Top/Top by Liam Magee is the first winning publication of the Camberwell Book Prize. The prize was founded to support graduates of the BA Photography course at the Camberwell College of Arts, which is a part of University of the Arts, London. The winners are produced by Camberwell Press as limited edition books. Top/Top will also be accessioned into the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library collection, joining the museum’s historic collection of photographers’ books.
The book comes in a utilitarian brown card sleeve, and a similar pared-down approach continues inside in the book. The reader opens the sleeve by pulling at a tab, which runs in perforated lines across both ends of the sleeve, similar to the opening of a cereal packet. This is the first decision the reader takes in encountering the book – which end is the top? The book has two spines, so it can be flipped over and the reader can start again – a book that promises only beginnings, and no ends. The two parts are similar but not the same, demanding closer inspection, disorienting the reader’s first impressions. There are no words, only black and white images of objects alone or with anonymous hands using them. The images, of mundane items such as wristwatches, pencils and doorbells, play with their use and usefulness, subverting their typical functionality.
The black and white photography is crisp and concise, with a formal studio quality. A hammer is held at an angle that can only lead to self-harm. A phone receiver is held upside down, a silent ear to a silent mouthpiece. A scenic postcard, upside down. A roll of tape hanging impossibly upwards. Floating doorstops, plants growing towards the floor. A shrinking balloon, hanging upside down. Apart from examining the objects photographed, the publication poses wider questions about books and images and the manner in which we look at something familiar. Somehow Magritte echoes here, with objects dryly observed and disrupted at the same time. Top/Top reads like an instruction manual to surreal.
Top/Top places itself in the long tradition of photographers’ books. Their role is inevitably evolving in the digital age, as is the role of photography in the face of mass digital imagery. Books have always been an essential part of photographic practice, perhaps equal in importance to the wall-mounted, printed display. The book format offers a variety of possibilities for photographic presentation, allowing for narrative stories and unexpected juxtapositions, creating miniature, portable exhibitions. The book as an object is encountered differently to its sister artwork, the photograph. The wall-mounted piece creates a physical distance, whereas the book is a more intimate experience, as the reader holds it, carries it and skims through it.
Visual book publishing is now a statement of artistic intent, and an encounter with an artist book is a polar opposite of the way a digital book is consumed. The dynamic way young photographers continue to produce publications, such as Top/Top, suggests that books will endure as aesthetic objects and as sites of artistic production.
– Reviewed by Riikka Kuittinen
For further viewing: www.liamjmagee.com