Disquiet by Amani Willett

Printed Matters

Disquiet by Amani Willett

By Amelia Rina September 25, 2013

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.


When produced successfully, a photo book offers an entirely unique viewing experience. Works that might otherwise be found in the architecture of a gallery or museum are transformed in a reader’s hands. Contrasting with the acts of walking through a room and creating relationships between individual pieces and the overall exhibit, it becomes an altogether smaller and more intimate investigation. Photo books can be artist monographs, anthologies, or art objects in themselves—the possibilities are endless. Amani Willett’s presentation of photographs in his debut publication, Disquiet (Damiani Factory, 2013), utilizes the format to weave a dreamlike meditation on life, death, destruction, and rebirth. Disquiet is a deep consideration that requires the viewer to be patient in order to fully appreciate the relationships between the concepts that Willett’s photographs introduce. The contrast of images may initially appear out of place, yet as the book progresses, the reader discovers them to be part of a broad and rhythmic narrative.

Disquiet begins with two full-bleed, double-paged, extremely grainy black-and-white photographs of a single individual surrounded by thick, cloudy plumes of smoke or fog. In the first image, OWS #1, a masculine figure holds his head in his hands as the surrounding atmosphere envelops him. In the second image, OWS #2, a smaller figure, barely visible, is in the process of running toward the viewer; the photograph’s slightly pulled-back point of view reveals a street full of smoke, caused by some event outside of the camera’s range. The following page is a photograph of a worn and wrinkled scrap of paper that reads

Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is born—even if that something new is our very own self? – Julian Barnes1

Though the quote sets the tone for the entire book, its heavy-handedness is perhaps unnecessary—Willett’s different types of photographs speak to each other in a way that subtly conveys this message. In the context of the quotation, some of the images in the black-and-white series at first appear trite: a policeman standing almost entirely hidden behind a column on a street piled with metal barrier fences; a solitary midterm pregnant woman looking through a window; the aged hand of an elderly person; the leg of an infant. The cycle of destruction, death, birth, and life borders on cliché.

Fortunately, Willett subverts the literalism of these images with another series of stunningly beautiful scenes that poetically represent the book’s themes. He effectively contrasts the downfalls of civilization in the black-and-white series (without being too dismal) with saccharine observations of new life in a series of portraits of his family (without being too twee). Willett depicts these scenes, which also expose the chaos of contemporary society, through a veil of romanticism: otherworldly light and deeply saturated colors wash over abandoned urban streets, paint peeling off walls in an empty room, and a decomposing squirrel on a bed of leaves, for example. And yet, instead of being sentimental, the photographs in this second series express a quiet thoughtfulness about the same world.

Willett created the photographs in Disquiet during the first two years of his son’s life (2010–12), and they embody the insecurity of a new father bringing a life into a world where so much is unknowable. The images illustrate an investigation into the burgeoning existence of his child, though not in a manner one would expect. Instead of the overwhelming adorableness so many new parents feel inclined to share, Willett documents the liminal moments in which his characters seem to be contemplating their mortality. Further separating the book from any sort of family album, the environmental photographs expose a world of anxiety, corruption, and contradiction. In House Through the Woods, what would otherwise be a lovely house in a forested area is a domicile saturated with fear. A vase full of once beautiful flowers creates a menacing Lynch-ian tableau. A chaotic composition of dilapidated shops with signs labeled simply “Retail” mock themselves in self-referential banality. With the relentless implications of a world gone wrong, one cannot help but feel a tinge of pity for Willett—it’s as if everything around him is beautifully falling apart.

In what is perhaps an attempt to apply a sense of order to the unpredictability of his world, Disquiet is laid out with a formalist uniformity. The book’s sequencing is much like the structure of a pop song: small groups of grainy black-and-white photographs quadrisect the progression of color photographs as though they are a chorus creating a rhythmic catharsis every twenty-eight pages, while the color photographs act as verses that move Disquiet’s narrative forward. The consistency of this order—as well as the aesthetic similarity (almost homogeny) of the sequences—compels the viewer to unconsciously slip into an expectant state. In the same style as the first images in the book, the black-and-white photographs throughout depict anonymous figures filling urban streets in acts of violent protest while riot police stand ready to react. Unlike a pop song, however, the relationship between the color and black-and-white photographs doesn’t continue former themes. Instead, they create a dichotomy, contrasting Willett’s personal experiences with his observations of the world outside his home.

Despite the fact that most of the images in Disquiet may instigate fear, anger, or sadness, the book as a whole is more meditative than extreme. Willett’s examination accepts that good and bad things coexist but determines that it is up to individuals to decide within what light they view the world. The photographs give insight into how Willett processes the uncertainties in his life, finding beauty in the chaos perhaps as a way to cope with the universal persistence of instability. Through the tender portraits of adult family members and his son, Willett exposes both the magnificence and unpredictability in birth, life, and death. Ending with a chiaroscuro portrait of Willett’s son, the book concludes only in its physical form—the narrative continues to develop beyond the pages of Disquiet, along with the rest of the world.

Notes

  1. Julian Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending,” quoted in Amani Willett, Disquiet (Bologna: Damiani Factory, 2013), 6.

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