Wednesday, July 06, 2011

#photobook review: More Cooning with Cooners, edited by Kalev Ericson

Article first published as Book Review: More Cooning with Cooners, edited by Kalev Ericson on Blogcritics.

In the last few years, the independent UK publisher Archive of Modern Conflict has released a fine streak of photobooks, from their handsome collection of Kodachromes, The Corinthians; to Larry Towell’s exquisite variation on the family album, The World from my Front Porch; to Nein, Onkel, a collection of snapshots that supposedly gives us a look at the more "fun-loving" side of Nazi Germany. The Kodachromes of More Cooning with Cooners may at first glance seem a more focused sequel to The Corinthians. But the second glance is telling.

The discomfort with which I type or even shorten the title is the first sign that this is not your ordinary collection of vernacular photography. The title is based on a 1924 book called Cooning with Cooners, on the culture of Ohio raccoon hunters. The phrase is seen early in the present book, emblazoned on a trailer hitched to a station wagon in front of which one proud hunter poses with this hound. The photographs gathered here were made by one such hunter who worked through the 1960s, which places it in a context in which the changing world outside them seems to have had little effect on their language and bloodlust. It is a cruel tease that the book opens with a photograph of two playfully alive raccoons, for the rest of the book documents the plundering of the animals (if not, as the accompanying essay points out, to their extinction, as the buffalo), and the dogs and men who hunt them for their pelts.

What the photos lack in sharpness and technical prowess (flash lights glow from racoon, hound, and human eye alike), they make up for in cumulative power: this is what hunting looks like, from suiting up, to dog prep, to the chase, to the kill, to the season’s total. The fact that a 1924 poem called “Dat Scanlus Coonhunt Itch” is used to place the photos in historical context increases the unease, but it is almost overkill - the spirit of the times may not be spelled out in the photos, but you can see between the lines well enough.

The book's endpapers indicate the dramatic arch of the photographs, with an illustration of a raccoon head inside the front boards and a raccoon skull inside the back boards. The accompanying essay does not judge these men who pose with rows and rows of pelts, but posits these photos as the document of a lost subculture. I’m no card-carrying member of PETA, but it’s hard not to look at these images of good old boys with guns and shudder a little. Maybe I’m just a city boy who doesn’t want to know what’s going into his hot dogs. More Cooning with Cooners is a smartly designed book whose selection and sequencing leads the reader places you may not expect to go. It may enchant you. It may disturb you. Sounds like a great photobook to me.

Consumer note: the book is limited to 500 copies, and is already fetching a premium at Amazon. The curious will do better to look for this at places like Dashwood Books or Photo-Eye, or directly from the publisher, who offers a special edition with a photo print and an original copy of the 1924 book, enclosed in a raccoon fur slipcase.

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