Max Ferguson - Whistling For Owls

Whistling for Owl’s is Max Ferguson’s debut monograph, published by his own imprint, Oval Press. A decade of experience on the other side of the table, in commissioning, editing, and the publication of magazines such as Port & Granta has resulted in an extremely impressive first book. The production is excellent, all aspects considered, from the vivid but not overwhelming orange book cloth, to the glassine corner set into the bindings, or even the choice of Garamond for typesetting, a nod to Ferguson’s French connections. 

I’ve had the pleasure of watching Ferguson develop this work over the past year or two in crit sessions. I confess that I was somewhat sceptical at first of his grand ambitions surrounding the interplay of text and photographs. He firmly rejects many of the traditions of photo-textual works, the photographs are not illustrations, nor are the texts captions. A lofty goal, to make a body of work that treads such a narrow line it could be a razor’s edge. 

However he has done just that. As you leaf through the pages a story unfolds that depends wholly on the coalescence of both media. In order to appreciate this work you must read the photographs and look at the texts.

The design is certainly instrumental in this careful balance, beginning with how Ferguson composes a photograph and running through to how he places a word upon the page. When photographing landscapes Ferguson seems to work around the edges, focusing on the areas that go unnoticed or under appreciated. This fondness for roughness perhaps a rejection of the neatness that comes with the more polished world of magazine photography. This bleeds into the technicality of many of his photographs too, scratches and dust are reproduced unchallenged.

His compositions are direct, subjects central and dominant, almost confrontational in their gaze. Whilst these photographs could prove overwhelming in isolation, they’re tempered by the lyrical texts and flowing arrangement on the page. The crushed highlights, muted tonality, and occasionally shifted colour balance also do the important work of bringing some consistency to the eclectic mix of subject matter. 

The writing of W.G. Sebald are obviously a major influence on this work, and Ferguson as a whole. The first person narration feels eerily close to that of the author, although perhaps more poetic, more dramatic an existence than can be found in reality. Naturally there is a comparison to be made to Austerlitz, but Sebald’s opus still resides firmly in the world of literature and text - albeit with excellent interaction with photography, whilst as I have previously said, Ferguson treads their division much more closely, leaning towards photography if leaning at all. Sebald’s use of photographs and illustrations as evidence for his storytelling is demonstrated excellently in Whistling for Owls, the ambiguity of the works allegiances allows the text to evidence the photographs as the photographs reflexively evidence the texts. 

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