Margins of Excess
A new photographic essay by Max Pinckers
Text by Hans Theys, Montagne de Miel, 11 November 2017
‘Margins of Excess’ is dedicated to a question that has always fascinated Pinckers, namely how people sculpt their own identity, starting from collective dreams and desires that are partly fed and shaped by the tropes of mass media. This question is linked to the media’s apparent incapacity to transmit intimate or idiosyncratic versions of reality.
The book has a woven structure. Artificially lit and staged ‘documentary’ photographs are combined with ‘abstract’ photographs, found footage, images distilled from the media, documents, articles from the press and self-conducted interviews. All these elements are approached differently on the level of the graphic design (different paper, compositions, formats, ways of binding) resulting in a readable visual rhythm which allows us to simultaneously differentiate and associate all these pieces of information.
‘Margins of Excess’ is spun around the stories of six people who momentarily received nationwide attention in the US press because of their attempts to realize a dream or passion, but were treated as deceivers. In general, Pinckers is attracted to subjects that evoke the magic of imagination but simultaneously reveal the impossibility of an untainted personal dream: time and again we discover that the words and images we use to define ourselves have been unconsciously borrowed from others, from the past, from books, paintings, the internet or the media.
Herman Rosenblat became well-known because of a self-invented love-story set in a concentration camp during WWII, the private detective Jay J. Armes appears to be a real-life superhero, Darius McCollum drew media attention by compulsively highjacking trains, Richard Heene would have staged an elaborate television hoax, Rachel Doležal would have pretended to be ‘black’ and Ali Alqaisi would have tried to make people believe that he was the ‘hooded man’ in the iconic photo from Abu Ghraib prison. Pinckers has met with all of them to hear their view of things and documented their story with found footage, published articles, self-made interviews and artificially lit and staged photographs.
These six stories, each forming a separate chapter, are linked by other recurrent themes such as fear, superstition, the visibility of minorities, the way individuals try to represent themselves by specific hairdo, clothes, tattoos, make up and the decoration of their surroundings or the manner in which Native Americans, western motel rooms and terrorist attacks are represented in museums. Another subject is an ongoing story about suspicious vehicles which, due to the omnipresence of cars in the US (and in these photographs), tends to become hilarious.
Some of the photographs have been ‘misplaced’ to suggest a false narrative. For instance, the story about the train-buff Darius McCollum is ‘documented’ by a photograph that seems to show the control station of a public transportation system, whereas in reality we are seeing a simulator for people who are learning to steer a ship. On one page, we might find an actual photograph of an aircraft designed by Richard Heene as it has been shown on television, on another page we find a photograph of a fake UFO launched by Pinckers himself. On one page we are witnessing real policemen arresting somebody, on another page a person who seems to be shot is actually a doll in a war museum. Meeting with the private detective Jay J. Armes, we might have the impression that he is an action figure come alive. But seeing the two portraits Pinckers made of him, he reminds us of a figure in a wax museum or a stuffed animal in a diorama. Several photographs in this book were taken in museums, for instance war museums, which are prolific in the US. But when we believe we see a fake orange cab, reminding us of the paint scene in the movie Taxi Driver, we are actually seeing a real one being repainted. Sometimes we see a studio with a green key, sometimes we see a green wall suggesting a staged ‘reality’.
In his documentary ‘HyperNormalisation’ (2016) Adam Curtis argues that contemporary political figures deliberately tell lies and mix facts and fiction to create a climate of intellectual insecurity. In ‘Margins of Excess’ this concept of ‘perception management’ is linked to how museums represent events, television studios and motel rooms are decorated, news is fabricated and people shape themselves according to their fears, dreams and expectations. We all need forms, shapes, words and images to cope with reality, but we should keep in mind that they never completely represent reality and that this doesn’t mean that reality is nonexistent. Ideally, we might conclude, words would continually remind us they are but words. And this is precisely what Pinckers intends his photographs to do by infusing them with manifest artificial elements.
Another recurrent topic in Pinckers’ work is the photographer’s unconscious tendency to make photographs that look like existing photographs or paintings. Earlier this year this led him to develop the Trophy Camera v0.9 (in collaboration with Dries Depoorter). Being able to identify patterns derived from World Press Photos of the Year (from 1955 to the present), this camera is able to recognize, take and save award winning photographs, which are automatically uploaded to a website. In a similar way, photographers are inclined to take photographs that look like photographs or paintings we have seen before and which have moved us. Without really revealing something or making it present, they remind us of what we are supposed to feel or think with regard to a certain subject.
For ‘Margins of Excess’ this photographer’s tic to recreate clichés has been translated into a series of ‘classic’ photographs pretending to depict the sorrow of an individual. Each chapter contains one of these photographs in which we meet upset, weeping individuals, impersonated by professional actors. The more we leaf through the book, however, the more these professional mourners start to represent our own dismay. We know they are acting, but we don’t care anymore. Our disbelief is suspended. They have become real. As an ancient Greek choir they seem to weep in our stead, they seem to lament our fate, our fathers, our mothers and our children, our desperate attempts to be just.
The current era of ‘post-truth’, where truths, half-truths, lies, fiction or entertainment are easily interchangeable, has produced a culture of ‘hyper-individual truths’, demanding a new approach to identify underlying narratives that structure our perception of reality. Embedding the six main stories into a clustering tale of cloned military dogs, religious apparitions, suspect vehicles, fake terrorist plots, accidental bombings and fictional presidents, ‘Margins of Excess’ follows an associative logic akin to the indiscriminate way a paranoid mind connects unrelated events. As such, it mimics the hysteria of the 24-second news cycle and the one-dimensional formats of media that are primarily focused on selling ‘news’.
In ‘Margins of Excess’ reality and fiction are intertwined. Not to fool us, but to reveal a more intricate view of our world, which takes into account the subjective and fictitious nature of the categories we use to perceive and define it. And then again: not to celebrate superficiality and contingency, but to try to pierce through noise, buzz, pulp, lies, dreams, paranoia, cynicism and laziness and to embrace ‘reality’ in all its complexity.
Confronted with what he called ‘the vulgarity of the human heart’, which left him powerless, sad and desperate, Joseph Brodsky kept on believing in literature. On several occasions, he pleaded for a free or cheap distribution of millions of books, because he believed that the discovery of a book could save someone. To him, the power of literature resulted from being a fusion of Western (factual, rational) and Eastern (intuitive) thought. I believe he would have loved the simultaneously poetic and fact fed structure of ‘Margins of Excess’.
Hans Theys, Montagne de Miel, November 11th 2017