Editor’s note: what follows is a sort of writing exercise, undertaken in response to Janet Malcolm’s brilliant “Forty-One False Starts.” I didn’t do it justice, though I did have some fun writing it. If you want a proper, if brief, review, jump to the bottom. If you want to see me have some fun, well, read on.
Jonathan Levitt’s Echo Mask was the first book from Charcoal Press, the publishing imprint of Jesse Lenz’s excellent Charcoal Book Club, from which I’ve received many many great photobooks (and very few, if any, slight misses), and Echo Mask is no exception.
I don’t really know where to begin with Echo Mask… I recently read Janet Malcolm’s excellent “Forty-One False Starts” (from 1994, on David Salle, the 1980s rockstar painter, and h/t Jörg Colberg, who mentioned it in his newsletter of 1/30/2021) and there’s something about Echo Mask that reminds me of some of Salle’s work. There are recognizable forms in both (though Levitt is largely devoid of human figures), but the readings and interpretation and story is purposefully obscured, misdirected, obfuscated in really wonderful ways.
Critics long complained about Salle’s (in)ability to draw, and perhaps the same could be said of Levitt’s photography… I’m drawing here on Colberg‘s (probably-not-)backhanded description of Talia Chetrit’s photographs in Showcaller as “photographs that in possibly less photographically competent ways might exist in many people’s phones.” And while Levitt’s photography probably isn’t so much on many people’s phones, it is often out of focus, over- or under-exposed, or otherwise technically deficient. But like Salle, well, and Chetrit too, Levitt knows what he’s doing and he does it with purpose and intent, if not the wild commercial success of a Salle.
I’m really not sure where to begin with Jonathan Levitt’s excellent Echo Mask, the first book from Jesse Lenz’s Charcoal Book Club imprint, Charcoal Books. I’m reminded of two things almost straight away: 1) Jörg Colberg‘s (probably-not-) backhanded description of Talia Chetrit’s photographs in Showcaller as “photographs that in possibly less photographically competent ways might exist in many people’s phones;” and 2) David Salle paintings, with their juxtapositions of forms that mean something to the artist, perhaps, though he may not know precisely what, and, anyway, he can’t draw so it doesn’t really matter so much as long as it looks good behind the sofa.
While photography of Levitt’s general type (sweeping landscapes and surreal details) probably doesn’t quite exist on many people’s phones, there are some, well, technical issues in some that probably don’t exist in the same way in pictures on people’s phones, and the photographs he’s shared in Echo Mask surely have some reason to be there. And, anyway, it’s not as if technical excellence is required, and, like all photographers, Levitt probably fails sometimes, early and often. Photographers generally shoot a ton of
crap garbage before and after shashin-ing out a winner. And most of us* tend to toss out or (at best) archive our losers and don’t often share them.
Echo Mask, Jonathan Levitt’s 2019 book from Charcoal Press, reminds me some of David Salle’s paintings: there’s all kind of imagery swirling, grouped in obscure ways, linked by words that seem to have no relation to the images, switching between color and black & white, soaring landscape and gritty detail, seemingly without sense or reason.
Text appears in blocks numbered I-VII that delineate seven groups of photographs. Bullet-pointed fragments describe scenes, ideas, flash from subject to image to idea and back. Pictures move from black & white to color and back, from landscape to fragment to body and back. It’s a jumbled mass, seemingly incoherent, and I’m reminded of an an essay we read in a course I took on the Archive back in grad school, Joan Scott’s “Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,” but I don’t quite know why.
Photographs in Jonathan Levitt’s Echo Mask appear in seven groupings, numbered I-VII and introduced or, more accurately, delineated by a single image printed full bleed across a spread, then blocks of jumbled text. The shortest, VI, reads as follows:
Snow goose, scimitar moon • Fish crow (Corvus ossifragus), dropping from the sky, swooping for the feeling — Turtle shell rattle — Egyptian sarcophagus “flesh eater” • Ronan ([symbols from an unknown language]), silent white dog, shadow of bad witch — Small house in town, early June all day rain, apple blossoms falling, merl mushroom under ash and dead elm • Chasm, broken eggs — On Shabbot in December, monotheism, sublime abstraction, Tikkun olam — תיקון עולם,•Soma (Amanita mascaria), orange psilocybin, synesthesia, macropsia, micropsia, pelopsia, teleopsia — Common ancestorLevitt, Jonathan. Echo Mask, text beginning section VI. Charcoal Press, 2019. unpaged.
Pictures that appear in this section depict: a black bird in near silhouette on a branch (color); hieroglyphics (very dark); blank page; white, blue eyed dog with a man’s shadow falling partly across it (color); figures in (I think) Russian Orthodox garb walk along a street (black & white, gritty); the gap between two rocky cliffs (black & white, grain structure suggests rodinal or similar developer); blank page; orange mushrooms (color, seemingly the first off a roll based on the area of wild overexposure at the top).
(A two-page spread, full bleed, of an alligator or crocodile under a tree in gritty black & white appears next, and signals the beginning of section VII).
So the text points, perhaps, in part to some of the pictures, perhaps, in part, to pictures in previous or later sections, and perhaps refers to something outside of the book, something unknown to the viewer, perhaps even unknown to Levitt, though surely not.
In flipping through Jonathan Levitt’s Echo Mask, the first book to appear from Jesse Lenz’s Charcoal Books, the imprint of his excellent Charcoal Book Club, I’m often struck by
Jonathan Levitt’s Echo Mask was the Charcoal photobook-of-the month selection for November 2019. Now… where to begin…
Books from the excellent Charcoal Book Club arrive with a card and a small print from either the photographer or the curator who selected the book. Jonathan Levitt’s Echo Mask, the first book from Charcoal Books, the book club’s publishing imprint, came with a print from Levitt titled (and picturing) “Great Egret, a clatter of wings, she flies away from hunting.”
In the card, Jesse Lenz (I believe), the creator of Charcoal Book Club, writes that the “…images… are presented in a sequence meant to evoke elements of animistic art and fossils of classical poetry from oral cultures – particularly synesthesia, transmogrification, onomatopoeia, and a non linear sense of time.”
After repeated viewings, flip throughs and careful examinations of Jonathan Levitt’s Echo Mask, the first book from Jesse Lenz’s Charcoal Book Club imprint, Charcoal Books, I realize the layout makes more sense, that the text refers more closely to the images than I first suspected. The text remains obscure, evoking, as Lenz writes in the card that accompanied Echo Mask (for Charcoal Book Club subscribers), “…elements of animistic art and fossils of classical poetry from oral cultures – partly synesthesia, transmogrification, onomatopoeia…”
There is first a single image, printed full bleed across two pages, then the text, then several more pictures, printed at roughly 4×6, one to a page, one or two to a spread. Read this way, the text reads like a fever dream, at one moment scientifically descriptive, giving the Latin names for various flora and fauna, at other moments gliding into hallucinated blank verse.
It reminds me, somehow, of paintings by David Salle, whose mix of classical and contemporary sources, rendered by a painter who can’t draw…
Jonathan Levitt – Echo Mask
If you’ve read this far, well, apologies. As mentioned above, I recently read Janet Malcolm’s wonderful “Forty-One False Starts,” and as I flipped through Levitt’s Echo Mask and saw my early bewilderment moving towards fascination, I was reminded of my experience with David Salle’s work when I first encountered it in the mid 1990s, and I decided to sort of riff on Malcolm’s format (poorly, and due to a mis-reading and early misunderstanding of what she was up to). It probably doesn’t work but still. To be honest, I haven’t had this much fun writing a review in a long long time.
And still, apologies, both to you, reader, and to Levitt, and Jesse Lenz and Charcoal too. Really, Echo Mask is a really great book and I probably should’ve saved this play time for something I didn’t really appreciate… The layout (in Echo Mask) really makes perfect sense (once you figure it out: I’m dense in that regard), and the text works alongside the photographs to give a visceral, unsettled feeling that neither could achieve alone. The book feels incongruously luxe, with thick, heavyweight paper and a lovely page feel that is something of a mismatch against the at-first random-seeming collection of photographs and nonsense text. And like all the best Salle paintings, the more you look at it, the more you get out of it.
Overall, I rate it a recommended 4.5 stars.
Echo Mask is available direct from Charcoal, and Levitt’s website is spare and beautiful, totally worth a visit. Also check him out on Instagram, if you have the time: really nice bird pictures and landscapes and whatnot, without the bewildering text in the book (which, to be clear, is a shame I think).
Also, if you have the money and the interest, give Charcoal Book Club a try. I’ve been with it since the second month of its existence, and it’s been worth every penny.
*I say “us” here as I also wield cameras, though, as of February 2021, I haven’t put out a photobook, let alone one that would feature in Charcoal’s photobook-of-the-month club or be selected for publication by Lenz’s imprint.