Phantom City is a little mystery of a book. Subtitled "A Photo Novel," it is designed to mimic a small paperback novel and is divided into chapters with alternating pages of text and images, some with borders and captions, some full bleed, creating a lovely striped pattern along the book's outer page edges. The exterior masquerade is spoiled when lifted — the book's weight and rigidness give away its fine interior paper and lovely printing that capture the rich blacks and soft fog in Kim Bouvy's photographs, as well as the speckled half-tone of the newspaper images. The heavily annotated epilogue with a map denoting Bouvy's locations also features an itemized list of image locations and dates, as well as references for the rest of the photographs in her assemblage.
The book begins with text. An unnamed narrator awakens to discover the city changing. Amidst the sound of crumbling buildings, the narrator loses touch with a sense of time and place, and clings to an assemblage of photographic images that will now make up the memory of what the city once was. Presented in chapters, those images are not the depictions of cities that we are used to seeing. With few clear landmarks, they capture anonymous spaces of concrete and glass — tall buildings, layers of structural lines — asphalt makes up the ground and roofs constitute the horizon. They are well-packed spaces where structure upon structure fills the frame, at once dwarfing the viewer and creating a sense of claustrophobia. This is taken to its extreme in the handful of collages, at once terrifying in their haphazard construction but also somehow plausible in context with the other images. Even the older found images present a similar vision. The monolithic city emerges as the dominant character in the novel, despite the frequent appearance of the narrator. Throughout these pages, the buildings become giants, looming in their own shadows, mysterious, cold and foreboding.
As Bouvy states in her epilogue, the city in this book is a real place — Rotterdam. I knew nothing of its history prior to picking up this book and a small amount of research helped bring the project into focus. The city center was wiped of its architectural past during the WWII German invasion of the Netherlands. Bombed to near oblivion, the city decided to re-envision itself rather than just rebuild — down to the subterranean infrastructure. What has resulted is a city of modern buildings and space for experimental architecture, but this status has generated arguments from urban planners who would like to see the city designed around people rather than architectural theory. It is a city in constant transition.
As for the experiment of a photo novel, the text occupies the awkward position of simultaneously being too cryptic and too expository. A nice exchange between text and image is achieved during some of the captioned sequences, but over all, the text and images occupy separate spaces in the narrative, never truly coalescing. The distinctions between the images in the chapters feel somewhat arbitrary, but Bouvy's take on the city clearly comes from a deeply personal relationship with it, and I suspect that this book will resonate more with those familiar with Rotterdam. For someone who knows nearly nothing of the city, this experiment creates an additional dimension of difficulty in accessibility. Even though the book speaks to the general nature of modern urban spaces, it is also highly site specific — many of the images in the book are anonymous enough to be almost anywhere, but Bouvy makes it clear in the annotations that each image is Rotterdam. Though the central metaphor of the book is tangible, something about it continues to remain illusive. For me, this book is a bit unknowable, perhaps like the city itself.