I’m not sure where or how Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara came onto my radar, but it’s near enough to exactly the sort of book I’d like to make, more or less, and I’m a bit jealous (in a good way). The project came to fruition with the help of Lynda Miles, a former scriptwriter for the “Santa Barbara” television show. She and Markosian wrote a script, interviewed and hired actors, and sorta made a “Santa Barbara” episode version of her young life, first in Yeltsin-era Russia, then in 1990s Santa Barbara, CA. If you don’t have a copy, go buy one now, or, scratch that… scroll down and watch my unboxing first, then go buy a copy.
Really, Santa Barbara is much more than a book. Markosian actually scripted and made an “episode” of the daytime drama that you can see in exhibitions of the work. From the trailer, it looks more or less as if the book is really more exhibition catalog than book. The exhibition version tends to have still images, scripts, cast rehearsals, and the like, the feature-length film, and etc. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see it in exhibition form… it’s been years since I visited a museum or gallery (thanks to you-know-what). The book has stills from the film, still photographs, things that look like archival photographs, some fake TV guide inserts, and other wonderful things from the exhibition, just without actually being there.
This is a good thing, I think, since the exhibition had one run, starting and finishing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, from July to December, 2021. There’s no indication of it traveling anywhere, not that it’s had much time to (as of March, 2022 when I wrote this). I’ll keep an eye out, though, as I’d like to see the full film. And, really, it seems that the work was conceived of as a film, and that the book came along later.
Don’t take me wrong: the book is good, and, again, I wish I could make something like this. But the book sorta wants to be a film, I think.
There are what appear to be old family photographs, that is, drugstore prints gone bad; there are polaroids; pictures of television screens; color digital images; pictures on a paper stock that is too think to be TV Guide pages, but looks, feels and has the TV Guide trim size. I’m unclear as to whether there are actual archival photographs or if it’s all digital manipulation. Some of the “archival” pictures seem to show the actors that portray Markosian’s mother, brother, and younger self; some show the older man that brings them to America. Insofar as all of these are actors, either the actors are very close lookalikes, or there are no, or not many, actual period pictures in the book. Not that it matters: the whole thing is dramatized in ways that the actual story—as dramatic as it was—was not. But if you’re expecting a mix of archival and re-enacted (as I was) you may be disappointed.
Text in the book doesn’t help. In a brief artist statement near the end, Markosian writes, “The images in the book are by-products of the journey I took to relive my memories and, in my own way, to learn to love my mom.”* The band on the back of the book, that will be visible through any shrink wrap should you find this on a store shelf some day, begins with “Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara brings together staged scenes, film stills, and family pictures to reenact the artist’s own immigration story.”** So which is it? These read as contradictory to me…
Anyway, and again, it doesn’t matter. Santa Barbara is a book I wish I could make.
I feel like I should go deeper into the book and its background and production, talk about the dream of America vs. the lived reality, or say something about immigrant experience and all. That said, if you read this blog, you probably know that I won’t get into anything like that. I mean, I do sometimes, but mostly I leave that heavy lifting to others. My darling wife has a great deal of experience being an immigrant; I’m back in the county just to the right of the one I grew up in. I have virtually no comprehension of immigrant experience, and any views of the lived reality of the dream that is America are colored by the rose-tinted glasses that were crushed under the heel of my lived experience as a, what, 10th generation citizen or something like that. And when I say that I wish I could make this book, I don’t mean hiring a casting director and scriptwriter to remake my childhood. I mean making a book that feels like this, moves in this sort of way, and that actually blends archival photographs—I hold my Grandfather’s negatives and slides, and recently came into the (temporary?) possession of my dad’s archive of negatives, slides, and printed photographs—with pictures I’ve made in later years.
Santa Barbara isn’t that sort of book, but it does things and moves in ways that the book I’d make, if I had the skill, time, and/or sheer will to do, would do if I had the will to make it. And the world is a better, more beautiful and fully realized place with Santa Barbara in it.
Overall, I rate Santa Barbara a go-buy-a-copy-now 4.3 stars.
I sat down one afternoon with a wide-open 6 or 7 hours to study the book, formulate thoughts, and draft a review that I could quickly edit early the following morning before publication. Alas, like almost all plans of mine, this one was dashed by family and other obligations. Alhamdulillah.
Apologies to Markosian for the lacklusterness of this so-called review. If you’re unaware of this book, do a bit of research: copy-paste “Diana Markosian Santa Barbara book review” into the search engine of your choice, then come back here and tell me what I should’ve said, or that I’m full of 5#!7 or whatever. Or just go check out Markosian’s website and use the links there to pick up a copy of her book from Aperture. It’s amazingly good stuff, imo.
*Markosian, Diana. untitled statement in Santa Barbara. Aperture, NY, 2020. p. 209
**Aperture. publisher’s statement on a band around the rear cover of Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara. Aperture, NY, 2020.