Luke Le’s What Are You Looking For? feels like a book that comes from repeatedly asking the titular question. Avoiding singular narratives, obvious answers or simplicity, the book seems to revel in a form of continually unanswered reflections and existential confusion that makes it a fairly unique experience. With printing and design choices that emphasise the emotional tone, the book stands as a pretty ambitious debut. Ultimately, What Are You Looking For? feels like a question Le asked himself till it wore thin and that experience, of cycling through hard-to-answer questions over and over, is really what the book tackles.
As a form, the book is a pretty interesting package. Wrapped in a lime-green risograph poster, the weight and heft of the book reminds me of a phone book. The paper is uncoated and raw, lightweight and off white, and each image is printed the same size, two-page spreads, from start to finish. I really like this form – it’s not precious or anointed – it feels indexical and playful which is a pretty unique combination for a photography book.
As I understand it, each image was originally printed on a risograph printer and then further scanned. The result is images that are really, really grainy and soft, sort of like PROVOKE-era film cooking mixed with felt. Each image is grainy, fuzzy and, deliberately, a bit ugly. The printing and paper choices exacerbate that further which, for a book that’s taking on confusion as a topic, is a pretty smart choice: a visual diary of uncertainty should be a bit hard to really see. Many of the images are like squinting at night and I think it takes a certain amount of panache to make work this imperfect.
So – is there much of a narrative here? What do the photographs really get at? This is really a book where the individual image is not the priority, instead it’s the whole that gives the work its punch. Singular images of dead flowers, birds in flight, a bedspread or a shoe don’t do much heavy lifting, but as the book continues it seems that daily life feels forced, awkward and confusing. To come back to the way the book is presented, almost like a phone book, the indexical nature of that form adds really well to this edit – open any spread and there’s a visceral confusion present. Rather than being a list, it’s an index of a repeated experience: the experience of walking through life wondering what the hell is it all about.
There’s also a claustrophobia and distance that push and pull at each other in this work – everything is both too close and too far – we can see neither the whole thing or the detail. This mirrors really well the emotional tone of uncertainty and internal angst that comes across. I understand that this book is a culmination of Le’s experience briefly living in Melbourne and, from that, it seems like a time typified by being unsure, at the most fundamental level. In that vein, then, the juxtaposition of too close and too far really feeds into the whole work feeling unanswered.
I also feel that Le is asking a question of the work itself: what is THIS all about. I feel this most strongly in the images of trees and the built environment. While there’s not quite the same feeling of claustrophobia or confusion, these images (which seem to be much more of texture than anything else) add up to an experience of an artist wondering what on earth they are doing. With the subjects of the photographs being so wide ranging and so varied, it’s easy to see that this is a reflection on a time of directionless exploration yet, instead of that being purely celebrated it’s the doubt and self-worrying that can come from that as well.
Perhaps one way to consider this part of the work is in refutation of the idea of free living with photography along the way. Compared to other diaristic projects like, for example, Patrick Tsai’s My Little Dead Dick, there’s not the same uplifting feeling of new places, new friends in this book. Living somewhere new is sometimes a really defeating experience, and I think that’s the story that’s being told here.
Confusion, or disorientation, is a very vulnerable point from which to make a book. Where many artists would feel, I imagine, strong senses of doubt and anxiety, Le opens his work up with honesty, owning the diversity and complexity in the images. There are no easy answers here because, I think, Le had no answers. Instead there’s only the feeling one gets from sitting with questions like ‘why am I doing this?’, ‘what’s next?’ and ‘is this all there is?’ for long enough. The feeling the book reminds me of most strongly is coming back from a holiday and just continually asking myself the most sinking question as I unpack: ‘why?’.
Luke Le (formerly Luke van Aurich) is a Sydney-based artist and designer, working with no formal training. Born in Perth in 1990, his career has spanned photography, publishing, furniture design and product design. He has exhibited his photography in various contexts in Australia and internationally. He is a cofounder of the sustainable design label and retailer Column A.