Brighton based photographer Jack Latham gave a talk around his new book “Sugar Paper Theories” and an earlier work “A Pink Flamingo”
Sugar Paper Theories documents a famous Icelandic murder mystery and in particular the flawed investigation that ultimately led to confessions and thus lengthy jail sentences by innocent people. Summary below from the publisher Here Press
“Forty years ago, two men went missing in southwest Iceland. The facts of their disappearances are scarce, and often mundane. An 18-year-old set off from a nightclub, drunk, on a 10-kilometre walk home in the depths of Icelandic winter. Some months later, a family man failed to return from a meeting with a mysterious stranger. In another time or place, they might have been logged as missing persons and forgotten by all but family and friends. Instead, the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case became the biggest and most controversial murder investigation in Icelandic history.
In the 1970s, theories about the disappearances fixated on Iceland’s anxieties over smuggling, drugs and alcohol, and the corrupting influence of the outside world. The country’s highest levels of political power were drawn into the plot. But ultimately, a group of young people on the fringes of society became its key protagonists. All made confessions that led to convictions and prison sentences. Yet none could remember what happened on the nights in question.
Now a public inquiry is uncovering another story, of how hundreds of days and nights in the hands of a brutal and inexperienced criminal justice system eroded the link between suspects’ memories and lived experience.
Jack Latham photographed the places and people that feature in various accounts of what happened to Gudmundur and Geirfinnur after they vanished. He spent time with the surviving suspects, as well as whistle blowers, conspiracy theorists, expert witnesses and bystanders to the case. In ‘Sugar Paper Theories’, Latham’s photographs and material from the original police investigation files stand in for memories real and constructed. Professor Gisli Gudjónsson CBE, a former Reykjavik policeman and forensic psychologist whose expert testimony and theory of memory distrust syndrome helped free the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four – and are now central to the Gudmundor and Geirfinnur inquiry – provides a written account of the case”
His project proposal won Bar Tur Photobook Award 2015. This award offers an emerging photographer the opportunity to work with The Photographers’ Gallery and independent UK based publisher Here Press, to produce their first book to a value of £20,000.
Jack was speaking shortly after the launch of the book which has received widespread critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Paris Photo festival Photobook award. He explained that he explores the story using a mix of archival images, ephemera from the investigation files and his own photographs of interiors and ghostly, snow covered landscapes. These are intended to convey the sinister nature of the events that took place and the fog of memory and ambiguity still surrounding them.
I found the presentation of the book interesting, I believe its meant to look like an official file document and includes some loose items such as a map of key locations in an internal pocket. It clearly has very high production values.
The story is well known in Iceland but has faded from the public memory and its doubtful the whole truth will ever emerge now, Jacks documentation, tracking of survivors and the photographs of the Icelandic landscape and portraits of some key individuals mixed with the archival material make for a very impressive book particularly in the manner it is printed and presented.
So as an object it is entirely successful, but personally I found that the new images were less interesting than the archival ones because I found they added less to the story. I feel this is because the key individuals who were actually involved and still alive did not want to be photographed as they do not wish to be the centre of attention again but rather want to get with their lives and firmly put the events of 40 years ago behind them. For me this creates a slight disjoint between the archival and contemporary photographs.
Jack also spoke about an earlier work A Pink Flamingo – This in the genre of the classic American road trip. The American road trip has, for decades, been a global aspiration for many along with the belief that “anything is possible” What Jack has done with his interpretation is to show a somewhat bleaker and real view of America post financial crash of 2008.
I think this review from the British Journal of Photography best sums it up;
“A Pink Flamingo takes us on a melancholic, visual journey along the Oregon Trail, a historic route established in the 1830s by fur traders. Since then hundreds of thousands of settlers, missionaries, farmers and gold seekers have trampled across the trail from Missouri to Oregon in search of a better life… It was 2012, a few years after the financial crash. I wanted to photograph the people who lived along the trail almost as if they were the ancestors of the people who didn’t make it to Oregon. I was interested in this idea of travelling west as a metaphor for the hope that things will get better.
The Midwest is talked about in terms of ‘the flyover states’ – places like Wyoming and Nebraska are quite forgotten,” he continues. “A lot the people I met were facing financial uncertainty – people who lived in motels, some who lived in cars, hitchhikers, people who were in between jobs, who’d started a new family; all of them were, I felt, a good representation of where America was then. There’s this phrase, which I loathe, but it does sum it up: ‘the failure of the American dream’. This ideal that anyone can go to America and have a semi-detached house and a car is not a reality for many people in the Midwest.” (British Journal of Photography, 2017) Click on link for full review.
Jack made multiple trips to the US to record the images in A Pink Flamingo at a time early in his career and when finances were tight and this partly dictated how he conducted the project for example often sleeping in his car – he introduced an element of chance into events as part of his creative flow by buying scratch cards and whenever he won – whether that was a $1 or $40 he would stay in a motel thus changing who he met and what he photographed.
The original pioneers went along the trail with hope and expectation of a better life. What Jack now found, or at least has chosen to present, are the remains of broken dreams.
I really liked the book because I felt it gave a different view of the American experience than other literature I had seen on the topic and so purchased a copy of A Pink Flamingo which Jack kindly signed.