Paris by Michael Schwab

As we’re all still confined to barracks, the only way left to travel is in films or books, and the latter is my preferred choice – I like to let the words take me on journeys. Paris is a place I’ve still not managed to visit but it has an endless appeal; however, a recent encounter via a slim book what not quite what I anticipated…

Imagine you were to pick up a book by a photographer apparently exploring the trees of Paris. You would expect maybe a glossy monograph filled with tastefully and beautifully taken images and lyrical commentary. “ Paris” by Michael Schwab is indeed a study of some trees in Paris, but it’s as unlike those expectations as you could imagine!!

Shwab is a German artist who takes a very individual view of his craft, and it’s his clever image which adorns the cover of this thought-provoking little book. Intriguingly, however, he takes as his central premise the idea of a photographer who sets out to snap the trees of Paris but has forgotten his camera. How to log and record what he sees? Instead of some kind of attempt to draw the foliage he instead devises a gadget and sets out chart the trees by a complex measuring method (set out at the start of the book). The result is an abstract diagram which represents the tree though of course looking nothing like it; yet which has a beauty of its own.

Each diagram is accompanied by text explaining where the measurements were taken, describing the location and also the response of local people to his actions. It’s a fascinating concept, somewhat Perecian to my mind; a visual constraint as opposed to a linguistic one; and the results really are singular. Despite the fact that the diagrams look nothing like trees, you still get a strong sense of place from the combination of the plan and the description; and the two have a kind of beauty of their own.

Space: In the drawings space is uneven. It is as if spaces move under my eye like waves in a sea that break and fold back onto themselves. When the figure is developed in the drawing, and imaginatively brought back to site, it is space that is affected first. The real, lived space starts to move too and all sense is reconfigured. This happens already when a site is measured and the figure emerges. The drawing give uneven space an established form, like a memory.

“Paris” is published by Copy Press in their ‘Common Intellectual’ series, a set of short 100-page works; according to the publisher, “each title makes a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.” Certainly this book make me think about representation; whether we can best capture a place by a simple snap, or whether thinking outside the box and looking more deeply gives a better impression. Schwab is London-based and so presumably wrote the text in English, and it’s evocative writing, capturing the artist in the process of undertaking his work and interacting with those around him. All in all, it adds up to a fascinating short book which is not really like anything else I’ve read.

An example of one of the diagrams from the Copy Press website: https://www.copypress.co.uk/index/paris/

This really was a most interesting experience, reading “Paris”; the more I think about it, the more I feel that Shwab is coming from a very Oulipian perspective, with the mixture of maths and words and constraints; even down to the cover photograph with the foliage reflecting the shape of the Eiffel Tower behind it. I’m still trying to remember where I stumbled across this one (possibly Twitter…), but I’m very glad I did. The Copy Press website lists some very tantalising titles, and I may have to explore a little further… ;D