Book Review: Gull Juju by Lukas Felzmann

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Photographer Lukas Felzmann, born 1959 in Zürich, Switzerland, lives in San Francisco and teaches photography at Stanford University.

“Gull Juju” shows photographs from the Farallon Islands, a group of small volcanic islands, situated about 45 kilometers west of San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean. From a press release I learn: “At this position the ocean floor drops to abysmal depth, which results in an upwelling of cold nutrient rich water. Because of this the entire oceanic food chain is present, from the microscopic plankton to the biggest animals on earth; the grey whales. The Farallon Islands are the densest seabird colony on the Pacific Coast outside of Alaska. On its edges sea lions and seals are hunted by great white sharks. The islands and the Gulf of the Farallon became a protected marine sanctuary in 1969 and are closed to visitors.”

There are scientists working on the islands; Lukas Felzmann was invited, together with a poet and a painter, to make their own work there. Since there is no good harbor, “visitors are pulled onto the land by a crane that dangles a net over the arriving boat. Throw in your gear, climb in yourself, keep your balance and hold on. My gear included a sleeping bag, a 5 x 7 inch camera, boxes of sheet film, a sound recorder and some bottles of wine for the scientists.”

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I thought the sound recorder particularly interesting. And, needless to say, it actually makes a lot of sense for the Farallons are, in Felzmann’s words, “as much soundscape as they are landscape. The wind and the pounding waves weave together with a cacaphony of animal sounds. Elephant seals grunt in a deep sonorous bass that carries across the island. The gulls are always talking.”

Felzmann documented the geology and the animals of the island. One day, he came across an old box with a label that said “Gull Juju Archive. Strong Juju”. It contained very diverse objects – from buttons to plastic turtles to parts of credit cards – that gulls had swallowed along the coast and around the bay and regurgitated in their nests on the Farallon islands.

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“Gull Juju” is an inventory of what Lukas Feldmann has found on the Farallons. I thought it most extraordinary (for artists usually seem to believe that pictures always speak for themselves) that although there were no captions (and, as far as I’m concerned, for good reasons) this nicely done work comes with lots of textual information (that also includes a species list). I especially liked that Felzmann elaborates on what motivates him, and explains how he goes about his work. And, I very much warmed to his approach: “I did not edit them (the objects the gulls had brought back to the islands) according to which objects might be photographically interesting, because I felt that the gulls had already done the editing. It was their selection.”

It is a well-composed book that starts with black and white photographs of the surface of the ocean and ends with colour photographs, again of the surface of the ocean. To me, “Gull Juju” (by the way, Juju is a West African word for objects used in witchcraft) demonstrates convincingly that by noticing, and documenting, what is there our world-view is altered. I, for one, would have never assumed that gulls could be collectors of plastic. And, learning about it, made my mind also wander to “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area believed to be as big as Central Europe in which small plastic particles are endlessly gyrating…”.


Gull Juju
by Lukas Felzmann
Lars Müller Publishers, Zürich, Switzerland 2015

For more information and to purchase the book:

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland., Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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