Photographers, no matter how contrived their pictures, are connected to what happens outside them. No matter how soulful their work is, how personal, how dire, they can only make work by opening the shutter and letting in the light.
Amiko Li’s “Maiden Voyage” is a probe sent to the limits of photographic connectedness. The pictures form a diary. How else to link this set of portraits, self-portraits, discovered still lives, florid fragments, sets for inevitable rendezvous? Of course every set of photographs is the diary of the one who pressed the shutter, the marker of the maker. And there is no way to define diary, really. Is it Anne Frank, Anaïs Nin, or my childhood friend, Ian McGaughey, who rated each day on a scale of 1-3, while always noting the weather? Gertrude Stein wrote a poem called “A Diary” but never kept a diary:
“A diary of the clock not having been not wound. A diary also of adaptability. Also a diary. What is a diary to be. A diary is to be a diary of when this you see be all to me.”
“Maiden Voyage” is moving because, like Stein’s poem, it refuses to bow to the squeal of the author’s inner world. Stein holds fast to the slithering tail of language as it just eludes cognitive grasp. Amiko Li draws together images that are strummed on the harp of one sharp-eared young romantic artist, but whose meaning together builds odd harmonic overtones as images pile up. This book is the diary of a vision of the world, not of a person. It is the self-portrayal of a seer.
The best photographic books flicker in this manner. Individual photographs insist. Groups of photographs overwrite each other, reflect odd colors in each other’s highlights, draw flavors through the stew, sow doubt. The best photographic books—Walker Evans’ American Photographs, Robert Frank’s The Americans, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence—have so much faith in the voluble clarity and total edge-to-edge fullness of any one image that they allow pairs and sets and flushes of images to shear away from each other like icebergs calving off a confident blue glacier.
Amiko Li is not a fashion photographer, but he photographs the dreams of a fashion photographer. The big, gaudy gulps of light he swigs in each image wash over wispy young figures who all seem to be lying around waiting for the gaffers and grips to set a key light. It is hard to describe the emotions on the faces of the figures, who, after the fashion of fashion models, are paid to not emote. But something always gets in the way of the pointedness of a fashion shoot. Odd, out of focus blossoms occlude the girl; otherwise, she’s halfway out of the frame. The script supervisor is accidentally still on the set. The camera has fallen into the wildflowers. There are emus in the zone. The fashion photographer wakes up to find the crew raptured into a less perfect world, the one we love for its exquisite flaws.
In photography, the flaws are external: they refuse to stay stuck inside a silly old artist sitting there. The flaws flow between the glow-y outer world and the artist, ruddy in pursuit. They recline in the shutter and nap while the sun falls into place and the soul roils. Photographs like Amiko Li’s—gilded tableaux of pure delightful uncertainty, compass roses of uncertain delight—hold tight to life in its brightest corridor; the overt darkness of the camera’s eye.
If you’re interested, you can order the Maiden Voyage book on Li’s website.
Tim Davis received his B.A. from Bard College and his M.F.A. from Yale University. His writings are published in catalog essays and magazines such as Cabinet, Bomb, Aperture and Blind Spot. His work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and The Walker Art Center, among many others. He currently teaches in the photography program at Bard College.