The Pillar
Photographs by Stephen Gill
Words by Karl Ove Knausgård
Nobody Books, 2018
224 pp., 96 Quadtone Black and White Plates,
31 Color Plates, 8.5 in. X 10.6 in.
Reviewed by Robert Dunn

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Photographers take pictures, their vision (we hope unique, inspired, magical) informs their photobooks, and the best photobooks, as I constantly argue, work as literature: not novels, not poetry, but an original synthesis of both manifest in images placed together. So what do we do with a grand new photobook, a work that already feels to be one of enduring literature, in which the photographer was not behind the camera, wasn’t even there when the photos, all triggered by externals, were taken? Stephen Gill’s new book, The Pillar, is just that work.

Gill left England for a farm in Sweden a few years ago, and The Pillar and his book before it, Night Procession, both deal with fauna on his land far from the city work of earlier books such as Hackney Wick and Hackney Flowers (though in many earlier volumes Gill was interested in local flora as well as, shall we say, human fauna). But now it’s just the animals and birds living their own mysterious lives far from civilization, and the stories they tell us in both of Gill’s recent books are remarkable.

As much as I admired Night Procession, I find The Pillar the stronger, purer work, perhaps, unexpectedly, because there was no human agency involved in getting the photos. Here’s what Gill did, in his own words: “In January 2015, with the inkling of an idea that their activity might be more prevalent than I first thought, I decided to try to pull the birds from the sky. On the edge of a field next to a stream I set up a 6-cm-diameter stage in the form of a wooden pillar about one and half metres high. Opposite it I placed another, the same size, on which I mounted a motion-sensor camera. When I visited the camera a few days later, to my surprise, it had worked. The pillar had funneled the birds from the sky, offering them a place to rest, feed, nurse their young, and look around. I was captivated.”

Well, I’m captivated, too. It’s not just a hidden life of so many different birds of such different species, it’s the photos themselves. An owl staring the camera straight down. The wing of a buzzard sweeping across the empty plain, the bird itself soaring out of the right side of the frame. Another buzzard, beak wide, screaming at us. A swarm of fowl streaking across the field, the dark pillar mute before them. In one of the occasional color photos, a kestrel cheerily munching on its rodent lunch. And further along, another buzzard looming before the reader like their worst nightmare.

Okay, I’ve yet to bring up Masahisa Fukase’s all-time classic photobook, Ravens, but that’s the quality of book we’re talking about with The Pillar. These are pictures of birds doing all kinds of things, sure, but they’re also shots that go straight to the world of dreams, nightmares, and personal artistic vision … and, again, all without human agency.

I can’t help but think of Doug Rickard’s celebrated A New American Picture, comprised of photos he pulled off early iterations of Google Street View. That was a startling new vision of street photography that came about simply because 1) Rickard had the great idea of combing Google for telling shots and 2) working them up into a book. Though they are found shots, few would argue the art behind them.

And where was Gill in the making of this brilliant book? It was his idea. His farm, his landscape. His choice of where to set up his two pillars. His love and long experience with birds. And of course his most important personal and artistic contribution, the making of the book itself: editing the photos down, sequencing them, making sure they were printed well … all the stuff any serious photobook maker does.

The book is even richer because not every shot is of a bird. Just as in Ravens Fukase startles us with non-bird shots (that half-asleep, corpulent nude woman!), in The Pillar Gill drops in the occasional birdless image of mist over the field, stretches of snow, a coyote strolling by. These non-fowl photos help pace the book, as do the muted-color shots. There’s not an unnecessary picture in the book, and the cumulative power rivals that of Fukase’s masterpiece.

As with Night Processions, the celebrated author Karl Ove Knausgård (Gill’s friend) contributes an essay, printed in a separate enclosed booklet and wholly worth reading. Knausgård riffs for a bit on memories he’s held on to of birds in his past, all in the service of his main point: “How each of these birds opens up a unique moment in time.” He goes on about The Pillar, writing, “I was shaken, as a person so often is when confronted with an extraordinary work of art. I’d never seen birds in this way before, as if on their own terms, as independent creatures with independent lives. Ancient, forever improvising, endlessly embroiled with the forces of nature, and yet indulging too. And so infinitely alien to us.”

True, all true. Then Knausgård goes wide, invoking Heidegger and Kierkegaard, and ends up writing, “Above it all is the sky. The bird’s eyes are round as marbles … and their light is nevertheless recognizable to us, for it is life itself, and the soul that lives it.” That’s the reason no doubt Gill’s book immediately resonates so powerfully with us. The birds’ lives reflect our own lives, the glimpses of soul “still a soul, which is to say a being filled by the world, and sentient in relation to it.” Can any of us ask more than to be just that, beings filled by the world and sentient along with it?

For more on Robert Dunn, visit Ecstatic Light.