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Photobook/App Review: The Afronauts by Cristina De Middel

How many photography apps come with a spoiler alert? Ubicuo Studio, who produced an app based on Cristina De Middel’s limited edition photo book The Afronauts, gave me the option of learning the app’s secrets right away or exploring it for myself. Much as the photographs explore its subject matter in a novel and personal way, exploring the app on your own gives the consumer a chance to make their own discoveries.

Courtesy of Ubicuo StudiosThe Afronauts is famous in the photobook world, so I envy those coming to the app from outside the field. Cristina De Middel’s self-published photobook was on a lot of best of 2012 lists. But good luck finding a copy. The modest tome book sold out months after its release. In a photobook market that is already insane, its rise from a $40 artist’s book to a thousand dollar (and up) collectible is legendary, and as De Middel told me in an interview for Lay Flat, the attention has been daunting.

De Middel can’t afford a copy of her own book at this point. Interest in The Afronauts has skyrocketed much like the dreams of the Zambian Space program that inspired the project. What made the print edition stand out besides its unusual subject matter was its mixture of photography and ephemera, assembled in a lovingly designed object.

De Middel cut her teeth as a photojournalist, and was intrigued by the way that images can reveal an audience’s prejudices. She created images of an African space program knowing full well the subject is potentially loaded. De Middel explains, “One of my intentions with The Afronauts was to raise awareness of how we consume the image of Africa that is given in the media, and how a whole continent has been stigmatized. This uncomfortable reaction and prejudice belongs to the viewer as it is not literally included in the images.”

This uncomfortable reaction is more provocative that it’s provoked by such a charming guise. The Other is dressed up in what appear to be hand-made space suits embellished in what we imagine are tribal designs. De Middel’s photos and invented ephemera work against the kind of images we have come to expect from Africa.

The material is fascinating any way you present it. But, in print form, The Afronauts raised the bar on what great design can do for a photobook. It was more than the sum of its parts, and the same is true for the app. De Middel wanted to make the material available in a new and affordable form, and designer Maria Cerezo had some fun with it. The app is set up as a game that requires the consumer to do a little exploration on their own before they can get at the images inside. The images themselves are laid out in a way that respects the book’s layout, but have the added app-behavior of an iPad’s finger gestures. You can pinch and expand the images in a way that you cannot do with the book. I have never handled the Afronauts book, but from images and vide, the photo reproduction of the app seems to take advantage of the display resolution to present a much different tonal experience. The app images are processed with a higher contrast than the more subdued tones of the book, which had the look of a softly aged artifact. The app is a thing of the future present, a bright and shiny dream. Buy it here for only 99c until April 20, when the price goes up to $5.99.

About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.