unboxing “a Handful of Dust”

David Company’s book a Handful of Dust is (unbeknownst to me when I purchased it) a catalog that accompanied his exhibition at LE BAL in 2015/16, titled ‘a Handful of Dust: from the Cosmic to the Domestic.’

Would that I had been through Paris during that time, and known about the exhibition: this book is an incredible scholarly and theoretical exegesis and meditation on photography, that takes its starting point from Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, a photograph of Duchamp’s La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, aka The Large Glass during its lengthy construction phase, when Duchamp had it laying on a table at the back of his studio, breeding dust, and traveling through the hundred years or so of photography and photography theory since Man Ray opened the shutter on his 4×5 and he and Duchamp went for dinner.

I doubt I can do this thing justice… it’s not quite a photobook in the traditional sense, nor is it a theoretical work, it’s a mixture of both. Insofar as Company didn’t take any of the pictures in the book, it’s more of a scholarly work than a photobook; insofar the vast majority of it is picture after picture after picture, it’s not really a history book.

A lengthy essay is included as a separate book, sort of … it’s a paperback volume that fits into the middle of the photobook… It’s hard to explain, and if you go to the end of the video above, you can see what I’m talking about. This makes it very handy to read the essay, for sure. And as someone mentioned on whatever podcast I listened to that drove me to buy it, it makes it very easy to separate the text from the images, thereby allowing you to form your own—narrative? theory? Allahu Alim.

The images proceed from Dust Breeding through aerial, survey, studio, macro, portrait, snapshot, documentary, and about 47 other genres of photography, plus painting, drawing, and sculpture.

The text ranges from the construction of The Large Glass through virtually all of 20th Century photography and photography theory, with a lengthy discussion of Duchamp and Man Ray’s careers. The theory gets pretty heady at times: is Dust Breeding by Man Ray or Duchamp?; balancing Barthes’ haptic in the photograph with Derrida’s assertion that a photograph is the absence of touch; Baudelaire, surrealism, abstract and conceptual art; on and on.

Both the photographs and the text start from Dust Breeding and, like dust, breed. As a photobook, it’s an interesting, if a bit schizophrenic, viewing. As a text, it’s an informative and thought provoking read. Put them together, and it’s maybe the strongest conceptual piece in my ever-expanding collection.

If all that sounds good to you, if you like strains of thought that tangle and crisscross and meander, then pick up a copy: you won’t regret it. If all that sounds less than interesting, if you’re not into theory much, or if you’re mostly into pretty flower pictures or street photography or something, then—with apologies to Mr. Company—your money is probably better spent elsewhere.

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