Photographer Louis Quail’s training in graphic design and illustration clearly shows in the production of this, his first book; each element has been carefully chosen and placed. Big Brother is a portrait of Quail’s eponymous sibling, Justin, and his work has almost equal weight with Louis’ photographs – pages from his birdwatching logbook from 1973 open the book and an insert of his poems and art from 2018 provides a final flourish at the very end. This is not a collaborative production, but Justin’s own voice can be heard alongside his brother’s, and it is no small achievement to gain that kind of balance.
Big Brother is an impressive book in many ways. It is a dark green solid hardback slightly larger than A4, with the title and a drawing of a bird quietly embossed in orange on the front, and a section of a poem similarly embossed on the back. The endpapers are from Justin’s notebooks, and immediately on opening you know that this is no ordinary photobook; something much more complex is going on. Through almost 200 pages, Quail shows us his brother and his daily life, but also gives us a picture of how, over the years, Justin and his family have navigated the processes of social services, the police, and charities, all of which have struggled to support Justin and his girlfriend Jackie. Those with mental health issues are easily misunderstood, and support can be insufficient, inappropriate or simply lacking, especially lately when resources are dwindling to dangerous levels. Big Brother shows schizophrenia with all its mess, both literal and metaphorical, and Quail’s very personal text narration gives history and context to the images.
The pages of Big Brother are crisp and simply designed, interspersed every so often with an observation note or police record printed on flimsy stock, with birdwatching notes on the reverse, as if tucked into the book for fear of loss. This feature is clever and thought-provoking, but also slightly bothersome – it jars somewhat with the clean design of the book overall, especially as to read some of the information you have to turn the book sideways. But that’s a minor complaint; in some photobooks the content often feels overwhelmed by the design rather than served by it; in Big Brother that is happily not the case. On the other hand, it may not be a ‘photobook’ per se; perhaps it’s simply a ‘book’, with text, photographs and illustration working together on an equal footing. Perhaps it is an example of the evolution of the photography book as photographers expand their practice beyond strictly lens-based media.
In some ways, Big Brother could be seen as a challenge to the traditionalist’s dictum that ‘a photograph must require no explanation; it must tell the story entirely by itself’. Quail himself says; “I’m using photography as you might use writing. I want people to start at the beginning of the book and read through, because there’s a narrative. I’m not a fan of being able to start anywhere in a book. I need other types of information to give context, not just visual. Not a lot of it, just a little, just enough to know which direction to walk in.” Having followed that direction and read Big Brother I feel not as if I have walked in Justin’s shoes, but perhaps as if I have followed him at a distance for some time, and come to understand just a little of what it might be like to be him.
– review by Lottie Davies
Below, two images © Louis Quail: