Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin gave a terrific talk to a full house at the HOST Gallery this summer. The photographers presented their most recent work, “Fig.“, a riff on Victorian collecting, a cabinet of curiosities that, like much of their work, greets the viewer with humour and curiosity and then take them to a decidedly uncomfortable place.

In the past this effect has been managed by carefully feeding us information as we page through a book, and by letting captions with their matter-of-fact tone do both less and more work than you want them to. When “Fig” is exhibited, the viewer is directed by a criss-cross path through the gallery with a small caption booklet.

Broomberg and Chanarin have often used a group of images to create an experience for the viewer in which the meanings of the images and the objects within the images seem to be kept intentionally opaque. But while they strip away rhetorical specificity, they preserve a kind of referential specificity in the images and their captions that puts a hook into you.

What pictures mean always depends on the context- captions, venue, etc.- but Broomberg and Chanarin use this to great effect. To me, it feels like all the implications of how the pictures were made, how they are meant to be circulated, and the legacy of other images of these subjects, are all fragily held up behind the picture, waiting to tumble down in a cascade when the images are viewed in the right sequence, in the right conditions, by the person who brings the right “equipment” to the pictures. This kind of emphasis on the “extra-textual” conditions of meaning- what you bring to the picture (or pictures, that are also talking to each other) can be seen in Ghetto, in Trust, in Chicago, and especially in their work with Colors magazine where the image is caught in the magnetic field between style and expectation.

So when I saw the a Yellow Pages billboard by Adam and Ollie, I was struck by how many different ways this “sign” could mean. In the (admittedly unlikely) case that you knew it was their work, what happens when this image starts speaking to their other work? It has no caption other than the advertising copy and it’s basically alone, a single image, not in dialogue with other images. And unlike other work of theirs that uses advertising style to self-consciously critique advertising (even while it may be advertising), this one seems to be pretty much a straight-ahead ad. Is the ad trying to speak to other ads? Or is it “just an ad”?

On a side note, Mr. Whiskets on his excellent photo book blog 5B4 writes that one of the pleasures of books is that they force you to focus on individual pictures, that the next picture isn’t in the corner of your eye (as it would be at a show) encouraging you to move on. While I agree that books often do this,

I’m not sure that it’s always the best way to look at pictures… Fig. is an example of a group of pictures that want you to have a physical experience of movement, reorientation, and discovery. Interesting, though, that the online flash display of “Fig.” shares a lot of qualities with a book.