Some of us, by whatever mismatched wire in the brain, wreck our incomes on beautiful books. We can’t help it. It’s a monstrous affliction, no, affection (okay, aflection), whose symptoms manifest as barely livable living spaces, lined with sagging pressboard shelves and, at elbow’s length of every sofa, chair, and coffee table, a precarious Jenga of badly stacked editions. God help the bibliophile’s partner, for whom nothing but madness awaits.
That’s all to say that Looking up Ben James: A Fable, recently caught my eye, not because the photographer is John Gossage, renowned photobook collector and himself the featured artist of more than twenty-four photobooks, but because of how extraordinarily handsome a book it is. Steidl outdid itself on this one. Thoughtfully designed, the book creates an intriguing tension between Gossage’s black and white photographs of unremarkable spaces and the occasional extravagance of color. I’m not sure what this adds to the “fable” or even to the images, but I appreciate the dopamine kick. And not to bore readers with the details, but Quality, capital Q, comes through in almost every aspect of production, from paper (for my fellow paper snobs) to the binding.
In 1953, Robert Frank stayed with a Welsh miner named Ben James in Caerau, a community west of Cardiff, in Wales. There Frank took some of his most memorable photographs. Even those unfamiliar with the history of photography would recognize Ben James: that unforgettable whiteness of the eye, the only part of the miner’s anatomy not begrimed by carbon black. It’s this Ben James referred to by Gossage’s title—the Ben James who spent his days in darkness, 1,200 feet underground, reinforcing tunnels with wood beams.
In 2008, Gossage visited the same town and its surrounding environs on a road trip with Martin Parr who appears, somewhat disproportionately, in many of these photographs. In true Gossage style, the photographs in this book prefer the peripheral, even the trivial, details of small towns—details that, once upon a time (hence the “fable”?), may have rewarded a first encounter with surprise or curiosity, but that have dulled themselves to the senses by way of excess and routine.
But it’s a risky venture, making the trivial interesting. Sometimes the trivial is simply trivial. For Gossage, these photographs of fences, puddles, weeds, and telephone posts must mean something, but that something often seems too subject to inward tastes to invite passersby like myself inside. That’s not to say Looking up Ben James doesn’t have its gems. But what the book is missing is just what the title suggests: Ben James. Not the Ben James, but what Ben James represents: an unlikely encounter in the abyss, a chance in hell.