Alexandra Catiere’s Behind the Glass is more of an event, than a book. It’s not something to casually flip through. In fact, you can’t casually flip through it, or if you do, you’ll miss half of the images and all of the story. It’s one of the more unique book designs I’ve seen.
Designed in collaboration with Chose Commune, published in 2018, and shortlisted for the Paris Photo/Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year award, Behind the Glass as an object, is equal parts intriguing and frustrating. Each spread presents a horizontal image printed across both pages, with no gutter or seam, and only a crease down the center, and each pair of pages forms a vertical gatefold that exposes a large, vertically-oriented photograph.
It’s harder to describe than to experience, so watch the video if that doesn’t make sense.
As a book of photographs, Behind the Glass suggests a story, or series of impressions, especially since, as viewers/readers, it seems necessary that the horizontal images relate in some way with the vertical images that that lie underneath.
For example, there are sort of three types of horizontal pictures: photographs of commuters through rain or ice blurred train or bus windows, landscapes, and still lifes. Most of the portraits expose photograms of pebbles or flung paint drips, many of the landscapes reveal figures engaged in some sort of activity, and many of the still life shots open to reveal other still lifes or some sort of allegorical thing (dead birds, leaves stuffed into a blank book, a highly abstract-looking smashed windshield).
Many of the horizontal images come from Catiere’s unpublished series of the same name from 2005-2006, shot in Minsk and Moscow. Most of the vertical shots are more recent, including her new, previously unseen photograms.
Taken alone, the horizontal images make a nice, fairly straightforward phototobook: pictures of commuters with the blurred landscapes they speed by, occasionally interrupted by a sharp still life. And the vertical images, also taken alone, would likewise make a coherent body of work: people doing things, the nebulae and Pollock-drip photograms, the dead birds and arrangements of leaves of grass. But together, with the stuttering paces (flip, look, unfold, look refold, being careful not to further crease the paper, turn the page, and repeat), it becomes harder to read, to live with. I’ve spent a good number of hours with Behind the Glass, far more than I usually spend in the first weeks of owning a book, and I’m sorry to say that it’s more a fascination with the meaning of all the gatefolds and the action of looking at the book than the actual pictures themselves. Don’t get me wrong: the pictures are good, evocative and engaging, engrossing and worth studying. But my reptile brain is more fascinated with the object itself and the labor required to experience it, and maybe shame on me.
Overall, Behind the Glass earns a solid 4 stars.
Catiere’s Behind the Glass was published in a first edition of 750 copies, and it looks like you can still get copies direct from Chose Commune. I got this copy from Charcoal Book Club. The Book of the Month for January 2019 was Rosalind Fox Solomon’s Liberty Theater, but I already had it, so I contacted Charcoal and Jesse got back to me straight away. He made it super easy to swap, and even included January’s print (from Melissa Catanese, the guest curator for January).
Catiere’s website appears to have some issues with hacking or something, so I’m not going to link to it. Search for “alexandracatier dot com” and you’ll find it. There are adds for sweaters and bags and iphone cases on her news page. I thought at first maybe she had a line of bags and sweaters, but the text is spammy, jumbled, gobbledygook. There’s a great video about Catiere’s 2011 residency with BMW. It’s mostly in French, but has scenes of Catiere working in the studio and on the streets, and working with curators to organize an exhibition, and it gives a good overview of Catiere and her thought and working process. And both BJP and Collector Daily have excellent reviews of Behind the Glass that are worth checking out if you’re on the fence.
That said, if you’re interested in photobook design possibilities, Behind the Glass is a don’t miss, and the photographs themselves are worth the price of admission. So jump on it before it’s too late.