Friday, February 29, 2008

Cyanide and Sin by Will Straw

There are very clear reasons why accidents or crime scenes slow traffic and draw crowds. The viewer in stepping close to death or tragedy looks for clues in which to understand their own mortality. It is a mixture of attraction and repulsion.

People are fascinated with police procedurals like Law and Order because they present stories where the delicate balance of life is disrupted and then satisfyingly restored all within an hour’s time. The outcome of each story may vary but the basis for our understanding is presented in a logical progression of steps that stays a sense of chaos.

In the 1950’s, magazines served as the outlet for people to venture close to the extremes of behavior and come away unscathed. Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50’s America brings together a collection of the covers and content of true crime magazines in a book published by PPP Editions in 2006.

In these magazines, photographers and art directors created scenarios which glorified victims with quick wits and sharp tongues who escape death and the doomed who struggled to hold onto life. This crime and victimization are illustrated with a kind of photographic shorthand that heightens expressivity and creates worlds more akin to popular film than our own. By not solely relying on actual police documents but photographed reenactments, many of the articles could allow the readers to act as witness to the crime as it takes place.

The use of photography tries to convey the authority of truth while bold typography provides a mixture of fact and fiction. The headlines echo catch phrases from movie posters. The Blonde Who Danced With Death. Miss Murder USA. Honeymoon Murder of the Bigamous Bride. Other type declares quotes from the victims or criminals that read like lines lifted from film scripts. “Kill me and get it over!” “I’ll set him up in Lover’s Lane - you follow…” “Why are you killing me Billy?”

Instead of concentrating on high profile criminals or news stories, these magazines directed their attention towards the tragedies of the average citizen. This in turn provided an added dose of intrigue due to the potential for a kind of fame - albeit fame wrapped in tragedy. Many of the covers, as I mentioned employ the same language as movie posters and it takes little imagination to look upon these as suggestive equivalents starring the average Joe or Jane.

Preoccupied with sexualizing female victims, the covers and stories alternate between females as victims and, considering the time period, females that step out of passive roles and into the roles of seductress and murderer. The intention of this imagery was to provide escape from the relentless crush of boredom that the routine of life slips but it also could be viewed from a more sinister angle. The consistent use of imagery that showed bound women and implied sexual assault could be seen as providing perverse content for sexual sadists. By setting sexual titillation alongside feelings of power these brightly colored covers serve as a kind of advertising for an acceptable way for people to entertain darker feelings and urges, yet absolve them of any real quilt.

Cyanide and Sin as a book is a remarkable example of clean and innovative design. It comes covered with a dust jacket which can be unfolded to reveal a large poster illustrated with the magazine cover art. Will Straw provides an interesting essay looking at the history and content of the genre over its century long existence. The production values are top notch with reproductions prepared by Robert Hennessey and production oversight by Sue Medlicott. The added bonus is that all of the covers and content are presented with all of the scrapes, folds and scuffs of the original objects.

This genre of magazine died as it fought for space on racks full to capacity during the 1990’s magazine boom. Their disturbing covers were hidden from view and thus from our consciousness as the everyday man and woman returned their attention towards real celebrities. We read the gossip columns and follow their public tragedies unfold and - like slowing down while passing a car accident - we take perverse enjoyment in seeing them on the pavement.

Book Available Here (Cyanide and Sin)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Books of Martin Chambi and Pierre Verger exhibition

The Eye Studio Gallery proudly presents Martin Chambi and Pierre Verger as the featured artists in the second of our series of exhibitions dedicated to rarely seen photography books. On view from February 14 until April 3, this exhibition compares and contrasts these remarkable artists through publications, postcards and gelatin-silver prints.

Please join us for an afternoon opening reception on Saturday March 1st from 1-4pm.

The Eye Studio Gallery is an exhibition and work space for the photographers Ed Grazda, Jason Eskenazi, Doug Sandhage and Jeffrey Ladd. The exhibition schedule will alternate between presenting original works of these photographers and other exhibitions dedicated to the widening awareness of the photobook as a work of art.

Eye Studio Gallery is located in Manhattan’s Chelsea gallery district at 526 West 26th Street in suite #507 on the fifth floor. Besides specific event dates or opening reception times, the gallery will be open by appointment only. Appointments can be arranged by calling (212) 242-1593.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two Soviet books from the 1939 New York World's Fair

This past weekend was the Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair at PS 3 in NYC. I do not usually find much in the way of bargains at these events since they are full of book dealers who mostly price according to ABE listings but a friend of mine did find a shrink-wrapped copy of Robert Adams Our Lives and Our Children published by Aperture in 1984 for a mere $25.00. Seems there are some very good prices still to be found even through the dealers.

My only find was a small booklet that appealed to my love of design. It is called Parachute-Jumping and Gliding: Popular Soviet Sports. Upon seeing the cover, I was hoping that this 32 page booklet would be like a mini-version of the now famous USSR in Construction parachute issue (SSSR na stroike, 1935 Issue #12) but it is nothing in comparison.

Parachute-Jumping and Gliding: Popular Soviet Sports was a part of a 30 booklet series aimed at revealing the great achievements of the Soviet Union. Published in English these booklets were distributed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The topics cover everything from collective farming to youth sports, livestock to leisure activities in the Soviet Union. Each is approximately 5 by 4 inches and mostly comprised of text interspersed with a few illustrations.

This one in particular drew my attention because it contains two illustrations that combine photography and design into graphs meant to show records held in both gliding and parachuting by Soviets. (Since there are so few illustrations in this booklet I have shown all of them in my composite above). The other enticing features are the two color cover graphic and the letterpress interior.

The other booklets in this series might be tempting to pick up if found for under $5.00 but for purposes of the photography, they are skimpy and would probably be uninteresting for the average photobook enthusiast. I paid $15 for this copy and I see many others listed online starting around $20. If anyone has the complete set and could recommend another title that is equally as enjoyable as this parachute booklet, please let me know via the comments section.

Staying within the topic of Russian photobooks, I found an interesting title several months back in a junk warehouse here in Brooklyn called Soviet Photography 1939. I do not know much about this book as with extensive research I have only found one other reference online through a dealer of Russian books.

Soviet Photography 1939 contains 66 photographs and has beautiful burgundy hard covers with gold colored, debossed titles and a decorative-edged spine. The cover is very reminiscent of high school yearbook designs common from the 1930’s here in the United States. The printing was accomplished through letterpress so the reproductions have a nice presence on the crème-colored paper. It was published by the State Publishing House for Cinematographical Literature in Moscow.

After a three page introduction touting the greatness of Soviet photography (and ideology) the book proceeds with photos typical of the Soviet State image controlling machine. A photo of Lenin from 1919 starts off the book and of course is followed by one of Stalin looking calm and confident while casually lighting a pipe; the sequence keeps with Stalin's desire to creating the impression that he and Lenin were the only notable characters in the creation of the Soviet Union. Most of what follows are examples of photographs that have been so extensively retouched that they tend to look more like paintings than anything meant to represent reality. That being said, there is something to the infectious idealism portrayed with all Soviet propaganda that makes this another enjoyable fantasyland of harmonious relationships between Soviet peoples, their great accomplishments, and their clean stewardship of the land.

There are a few clues with this book that would indicate that is was published as a souvenir from the New York World’s Fair like the small booklet on parachuting I described above. The first being the publication date of 1939 but also the introduction is in English instead of Russian. The last and most tenuous being that I found it in Brooklyn within 7 miles from Corona Park where the fair took place. As for the issue of scarcity, this is not a precious book by any stretch, so I could imagine that most copies wound up either being thrown out or sold off in yard sales for spare change.

Accounting for inflation of the cost of living over the past 70 years, I am not complaining that these gems set me back $20.00 in total.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Nein, Onkel from the Archive of Modern Conflict

Nazis like having sack races.

Nazis like sad eyed puppies.

Nazis like amusement rides.

Nazis like skipping rocks on water.

Nazis like sunbathing nude.

Nazis like to pretend inanimate objects are their penises.

Nazis like lying in fields of flowers.

Nazis like making children’s toys.

Nazis like dressing in drag.

Nazis like to get spanked.

Nazis like to do the Can-Can.

Nazis like fluffy bunnies.

Nazis like beautiful sunsets.

If this sounds more like vignettes from the 1960’5 TV show Hogan’s Heroes than real life then you will be profoundly surprised by the book Nein, Onkel (No, Uncle) published in 2007 by The Archive of Modern Conflict. Subtitled, Snapshots from Another Front 1938 - 1945, Nein, Onkel is a collection of imagery about the lighter side of fascism edited by Ed Jones and Timothy Prus.

This book shouldn’t come as a surprise to us but yet it does. Our image of the Nazis and German fascism is so synonymous with the Final Solution that it is easier for us to simply index them as monsters when in truth, beyond ideology; they shared common experiences of life as any of us. Obvious but forgotten.

My childhood image of Nazis was formed by the show Hogan’s Heroes until I learned the full details of the Holocaust. Needless to say that there was a huge disconnect between the images of the incompetent Colonel Klink and the lovable teddy bear Sgt. Schultz and what I had learned in school. Nazis were bumbling fools who were easily tricked. They tried to show hardened exteriors but they couldn’t help revealing their human and emotive insides. Oddly, as controversial as Hogan‘s Heroes was for being a situation comedy set in a German POW camp, it probably should have been more controversial for giving a different image to Nazis that made them into humans; albeit cartoon-like versions of humans. (One thing I still think is brilliant is that the show’s catch phrases of Schultz’s proclamations of “I know nuhzink! I see nuhzink!” actually alluded to the excuses given by German citizens when asked as to whether they knew the Final Solution was being carried out).

Nein, Onkel is as much a mirror held up to us as it is to “them.” Many of the shenanigans pictured here are not much different than what takes place on most college campuses around the world and the jokes cracked would be the same whether on the Russian Front or around a poker table in someone’s living room in Paramus, New Jersey.

This book starts to chip away at the defensive wall we create to differentiate them from us. We would all like to imagine that “we” would not be capable of such brutality while standing on our moral and ethical high ground but the subtext of a book like this makes it clear that, under the right circumstances “we” are capable of any despicable deed (or ignoring despicable deeds when they happen).

Nein, Onkel is designed to look like a photo album that you might discover in your uncle’s attic. In every way it is perfect as a book object from the padded and puffy canvas covers to the thick paper stock and fine printing of the 321 color and black and white photographs. The book has no text with the exception of a caption list printed on the last pages of thin, tissue-like paper.

It will be books like this that expand the understanding of ourselves beyond our reactionary mindset to create distinctions between us and the other. Perhaps Dylan saw this clearly when he penned his famous lyric from It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding): “…even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”

(or choke on a pretzel)

Buy online at Dashwood Books

Friday, February 22, 2008

Two books on Leon Levinstein

History is full of artists whose work never caught on during their lifetime only to leave them embittered and resentful that the world didn’t see their greatness. There are many others whose work was recognized by a few but the artist was his or her own worst enemy in regard to making the recognition public. Some even had people around them willing to help promote their work yet they acted too difficult to help. Leon Levinstein was a photographer who experienced all of the conflicts above. As remembered by Helen Gee, the owner of the Limelight Gallery, “Success will come to Levinstein only when he’s no longer around to stand in its way.”

It is not the world at large Levinstein was looking at with his camera but its inhabitants. In fact, if one scours Levinstein’s oeuvre, most all of the images describe a face or limbs but somehow avoid describing much at all about the world that surrounds them. As viewers, we have almost no notion of how these characters fit into the world at the moment of the shutter’s release. His is a tunnel vision reliant on bare elements boxed by the edges of his tightly cropped frames.

In some of the photographs he employs perspectives that would seem to have their roots in constructivism with low angles and looming diagonals. But unlike the more common use of these vantage points to create heroic and idealized versions of mankind, Levinstein’s mankind is one that struggles to exist and suffers with the daily toil.

In reading about Levinstein’s life he comes across as photography’s lonely soul. He was a man who avoided intimacy with others throughout most of his life and never had a serious relationship other than with photography. Perhaps this accounts for why his photos concentrate so heavily on the human face and gesture; it was his only way of connecting. I am always a bit weary of using photographs as a barometer of an artist’s psyche but there is a remarkable correlation.

There are only two books that I am aware of that concentrate on Levinstein. The first is a 1995 catalog from the National Gallery of Canada called The Moment of Exposure. Moment of Exposure contains 72 duotone reproductions of Levinstein’s finer photographs alongside essays by Bob Shamis and Max Kozloff. This is the easier of the two to find and serves as a fine introduction to Levinstein’s work and biography but the quality of materials and overall tone feels typical of a gallery catalog.

Leon Levinstein Obsession from Editions Leo Scheer published in 2000 is a much broader collection of his work in a slightly more handsome but ultimately flawed package. It contains 194 duotone photographs and essays by the authors Sam Stourdze, Helen Gee and A.D. Coleman.

The book breaks his work up into groups, IE: Coney Island, Heads, Celebration, Europe, Society, 42nd Street, etc. The effect, in my opinion, diminishes the work by creating indices with the lowest common denominator labels. Many of the sections are far too spare to serve the division.

The other bothersome aspect with the book is the reproductions. In many of the images, the resolution of the scans used is not high enough to support the output size and the result is noticeable pixels that disrupt the tonalities and sharpness.

This edition was printed in 2500 hardcover copies with 100 set aside as a limited numbered edition. The limited edition comes with Levinstein’s famous image of the handball players.

Levinstein, in my mind, is a large talent that may never get what he deserved. Even these two titles try to celebrate his work but are largely flawed and help keep his status in the margins. Where is the ultimate book that will celebrate this remarkable artist in a way that is rich in quality and not overshadowed by sadness and neglect?

Book Available Here (Obsession)

Book Available Here (The Moment of Exposure)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lee Friedlander Photographs Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes

Lee Friedlander is often cited as America’s most important living photographer but undoubtedly he is its most prolific. Lee has created substantial bodies of work in every genre of photography and succeeded in making each his own. Self portraits, nudes, social landscape, the American monuments, labor, technology, music, the family album, architecture, flowers, words, and the ever constant landscape have been exhaustively consumed by his tireless lens. One of the threads that has linked much of Lee’s work is his celebration of the great achievements and achievers of this country. His is a celebration tied to labor and craft accomplished by skilled hands driven by a lasting unique vision. A fine fieldstone wall seems more to his liking than microchips and our pixel arranging society.

Lee Friedlander: Photographs Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes just published from DAP continues his desire to commune with greatness as this book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Olmsted’s design for Central Park.

Using a commission from the Centre for Architecture in Montreal in 1988 as a starting point, his work in parks designed by Olmsted has continued for over a decade and as his working method dictates, these spaces have become another part of his repertoire in which to return and momentarily satisfy his appetite.

This project in particular is interesting because it came at a time when Lee was experimenting with different camera formats and frame ratios. Within the span of the 89 images in Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes he shifts from his Leica, to a Noblex pivoting lens panoramic camera, to his Hasselblad Superwide, and the results are noticeable beyond the obvious frame shape.

For the past two decades, Lee’s world - as he describes it - has become more chaotic and claustrophobic. Where as before he would occasionally use thickets and bushes to obscure his subjects, of late he has fought his way into them; looking out from their prickly interior. Jagged lines and straw-like hash marks of undergrowth break background architecture and formations into mirages that the eye has to fight to see. His book The Desert Seen was a starting point towards a new aggressive attitude towards the viewer‘s eyes with its representation of the high-key Arizona midday sun made even brighter by Lee’s fill-flash. It makes one’s eyes vibrate across the page with such an intensity eye strain seems to be a distinct possibility if the entire book is attempted in one sitting. Lee seems to allude to this aggressive stance in his introduction, “I think of these desert pictures together as one long sentence, not especially one written by Proust but maybe one that resembles one written by Patrick White, or, if I may presume even further, like a long solo, like one played by Paul Gonzalez with Duke Ellington’s Band, doing “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the Newport 1956 version. More probably, it’s just like a long scratch of a fingernail on a blackboard.”

Little of the work in this new book is as aggressive on the eyes as described above but Lee does stray far from the paved walkways that Olmsted offers and seems to prefer his rambles into the dense underbrush.

Returning to the subject of the camera choices, what is interesting to me is that there is a distinct sense of Lee trying to figure out the panoramic camera but to little avail. When I had first seen this work in Viewing Olmsted, the catalog that was originally published on the occasion of an exhibition that also featured the photographers Geoffrey James and Bob Burley, I had the distinct impression that Lee’s contribution was somewhat unrecognizable as Lee Friedlander. As much as he fought at taming the sweeping gesture of that panoramic camera, most of the world gets pushed away due to the pivoting wide-angle lens instead of looming in and entangling the viewer. In most instances, those photographs feel safer and - even though they are beautifully made - they lack the intense quality that I embrace in his other work. The punctum in the Leica and Hasselblad work is a potential sharp stick in the eye which the Noblex mostly pushes safely out of the way.

In seeing this extended edit of this work, one other aspect that becomes more apparent is that Friedlander has achieved in describing parks that are devoid of any human presence. In only one photograph, dating back to 1977, is the public that Olmsted was so driven to create these oases for present. In the rest, Friedlander has the parks all to himself to get lost and pursue his own complicated designs. As Lee writes, “We photographers don’t really make anything: we peck at the world and try to find something curious or wild or beautiful that might fit into what the medium of photography can hold.”

The book is beautifully realized with the book-making “dream team” of Katy Homans on the design and typesetting, Thomas Palmer doing the separations, and Meridian Printing, under the supervision of Daniel Frank, putting the ink to paper. The lush tri-tone reproductions are nearly perfect and the ochre book cloth and large reproduction tipped into the cover lend an appropriate tone of classicism to the book’s exterior.

An accompanying exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art called Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks is on display until May 11, 2008.

Buy online at DAP

Book Available Here (Lee Friedlander Photographs)

Book Available Here (Viewing Olmsted)

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Atlas Group by Walid Raad

Given historical facts and the apparent truthfulness of physical documentation, it would seem that Walid Raad’s Atlas Group Project is a found treasure trove of forensic reports on Lebanon’s 14 year war. Through a series of books published by Walther Konig, Raad walks a fine line between art and science with this homesick vision of his war torn homeland. It is with closer readings of some of the documents that cracks in their “truthfulness” appear, stirring doubt about the directness of their presentation.

Volume 1: The Truth Will Be Known When the Last Witness is Dead presents four groups of documents from the notebooks of a Dr. Fakhouri who is cited in a brief foreword to have been the “most renowned historian” of the Lebanon. The first section is from Notebook Volume 72, titled Missing Lebanese Wars, as described by Raad: It is a little known fact that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers. It is said that they met every Sunday at the race track - Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven; Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight through fifteen.

Race after race, the historians stood behind the track photographer, whose job was to image the winning horse as it crossed the finish line, to record the photo-finish. It is also said that they convinced (some say bribed) the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived. Each historian waged on precisely when - how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line - the photographer would expose his frame.

Each page of Fakhouri’s notebook contains the newspaper clipping of the race photograph along with: notations on the race details, the bets placed, calculations of averages, and small descriptions of the winning historian’s personality.

The next documents come from Fakhouri’s Notebook Volume 38 titled Already Been in a Lake of Fire. This notebook is comprised of cut out pictures and notations of every make and model of automobile used in the 3,641 car bombings that took place in Lebanon from 1975 until 1991. Other facts relate to the date of explosion, numbers of persons killed and injured and type of explosive used are handwritten around the image.

At first these seem to be strict matters of record and documentation but the playfulness of arrangement of image and handwritten Arabic belies the seriousness of the facts. It is that playfulness which seems to reveal how the maker dealt psychologically with these horrifying events - recording them almost as if he is shell shocked and in need of lightening their unwanted presence.

Notebook Volume 57, No, Illness is Neither Here Nor There, is filled with photographs purported to have been taken by Fakhouri of medical and dental signs; trimmed and arranged on each page like an avant garde collagist.

The last section featured in Atlas Group Volume 1 is called, Civilizationally, We Do Not Dig Holes to Bury Ourselves. Presented is a group of self portrait photographs of Dr. Fakhouri on trips to Paris and Rome in 1958 and 1959. These are, according to our only source of Raad, the only photographs that exist of Dr. Fakhouri.

As all of this material is presented reproduced as documents with no apparent “manipulation” and complete with the patina of age, this last section would seem to add credibility through photographic fact to Dr. Fakhouri’s existence. Or, perhaps it is all a falsified construction on the part of Raad using appropriated material “factualized” by an elaborate and brilliantly constructed conceptual design.

Volume 2 of the Atlas Group’s series investigates the rash of car bombings that terrorized the populace of Lebanon from 1975 to 1991. Entitled, My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair, each page reproduces the front and back of photographs made where the car’s engines came to rest after each explosion. As explained by Raad, the engines are sometimes propelled tens - if not hundreds - of meters from the detonation site, often landing on rooftops or balconies, and many bystanders and photographers competed to be the first to find and photograph where they landed. This book presents 104 such photographs with notations of the photographer credit and date of the event.

The black and white images describe the identifiable remains of the engine amongst the wreckage caused by the explosions. Spectators, who look like same crowd that would be drawn around a fisherman and his prizewinning catch in a souvenir photo, fill out the background while authorities study and consult the engine block as if it were an oracle to which they had just asked a question. The answer would be in the form of the engine serial number with which they could start their police investigation.

Volume 3 of the Atlas Group’s dossiers is called Let’s Be Honest, The Weather Helped and it presents works credited to Raad himself as the author. The first of two sections called We decided to let them say “we are convinced” twice. It was more convincing that way is a series of photographs that Raad purports to have taken in 1982 of the Israeli invasion of West Beirut. Scarred by scratches, color shifts and intense graininess, the photos describe planes flying overhead and smoke from distant explosions billowing up over the tops of buildings while spectators (like Raad) seek high ground and witness the invasion.

Raad explains, “I was 15 in 1982 and wanted to get as close as possible to the events, or as close as my newly acquired camera and lens permitted me. Clearly not close enough.”

Once Raad does encounter Israelis, finds them at rest awaiting further orders. He moves around their guns and armored vehicles with the curiosity of a teen fascinated with weaponry and a curiosity towards the identities of the soldiers that employ them. When he discovers human life around the seemingly abandoned machinery, they are lounging in the shade with their shirts off and smile back at Raad’s camera with disconcerting joviality.

The second section consists of a project that is more complex in its conception and raises an overt political message.

“Like many around me in Beirut in the late 1970’s, I collected bullets and shrapnel. I would run out to the streets after a night or day of shelling to remove them from walls, cars, and trees. I kept detailed notes of where I found every bullet and photographed the sites of my findings, covering the holes with dots that corresponded to the bullet’s diameter and mesmerizing hues I found on the bullets’ tips. It took me another 10 years to realize that ammunition manufacturers follow distinct color codes to mark and identify their cartridges and shells. It took me another 10 years to realize that my notebooks in part catalogue 17 countries that continue to supply various militias and armies fighting in Lebanon.”

The resulting documents read the closest as contemporary art pieces with their colorful dots healing the pock marked facades of the architecture. With these works it is the beauty of the imagery, as opposed to the scientific analysis, that initially draws the viewer’s attention and creates a slight tension through aestheticizing the evidence of violence. The titles of each work identify the country of origin of the cartridges and shells.

The last book I will mention is called Scratching on Things I Could Disavow published by Walther Konig and soon to be released. This collection handsomely reproduces several visual essays from the Atlas Group Project that have appeared in various art-related magazines and quarterlies. Larger in format than the other books, the contents are presented in 1:1 size ratio to their originals. All but three of the 17 essays feature work that doesn’t appear in the books described above.

Interestingly, as suspected from the lingering of doubt towards the authenticity of much of the Atlas Group’s archive, different members of the group seem suspiciously fictional. For instance, an artist linked to the Atlas Group named Ingrid Serven appears with a portfolio called Oh God, She Said, Talking to a Tree in an issue of Mouvement in 2004 yet the look of her work seems to be directly channeling - and stealing titles from - Raad.

Dr. Fadl Fakouri, the “most renowned historian” from Volume 1 bequeathed his notebooks and photographs to the Atlas Group “died” in 1993 and but that didn’t stop him from corresponding to Tracy Davis of TDR: The Drama Review in 2006 when she contacted him about contributing a piece for the magazine.

All of the books are very elegant in their design and book craft. Volumes 1 - 3 follow the same format, design and materials and work very much as a set. All three are covered in an attractive vellum jacket that is attached to the inside covers. The reproductions are rich and seductive. There are a few other titles published on Walid Raad and the Atlas Group Project and all seem to share the same interest in not only presenting the work but housing it in a handsome package.

Whether you can determine fact or fiction, Raad’s work has its way of blurring those lines so effectively that we become steeped in his visual games of constructing a history that has claimed the lives of over 140,000 of his compatriots and forced another million to flee the country. Raad’s family was within the million that fled, but his fascination for the minutia of war and history have entrapped him into a specific time and place that refuses to recede from his memory.

Buy online at Walther Konig

Book Available Here (Atlas Group Volume 1)

Book Available Here (Atlas Group Volume 3)

Book Available Here (Walid Raad and Silvia Kolbowski)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Conversations with Photographers from La Fabrica

This may be a very odd thing for a man who writes 500 words a night about photobooks to admit but words often sit in such close proximity to images that it makes me nervous. Reading artist statements or listening to someone speak about their work has been known to induced the strong desire in me to slap the artist in question across the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

I have a theory that artists who express themselves verbally and without airs are comfortable with themselves, the validity of their work and their position as artists. Others indulge in what I perceive to be a pseudo-intellectualism meant to elevate their perceived importance through obscurantism. This critique isn’t meant to be anti-intellectual, just if - as Jasper Johns says of artists - “We are the elite of the working class,” then I think “we” should be understood by Joe New York Post (Oh…you elitist bastard) otherwise our “art” is in a ghetto; albeit one with really nice architecture.

I bring this up because I have been reading through the boxed series of books Conversations with Photographers published from La Fabrica and I see clear distinctions from artist to artist. Most of these interviews are easily understood without risking having your head split open while performing unnecessary mental gymnastics but there are a couple that sent me reeling.

Here is a little test. See if you can guess which of the passages below almost put me in the hospital.

Paul Graham: With the new pictures I am making at the moment, I have this great feeling of moving away from making photographs, and trying instead to move closer to the flow of life and reflect the way that everything, the most simple daily parts of our lives, has meaning and an inevitability and conclusiveness within its parts. It’s a process that is much less led by a sense of visual traditions in photography - seizing a defining moment for all eternity - but rather just relaxing into accepting the flow of it all, the river of life, of time gently rolling by. It’s like standing in a stream and seeing the water flowing up to you, move gently around your sides and reform like you simply were never there. Can you photograph that?

Candida Hofer: …it is not the visual replica of beauty or prominence I am looking for, to catch that beauty and importance exactly, whatever may be regarded as such anyway. What I behold as beauty for example may not match with what others regard as beauty. I have no intention to be faithful to that kind of beauty. When I am working in a space, I am, as I have said before, working with the elements of the space, perspectives, angles, planes and countering planes, colors, light, room with light on, room with light off, or just natural light, or both the artificial and the natural light, never a flash. From these elements I recreate my own image of the room when the prints are being made. This is where my understanding of beauty may come in.

Vik Muniz: As a concept, I have always used the idea of images of images, of working with the intermediary state of the image, with its ambiguities. Once something is very definite and clear you immediately lose interest, you absorb it and take it for granted. If something is ambiguous, sort of in between, it immediately forces you to establish a more analytical relationship with it, which goes beyond just looking at the image. For me, this is what ultimately differentiates an image from art. Images are something that just comes to you, whereas art is something that at some point you feel compelled to move towards.

Bleda and Rosa: …the truth is that Land Art artists have always been a reference for us and I think that from our first works through the most recent, they have had a lot to do with what we were talking about before: experiential time. It is the first manifestation of being in places, of being aware of what has happened there and of course there is also a definite reference to these artists in the texts. What happens is that we are closer to European artists like Hamish Fulton or Richard Long, because we don’t transform space, we don’t try to generate a change. Our artistic act is not to produce a transformation of the landscape, but rather to be in a place and have an experience that we later transfer to an image.

Jurgen Klauke: …For my entire doing I can do something with what you say there. We can also call it “general friction,” which occurs also detached by the body. My decadence data can be read from it at best. Through something I came to think about the unexplainable which led to the creation of always new image moments or image fragments that can be understood as approximations to the fiction of our life. In the long run this is actually a friction on itself like on more or less objective circumstances. As long as that functions halfway, it lives on high level. The relevant congestion is redundant, and the longer it lasts, as it seems so, as if one is non existent any longer. Knowing well that the congestions or blockades emerge over and again, one cannot escape from the associated emptiness, where I would not like to miss the gained realization that is very close to nil.

Some of this series was published in Conversations with Contemporary Photographers from Umbrage Editions which I wrote about within the first few months of 5B4. This set, directly from La Fabrica, is made up of are charming little candy-colored booklets that come in a slipcase. Several typos aside, these 4.25 by 5.75 inch booklets are well designed and mostly enjoyable. According to the La Fabrica website, the first boxed set contained conversations with Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andres Serrano, Perejaume, Stan Douglas, Zhang Huan and Allan Sekula. Individual booklets are also available which include all of the participants of the Umbrage Conversations with Contemporary Photographers edition and a few others including one with William Klein.

Words and photographs. Words and art. I read them and I try to write them. They seem to be necessary companions until you see the clarity in the resistance to them below.

I don’t theorize. In actual fact I think it diminishes all that I feel. If I were a writer I would be able to do with words the good things I do with visual arts, so I always think I fail when I speak. - Helena Almeida

I do my work. My work is my statement. Generally, I think, there is too much interest in what an artist has to say. Or what she or he looks like, instead of what she or he does. - Candida Hofer

It’s very difficult, because I’m having to explain these aspects in words and you’d hope that they were subtly in the experience of looking at the work. It feels like a tragedy that you have to explain everything and ruin the work. - Paul Graham

Buy online at La Fabrica

Book Available Here (Conversations with Contemporary Photographers)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Maysles Scrapbook by Albert Maysles

One of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen is Salesman by David and Albert Maysles. Their film follows four men as they cold call homes and attempt to sell expensive illustrated bibles to people who hardly seem to be able to afford them. The Maysles brothers, with their gear seemingly invisible, slip in and out of living rooms and document all of the labored negotiations and hard sell tactics of the four as they attempt to meet their sales quotas. Out of the four men, Paul “The Badger” Brennan becomes the center of focus as a man whose sales are slipping and whose faith in his product has disappeared. It is a story of both a tiring job where men leave their families for days to bring food to their tables and the demoralization of self that takes place when defeat is faced on a daily basis. The film is beautiful and funny yet delivers a painfully felt message of loneliness and pressure attached to the pursuit of the American Dream.

This film, like most of the direct cinema innovations of the 50’s and 60’s, avoided voice-over narration and showed the drama unfold as if we were watching an unmediated experience. The participants, although occasionally acknowledging the camera, are so at ease that they forget the presence in the room of David’s Nagra sound recorder and microphone and Albert’s hand modified Auricon 16mm camera.

Albert Maysles as a cinematographer and a photographer has spent his life observing and documenting the paths that his own life has taken for 51 years. A new book from Steidl and the Steven Kasher Gallery called A Maysles Scrapbook takes us through those 51 years of image making in the first comprehensive monograph of both Albert’s personal photography and the wonderful film collaborations he created with his brother.

The scrapbook starts with Albert’s earliest work from 1955-56 (there are those two magic years again) when he traveled to the Soviet Union investigating the care given in Russian mental hospitals. Using both still and movie cameras, he splits his time between his research as a psychologist and wandering the streets with his Leica. Much of this early work reveals Albert to be a fine photographer able to capture fleeting moments with a warmth towards humanity in an era when most Americans were viewing Soviet life as cold and threatening.

Quickly, the book delves into the 30 film works through several hundred pages of cinemagraphs (strips of film images), ephemera and behind the scenes portraits of the men at work. Much space is given to the three more acclaimed films: Salesman, Gimme Shelter and of course the classic, Grey Gardens.

The last of which, Grey Gardens, has taken on an extended life of its own by spawning a Broadway musical and a soon to be released movie. I recently saw the new release from 2006, The Beales of Grey Gardens which is a second 90 minute film constructed from unused footage from the original shoots. Again we are privy to the spontaneous fits of dialogue from the charming mother and daughter recluses who live in the raccoon ridden squalor of one of East Hampton’s shore homes. Both of these films are interesting for their direct cinema style that dissipates with Albert and David becoming characters in their own film as “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale the II alternates her flirtations between the two filmmakers and fights her mother for their attention. Both men seem to have been partially smitten with “Little Edie” and Albert’s scrapbook reveals his love for this eccentric woman with her infectious smile.

Though David Maysles sadly passed away in 1987, he obviously figures prominently throughout this book. The title, A Maysles Scrapbook could refer to Albert or to both brothers as this book serves as a wonderful tribute to David in photographs as well.

The book is constructed with paper stock that has a gritty matte feel covered with full bleed images. Superbly designed by Steven Kasher and Mark Michaelson, it has a similar hand-assembled, three-dimensional feel to their last collaboration in Least Wanted. The printing is good although at times the images seem to get a little too dense.

Martin Scorsese contributed a fine foreword in which he speaks highly of Albert’s fine camerawork and sensitivity to his subjects. After quoting Orson Welles, “The camera person should have an eye behind the camera that is the eye of a poet,” Scorsese writes, Al truly does have the eye of a poet. Which is ultimately what makes the camera disappear, and give way to life.

Note: Albert Maysles will be signing copies of his book A Maysles Scrapbook at Steven Kasher Gallery today Friday, February 15th from 6-8pm. Steven Kasher Gallery is located on the second floor of 521 west 23rd Street in New York City.

Buy online at Steidlville

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Foto En Copyright by G. P. Fieret

"Photography in and of itself is, of course, a rather chilly business: camera lenses, power to absorb the image, refractions. Chemistry- strict rules of the game, no? But soon you discover that you really can bend it as you wish, like bamboo, and then it turns out to be supple as water, and you can find and recognize all sorts of graphic gradations in the image. I’m thinking now of Daumier or Rembrandt, for instance - every "ism" can be realized in photography." - Gerard Petrus Fieret

This was how G. P. Fieret described his craft while photographing in his home city of The Hague. Photographing a mix of street scenes caught on the fly and intimate encounters within his dark studio bedroom, women are the subject and near constant presence in his imagery. The book Foto En Copyright from the publisher Uitgeverij Voetnoot and the Fotomuseum Den Haag is an offering of 150 of Fieret’s photos that add up to a 40 year impressionistic and autobiographical romp with the opposite sex.

Fieret’s technique is one of anything goes. He discovered the freedom to explore and stumble upon those “graphic gradations” he speaks of by making unique prints that are cropped, solarized, fogged, filthy with dust and printed with extreme contrast. They sit unevenly on the paper keeping you aware the surface as much as they draw you into the image. Applying these techniques in the darkroom, he heightens the ambiance of his encounters with women until they may remind us of our own trysts - our own moments of titillation and erotic encounter. Somewhat rough and lacking detail like our memories, Fieret’s chiaroscuro reduces the subject to direct and bold gesture and form.

Some of the women begin to strike poses that reflect their education from glamour magazines but Fieret catches them in mid-attempt - creating a sense of awkward sexuality. It is that quality that makes them more erotic and charged because the photo is taken within the moment when the models are consciously creating an image of themselves and emphasizing their seductiveness. To be photographed seems to be an act of flirtation and the subjects gaze back well aware of the implications.

Almost like a paranoid afraid of theft, the prints are then “finished” with copyright stamps and Fieret’s flowing signature applied anywhere on the print where it may seem appropriate. Like a painter who signs their work within the image, Fieret makes even grander claims of authorship which border on the obsessive. Again reminding us that the image, or the intimate encounters he reveals in the image, is his. It is not enough to just photograph something to claim it as his own; he adds the unmistakable legal mark as well.

This is a contradiction at work. On one hand, the subject in the photo often radiates an intimacy and warmth (most of the work is entirely life affirming) yet he stamps the surfaces with a cold legal mark meant as a preventative measure. A warning of sorts.

The stamps also bring to mind a professionalism to the work as if these images flowed daily from a gun-for-hire studio photographer. However, his loose technique, devoid of traditional photographic “rules” would hardly have been looked upon by the average man in the street as results worthy of payment except for their erotic value.

This is another curious contradiction on my part but perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree by overlooking one important aspect. Fieret was also a designer and designers work with words and image and perceptions of dimensionality on the paper surface. Perhaps it was simply a love of seeing an imperfectly inked stamp merge with disparate subject and create a new formal design. Seemingly random at first glance, they do have a way of balancing out the frame.

In one of my favorites, a woman proudly displays her derriere and Fieret finds it an inviting spot on the print to apply one of his copyright stamps like an inked hand slap across her ass. His humor and self portraits continuously remind us that he is the intermediary, present and participating. We may look and enjoy our vicarious position of voyeur but Fieret is the actual beneficiary of the flirtations.

This photo described above reminds me of the wonderful scene in Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains where the train dispatcher on the night shift chases his flirtatious young female assistant around the station office until he catches her and applies ink stamps up the back of her legs, each time drawing her skirt higher and higher.

Fieret’s work is gritty and pleasure seeking and this book captures that essence perfectly with its choice of paper and raw magazine style presentation. This has quickly become one of my favorite recent additions.

Deborah Bell gallery and Paul Hertzmann, Inc have co-published two elegant catalogs on Fieret and one that I own is called Gerard Pertus Fieret: Photographs. At 24 pages and very nicely printed by Meridian in Rhode Island, it presents 37 images made in the 1960’s. Richer in tonalities than the Foto En Copyright due to the differences of paper, this represents the work in a manner closer to the quality of Fieret’s actual prints. Though only a catalog and thus short in length, this is also a fine introduction to his work if you can track down a copy. If you can’t find a copy, Deborah has generously created PDF documents of each that can be downloaded from her gallery’s website.

Book Available Here (Foto En Copyright)

Deborah Bell Gallery

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Americans by Robert Frank 50th Anniversary

It is rare for a photographer that came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s to not cite Robert Frank’s The Americans and Walker Evans’ American Photographs as the two books that inspired them to take up a camera and explore the world. It is lore that gets repeated so often it almost seems disingenuous in the retelling. I have often thought that it isn’t possible that so many people could be so instantly enamored since, as much as it may be embarrassing to admit, both of those books took a while for me to warm up to them and see their true greatness. I’ve come around, probably in the same way that an early critic of the first edition of The Americans had when he described Frank as one who “produced pictures that look as if a kid had taken them while eating a Popsicle and then had them developed and printed at the corner drugstore.” That critic failed to specify which flavor of Popsicle would have fueled such a remarkable feat. If he had, maybe photographers would have flocked to have given it a taste.

The Americans is a book that has taken many forms. The first French edition from Delpire sits short texts opposite the photographs. The first American edition from Grove dropped those texts and fronts the book with Kerouac’s now famous introduction. Later editions from Aperture, Pantheon and SCALO followed this American model but varied their trim sizes, and in a couple occasions even substituted an alternate version of an image. Page numbers were introduced, slight variance in the cropping of the photos can be noticed, the design changes, and most tellingly, a triptych appeared almost as a coda / signature after the last photograph. Frank’s willingness to reshape his masterpiece seems fitting to his persona of the restless poet who, if forced to look back, will tinker with his last version to fit his newest frame of mind. In keeping with this tradition, Robert Frank and Gerhard Steidl have created a new, refreshed 50th anniversary version of arguably the most important and inspiring photography book ever published.

The first aspect one notices is with the size. Frank reverts the trim size back to the original Grove edition of 7.25 inches tall by 8.25 inches wide. For me, this is the size it should have stayed as it fits so perfectly in the hand unlike the larger editions. (I think of the super-size Aperture edition the same way I think of a Leica M5 as compared to an M3).

The other major difference will make some viewers obsessively familiar with the other editions scratch their heads wondering why the images look slightly different. This is because Frank decided to grace this new edition with uncropped versions scanned from the original prints. Frank, like many photographers, was prone to cleaning up the edges of his frames or cropping the image to call attention to a specific subject but here most are shown in their purest state. Comparing this new edition to my 1986 Pantheon, the differences become obvious and in my opinion, they emphasize Frank’s prowess at putting his frame around the world. In the image of the public bench in St. Petersburg Florida with Kerouac’s “retired old codgers” and the “Seminole half Negro woman pulling on her cigarette,” the top of the frame now reveals the entire car speeding past and a view of the opposite sidewalk. The Canal Street, New Orleans photo of the crowd passing perpendicular to Frank’s lens is now back to the 35mm frame proportions with a larger expanse of darkness looming above the heads of the passersby. One version that is most noticeable is of the older woman and children waiting in the car on a Butte, Montana street. The uncropped version uncovers about 20% more to the left side of the frame and now allows the bounding curves of the car’s fender and roof to lead us into noticing other cars far off into the corner.

Upon close scrutiny between these two editions, even with the claims of uncropped versions, one notices that sometimes the Pantheon edition actually has more “room” to an edge or the other than this newer version. Nothing dramatic but enough to prompt obsessive viewers to closely compare and contrast editions.

The only photograph that was cropped in the original that remains so is Movie Premier, Hollywood (otherwise known as the “squires” photo). Perhaps it is little known that this photo was actually a horizontal frame that was cropped into the vertical format.

Other changes that make this new edition more pleasurable are: the dropping of the page numbers, reverting of the cover typography to the sans-serif font, dropping of the end triptych, and adding a second half-title page just preceding the photos instead of a page announcing “Photographs.”

This new edition was printed in tri-tone and the tonalities are closer to the way the images looked in the gravure editions; smoother and more pleasing to the eye. All of the images read with clarity save for one; the Canal Street photograph I mentioned above has become denser and obscures much of the detail offered in other editions. This may have come from a different, less open print being used in this production but the result is noticeable.

I applaud the shift back to the original size and tone of the first American edition as this was essentially how older generations of photographers experienced this work. The book was small and stocky. The photographs rich and silvery gray on the page. The layout clear and unpolluted.

It was the book that launched a thousand road trips. Reinvigorated examination of self and state. Perplexed some with its complexity shrouded in a rough, visual language punctuated with obscenity. And in the extreme, it changed how future generations understood the workings of their medium. It still speaks volumes and on May 15th, 50 years to the day of its first printing, a new edition of The Americans will be made available to continue a dialog with this sad poem that Robert Frank and his little camera sucked "right out of America and onto film."

Buy online at Steidlville