In Bobby Doherty’s new book, Dream About Nothing, there is a run of images showing stationery neatly encased in vertical containers. After that, it’s hard not to see everything in the book as being neatly encased in vertical containers – containers we call photographs. This sequence, like the book as a whole, is both a reminder of how we like to enclose bits of the world in tidy little boxes and an invitation to meddle with their contents.
The concept of finding the magic in the mundane is a doctrine that appeals to plenty of photographers, but in Dream About Nothing, the tensions between the two truly come alive.
A melting stack of ice lollies appears alongside an orange butterfly with a chunk taken out of its wing, as though someone had a bite of the wrong one. A spilled drink forms a luminous pink lake akin to Richard Mosse’s vivid landscapes. A gnarly, fraying toothbrush sits opposite a flower with a skirt of petals. The image of the toothbrush and the image of the flower share similar palettes and forms that splay out as though they’ve been electrocuted. Is it fair, then, to deem one grotesque and the other beautiful simply because we know their context?
A fan of going on “big photography walks”, Doherty’s previous book, 2018’s Seabird, brought together pictures he shot out in day-to-day life. “At the time I was the staff photographer at New York Magazine and needed to have an outlet outside of the studio I occupied five days a week. It just felt obvious that my second book should be a melding of my real world and my studio world,” he says of Dream About Nothing. The ‘real’ has bled into the ‘studio’ most clearly in the sense of unpredictability and unexpected contrasts, which are par for the course in the ‘real’ world and difficult to manifest in the ‘studio’ world.
A former staff photographer in one of the most renowned photo departments at a national title will have learned some tricks of the trade. For Doherty, one of those can be found in his use of reflective or illustrated surfaces as distraction techniques. “I think the shadow an object casts on a surface is the best way to gauge a photographer’s technical comprehension. I like to photograph things on mirrors because it saves a lot of time I would normally spend stressing about how clean the shadow is.”
The interplay between the images is a joy to navigate, a process steered by the team at Loose Joints, the publisher of this book and the last one. “I’m not much of an editor. I can hear the conversation that happens between two photos when they’re side by side but then I start to feel the randomness of the entire universe and I lose steam,” says Doherty.
The book reflects how the content and flow of images collapse into absurdity in dreams; Doherty’s own dreams read like a potential sequel to it. “Last night I dreamt I was flying a ye olde airplane through a really wide canyon in the desert. There was a brown owl sitting on one of the wings and seeing the owl made me realise the plane didn’t have an engine and we were just floating forward through the air,” he says.
“When I looked at the walls of the canyon I started to notice huge chunks of the landscape were missing and in their place were these big black voids. The voids got larger and larger and I realised I was flying the plane through a black hole. Eventually there was no landscape left and I was moving forward in a soundless vacuum. When I got to the other end of the black hole I was sitting in a chair in my childhood kitchen, then I woke up. Help me.”
Dream About Nothing might sound nihilistic, but the lasting impression of the book is: why do you need to dream about anything when the world – the ‘studio’ one or the ‘real’ one – is so full of its own wonderful clashes and unpredictable segues?
Dream About Nothing by Bobby Doherty is published by Loose Joints; loosejoints.biz