Andy Sewell’s photobook Known and Strange Things Pass reminds us how deeply enmeshed contemporary life and the digital world are
Andy Sewell’s photobookKnown and Strange Things Passopens, quite literally, with a splash: an abstract image of seafoam flung across a clear blue sky. The following full photograph, this time black-and-white, depicts an electricity box of sorts complete with looping wires, gaffer tape and cool, grey metal. The pages between are blank, save for slices of images, no more than an inch thick, printed on their edges; fragments of the photographs immediately before and after. The technique repeats throughout the book, connecting images and allowing them to pass through the space of pages like wires, tunnels, or cables.
Known and Strange Things Pass investigates fibre optic cables carrying the internet between the UK and North America, comprising images Sewell made on both sides of the Atlantic. However, we might also call it a visual study that places the internet and the ocean in conversation, revealing them both to be unimaginably vast and ultimately unknowable in the process.
Sewell’s images arrive in waves throughout the publication. They move between the shore and the tides, the perspective constantly shifting. Sequences build and crash, images repeat, and sometimes there are almost invisible nuances between one and the next. One constant is the airy, elemental setting of the beach contrasted against monochrome images of technology, reminding us how deeply enmeshed contemporary life and the digital world are.
A loose-leaf insert accompanies the book, featuring an essay by writer Eugénie Shinkle and a series of observations written by Sewell. One line from Sewell stands out: “I can scrutinise this cable and learn facts about it,” he writes, “how many terabytes are passing through it per second, how long it is, I might even learn who is using it, what stories are flowing through it – but that doesn’t make the fact of it…any less mysterious.” Indeed, as viewers, it’s impossible not to be mystified by the cables that populate Sewell’s images – by their power, how many thousands of miles they reach across, and, ultimately, how impossibly small their starting points are. How can the near-infinite amount of data we create and transmit each day travel through these objects, ostensibly unremarkable and built by human hands?
Hands are a motif throughout the book. Sewell captures them playing on phones, clasping each other, reaching into the water and retrieving shells. Even the publication’s final image depicts a young girl’s hand drawing a curved line in the sand – the beginning of a circle, perhaps, looping us back to where we began. In the end, it’s touch and gesture that radiate from the work. Every image speaks of connection – digital, invisible, physical. It’s worth noting that Sewell completed the project during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns, which adds another layer to a book relating to the intangibles of communication.
Sewell is currently exhibiting Known and Strange Things Pass at Robert Morat Galerie, Berlin, and here again, he’s thought about the viewer’s journey. He invites his audience to get close to some images and step back for others, employing different sized prints and frames hung above and below eye level. In the exhibition and photobook, Sewell proves that photography is more than a surface medium. It can conjure visual experiences of the invisible and activate elements of the world we may otherwise never see.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London