Photos to Books to Art Objects, Laura El-Tantawy’s “A Star in the Sea,” by Robert Dunn, Part 2

In Part 1 of this piece on Laura El-Tantawy’s work, I quoted her as saying, “Trying not to repeat myself, every project deserves its own visual language. What that language will be and how I will consistently apply it across a body of work so it feels cohesive is always a challenge”—and I added, Not simply a challenge for her but for us.

Well, the first challenge I faced when I received her latest book, “A Star in the Sea,” was how to get into the book itself. Yes, actually how to physically get it open to read it. The first part was easy, slip a cloth pouch out of a plastic sack, then pull the small book out of the pouch. (The cloth pouch, a batik, was handmade by El-Tantawy and her mother. Video here.) Then I faced a conundrum: The book was bound by many turns of a double-tied brown thread, but the five ties of thread were sealed by a lovely white glob of wax embossed with a five-pointed star. It wasn’t clear how to get the threads out from the wax without cracking it. I consulted my art-director wife, and she said to carefully lift up the wax, which I did. I kept it intact! (As a photobook collector, well, I’ve never actually sold a book, but I like to tell myself many of them have value, and I of course understand that value can relate to completeness. I think here of Andy Warhol’s “Index” book from the 1960s, full of little fun add-ons, a fold-up castle, a Velvet Underground flexi-disc, etc., and how often one sees copies for sale missing an essential part of the book … I mean, what self-control for somebody in 1967 not to have ripped out the VU flexi and given it a spin. My copy of “Index,” I’m happy to say, is complete, including the time-melted balloon; and likewise, I’m planning to keep the circle of star-embossed wax with “A Star in the Sea.”)

In any event, I got the book open, and….

Well, before I get to my review, in Part 1 I wrote extensively about El-Tantawy’s first book, “In the Shadow of the Pyramids,” which though lovingly and creatively made, nonetheless is essentially a conventional photobook, read like a “normal” book, with one picture following the other in a linear page-turning fashion. O.K., El-Tantawy nailed that, so when it came time for her second book, “Beyond Here Is Nothing,” she decided to make it more of a challenge to both make and to read.

“Beyond Here Is Nothing” is definitely a production; indeed, its cover photo appears to be a window curtain cracked open just an inch, like a stage curtain about to sweep back. You open the book by folding back the cover board, then the board underneath it, then the board under that one (all rich with recognizably El-Tantawy photographs), and then you hit striking, mostly abstract photos on sheets of matte paper, of which the first set lifts up and back (in the direction of the final cover board). Another set of mostly abstract (and lovely) photos unfolds to the right, then the single word “Slow” in the center of a paper sheet appears. Beneath that is a diary entry, and another sheet of paper that reads, “I am lonely sounds like the most sinful confession to make.”

The theme is set. A photographer’s on-the-move style of life equals inevitable loneliness. (The photographs in the book were mostly shot with El-Tantawy’s iPhone, and all around the globe.) Then you start turning pages haphazardly, some lifting up, some folding right, some folding left. There appears to be no correct way to “read” the book, and after you’ve turned pages, let me tell you, you’ll never get them back in their initial order again. The photos are much less of a piece than in the “Egypt” book: natural moments, water, bugs, rocks, and humans mostly appearing only as shadow projections, through streaked glass or fog or just in imperfect distortion … loneliness, indeed.

I could easily keep going about “Beyond Here Is Nothing, but I’m really here to discuss the book that comes after it. So let me just say that with “Beyond” El-Tantawy fulfilled her challenge to move ahead, nailing a complex fold-out book, pictures not corresponding to each other linearly but more spatially … so what next?

Well, “A Star in the Sea.” As mentioned above, I solved the first puzzle, how to simply open the book. Then I found out how El-Tantawy suggests we do it: “The wax seal on a ‘A Star in the Sea’ should be broken. Basically pull the thread through and it will break part of it but some will stay intact. It’s intended as a gesture of imperfection—I have a tendency to want to keep things in perfect form. The wax seal makes opening the book a careful decision. Once done, it cannot be reversed. I have to accept its altered state. It’s a reference to what I’m trying to express with the book as a whole.”

Which tells us that no detail associated with an El-Tantawy book is insignificant; and each moment spent with one of her books can reveal multiple meanings and possibilities.

So now I’m inside “A Star in the Sea.” What do I find?

Well, in conventional terms, barely a photobook at all. Instead … well, hold tight.

As I mentioned in Part 1, generally I prefer books with strong photos and sequencing; I’m less interested in books that let artful aspects of the physical book get in the way of the photography. Simply, I like a good picture, next to another good picture.

But I also know that when an artist goes all in, hand-dyeing and -sewing a pouch to put the book in, coming up with a decision rich in implication just to open the book, then insisting that we experience the whole physical way we handle the book as essential to the experience … well, then I’m willing to consider going all in, too.

Which I am with El-Tantawy’s new book. There are only a handful of actual photographs, mostly abstractions that appear to be sea life of some form (shells, coral, fish?). There is also a dreamlike tale that El-Tantawy explains as “three independent, personal life events: A love story; my first & only trip to my place of birth in the UK & a vision on a beach in Italy.” In the story she goes to the house of an old, dear friend, sees the friend through a window, experiences a moment of visions, “a boat, a guiding light, a dream or a star in the sea,” and then the friend disappears, the door changes color, silence prevails until a voice asks, “Did you see the star in the sea.” No answer, but a kind of philosophical epiphany arises.

The book, El-Tantawy tells us, “is an overture for embracing the unexpected.”

And the more time I spend with it, the deeper I fall into its magic. I’m not looking at pictures, I’m not reading a story … I’m moving into a mild dream state myself, deep in my own personal memories, visions, and reflections. The book so difficult to know how to even open now for me keeps opening and opening, and expanding my consciousness with it.

This is a singular experience with a photobook. Even if El-Tantawy’s final realization is a bit clichéd (“if it’s meant to be, it will be”), and the promo video for the book too New Age–y, the work itself, in its gentle mix of images and tactile surfaces and pages folding and unfolding and folding back in curious ways, moves me. Its story draws me in. Somehow I’ve gone beyond simply photos and words and paper stock and cardboard to a place stirring and important.

El-Tantawy writes on her website, “The book is conceived as an artistic object demanding intimacy—something you want to protect & treat with care.” Trust me, if I’d simply read that without knowing the book, I’d shrug and say something along the lines of “At least Marianne Williamson won’t become U.S. president … and good luck with Boris Johnson, eh?”

But, damn, I did experience a stirring intimacy, and I do want to protect and treat “A Star in the Sea” with care. I’ve finished looking at it, finished writing these words, and now I’m carefully—as carefully as I can—folding up the book, tying its five loops of thread around it, slipping it back in its batik pouch (careful not to harm the wax seal sitting at the bottom), and slipping all that into the plastic sleeve that lets me know I have number 38 of the edition of 150.

Oh, and now I’m worrying where I’ll keep the book. Which books in my library should it sit next to? Will it befriend its companions, or perhaps annoy them? Reveal its magic, or just befuddle the likes of Josef Koudelka or William Eggleston?

At bottom, there is something nearly alive in this book.

And what other photobook can one say that about?

A selection of books by Laura El-Tantawy can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.

Beyond Here is Nothing