Some photographers fit the age in which they come to maturity. The times, that is, and the conditions of those times, seem ideally suited to the even progress of their work. Something about their modus operandi, their attitudes, the choices they make, and their spirit is congruent with the world around them. This is not something I know the moment I see a particular set of works; it becomes apparent after a while that photographer X seems especially well-tuned to the setting in which s/he is evolving. At the same time, photographer Y may be making more provocative work, but in a way that does not seem sustainable. Often it seems wedged into the image bank, a bull in the frame shop with no sense of swing or pace, while X keeps plugging along, working the main line with economy, insight, and minimal fanfare.
I’ve known Shawn Records for a few years, since the mid-aughts if I remember correctly, and have admired the steps his work has taken. (I also admire the time he has given to the community of photographers, especially those working in the Pacific Northwest and specifically involved in Photolucida; this isn’t necessarily germane to his photography, but it helps explain to me why his accomplishments have a deeper resonance.) Shawn photographs from the heart, as much if not more than from his head. His new book is about China, a place that has entranced scores of photographers over the past decade. I sense the fondness he has for the cultural, topographical, historical, and material idiosyncrasies he saw during what one must assume was a whirlwind tour of the massive social phenomenon that is modern China.
Many of these photographs could have been taken with a cynical eye, and the image might not have been terribly different. But the net product of Records’ book is not cynicism or critique. The photographic sequence is odd, enigmatic, and clearly seen; there is a cumulative accomplishment that bears attention. The book is modest, produced in soft cover with a misty landscape printed across front and back. Hovering in mid-space on the front cover is a dragonfly (no, it’s not a smudge). That simple insect presence grounds us. This is no dream, no Shangri-La utopia. It is a framed piece of reality, and the land, throughout the book, functions as both backdrop and ideal.
And the dragonfly isn’t the only insect to make an appearance. If the book had a soundtrack, it might well be a cicada chorus.
I would like to make a bigger case for Shawn Records as photographer X, but I need a bigger space in which to do so. Until then, I keep watching.