Review: Costa by José Pedro Cortes

This review is written by Adam Bell, a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, and will also be published on his excellent photo book review site.

Within landscape photography, the liminal spaces the skirt our cities and communities have long served as a source of fascination not only for what they say about the particular landscape, but our ever conflicted relationship with the natural world, of which we are inextricably a part. They're places of potential contradictions, collisions and confusion, but also potential cliché. In this sense, it's easy to see what drew José Pedro Cortes to the town in Costa (Pierre von Kleist Editions). The beach town in Costa more often than not resembles an abandoned ghost town of the American West than it does an idyllic Mediterranean costal town. Apocalyptic and impressionistic, Costa avoids the trapping of the well-worn genre in which it exists by being fiercely subjective. Forced to follow Cortes through the dunes and cluttered alleyways, we're thrown into the noon sun looking for answers, but going in circles.

The book begins as we head over a dune. Shot from below, the sandy mountain seems insurmountable. Wood and debris hover and jut from its surface impeding our ascent. Climbing over the dune, we are lead down a desolate road. Walking along the meager strip of asphalt, Cortes points out some grass, a snake and a rock, until we reach the town's first buildings. Sealed off with bricks or curtains and often marred with graffiti, the structures are either abandoned or have fallen into disrepair. The streets are empty too, but evidence of inhabitation can be seen in the cars, empty chairs, hung fabric, graffiti and posters that fill and decorate the outdoor spaces. Perhaps everyone has fled this strange landscape or are simply hiding from the oppressive sun. Even the book's cover seems drawn from a foreign or alien landscape—its image of a sickly yellow-green textured earth enticing and repulsing us.

The scrappy costal town of Costa de Caparica sits approximately 14 km outside Lisboa. Hovering on the edge of the beach, the town seems threatened on all sides by the sun, sand and ocean. The sun beats down relentlessly reducing the plants, buildings and ruins to a bleached mirage. The sand surrounds all and seems ready to swallow whole the makeshift houses and huts, whose improvisational nature seems perfectly suited to the shifting and precarious nature of the place. The ocean, barely visible in the distance, lurks over the dunes—its glassy impassivity keeps us on edge.

Sun blanched and raw, Cortes uses both black and white and color to unsettling effect in the work. Images retain or lose color as if drained and sapped by the overpowering sun—fading out and then springing back to life. Alternating between forensic close-ups of plants, snakes and trash and more expansive landscapes and architectural shots, the book's sequencing takes on a bobbing rhythm as its gaze moves up and down. Elemental and foreboding, the landscape offers nowhere to hide. Luckily we have Cortes to lead the way through this world of dazed heat-stroke confusion.

Cortes combines the cool austerity of Lewis Baltz with the poetic nonchalance of JH Engström. An incongruous pairing, but it works. Looking through the book, I was immediately reminded of Baltz's San Quentin Point and Candlestick Point. Like Baltz's almost mechanical eye, Cortes' allows nothing to escape scrutiny, but the work's evidentiary qualities are muted and complicated by its subjective and impressionistic tone. Although the influence of Engström is more noticeable in Cortes' previous book Things Here and Things Still to Come, which included nudes and echoes Engström's own confessional and voyeuristic gaze, Costa shares Engström's relentless exploratory gaze, as well as his often washed out and unstable palette.

Subjects and genres within any medium emerge slowly as the result of a confluence of artists working alone and in tandem, often in response to broader cultural and social changes. Once legitimized, these subjects lure, inspire and influence artists, but also expand the permissible territory of the medium. In the worst case, artists use these subjects and approaches to suggest and posture meaning rather than developing their own language or vision within that terrain. In his attraction to the despoiled landscape of Costa de Caparica, Cortes may follow the pull of an extensive tradition, but he seems to be carving his own path. Too exuberant and fever-pitched to sit calmly in one place or gaze impassively at the landscape, Cortes has given us a vision of a small marginal town that is personal, idiosyncratic and unsettling. Try not to stay out in the sun too long.