Trent Parke – Monument


Ruptures and Raptures


It is hard to know where to start writing about a book with such ominous tendencies at its heart. Monuments by Trent Parke, published by Stanley/Barker in 2023 and its third printing in spring 2024, has a doomsday proximity to it. It is hard to explain why I feel this way, but I will try to start. I caution the reader that when I look at the book, in its cartographically-detailed faux-leather-covered boards, it is challenging to read its intent as anything less than religious, biblical, or cosmic. When I say religious, I do not mean that the work concerns itself with God or sermon but rather that theres something amiss within the book that charges it with the pathos of revelation. There is something about it that is awash in a premonition, and this premonition exhibits the millennial appeal of a cult waiting for the transformative experience of rapture and oblivion at the end of days. My review then will follow the logic of revelation, though it may be couched in something of an allegory. What I can say about the book is that there isn’t another quite like it, particularly in the West. There are Japanese books which share a sympathy with Monument, but those are also different in scope, aim, and scale. If I were to pick one Western title from which to derive some association it would be a shot from the left. The book would be Swiss Artist Hans Danuser’s In Vivo from 1989, a book that deals less with revelation that the anxiety of the times in sinewy monochrome. That was an important title that conveys a cold atmosphere about it, much like Parke’s book.


Effluvial Narratives


Throughout the course of the Monument, light, blinding light, the type of light that blinded Saul as God ushered his command “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:3-4, 22:6-7, 26:12-14) assaults the senses. This raking light in Parke’s book is exemplified by the mechanics of his shooting toward the source of the light, and subsequently receiving its bounce from windows, trams, and stone walls which create human doll-shaped silhouettes with equal measure of high-intensity luminescence yet are balanced by the deep recesses of the shadows that permeate the cavernous pock-marked facades of buildings. This ensures that when the light blinds us, it blinds us in a searing white epiphanic cacophony of inspired transcendence. It leaves us dazed, with floaters orbiting the eyes, the rhodopsin chemistry fluxed in the body and its senses.


We make no assumptions about the source of this light, as it comes from above as well as from the horizon, insisting that something cosmic is about to happen like a pulse or a burst of energy from the surface of the sun. This feeling reverberates as you hold the  book and are reminded of the cover with its deep diagrammatic recesses etched into the hand as well as the imagination, leading one to finger and palm the cover looking for the details in the map of the premonition outlining an approaching asteroid that will shear a layer of surface clean from the earth, smoke and ash left in its wake. In the book, there is no long essay, no braided and partial way to “read” the book as written language, outside of the metal commemorative title plate that denudes a hint of intent when removed. Inasmuch, it asks the reader to drop the notion of being informed and to make their way into a semi-opaque world of full-bleed images and blackened endpapers. The book, without its borders or white pages is an experience, not a simple assembly of photographs.



The light that blinds is not the only light in the book. There is another, more elusive type of light that streaks and streams in front of the lens. It is harder to grasp and exists in a condition of anima, a spiritual effervescence that is defined less by shadows than the whisper of its nature, which, like Spiritualist ectoplasm covers the frame/eyes and is like some milky residue that allows for sight, but is like swimming open-eyed through back-lit glue. This effluvial light is also made from the trailing off of insects, vehicles, crowds, and it is ephemeral, time-sensitive, and fleeting. It is used in the sequence to provide a break, mostly through the first half of the book, before a different disintegrated light becomes more prevalent, a darker inversion of the milky effluvial light seen from inside of the cocoon in which the reader’s eyes rest. The dissolved light will come as something more ominous, more of an affirmation of  inevitable outcomes. It is effluvial and it is also specter-driven.



A Precarious Map


Acknowledging the tactility of the cover and its possible relationship to the images inside is cemented in the book’s only text, which is written in braille confirming blindness (a motif that is confirmed in one portrait à la Paul Strand in the book) as a means of decoding the book. This suggests Monument as a manual of remembrance to humankind left in the wake of a great act of blinding destruction, or perhaps a nod to José Saramago’s book Blindness, from 1995, in which a whole population in an unknown city become blind with only a handful of people left able to see (observer/photographer) before chaos ensues and social life breaks down. Perhaps Parke is hinting at something regarding the times in which we live and the outright precariousness for which we find our current moment, how teetering and tedious it becomes and how easily.


The title Monument could variably and as easily have been called Cenotaph, the difference between the two is the pre-existing idea that in a monument, we know where the remains are. In a Cenotaph, we acknowledge they have returned to a dislocated and untraceable stardust. In reference to history, I am reminded of Kōhei Sugiura’s design of Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu and the apocalyptic mapping of the cosmos on the micro and macro level with the subject of the atomic bomb at its bleak and stained heart. The imagined precariousness of this condition, the light of 1000 suns, is not distant to the notion of cosmic obliteration, ecological demise, or nuclear war. In reference to Werner Herzog in his book Every Man for Himself and God Against All, I also believe the Twentieth Century was a mistake.



The Falling Man, Dissolve, Entropy.


In thinking about the haunted quality of Monument, I think it is reasonable to look at some of the portraits, or the mirage of portraits as they are expressed in the book. Throughout the book, but clearly and consciously quarantined off into sections within the sequence, certain ghosts float to the surface. Some are but made of grain and lurk from the confines of corners, stealthily showing their visage from the assembly of their granular parts from which they are drawn. Most are floating heads, decapitated, discorporate and ephemeral beings that look human, but fall apart like sand castles in a strong wind when viewed too closely. These are the ghosts that make up the shadows in the book. They are not accidental, or unremarkable: instead, they carry the weight of the esoteric tendency in this photographic allegory of Dante’s Inferno. They are not the demon or nightmares, or idols of sleep’s paralysis, but are cautionary emblems of the entropy and ennui of our being, sat to remind us of the finite.



Within the realms of the plausible, there is one figure that represents repetition worth conjecture. It is the image of the Falling Man, the quizzical being that, star-shaped falls in and out of the sequence on occasion. As it recedes from the viewer, the outline of its “body” is dissolved in soft focus, a thousand pin-pricks of light reminiscent of Christopher Bucklow’s photograms. It is born from a vacuum that sucks and pushes its weight as though it were to be strained or rent from its pulp through a vast cosmic screen, each piece thinly-drawn, reconstituted from luminous jelly and put through the process ad-infinitum in a pulmonary discourse; wheezing its gelatinous mass of striated and screened mush back together before gravity pulls it back through the colander of our anxious times. I mention the Falling Man, as it looks thus, and as an American, I am aware of the implications drawn from Richard Drew’s photograph of the same name. The gravity of the image is rife with unmitigated potential to elicit horror and ennui.



Not Street Photography, Certainly Street Photography


One aspect of the book that I am almost at pains to point out is how it might be classified. Humans are good at definitions and inasmuch define the categorical, particularly as it relates to an inspired genre such as street photography. Parke has been drafted, however improbably into the genre of street photography, a medium that I am coming to adore for its new elasticity. It is a genre that suggests a history of photography perhaps stretching back to John Thompson (UK) or better, Charles Nègre in Paris, perhaps it could even be considered the first type of genre outside of still life and portraiture if we consider Louis Daguerre’s photograph from 1838, Boulevard du Temple, photograph of a man having his shoe shined as evidence of its origin story. In this historic photo, all basic tendencies are met, though the angle is incorrect as it is shot from above, and yet, people, streets, action, and by definition a street itself enters the frame. This outline of the genre has been convincingly argued in Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, first in 1994.


What makes work street photography seems to be in flux at present, which means that it is open to be challenged, expanded, or allowed to morph into something new and I believe, if he allows it to be funneled into the trope of street photography, that Parke has broken its long-standing codes to bring the genre into the 21st Century. He has simultaneously confirmed it as a precedent, and yet, he has equally destroyed its place in the photobook form by rancorously disavowing its context, thus giving birth, like Harry Callahan and Ray Metzger before him to a new form, a promethean orthodoxy, street photography on steroids.



Other Apostles


When trying to find a way in which to contextualize Monument for others, I have managed to hit a number of stumbling blocks. Generally-speaking, in review form, it is helpful to annotate the review with some artists and books that follow a similar path. In the case of Monument, very few “Western” photobooks pack the same appeal. Between the brilliant design of the book, its mix of genres, and the subject matter within, I am at pains to declare a suitable apostle whose work exhibits similar character. Notwithstanding that sentiment, I can allude to several Japanese photobooks that carry some similar tendencies of image-making, but are bereft of the implications of reading Parke’s work in the apocryphal nature that I have. First, there is the small attribution, mostly by points of genesis to Daido Moriyama’s original Chuokoronsha edition of Hunter from 1972. I bring this up notably for the stark black and white found in both volumes, but also because of the lack of concern with focus that both books share at times. Though blowing the focus out did not start with Moriyama or Parke, the point that both crossover with a type of street photography suggests an unnatural nexus point. The images, in their disrupted state become something else entirely through the process and ask the audience to complete the picture in the mind’s eye. This is unusual for the genre and despite the 50 year gap between those books, I feel there is a kinship present.


Worth suggesting, as above, is that very rarely does one find a book that is such a holistic means of expression that it becomes hard to isolate and define by the work of others. In regard to this way of examining Monument, I think it is fair to suggest that Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu is possibly the closest approximation to Parke’s invention. Both books maintain an impressive claustrophobia to them and speak of the times in which they have been manufactured. In the case of Chizu, the difference is the point of reference to the dropping of the atomic bomb, marking the book both as memory and event-oriented, but the work stretches past that to speak about what lies in the wake of such trauma. The overt and blackened atmosphere in the book is what makes me think of the book feeling in-line with Parke’s though the drive is calculated less from a single event in Monument, the camaraderie living more inside the shadows.



Further slightly off-piste references to Japanese photobooks might include the following, chosen not for the thematic work, but rather a sense of enduring light and also the use of monochrome. I casually list these titles as an expansion of the work in question, less to find root behaviors than to share affinity by proxy of light and its uses. In terms of the people found in the photographs of Monument, I might suggest a kinship to their being photographed, both at distance and up close to images in A.D. 1991 by Keizo Kitajima and more recently with Transfer by Daiki Fuchinoue fulfill the idea of street photography and portraiture. In terms of atmosphere and shadow, Yokosuka Story by Ishiuchi Miyako, as well as Northern by Kurigami Kazumi are not far from each other, though in Northern, there is something more dependent on getting away from the urban, yet somehow the murkiness, grain, and delivery feel suitable to use a reference. Similarly, and more recently, Dawn in Spring by Asako Narahashi also feels apt, though I am at pains to say exactly why. Finally Memorial 029 by Mutsuko Yoshida, a document of inspired grain and abstraction also subjectively works to elevate similar ground found in Parke’s work, though I don’t with the exception of possibly Kitajima that any of these influences were books that Parke looked at in the context of making his work.




It is not often that a book crosses my desk produced within the last ten-twenty years that I feel exhibits a character of presence that is unspoiled by contemporary tropes, that stands alone, and that allows a certain breadth of freedom in its reading. In some ways, Monument says nothing and everything simultaneously. This is its power and though I have written at length about how I perceive its condition in the moment in which I find myself admiring it, I do leave room for ways in which to critique its mass open to others to make their way with. If it tells me anything, it is that nothing can be achieved in an absolute state and that by proxy of being born from cosmic stardust, we are only charged conduits exisiing momentarily for a return to sender. The book is a great memento mori, in which it reminds us of the passing of time, our ephemeral nature, and that meaning is derived from sensation and from a tight networking of bonds that are not always present in our everyday meanderings. I do not believe this is Parke trying to reach for his or other’s humanity, but rather, almost an adverse quality to that sentiment, that in its purest form, Monument is about awareness and observation and light above all, all requisite elements for life to exist, thrive, evolve, and dodge that big fucking asteroid looking to tip this floating ball of water off its access at any given moment…



Trent Parke


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