Twelve Notes for a pre-history to the work of Sam Youkilis

Sam Youkilis: Somewhere 2017-2023, Loose Joints, 2023

Sam Youkilis: Somewhere 2017-2023, Loose Joints

Edited by Sam Youkilis & Sarah Chaplin Espenon at Loose Joints Studio, Sam Youkilis’s immediate and generous indexing of everyday life reaches across space and time in his debut monograph – a 500-page typology of human experience.
Sam Youkilis has been building a continuous archive of photographic works through his phone for the last six years. Working instinctively, Youkilis is drawn to universal themes of human experience, using the casual language of the cameraphone to evoke something profound, anthropological, comprehensive and yet incomplete. Youkilis’s work springs from an attitude, a way of experiencing the world, that contains depth beyond the offhand ease in which his images freely circulate.

In Youkilis’s first publication, the depth of this engagement with human patterns of behaviour is archived and scattered across a diverse range of themes, divided into chapters that playfully tease the tensions between categorisation and chance that inform his observational works. Somewhere scours Youkilis’s database for images of everything from the time of day–7:07AM, 12:33PM—to unmade beds, the act of cutting, thresholds, dancing couples and gestures of romance.

Presented as a dense 500-page sequence, Somewhere activates the archive and the typology as a source of human joy and communion while emboldening his subjects and unlocking the deep essence of different places worldwide. Youkilis embraces the real by engaging with both ephemerality and sincerity, while steeped in reverence for the photographic medium through a meticulous engagement with composition, colour, chiaroscuro and framing.

520 pages, 100 × 150 mm, 450 colour plates

Section-sewn OTA-bound softcover
with texts by David Campany, Jack Self and Lou Stoppard


Twelve Notes for a pre-history to the work of Sam Youkilis

by David Campany

Sam Youkilis’s work is very contemporary. Short, observational films shot on a smartphone and presented to a large but largely unknown following on Instagram. He is an artist who observes and makes images of what the majority of people seem to observe and make images of (when they have the time and the presence of mind). He just does it better. Now, he has selected frames from these films. They are presented and sequenced on the page as photographs. Photography has no natural home. It belongs where it is placed and where we encounter it. Screen, page, wall. This too may seem like a contemporary attitude, but the more I look at Sam’s work, the more I see connections with a long and rich dialogue between moving and still images, and between screens and books.


1895: Motion Pictures


In 1895 the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, patented their Cinématographe, the first movie camera and projection system. The Lumières did not move their camera while filming and they did not edit their movies, which were usually as long as their rolls of film (around 45 to 55 seconds). Their results were, in effect, photographs that moved. The slightly old-fashioned term ‘motion pictures’ captures this nicely.


My favourite Lumière film is Neuville-sur-Saône: Débarquement du congrès des photographie à Lyon (The Photographical Congress arrives in Lyon)  On June 11, 1895, the French Congress of Photographic Societies was gathered in Lyon. Photography had been in existence for about sixty years, and cinema was brand new. Louis, who worked for his family’s photography business, was there to demonstrate it. A boat trip to Neuville-sur-Saône had been arranged for the photographers, and Louis set up his movie camera to record them. He filmed as they came down the narrow gangway onto the quayside. The subject matter was ideal: endlessly different figures passing through a fixed frame express so much, so simply. I can imagine Sam Youkilis making a similar film of, say, tourists or fishermen stepping off a boat onto a Greek island. A steady, unbroken camera shot is all that is needed, and the world does the rest..


The photographers at the Congress had heard of the Cinématographe and were interested to see it. In the film, some smile self-consciously as they pass, others wave their hats. One man, looking more serious, holds a large plate camera to his chest. He halts as he passes, takes a quick photo of Louis and the movie camera , and rejoins the flow. The whereabouts of his snapshot is unknown. He may not have actually taken one. Perhaps what really mattered was the filming of the gesture, the first footage of a still photographer ‘in action’. Louis was not bluffing. In fact, those photographers were the first to see the film, as it was developed and projected for them that evening. That’s pretty fast. Not as fast as Instagram, but faster than making a book.


1920: Convergence


In 1925 the Russian artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko visited France to witness first-hand the growing energy and speed of Paris. While there, he bought a camera called the Debrie Sept. Introduced in 1920, it took 17 feet (250 frames) of 35mm film and had seven (‘sept’) functions. As well as shooting stills, short sequences, and movies, with the addition of a lamp housing it converted to a contact printer, optical printer for filmstrips, projector and enlarger. In fact, Rodchenko bought two of these cameras, the second for his friend the filmmaker Dziga Vertov. The Sept was a canny response to an emerging desire to close the gap between photographs put together as sequences and cinema broken down into shots or frames. Rodchenko is known to have filmed short sequences of market traders with his Sept. The convergence of media, which is so often presumed to characterise recent digital image technologies, goes back a long way. Perhaps they never really diverged at all.


1928: Things


In 1920s Europe, particularly in Germany, three different but related kinds of photographic book became important: the visual archive, the visual encyclopaedia, and the visual primer. Visual archives were often typological in character, like August Sander’s Antlitz Der Zeit (The Face of Our Time , 1929). His sixty portraits of German people were titled not by name but by job or social position. Visual encyclopaedias, as the name implies, ranged widely across subject matter, genre and society. The best-known is Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful, 1928). One hundred images by this versatile photographer were drawn from all parts of his work in advertising, architectural photography, portraiture, still life, nature studies and more. The book has a terrible reputation, largely due to its terrible title, but we should remember that Renger-Patzsch wanted a much more enigmatic and existential title: Die Dinge (Things). Visual primers had something of a pedagogical zeal to educate people in the ways of modern image culture. Franz Roh and Jan Tschichold’s Foto-auge/Oeil et photo/Photo-eye  (1929), László Moholy-Nagy’s Malerei, Fotografie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film, 1925), and Kurt Tucholsky and John Heartfield’s Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (1929) were among the most forward thinking. In all these books photography is understood as something accessible yet deceptive. Images are not quite what they appear to be, not as innocent as they plead. But a well-chosen and well-edited book may be able to help us think about them, even while it seduces and entertains. It could be useful to think of this book by Sam Youkilis as an archive, an encyclopaedia, and a primer.


1937: Enlargements from news film


Stillness came to define photography only in the shadow of the cinema. It was almost as if cinema, in colonising the popular understanding of time, implied that life itself was made up of distinct slices and that still photography had the potential to seize and extract them. At the same time that reportage and photojournalism were chasing single great instants, Beaumont Newhall was noting in his book Photography: A Short Critical History (1937), that “some of the most striking news photographs are enlargements from news film.”


1948: As fluid as writing


In 1948 the French film critic Alexandre Astruc wrote of the desire for a caméra-stylo, or camera-pen. Would photography and filmmaking one day become as fluid as writing? Fewer and fewer people now use pens, but camera use has certainly become fluid.


1952: Unrolling before my eyes


In his book Images à la Sauvette (published in English as The Decisive Moment, 1952), the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson recalls his early days with a camera:


I prowled the street all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life, to preserve it in the act of living. Above all I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.


‘Trapping’ and ‘seizing’ belong to photography’s quick snap. The ‘whole essence’ points to a longer situation condensed into one frame. And ‘unrolling before my eyes’ hints at an observer not quite in the world but removed, as if watching it on a screen. Cartier-Bresson also writes of ‘bursting’ into photography as a boy, taking snapshots with a Kodak box Brownie camera. ‘Then there were the movies. From the great films, I learned to look and to see.’  I think of the world unrolling before Sam Youkilis’s eyes and camera. I also think of him searching his videos for just the right frames, decisive or otherwise.


1963: Find interesting things and film them


In the 1960s, the Pop artist Andy Warhol took cinema away from narrative and motion and close to pure duration, and even to the stillness of photography. His first film, comprising six hours of a sleeping man, is an expression of time passing, ending in a freeze frame (Sleep, 1963). His Screen Tests (1964–66) were single-take short films of friends and celebrities. The ‘sitters’ remained before his 16mm movie camera for four minutes, the length of a film spool. Often, Warhol would simply walk away, leaving the camera rolling and the sitter to do as they wished: sit bored, stare into the lens, flirt with it, pose as if being photographed, act up or just stare neutrally. Unsure as to quite what these films were, Warhol toyed with calling them ‘Living Portrait Boxes’, ‘Film Portraits’ or even ‘Stillies’ (rather than ‘movies’). For him, ‘The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it is just a movement in their eye.’ He soon concluded that the attention of the movie camera could make anything a star, even the Empire State Building. Asked what he hoped to do with his movie camera, Warhol replied: ‘Well, just find interesting things and film them.’


1973: This already crowded world


Susan Sontag’s thought and writing is not so popular  at the moment, but a line from her book On Photography (1973) rings as bright and disarming to me today as it did when I first read it as a teenager: ‘By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.’ I suspect the feeling of availability is connected to the speed of image consumption. But if you spend a long time with any image – moving or still – it soon thickens with mystery, its world becoming less available, but more compelling. Spending a long time with an image is a choice. It’s up to us.


1974: A marvelous bunch of photography


In 1974, the photographer Walker Evans was answering questions from students. When asked if he still went to the movies, Evans replied, ‘Oh yes.’ The student asked, ‘What have you seen recently?’ Evans had seen two films by Robert Altman, McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973). ‘Have you seen The Long Goodbye?’ he asked. ‘Beautiful. A marvelous bunch of photography!’ Evans understood that cinematography was photography, and that a movie, at least visually, was just photographs looked at in a peculiar  technological circumstance. Anything a filmmaker does to make an image is available to a photographer, and vice versa.


1985: That which endures, through the succession of changing states


The Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu punctuated his movies with real-time shots of almost static subjects: a breeze on grass, rippling water, trembling trees, an unoccupied bed or just an object, like a vase. In 1985, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze noted:


At the point where the cinematographic image directly confronts the photo, it also becomes radically distinct from it. Ozu’s still lifes endure, have a duration, over ten seconds of the vase: this duration of the vase is precisely the representation of that which endures, through the succession of changing states.


Once asked to define the difference between photographing an object and filming it, the artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau replied in a similar vein to Deleuze: ‘When you film an object, time is coursing through it.’


1987: The book of the film


Cinema was my first love, or rather, cinema on television. British television in the 1970s and ’80s was amazing. By the time I left school I had seen the best of Varda, Godard, Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Bresson, Buñuel, Kubrick and more. As a teenager I would take the train to London to buy books about these filmmakers. Very often I liked the photos in the books more than the films themselves. (There is still from Pasolini’s Accattone [1961] that I find so strange and beautiful, and so perfect, it has put me off ever seeing the film). Stills from movies do not get talked about much, and they do not seem  to belong to the history of cinema or the history of photography, although of course they belong to both. Illustrated books derived from movies have been around since at least the 1920s, but they too seem to slip through the cracks. I think of this book by Sam Youkilis in terms of this orphan lineage.


2014: Sheer affection for appearance


In a conversation with the photographer Jeff Wall, published in 2014, I asked him what his relation is to the people he depicts. He replied, ‘I feel great affection for the people in my photographs. The affection is for how they appear. You need the same affection for everything you depict, or you can’t see it well and depict it well. Depiction as a process or mode of art seems to me to be based in sheer affection for appearance as such.’ This is not something that is talked about easily. We are supposed to be suspicious, circumspect, too critical to feel, as if affection for appearance were no more than the malevolent projection of voyeuristic desire or power. Obviously, it is not. Keep looking.

David Campany

Author’s note: Some of the thoughts expressed here first took shape in my book Photography and Cinema, 2008.



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