It must be a common human experience to wake up from a nightmare to a reality that still feels like a nightmare. Instead of feeling relief, the dreamer experiences a dreaded surrealism. Melissa Catanese’s The Lottery is a book that feels nightmarish. It feels like a fever dream, one that sticks in your mind for days or weeks afterward and refuses to let go.
Much has been made in contemporary photography about the sequencing of images into a neatly packaged narrative. “These photographs are good, but what kind of story do they tell?” This approach and overemphasis on narrative structure misses the point that photography is an art form. It is more than just a method of recording moments and events and retelling them in a new way. Narrative may be important and even necessary in some cases, but art is messy and mysterious. Likewise, when a photobook is built from a sequence of images that reflects this notion, it can be a truly mind-altering experience.
Melissa Catanese’s The Lottery is a book that feels nightmarish. It feels like a fever dream, one that sticks in your mind for days or weeks afterward and refuses to let go.
The Lottery makes use of a variety of source imagery – the artist’s own photographs, found photographs, and archival images from the press and NASA. With such a vast array of material to work with, Catanese is able to compose a striking, unpredictable sequence that makes the reader forget about a traditional storytelling narrative and immerse themselves in the simple act of flipping the pages, all the while wondering what kind of visual spectacle awaits them next. While the book doesn’t contain a narrative, it’s important to note that there is indeed a clear structure – the editing and sequencing are meticulous and each image stands in what feels like its appropriate place, flowing from and into the next seamlessly.
Layered within the pages of The Lottery are pictures that evoke a vast range of human emotion – awe, fear, confusion, dread, sorrow. The images are mostly black and white, with a handful of color photographs dispersed throughout. The edit is tight enough to be digestible, especially when the book as a whole is quite dark and harrowing. It’s difficult to determine which images are which – to pick apart the archival material from the vernacular photographs from Catanese’s own. But this is also what makes the reading experience what it is – a visual entanglement that doesn’t cease to surprise.
Layered within the pages of The Lottery are pictures that evoke a vast range of human emotion – awe, fear, confusion, dread, sorrow.
There isn’t much hopefulness or lightness within the pages of The Lottery. Human struggle, paranoia, and death are recurring motifs, and are mixed with images of the landscape and animals that don’t quite offer any respite from the tension and emotional turmoil. Reading this book is a disturbing experience; I keep flipping to the next page waiting and hoping for some semblance of relief, something that might signify that the nightmare is over. But it never comes.
The first spread in the book juxtaposes a rocky landscape, in muted colors, with what looks like an older black and white photograph of a young girl carrying a toy gun. Immediately, the reader’s emotional response and perception are warped – the awe one might feel from the grandeur of the landscape turns into confusion and perhaps even fear within seconds.
Reading this book is a disturbing experience; I keep flipping to the next page waiting and hoping for some semblance of relief, something that might signify that the nightmare is over. But it never comes.
Throughout the book, these seemingly outlandish juxtapositions of images continue. Certain central themes and visual motifs do emerge and repeat themselves, however. The landscapes, while generally innocuous, serve as bridges between pictures that either exhibit or evoke the depths of human emotional experience. Crowds of people gather in joy, amusement, or bewilderment. Swimmers struggle against currents, the force of the water around them impervious to their flesh and bones. Elsewhere, rock climbers hold on for dear life in attempts to conquer nature without succumbing to death. Meanwhile, explosions, lightning, and other violent natural occurrences stagger the amorphous sequence.
The Lottery is a successful photobook because it eschews a traditional narrative structure in favor of a mysterious and emotionally evocative edit. The book allows the reader to continuously experience perspective shifts – zooming in and out from micro to macro phenomena. On one page, we see the moon. On another, a ripple in a pond or a single flower or two people embracing.
The book allows the reader to continuously experience perspective shifts – zooming in and out from micro to macro phenomena. On one page, we see the moon. On another, a ripple in a pond or a single flower or two people embracing.
In one standout spread, what looks like an extraterrestrial landscape, bright orange against the pitch black background of outer space, sits next to an X-ray of a human hand. The landscape looks like something out of a dream, far away and cosmic and mystical, while the hand reminds us of our fragile humanity and a stark reality shaped by billions of similar appendages.