A photographer’s private thoughts and motivations are often found scrawled on the back of napkins, posted to the occasional blog, or tattooed to the underside of an insomniac’s eyelids. If you happen to be Matthew Sweet, whose book Ten Series/106 Photographs is now available from Aperture, your work offers a unique glimpse into that internal conversation. Photographers like Sleeth, drawn to the constraints of typologies, reveal their process for what it is: mad pursuit and obsession, as much a myopic exclusion of the rest of the world, as it is a selection of what’s facing them.
Any record collector, librarian, or archivist shows the same predisposition: what you collect, collate, or file away says as much about you as your subject. While the typological instinct is encrypted deep inside the core of the photography’s dusty mainframe, its modern adherents deliver the data of their discoveries as if uploading beautifully composed, well-lit, contemporary offerings to the Goddess of Typology. Sleeth’s photographs act as a kind of Human Highlight Film. It’s like watching a basketball game that’s been sped-up and compressed into only those moments when the ball goes through the hoop. Sleeth scores these 106 points with his fleet feet. Proving he can shoot anything, anywhere – from quiet portraits of women in uniform, to perfectly composed landscapes of Mt Fuji, his technical talent for capturing what he needs to capture, regardless of the setting, is obvious.
Sleeth may not be Indiana Jones, but that photographic impulse to go out, find the thing, and drag it back, shows him to be more hunter than gatherer, more Sander than Soth. Yet, often in direct relation to the strength with which it succeeds, the typological instinct has a weakness at its core, as if its blood were bad, and no amount of treasure from an unknown land can soothe its soul.
It’s not that building a book of typologies is a bad thing: it’s a form, like any other, a way of presenting information. If I’ve one misgiving about Sleeth’s work, it’s that his typologies seem too planned, too precious. Their message often edges into the great failure of street photography – the easy joke, the telegraphed laugh. The gist: I want you to see the remarkable things I’ve found, and I hope you’ll find them remarkable, too. Isn’t that the wish of any photographer? However, in the typological tradition (as in most contemporary street photography) the wish feels electrified, brighter and glitzier than the photographs themselves. The photographer’s hand, and its need to show us one thing and one thing only, has a heaviness that prevents any kind of deep, interpretive reading. Ten Series/106 Photographs is not the kind of book you revisit for a multiplicity of meaning. And then… near the end of the book Sleeth reveals a series, “Kawaii Baby”, that stands heads and shoulders (literally) above the rest of the book.
It’s a series in which Sleeth’s blonde toddler is shown being admired by Japanese women and girls. On the street, in restaurants, in the park, and always seen from behind (to capture the reaction of her admirers) Sleeth’s daughter acts as a kind of conceptual foil that opens up questions of ethnicity, community, and what it means to record the reactions people have when they’re looking at a pure expression of youth.
“Kawaii Baby” makes-up a tenth of Ten Series/106 Photographs but it portends a talent who makes fine photographs 90 per cent of the time, but for that last 10 per cent, gets it very, very right. “Kawaii Baby” may be a type of picture itself, found within a larger collection of types, but the pictures aren’t drained or constrained by the form. Like the small blonde head in their foreground, they give Sleeth’s work a new, youthful light, while singlehandedly validating the drive of his particularly contemporary vision.
Michael David Murphy