Strange Landscapes: Close-Up Views of the Lamb's Mouth by Neal Auch


“I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head so that it would take in my whole body, and then the Universe, until all that would remain of me would be a ball of eaten thing which little by little would be annihilated: that is how I see the end of the world.” ― Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers


This series of images continues with my studies of the lamb's head. All of these shots explore textures and structures in the beast's mouth (mostly tongue and lips).

I find it interesting to bounce back and forth between still life and macro photography since, although I treat the same subject matter in both cases, these two genres of photography are almost perfectly opposite. In still life everything is rather literal, and the game is all about composition and lighting. Close up work is quite different: composition is almost nonexistent in some of these shots, and the lighting is almost always straightforward. Instead, everything is about abstraction and the focus is all about technical stuff in post-production (focus stacking, etc). I'm sure I'm not the first photographer to note an analogy between close-up work and landscape photography, but it does seem very apt in terms of both the final results and also the creative process. (For whatever reason my impression is that landscape photographers seems more interested in exploring the breadth of their subject, but that's a rant for another day...) Anyway, enjoy the weirdo close-up lamb mouth imagery!


Diseased Flesh: Close-Up Views of Sores on Chicken Feet by Neal Auch


"I know what the disease wants." --Seth Brundle, dialogue from Cronenburg's The Fly (1986)

DISCLAIMER:  I have been doing this project long enough to know that a significant fraction of my viewers are interested in the aesthetics of my work, but rather less interested in my concerns about the ethics of eating animals.  And that's absolutely great and a perfectly valid way to interact with the work; I think that all art is open to interpretation and that the audience's interpretation(s) should have no priority over those of the artist themselves.  In discussing my work I'm faced with a bit of a tightrope to walk: on the one hand I don't want to obfuscate my own motivations in making this work, while on the other hand I am aware that there's a danger of alienating members of my audience who don't share my concerns about factory farming.  So I wanted to preface this post with a bit of a disclaimer: while I try to avoid coming off as preachy, the subject of these images is quite impossible to discuss without being kind of a huge bummer about the meat industry.  So if that's not something you're into, you might want to skip this particular set of images.  In the next post I promise I'll have some cool creepy shots of teeth that look like mountain ranges.  But for those of you who are into this kind of thing...


“What the meat industry figured out is that you don't need healthy animals to make a profit. Sick animals are more profitable...  Factory farms calculate how close to death they can keep animals without killing them."  --Jonathan Safran Foer, from Eating Animals

The animals that we consume are sick, but for the most part this ugliness remains hidden from the consumer.  Part of the reason I'm so fascinated by chicken's feet is that they provide a rare example of a food product where sores and deformities and disease markers are easy to see.  These images continue with my ongoing studies of the various visible sores that present on commercially available chicken feet.  It's worth noting that I do not make any special effort to get my hands on diseased animal organs, these kinds of sores are very common.


The more I look at these things the more visually interesting I find them.  The colours are incredible: that contrast between the deep black at the heart of the sore and the weird yellow skin sloughing off and the pale healthy flesh that surrounds it all.  I have struggled with what to do about that yellow flesh, in particular.  It is such a vibrant colour that it almost looks oversaturated and I'm tempted to dial back the saturation on that particular channel to keep the image from looking too cartoonish.  But, at the same time, this really is the colour of that flesh.  Enjoy!


A Close-Up View of the Lamb's Eye by Neal Auch


"Thus, two globes of equal size and consistency had suddenly been propelled in opposite directions at once.  One, the white ball of the bull, had been thrust into the 'pink and dark' cunt that Simone had bared in the crowd; the other, a human eye, had spurted from Granero's head with the same force as a bundle of innards from a belly.  This coincidence, tied to death and to a sort of urinary liquefaction of the sky, first brought us back to Marcelle in a moment that was so brief and almost insubstantial, yet so uneasily vivid that I stepped forward like a sleepwalker as though about to touch her at eye level."  --Bataille, from Story of the Eye

After having focused on still life composition so much of late, I wanted to revisit my old love of close-up (macro) photography.  The first subject that came to my mind was the lamb's eye, something that I have photographed before but felt merited another investigation.  In the image above I wanted to emphasize the strange somewhat deflated look these eyes take on in death.  In contemplating the strange shape of the dead creature's eye I was reminded of George Bataille's stunning novel, Story of the Eye, and his fixation on sexual arousal surrounding various globe-like elements (the sun, the egg, the bull's testes, the eye of Granero the bullfighter, and the eye of the murdered priest).  I could write endlessly about Bataille's wonderfully transgressive and inscrutable erotic fiction, but that would take us a bit off the topic at hand and, in any case, is probably above my pay grade since I have no special qualifications as a book reviewer or literary scholar.  (Of course this complete lack of qualifications hasn't previously stopped me from posting book reviews and musing about literature, so perhaps I'll revisit this topic again soon.)


For the above image I decided to focus my attention away from the globe of the eye -- that strange deflated shape that would have interested Bataille so much -- and instead on the boney structure of the eye socket.  I love these strange little ridges and bumps and the texture of the flesh.  Enjoy!

Variations of a Theme: Pig Foot with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch


"And as in the daily casualties of life every man is, as it were, threatened with numberless deaths, so long as it remains uncertain which of them is his fate, I would ask whether it is not better to suffer one and die, than to live in fear of all?"  —St. Augustine, from City of God.

These new still life images continue with my explorations of variations of a theme in vanitas composition.  Both images use the same basic ingredients, and both speak to the same underlying themes of mortality and transience.  Both images use the same pig's foot and both revisit the "tipped cup" visual metaphor which appears frequently in my work, and in vanitas composition in general.  For the image above I particularly enjoyed the interplay of colours between the pig bowels spilling out of the glass.  These start out reddish, like the gore coming closest to the bottom of the frame, but get increasingly pale and grey after having been thawed and re-frozen over and over and over.  (I reuse the same organs over and over in my shots, replacing pieces only when absolutely necessary, in an effort to minimize my financial support of the meat industry.)


While I've already spoken at length about the relation of my work with "meat as art" to vanitas compositions, I have said rather little about another, perhaps even more obvious, comparison with art history: paintings of butcher's shops and market scenes.  Such works were a sort of precursor to the golden age of 17th century Dutch still life paining.  The analogy with my own approach goes beyond the simple choice of subject matter, since to some extend a critique of butchering seems implicit in many of these works.  Painters like Passarotti and Carracci depicted butcher's shops and sought to emphasize the rough crudeness and lack of sensitivity of the butcher's assistance.  In the 16th and 17th centuries theologians often viewed a slaughtered animals as symboling the death of a believer and to combine it with the warning:

"You who with much pleasure

Slay a swine of calf,

Think how on the Lord's Day

You will stand before God's Judgement." --Groote comptoir almanach, Amsterdam 1667

I don't know if it was intentional or not, but I certainly feel a similar sense of sadness and critique of butchering when I look at Goya's famous still life with the rib and head of lamb.  Of course the state of the meat industry in Europe in the 16th century is in no way analogous to what we have in North America today and I certainly don't imagine that Goya, Passarotti, or Carracci were coming to their subject with the same kind of political biases that I have.  However, I do find it fascinating to muse on what analogies there are.


Variations of a Theme: Cow Foot with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch


"You're on earth.  There's no cure for that."  --Samuel Beckett, from Endgame

Memento mori -- meaning "remember that you have to die" -- refers to a medieval Christian practice of regular reflection on mortality, the vanity of earthly life, and the transient nature of earthly goods.  The theory behind this practice forms the basis and logic behind vanitas still lifes, an art form which I've developed something of a fixation on of late.  I've always thought of Beckett's Endgame as a kind of literary version of a vanitas, a stunningly hopeless meditation of the essential themes of the meaningless of life and the transience of all things.  I don't know if Beckett had this connection in mind when he wrote his play, but I like to imagine he did.  (He had a great love of art and was extraordinarily well educated, so it's completely unfathomable.)


These latest additions to my still life gallery.  Both are variations of a theme, using similar ingredients arranged in slightly different ways.  This kind of variation of a theme is something that I used to avoid in my work, but lately I have been embracing more and more.  In part this is because I think that the repetition helps to drive home the underlying message, and in part this is because I'm more and more aware of the tradition of still life painting from which these works have emerged (where repetition and variation of elements in this manner were quite commonplace).


A Vanitas Composition for Easter by Neal Auch


"Now from noon until three, darkness came over all the land. At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.”  Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the rest said, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to save him.  Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart.  And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised." -- Matthew 27:45-53

Christian imagery shows up fairly regularly in my works, and I've recently developed something of a fixation on vanitas compositions.  With Easter at hand, it was only natural to combine these elements.  As I have discussed previously on this blog, the extinguished candle is a frequent visual metaphor for death in vanitas compositions, and the tipped cup is a symbol of the fragility of life.  The reddish intestines spilling from the cup suggest blood, but also wine, and have always reminded me of the last supper.  I added the intestines draped over the cross  as a final touch.  (Readers who, like me, were subjected to a Catholic upbringing may note that the colour of the draping is off: traditionally the cross would be draped in black on good Friday, representing the death of Jesus.)  Enjoy!

Floral Still Life Compositions by Neal Auch

The Sick Rose, by William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This image is my interpretation of a floral still life arrangement.  I've always been fascinated by those old paintings of flower arrangements that were so popular amongst Dutch still life painters in the 17th century.  In part, this fascination stems from the fact that the pretty trappings of such images were ultimately meant to convey a rather morbid message about mortality and the transience of all things.  Here I constructed my interpretation of such an image, using cow trachea "stems,", chicken foot "flowers," and some fallen duck gizzard "fruit" for the finishing touch.  I chose to use only chicken feet with visible sores an disease markers for this shot, in part because I liked how the sores make up the central region of each flower, and in part because I felt like it worked better with the underlying visual metaphor of the piece.  

Initially I composed that image vertically, since most of those old floral still life paintings were composed in that manner.  But, for whatever reason, I just couldn't find a crop that I liked and ultimately I ended up breaking with tradition by adding the negative space to the (camera) right of the image for a horizontal composition that I like much better.  (Probably all for the best anyway, since the web punishes you for shooting tall...)

This wasn't my first pass at building a floral arrangement from those ingredients.  A less minimalist variant is this one:


Here I kept the same basic ingredients, but also added some real dead flowers and plant life, along with the pig heart and intestines.


Vanitas Still Life Compositions by Neal Auch

"For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth." Psalms 102:3

The images in this diptych were loosely composed in the style of 17th century Dutch "vanitas" still life paintings, which were meant to show the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.  Often this was achieved by contrasting symbols of wealth and power (books, expensive silverware, etc) with symbols of death and mortality (skulls, clocks, rotting fruit, etc).


 To adapt the vanitas to my aesthetic I opted, as always, to come at the underlying themes a bit more confrontationally.  For these shots I borrowed the compositional style from the works of Pieter Claesz.  For comparison I included an example of his "monochrome" work that served as a source of inspiration for me. 

One of my favourite metaphors for death in these kinds of works is the extinguished candle.  The smoke wisps suggest a life extinguished and even the candle itself is a reminder of the transience of all things: the passage of time is recorded as the wax burns ever lower.

Capturing the wisps of smoke in those images was the only non-trivial part of these shots, from a technical standpoint.  I could have faked it in photoshop, of course, but I wanted to give a shot at getting the effect in camera.  I quickly realized that the smoke doesn't show up in the exposure unless you have a fairly harsh backlight coming in through the smoke.  Since this would have over-lit the scene and spoiled the atmosphere, I opted to do these shots as composites.  I did one exposure with the backlight off to capture the majority of the scene, then another with the backlight on just for the smoke.  It was then trivial to open these two as layers in photoshop and simply paint the smoke wisps from the second exposure into the first.  Voila!

Still Life with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch


"Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die." 2 Samuel 14:14

The image of a cup tipped on its side is usually a metaphor for death in still life. This composition is built almost entirely around that metaphor. I wanted to create a sense that the image is itself tumbling over, spilling down onto the ground as the eye moves from left to right across the page. I borrowed this "cascading" compositional techniques from still life painting, where it seems rather more common than in photography. The rule of thirds is still operative here, but only marginally so, and the main guiding principle is in creating a sloping geometry from the various elements (cow foot, sheep head, and pig intestines). The sheep's head is, perhaps, a reference to Goya's beautiful Still Life with Sheep’s Head and Ribs, a grim piece of meat art that had a huge impact on me, and is often interpreted as a reaction to Goya's experiences during the war. Enjoy!

Still Life with Rotting Apples and Pig Organs by Neal Auch


"All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls." 1 Peter 1:24

The idea of confronting themes related to death in still life is hardly my invention; nearly all still lifes include, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things. While those old 17th century Dutch paintings of flowers and fruit baskets can look quaint by contemporary standards, viewers at the time would have understood these kinds of works as a reminder that life, like the fruit and flowers, will soon be gone. Here I played around with the roots of still life, incorporating some rotting apples, in addition to the rotting porcine organs: heart, foot, and lower intestines. The tipped over cup is usually also a symbol of mortality in still life, it's meant to remind the viewer of the fragility of life. The intestines spilling out, perhaps suggesting blood, is my own little touch, because I love me some pig gore in art. Enjoy!

Self Portraits with Pig Organs by Neal Auch

It's just a couple of weeks until the Shadowood Collective's group exhibition Betwixt & Between the Monsters we Dream, and I'm yet again gearing up by sharing some of the images that will be part of the show. 

This diptych consists of two self-portraits, both with pig digestive organ meats.  (That's stomach in the first shot and intestines in the second, for those keeping track of such things.)  These shots are something of a departure for me in that this will mark my first time stepping out from behind the camera and sharing a photo of myself in public.  The idea of temporarily taking on the role of a model was a bit intimidating since I'm generally pretty shy about sharing my own image, the pose here is both revealing and unflattering, and I am absolutely in no way qualified to be a model.  Nevertheless, I decided to push through my initial discomfort and I'm happy that I did.  Indeed, I think a certain amount of discomfort in art is a good thing, and ultimately it was a lot of fun to try something new.  So enjoy the diptych of dick pics!

Studies of the Pig's Head in Various States of Disassembly by Neal Auch

It's just a couple of weeks until the Shadowood Collective's group exhibition Betwixt & Between the Monsters we Dream, and I'm gearing up by sharing some of the images that will be part of the show.  These four images form a series -- a quadriptich? a tetraptych? -- and are part of my ongoing studies of the pig.  Here I've shown the animal's severed head in various states of disassembly.  Moving from left to right we have the head more-or-less intact, a section through the head showing internal organs, the head with the skin peeled off, and the skin mask that was left behind after removing the face.  I don't often work with the square crop, but here I really liked the simplicity of the compositions coupled with the semi-narrative quality of grouping the images together in this way.  Enjoy!

Group Exhibition: The Shadowood Collective's Betwixt & Between the Monsters we Dream by Neal Auch


I'm crazy excited to announce that I'll be taking part in the upcoming The Shadowood Collective group exhibition, titled Betwixt and Between the Monsters we Dream.  I'm honoured to be having my work featured alongside a whole shit-load of fantastically talented artists, including  Allen Williams, Troy Brooks, and Anita Kunz.  The opening night gala is Tuesday Feb 6 at The Arts Project gallery (203 Dundas Street in London ON).  Tickets can be purchased here.  I'll be hanging out that evening, as will many of the other artists.  If you live in the GTA please come on out!

A Year in Review: 2017 by Neal Auch

So...  2017 has come and gone and the sacred rules of blogging now demand that I write up a summary post.  So let the summarizing begin!  

Creative Output

While I tend to avoid talking about my personal life in any detail in this space, the truth is that my photo output has decreased a bit over the last year since so much of my time and energy has gone into raising my baby from a helpless blank slate of an infant into a mobile little beast that toddles about my home leaving chaos in their wake and making dinosaur noises.  That's been fun an amazing and inspiring, but it's not really the focus of this page, so let's talk about photos of dead stuff, shall we?

My portrait of model Oscar James grace with the severed head of a pig.

My portrait of model Oscar James grace with the severed head of a pig.

I kicked off 2017 with a portraiture session with Oscar James Grace, a wonderfully talented model, and a close friend, who is based out of Toronto.  I thought it would be funny to submit one of the shots we did to the delightful Tumblr page CritiqueMyDickPic.  Oscar and I got an A for our effort (!) and I had a delightful time reading the comments, which were a nice mix of folks who were very angry, folks who were kind of angry, folks who wanted to fuck Oscar, and folks who thought I was trying to make an unsubtle jab at David Cameron.

A pair of skulls, marked with graffiti, in the Catacombs of Paris.

A pair of skulls, marked with graffiti, in the Catacombs of Paris.

After a wonderful trip to Europe with the spouse I added an entire new gallery to my site -- Empire of Death -- which catalogues my portraits of the dead in the Catacombs of Paris.  While I have a number of projects in the pipeline that do not involve photographing dead animals, this was the first such project to come to completion.

A close-up view of the eye of a pig, with the skin peeled off.

A close-up view of the eye of a pig, with the skin peeled off.

And...  Finally, of course, my work with meat and dead animals is also ongoing, and I added a bunch of shots to my gallery Inside quite recently.  (See this post for a summary.)

Art Shows

I had a surprisingly productive year in terms of selling art.  When the weather is decent I generally try to do as many Art Crawls as possible, this year I managed to make it out to three events and I met lots of awesome and interesting folks. 


This was my first year participating in the Bazaar of the Bizarre, which was super fun and awesome.  I did two events, one in Toronto (for Halloween) and one in Hamilton, and both were fantastic and fun and I am endlessly grateful to all the lovely people who stopped by my booth to chat and buy prints and also to the organizers who let me show my wares and who put in all the hard work to make awesome events like this happen.  You are all awesome!

Press & Media

Still life arrangement of cow foot, chicken feet, duck gizzards, pig intestines, dead flowers, and tea set.

Still life arrangement of cow foot, chicken feet, duck gizzards, pig intestines, dead flowers, and tea set.

I was very honoured to have my still life work featured in Float Magazine, and also to be interviewed on the blog The Phoblographer.  The latter interview led to a lively (and sometimes hilarious) series of emails and comments which prompted me to write up a bunch of posts clarifying my thoughts about the ethics of eating animals.

The Future

I have two pieces of very exciting news for Feb.  Neither is quite ready to be shared in public but stay tuned!  In addition to these super-secret mysteries I am also hard at work on a couple of new (non-meat related) photo projects which I hope will be ready to share before 2019. 

Happy new year to all!


New Marco Photography: Pig Head & Black Chicken by Neal Auch


I've added some new close-up images to my gallery Inside!  First off, I had a chance to revisit the weird double-toe of the black chicken, pictured above.  I've shot black chicken parts several times before, and I think that this is probably the most technically challenging subject I've considered for this project.  Of course, there are all the usual complications of macro photography (shallow depth of field, stabilization, focus stacking, etc) but the most difficult obstacle to overcome here is the colour of the subject.  The skin of Silkie chicken of very nearly pure black and I wanted to shoot a low key dark image against black background.  It is extremely tricky to figure out how to light a black subject on a black background and still end up with an image that's clear and coherent.  It also doesn't help that the camera's light meter is pretty much useless in a situation like this; the camera wants to expose everything to mid-tone grey, which would mean drastically overexposing an image like this one.

Next I turned my attention to the eye of the pig.  This is my second time working with pig head, but my first time doing close-up work on that particular subject.  I find that there's something eerily human about pig eyes.  I don't know if it's the skin tone or the colour of the iris or what, but to me that first image looks oddly human.  For the second shot I peeled the pig's face off, revealing the muscle and flesh below, for a shot that feels (to me at least) much less human.

Finally I did some work with the pig's teeth.  The first image is the pig's molars; these reminded me a bit of a mountain range, so I opted for a 16:9 crop to emphasize that panoramic landscape-y feel.  The second shot is the front teeth of the pig, less majestic so I opted for the 2:3 aspect ratio that's pretty much the norm for my close-up work.

I have some exciting news and also more images of the pig's head are coming soon!  In the meantime, enjoy!  

Cover Art Review: Steven Dunn's Potted Meat by Neal Auch


I reviewed Steven Dunn's wonderful book Potted Meat some time ago, well before I had taken to blogging about cover art.  Although thinking about cover art critique was not on my radar at the time, nevertheless I did feel compelled to comment on this glorious image by Angel Whisenan, a still life arrangement of some kind of organ meat (looks like pig stomach to me but I could be wrong) and bones.  This kind of thing is, of course, quite in keeping with my own still life work, so I kind of can't help but love this image.  I love the textures in this shot and the soft light falling off to deep black shadows.  I love Whisenan's placement of the bones; the two skulls at the base of the piece almost suggest feet and make me think about this as a sort of abstract representation of a figure.  Here Whisenan has taken the concept of what the highly processed potted meat "food product" actually is (namely, a big mess of organ meats and other scraps of the meat industry) and she has distilled it into a form that is readily recognized by the viewer.  Beautiful stuff.

Cover Art Review: Tom Waits' Rain Dogs by Neal Auch


The second instalment in my series of cover art reviews is Tom Waits' 1985 album Rain Dogs.  Waits is a bit of a departure from my usual musical diet of creepy dark ambient and weirdo experimental, but this is an interesting piece of music accompanied by an absolutely wonderful and perfectly matched photo by Anders Petersen.

Over a career spanning decades Waits has honed to near perfection an image of himself as a kind of vagabond poet who sleeps in ditches and stirs his brandy with a rusty nail and croons passionately in a gravely voice about long lost loves.  He's kind of like Bukowski meets Captain Beefheart meets a 1920s train-hopping tramp.  Along with Swordfishtrombones and Frank's Wild Years, Rain Dogs is an album about the urban dispossessed and, fittingly, the album was composed during a two-month stint in a basement room in a rough part of Manhattan.

The cover art for Rain Dogs is by photographer Anders Petersen, whose work I greatly admire and who I've written about previously on this blog.  The shot comes from Petersen's famous work Cafe Lehmitz, which life at a dive bar on the Reeperbahn in the late 1960s with stunning intimacy.  Petersen's subjects were on the fringes of society: many were drunks, addicts, sex workers, etc.  In other words: Petersen's subjects were precisely the kinds of people Waits' songs seek to give voice to.

In my inaugural cover art review I suggested three criteria for a piece to work: relevance, consistency, and quality.  I intended these as vague guidelines and I can certainly imagine a successful piece that flouts one or all of these "rules".  That being said, the cover of Rain Dogs fits my criteria as perfectly as I can imagine.  The image is relevant thematically and consistent tonally, as is evident simply from understanding the context of both the record and the photo.  But the relevance goes deeper when we note how much the man on the cover looks like Tom Waits.  This guy is absolutely not Tom Waits -- the couple depicted are named Rose and Lily -- but the resemblance is so striking as to almost be a bit creepy.  The last criteria, quality, is also undeniable, at least for me.  I love Petersen's work and I love this image, I love how intimate the moment is, how real the emotion is.  I love the weird crop on the laughing woman's face.  I love the odd peacefulness of the man, perhaps drunk and near falling asleep on her chest.  It's all fucking perfect. 


Hamilton Bazaar of the Bizarre: Thank you! by Neal Auch

I had a great time at the Bazaar of the Bizarre yesterday. Thanks so much to the organizers and also everybody who came out to chat or buy stuff or just look at all the fun creepy wares on display! It really means a lot to small indie arty weirdo like me to have so many cool people come out. Your support -- both moral and financial -- is what keeps folks like me in the business of photographing corpses and taking severed pig's head dic pics. You're all amaze-balls! 

I can't emphasize enough how great it was to see so many people out! I was honestly stunned at the crowd. Although Hamilton is smaller by about an order of magnitude, I'd guess that crowd yesterday was comparable to what we had at the Halloween Bazaar in Toronto. (Certainly my sales yesterday were comparable, if that's any metric.) So... To my mind this constitutes rigorous mathematical proof that Hamilton is 10 times more artsy than Toronto. Science!

This was likely my last show of the season; from December on it gets a bit cold to be out Art-Crawling. I will, of course, be back doing shows starting next spring at which point I should have some new stuff ready that I'm excited about. In the meantime, I'm of course still selling prints through my website so send me an email ( or reach out via social media if you're interested in anything.

Thanks again, you're all awesome Hamilton!

Cover Art Review: George Bataille's Story of the Eye by Neal Auch


Following my recent discussion of the importance of cover art for books, music albums, etc, I've decided to start a new series of blog posts where I "critique" various examples of cover art, both good and bad.  The same caveat applies to both my cover art critiques and my book reviews: these posts are just my personal feeling about the work under consideration, they should not be construed as anything more substantive than that, and they are certainly not meant as scholarly academic criticism.

Since this is going to be my inaugural cover art review, I suppose it makes sense to try to establish some ground rules for what makes a "good" piece of cover art.  I think it makes sense to ask that the image on the cover be meet the following three criteria.

  1. Relevance: The cover art should make some kind of sense in the context of the book.  While I certainly wouldn't argue that the art piece should be a literal representation of something from the narrative, I do think that it should at least be relatively straightforward for somebody who's read the book to understand why this image is meant to accompany the text.
  2. Consistency: The general mood of cover art should match the tone and atmosphere of the story, so that a reasonable reader stumbling across this title on a book shelf could make a sensible educated guess about what kind of novel they're picking up.
  3. Quality: The cover image should be strong enough to stand on its own as an art piece, even when stripped of context and copy.

I would argue that this cover of Story of the Eye, designed and shot by Gent Sturgeon and Rex Ray, succeeds on all three counts.  First let's consider relevance.  An image of an eyeball is an obvious choice for this novella, of course.  But I'd argue that the relevance of this photograph goes deeper than just "behold an eyeball".  The eye on the cover seems to be floating in some kind of admixture of fluids (perhaps two different paint colours?).  It's not entirely clear what's going on there but, to me at least, the swirling background of the image suggests a mixture of bodily fluids, while the yellowish colour palate suggests urine.  This is certainly in keeping with the contents of Bataille's infamous work of erotica; the story involves quite a few scenes involving play involving urine and semen.

Next we come to the question of tonal consistency.  I think that's also a dead match here.  The novel is dark and surreal and nasty at times, and this is exactly the kind of tale that the cover art suggests we should expect.  I love the fact that it's not entirely clear what's going on with the out-of-focus background that the eyeball is floating in.  The mystery of this image is perfectly in keeping with the somewhat inscrutable nature of Bataille's narrative.

Finally, we have the question of whether this image is strong enough to work as a stand-alone piece of art.  For me, again, the answer is an enthusiastic yes.  I love this image; I'd happily buy a print and hang it on my wall if I could.  So...  Win, win, and win!

A Case for Judging a Book by its Cover by Neal Auch

A little while back I posted a review of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, wherein I made the mistaken claim that Ketchum (or his publisher) had intentionally paired this very upsetting and adult story with a cover that made the book look as though it were intended for a YA audience.  I found the incongruence between the goofy cartoonish cover art and the disturbing contents of the novel to be so striking that I imagined it must reflect intentional effort to produce a subversive art piece.  It turns out I was wrong in this interpretation.  Nevertheless, I left my original review largely intact because I think it's a good launching point for an argument I've been wanting to make for a while: the choice of cover art on books (and music albums) matters.

I suspect this is going to be an unpopular opinion; at some level it sounds like I'm literally arguing that one should judge a book by its cover, contrary to what your mother taught you.  Indeed, most of my friends whom I've discussed this with seem to disagree with me, so I'm going to be careful to emphasize that I am absolutely not arguing that cover art is more important than the contents of a novel, nor am I trying to claim that good cover art could salvage a terrible book, nor am I going to claim that terrible cover art ruins a great book.  What I do want to say is that I think cover art matters more than most authors and publishers seem to think it does, it influences the branding of the art piece, and it influences the way a reader approaches the book.  For this reason I think the publishing industry might do well to consider putting a bit more care into the visual aspect of the presentation of their product. 

Before proceeding I should also mention the obvious caveat here that the contents of this blog are just my own personal opinions, these posts are not supposed to be rigorously researched academic arguments, nor are my "reviews" and "critiques" intended to be anything more than just my own personal thoughts and feelings about the work I'm discussing.  (Another caveat: the argument that follows is probably much stronger when we're discussing physical media than when we're talking about mp3 files or e-books.)

With all that being said, let's get a little bit abstract for a moment.  Most people tend to draw a strong distinction between those things that influence the actual value of a commercial product (say the quality of ingredients in a candy bar) and things that influence only the perceived value of the product (like changing the packaging of the candy bar).  And this distinction seems sensible: who cares about the packaging of your food, it's the taste that matters, right?  But, while it may seem counter intuitive, there is actually a pretty sensible argument to be made that the distinction between "real" and "perceived" value is more or less meaningless.  There are loads of examples and studies in advertising and economics to support this view.  To make this position seem more plausible it's useful to consider the extreme example of a restaurant that smells of sewage and has human shit on the tables.  Cleaning the place up only changes the perceived value of the meal, not the actually food quality.  But ask yourself: does it really fucking matter how good the food tastes? 

This kind of thinking is actually fairly well supported by data.  There are lots of different studies out there but let's take, for example, this study where it was found that the same wine tastes better to participants when they are told it's more expensive.  And this isn't just about the participants claiming that the ostensibly more expensive wine tasted better to fake being wine savvy.  MRI measurements of participants' brain activity actually showed more activity in regions associated with reward.  Telling your dinner guests that the wine is more expensive genuinely does make it taste better to them!  Now, to be clear: this isn't magic and this marketing placebo effect has limits.  This kind of placebo effect won't make a shit wine taste amazing, for example, as the researchers noted in their study.  But it will make a good wine taste great.  Rory Sutherland has some fun TED talks on the subject here and here.

The analogy with book cover art (or album cover art, or movie posters, or whatever) is straightforward.  The contents of the book are generally treated as being the "real" value of the product, while the cover art influences only perceived value.  I'm simply arguing that -- like the ambience in a restaurant or the packaging of a candy bar or the price tag on a wine bottle -- the choice of cover art has a subtle but real effect on the reader.  My misreading of The Girl Next Door is an extreme example of this claim.  Given what advertisers and economists know about perceived value, it seems weird to me that there is surprisingly little interest in taking full advantage of the potential for good, thoughtful cover art to influence a reader's impressions.

I bring all this up mostly because I'm endlessly surprised by how lazy a lot of publishers seem to be with cover art; there are lots of great books on my shelf that appear to have more-or-less randomly selected stock photography images as their covers.  I don't want to compile an endless list of covers that I think are shitty, but how about a couple of examples to clarify the argument, shall we?  I've already trash-talked the cover art for The Girl Next Door, so let's move on to a Nobel laureate:


Behold the cover of Samuel Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks!  Everything about this "spooky silhouette ghost figure is spooky" image screams "stock photography".  I have no idea how this is this is supposed to be related to the story.  This cover kind of looks like something that should go on a book of ghost stories or zombie stories or something.  Instead, the first story in the book concerns a peculiar young Irish fellow going about his day, reading Dante, buying mouldy cheese, burning toast, and eating lobster for dinner.  Is that really the kind of reading experience that one would expect based on this cover art?

Another example:


This cover for DeLillo's (wonderful) novel The Names is baffling to me.  This is...  a weirdly cropped part of a shot of a palm tree  on a beach that's been flipped upside down?  I've read this book 3 or 4 times and I don't know what the point of this image is.  I guess this is supposed to be a shot of a beach in Greece, which is where much of the novel takes place.  And I guess maybe the point of the weirdo choice of crop is that the narrator's world gets turned upside down?  Maybe?  But...  The book is fundamentally about language...  So what does this image have to do with that central theme?

DeLillo and Beckett are both very famous writers. Beckett won a fucking Nobel prize!  It seems amazing to me that the publishers couldn't be bothered to put in the effort to make interesting cover art pieces to accompany their work.  Again: I'm not saying these covers ruin the experience of reading those books.  I'm saying that there's a missed opportunity to add some (perceived) value to the reading experience.

For the wine study I cited above, the punch line was that tinkering with the perceived value made a good wine taste even better.  Here's my thing: it takes many many many hours to write and edit a good novel.  If you can make the reader enjoy your book a bit more by simply taking the time to find a good piece of cover art, then why not do that?