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01 July 2020

Cats, Birds, and Ten Gallon Hats in Imaginary Texas

01 July 2020 - Written by Colin Pantall

Smart cats, dumb birds, plane-towing classes, and men hiding sticks to beat their dog with? David Billet and Ian Kline’s photobook Rabbit / Hare is a mix of the real, imaginary, and unlikely in a Texas setting.

© David Billet and Ian Kline, spread from the book Rabbit / Hare

“David Billet and Ian Kline made the pictures in Rabbit / Hare on a road trip to Texas. And right away that statement is going to create a certain set of expectations among viewers of this book. Perhaps no other region in the United States comes with such a strong set of preconceived notions. So yes: you’ll see ten-gallon hats, a wayward confederate flag. Even a baptism in a watering trough.”

That’s the publisher’s statement that accompanies Rabbit / Hare. It’s a book of images that were made on a road trip and it’s about, er, er, it’s about, er, we’re not sure what it’s about.

In the search for meaning, the publisher and the photographers have eschewed the grand all-encompassing statement. The book is not about anything, that is what the book is about. Instead, we are left to enjoy the images for what they are. It’s not a case of letting the pictures do the talking but rather let the pleasure do the talking. This is a book where the pleasure of looking leads the meaning. And of course, ultimately, it is about something, quite a bit actually beginning with the first image.

© David Billet and Ian Kline, spread from the book Rabbit / Hare

That first image is a hazy view through a window of a small-town street. Bank 1926 is marked on the only building we can see in the exterior beyond the smudgy window pane. It’s a block of a building built in a classical style befitting of the economic and historical heritage of capital in this specific southern location. In the foreground, in the interior, what looks like an idealised model village is caught in the clarity of glinting sunlight. The ideal and the real are mixed and matched here, and that is essentially the theme for the book. What is it about Texas with its Stetsons, baptisms, open roads, and racial identities? And what is not? The apparent moral of this story is things are not what they seem. Not the authors, not the publishers, not the place these images were made, and certainly not this review. Trust no one. But in a nice way.

That questioning of what you are seeing comes in some of the truly wonderful pictures in the book. There’s a cat leaping up, its spotted belly angling up, its left paw reaching for a bird sitting on a tree branch, its right paw dangling casually by its side. It’s lit with hard flash and it’s at the moment just before the bird gets caught, but then you see a cluster of 7 more birds grouped into the bottom corner of the frame. Either this is the fastest, craftiest cat that ever lived, or these are the slowest, dumbest birds in existence because the cat is here and these birds are practically having a picnic as death in feline form approaches. So as with the first picture, what’s real and what isn’t. It’s a picture that looks like it could be of a diorama but probably isn’t. But it could be, but then who would make a diorama of a cat catching a bird, or possibly the cat has been released into the diorama, who knows?

We go from bugs to underpasses, to a downtown street unpeopled in that way that you only find in North America. Open roads and sunlit grasslands give way to grinning girls in Stetsons, a black cowboy on his horse, and a Muslim woman in a headscarf at a butterfly farm.

There are classrooms with confederate flags, an academic bookshelf with a picture of a pixelated butt, a blackboard with a chalk drawing of how to tow a plane (they use blackboards in plane-towing class! Or did someone just draw this on there for a laugh. I love it whatever the case.), and an office with a bare-chested man practising his kung-fu.

© David Billet and Ian Kline, spread from the book Rabbit / Hare

A group of ‘All American’ white girls with t-shirts reading ‘God Made Us, Jesus Saved Us, Texas Raised Us’ practice what look like dance moves, while a young black girl in cut-off shorts, poses hands-on-hips against a backdrop of chaotic woodwork and skating graffiti.

The ambiguity of the road trip is apparent in a portrait of a bearded man standing in front of an outgrowth of a white-flowering shrub. He’s white-haired and bare-chested, his belly spilling over his pale denim jeans. His back is to the camera and he’s holding a stick, an offcut of a branch, holding it as though to hide it, holding it as though it’s about to be used.

So what’s going on in Rabbit / Hare? Everything and nothing. Tim Carpenter gives us a clue in his postscript to the story: “Regarding the pictures you’re looking at: two very young men went and looked at a place they’d never been before with cameras and an intuition… But here’s the thing: these photographs do not derive their palpable life from mere subject matter. Rather they are charged with the sensibilities of their makers… Which is to say that the things in this book are pictures. And thus not wholly describable in words.”

© David Billet and Ian Kline, spread from the book Rabbit / Hare

Which just makes me think that nothing is as it seems, that Kline and Billet are not what they seem and that Texas is just a figment in their imaginations, because these images (Carpenter tells us) “…were made on a road trip to Texas,” which is not the same as Texas. That might be overcomplicating the matter, and ultimately is me overthinking it. But then, perhaps that’s the point. It’s about the seeing, not the believing (and I really do believe, I do, I do, I do. I’m just having a paranoid moment based on looking at too many fictionalised projects as of late – that and seeing a folder labelled Texas Fake in the press images. Do you ever get the feeling somebody is fucking with you. But in a nice way.). These pictures are artefacts of pleasure; the pleasure of looking, the pleasure of making, the pleasure of being in the image, the pleasure of making the book, and the pleasure of seeing how that book is received, and the pleasure of receiving it.

There’s a delight in Rabbit / Hare that is wonderful to feel. So often photography is tied up in a Calvinist framework of looking and seeing, one where guilt, shame, and the burdens of doing right by the world are tied up into every aspect of the making, sharing, and looking at images. That is not what Rabbit / Hare is about. Please enjoy responsibly.

© David Billet and Ian Kline, spread from the book Rabbit / Hare

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Rabbit / Hare by David Billet and Ian Kline

Published in 2020 // Featuring an essay by Tim Carpenter

72 Pages // Duotone Offset (Black and White) // 23 x 29 cm // Edition of 750

BUY HERE

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Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Colin Pantall

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