Erik Kessels and Thomas Sauvin, with text by Kingston Trinder and design by Capucine Labarthe
(Atelier Éditions, 2021)
In the spring of 2020, Dutch artist and curator Erik Kessels sent his friend French photography collector Thomas Sauvin a photograph of a run-down car. Sauvin responded with an image of a worse-for-wear car radiator featuring the pointing hand and slippered feet of an unknown figure. Thus started a wordless dialogue between the two which spanned several months as the world began to lockdown and quarantine amid the worsening pandemic. The result of that conversation is Talk Soon, a five by seven inch, spiral-bounded tearaway photo-postcard book featuring some 120 images passed between them. Despite the situation that became the impetus for Kessels and Sauvin’s back and forth, there is a sense of play and irreverence in their photo-based conversation which utilizes the kitschy and whimsical as much as it does the quotidian.
This call-and-response feels like a tribute to the mind’s associative power, as each artist is invited to run through not just their vast archives of photographs but also the images their imagination conjures up in response. Sauvin responds to a photo of twin girls dressed identically, their backs to the camera, with a photo of another pair of twin girls dressed identically but facing the camera. An image of four ashtrays, perhaps at an auction in the 1970s, is the response to a photo of a man smoking and lounging in Adidas shorts. In each reply, the reader can figure out what element of the previous photo each artist is responding to, whether it’s composition, subject, or even a shape. Kessels, sending a photo of golden apples in a V formation, kicks off a run focused on spheres: pool balls, party balloons, and water volleyball and its players’ heads. However, underneath the playfulness of Kessels and Sauvin’s to and fro lies an anxiety around conversation purely via image.
On the back of each card there are words and phrases, the product of another free associative game played not by Kessels and Sauvin, but by New Zealand writer and Atelier Éditions co-founder Kingston Trinder, who wrote the text after reading the sequenced images. “Synchronized” appears with the image of the aforementioned water volleyball players. “Temptresses” on the back of a blurred photo of women, and so on. Read as fragments between images, the words and phrases inspired by the artists’ silent narrative oscillate between the poetic and the obvious. Tearing out the cards, which all have perforated edges, and laying them down in the order in which Kessels and Sauvin exchanged them gives you the entirety of Trinder’s surreal story. The final sentence reads, “Synchronized temptresses elegantly swan dive and Leap into the Void.”
But the most interesting aspect of the presence of Trinder’s words is the question they pose about the primacy of words over images. At first glance, the fragmentary sentences are an added element of play; you can, after all, mix them up and ignore Trinder’s story. But considering the original conversation was conducted through image alone, it’s an addition that might belie the desire to impose order amid wider randomness and chaos. Can the reader resist the narrative that the words add to the images once we know there is one?
Talk Soon is also the result of Sauvin and Kessels’s “de-archiving” of hundreds of vernacular photographs. Kessels and Sauvin have collaborated before and both share a passion for the reappropriation. Sauvin created Beijing Silvermine, one of China’s largest archival projects that he began in 2009 when he salvaged thousands of photo negatives from a recycling plant. Kessels has often used found photography in his work, narrativizing the images of amateur photographers, perhaps most notably in his cult series “In Almost Every Picture” (KESSELSKRAMER, 2002–present). Talk Soon works in this vein, too, shaping what would otherwise be disparate photos into vignettes.
Discussions about how to memorialize this unique time abound, and no doubt photos taken by both amateurs and professionals will serve as an important archive. The photos in Talk Soon, by virtue of being used in a conversation between two artists unable to physically meet because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have gained yet another archival life, becoming a part of the dialogue about this unique moment, despite depicting people and places from at least 25 years ago. Rather than presenting the photobook as a nostalgic ode to analog and physical media at a time when physical contact was discouraged, the reanimation of these vernacular photos in this book and its interactivity point instead to a different future, asking how people then might interact with, project onto, and extract meaning from the photographs that will emerge from this time.