What is there to say about Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s classic, groundbreaking, and wildly influential Evidence? I don’t really know, as I haven’t read any reviews in quite awhile, so I’ll just ramble on for a bit and maybe say something new or different—and probably very, very wrong.
If this is the first time you’ve ever read about or heard of Evidence, then please, please, go read one of these three knowledgeable and professional reviewers* and ignore anything I might have to say.
Suffice it to say that Evidence is one of those photobooks that everyone knows about (or should), holds in high regard (or should), and already has a copy of in even the smallest library (or should). So stop reading and just go buy a copy (if you’re even still here).
And having said that, well, apologies. I have a second printing copy of the 2017 DAP edition, and they’re currently running a couple hundred… used. Earlier printings are actually cheaper, by a bit, and the only difference I know of is the inclusion of Sandra S. Phillips’ essay, ‘A History of the Evidence,’ which also appeared in the 2003 edition. And here I thought this classic had been in continuous publication for 40-odd years. Maybe it’s not the classic I think it to be?
Nope. Evidence is one of those “if you know, you know” sorts of photobooks, one of those of the sort that I usually don’t quite get and come to appreciate through the writings of others. But it’s different in that I sorta got it from the first flip through. If you’re unaware, Mandel and Sultan visited various government, civic, and corporate entities, gained access to their photographic archives, and spirited away some number of images from each. Evidence, the book (and, later, exhibition), was the result. It’s something that seems self evident now, but that in the 1970s was wonderfully conceptual and arty, and, to be honest, sitting here in 2023, it remains wonderfully conceptual and arty.
First off, formal and structural similarities exist between pairs of images, as one does with photobooks. That is, many of the images are fairly obvious in their similarity. Other pairs are more oblique, more literary or narrative-y in their relationship. There also exist relationships across many pages, and I suspect there’s something like chapters or sections, denoted by something I can’t quite identify, much like the flags in The Americans.
Phillips goes into the ordering some, and for the uninitiated who want their hands held, her afterword is well considered, beautifully written, and easily digested. I sorta prefer the more roundabout way of talking about the concept of Evidence given in Robert Forth’s original essay “The Circumstantial and the Evident,” and ymmv.** And I appreciate the biographical background on both Mandel and Sultan, and their collaboration, and the broader mid-1970s art photography millieu, with reference to Barthes and Sontag and Sekula and Ruscha and the other heavy hitters of 1960s (and ever since) photography and photographic theory that Phillps gets into. It’s a valuable addition to the book, sure, and especially worthwhile given our collective ignorance of history and theory, and ever-shrinking attention spans and cognitive faculties (and I’m speaking, here, of myself first).
In short, if you struggle finding any meaning (or whatever) in the images and sequence, both Forth and Phillips will help, and probably in ways that reviews (specifically the one you’re reading now) will most certainly only confuse and distract, if they even say anything at all about the pictures themselves.
Speaking of the pictures themselves…. Well, they’re entirely divorced from their original contexts, and other than a (alphabetic) list of participating institutions that appears at the beginning, the only thing we have to go on is the pictures themselves and the loose order, which goes from footprints that lead into the story, to hands and other body parts, and then on to tools and whatnot, then into more exploratory territory, and that ends in violence, both overt and restrained. There is no question that Evidence is a hallmark of art photography, photobook-making, and Conceptual Art, even coming, as it did, rather late to the party. Shame that it’s once again out of print and largely unobtanium for most.
Much ink has been spilt around this book, and I haven’t added anything. Apologies for wasting your precious time, I guess? And if you’ve read this far, THANK YOU!
Apologies too to Mandel and Sultan and their estates. Their work together deserves better than this. I’ve already gushed about Sultan (here and here), and soon Mandel will get his turn… No spoilers: you’ll just have to come back and keep an eye out for that.
And with that…. Well, read on. Maybe I’ll actually say something worth thinking about?
I’m slowly working my way through Ariella Aisha Azoulay‘s Potential History, a few bits at a time, for a half hour or an hour most Saturday and Sunday mornings, and she has some, umm, interesting ideas about photography and archives that someone smarter and more committed than I might make something of in regards to Evidence.
For Azoulay, from my limited reading—at time of writing I’ve made my way through Chapter 1—a photograph is an imperial tool and a sort of temporal, psychic, imagined, possible, and actual, physical violence against humanity. (Make of that what you will.) Archives—”archives,” he spits out with no small amount of disgust—strip away the actual, useful, potential human uses of objects, writings, sound recordings (and photographs?) and the like, and transform them into some musty bit of imperial heresy and fantasy*** to keep people—citizens and non-citizens alike—enslaved.
So… with that, what to make of Evidence, which goes (or went) even further, stripping the violent imperial—corporate—shutters from their archives and placing them into… what? Given that Evidence goes in and out of print, and is both incomprehensible to most and far too expensive for many others it’s…. well, just another musty (imperial) archive. The images contained might not have come from some forgotten and destroyed human community…. I mean, if we follow Mitt Romney, corporations are people, my friends, but not necessarily human persons and the images came from some activity that the corporate person deemed important or useful. And then, well, Empires are just fancy sorts of corporate agglomerations of humans that we humans form do violence against smaller agglomerations of other humans, and so Evidence both perpetrates violence and recuperates, it detournes, the imperial shutter.
A better writer would go on and actually say something…. I won’t. I’m just happy to have maybe said something new about Evidence. Eh, maybe.
*I took the first three google results that weren’t ads or bookshops and make no claims about the quality of the reviews. I didn’t read them, as I don’t want my thoughts colored.
**I know from the little blurb on the google listing that one reviewer found Forth’s essay less than compelling, and recommends the newer version in no small part on the inclusion of Phillips’ afterword.
*** I’m making this all up from dim memories formed a half hour at a time over about a month, and am probably very, very off-target. I don’t much care, though.