The Photobook as Pulp Fiction, Tania Franco Klein’s “Positive Disintegration,” by Robert Dunn

When you think about it, it’s surprising there aren’t more photobooks that simply set out to tell an actual story, with photos ordered to move the plot along, sort of like a comic book, or an old Mexican fotonovela. I can’t think of too many serious ones that do, at least after Ed van der Elsken’s “Love on the Left Bank.” There are probably more, but if a book is too story-book-like, well, that’s what it is, too story like … burdened and shaped by its narrative, bled out of most of the art.

Still, there are important books that do focus on actual stories. Christian Patterson’s “Redheaded Peckerwood” comes first to mind, with its investigation of the Charles Starkweather crime spree in the 1950s in Nebraska, which earlier inspired Terrence Malick’s movie “Badlands.” What works in “Redheaded Peckerwood” is how far from a novel or movie it is—odd scraps of material that do anything but depict that literal crime drama, reproductions of diaries and maps, images out of the odd corners and dreams of the investigation, and always simple photos of quiet beauty.

In that same spirit comes “Positive Disintegration” by the 27-year-old Mexican artist Tania Franco Klein. I’m not sure if there’s a single story, or even a crime at the book’s center, though I’m also pretty sure it has a heavy dose of Mexican fotonovela lying at its roots. Those fotonovelas really were pulp fiction with actual photos rather than drawn art, filled with heavy doses of crime and romantic troubles, popular from the 1950s to the ’80s. Needless to say, they were as heavy on plot as any soap opera … which “Positive Disintegration” also seems to be, if you’re willing to accept a plot that’s so ungraspable as to sow only anxiety and confusion.

Franco Klein’s book is lurid, inscrutable, ripe with alienation, fear, and mystery. (It’s also beautifully colorful, in all senses of the word; more on this later.) Something seems to be going on in the book—something awful—but anything I can come up with to explain its story or meaning or simply its point feels like missing the point; that is, the book stands larger and more breathtaking than any simple tale, be it of crime, duplicity, or betrayal. Instead of an explicit story, what “Positive Disintegration” has in its mysteriousness is the heft and seriousness and simple beauty of a work of powerful art.

Last year Franco Klein had a show in Greece called “Our Life in the Shadows,” and many of those photos are in her new book. At the series’ center are shots of women (many are evidently of Franco Klein herself) in curly wigs, many of them black. There’s a Cindy Sherman aspect to the book, photographer impersonating a character then photographing herself, but while for Sherman shots were static portraits (or film stills) one after the other, there’s no escaping the implication of narrative in Franco Klein’s book. (The title of the John Garfield adaptation of “Positive Disintegration”? How about, “The Woman in the Black Wig”?)

And that’s what I love about Franco Klein’s book: that something’s going on, yet that I have no clear idea what it is.

Let me describe some shots, maybe you’ll make more sense of them. A parked car on a lonely road, a plainly dressed woman facing starkly away from it. A blue telephone and a filled-to-overflowing ashtray atop a blue pillow. An orange telephone hanging off the hook next to a fruit-and-flower-patterned curtain in what looks like a forsaken motel room. A baby on its back in the rear seat of a car, the photo taken between the two front seats. A highly reflective toaster on a well-lit table, Franco Klein lying on the table, her own face reflected vividly (and exaggeratedly) in the toaster, a black and white photo of a boy next to her.

Now these are photos from early in the book, in order; let me skip toward the end, again describing each photo in sequence. A stunning photo of Franco Klein fully dressed in a blue-tiled shower, a plastic bag full of water held up before her face, blurring it, especially the carmine paint on her lips. The wig, now auburn, lying by itself on an equally rich carmine sofa. A woman (Franco Klein?) lying on her side on the floor, naked from the buttocks up, the whole shot steeped in spooky green tones. The bewigged Franco Klein sitting upright on the side of her bed, gazing through a morning-yellow bright curtained window. Another woman (again, Franco Klein?) standing outside a small trailer-park home in a desert surrounded by tawny foothills. Another shot of the auburn wig, again off anybody’s head, this time lying on a ground of brambles and rocks. An old woman on the edge of another bed, almost facing the camera, in a turquoise robe and sporting what looks like a platinum wig.

I was going to stop describing the flow of photos here, but I can’t. It’s too much fun. So I’ll show you the final run of shots, coming after a blank page. (If “Positive Disintegration” were simply an ultimately comprehensible film noir, I’d have to issue a standard warning here of plot points about to be revealed. No worries, though. If my descriptions give away too much of the story, I’ll be astonished.)

So here goes, the final five photos. Back in that desert-y landscape, a long row of mailboxes along a road, at the end of which looks to be a kneeling woman, but that is actually pale pink high-heeled shoes, a gossamer white dress, with that auburn wig above it, as if atop the non-body a nonexistent face were looking away from us. A lime-green front porch with a sofa sitting on it. A woman (probably Franco Klein) in the same desert landscape, wearing bright red slacks and a cream-colored bra, in what looks like the black wig again, gazing away from us. A deep-green seat on a train, and out the window through green curtains the desert scene with the pole of a power line faint under the blue sky. And the final shot in the book, picking up on a few of the early photos: a doll’s hand, a semi-full crystal ashtray, an old-fashioned wireless telephone (antenna not extended), and an old-school portable cathode-ray TV, a tragic-looking woman on its black-and-white screen, the whole shot bathed in a light both orange and green.

Let me say here that Franco Klein’s use of light throughout the book is brilliant. It’s also overdone—little is shot in anything close to natural light—but the colors always feel appropriate for the film noir excesses of the book. I just know the use of color here holds great significance, though I won’t begin to guess what each lurid orange or green or red or blue means.

And, again, neither can I tell you what’s going on, or what the story means. Are you hooked, though? I am.

And while we’re at it, here are a few more photos, from the middle of the book, just to let you see more about the scope of Franco Klein’s full-blown pulp vision. A blue-and-white patterned sofa in flames. Yes, a sofa burning right there on the page. An ancient Electrolux vacuum cleaner next to pulled-out pieces of the black wig. A series of three shots of the woman, now in a blonde wig, face down on a green shag rug, her face atop a hand mirror, a scatter of liquor bottles next to a wood bed. And one of the eeriest photos in the book, three bewigged women in nightclothes next to each other in bed, looking off as if at a TV set, their wigged heads shadowed deeply behind them. Oh, and one more: the loneliest of nighttime drives, a short yellow illumination of dirt road and an endless expanse of black night.

In a Paris Review piece by Anna Furman, she talks a bit about how the book came to be: “For this series, Franco Klein took most of the interior shots in Mexico City, her hometown, and saved exterior shots for trips to Long Beach, California, and small towns around Palm Springs. Because of ongoing violence in Mexico City—kidnappings, assaults, gun violence—Franco Klein is vigilant about her safety when working at home. ‘In California, I feel so free to take these photos,’ she says. ‘I don’t have the same paranoia.’ ”

That could be the best word to describe the book: paranoia. Even the most domestic of objects (beds, toasters, couches) are rife with anxiety and fear. And outside? In a way I’m surprised there aren’t any guns in any of the photos, though I’m glad there aren’t. That would be too obvious. What shakes and disturbs in “Positive Disintegration” are common objects right there in front of all of us.

As I mentioned, color is essential to the book, and it’s safe to say she’s as good at a certain excessive luridness as good ol’ William Eggleston. One photo of Franco Klein, in a red dress and the black wig, bent over in a deep blood-red painted room, immediately calls up the famous Eggleston shot of an equally blood-red room with the white lightbulb. There’s a green shower virtually the same green as the shower in “Guide.” Indeed, I just flipped through Eggleston’s “Guide” to find the shower photo and felt as if I were reading a prequel to “Positive Disintegration.” I mean that only as a complement to Franco Klein.

(Interestingly, there’s a recent New Yorker magazine piece on the photographer Alex Prager, a possible photographic cousin to Franco Klein, who says that she went to see a show of William Eggleston’s photos, and “I felt like I was struck blind by a vision and that was the path I was going to take for the rest of my life.” Who said great photography isn’t life-changing.)

Back to Franco Klein. What I can tell you for sure is that her book has strikingly composed, wonderfully colored, and mysteriously subjected shots, along with its inscrutable mysteries. Certainly there’s probably more to be said, and one thing I find out about the title, again from Furman, is that “Franco Klein became interested in the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD), which posits that we are at our greatest potential for growth after periods of anxiety, depression, or trauma.” Sounds good to me; indeed, basically sounds like a recipe for any old happy ending. (Fotonovela alert!) That is, bad stuff happens, as it appears to be happening all through “Positive Disintegration,” but good stuff—growth!—will come out of it. I’m all for that, but the final shot in the book, that mannequin hand, ashtray, phone, and portable TV, doesn’t really suggest a huge potential for growth, it suggests more what you leave behind after a cocktail of vodka and strychnine.

Which is as it should be. Franco Klein evidently came out of making her book just dandy. But the book is all I know, and what I know is that “Positive Disintegration” is already haunting my imagination.

Soon I expect it to embed itself deep into my dreams, and my nightmares.

Positive Disintegration by Tania Franco Klein 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.

Tania Franco Klein