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Legends, reality, local history? The Austrian photographer presents a mixture of them in his photo book. Simon Brugner (born 1983) set out to research the practice of arsenic consumption that was widespread in Styria, a region of Austria, until the middle of the last century.

Arsenic was trivialised as the “simple man's cocaine”. Though eating this substance was widespread, it was also a well-kept secret. Brugner’s approach to this taboo subject interweaves current motifs, captured by the author, with historical photographs and reports: a combination that well suits the subject matter, as it allows facts and visual associations to blend together to create an exciting story narrative.

Published last year, this photo book has received broad attention, particularly more recently. It took second place at the FOTO WIEN Photo Book Awards, has been part of group exhibitions in Graz and Krakow, and has been much talked about in feature articles. This is hardly surprising, since the book deals with an unusual and secret subject matter. The book is also a small masterpiece of design: its poisonous yellow vinyl cover is part of the concept, though that may not be apparent at first glance; no photo adorns it, but rather a text that seems to suggest perhaps a medical essay. This approach is continuous throughout the book, with picture series followed by sections dedicated to historical and scientific reports.

In certain mountain locations in Styria, it was possible to extract the nerve poison arsenic from the mineral rock known as Arsenopyrite. In small doses, the substance was supposed to grant strength and stamina, and even foster sexual stimulation. Hard-working lumberjacks, stable lads, and farm hands all swore by the special effects of the substance; it was even administered to horses with the aim of selling them at better prices. Unfortunately, the short-lived positive effect often led to the work animal's collapse, a short while later! In human beings, the use of arsenic could lead to addiction, while an overdose could cause death.

How is it possible to present a legend, when there is little or no documentation about it, and its very existence is even in doubt? Simon Brugner seduces the viewer with his images: he shows the eerie caves, tight entries, misty mountain knolls, and also strange portraits that might be suggestive of enticement and misuse. Images of a sinewy hand or the muscles of a tough calf are no longer innocent, but become suspect.

Within this context, even historical pictures no longer appear so neutral or folkloric, but rather seem to reveal the forbidden traces of arsenic. The sequence of pictures produces wonderful shivers. The Arsenic Eaters is an exciting search for evidence, with fascinating documentation and puzzling photos. No surprise then that this book has been so very successful. Luckily, it does not make you addicted – but certainly very curious.  (Ulrich Rüter)

Simon Brugner
The Arsenic Eaters
144 pages, numerous colour and black-and-white pictures, 20.5 x 30 cm, English, The Eriskay Connection. Design: Rob van Hoesel.
Edition: 1.250

The exhibition You Are What You Eat, including Brugner's series The
Arsenic Eaters, continues to run until 16 June, during the 2019 Krakow Photomonth Festival.

Simon Brugner

Born in Hartberg, Austria in 1983, Brugner obtained a Master’s degree in Media Theory from the Vienna University of Technology. In 2014, he was accepted for the Anzenberger Masterclass, and in 2016 was awarded a scholarship by the Austrian Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture. He is interested in research-based photography projects with a strong historical background, where he might use historical materials alongside his own work. He lives and works in Vienna.

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