The French novelist Marcel Proust is often quoted as writing, ‘the real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’. Though largely paraphrased and misquoted* from his original passage of writing, the core sentiment of the sentence remains intact: the forms in which the world appears to us can differ in the various ways we choose to look at it.
Carly Steinbrunn’s new publication from MACK, titled The Voyage of Discovery takes heed of this idea and deals, similarly, with the act of seeing. Drawing on the visual language of research in fields such as anthropology, zoology, geography and botany, Steinbrunn constructs and presents a fictional report from a scientific mission to discover and describe unknown worlds. A series of photographs – Steinbrunn’s own images alongside found ones, both colour and black and white – presented as ‘plates’ depict a small encyclopedic inventory of findings reminiscent of expeditionary narratives.
Citing the photography of Gustav Le Gray and Karl Blossfeldt as influences, alongside the travelogues of Claude Lévi-Strauss and James Cook, The Voyage of Discovery is as much about photography as it is exploration, and in this sense traces a loose visual history linking the evolution of both subjects. The ‘report’ that Steinbrunn presents is certainly inconclusive (as a convincing staging of a scientific document it doesn’t hold up) but that was quite obviously never the aim here – all that was necessary was a clear aesthetic nod towards the way that photography has been used in these fields, to question the truth claims of the medium and explore the balance between reality and fabrication. As isolated images we know the things that Steinbrunn presents to us – cacti and tropical fruits, fossils and pyramids – make some sort of independent sense, but by weaving them together in this manner Steinbrunn would rather show us the power of narrative to displace our presumptions of objects we normally consider exotic or otherworldly.
The images offer a sense of anticipation and the book as an object is no doubt beautiful – certainly not a publication to be overlooked in amongst MACK’s headlining releases of the season (namely titles by Ron Jude and Paul Graham). The book holds all the wistful momentum of the explorer gathering evidence in a quest to conquer new frontiers. Further highlighting this are aeroplanes and rockets reminding us of the historical race to travel across land, air and sea. The Voyage of Discovery is a clever publication with layers of references to the history of photography and beyond its consideration of expeditionary narratives, Steinbrunn’s most important quest turns out to be one for the viewer – to discover the images and to travel alongside them.
– Joanna Cresswell
MACK published The Voyage of Discovery after it was shortlisted for the 2014 First Book Award. For full spec and to buy the book visit our online shop.