Writing: Review: Guillaume Simoneau "Murder"

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There are photo books that kick you in the stomach on your first encounter. There are others that need a while to simmer. At first review, Guillaume Simoneau’s latest monograph, Murder (MACK 2019) felt scattered and lacking in purpose. I admittedly scratched my head a few times. After all, a book with as provocative a title as Murder had set my expectations for kicks and screams. 

The book opens with a vertical image of what appear to be steel beams boasting triangles, set in squares set in rectangles and a circle hovering on top — a feat in geometry and architecture. It’s a perplexing image that brings the book to an end as much as it opens it to possibilities. This image is quickly followed by two dead chicks splattered on warm, reddish earth, tree branches opening up to the sky while others flutter in the wind. A four-legged insect is locked in stillness against a windowpane and an aerial view of earth or is it a macro view of a rock? It is at this point that I begin to wonder if the work is a statement on our changing relationship with nature. Is Simoneau’s choice of title a suggestion of the calamitous transformations to our planet? As I write this, there are thousands of protesters mobilised around the world for a day of Global Climate Strikes.  

I shake off my disposition to box the book into meaning just yet. I prefer to review books with an explorative approach. I never research the author’s intention and prefer to arrive at some understanding of my own. 

A few pages into the book comes the first hint into Murder. A perched crow — raven — bathed in darkness with a soft sliver of light. Across the page is a landscape of elongated trees standing long on a slopping hill. Canadian Simoneau grew up around the ill-deemed bird. His father discovered a nest of crows while cutting down trees in their garden. The family adopted the little birds — fragments of intimate, innocent memories of a young Simoneau tending to the birds are interspersed across the book. Captured by his mother, the black and white photographs offer a counter narrative to the mythical one encompassing the dark feathered bird — a guised spy on lovers, an omen of bad things, a call of death.  

If the mere mention of ravens summons the name of a certain prolific Japanese icon in art and photography then you are onto something. Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is a full-stop when it comes to monumental narrative, metaphor and concept in photo books. Fukase’s Ravens, first published in 1986, was most recently republished by MACK in 2017 — it’s no coincidence the two authors share the same publisher. Fukase’s haunting series was inspired on a train journey in the aftermath of his divorce. With the raven as its central protagonist — Fukase ruminates on his own life with the ill-fated raven as a metaphor. 

In 1982, Simoneau the child had his first encounter with ravens. Fukase, by then a 48-year-old man, was coping with love and loss and was deep into his visual exploration of ravens — two people coming at life from very different directions. This fateful correspondence is at the centre of Murder. Simoneau presents an ode to the black feathered beast — his tiny child-sized hands reaching out to pet his beak, perched on his shoulder, or carefully cradling him while he feeds him from a bottle, Simoneau presents a delicate version of the vicious and haunting creature explored in Fukase’s work. Central to the book is an image of the outside of a bar with a red-neon sign reading: “Ravens”. It is in Japan and it is here we see none of this is a coincidence. Simoneau is bringing his version of the bird right where Fukase came up with his.  

The book is silent, subdued in tone. Even when photographs offer semblance of sound, there is none. A woman walking on the street, a landscape painted in gold, a man wrestling with a tree. There is nothing but silence. The book’s fragmented narrative is reflected in subtle design features, namely breaking an image across a double spread by adding a white border around.  

In one sequence there is a raven facing off to an eagle — the caller of death fighting it out with the symbol of immortality. This sequence reveals itself in a five-page spread — small, large and small again. It’s like looking through the photographer’s lens. It’s not clear if death or eternity prevail in this battle. Later in the book, there is an image of the eagle pinning down the crow. A few pages later is another photo of a dead crow, tied and dangling from a wire. Is this Murder?  

I dare say the ending is not as black and white as much of the content of this book. Simoneau’s Murder is the possibility to see one of photography’s most celebrated birds differently. Here, the raven is not just a metaphor, but a childhood friend, a memory. It is guiltless and unblemished. A spiritual meeting with Fukase that liberates his book’s protagonist. In Murder, the ravens are set free — they emerge from their haunting stillness and they fly, they take over the sky.  

This book I started looking at while scratching my head ends up being one where I see a realm of possibilities and interpretations. It is as much a conversation between two authors as it is a conversation on photography itself. A meeting of minds who deeply connect with photography as an artful expression of the personal — the way they have been touched by experience and living.  

Laura El-Tantawy / October 2019