When one thinks of photographic projects, which more often than not culminate in the form of a 
book, they are illustrations of concepts. The author comes up with an idea, or stumbles upon it, 
and embarks on a journey to find visual means of conveying it to their audience. It is a good 
approach because it elevates the work and the form it takes, the book, into something that is more 
than what is shown on the surface. It is intellectually titillating to discover more and more about the 
work the more you read about, look at or think of it. It is a well-established, tried and tested 
approach that borrows heavily from the world of literature and relies on its devices – metaphors, 
allegories, metonymies and symbolism abound in many a photo book. Photography and 
conceptual art have a long history and the two are very well suited to each other, arguably thanks 
to photography’s mechanically objective, yet malleable nature. It’s simply the perfect tool to 
completely eliminate the artist’s hand, at least on the surface, and claim impartiality. One can use a 
camera to explore or utilise philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis and what not and this is wonderful 
as it broadens the scope of what is achievable with this tool. It tends to be forgotten that this is not,
however, the be-all and end-all technique. There tends to be an unspoken rule, agreement, if you 
like, that unless the work is deep-rooted in a complicated and serious conceptual base then it is not 
worth the time of day.

Sergio Purtell - Love's Labour cover

Sergio Purtell’s Love’s Labour ( Stanley / Barker, 2020 ) is an un-flashy book – there is no glitz and 
glamour, fancy design and materials or intricate binding whose purpose in most occasions is to 
distract from a weak body of work. Here we see design at its best – it’s there in the form of the 
marbled end pages or the crimson red title lettering, but it’s not in the way of the images, which 
take the centre stage. There’s water, and a lot of it. Bodies seemingly seeking refuge from the heat 
albeit there’s not a single drop of sweat visible. Juicy watermelon, cans of coke, cigarettes, wine, 
pubic hair and a plethora of flesh. A fully clothed woman reading Kama Soutra and on the next 
page one with exposed breasts leafing through Sexus by Henry Miller. Being acquainted with the 
book or its author is superfluous here as the title says it all. Paris is only identified by the outlines of 
its tower shrouded in mist. Question mark in chalk, which occupies only a tiny area in the whole 
picture frame, but it’s all that matters. Woman in high heels stretching her legs after a long day, 
high-waist jeans and a typical 1980s haircut. Sexually suggestive statues juxtaposed with bare-
fleshed humans.

Sergio Purtell - Love's Labour Nude Sexus

The atmosphere is reminiscent of the cult queer novel and subsequent film Call Me By Your Name 
by André Aciman – drinking Aperol Spritz in the hot sun, smoking before casually hopping on a bike 
for a ride with no purpose or destination, a ride for the ride’s sake, and abundance of carnal 
desires in the air, but never crass, never vulgar. It is interesting and unusual to experience summer 
in black and white. No alluring sunsets or golden brown skin, yet the book left me feeling hot, 
sweaty and full of lust and longing for a summer that feels like never happened this year. 
Suddenly we are indoors where a suspicious-looking man is handing money to a woman while 
enjoying his beverage. She seems bemused, perhaps flattered. Behind them another woman 
stares at the one in the foreground with unmistakable contempt, while another man is observing 
the first with curiosity, almost a smirk, as if he’s proud of this presumable stranger. Two men, two 
women and a psychological whirlpool of human relationships and social interactions packed in a 
single picture frame. Do they know each other? It’s impossible to tell. Side by side, in an entirely 
separate image on the page opposite there’s a provocatively dressed, yet seemingly bored female 
eyeing something on our left, which in the structure of the book is the picture described 
beforehand. Intelligent and subtle pairing, almost cinematic use of diptych, which has resulted in an 
entirely pleasing and curious spread.

Sergio Purtell - Love's Labour Woman Cigarette

A woman whose face we cannot see is glancing at herself in the mirror. Is she looking at her face, 
the mirror’s surface, or, quite likely, the photographer? Nevertheless, one can’t help but think that, 
as a viewer of the book, she’s looking at us. Electrifyingly reminiscent of Jeff Wall’s Picture for 
Women (1979), which cleverly uses the common illusion of depth in photographs, their de-facto 
flatness and the combination of the mirror with the gaze. A young couple are enjoyably drinking 
wine in the park; they’ve brought their own glasses and the bottle isn’t a cheap screw cap. At least this afternoon they are leading a bohemian leisurely life. Both are dressed in pristine white clothes 
and sitting on a white blanket while a mysterious wolf-like pitch black creature lurks in the back, 
most likely a dog. A blond youngster is gently pressing his palm against the naked back of his 
topless girlfriend who is casually sunbathing on the grass with her shoes laying in a care-free 
manner on the side.

Sergio Purtell - Love's Labour Sea Waves

In Western society we have been conditioned to expect people to wear clothes unless they are 
showering or having sex. By the end of the book, however, those with their clothes on look out of 
place, even awkward. It is near impossible not to draw parallels between this complete 180 
degrees reversal of our societal norms and our attitude towards face coverings, which up until very 
recently were associated with threat whereas now they are seen as a sign of responsibility towards 
one’s fellow citizens.

Love’s Labour (Stanley/Barker, 2020) is a timely book although the pictures themselves were made in the late 1970s and early 80s. It is well considered and opportune that it is being published precisely now when many of us have discovered the joys of living slow – sipping a cup of coffee while not rushing for the train 
or simply laying in the sun and doing nothing. The slowness of life is to be cherished as there is so 
much more to living than working ourselves to death so we can buy unnecessary stuff. There is, 
however, a nostalgic, slightly darker nuance to it – Purtell could travel freely from America to 
Europe and beyond, which painfully reminds us that not only are most of us now confined in our homes, a passport no more useful than a coffee mug coaster, but also that these restrictions are not 
here only fleetingly for those of us in Britain.

Sergio Purtell - Love's Labour Muscle Man Pose

The work is not cemented in a philosophy or a concept requiring a myriad of indecipherable French 
terms to explain and this is its main strength. It can be given as a gift to someone completely 
oblivious to photography and critical theory and enjoyed in equal measures. Everything needed to 
understand and appreciate it is in the book itself without the requirement of reading external text 
and analysis. There is no need for pretending to comment on an elaborate, high-brow idea, which, 
if the artist statement has not been read, one would be unable to distinguish. It is a photo book 
whose target audience goes beyond the niche of photographers and this creates a widespread 
appeal. To those who would criticise Love’s Labour for being nonchalant or perhaps lacking a 
meaningful concept I would like to pose the following question: What is worse? A body of work 
bursting with grandiose, but unsubstantiated statements and didactically rigid rules of how 
precisely to read the pictures, which just don’t walk the walk in terms of supporting the author’s 
idea, or one which is pleasantly modest in its ambition and it does what it says on the cover? 
Everyone will have their own answer here. The final picture in the book is of the sea, as if inviting 
us for a skinny dip. Love’s Labour did not disappoint – on the contrary, it left me thirsty for more.

Sergio Purtell - Love's Labour cover