Book Review: For You! Modern Day Love Letters by John Arsenault
By Leah Pfenning
I was once hopelessly infatuated with a theatre critic in Seattle. We had a very on-and-mostly-off relationship, but on one of the rare “on” times, we were grabbing a drink and discussing a play we’d both seen that he had to write a review on. In sharing my own opinion of the show, I said something he plucked out as interesting and he said he was going to steal my comment for his write up on the play. I of course spent the next several days refreshing the theatre page of the editorial he worked for looking for my words in his. Alas, the review came out and he had indeed included my comment, verbatim. Swollen with pride, I waited the requisite day and half, and then took a screenshot and text it to him saying I was flattered. He also waited the very un-requisite 8 hours to text back, “4u”.
In John Arsenault’s latest book, For You! Modern Day Love Letters, the photographer uses roses as a metaphor for beauty and decay. The project started out as photographic love letters to Arsenault’s partner, now husband, Raf. The photographer would post photos he took of roses on his iphone to Instagram with only the caption “for you”. As the project evolved, the iphone was replaced with a 35mm digital camera. The work became a weekly ritual where Arsenault and Raf would venture out to the local farmers markets and Raf would pick the flowers for Arsenault to photograph that week.
Technically speaking, the photography is well done. There’s no question that Arsenault has an eye for photography and a knack for staging. But a photo series of roses claiming nods to Georgia O’Keefe is hardly surprising. The work lacks the timelessness of its subject and would have made a better home remaining on Instagram. Flowers are one of the most beautiful forms on earth. They deliver a visual, tactile and olfactory sensation, which is what makes them so wonderful to enjoy in person. As Romeo said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but a rose by any picture taken of it will never smell like anything. Instead of using nature to create an idea or an emotion which nature has withheld, For You! withholds the romance and kinesthetic wonder which nature offers.
In the book’s preface by Rock Hushka, deputy director and chief curator at the Tacoma Art Museum, Hushka discusses Arsenault’s love for beauty and shares a brief history of the cumulative symbology of roses (the biggest take away from the book might be Hushka’s explanation on the etymology of the term sub rosa). Houshka labors to ground For You! in a place of relevancy, making the connection between Arsenault’s rose images and contemporary romance with his conclusive statement: “His photographs allow us into… (the) admission of the difficulties and pain of our time”. In 2017, romance has been digitized for our convenience; roses are two-dimensional and love letters are “for you”. As Arsenault seeks to highlight the decay as beautiful, Hushka hints that the decay might be the medium itself.
I will give it to Arsenault: there is something incredibly modern about posting a photo of a flower as a romantic gesture. In this digital age we are woefully deprived of real connection. Everything is fleeting; whole relationships begin and end without anyone meeting in person. Arsenault claims, “My intention wasn’t to show ideal beauty or perfection, but rather show beauty through the imperfections”. To this end the artist finds some success, but taking a symbol of romance and beauty, flattening it into an image, and still calling it romantic and beautiful ceases to acknowledge what was lost in translation. What is lost is the thing itself. What is left is the thinginess of the thing, perhaps an accurate snapshot of modern romance.
Simplicity can be radically bold and extraordinarily vulnerable. A book of roses for you is exactly what it claims to be. For You! allows you to make of it what you will. Like a text that can be read into or taken at face value, its for you to decide.
For You! is available for purchase here.