If you don’t follow Andrew Molitor’s blog and Twitter, do yourself a favor and rectify that right now. If not for him, for better or worse, I probably wouldn’t have learned of Victor D’Allant’s Tulsa, OK, and if not for a sort of joking comment I left on his initial review of it, in which I offered to trade my copy of Stuart Jeffries’ Everything, Everywhere, all the Time for it, I wouldn’t have a copy…
First, some background: roughly 100 years ago, the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the most horrific and shameful racist attacks during the Jim Crow era, took place. About 50 years ago, Larry Clark published his Tulsa book, which I have seen in exhibition form a few times, and forgot I had a copy of until I started this review. I went back and forth about which book to talk about first, and Clark won out. Anyway. D’Allant’s book makes reference to both and perhaps bears some minor relation to the Clark work, but to my mind doesn’t have much to say about race relations in Tulsa 100 years on—nor does Clark—and precious little, really, to say about self-destructive youth subcultures in Tulsa.
Again, Molitor does all this better, so I’ll just give some general thoughts.
Second, the design: Tulsa, OK is one of those weird soft/hard cover books, too stiff to be truly softcover, too soft to be hardcover, with a black, or very dark and lightly textured cover, and pages edged in glossy red. The spine even has little ridges in it, like sorta fancy old books sometimes do. The whole thing reminds me of my dad’s old Bible, which, if I recall, was/is maroon with gold on the page edges. In some brief comments to Molitor, I said it looks like it wants to be a satanic bible or something, and there’s something in there to explore briefly.
I haven’t read the satanic bible, mind you, but I do know of the satanic prayer and know that it’s direct inversion of the Lord’s Prayer, which just seems like pure laziness. Or a juvenile art project gone wrong. I think D’Allant, and maybe the mythical editor he “texts” throughout the book, sorta tried to make an homage to Larry Clark’s classic photobook, recently reviewed right here. And it goes over, for me (and Molitor) about as well as the satanic bible does for Christians, I suspect.
Speaking of texts… Third, and this is something photobook designers need to think about in general, the book includes a bunch of text, much of it supposedly text messages. Following a rather strange introduction from Julie Winter (Molitor goes into some detail about this introduction, and suffice to say that it has some issues that call Winter’s veracity into question), the supposed text messages recount various harms and trails, thoughts and worries, and more general remarks, presumably experienced by the subject(s) on the facing pages. Occasionally, D’Allant himself comments on the photograph, sometimes in conversation with the aforementioned Editor. Now all this is well and good, I suppose, but the text message design trope bugs me. I mean, stick a bit of text in a box with curved corners and *poof, it looks like a text message. You could put anything in there and it would look like a text message, and I suspect some or most of the text massages in Tulsa, OK were simply invented. Again, Molitor goes into more detail, and, really, my complaint is as much about the design itself than the content.
Photobooks are strange things. Photographs have some claims to truth that aren’t available to other art forms. Sure, these days AI can make very convincing, completely generate photographs of celebrities and ordinary people in places and doing things that never happened, and this is largely true of most photography, really. Darkroom tricks and things are well known. And, still, photographs claim to show whatever was in front of the lens and within the frame at the time the shutter tripped. Crafty people can then take these little microseconds of truthiness and edit or sequence them into very convincing fictions, and for most people, even most photographers, it’s easiest to hew closer to the truth. Take Todd Hido, for example. His photobooks don’t mean to show the truth: they’re edited and sequenced to produce a mood, evoke memories, etc. Larry Clark’s Tulsa shows his friends having a great time as they get into hardcore amphetamine use, then just going downhill. There’s a clear narrative that appears to hew close to the actual events. I don’t see any of this in Tulsa, OK, and it seems to be just D’Allant flying into Tulsa and spending a few months hiring cheap models to show their breasts in dark alleys, which brings me to the next point.
Fourth, in my experience of Tulsa, and elsewhere in the United States, both in fairly conservative contexts and fairly, well, laissez faire contexts, the vast majority of women that I’ve met or seen tend to wear shirts or tops of some sort most all of the time. All women are, of course, bare-chested at least some of the time, but I’ve seen more naked breasts in French television commercials than I have in person. Yet virtually all of D’Allant’s models are topless or otherwise bare-breasted. Now. I’m no prude, or don’t think of myself as such. I mean, I might be a bit of a cold fish; I’m not the randiest of men. But I like a naked woman as much, or nearly as much, as most any other straight man. And there are just too many naked breasts in Tulsa, OK, ok? And that’s not to mention the low-grade hardcore porn shots later in the book, the PG-13 S&M stuff, and etc. There’s not a lot to trip the prurient trigger, and ymmv of course, but the porn in Tulsa, OK doesn’t even rise to the level of Madonna’s Sex, which was at least something at the time it came out. Anyway. For a book with a bunch of, excuse me, tits in it, you’d think there might be something more to it than “oh, look, another bare breast… *yawn… I wonder what’s for dinner tonight?” and similar.
And just to continue for a bit, I think there should maybe be a reason for a woman to be bare breasted in a photobook. Ellen von Unwerth’s Wicked, for example, is just a bunch pictures of Adriana Lima, mostly nude or naked. And the reason? Well, its’ von Unwerth and Lima having a good time making these pictures of witches and other wicked things, and it looks like they’re having a wicked good time. Or, because I have Hido on the brain, having reviewed 4 things of his in the past few weeks, the handful of naked women in Excerpts from Silver Meadows mean something: they contribute to the narrative, push things forward, force you to slow down for a second. And while it’s a bit too arty to be pure porn, there’s a certain level of prurience in it, for me anyway, and, again, ymmv. The breasts in Tulsa, OK do no such work.
There’s more to say about this rather horrid book, but none of it’s good and I’ve gone on long enough. As mentioned by Molitor, though in not so many words and with much more thorough backing, this book is garbage. Beautifully designed, perhaps even over designed, but garbage nonetheless. The photography is lazy and simplistic, and I say this as a lazy, simplistic, really pathetic excuse for a hobbyist photographer. That is to say, I know lazy photography when I see it, and this is it.
Overall, I rate Tulsa, OK a surprisingly high 1.6 stars.
1.6 stars? Really? Well, it is very well designed….
I’m not going to link to D’Allant’s website or any place where you can find his book. I don’t think you should buy it, and there are many other professional and amateur photographers who make work that deserves your attention. Go watch a Vulhandes video or two, visit his website; go check out Monaris; and, really, go read and find a copy of one of Andrew Molitor’s excellent zines. They’re all doing great things, and things that are worth your attention. And, yes, there are many others who didn’t immediately pop into my mind, and if that’s you, apologies!
Tulsa, OK, though, is just garbage. Stay away.