Created in voluminous amounts, self-published photobooks are everywhere. While some are dull and footling, a few are marvellously illuminating. The hit-and-miss qualities of photobooks may be an accurate reflection of the state of self-publishing in general: it’s under-edited, over-designed grandiloquence is a reaction to an oversaturated market; a place where too many photographers are competing for too little attention. The growing photobook trend may be problematic, but when one is finished wading through a riddle of inconsistencies, the feeling of satisfaction upon finding a great book is plenteous, exciting even.
Every so often, out of a torrent of vacuity, emerges a little gem: a book that actually means something, documents something real, morbid and fascinating, and offers instead of empty gesturing a substance to it that sticks its nails into one’s eye sockets. This is one of those books.
Index of Time is made with great consideration and care. Its grey, recycled cover and black type is well suited to its cavernous contents. Inside the fold out cover we find a map of Býčí skála cave, a 13-kilometre cave system in the Czech Republic, accompanied by a short text explaining what it is, how it has been explored and some of the artifacts and wall drawings it contains. A man named Wankel discovered the first parts of the cave system in 1872 and promptly romanticised his findings. Inside the cave he stumbled upon the tomb of a man whose skeleton was covered in jewels and a crown. Around him lay forty female skeletons, some beheaded and all ritually sacrificed. It would seem from the very beginning this cave was discovered to be fictionalised; its history and physical nature provide an apt setting for something, well, weird to happen.
The pictures themselves form a developing narrative of what Wankel might have seen in the cave. These high contrast black and white depictions of rock formations, crevices, cracks, chasms, fissures, interstices and openings are beautifully juxtaposed with telling yet functional objects such as a ladder with protruding water hose, a skull, a wood panel and a hollow ring. An axe and a knife are photographed in the style of Walker Evans’ Beauties of the Common Tool, assisted by Robert Frank and published in Fortune Magazine in 1955. All these objects seem to invite the viewer to make his or her own decision about their meanings or usage, but in some implied fashion, as we have seen with Tereza Zelenkova’s previous projects, the photographer doesn’t stray far from references to ritualism or occultism with this work either. The strength of this collaborative project is in the combining of Zelenkova’s own already now established aesthetic, with a technical proficiency and coherence not seen as acutely in previous projects.
However, in the middle of the photobook is a small risographically printed booklet containing three short stories. Although increasing in quality as one reads from section to section, these literary wanderings sit awkwardly with the photographs. The first story slumps into ironic Harry Potter-meets-The Famous Five in a “proto-Zen garden” territory, doing little to explicate the relative sincerity of the photographic project itself. The second story ‘Distance’ provides more of the same banality. Fortunately, the third tale of a cave-dwelling German Reich architect saves the gesture entirely. Titled ‘House of I’, the story opens with a first-person narrated battle with the senses: “My eyes have finally grown used to a life without daylight. Finally, after eleven months they have accepted their position in a new hierarchy of the senses. Ears, then eyes, then nose.” The rest of this text explores the psychological state of the architect as he nosedives from accepting the practicalities of cave living to an inner monologue of despairing solitude. “I was an architect, with a family. I can’t sleep. Have you lost your fucking mind?”
The book is now sold out but can be viewed here along with other projects by the photographers: terezazelenkova.com