Adam Ryder’s new book Selections from the Joint Photographic Survey: Ancient Sites in the British Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan 1923-1930 has its origin in an archive of vernacular photographs taken by an American religious group that was stationed in Jerusalem in the early twentieth century. The publication brings together Ryder’s manipulated images from the archive and his own text, as well as a beautifully written, poetic essay by Cornell University art history professor Benjamin Anderson.
Issues of porous political and geographic boundaries, the preservation of historical artifacts, and the blending of utopian visions with a fraught political reality run throughout the project. The new book is a handsomely re-imagined and expanded articulation of the project, which began when Ryder released a more modest, small-run and self-published version of the book in 2013. Earlier this week I met with Adam to talk about how the project has evolved over time and the mixing of truth and hypothetical in the historical narrative he’s created.
Jeremy Haik: The first thing I'm curious about is how much of this work has roots in the truth? In other words, how much of it draws from something that's actually a part of an existing historical record? I’m interested in the way in which you’ve structured the textual components to emphasize your own perspective on the history of the Middle East.
Adam Ryder: I'll explain that vis-a-vis the source material itself, which really shapes the narrative. I had a late-night desk job with a lot of downtime, which I spent navigating through the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division website. The online archive is sortable by high-resolution images, so you know you’re getting images you can work with beyond the screen.
Because it was important for you to print this work?
Yes. I knew that ultimately, this project would exist in a physical form.
What other kind of stuff did you find?
There was a lot of baseball stuff, as well as collections of photographers (like the recently publicized Carol Highsmith collection), organizations, etc. The collections are actually quite small; there are maybe thirty categories that don't interact with each other because they just consist of images that were donated.
The collection I ultimately used for this project, is a group of photographs from the archives of the American Colony in Jerusalem (a still existing organization). The colony consisted of a group of Christians who immigrated to Jerusalem from America, and later Sweden, and were living there in what was, at the time, a British protectorate. The images in the collection are the result of, essentially, vacation photos. The members of the American Colony either took the photos themselves or hired a photographer to accompany the staff members on what amounted to a Grand Tour of the Levant.
Thousands of photographs were produced, all of which were scanned at high resolution and put in this archive. I was enamored with what I was seeing—double images made for stereoscopes, some duplicate negatives, and scans of the same image placed side-by-side. Sometimes one of them would have a slash through it, a piece of tape on it. There were a lot of unexplained archival ephemera, and I thought that was interesting. I didn't know much about the political circumstances of the photographs at the time, which were all taken between 1920 and 1930 within modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt. As I became enamored with the pictures, I began downloading them for my own reference and I started to read a lot about the socio-political circumstances behind them, something that I continued to do for some time.
As I was reading the introduction in the book, I found myself looking up every little detail because I was thinking... "Is this an actual historical detail or is this something that Adam invented?" It made me question the threshold between those two things.
I’ve heard you reference Ursula K. Le Guin and J.R.R Tolkien with respect to the way they use and manipulate language in their fictional works. When I looked up the names of the places referenced in your book, only your photos come up. Nothing else comes up. I think that's really brilliant, I love that. It's not so much that you are making up a new language but rather you carve out a space within an existing language. Unlike Tolkien, you are not a scholar of language, so how do you approach the naming conventions for places and objects that don't actually exist in the real world?
That's a great question. In a way, it relates to what we discussed earlier, about where the truth in my work begins and my interest in factual reality. The naming conventions in the Joint Photographic Survey project are very much drawn from real places. Just as the photographs are composites from various sources, so too are the captions. I made these images over the course of several years, so the rubric fluctuated a little bit. For the most part I would look at biblical maps and really just pull the beginning of a place name from somewhere and take another one that had a good sound to it from another site that was located nearby, see if they sounded realistic next to each other in my mind, and I would let those lie together like that.
Almost like Photoshopping language?
Yeah, exactly. It's very much a composite of language.
What drew you to this specific time period and region? Do you have a personal relationship to this geographical location?
In popular culture, there seems to be a lot of romanticism around the British colonial era, which been mythologized by literature and films (take The Mummy or Lawrence of Arabia for example). All of the photographs I came across in the original archive were from this same era, but they provided documentation of the real thing. Also, it's a very complicated and fraught circumstance. The more I read about it, the more I became interested in how British imperialism and British Zionism led to today's fraught political circumstances. The book is not necessarily intended to express a political opinion, and yet, at the same time, I know it's difficult to make work about a part of the world as intense as the Middle East and not address the politics of the time and place. I'm admittedly not a historian, but I did try my very best, and went to lengths to have an understanding of the immediate history.
As I was looking through the book earlier today, I was doing my best to have an understanding of the project’s historical context. I was looking up all of the terminology and trying to educate myself on the history of the region, the geography of it... it's instantly overwhelming. From what I could determine, Transjordan was a British protectorate from 1921 to 1946 and contained what is now parts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Is that about right?
Yeah. I don't know about the Saudi Arabia part but it sounds right.
And, from what I could tell, Mandatory Palestine was transferred to the British Empire after World War I by the League of Nations. Is it important for the reader to have an understanding of this, in order to appreciate the book? And to that end, is it important for them to know that it’s partly a hypothetical history?
No, I don't think it's important at all for them to know that much about it ahead of time. My hope is that the reader spends a lot of time with the book, because in my mind the book answers all of the questions that it poses. That's me as the artist saying that. I'm sure there could be many holes in it. I really labored over every little caption, even if it just seems like a random photo of a locust or something. The caption is important. I hope that comes across to the viewer.
I think that comes through, and I get the sense that you want your work to be appreciated right down to the tiniest minutia of it all. Have you ever encountered someone that's picked this book up and just completely overlooked the attention to detail?
I find that the people who look at the work quickly tend to immediately ask where the photographs were taken. They assume that the places exist in the real world, which is fair enough. Ultimately, I'm not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes, but I think that if you look at these images for more than five minutes, it is relatively obvious that they're not real. In part, because if they did actually exist you would have seen them before, but also because the use of Photoshop is not that great. It was not intended to bowl you over with how realistic it is.
I know you had been working on this project for a while. I feel like it's really difficult for an artist to work on something for so long and still be interested in it. It's not uncommon for artists to look at work they’ve done in the past and feel like they’ve evolved towards a very different place over time, but with this project, it doesn't feel like that at all. It all makes sense and it's evolved together. I'm curious about your experience of that process.
The project has gone through several stages and still continues to evolve. In the original book, which I self-published, the design was super simplistic. I don't have a strong design sense about where to put pictures on a page, so the layouts were very straightforward. I also love typographic design, but I'm not an expert at it. I had fun with some stamps and with creating a brand identity for the project; I enjoyed that. I think there are a lot of things that got lost in the gutter. I wanted to include more text-based elements, but I got really hung up on what to write about it. I was very nervous about the writing, so I didn’t include much.
I printed an edition of 100 copies, and sold them through my website. They sold out really quickly, which I wasn’t expecting. Since I was selling them myself, I could see who was buying them. I would sometimes Google people who bought them. Sometimes they were university professors, random university professors. Later on, when Conveyor Editions asked me to think about asking someone to contribute an essay to the new, expanded book, I still had the list of people who bought a copy, and I was like, “I wonder if this Cornell professor of art history would be interested in writing something?” I sent him a cold email and then we had a conversation, and he was a really cool guy. He is a specialist in Byzantine Art.
I didn't look him up and I'm actually really surprised to hear that in light of the tone of his writing. It's so poetic. He writes that the power of the photograph is to disorient in this kind of lasting way. It's perfect.
It's very poetic, it is. I was very emotionally bowled over by it, actually, when I got it. I was like, "This is so beautiful." Whenever I tell people about this book who have seen the original version, I have to tell them that there's a really amazing essay that's also well-designed and illustrated. For me, that's my favorite part of the book. I really lucked out.
The other phrase that I wrote down from his essay was, "Photographs are receptacles for a hidden truth that is also concealed from you.”
Yeah, and he does the same thing that I'm trying to do. He will touch on something that is important and politically charged and then leave it alone. This is part of the conversation. We're not going to talk about it too much, but we also can't not talk about it.
I don't want to reveal your secrets, but there are a few places I've been to that I recognized in this book, and they are not in the Middle East. How much do you want people to know about that?
My dad was a sort of bureaucrat-geologist, so I was aware when making these pictures that someone could call it out. It's another tip of the hat to the reader. Obviously, not everyone will pick up on that, but my hope is that if you look at it long enough, or if you really investigate it, you will realize that it's not real.
I'm interested in the format of the book as almost a guide of sorts. Would you consider it to be a manual? Because at the same time you undermine that by having this slippery relationship to reality.
Yeah, I would call it more like a field guide. I was, unfortunately, the son of two birders, so I grew up going on lots of birding trips all the time.
Your parents are birders and your father is a geologist. That, to me, explains a lot of what's in this book.
It's a lot of taxonomy and classification. We always had a spiral-bound Patterson's Guide to the Birds of North America. You'd have your spiral-bound book like this one that says that "The such-and-such bird lives in this region and it migrates here. It's routes and plumage are this." From a young age, I grew up appreciating popular scientific texts for the layperson about what you could learn about the things around you. This book definitely has that kind of a format.
To that end, how do books play into your practice as a whole? With this book, but also your previous book Areth: An Architectural Atlas?
I think for people who make work like mine, work that has a certain explanatory or contextual component, a book is a really great way to do that. I grew up with a lot of books, and they were respected. Both of my parents were environmental scientists. We had a lot of books, in a way, thrown around the house. I was lucky to grow up in an age when books were still the primary source of knowledge. Then, to also see books come back around to becoming important as a collector's item and it's a special....
It's a valid art practice.
Yes. It's been really amazing to see what's happening with the photobook. I think it'd be wonderful if all these people would make more books. Obviously, people are making plenty of them, but I think it's a really great way to get your work out there, because it's really difficult to consistently find and make gallery work.
I wanted to ask you about working with Elana Schlenker and Christina Labey on the edit and design of this project, because this version of the project is obviously very different from the one you self-published. I'm curious how much their input influenced the form of the project. Do you feel that they shifted the project into this form, compared with what you started in the last book?
The form and the concept of the book are very closely tied. Christina was in charge of the sequence, and the relationship between concept and the design decisions we made for the book. She challenged me to think about how we could make the book visually different from my self-published version, and also how it could be referential to volumes of that era without being overly derivative. Elana is a master of typography. She knows her type really, really well. The more iconic pages in the book—the title page, plates page and the field resources section—are where Elana's work shone the brightest.
We took a field trip to the Explorer's Club in Manhattan and looked at some amazing publications from expeditions their members had documented. For example we saw some original volumes and photographs from the first trip to the Arctic, and also looked at a lot of volumes from expeditions to the Levant. We took design inspiration from these and incorporated our favorite elements into the final book. For example, I found a cache of Egyptian design motifs in the New York Public Library and sent them to Christina and Elana. They refined the motifs and ultimately used them as the endpapers, as well as illustrated pages to go along with the text, which, for me, were some of my favorite parts of the book from a design standpoint.
I read that you are interested in visions of utopia, how does that play into this work? You have such a politically fraught region. Is there part of that in this?
What I was trying to do with the Joint Photographic Survey, with that textual narrative, was to provide a brief parallel history for ten years; maybe things could have gone a little bit better. Not something drastic, but just in imagining, what if there was something that was a joint endeavor between all three of these different peoples? You have Jewish people who have been there for a long time. You have Arabs who had been living there for a long time. We have the colonial forces coming in, who are ultimately going to shape the region. What if these three peoples were able to mish-mash together and do something that was worthwhile for humanity writ large? That's where utopia plays in.
As to whether or not it's successful, you can leave that to the imagination of the person looking at it. You're just interested in raising the possibility.
Yeah, it's a plausible thing that maybe could have happened, that would have been great. Look at what's happened in the last three years with a lot of famous relics in Syria and Iraq that have been destroyed by ISIS. They've been very well documented, luckily. These ancient monuments and buildings have a finite lifespan; they are very, very old. For me, it was a very humanitarian thing the Joint Photographic Survey people were doing. The region had just seen the First World War. They realized that they are in the midst of these things that are very old and possibly vulnerable to being destroyed in a war. Let's go ahead and document them before they get ruined forever.