The book column: Catalog by Barbara Iweins

To The eye of photography, photo books are as important as an exhibition or a portfolio. They create the medium’s history and reality.
Our correspondent Zoé Isle de Beauchaine has a tirelessly curious and informed eye on the latest releases.

Some invest years in a psychoanalysis. Belgian photographer Barbara Iweins chose a different form of therapy. After a painful separation and so many moves, the woman who defines herself as a “neurotic collector” began the crazy project of photographing every object in her home: “from my daughter’s sock with a hole in it to my son’s Lego, because not to mention my vibrator, my anti-anxiety drugs, everything, absolutely everything.” Four years and 12,795 photographs later, she publishes Katalog med Delpire.

For this work of introspection, Barbara Iweins followed a quasi-scientific protocol, photographing each object piece by piece and against a gray background. She uses the serial and typological approach well known in the history of photography, but here makes autobiographical use of it. A frenetic series of multi-colored squares scroll before our eyes, sometimes slowing down to devote a page to a particular object—a red trench coat, a fire extinguisher, a hot water bottle cut into pieces—each associated with an anecdote, often comical, which brings her back to her OCDs and neuroses, her past, her relationship with her children or her daily life.

Short sentences describe some of the plates, the very serious results of an insane statistical study she made with an Excel spreadsheet: “The amount spent on all the items in the kitchen (€3,620.60) is less than the amount invested in my collection of Blythe dolls.” Or “55% of the things in my room are clothes. Every year this number drops by 20%, I am on the right track.” Self-deprecation as a source of healing.

As the pages go by, the number of objects, all numbered, increases at an alarming rate, leaving us stunned by the scale of the project: a life-saving approach or the ultimate neurosis? For this homebody incarnate, confining himself to his objects to index them one by one has been a true bulwark against the chaos of the world. “The inertia of objects gives me a deep sense of calm.

In addition to the therapeutic path that it constitutes, Catalog inevitably brings us back to our own possessions and serves as a “visual anthropology of our contemporary society”. This very intimate work finally evokes the neuroses in our own society of which overconsumption is a symptom.

Catalog is as astonishing as it is titanic, a self-true portrait of 12,795 objects where OCD and humor go hand in hand and provide an unexpected cure for the photographer and her readers.

Barbara Iweins – Catalog
368 pages, French
Delpire & Co, 2022
Available in bookstores and online

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