Friday, November 9, 2007

Two books by Paul Kranzler

Paul Kranzler’s book Land of Milk and Honey is very difficult to get through. (This is only a book of photographs of Kranzler’s two neighbors in Linz, Austria…how difficult could that be?)

Enter into the lives of Toni and Aloise, two aging alcoholics that spend their waking hours drinking, watching TV and shuffling around in an apartment where order and cleanliness have given over to chaos and filth. They have created an environment where things are kept within arm’s length to economize movement and the result is the line between garbage and where one sleeps is horribly blurred.

In only one image early on in the book are we provided a clear look at the layout of the room. In the rest of the photos, it is difficult to get your bearings and this adds to the sense of chaos. The piles of belongings strewn about the place seem to shift around like icebergs and appear unfamiliar from one photo to the next. Both Toni and Aloise don’t seem to engage with the outside world further than the hallway or to venture out for necessary groceries. Most days do not require much more preparation than slipping on a housecoat after getting out of bed.

There is a valid comparison to be made with Richard Bilingham’s book Ray’s a Laugh when approaching the subject of exploitation. Mind you I do not think either book is full exploitation but Richard’s book has an underlying tone of humor aimed by Richard towards and at the expense of his father Ray which edges it into dangerous territory. I am speaking of the images where a tennis ball is bounced off of Ray’s face or when a cat is thrown at him. Ray’s a Laugh has a slight absurdist situation comedy steeped in harsh reality tone that is not present in Land of Milk and Honey. Kranzler’s Toni and Aloise are lovable characters whose company (aside from the apartment’s squalor) we might also enjoy.

With Kranzler, he seems to be at home with Toni and Aloisa as much as Billingham is with his immediate family. It is this lack of pretence and directness that is most difficult to deal with when looking at these pictures. Toni sits around the house in his stained underwear and Kranzler is not shy about making pictures that could easily be misconstrued not only by viewer after the fact but by the subject during the making. This is one hang up that I have as a photographer that people like Kranzler or Billingham do not have and I admire this ability in their work. When Toni spits up a foamy gob of sputum and it hangs like a disgusting stalactite from his mouth, Kranzler has the ability to move right in for a close-up. (The photo is truly nauseating. Enjoy it in my composite above.)

The afterward and last photos in the book provide the ending in which Toni collapses and is briefly hospitalized. He now lives in an assisted living home and seems to enjoy a healthy existence. The room in which Toni and Aloise spent their time drinking is emptied and scrubbed clean. All of this happens in the span of nine pictures. Within this ending sequence are two photographs, one a self portrait of Kranzler and the other a portrait of his own chaotic studio and work table. At first this seems to be one more image from Toni and Aloise’s existence until we feel a more contemporary feel to the strewn belongings.

Shot mostly in 35mm black and white, Kranzler’s palette of chalky grays suit the squalor and claustrophobia of the environment. It accentuates the drab light that filters into the apartment. When the sunlight disappears, Kranzler’s direct on camera flash highlights some detail that we may have wished remained in the shadows. It is employing these techniques of photography that lends a quality of honesty to the work. Occasionally, Kranzler drops some color photographs into the sequence and truthfully, it is the small reprieve that I am allowed from these photos that enables me to get through the honesty of this book. It might suit logic to think that the color images would be more real and thus more disturbing but here this is not the case.

Land of Milk and Honey was published in 2005 by Fotohof edition in cooperation with the Lentos Museum of Modern Art in Linz. Its design is functional but rather lackluster. In fact, the design is probably the only thing that I do not really like with the book.

This subject depends on the sensibilities of the viewer for your reaction. For me, an obsessive neat freak who has a deep fear of wasting away my life, this book’s power is in its being an affront to my personal character and a confirmation of my worst nightmares. Regardless of your personal make-up, this is a book that opens the door for conflicted feelings.

Krazler’s second book called Tom, recently published by Fotohof edition, has seemingly uncontrollable and unintentional parallels to his first work on Land of Milk and Honey. In this book, Kranzler befriends a young man named Tom whose family lives in an old house along the River Krems. Theirs is a life set apart from the encroaching prefab homes that are littering the landscape with promises of cleaner and more modern middle class life.

For two years, Kranzler visits and, like in his first project, ingratiates himself into the flow of their lives to the point of being another member of the family. Unlike his first book, his choice of description is now in color, medium format and a softer gentler quality of artificial light.

Tom’s father who is described in the accompanying afterward by Kranzler is a ‘foul mouthed but particularly genial man and the most loving of fathers,’ is portrayed as blue collar provider with an ever present lit cigarette smoldering between his fingers. For us, he may provide a glimpse into the future for Tom if he follows a familiar path. As is the case with portraits of youth in quiet environs, it is the tension between the familial bond and the need to escape to a more promising life that is at play here. Tom may be too young but through the course of this book we do not have a strong impression that he will stray far from his current life.

The uncontrollable parallel I mentioned to his first book comes with Kranzler going to visit the family on New Year’s Eve and finding the house empty and abandoned. He tracked them down that same evening living a short distance away in a new apartment. Their old home on the River Krems was eventually torn down to make way for the new phase of prefab housing. In both projects, during the course of his photographing, his subjects move from where they had for a long time settled and grown roots to a new atmosphere that on the surface seems better but ultimately lacks an underlying charm that has become familiar to us over the course of both books.

I am torn with which book I appreciate more. The new book has a much better design that seems clean and well thought out. The plain wood grained covers and typography are far better than the ‘photo book’ cover of Land of Milk and Honey. That being said, the photography has a much different tone even though it is similar material. The harshness of the first book is in both subject and approach is a strength that the newer book lacks. Although in most regard the photography in Tom is ‘better,’ it does seem to be less original by feeling so current with contemporary trends. In Land of Milk and Honey, Kranzler tested the edges of his frames and his curiosity as to the potential of photographs seems deeper. In Tom, I fear a loss of photographic innocence that detracts from the imagery and slides it into too familiar territory to other work by other photographers.

This feels like an odd criticism to come from me as I do not think that photographers need to reinvent the wheel. I just feel this change in approach places a photographer who seemed to be anything but commonplace into the safe arena of mainstream acceptability. Change is necessary; I just wish he chose a path that was less foot-worn.

Book Available Here (Land of Milk and Honey)

Book Available Here (Tom)