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Dead Man's Hand

Photographer Jonah Samson's photo book of intricate noir-themed miniature scenes

by David Graver in Culture on 29 November 2013

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In the midst of two recent gallery shows, photographer and CH contributor Jonah Samson put out a new book titled "Dead Man's Hand." This self-published offering, with a run of only 200 signed and numbered copies (10 of which are special editions that include a hand-painted silver print), contains a series of 20 thematically linked photographs, as well as found pin-up imagery and clippings from vintage detective magazines, what Samson refers to as "collected ephemera." The entire book is packed with imaginative allusion to the seedy history of film noir as it dabbles in darkness.

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Samson explained "'Dead Man's Hand' is a project that developed out of a bigger series of images I had been working on over the past three or four years called 'Noir', which explored my fascination with the sex and violence of early crime photography." All of the fictional images capture moments from ornately crafted, small-scale models, each carefully lit and shot in a studio. A vintage Speed Graflex camera—the same 4x5 device used by press photographers at the time Samson seeks to evoke—lends an eerie sense of authenticity. The artist then further altered each image by hand through crop marks and painting. The result is nothing shy of press photo reincarnations. Rounding out its dark assets, the book incorporates a piece of fiction written by critically acclaimed Canadian author Sheila Heti, presented in the form of a type-written letter.

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"Dead Man's Hand" is unified by Samson's crime scene and pin-up fascination, drawn from photographs hailing from the mid-20th century. Altogether, the book is packaged in a handmade linen box, making it a beautiful collectible. As Samson noted, "The more I played with how the images would resonate in different book formats, the more I felt that the work needed a different presentation altogether. Something that felt more like an object than a traditional book. I thought the book would be great if it were presented like a type of police file filled with photos, press clippings and found images." As Samson intended, it truly does "play on documentation and the veracity of photography."

In addition to this self-published release, Samson has also released a book in conjunction with his recent Vancouver gallery exhibition "Another Happy Day." Published by Presentation House Gallery, this work contains 72 duotone illustrations—all primarily figurative. The numerous found works include press photos, snapshots and studio portraits; all of which focus on the absurd and often the cusp of violence. This collection of found works—which Samson has obsessively searched for across flea markets and internet—revels in imperfection and its ability to unsettle.

"Dead Man's Hand" is available for purchase through PhotoEye for $125. "Another Happy Day" is available through PhotoEye or through Presentation House Gallery, and will be available via Amazon in February.

Photos by David Graver

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