Martine Stig likes to push your buttons.
Her photo book ‘Noir’ contains a series of black and white photos taken during some sunny days in Amsterdam. At first sight, the pictures show unremarkable, everyday occurrences: Birds sit in a tree, light reflects off a building, a car is parked by the curb.
But leafing through the book, you’d be hard pressed not to feel like something nefarious is going on: Faces are obscured. People lay on floors. Even the architecture seems threatening, the birds an ominous presence. The book’s title appears like a double entendre; alluding both to heavy blacks in its monochrome images and the uncanny nature of the famous film genre.
Film Noir is known for its surreal montages, and the same is true here: Throughout the pages, Martine keeps showing us the same pictures over and over again. Each recapitulation puts a picture next to another one, and thereby into a new context.
It’s a disorienting effect, exemplified by a clinical shot of a spiral staircase: Just as though you were on the steps yourself, flipping through ‘Noir’ can feel like going in infinite circles. Pictures reappear in different sizes, next to other shots, and you’re left pondering the meaning.
That disorientation, of course, is exactly what Martine intended: “It’s a game I like to play”, she admits.
“The order determines meaning.”
The artist has a deep-rooted passion for film, and how image patterns create narratives: “I have studied the rules of montage, how connect images in cinema,” she explains. Indeed, the only words in the book are a quote by Soviet film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein: “The essence of cinema does not lie in the images, but in the relation between the images.”
Martine wondered “What if I applied those rules to documentary reality?” She sketched out the motifs she would need to tell a story and then went out into sunny Amsterdam to capture them with a telephoto lens. That means the things we see in the book aren’t at all related, but tied together by aesthetic, cadence, and—most importantly—your own assumptions. “This way, you can turn documentary into fiction”, Martine says. “The order determines how a viewer interprets their meaning.”
Working with designer Hans Gremmen, she edited the shots into what she individual scenes, each reusing previously shown pictures. “What we discovered is that we could create a new reality without having to stage anything.” That’s also where ‘Noir’ departs from other photo books, and their usual fare of carefully-selected works: The scenes send viewers on a journey to discover connections—right before challenging those connections by mixing the order back up.
“We are so used to photography depicting the world that we forget that it is actually a construct,” Martine remarks. “I like the fact that you can see the meaning change in the book, because it exposes the effects of chronology and matching: We are accustomed to see certain images and fill in the blanks.” What looks like looming catastrophe really isn’t: “It’s just a another sunny day.”
’Noir’ cautions you not to jump to easy conclusions, but it could also be seen as warning against the seductive power of images. Photos are a powerful form of communication and seeing them out of context can give rise to completely unfounded meanings. Is it call for more vigilance not to be manipulated? Martine doesn’t want to be that direct: “I didn’t make the book to ring the alarm.” She’s more subtle than that.