Review: Dorothea Lange / Sam Contis – Day Sleeper (MACK)

There are a few factors that should have hindered my experience of MACK’s much-anticipated new book with Californian photographer Sam Contis, Day Sleeper. I am not hugely familiar with Dorothea Lange’s output aside from her iconic documentations of the Great Depression, and before the book’s release I was unsure of the particulars behind Contis’s credit as an author. So upon first read, I was a little confused. Was I seeing Contis’s own photographs interwoven with Lange’s, in response to the latter’s aesthetic?

Suffice to say, I wasn’t. All the photographs in Day Sleeper are from Lange, mostly belonging to her archive at the Oakland Museum of California. The presentation of these images, however, has been carefully curated by Contis, and she uses an unobtrusive hand to guide us, letting the photographs speak for themselves, or to each other. There is no text, no names, years or locations. The removal of such contextual cues allows the images a sense of timelessness, and as such, they often feel contemporary. My confusion in regard to Contis’s role was understandable, but that disorientation was ultimately freeing. Without such concrete demarcations, the mind can wander loosely, as in dreams.

A feeling of delicate intimacy pervades Day Sleeper, specifically in its emphasis on physical touch. Lange (and Contis) frequently return to bare hands and feet, either in contact with others or in the warmth of the sun. Unsurprisingly so, given the mostly Californian setting, sunshine and shadow noticeably colour each image. Conflict still lingers at the edges but never truly surfaces; a furrowed brow, an unevenly worn heel of a shoe or a sign declaring ‘THIS HOUSE HAS NO FALLOUT SHELTER’ threaten to rouse us from our reverie. But again and again, we return to sweetness – a rustic haircut, wildflowers on linen.

And of course, we return to the ‘day sleepers’ themselves, dappled sunlight stretching over their languorous limbs, or carelessly slumped against a wall, shading their face with a hat. In their slumber they become untethered from the consciousness of a particular time and place. Even those who are awake are repeatedly photographed with their eyes closed, as if guarding a kind of internal privacy.

Day Sleeper provides a fantastic contradiction. By removing the conventional parameters of authorship, we can become closer to the images themselves, and yet, seeing the world through the eyes of another renders a new kind of intimacy between subject, photographer and audience. We can sense the photographer’s interest and sensibility when we look at an image. Here – seeing Lange’s work re-contextualised through Contis’s curation – that gesture is compounded, and what should have been another layer of distance instead brings us closer. Intimacy relies on attention, and we can feel Contis’s deep attentiveness to the images on every page.

Text: Ash Holmes
Find Day Sleeper here

Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy's inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.