There’s a metaphysical quality to Seth Lower’s images. The Los Angeles-based photographer’s new book, Units, depicts everyday materials and icons – rusty road signs, road markings, a water truck – taken delightfully out of context. A trio of postboxes sits atop an incomplete brick wall; a plastic bag of oranges is strewn on the ground; a road sign is engulfed by a tree. It’s by removing these objects from their expected functions that they take on a completely new identity: what happens to a road sign if it doesn’t show directions?
“The tree image was taken many years ago, but that one in particular seems to be an apt illustration of the project as a whole,” explains Lower, whose book features images taken between 1994 and 2017. “As I discovered in the writings on object-orientated ontology, especially in Graham Harman’s writing on [German philosopher] Martin Heidegger, the idea of objects freed from their utility came into focus.” For Lower, the identity of a given subject is partially dependent on its relationship to other beings. He continues: “If metaphysics is the relationship between potentiality and actuality, the clearest way to observe these shifts is to look at the snapping points, or when one thing changes form, or engulfs another.”
An important part of this is how an item changes over time. “The project evolved from thinking about evidentiary photographs and considering materials that spell out the past with their physical forms,” says Lower. He gives the example of a glass bottle broken into tiny pieces, a group of identicallooking swans and a stack of mass-produced tin cans. In each case, time transforms the materials physically (the swans will fly away, the glass fragments can never again become a bottle), yet it’s the context of these objects within a succession of events that makes them retain their sense of being.
Each situation, Lower says, speaks of our natural inclination to project meaning onto things. He explains: “We want things to be well-defined for the sake of communication, but in reality, they’re not so absolute. Situations overlap or change whilst their general descriptions remain the same.” However, it’s through our ability, as onlookers, to situate them in a particular context that Units takes on a level of humour too.
One photograph shows stacks of finely cut log firewood wedged between two (living) trees. In another, an unlit stove sits outdoors in the blazing heat. “It’s an example of the kind of inter-image relationship that can often be more interesting for me than the pictures on their own,” says Lower. “That element of comedy depends on surprise, meaning pairings need to function in different ways throughout (some formal, some conceptual), in this case through colour and form, and part of the humour comes from transferring qualities.”
In doing so, Units highlights our human desire to define, and make sense of, the items around us, all whilst offering up some pretty amusing and memorable visual wordplay.
Units is published by MACK Books.
Lead image: Seth Lower. Image from Units (MACK, 2019). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.