering on the unique. The images are clean, balanced, and avoid triggering a nostalgia, though they do feel slightly out of time. I remember writing about Mutatio a few years back and I had made the comparison to photographic annuals between the wars, particularly Das Deutsche Lichtbild, an incredible annual dedicated to mostly Modernist photography, though numerous images of amateurism also prevailed alongside more considered “artworks.” Zoo’s, animal, and flower photography cozied directly up against more formal abstractions provided a strange photographic utopianism where the attitudes toward high brow concepts in art making were seen in direct equality to more amateurish mid-brow studies studies within the books. Zillion still reminds me of that attitude toward making work.
The book is designed by eminent designer and publisher Willem Von Zoetendaal and its refined nature exhibits every bit of perfection in the minutiae of its parts. The tasteful cover, with the photograph of Manneke’s daughter reminds one of an early to first half of the 20th Century European portrait, not far from the likes of an indoor August Sander portrait, or a study from Johan Van der Keuken’s Achter Glas. The type and overall cover illustration is reduced with a white border that heightens the image, but also gives some precedence to the title’s red font. This same red can be found on the book’s red end band on the spine, which is complimented by the red foil spine de-bossing. The cloth cover appears to be a grey oatmeal tea cloth variation which neutralizes the white cover and offers a fleshy component between the blood-colored spine band and the cover cloth, all very visceral and reminding one of the connective tissue of flesh, and by proxy, flesh and blood. As this is a collaboration between father and daughter, the obvious metaphors are applied and find their way into the design, though just under the (skin) surface psychologically charging the work with an impassive reminder of the author’s of the book.
I really can’t recommend this book enough. I feel like all parts of the book from concept, execution and design exemplify the kind of perfection on photobook making that I wish more designers and artists would strive for. If your bag is something experimental, in terms of those components, particularly design, this will not be for you as much. I tend to hate “extras” like tip-ins, fold-outs, and clunky (masquerading as clever or niche) design elements that stop the flow of the images. It almost always feels like a way of covering the poor quality of the pictures when artists are using these devices. If you look at the great books in the pantheon, very few are remembered for their novelty, and are instead remembered from when all parts are cohesively working in tandem toward something approaching the ideal. Zillion is a prime example of this drive and focus. Get it.
- SIZE30×24 cm
- BINDINGhardbound with dust cover
- CONCEPTThomas Manneke & Willem van Zoetendaal
- DESIGNWillem van Zoetendaal
At his workspace in the centre of Amsterdam, when the afternoon sun is just right, Thomas Manneke captures still lifes and portraits of his daughter, Laurie, using an 8×10 inch plate camera. Most photographs in this book were made in collaboration with his daughter. The objects in the book are made especially to photograph them. Sometimes they are inspired by found objects, like a small grey stone with whimsical white lines or by a web created by caterpillars. Some objects were inspired by artworks from the past like the drawings on glass were by Josef Albers and the folded sculptures of thick paper, or dynamic cut-outs of cardboard were inspired by photographs of Francis Bruguiere. The book shows the fun of creating things together while getting inspired by the world around us.