Monday, June 30, 2008

The Americans: Spanish and Mandarin editions


I, for one, never tire of hearing about new releases regarding Robert Frank but knowing that some readers may be a little burnt out on all Robert Frank project all the time, I’ll keep this post short.

I want to direct your attention to a couple entirely new translations of The Americans that will bring this great work of art to new cultures. In the past there have been German, Italian, French and English editions and now I bring good news to my in-laws as there is a Spanish edition, Los Americanos, co-published with La Fabrica in Spain and Steidl. La Fabrica are the same publisher who I wrote about in regard to their fine book Man Ray Unconcerned but Not Indifferent, as well as the Conversations with Contemporary Photographers series. Off the press of Steidlville it features the same fine printing as the English edition but with translations by Marcos Canteli. Curious note is that the belly band with this edition mentions that The Americans has sold more than 700,000 copies since its first release in 1958.


The other new edition is a Chinese version in Mandarin with translations by Zhao Yuan and Bian Ge. Either this came about because Robert was just awarded a prize in China or Steidl is going after the 1.3 billion person audience. Maybe they can double that 700,000 number. I was surprised to see a Chinese version before a Japanese one. Robert is big in Japan after all.

Either way I would like to see The Americans top The Family of Man as the book that breaks out of the photobook ghetto of only being owned by artists and other photographers.

www.lafabricaeditorial.com

Buy online at Steidlville


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fig. by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin


Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have create a fascinating museum in their book Fig. published by Photoworks and Steidl in 2007. It is a museum in which categorization occurs through varying degrees of separation between each object. Appearing to be in the documentary mode, Fig. weaves a web-like path between the objects and those links are only limited to Broomberg and Chanarin's imagination. Luckily for the readers, Broomberg and Chanarin show little restraint in reining in their minds.

Broomberg and Chanarin are the duo behind much of the photography from Colors magazine. Neither has a studied background in photography but instead combined degrees in Sociology, Art History, Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence. Their previous work and books have taken them shifting from conceptual work and the constructed into the realm of documentary and back again. Fig. proves to have been as much a research project as a photographic one and charting the course for this book was most likely a complicated affair.

Fig. is constructed with 95 images (“figures”, hence the title Fig.) that are linked through short pieces of text. Each caption/text provides to the readers what most captions do -- they reveal what the object is and in turn give a short explanation as to why the reader should be interested. Thus Fig. is really a book of words -- words that can't entirely be trusted as they take giant leaps to link each object. Their individual caption construction may be factual but their sequencing is pure fiction.

The result engrosses our attention and delves into the fantastic. Mermen (male mermaids) and the oldest waxwork from Madame Tussaud become a part of a "museum" that also holds discarded passport photos from Rwanda and descriptions of office spaces reserved for moments of state emergencies. A leaf blow from a tree near the site of a suicide bombing in Israel follows a photo of a termite hill in South Africa whose inhabitants "commit suicide" when the nest is threatened by spontaneously exploding. The links are tenuous and the driving force is an imaginative exuberance whose basis is the pure curiosity of subjects and making connections that create an unflagging sense of wonder.

Fig. was designed by SMITH (Stuart Smith's London-based design firm) and the package is near perfect. The trim size sits perfectly in the hand and the presentation of the work is elegant.

Broomberg and Charnarin prove to be excellent guides in which to chart a journey that obeys no map or compass. For me there is such a feeling of wonder from following this chain of objects that I wish Fig. contained not just 95 but 9500. With Fig. as an example, I could follow Broomberg and Charnarin's imagination to the margins of the margins and connect dots that no one had ever thought existed.

Buy online at Steidlville

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Josef Sudek Volume 1: The Window of My Studio


I owe my readers a small apology as the postings this month have been few and far between. I've just had too much on my plate these past weeks to dedicate the time and energy to writing as frequently as I have in the past. I also figure I can occasionally let your bank account catch up especially after tax season but that is a poor excuse.

After a couple postings on Josef Koudelka I thought it appropriate to stay in Prague and mention its photographic poet, Josef Sudek. A new multi-volume series of books from Torst collects his works under the titles of: The Window of My Studio, Portraits, Still Lifes, Advertisements, Saint Vitus's Cathedral, The Ancient Forest of the Beskids, Rothmayer's Garden, and Labyrinths.

Sudek had a small studio with a courtyard in Malá Strana, Prague and it was the views through it's windows that provided Sudek with decades worth of subject matter. The first volume in this series, The Window of My Studio presents 76 photographs made over the longest period of the artist's life from 1940 until his death in 1976.

For Sudek, the window didn't just provide a source of inspiration for photographs but it was also a refuge of sorts. Through the German occupation of Czechoslovakia during Second World War and later under the Communist regime, the window -- as Anna Farova mentions in her essay accompanying this book -- became "a source of reassurance" for Sudek. It was a metaphoric link of outer and inner worlds and seemed to represent both the stillness of those times and the subtle changes that occurred in those fixed frames.

When seen within this context, the viewer tends to overlook the repetition to the frames and instead concentrate on the varying degrees of distortion that the frost and water on the panes of glass creates. The "mourning tree" that sits just outside in the courtyard in turn becomes a maimed stand-in for Sudek and gives reference to Sudek's loss of his arm while serving the Hungarian army during the First World War. Awkwardly angular, the trunk of the tree zigzags upward until it releases into a shock of off-shooting branches that quickly defies order.

The other window in the studio looks out on a block of apartments which brings an element of the city to this series. The glow from lights in the apartment widows outside of Sudek's inner world becomes a source of beauty with the approach of evening. This far-away window light gets scattered and refracted through the droplets of moisture and turns into ill-defined highlights that ornament the darkened frames.

The Window of My Studio has a design that feels at times more like that of a catalog than a true showcase for the work. It plods along with some wonderful pairings and other spreads that fight the flow of the book. The other difficulty here is with the reproductions. Although some get very fine treatment, others do not fair very well. I think this is due to the publisher attempting to mimic the color tonalities of Sudek's carbon prints, along with a poor choice of paper stock. To be fair, this is a common difficulty with many books of his work other than the older titles that were printed in luscious gravure.

Although I am at odds with some of the design and production, this series of books shows promise in presenting a complete study of Sudek’s work much like the Harry N. Abrams box-set did for August Sander a few years back. That set isn’t without its flaws either but it has become a source that I feel I couldn't do without. By the end of this series on Sudek -- that feeling may be very similar.

Torst

Book Available Here (Window of My Studio)

Book Available Here (Portraits)

Book Available Here (Still Lifes)

Book Available Here (Ancient Forest of the Beskids)

Book Available Here (Advertisements)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Bird (Blast #130) by Naoya Hatakeyama


My posts tend to be rather long (which I think is a good thing) but there are times when I'd simply like to be brief and spotlight some books I feel I've been neglecting. There are many fine titles that I think are interesting and worth your notice but when I sit to write about them, the words don't come easily. So as an exercise in brevity I am going to start to throw a few short posts into the mix and hopefully I can do so without short changing anyone's book -- or you, the readers.

Recently I picked up the book A Bird (Blast #130) from the Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama. Since this book is simply a sequence of 17 photographs of an explosion throwing earth into the air I thought it would become stale very quickly but much to my surprise it hasn't. Of all of Hatakeyama's work, the blast series is the most interesting to me. The limeworks photographs and his other industrial work do little to grab my attention like a good slow-motion explosion that throws earth at your face can.

A Bird (Blast #130) is great because it is so much about the unpredictable nature of photography to hold something and allow the discovery of beauty. In this sequence, the camera is static and the first two frames describe a rocky plateau overlooking a body of water. The ground looks leveled as if being prepared for some construction to begin. White patches of fine sand dot the level ground. The sky is shows signs of an oncoming storm and against the grey of a cloud, a small silhouette of a bird appears flapping towards the camera.

By frame three, the ground erupts into puffs of white from the sand patches and the earth starts to rise. Frame four, the whole plateau becomes an undulating wave as chunks of rock are frozen by the camera shutter -- the bird reacts by changing the direction of its course. On and on, the dirt, rocks and dust are thrown into the air until gravity once again slows its progress and pulls it all back to earth leaving the last remnants of rock to disappear into a dust cloud. After the dust settles, the bird is seen high-tailing it out of the area. (BIRD coincidentally means Blast-Induced Rock Damage but that has nothing to do with the book's title).

This would be a seductive sequence just based on the fact that the camera has slowed the fascinating transformation caused from the blast, but what keeps me responding to this work is the way that the explosion itself created such a beautiful form that fills the static frame. It is really luck falling on the side of the artist. There would be no way to predict the shape of the explosion, nor the coincidence of the bird appearing and flying in the perfect patch of sky as if an actor hitting their mark. I have seen many of Hatakeyama's blast photographs and none seem to transcend the fascination with the explosion like this one does. Surely that is why this deserves its own book.

A Bird (Blast #130) is finely printed and designed and was published in 2006 by the Taka Ishii gallery in an edition of 1000 copies.

Buy online at ICP Bookstore

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blood on Paper: The Art of the Book


Those of you in London should set a little time aside before the end of the month to visit the Blood on Paper: The Art of the Book exhibition currently on view at the Victoria and Albert museum. This is an exhibition of mostly contemporary artist books made within the past twenty years by artists who have been pushing conception and design of book craft. I will not be able to see the show but I do have the exhibition catalog which I wanted to tell you about.

I didn’t have much information before I received a copy so my immediate impression while opening it was with its elegant and beautiful construction. This “book” has an outer protective shell of heavy cardboard that unfolds to reveal a cloth covered box that has a nice typographic composition of the names of the artists debossed into the cover. The names are blind stamped (not foil stamped or inked) so they barely register against the creme color of the Brillianta cloth. What does stand out immediately is the blood-red hot foil stamped title.

The top cover of the box sits snugly closed over a bottom tray that does not allow the two linen boxes to meet when closed -- instead they stay slightly separated to allow a bit of the red inner tray to peek out through a crack, thus repeating the blood motif in an interesting yet simple design construction.

Once the cover of the box is removed there is a set of 41 loose folded leaves, each of which are dedicated to one or two books from each of the 38 artists featured in the exhibition. These folded leaves are wrapped in a linen cloth to assist lifting them out of the box undamaged. The leaves are printed on heavy weight 250 gsm matte paper and the printing is exquisite.

As I mentioned before each of the leaves is dedicated to one artist who is named on the front page and whose book is shown over the other 5 pages. (Each leave is basically a long sheet of paper folded folded twice to create three pages to a side -- six pages front and back).

The list of artists featured comes across as a who’s who of the twentieth century’s most famous. Bacon, Balthus, Baselitz, Beuys, Bourgeois, Buren, Bustamente, Cai Guo-Qiang, Caro, Chillida, Clemente, Dubuffet, Francis, Giacometti, Hirst, Iliazad, Kapoor, Keifer, Koons, Lecuire, Lewitt, Lichtenstein, Long, Matisse, McCarthy, Miro, Motherwell, Noguchi, Parr, Phillips, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Rego, Roth, Ruscha, Tapies, Tuttle, and Vital.

Most of the books featured, with the exception of a few, are very limited edition pieces. There is a facsimile suitcase full of reproductions of miscellaneous papers found in Francis Bacon’s studio (called Detritus) that is in an edition of 25. A unique book from Cai Guo-Qiang of drawings made with gunpowder mixed with paste that has a tempting string dangling from its edge that when pulled ignites the book. One of Damien Hirst with the pretentious title: I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now. A book by Anselm Keifer which stands vertically at 7 foot tall with pages made of lead covered cardboard called The Secret Life of Plants. Martin Parr’s contribution is of his Benidorn Album of 40 photos in plastic sleeves. Picasso’s Deux Contes is a book of 4 dryprints with a text by Ramon reventos that is housed between two carved pieces of wooded board bound by maroon fabric ties.

I could go on as much of this is pure eye candy for designers and alternative binding techniques etc -- but after a looking through all of this great material I started to realize just how thin the information about each book really is. All that is written about the individual books is simply their technical specifications (size, material, printing technique etc.) and almost nothing is written in regards to the content. ‘OK,’ I thought, 'the illustrations will show enough to get a sense of each book.' Think again. The illustrations show very little of the books actually. Most include a couple of images of the content/artwork, a photo of the cover or case of the book, and then much space and energy is given to extreme close-ups of the edges of the pages or a bit of embossing that -- although they look great -- they do little to inform.

This is the major missed opportunity with Blood on Paper. It is as if the producers of the book became so tied up with the elegance of the presentation that they took their eye off the informative aspect of this catalog. It wouldn’t have taken much to make this near perfect either. That is a real shame because each of the folded leaves is approximately 11.5 X 11.5 inches -- which is a lot of space to have available for illustrations. I might have suggested including many more photographs of the interiors of the books instead of just one or two photos that really just amount to being graphic elements.

Blood on Paper: The Art of the Book is co-published by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Ivory Press, the company behind C International Photo magazine/books and other limited edition artist books by artists included in this exhibition and catalog. Elena Foster and Rowan Watson are the curators of the exhibition and each offers a short introductory text to this catalog.

As many of you know I love books on artist books and it is really difficult to not enjoy most of Blood on Paper. The packaging and even the strong smell of the ink that wafts from the box entices me, but when it gets down to the bare essentials, I need to be able to see the blood we have heard so much about.

Ivory Press

Book Available Here (Blood on Paper)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Refusal by Jo Longhurst & Bird by Roni Horn


One thing that I enjoy is when I find connections between the works of different artists. Many of you have had the same experience where you are looking through a book and one image or a set of images triggers you to run to the book shelf to find its compliment in another artist.

This recently happened to me while looking through Jo Longhurst’s book The Refusal from Steidl. Immediately it brought to mind a book by Roni Horn called Bird so I thought it was a sign that these two stand alone books be reviewed together.

The Refusal is an artist book/exhibition catalog that is primarily about the un-natural breeding of English Whippet dogs and the relationship between humans and domesticated animals. In her essay On looking and being looked at, Longhurst speaks of the detachment a breeder can feel in choosing a young dog, ‘A proper show Whippet is bred to be looked at. The breeders hope to produce the perfect dog, focusing on body form and fluidity of movement.’ This essay is set at the end of a book that describes the clinical detached view of these animals alongside others where the viewers are prompted to feel an attachment through the animals gaze.

Longhurst employs various strategies in the presentation of this work. The clinical images are presented as grids (rather expected) but others are presented cropped into circles which dot the page either like petri dishes (they are presented after the clinical sidelong photos that immediately bring to mind genetics) or like tondi paintings from the Renaissance. Another series of traditional square photos direct our attention to the aforementioned gaze as the dogs look towards and away from the camera.

It was when I came across a spread of straight-on portraits of four dogs who are staring directly into the camera that instantly brought to mind photos from a recent catalog from Roni Horn called Bird which was published on the occasion of a show at the Hauser & Worth Gallery in London.

Initially it was the formal similarities that drew these two bodies of work together but as I kept looking from one to the other I found them sharing other traits as well.

Horn’s book continues her fascination with Iceland but this time through its birds. Here she has photographed the backs of the heads of many Icelandic fowl and they are presented as pairs on the facing page spreads. In some ways this also continues Horn’s strategy of making two nearly identical sculptures and exhibiting them together but this time the work is infused with a humor that is refreshing for her. I find myself giddy with how funny and absurd the shapes of the bird’s heads are at times. (A similar humorous quality is found in the faces of the birds depicted in the Doubt Box). Add to this a seductive palette of color from the feathers and their patterns and I find myself captivated with interest.

The same happens with Jo Longhurst’s side-long portraits of the Whippets. On a two page spread the book designers present 24 identical photographs of the dogs that show off the elegant drop of their chests, tuck of their stomachs and flow of their hind legs. With this repetition the viewer is invited to notice differences which in this case the most noticeable is that the tails of the dogs in proper “dog show” posture, wind up tucked between their legs. Humorously the tails end up becoming comic phalluses that stand erect or droop towards the ground.

Both of these books challenge my view of photography in that I want to say that it is the object itself that wins out and that the photography is a passive partner. It is known by my readers that I like to "see" the photographer at work in making the photographs just the same as a great novel is as much word choice and structure as the "story." Much of the photography here strikes me as mere documents that stand second to the message. Longhurst's work is the exception as many of the circle photographs are elegant and varied but the main thrust seems to fall into the former category. It may take me a while to accept this approach to the medium but these two titles make trying to read this new kind of book a fascinating task.

Bird is hardcover, approximately the size of an LP record and contains 20 photos. The design is elegant and simple, allowing the square photos to be reproduced at a large scale. Bird includes an essay by Philip Larratt-Smith called Hornithology: Nature's Question Mark which is a wonderful mix of fact and metaphor that has a similar flavor to Horn's text that accompanies the work in Another Water. Bird is co-published with the Hauser & Worth gallery and Steidl.

The Refusal is softcover, small and oblong and is a catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the work at the Museum Folkwang in Germany.

Buy The Refusal at Steidlville

Buy Bird at Steidlville

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Peru and Paris by Robert Frank


Forging ahead with the Robert Frank project, Steidl has released two new books of Robert’s work -- Peru and Paris.

Both of these books feature work that precedes The Americans and much of what we are privy to in them has not been seen before.

The first book, Peru, is work that Frank made on an extended trip to that country in 1948. Frank has said of the trip, "I was very free with the camera. I didn't think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing. I was like an action painter."

What is interesting here is that Frank made a couple copies of a spiral bound book of this work in 1949 (similar to his now famous Black and White and Things) and mailed a copy to his mother in Switzerland and kept the other for himself. The book was made from prints attached back to back to make up the full pages. He printed the images small on the paper leaving white spaces around them much like what we see in this new book. The two copies now reside in the Museum of Modern Art in NY and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This edition presents the entire series in much the same manner as the original maquettes from 1949.

Some of this work appeared in Incas to Indios, the book published by Delpire that included Pierre Verger and Warner Bischof. To me there was always something unsatisfying about that book even though I enjoy the photographs and layout. To see this work together and sequenced on its own serves as an interesting guide to Frank’s ideas of how to link images together.

Peru, like the re-issue of The Americans, has beautiful printing with what seems like a satin varnish that makes the tonalities rich but not oppressively so. A friend who has seen many of these original prints commented recently that the reproductions mimic the tonalities and character of the originals.

There is no text to Peru, just 39 photographs configured on the pages with an energy that none of his other books but Black and White and Things explored. It is for these qualities that this has become one of my new favorite books of the year.


Paris is the second book released this season and it sits in stark contrast to Peru.
In the late 1940s after he emigrated to New York and established working contacts here, Frank returned to Europe on several occasions between 1949 and 1952. Within that time Frank spent a large amount of time photographing in Paris and this book collects 70 of the images together for the first time.

In an editorial note in the back of this book it is mentioned that Frank’s experiences in America “sharpened his eye for theOld World.’” This notion of the Old World comes across as steeped in sentimentality in today’s terms. Most everything about this book, from the flower sellers to the clothing, holds a longing for the past but luckily I don’t think Frank can ever be thought of as saccharine. The photos still have an edge of melancholy and the struggle of life. It is interesting to mention that many of the same photographs of flower sellers appear in his book Flower is... to a much different effect than the over all tone of this one.

Several of these photos have been seen elsewhere (such as my favorite of a child seeming to hold a monstrosity of a horse at bay while his companions flee) but I think what brings this book down is the edit. There are a few images that probably should have been left out even though I go out of my way to see every “new” image by Frank that I can. One other curiosity is that a fine vertical image of a couple in a streetcar appears to be cropped oddly when an uncropped version appeared in the Steidl catalog announcing the book.

I like the size of this book (almost the same trim size as Pierre Verger’s Indians of Peru and with similar dark red endpapers) and the printing is as fine as the others but the design is problematic to my eyes. One trait is to go over the gutter with certain images and although I am lightening up on my attitude to such things -- here they push only about 1/5th of the photo over to the other page. I don’t understand the necessity as they are not gaining much “real estate” for the photo while adding a huge divider to it. Other spreads work much better where the images -- bled to the page edge on the longest ends -- meet in the gutter and form a diptych across the spread. Most of those make for wonderful pairings of images.

Robert Frank is my other favorite photographer so I am probably much more forgiving than I would be had someone else’s name been on the cover. Several friends of mine seem to think that a book like this waters down a great man’s oeuvre coming so late in life but I say keep them coming. They may not always work as books but then maybe he just raised the bar so high that our image of him needs to be brought back down to human terms. Perhaps in the end, that is what that odd evening at the Walter Reade Theater was all about.

Buy Peru at Steidlville

Buy Paris at Steidlville

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Living With War & Protest The War by Judith Joy Ross


Dick Cheney: On the security front, I think there's a general consensus that we've made major progress, that the surge has worked. That's been a major success.

Martha Raddatz: Two-third of Americans say it's not worth fighting.

Dick Cheney: So?

Martha Raddatz: So? You don't care what the American people think?

Dick Cheney: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.

Does it seem like as we try to pour democracy into Iraq it gets drained from this country? Now that we know public opposition to the war is just a “fluctuation” (that damn flip-flopping American public) there is no need to do any more protesting. Well -- tell that to Judith Joy Ross who’s two new books from Steidl Living With War and Protest the War are as strong and vocal a statement as I have seen even from millions mobilized into the streets.

Ross’s portraiture has dealt with the aftermath of war before with her series of images made at the Vietnam veteran's wall in Washington DC. With her trademark 8x10 view camera she describes people stripped bare of artifice and self consciousness. Almost Zen-like with their absence of tension, these photographs sooth the viewer with a tenderness and human-kindness that is often sought but rarely seen in portraiture today. There is no need for irony here, these are images that are so loaded with beautiful facts so clearly described that their strength is their ability to still strike even after familiarity sets in.

As many of you have figured out by now (or think you have figured out) one of my main criteria for work is my ability to return to it with sustained interest and enjoy what I see as the photographer’s prowess in making the individual image. Well, these two books -- the larger of which contains 85 photographs -- are examples of just that. Most of these photographs are portraits of people taken from the mid-section up and there is a dangerous amount of similarity from one to the next. These are not remarkably different images in terms of their basic construction but what each has in terms of small visual clues that Ross masterfully draws out arrests my attention with each page. These are not books that I am capable of just flipping through. Much like what August Sander was capable of doing even with the exhausting amount of work and similarity of subject, Ross makes each an individual that can stand amongst others but they do not blend with the crowd.

Living With War opens with the Vietnam Memorial Wall photographs and follows with a series of portraits of young veterans from the first Gulf War in 1991. The last section is a series of war protesters from the latest debacle. Resolute and steadfast, these demonstrators stand with conviction that is tinged with slight powerlessness. They stand on the right side of reason but know that all of the power they attempt to pack into a cardboard sign can too easily be dismissed by those that drive the war. These photos are driven by an inner wish to regain control in an atmosphere where our own democracy and government seem like foreign invaders.


Protest The War is a small booklet of 22 images beautifully printed to reflect Ross’s use of printing out paper for her final prints. (I had heard that she went to Washington earlier this year and handed out copies of this book to government officials. I wonder how many took time to look into the faces of their constituents.) Protest The War is paperback and was co-published by the Pace MacGill Gallery in NYC.

Living With War is as beautifully printed and this large format book is sure to wind up on one of my best of lists for the year.

My form of protest is often wound up in violent fantasy that would play right into the hands of the opposition if realized -- thus accomplishing nothing. This book is a more mature and powerful form of civil disobedience. Someone should force Bush and President Cheney to stare at these portraits. Maybe that would appeal to their inner human being. And if all they can understand is violence then perhaps gripping the book in both hands and bringing it down on the bridge of their noses might work better. Either way works for me.

Buy Living with War at Steidlville

Buy Protest the War at Steidlville

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Respekt by Josef Koudelka


To follow up on the fine new Josef Koudelka book from Torst, Invaze 68, a friend of mine reminded me of a rare little item that published several of these images before.

In August of 1990, 47 of Josef’s Prague invasion photographs from 1968 appeared in the Czech weekly news-magazine Respekt. This is an entire issue dedicated to this work and moment in history.

The news-magazine itself is on newspaper type stock (which does not age gracefully) instead of the more common glossy print stock. This staple-bound issue is 32 pages in length and includes a brief text by Anna Farove and Josef in Czech.

What is worth commenting on is the design which seems to have set the pace for how the new book was laid out. The photographs play off one another and at times have a cinematic repetition that denotes movement and a sequence of events through the use of consecutive images. Unlike his other books which insist on the authority of individual photos, this is meant to be a barrage that suggests that more than one perceptive “sense” is being called upon to experience. This work alternates between being the visual equivalent of auditory noise and silence. Silence, of course, filled with molar-crushing tension for the participants.

The magazine’s cover shows Josef’s hand and watch hanging over an empty boulevard. To continue this thought of a watch’s second-hand ticking away and the tension of anticipation, the designers have cleverly enlarged the magazine’s page numbers into oversized weighty blocks of type that sit as markers at the bottom of the page. They push the sequence forward hinting at an ominous outcome.

I would assume that this magazine would be near impossible to find now 18 years later considering its disposable nature and construction but who knows -- do you have any friends in the Czech Republic -- maybe it’s time to call in some favors.

Note: We all have Ed Grazda to thank for the loan of Respekt. Thanks Ed.

Book Available Here (Josef Koudelka)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Invaze 68: Anonymní Český Fotograf Josef Koudelka


When thousands of Soviet troops rolled into Prague on tanks in 1968 to quell what the Kremlin saw as reforms made by then Czech president Dubcek that threatened their hold over Czechoslovakia - it was a major turning point in the life of the photographer Josef Koudelka. The history that includes his leaving his country and remaining stateless for decades is a large part of the mystique and romance of Koudelka’s life but what I did not know was that he had just returned two days prior to the invasion from a trip that foreshadowed his own statelessness -- photographing gypsy encampments.

Koudelka hadn’t done “news” before as a photographer, all of his previous subjects were spurred by his personal passion and interest but this event was as personal, “I felt very strongly about what was happening. This was my country, my problem. I took these pictures for myself, not with the intention of publication.” Even though it wasn’t his intention, these photographs were published and that act may have led to his being granted a three-month working visa in England on the recommendation of Magnum and thus being able to leave Czechoslovakia and work freely.


A few of the Prague invasion photographs had been seen before and now a large format book has been published called Invaze 68: Anonymni Cesky Fotograf Josef Koudelka (Invasion 68: Anonymous Czech Photographer Josef Koudelka) published by Torst with an American edition being co-published by Aperture and distributed in the Fall of this year.

The subtitle Anonymous Czech Photographer refers to the photo credit given to the images distributed by Magnum that would eventually lead to his being asked to join the agency. Fearing reprisals on Josef if he were credited by name they were instead attributed to P-P (Prague Photographer) when they appeared in The Sunday Times a year later and a Robert Capa gold medal was given to an ‘Anonymous Czech Photographer.’

Invaze 68 contains 249 photographs within the almost 300 pages and is well designed for impact and to feel more like an epic magazine spread than an art book. Some of the images run as full double-page spreads while others are stacked into grids where 16 images appear at once. Throughout Invaze 68 there is much text that derives from interviews with participants, radio broadcasts, and news accounts of the events. (My edition is the Czech edition so much of the specifics eludes me until I can get my hands on an English edition.)


To have a book with so many images there is usually the problem of it not sustaining the power from cover to cover but this hasn’t left my hands since it arrived two days ago. Koudelka’s coverage of the events over 8 days is extraordinary and the character of his photography that we have come to know through Gypsies or Exiles is clearly at play here. Why we have only seen around 50 of these images before is a mystery. There is so much wealth among this work that it is refreshing to finally see what is often left behind on contact sheets or the editing floor.

I had the pleasure of seeing Josef while he was in NYC last week and I asked him this very question regarding why much of this work has not seen the light of day especially when there was a small Photo Notes book Prague, 1968 (Photo Poche series) which featured 51 images. His response was simply that he gave the work to Robert Delpire and Robert was the one who put that small edition together without much editing input from Josef. The rest of the work has never left the contact sheets before.

Invaze 68 is soft cover and beautifully printed and my only complaint is that some of the images that run across the gutter get their most important elements eaten by the split. I have one suggestion to diehard Josef Koudelka fans and that is to buy a copy of the Czech edition by Torst. The cover for that edition is made of recycled paper much like the cover of Black Triangle and it is such a nice element to the tone of the book. I have seen an advance copy of the Aperture edition and the only difference is that they changed the cover stock to a traditional soft cover stiff wrappers.

Koudelka is one of my two favorite photographers and my main complaint is not being able to see more unknown images in the recent books. The last Aperture retrospective (which is now sold out) had few pictures we hadn’t seen before but Invaze 68 has about 200 on its own. Not all of it is great work but a surprising amount is, but more importantly, all of it deserves its place within this remarkable historical book.

Note: The photos in the composites above are taken from the Magnum Photos website instead of my copy of Invaze 68.

Buy online at Torst

Book Available Here (Invasion 68)