I pulled Daniel Reuter’s Providencia off the to-review shelves largely based on the attractive spine (gold lettering against mottled/variegated grey :chef’s kiss:). I don’t remember the circumstances around acquiring it, and expect I bought it based on Jorg Colberg’s review. I encourage you to read Colberg’s take, as mine is likely to be much more wishy-washy and banal. Apologies in advance, dear reader, and to Reuter as well.

As with many of my photobook purchases in 2021, I probably had a good reason for buying Providencia… it escapes me now. Looking at Colberg’s ratings, I suspect I bought it based on the production score—Colberg gave it a full 5.0 based on the multiple paper stocks and overall high quality of the printing and binding.

Back when I bought it, I still harbored fantasies of making a photobook of my own. (lol) Some small part of me remains deluded on this point, but I’m older and somewhat more self aware now, nearly three years later.

Anyway. I’m glad I bought Providencia and glad I finally pulled it off the shelf.

First thought: inscrutable. Like, what’s going on here? The photographs themselves are obviously set in a particular order and all. I just can’t really tell what’s going on.

The book ends with a short story, “El acenta” by Alejandro Zambra (and, helpfully, an English translation of the same by Megan McDowell). In it, the narrator describes returning to his native Chile after many years in Mexico. The country is in a state of near revolution, it seems, and the narrator and taxi driver chat about the situation some. The narrator mostly reminisces or recounts various thoughts. I want to make something of this short story, use it to unlock the book…

After reading the story, I went back and looked at the photographs once, twice, four or five times. As a result, I found myself thinking “Sous les pavés, la plage.”

I’m largely certain the Situationists and other French anarchists of 1968 have nothing much to do with Providencia, and this reveals the potential folly of trying to get at pictures through text… and, for that matter, the pitfalls (and rewards, maybe) of reading random thought pieces by shade-tree photobook reviewers like me.

There is something of a back and forth in the layout, a sort of see saw between abandoned rubble and glittering modernity in many sequences. For example, one spread shows a vacant, weedy lot on the left side, paired with a manicured garden next to a sound barrier wall that reminds me of the side of I45 in a sorta well-to-do section of Houston. There’s a bunch of this: the wall or foundation of a historic building in black & white on the left, with a frosted office window in steel, glass, and concrete in color on the right; corrugated steel fencing in an industrial-looking street corner (monochrome) and chromed steel and polished concrete wheelchair access for an office building.

There’s also a strong suggestion of the impermanence and temporality of things, with garbage-strewn parks overlooking the glittering city, or, less obviously, what appears to be archeological rubble facing a suited, worried-looking man, eyes closed on the phone. In between these two, one of the translucent pages shows water coursing down a shallow incline, probably some sort of drainage sluice or something.

It’s not all so easily and obviously read, though, and even a week later, I still find Providencia rather difficult to read.

Unrated.

Providencia shows sold out on the publisher’s website. I took 12 seconds to read the publisher’s blurb there and it seems that “Providencia” is the name of a neighborhood in Santiago de Chile, where Reuter made the photographs, and that the title suggests, in Islamic terms, that “we plan, and God plans, and God is the best of planners,” that is, the rough Biblical meaning of “providence.”

So I guess I wasn’t too far off…

Providencia was limited to 700 copies, and, as mentioned, it shows sold out at Skinnerboox. You might be able to find used copies out there. Check bookbinder.com, for example. I’d mostly agree with Colberg’s findings that the book’s production quality is high, and that everything else about it is maybe a little bit loose. That said, tightening it up might have made the theme more obvious, and we humans don’t need things to be too obvious. We get enough of that with social media and all. Books should challenge us some, and God willing we still have the capacity to be challenged.

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