5 July 2011

American Color 2, Constantine Manos

Photos by Constantine Manos. Introduction by Alison Nordstrom. Published by Quantuck Lane Press, 2010.

How much you enjoy Constantine Manos' follow-up to the much-praised American Color (1995) will depend whether you consider 'color' a theme compelling enough in itself to sustain a rewarding photobook.

This is not to say that Manos has conceived a dryly formal or simply superficial book. In his perceptive preface to American Color 2, he describes his approach as 'personal documentary' - motivated by formal experiment but also touching on a documentarian's concerns (Manos has been a member of Magnum for over forty years). For the work here, he focuses on American leisure in a handful of resorts, fairs and amusement parks in (mainly coastal) cities around the country. Themes present in American Color re-emerge, as tanned holidaymakers and entertainers, young and old, wander amongst lurid, man-made surroundings.

Yet the visual and thematic backbone of this book is color itself. Even curator Alison Nordstrom, who provides an informative introductory essay to the book, struggles to link up the 'American' and 'Color' aspects of Manos' project. This is arguably not intended as documentary work per se and details in the photographs suggest that the photographer favours abstraction rather than informative detail: faces are obscured and figures are dwarfed by the planes of colour - blue skies, painted hoardings and vivid signage - which dominate the photographs.

If you identify with this vision, you will enjoy Manos' love of graphic forms and his exploration of the American commercial palette. There are also clever moments of sequencing - a sweet segment of photos on food and food-as-entertainment for example. However if, like me, you find Manos' approach a little on-the-nose, the book can feel overwhelming, even relentless. His intense printing and bold sequencing combine with a design that scarcely allows the images room to breathe, to create a book that is difficult to take in, even at arm's length. Manos' intention seems to be to flood the reader with visual information. However the very long sequence of images becomes monotonous in places, and lacks the complexity and vibrancy of earlier Manos projects.

The photographer is at his best in spontaneous, slightly surreal photographs. For example, a playful image juxtaposing a small boy, breaking wave and enormous pelican towards the end of the book punctuates the self-consciously melancholy mood of much of this work, which often features single figures wandering amid the detritus of fairs and shows. The book is also well and thoughtfully made and clearly showcases Manos' technical precision. That being said, there may not be enough here to simply enjoy.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 9th September 2010, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are copyright Constantine Manos, from American Color 2, published by Quantuck Lane Press, 2010.