Charles Johnstone and Heather Malesson‘s Escape is the follow up to their well-regarded, out of print, and far out-of-my-price-range The Girl in the Fifth Floor Walk-up. I recall reading something about the earlier book, looking for it, finding it out of print and far too expensive, and snatching up a copy of Escape to a) see what all the fuss was about and b) in hopes that it too would quickly sell out and become wildly expensive….
Sadly, a) it’s two years later, at time of writing, and some number of the 800 copies remain available and, b) fair warning: there are many NSFW pictures throughout, and the unboxing video is therefore only viewable for logged-in adults on YouTube. It’s all fairly tame, to be sure, and still: viewers beware. God is all seeing and all knowing. Watch what you look at and how you look at it.
The first time I really sat down to look at Escape, I found it quite exciting, in a sort of prurient way. It’s not Malleson: she’s not my type at all. There’s something in the color and softness and distortions on the expired Polaroid media Johnstone employed. I was a bit taken aback by my rather animal response to the book and put it away for a few weeks. When I reluctantly returned to it,* I had my wits about me, all thanks and praise be to God, and I could just look at it as an object, rather than as some sort of strange, very soft core pornography.
I didn’t get overly and inappropriately excited in my second and subsequent trips through Escape, it’s only due to God’s mercy. I still admire the color and blur and sort of late 1970s/early 1980s soft core aesthetic of Old Polaroid, and it’s the reason I continue to shoot New Polaroid film, and the reason I bought a Mint SLR 670-S, and the reason I’ll probably end up selling off the Mint InstantKon RF70: Instax just can’t hit the same, unless we’re talking about Instax Mini in the LC-Anstax, of course.**
I haven’t seen many reviews of Escape. One linked on Malleson’s website and published to Instagram by Robin Tichener (@robins_photobook_collection)*** largely took the publisher’s blurb as the starting point for his very brief thoughts. While often helpful, publisher’s blurbs are largely—and only—self serving and viewers/readers like you (and me) may have different thoughts, may not get the same sort of feel from the book in question. ymmv, as they say.
The same can be said for the two afterwords that appear at the end of the book. Matthias Harder, Director of the Helmut Newton foundation, gives a brief biography/history of Johnstone, his photography, and his collaboration with Malleson. Brad Feuerhelm of American Suburb X and NearestTruth contributes “Escape and the Iterations of Desire,” which I found somewhat difficult. Both take great care to proclaim the collaborative nature of the pictures and their making. Given the time that this book appeared—2021—and the current and continued push for women’s liberation from the shackles of the male gaze—I’m here for it, to be sure—I feel the gentlemen doth protest too much, and that theirs are more political statements than statements of actual fact. From my standpoint as a viewer, wholly separated from the making of the pictures, I don’t really see much in the way of authorship in Malleson’s gaze or posture throughout, and the book reads very similar to all those books and pictures that famous old sexist photogs made of their “muses” in the bad old days of photographic history.
Sure, Malleson is obviously familiar (and comfortable) with the old tropes and poses. There’s something of a self-possession in her that maybe isn’t in every picture of every “muse” by every
sexist old pervert famous photog ever. And the fact remains that it’s an un-photographed man making largely sexualized photographs of an attractive(-to-some) woman for the pleasure and delectation of—and I’m guessing here—other men. It’s not pornography, really: it’s an art book to be sure, and though it may be close, it’s not Playboy or Penthouse.: theres’s too much narrative (potential) in it.
If I’m too blind to really get it, to really get beyond Malleson’s largely inexplicable and un-needed nakedness or the absolutely gorgeous color and distortion of the Old Polaroid to get the same things Harder got out of it, or to take the time to carefully read and understand what Feuerhelm had to say, well that’s on me.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually quite enjoy and appreciate Escape. I appreciate Johnstone—the suggestion of, and potential for narrative is strong in this one—and his commitment to Polaroid media. The Summerhouse Pool is one of the best books I’ve reviewed recently, and if not for the gratuitous nudity, Escape might be up there too. Maybe I’m a prude: I won’t deny it. Your mileage will vary. All the nudity just distracts from the narrative, I think; I hope for God’s mercy.
Escape remains available direct from SuperLabo and through Malleson’s website. I wasn’t able to find a website for Johnstone, and I hunted. I’d like to find some more examples of his work, so if you know where I can find him, please pass it on! I appreciate his approach to the medium and his narrative ability, and hope to see how he progresses.
*As of about February 2023, I select books and set an order for review weeks or months in advance. When I hit upon Deanna Templeton’s The Swimming Pool and followed it up with Johnstone’s The Summertime Pool, Escape just naturally followed.
**Looking again at my very small collection of RF70 pictures, I might be being hasty… Instax Wide is a decent format: the size and shape is appealing, and the color can be a bit nostalgic-feeling. And the RF70 is probably the best Instax Wide camera available. Maybe I should put another couple packs through it? I have 4 packs available… I also have the LomoGraflok 4×5 back thing for Instax Wide and I’ve never shot with it, and I also plan to sell it…. Should I shoot the 4 (expired) packs I have and see if I want to keep the RF70 and can get along with the LomoGraflok workflow? If you read this far, leave a comment and share any thoughts, please!
***Tichener seems familiar with this blog, and from the looks of things maybe took a bit of inspiration from me. He even used one of my unboxing pictures, uncredited, natch. I’m flattered, I guess, and wish him the best.
Edit: an earlier version of this review included uncalled-for and uncharacteristic attacks on other photobook reviewers. Apologies to all involved, and I make no excuses for my bad behavior. God willing, I’ll move back to my milquetoasty sort of criticality and stop all these attempts to be edgier: it’s just not me, or not the me I want to be, or used to be.