[This is a review of my photo book “Car Sick” published at By Andrew Molitor at https://photothunk.blogspot.com/2022/10/crit-car-sick-by-tim-v.html. Andrew graciously allowed me its re-use, which I’m going to do because it’s a really well-thought through piece. ]
“The book I’m going to talk about here is a book you can’t buy. It was a self-pub one-shot, in 2020. Full disclosure, when he was doing the book Tim generously allowed me a look at a pre-print PDF and I gave him some notes and a blurb. Honestly, the book was excellent before I looked at it. I have never checked to see which, if any, of my notes he took. He used my blurb, though, which was very flattering.
Tim is also busy dying now, and was supposed to die a month or so ago. He muffed it and apparently now has a few months left, which he is using to blog fairly aggressively at his excellent Leicaphilia blog. Since he got his brief reprieve, I felt that I should give him a chance to read my review of his book, which I then realized I had to write. So, here we are.
Since you can’t buy a copy of it, I made one of those flip-through videos, which will give you at least a sense of the thing.
I like this book a great deal, I think it’s an absolutely superb example of a particular form. It’s not a form that I am myself well-suited to doing, and it’s a bit old school. It’s a form that I like a lot, nevertheless.
What we have here is a book very much in the character of Evans’ American Photographs or Frank’s The Americans and while I won’t say this is better or worse than those, I think it can stand with them. They can go to the same parties.
It’s a whole bunch of black and white photos, all taken from the windows of a car, over a couple of decades, with Leica cameras. Not my jam at all in terms of making. There is grain a-plenty if you’re into that. There’s quite a bit of car-window framing. The themes are all car-accessible: roadside sights, automotive stuff, roads, toll booths, other cars. There are no photos from the remote wilderness, no photos looking up, or looking down, no photos of interiors.
What is there, then?
There’s a hell of a lot of structure. It’s bookended with abstraction: you segue into the body of the book with a series of extremely spare rural road scenes, and exit the book with a fantastic disintegration into abstraction. In between, it’s “Walker Evans” sequencing in spades. Each photo connects to the next through some graphical element, or some subject matter. One photo contains has a sign with a line drawing of a washer-dryer set, the next photo has an actual washer and dryer incongruously set outside. These photos are drawn from a very deep archive.
Yet at the same time there is much more going on here. It’s not just one and then the next one. There are repeated themes, mainly that of small local religion, but also mass produced statuary, semi-rural decay, boarded up shopfronts, and so on. As often as not the themes overlap, it’s a boarded up shopfront church, it’s a mass produced concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, and so on. Not only is there a fairly robust linear structure, as in the two older books cited above, there is also a sonata-like repetition of theme, a constant circling back to specific tropes.
The photos themselves are all at least good. There are very few absolute bangers. Everything lands somewhere between the well-framed document of an at least mildly interesting subject, and the well-framed abstraction with only murkily discernible subject. Mostly, the photos lean toward the former.
There are any number of excellent juxtapositions, including what I consider to be the finest pairing of photos I have ever seen. At 2:05 in the video, the sign on the left quotes Proverbs, noting that one never knows what’s going to happen (and therefore, presumably, you should go to church or something) and the signs in the photo on the right first urge you to pre-order Holiday Chicken, and second remark that a B-52 with nuclear bombs crashed 3 miles to the south in January of 1961. You can locate the intersection easily with a quick google search and a mapping tool. Indeed, one does not know what today will bring. They’re strong photos of a specific kind, of a specific kind of Americana, juxtaposed in a witty way which is nevertheless more than just the joke. The pairing makes a legitimate philosophical statement.
The whole book is like this.
Not only is the book structurally and graphically interesting, though. It constitutes a kind of honest and affectionate portrait of rural, small-town, North Carolina. It is, I think, clear that Tim feels a profound warmth and at the same time a certain frustration and even disgust, with the state in which he lives, and where he has spent a lot of time. Perhaps he finds irritating the constant drumbeat of religion, especially this kind of small-time vaguely venal religion. At the same time, he can’t leave it alone.
There is no sign that these are beautiful people or that there is anything special about them, or the communities they live in. Indeed, the few people depicted at all are, as often as not, rendered anonymous. At the same time, there is an affection, or at least a familiarity, from the photographer that comes through.
This is the kind of meaning that I aspire to. I am also in love with America, and frustrated, and disgusted by America. Perhaps I am actually just projecting my own conceptions onto this book, but damn it, it seems to accept those projections willingly even if it’s not Tim’s intention. I see the book as a kind of affectionate portrait of a dog who is dumb, ill-mannered, but basically, somehow, a pretty decent dog, a dog you love in spite of and maybe because of its many, many, flaws.
I like this book a lot, and I am extremely happy to have bought it when the opportunity came along.
Thanks, Tim! Well done!”
It really did seem like a good idea: publish a book of B&W photos taken while in my car and sell a limited run of 100 on the website. My intent was not to make money – I’d be happy to break even – but simply to put something together that reflected my tastes and that a select number of like-minded folks might enjoy. Plus I’d get the experience of crafting a creative project that spoke to me. I’ve always loved taking photos out of car windows. It’s right up there in my affections with taking pictures through chain-link fences. Apparently, I can’t claim the idea as mine – Lee Friedlander was doing it back in the 60’s – but the irony is I’d never been much acquainted with Friedlander’s work and had only a passing knowledge of it. And I didn’t get to know his work until after I was done putting Car Sick together. Really. When I did, he instantly became one of my favorite photographers. We obviously think alike.
I Love This Photo. Apparently No One Else Does: A Mass Produced Classical Greek Statue Seen through the Chain Link Fence of Some God-forsaken Post-Industrial Site so Typical of the Vulgarities of American Culture. Isn’t There Anyone Else out There Who Sees the Horrible Beauty?
So, I started a GoFundMe and solicited funds for the project. After talking to a publisher who ball-parked a fee of +/- $3500 for a run of 100, I offered the book for $40 a copy shipped within the States, $45 for a copy shipped internationally. 100 readers signed up and paid me. About 60 of them were international – any place from Canada to India. Cool. Off we go.
The devil, of course, is always in the details. By time I had made final decisions about the book’s quality – number of pages, paper stock, cover quality etc – the price of the publishing run had increased substantially. Big deal, so I lose a little money. Then I went to ship them out. The 40 purchased by American buyers cost a minimal amount to mail via USPS book rate. By time I added up the production costs and the mailing, I was losing maybe $10 a copy. Out they went. Americans got their copy. Everyone seemed to like it.
The 60 purchased by international buyers was where it all went pear-shaped. Apparently, there is no economic means of shipping a book-sized package internationally. None. Shipping costs to most European countries averaged between $45 and $50 a book. Shipping to Canada – yes, Canada – cost over $60 a book. So, I was shipping books with a production cost of +/- $100 a book to buyers who’d paid $45. Doing the math, I was going to be in the hole about $5000 for costs after I shipped all my international orders. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
So I looked into services that would take the entire order, charge me one flat fee, and deliver them to the various international destinations. After negotiating with one I sent them the 60 copies and a large check and crossed my fingers. I’d be losing money, but not so much.
I’m not sure they ever delivered most of those copies. They’ve ghosted me some time ago. For all I know there’s 20 copies being sold in a photo bookstore in Berlin. I know of many international orders that did get delivered, but I’ve also received a number of inquiries from purchasers who claimed never to have received a copy. On more than one occasion I refunded their purchase price, only to be told later that they subsequently received their copy. Most folks have been very nice about the whole thing (there was one guy in Canada who was an asshole about it, so after I refunded him he is now into me for about $145 (book sent but never delivered = $100; refund of $45)), but it’s bothered me and continues to bother me, and I don’t want to go to my grave thinking I’ve taken advantage of people kind enough to constitute my readership.
So, let’s talk about how I can make this right before I head off into the great hereafter (FWIW, it’s gonna be sooner rather than later, IMHO. I’m getting weaker every day and can spy the Grim Reaper checking out my property lines). I’ve spoken with the book’s publisher and they are willing to make me another run of 20 copies of Car Sick. If you are in the States and want to buy a copy, I’ll ship you one for $40. If you are somewhere else, forget it, unless you want to pay $100 a copy. Hell, if you’re in the States and you want a copy just tell me and I’ll send you one without up front payment. Just pay me once you receive it.
As for international buyers who never received a copy, please let me know and I’ll make arrangements to refund you as I receive purchase money from the nice folks buying the second run of 20. If you’ve already been refunded but subsequently did receive a copy, it would be a nice gesture if you Paypaled me that refund, although I don’t expect it.
And I agree with, Mr. Molitor: It’s a really fine book. Who knows, it might be an underground classic of some sort some day.
*If you’re interested in a copy of Car Sick and you live in the States, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.