Monday, December 31, 2007

Books for Spring 2008

2007 is just about over and although it has been mostly a year of sadness and death (Endless war! Antonioni Dead! Mailer Dead! Vonnegut Dead! Charles Nelson Reilly Dead! Bush is still breathing!), the world of photography books is alive and flourishing. And now that we have the next 11 months of political campaigning to look forward to, we will need something to keep our high blood pressure in check. I suggest…since you won’t be able to make the mortgage payments anyway, spend all your earnings on art and photography books. That’s a safe investment.

So this is a look ahead to 2008 at some titles that are to be published that look interesting and may deserve further investigation. We know what they say about judging books by their covers so I hope my excitement isn’t taken to the mat on a great number of these but here goes...

In the department of reissues, 2008 will see several. One that is long since overdue is Aperture’s new edition of Robert Adams’ The New West. So if you missed out on the 1974 original or those Walther Konig editions from 2000, now is your chance. This is a must have, sight unseen. Aperture also picked up Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train and has printed an expanded version with 30 more photos.

From the unstoppable Heidelbergs of Steidl, comes a new edition of Robert Frank’s Zero Mostel Reads a Book as well as a much needed 50th anniversary edition of The Americans. Also since they think outside the box, they are reprinting Andy Warhol’s 1968 classic catalog from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Kruse Publisher is reissuing Karin Apollonia Muller’s sleeper on LA, Angels In Fall which made the cut and was included in Parr and Badger Volume 2. This book made somewhat of an impression on me but I hesitated in getting a copy and then it was gone (but not apparently for good).

The lastly I will mention MoMA’s updated edition of Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters with additional photos from the past seven years.

For books of original works, there are too many that look promising to mention them all - so I will stick to a few that are a little off the beaten path.

Lee Friedlander is breaking his short silence this year with a book of Fredrick Law Olmsted Landscapes from DAP.

The video and filmmaker Chantal Ackerman is the subject of a new book called Moving Through Time and Space from the Art Museum of the University of Houston.

Torst, the publisher of all photographers Czech, has two new books of my favorite one-armed photographer Josef Sudek with Portraits and The Window of My Studio.

Powershovel Books who gave you the reworking of Daido Moriyama’s Bye Bye Photography is continuing to keep Moriyama in our sightline with Kagero and Colors - another reworking of one of his early books spliced with color photographs.

What may be the most pleasant surprise this year is Aperture’s It’s Beautiful Here Isn’t It… a book of Luigi Ghirri’s color photographs (with an introduction by Bill Eggleston). Aperture is also handling a special edition set of Eric Kessels’ In Almost Every Picture (Volumes One to Five) signed and numbered and housed in a grey felt slipcase.

One of the better young photographers working today, Lisa Kereszi, is having her project on the New York burlesque scene published by Damiani in a book called Fantasies.

Editorial RM is publishing what looks to be the first serious treatment of Nacho Lopez, one of Mexico’s best street photographers, in a huge 500 page volume called Luna Cornea.

Olaf Otto Becker’s iceberg photos are being published by Hatje Cantz in what looks to be a handsome edition called Broken Line.

I am not sure what to expect from Anders Petersen’s City Diary from Steidl since his last two books have been complete duds but this is on my radar.

Thomas Demand’s huge installation Grotto that I had mentioned in my review of the Serpentine Gallery Catalog is the subject of an expensive but luxurious two volume set called Processo Grottesco from Progetto Prada Arte.

And last but certainly not least, Paul Shambroom of Meetings fame has a new book called Picturing Power from the University of Minnesota.

Well…this is my small look forward for Spring 2008. Yes…that is right; these are all for just the Spring season. There will be thousands of more trees pulped for Summer, Fall and Winter. So stay tuned.

Since I quit smoking last year and have the metabolism of a hummingbird, my resolution for the New Year is to keep 5B4 Photography and Books an interesting distraction and resource for all concerned.

One New Year’s wish from me is, if you haven’t used up all of your resolutions already, please consider: “For 2008, I will leave more comments on 5B4 because I have opinions of my own that I can no longer suppress.”

Cheers and Happy New Year. May it be filled with happiness and success and cheap first editions.

Whiskets and Jeff

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jazz by Ed Van Der Elsken

I know I have already made my favorites list for 2007 but I do want to slip one late arrival in under the wire while we still have a couple days left. Jazz by Ed Van Der Elsken, originally published by De Bezige Bij in Amsterdam in 1959, has just been released in a facsimile edition from Karl Lagerfeld’s Edition 7L in Paris. This is one of several books that Edition 7L has created a facsimile edition of and in each case they have done so with beautiful results.

This small book, unassuming from the outside with its 6 ¾ by 7 ¼ inch trim size, reveals itself within the span of just a few pages to be a remarkable document in both photography and book design. Elsken’s small format camera and fast speed film is the perfect combination to catch the spontaneity of what is transpiring both on stage and in the crowd. Within a few frames he shifts our vantage point from passive observers of the musicians to placing us in the shoes and on stage among the players. Jumping from wide shots to extreme close-ups, the strength of the photography is its ability to be as energetic as the music.

The design, also by Elsken, is another achievement in raising the energy level. The page layouts have their own rhythms and structure that are as metaphorically musical as necessary to create a visual accompaniment that expresses the excitement felt while listening to the music. The book starts with the crowd responding to the first notes and the layout progresses in a fairly traditional way until Miles Davis steps to center stage; Elsken makes a double page spread out of a vertical photo and turns Miles sideways so he defies gravity.

Parr and Badger in their citation of this book in Photobook Vol. 1 name William Klein’s New York as a likely influence to the design. I would add that some of Elsken’s page layouts echo the John Hermansader and Reid Miles Blue Note album covers of the late 1950’s with their heavily cropped and contrasty photos of musicians emerging from the darkness. For me, one of the more seductive qualities of the book is how the difference in the coarseness of the film’s grain varies from photo to photo and becomes another element in the design.

Few of the images in Jazz escape with their original Leica proportions intact. Elsken crops the images down to their purest form and mostly for the sake of the book’s design. In one particularly creative page, Elsken splices the faces of Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge onto the same head to form a tenor sax and trumpet playing hybrid. The book ends with a sequence of Sarah Vaughn building to a final never-ending note.

The production work on this facsimile edition was done by Steidl. The original was printed in gravure and with this edition; Steidl has accomplished a beautiful faux-gravure printing that is ever so slightly silvery-blue in tone and deeply rich. The paper choice and tack sharp grain of Elsken’s photos complete the feeling of vintage gravure printing.

The texts by Jan Vrilman, Hugo Claus, Simon Carmiggelt, Friso Endt and Michiel de Ruyter along with a song list of recommended listening appear in their original Dutch. A separate thin-paged booklet of English translations sits in the endpapers.

The regular edition retails for only $30.00 which I find surprising inexpensive considering the fine quality. There is a special edition of 1000 copies also available for $100.00. This special edition is a facsimile made from an original copy of Jazz from Ed Van Der Elsken’s estate where he had written the names of all of the performers in silver ink directly onto the pages.

Buy online at Steidlville

Buy Special Edition online at Steidlville

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thousand by Philip-Lorca diCorcia

I know I have lifted this little piece of wisdom from someone and recited it before but every time someone puts a camera to their eye there is the potential to make a masterpiece. Mostly though, with the same movements and intellect, we wind up making sketches. Whatever it takes to elevate a photo into the category of masterpiece does not happen often (5-10 times in an artist’s life?) and the near misses or failed opportunities stand as reminders of the artist’s weakness. This is why, for some, looking at contact sheets or letting others look at their contact sheets can induce feelings of embarrassment or bring about insecurities about one’s talents - as if the contact sheets will prove that the artist is a fraud.

Contact sheets are probably the closest and purest form of a ‘sketchbook’ that a photographer has. Like in the sketchbooks from other disciplines, we see the artist working something out; an idea, a curiosity or a random impulse. Frame by frame, we are privy to a process taking place conscious or unconscious. In almost all cases, the sketch is seen as something less important to a ‘committed work.’ Not that with time we can’t elevate a particular sketch to the status of great art but when sitting side by side with a ‘finished’ work, we usually create a hierarchy even if one shouldn‘t exist.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s book Thousand just published by SteidlDangin is one thousand polaroid photographs; or might I say, one thousand sketches.

I say sketches for many reasons. First and foremost, I cannot help but to create the hierarchy I mentioned above as many of these polaroids were made to answer a technical question; is the lighting correct? Is the exposure correct? How are mixed light sources going to read? Do I like this framing? Am I barking up the wrong tree with this situation? We know this because while flipping through this book we recognize many of the same set-ups where diCorcia achieved a great photograph afterwards with his film camera.

These are sketches because we also may see diCorcia working out the potential for meaning for the final photograph. A polaroid allows the photographer to see how a particular expression or body language ‘reads’ on film. DiCorcia’s subject is often, as Tod Papageorge has written, “the melancholy occupations of those young for whom stepping over a threshold is as significant an act as anything that might occur once they’ve entered the room in question and started to talk.” What subtle or grand gesture might be explored while shooting can be revealed in polaroids.

These are sketches because from a book standpoint, that is how we are asked to see them. They are printed in a way that makes all of them equal regardless of whether the image is ‘good’ or not. As they are presented, each photo averages 3 by 4 inches in size on the page and they are printed on a thin translucent paper that lacks the ability to reproduce the full detail of the original. In some, it is almost impossible to ‘read’ the image at all either because of the reproduction or because of the state of the original.

And lastly, by including ONE THOUSAND of them in this book, it becomes obvious to the viewer within the first dozen that ‘masterpieces’ aren’t the point of this book.

So, what is the point of this book? That’s an interesting question for I see this work as inescapable from being a record of anything other than the process of photography itself. With each turn of the page I see diCorcia, as a photographer, working with photography. This is a photographic sketchbook. The photos may describe life and try to be a kind of diary of a life, but I can’t see it that way because of the physical materials. If anything, this is a diary of photography.

What I see are photos of great stages without characters. Great characters without worthy stages. Bad lighting. Perfect lighting. Potential meaning. No meaning. DiCorcia the photographer being clever. DiCorcia the photographer being heavy handed. Great form but little content. Close but no photo of a cigar. And sprinkled among them are approximately 50 fine photographs that stand out screaming for a better forum but they are silenced and pushed from our memories by the hundreds that might as well just be a numbered page.

This book is interesting for what it seems to ask from the viewer; impossible amounts of patience, attention and stamina (if you turn one page every second - not even able to take in each image - it would take you over 16 minutes to get through from cover to cover). The production is interesting for its choice of material, printing and design that allows the book to flop open and lay spread like some passive gluttonous beast. But my interest dies quickly when all I have are those superficial curiosities.

I may not be able to see the forest for the trees, but I do know that seeing one thousand of diCorcia’s polaroids does not excite me more than seeing one of his masterpieces.

Buy online at Steidlville

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Three books on Josep Renau

Looking back over the year one of my most interesting rediscoveries in art has been with collage and photomontage artists. These types of artists have always held a backseat to my fascination with photographers who can miraculously tame the world into one photo at the click of a button but since I have opened the floodgates towards other disciplines such as graphic design - people like Gustave Klutsis, John Heartfield, Marianne Brandt and dozens of others are nudging their way to the forefront of my attention. Josep Renau is a name among that list that I discovered while reading the texts in the Revistas y Guerra 1936 - 1939, the fantastic book about the political magazines and newspapers that were published during the Spanish Civil War.

Renau was a founding member of the communist party in Valencia, Spain and editor of the anti-fascist magazine Nueva Cultura. His keen sense of design and photomontage led him to champion new directions in political propaganda by utilizing commercial means for anti-fascist causes. Named Director General de Bellas Artes in Madrid, beside his efforts to save the nation’s artistic legacy that was being threatened by the war, he was creating posters for the communist party and popular army in the fight for hearts and minds of the public. As Director General, he also commissioned Picasso to create one of his most famous paintings, Guernica, for the pavilion of the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Paris.

After Franco’s Nationalists took power in 1939, Renau was exiled and took up residence in Mexico. In 1940, he became a Mexican citizen and started compiling images from American magazines such as Life, The New York Times and Fortune with the intent to accomplish a series of photomontages called Fata Morgana USA - The American Way of Life.

His close proximity to the United States coupled with his long standing communism compelled him to aim a bitter attack that would expose America’s ‘way’ of militarism, racism, blind consumerism, sexism, and imperialism all wrapped up and treated to the not so subtle language of advertising. His was an art that asks us (or teaches us) to look under the thin veil of advertising and examine the rotting underbelly of reality.

Unlike John Heartfield whose cut and paste and retouching techniques tended to create a flatter sense of space, Renau layered his color and black and white elements so that our attention is being pulled back and forth from the foreground to background giving the effect of added dimension.

By using the saturated colors to seduce the viewer much like an advertising billboard does, Renau draws us into his world and then clubs you with his clashing of the self-centered American dream pitted against the dark realities of the world.

The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be the starter pistol for Renau to complete his first photomontage of the series in 1945. Called simply 6th of August, it depicts Truman giving a self-satisfied smile before an array of radio microphones and against a backdrop of a deep red mushroom cloud. Bits of a shattered skull rain down around him.

Of the reported 200 photomontages Renau made during his career, 69 appear under the series title of American Way of Life. The original edition of Fata Morgana USA was published in 1967 and gathered a selection of 40 of the photomontages along with a text by Renau. I have never seen a copy of the original edition so I do not know about the quality of reproductions or layout design. Interestingly, from 1958 until his death in 1982, Renau lived in Germany so the book was published by the Eulenspiegel publishing company in Berlin. Eulenspiegel was a government approved publisher of satire in the GDR. This, of course would be the perfect publisher for a book that trains its spotlights on the failures of the bourgeois ideals of capitalism at a time when Germany itself was divided, but oddly and much to Renau’s indignation, the entire edition of the book was exported.

48 full color reproductions appear in Josep Renau Fotomontador which was published in 1985 as a part of the Rio de Luz series from the Fondo de Cultura Economica in Mexico City. This is the book that gets mention in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s Photobook Vol. 2. It was published in 3000 copies and is a functional, if not somewhat disposable presentation of the work (It isn’t the book that you like but the work itself). Think approximate size, length and reproduction quality of the soft cover Les Grands Maitres de la Photo series published by Gruppo Editoriale in Milan around the same time.

In 1989, the IVAM Center Julio Gonzalez (Institut Valencia D’Art Modern) held an exhibition of Renau and published the first complete catalog Fata Morgana USA The American Way of Life series. This book reproduces all 69 of the series in full color, except for three which had been lost by Renau and were reproduced in black and white from file copies. Being that this is the complete set, I think it is an important book from the bibliography of Renau but it does have its detractions. I am not crazy about the paper (too glossy; one could argue that the ‘gloss’ accents the language of capitalism but I don‘t see that as intentional here) and the reproductions are a bit on the weak side (possibly due to the paper choice). If you peek under the dust jacket you get treated to a giant inked dollar sign on the front cover board.

The best book on Renau also came from the IVAM Center in 2003 and is called simply Josep Renau. It is an almost complete inventory of his photomontages as well poster designs (including Mexican movie posters), magazine cover designs, paintings, and murals but unlike many other ‘catalog raisonnes’ this does not reproduce the works as postage stamp sized illustrations but instead at a size adequate enough to enjoy the nuances of each piece. The reproductions are very nicely printed. This 440 page book comes housed in a slipcase.

Here the entire Fata Morgana USA series is reproduced but what captures my interest more is seeing all of the poster designs he created during the Spanish Civil War and the Futuro magazine covers from WWII. These take the lessons of Russian constructivism and infuse them with a Latin American sensibility. This mostly felt when Renau includes characters whose eyes speak volumes. In classic Russian constructivism, Lenin or Stalin’s eyes look towards the greater, external future while Renau’s protagonists look inward, unafraid of personal feeling while at the same time looking to the collective benefit.

The IVAM Center, I guess since they were the repository of Renau’s archive after his death, has a third book on Renau called Josep Renau Fotomontador that was published in 2006 but I have not tracked down a copy and since the other two cover this territory it may be superfluous except for the Renau completist.

The last book I will mention is also from the IVAM Center and it is a book that I picked up by chance when a couple years ago the New Museum in NYC was moving from their old Broadway location to their Chelsea space. Before they moved they had a book sale that went on for a couple months and the sale items were 3 dollars for soft cover (no matter the size) and 6 dollars for hardcover. They replenished the sale with new books more frequently to the move date. La Ciudad Collage: La Coleccion del IVAM is one that I picked up for 3 dollars that is now one of my favorites as a collection of collage artists inspired by The City as a metaphor of modernity.

Including artists as diverse in discipline and idea from Paul Citeron to Fischli and Weiss it is broken into different chapters that cover the inhabitants, the streets, the architecture and even a chapter on the grotesque. Not just staying within the boundaries of collage as the book’s title may suggest, it presents artists like Lee Friedlander whose images often create a sense of collage even within one single photograph or George Grosz whose paintings have the same ‘cut and paste’ confusion of space and relationships.

I doubt that this could be found for 3 dollars but many of the IVAM catalogs including the Josep Renau titles I mention above as well as one on John Heartfield are available at very reasonable prices should you accept to pay the shipping fees from Spain.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Defining Moments in American Photography series from UC Press

The 20 hour flight from Thailand to New York left me with a lot of reading time so I was able to finish off the first two releases of the University of California Press’s Defining Moments in American Photography series On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (#1 in the series) and Lynching Photographs (#2). Although I find the second book Lynching Photographs an odd choice for a ‘defining moment,’ both are fascinating reads and leave me very curious as to how the series will progress.

Now usually I do not care for books dedicated solely to history so on first glance I thought these would be prime candidates as simple dust collectors, sitting on my shelf neglected and mostly unread. But…these are not simply history lessons; they provoke thought and examine the work in the realm of other visual culture. The series goal is to “investigate key photographers and images in the history of American photography. Reshape that history with attention to race, gender, and class; bring focused and accessible studies of American photography to a wide audience; place American photography at the center of American visual culture; and bring into dialogue writers from art history, American studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary studies, and American history.” (Whew!)

Each book contains two essays by different authors and each tackle a different aspect of the work. For instance, in On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook, Anthony W. Lee writes at length about the history behind the creation of the Sketchbook and also the role photography played in relation to war and to other means of documentation such as the sketch artists who were also working the battlefields. Then, Elizabeth Young takes the conversation in a different direction with her essay, Verbal Battlefields, which examines the relation of words to photographs since Gardner’s Sketchbook has extensive captions for each photograph.

Even the more straight forward history has interesting details that were new to me (although I should say that I am hardly a scholar of Gardner and the Sketchbook). For instance, one aspect that I never gave thought to was that the coverage of the war mainly concentrated on the East coast events due to the need for photographers to stay close to major photo chemical and glass suppliers in New York and Philadelphia since Gardner, O’Sullivan and others were using wet plates.

I also did not know that, like Roger Fenton in the Crimean War, Gardner also set up photographs and ‘covered his tracks’ of the fabrications with his captions. The famous image ‘Home of a rebel sharpshooter’ portrays a soldier lying dead behind some cover, but what is not disclosed is that, like Fenton’s cannonballs, Gardner dragged the dead soldier some 40 yards from where he was killed and ‘created’ the scenario of a ‘sharpshooter’ even down to propping up a rifle against the cover. Meanwhile, his caption reads: “The artist, in passing over the scene of the previous day’s engagements, found in a lonely place the covert of a rebel sharpshooter, and photographed the scene presented here.”

Both of the essays by Lee and Young are written in styles that are fully comprehendible, entertaining and approach sophisticated readings of the work while avoiding stifling and bloated language. The size, layout and design are very well done but if I had one criticism, it would be that there are not enough illustrations. Over the course of 80 text pages there are only 28 illustrations and less than half of those are actual reproductions from the Sketchbook. The ‘rebel sharpshooter’ photograph, for instance, is not reproduced anywhere in the book even though it is offered as a prime example of Gardner‘s fabrications.

The series is being released in both hard and soft cover editions. The hardcover edition will retail for $50.00 which seems very expensive for the size and length but thankfully the soft cover retails for a very reasonable $19.95, making it affordable for students and teachers who will benefit greatly from this series.

(My own life crossed interestingly with a bit of photographic history from the Civil War in that a friend just moved out of a huge 4800 square foot loft in 359 Broadway. 359 Broadway was the building that Mathew Brady, the other great civil war photographer, had a portrait gallery and photo studio back in the 1850‘s. Brady had set up the gallery on the second floor and was said to experiment with lighting his subjects with skylights on the top floor. My friend lived on the top floor and the skylight mentioned is so large that it extends the ceiling of that room upwards of twenty feet. He did rent the space out as a photo studio but mostly we took advantage of the high ceiling in that skylight room to string a net across the gap and partake in marathon tournaments of drunken badminton. Interesting to think that 150 years ago Brady was photographing dignitaries and the social elite in the same room in which we were now arguing about whether the shuttlecock landed in or out of bounds on our makeshift court.)

Even though I mentioned that I found Defining Moments in American Photography #2, Lynching Photographs, an odd choice of subject for so early into a series, it does serve as an interesting companion to the first book on Gardner‘s Sketchbook. Both discuss dark, brutal periods in American history and both examine race as portrayed in photographs.

As with the Twin Palms book, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photographs in America, this is not for the squeamish. Mind you, it should be seen, it should be read, but at several points the descriptions of brutality were too much for me. Oddly, as difficult as it is to admit, I find the verbal descriptions of the events more nauseating than the photographs themselves.

Most lynchings were spectacles. Due to the victims mostly being of African descent, they were meant as confirmations of supposed social/racial hierarchy for whites and also as warning to blacks that the law cannot protect them from harm should they test that hierarchy. The role of photography as witness becomes a complicated dance between documentation and drawing the viewer of the photograph into the spectacle of the lynch mob. Looking at these photographs, we peer at what has taken place just as the surrounding mob is doing the same.

The series editor Anthony W. Lee expresses this point in his introduction when he writes about the Roth Horowitz gallery’s exhibit of lynching photographs from the collection of James Allen in 2000. Due to the popularity of the exhibit and small size of the gallery, the viewers were forced to huddle together, jostling for space while looking at the small photographs pinned to the walls and arranged in vitrine cases. Lee’s observation was that the “viewers are left with an exhibit that is too close to the spectacle created by the lynchers themselves.”

The first essay by Shawn Michelle Smith called the Evidence of Lynching Photographs concentrates on what we see in these photographs and how certain images have been appropriated by different groups to serve different causes. The most famous image by Lawrence Beitler of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana is used as an example of the flexibility of meaning. The different ‘messages’ range from condoning the actions of the mob, to shaming the mob, to exposing the brutality of our ‘civilization’, to use in showing victimization by anti-abortion advocates, to rallying black rage and finally in art pieces commenting on the legacy of such brutality.

The fact that many of the photographs were offered for sale or produced as postcards by the photographers amplifies their existence as perverse celebrations of lawlessness and racist vigilantism. Smith pulls a fascinating observation from one example of a postcard sent by a young man to his parents. In the margins of the postcard which depicts a burnt corpse he has written, “This is a barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your sone [sic] Joe.” With this caption and his marking an ‘x’ over where he appears in the crowd it can be presumed that he imagines that his parents will be proud of his participation in the killing of an African American. Thus the bond between son and parent as well as their shared race will be strengthened by the murder. As Smith writes: “In this postcard, the death of a black man enables whiteness to be shared.”

The second essay by Dora Apel entitled Lynching Photographs and the Politics of Public Shaming asks the questions: Why take photographs of atrocity and body horror? Who has the right to look at such photos? Is looking a voyeuristic indulgence, a triumphal act, or an experience in shame?

Towards the end of her essay, Apel writes of how, at least on one occasion, a lynching photograph actually contributed to a change in the course of history. The infamous killing of Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 was turned into a national scandal when during the funeral in Chicago, Mamie Till opened the casket and allowed Jet magazine photographer David Jackson to photograph Emmett’s grotesquely disfigured face. The shock of such a photograph seen aside other photos of Till as a handsome young man created an anti-racist backlash that had not ever been stirred by a lynching photograph. “They has effectively reclaimed and emphatically asserted the right to look in the larger public arena, where the humiliated black body was re-endowed with dignity and humanity in a different public ritual, one rarely performed for lynching victims, that of mourning.” Three months after Till’s funeral, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus, decidedly due to her shock of seeing the Till photographs.

Again, as editor of the series, Alexander W. Lee is choosing writers for their clarity and thoughtfulness. The ease at which these books read and provoke thought is a pleasure that I hope will continue to be a characteristic throughout the entire series. With these two books setting the pace, I am looking forward to other releases with great anticipation.

University of California Press

Book Available Here (On Alexander Gardner's Sketchbook)

Book Available Here (Lynching Photographs)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Map of the East by Leo Rubinfien

Let us stay in Asia for another couple days shall we? Leo Rubinfien’s Map of the East is a book that somehow has managed to fly way under the radar for many readers but it has been one of my favorites for several years. This book represents eight years of work done during several trips to Japan, Thailand, China, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The title is misleading as Rubinfien’s map is one of confused borders and great leaps across continents that take place at the turn of a page. Embracing what photography does best, he leads us down an alleyway in Shanghai that empties onto a wharf in the Philippines.

Rubinfien takes us on a journey that winds the clock backwards so modernity slowly dissolves into antiquity. Our mind’s eye, with its predetermined visions of ‘what is Asian,’ is momentarily fogged with Western influence. No wonder Rubinfien starts the book off with a young Japanese man who looks choked by the collar and tie of his western business suit. He follows this with an image of a mural painted in earth tones on a pink wall that depicts modern devices for communication, the human operator of which has shed all of his Asian features. These two photos are followed by the façade of a building whose architecture is so confused with different styles, levels and entryways that one can hardly figure how to enter for the advertised meals. No wonder why the man on the next page seems so bleary eyed that he can do no more than manage a squint.

Do not mistake Rubinfein for an artist out to provide a story or report on Asia. Nor is he gunning for irony or pointing out how odd the world can seem. He is a photographer that, as Donald Richie writes in his afterword, “looks for and discovers the congruence, the accord, the consistency.” His photographs celebrate the human constructions no matter how awkwardly garish or beautifully primitive. The sense of oddity that appears occasionally happens within the clash of East and West in the landscape and the viewer may be pushed to ask themselves, “Is this progress?” No matter the answer, it is all done with human hands and this is what is felt; the humanness of how we build and improvise and wear it away through use. There may have been an initial desire by Rubinfien to hold on to and memorialize the rapidly fading past but his instincts do not prevent him from having as strong a response to the modern.

Map of the East presents a whopping 107 photographs paired off on facing pages. 107 is a lot in our ADD ridden times but this is a book that requires patience. Rubinfien himself remarks in his forword that this book may confound some readers including: “he who looks for a picture’s stylistic response to reflect whatever happened last year in the world of art.” In other words, Rubinfien is a throwback to earlier times when a photographer’s concern was their direct relationship with the world mediated with a camera sans the baggage of the art world or theory. Luckily, the medium today has returned to embrace such an approach. I sense that if this book was published ten years later, it would be more well known. I find it remarkable that I return to this book maybe twice a year and it continues to excite and educate. Few books do.

As a book object, the edit and sequence are very well thought out but the design is nothing extraordinary. The really poor choice in my opinion was the design of the title page spread. Opposite the title, the designer chose to reproduce vertical slivers of some of the photos in black and white and lined up next to one another. This is a gimmick that neither makes sense nor looks remotely good from a design stand point. The printing is average as a few images suffer from a chalky look that affects the richness of tone but do not let this be a deciding factor.

Published by Godine in 1992, it was released in both hard and softcover. It is available at obscenely cheap prices so I highly recommend splurging and getting a hardcover edition. Due to the cover material, the softcover edition feels too cheap and ordinary a house for such fine work. (I just bought a second hardcover copy for $7.50 mint condition so look around).

Besides being a fine photographer, Rubinfien may be more of a household name due to his writing on photography. His forward to Map of the East is one of my favorites for its clear understanding of the medium and the eloquence with which he expresses his thoughts. He has contributed essays to books by Robert Adams, Shomei Tomatsu, Garry Winogrand and as a critic contributed articles to Artforum, Art in America and the Village Voice. He can also be seen discussing August Sander in the recent BBC documentary series The Genius of Photography.

Book Available Here (Map of the East)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Want to Take Picture by Bill Burke and Twin Palms

Since I just wrote about the American Sports 1970 book which is an allegory of our involvement in the Vietnam War, it would only be appropriate to write about another book which approaches the subject but from a much more personal angle. Bill Burke’s legendary book I Want to Take Picture originally published by Nexus Press in 1987 has been re-issued in a facsimile edition by Twin Palms for 2007.

When Bill Burke was a kid growing up in the 1950’s he says, “Like all American Boys, I was raised to be in a war in Asia.” By the time he was of military age, the Vietnam War had made a deep impression and his childhood image of war heroics turned from fascinating to terrifying. As he states, “I was immensely relieved when, with some effort, I failed my draft physical.”

Burke sat out the war studying Far Eastern Art and Religion, doing drugs and studying photography. Years later, feeling like he had missed out on an experience that affected so many others, (and fuelled by films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now), Burke set off in 1982 to have “my own Southeast Asia experience.”

The resulting adventure starts with Burke finding his Asian sea legs with drunken ex-pats and bar girls in Thailand before setting off into darker territory by crossing into Cambodia with the International Rescue Committee and getting access to remaining pockets of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime.

Relaying his story through collages of photographs, ephemera and hand written diary entries, the book reads as if he is testing himself to find a situation that might mimic the uncomfortable situations he would have experienced had he done a tour of duty. The only situation that may have come close, a firefight between Khmer soldiers and refugee camp guards, destroys any lingering fantasy he had of being a combat photographer.

This is not a photojournalist’s look at a ‘story’ but a personal tale that involves a search for something less definable. Along the way he discovers new cultures, learns of his father’s death, finds himself in unexpected situations and finally breaks his neck, literally, in a car accident on the way back to Bangkok.

Beyond the photography which is good, it was how Burke put this book together that was a new shift to bookmaking. By employing the use of three-dimensional ephemera re-photographed and stripped into the layout, he expands the typical page into the illusion of a full sensory experience. Newspaper clippings, product wrappers, duct tape, postcards, cigarette packs, bottle caps, prayer necklaces, diary pages, local currency and his stitches from the accident all sit alongside his 35mm and rough edged Polaroid photographs with their hand scrawled captions.

The production of the original book was almost as difficult as his trip may have been. As Burke tells in a letter that accompanies one of his final copies of the original 1987 Nexus Press edition: “This book was made without use of computers. Many of the pages, which look like collages, were never seen until they came off the printing press. Most of the pictures in the book were from my original negatives printed onto duotone film from which positive plates were burned. The other elements which comprise each page were assembled in the stripping process from film that was made in the copy camera. I did all the film work myself. Clifton Meador and JoAnne Paschall oversaw the stripping and assembling of the diverse elements onto the printing plates. Clifton then printed the book over the course of several months on a Heidelberg CORD single color press. Some pieces of paper in this book went through the press as many as seven times.”

So how does the new Twin Palms edition stack up to the twenty year old Nexus edition? It is a facsimile but there are a few interesting differences. All of the content is the same but in the new edition there are color shifts to some of the ephemera elements that are drastically different. Sometimes the colors are more saturated, sometimes less. In an element of an appropriated sequence of images of a car crash test dummy mid collision, in the original edition the dummy’s jumpsuit is bright yellow where in this new edition it is bright red. Another appropriated image of a crashed truck shows up purple in the original edition and here it has turned blue. These are minor differences that would only be noticed if comparing the two editions side by side which I did to appease my OCD.

There is a bit of a trade off in the printing of the black and white photographs that varies from edition to edition. Some images in the original appear richer than in the new edition and vice versa (this is especially noticeable in the 35mm photograph of the ‘no-mans land’ between the Thai and Cambodia border). So between the two editions, they make one perfect book.

The biggest difference that bothered even Burke was the matte finish to the cover boards. The dullness diminished the punch of the black-tones of the cover image. For some books supplied directly from Burke, he went as far as to experiment with hand-lacquering the cover photograph to restore the tonalities to their appropriate richness. To do the job on my copy he used one of those Polaroid print coater bars (AKA: a stink rod) that come with black and white Polaroid packs. So for those of you not squeamish about potentially screwing up your book, I advise you to break one of those gooey, foul smelling coaters out of its black tube and bring your copy up to code.

I applaud Twin Palms for re-issuing this important book for new generations of photographers. The last time I had a chance to afford a copy of this book was over a decade ago and it was priced at $300.00. Now it is a couple grand for the original edition.

This is not a photography book but since I am stuck in Vietnam mode I thought I would just mention this small and entertaining book called How to Stay Alive in Vietnam. Written by a Colonel Robert B. Rigg and published by Stackpole Books in 1966, it is a book of advice on how to increase your odds of survival during a tour of duty in the Vietnam conflict. I originally picked this up simply because the first chapter is titled ‘Zap Me Not.’

Rigg gives his advice in the parlance of the time and with stories that are often gory and horrifying in detail. For instance he starts a paragraph about what to do after getting wounded with the following less than comforting scenario: “More people get wounded in a war than killed. But it is no comfort in this statistic when you reach for your guts and end up holding a handful when hit with a belly wound. This happens in all wars and it is nasty and nauseating to be holding onto one’s warm entrails when they are spilling out amid a lot of blood.”

He even mentions a very timely torture technique: “The Vietnamese unit in Kien Hoa Province had captured a nasty VC prisoner; this one talked quickly under interrogation. Prisoners often do when prone and water is forced down their nostrils – the Vietnamese on both sides can play it tough. These are not American rules, but Vietnamese rules of no holds barred.” He continues, “But this prisoner was not tortured except by his own guilty conscience.” (Yeah Colonel…that guilty conscience will torture you every time. Whenever I feel guilty I feel like I’m drowning. I’m working that out with my shrink.)

Rigg offers advice on clearing VC tunnels, profiling the enemy, how to handle panicking, body-armor, getting ambushed, and the weapons used in modern guerilla-style warfare. Rigg comes across as part cigar-chewing, seen-it-all, tough guy and part Ann Landers. Appropriately, he does not gloss over the important fact that you may die and do so with great pain and suffering.

Buy from Twin Palms

Book Available Here (I Want to Take Picture)

I also wanted to mention that The Eye Studio Gallery has a copy of the original 1987 Nexus Press editions of Burke's I Want to Take Picture that is signed and accompanied by a letter of authenticity. This book is being offered for sale to help cover the costs of studio operations. Inquiries to price can be made by calling 212 242-1593. I can say that this is by far the cheapest copy available through any dealer.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

American Sports 1970 by Tod Papageorge

It is fitting that Tod Papageorge’s new book American Sports, 1970 or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam would be published at this moment in time. In 1970, the war in Southeast Asia had been raging full-on for about five years and hey…here we are again, almost five years into another confused foreign policy that has divided the country and which will wind up as a costly failure.

Papageorge, with funding from his first Guggenheim Fellowship, set out in an “attempt to document as clearly and as completely as possible the phenomenon of professional sports in America.” He adds, “It takes a thousand brief acts to create the theater of spectator and sport, and my concern would be to present them with an accuracy and power which would provide much more than the sport, illustrated.”

Sports are often wrapped up in metaphor for war. Teams “do battle” on the field. Coaches act like wartime Generals and do their best to out wit each other while the pawns beat each other bloody and pay the price of a poor leadership with torn ligaments and broken knees. Animations on the tv screen during Monday Night Football now remake players into futuristic warriors akin to Verhoeven’s Robocop sans machine guns (Give them time. I do think that randomly placed landmines would make soccer more exciting to American audiences.)

If Garry Winogrand once said that ‘we have not loved life,’ Papageorge’s thesis seems to concur. We know how to love, but what we love is not one another but watching the defeat of ‘the other.’ Our ethical dilemma of not loving thy fellow man is quelled by our blind patriotism and myths of redemption.

The opening sequence of photographs set the stage and tone for these parallel universes of war. Photo #1: A frieze of young boys lined up by a concession stand, one of which sports a shirt with an image of a B-52 bomber dropping its graphic payload and the slogan ‘Fly the friendly skies of Viet Nam.’ Photo #2: The soldiers take to the field. Photo #3: The Generals take their seats and observe at a safe distance surrounded by their wait staff. Photo #4: The public settles in and waits for the battle to heat up. Within a few frames, the clowns are sent in to distract and sugar-coat the violence while the cops, batons at the ready, keep any voices of dissent at bay.

Throughout the seventy photographs, Papageorge shows almost none of the battle but instead directs his attention to us, the everyman and everywoman, as we sit complicit in fuelling the atmosphere for war. We are egged on by the triumphant spirit of cheerleaders and marching bands whose military-like uniforms never get soiled and give the impression of conflict waged without bloodletting. The book’s final two images are of the architecture of America’s forays; the playing field and the war memorial (in this case, the memorial in Indianapolis). It is opposite the war memorial photograph that we are given the following statistic: In 1970, 4,221 American troops were killed in Vietnam.

The subtitle of the book ‘or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam’ gives an appropriate nod to Kubrick’s anti-nuke film Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as both share a look through America’s tunnel vision. (The cover image contains a second much more subtle nod as one of the stadium guards wearing a cowboy hat looks strikingly similar to Slim Pickens’ character Major Kong who, at the end of the film, rides a nuclear bomb to its destination as if he were on a rodeo bull.)

These photographs are now thirty-seven years old and they excite on one level simply because they represent a time when photographers were actually interested in seizing movement. Does anyone remember those good old days? As Tim Davis remarks in his perspicacious essay To Hell in a Hand Camera, “it is startling to realize how few contemporary art photographers employ the camera to stop motion.” These photographs embrace the constant flow of life and Papageorge proves himself to be proficient at crafting dense, irreducible frames. How about passing on some of that to your students?

The book is published by Aperture and they have done a fine job with the production. The design by Francesca Richer seems to follow a very traditional layout until you notice that she has pushed all of the photos to the bottom of the page leaving more margin space above them than below. This is an interestingly simple design quirk that gives the book an up-to-date and contemporary feel solely by picture placement. The printing is rich and full of tonality.

The timing of this book and its relevance to current events adds to the impact of the work if simply in recognizing the frustration of repeating the same mistakes and being powerless to break the cycle.

Thank you Tod for making it so palatable before rubbing it in our face.

Book Available Here (American Sports 1970)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Enrique Metinides from Ridinghouse and The Photographer's Gallery

I have heard Enrique Metinides referred to as the ‘Mexican Weegee’ linking him to Arthur Fellig, the famous New York crime photographer of the 1930’s and 40’s. I think this is understandable since, if you photograph crime scenes or accidents well, the comparison is just waiting to be made. But ultimately, that comparison doesn’t allow Metinides to be his own man. Metinides photographed for Mexico City’s daily paper La Prensa and other ‘notas rojos’ tabloids that depicted the suffering, catastrophe and violent deaths of mostly average citizens. The book, Enrique Metinides, published by Ridinghouse in collaboration with The Photographer’s Gallery in London brings together 73 of his photographs spanning over thirty years.

Metinides started photographing at twelve. The son of a camera salesman, it almost seemed inevitable that one would fall into his hands. The fact that he would specialize in photographing crime scenes and accidents later in life was also as fortuitous as his childhood home sat on a street corner that was plagued by car accidents and pedestrian deaths.

Similar to Weegee, Metinides kept a radio tuned in to the frequencies used by the Red Cross and police- making himself available to cover any breaking news at all hours. And interestingly, when 23, he developed a system of codes for the Red Cross so that any situation could be explained in a matter of seconds.

Not surprising, Metinides’ photographs cover a wide swath of catastrophe from building fires, bus and airplane crashes to accidental electrocutions, drownings and suicides. Many of his images seem to tease at the idea of the existence of fate or at least a desire to explain the sudden appearance of death. Disasters will happen, what is not easy to divine is what leads up to them crossing with our lives. (After seeing a man get hit by a falling air conditioner, I often think of the seemingly insignificant fractions of time that can be contributing factors between life and death.) My older brother, when promising to follow through with retribution used to perversely warn, “when you least expect it…expect it.”

Mexico, as a part of the culture, rejoices in mocking and making fun of death but in this collection, the spectators on the scene seem to be looking for clues that unlock the mysteries of the circumstance. In Geoff Dyer’s fine introduction, he speaks of them (and us) as participating in a kind of vicarious participation. As he states: “The gathered crowds often have something in common with the people glimpsed in the background of photos of fisherman who has the good fortune to land a record-breaking marlin.”

Two of the most saddening photos are of suicides. One is an attempt caught mid-drama and the other is after the fact. In the first, a woman stands on the ledge of a building while rescue workers try to talk her down. Shot from street level and looking up, the woman is such a small part of the photographic frame yet her taut body language carries the weight of the picture. The second photo I mentioned is of a woman after she has hung herself in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City‘s equivalent of Central Park. This photo (see my composite above) has a tone that is so lonely I can hardly stand looking at it. The small detail of her handbag, hung for safety-sake around head and shoulder is a heartbreakingly human touch that is both confusing and yet entirely understandable. If she was knowingly going to die then why not put the purse on the ground?

The most famous image from Metinides is of a woman killed by a white Datsun while crossing the street. Her body is contorted and held awkwardly aloft by a fallen lamp post while her open eyes and blank expression belie the violence that had just taken place. It is often this reality is stranger than fiction quality that gives some of the images an intensely dark touch of humor.

Published in 2003, the book is nothing much to get really excited about with its straight forward design but it isn’t the worst home for a group of photos. Both the color and black and white reproductions read very well. It includes essays by Geoff Dyer and Nestor Garcia Canclini and an interview between Enrique Metinides and Gabriel Kuri.

Buy online at The Photographer’s Gallery

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Ninth Floor by Jessica Dimmock

Photographers have bridged many different social gaps throughout the history of the medium. From Edward Curtis and the Native American Indian to Walker Evans and the Burroughs family in Alabama to Eugene Richards and crack addicts in East New York, these photographers have found the trust and consent of their subjects to use invasive means in which to record life. I should say invasive and potentially harmful as photography had lost its innocence long ago. We have become suspect to the camera’s presence and now look upon photographers with a certain amount of suspicion. (Ed Ruscha in an interview once said that photographers in the 1950’s used to be looked upon as either “geeks or pornographers.”)

Somehow, the camera provokes the subject to think of the lowest and base intention of the photographer. If a man photographs an attractive woman on the street, he is thought to be doing so because he is a ‘pervert’ and photography is his only way to ‘possess’ her. Or in different light, if one photographs on the street, many subjects pounced upon may be concerned that fun is being poked at their expense. After all, how many horrible street photographs have been simple one-liners whose punch line relies on the subject’s momentary awkwardness?

In the case of photojournalists documenting the world’s harsh realities of drug addiction or homelessness photography does not somehow miraculously escape the fact that, regardless of the photographer’s good intentions, photographs leave the viewer to judge the subject and the subject has no recourse for defense. This is where a subject could appear to be used. While the photographer is praised for their ability to live among ‘the other,’ the subject is left potentially hanging in the wind.

Jessica Dimmock’s book The Ninth Floor published by Contrasto is another example of a photographer gaining entree into the lives of the dark and secretive world of drug addicts.

For approximately three years, Dimmock photographed the residents of a drug den located in Manhattan’s flat iron district. Gaining entrée through a chance meeting with a cocaine dealer, she follows and describes the main characters as if she and her camera were invisible. We are compelled to look as the residents shoot up, nod off, fuck (love is not being made), fight, become hospitalized and somehow avoid death. The depravity of the surroundings, an apartment trashed through neglect, the owner who is an addict himself with no control over his home, the blatant picturing of self destruction, is all truly nauseating.

Nauseating and frightening for I am completely afraid of her subjects. Jesse, Rachel, Dion, Mike and others project a street knowledge and a carelessness of attitude that will evoke fear in most viewers. They display a look of unpredictability in their eyes which sets the course for unease and tension.

Dimmock’s pictures are devoid of the tell tale language usually spoken by photojournalists. This may be because Dimmock was still a student when she started her project and thankfully she had not been poisoned by too many references to the likes of other journalists or documentarians. She seems to be responding quickly to the happenings and that directness, without pretentious ‘picture-making,’ is her strength.

It is Dimmock’s avoidance of the easy conventions of this genre that is important. This is one aspect that I am very critical of in other works of addicts like Eugene Richards’ Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue. His book is regarded as a great achievement due to the dynamic imagery and for Gene’s ability to enter this secretive world of cocaine addicts. His getting the ‘in’ was an amazing achievement but his ’dynamic imagery’ is far too stylized for me to relate to the realness and tragedy of the situation. Gene’s ultra close-ups and splayed perspectives lend themselves closer to the language used in comic book illustrations than a language that represents reality. In fact, when I look through that book its self-consciousness constantly reminds me more of Gene Richards, the photographer, than the subjects. It may be a disturbing thought but I believe that when photographers look at that work, they may be responding more to Gene and his photography than to the subject. Dimmock avoids being present. She becomes the fly on the wall and sets no artificial barrier between us and the witnessing of events.

The other complicated territory that Dimmock’s book avoids is where some of Gene’s photos cross the line on what we should see and when it might be best to put the camera away. It probably relies on your political sway as to how you digest many of these images but I am not sure I actually need to see a black woman about to humiliate herself by fellating a man for drug money while her child hugs her back. Yes, arguably the world dealt that card to Gene but does he really need to play it? That picture gives image to the stereotype of irresponsibility at the full expense of that woman‘s dignity.

Ultimately, the hardest thing for me to overcome with this type of work is that it always seems to give image to our mental laundry list of what we would expect when imagining a drug addict’s life. Besides the specific facts provided by the photographs, how much is my understanding of the subject being pushed into more complex territory?

The complicated territory in Dimmock’s book will be navigated by way of our judgment. Dimmock focuses mainly on Jesse, whose long-term use of heroin has drastically weathered her former beauty. She, unlike the others, wears a look of sadness in her eyes that may be read as a desire to clean up. Jesse is the only character whom we might care for enough to wish for her escape. But as the book ends, she is in the hospital and still shooting up right in the bed. In the last picture, she finally engages directly with the camera and though her look we suspect that sadly there is little hope and she will take the disease to the grave.

Rachel and Dion on the other hand, come across as two pathetic and hopelessly wasted lives that will always cause distress to others through their destructive behavior. They may have the disease just as Jesse does but their selfish and decadent behavior fuels a resentment towards them that is not present in the photos of Jesse. Perhaps because these two are shown to have each other for support and Jesse is mostly alone but our anger towards these two reaches fever pitch when Rachel becomes pregnant and gives birth. One image of the couple with the newborn on a train provides a horrifying forecast of the baby’s doomed fate. See what I mean about passing judgment through photographs?

The book is inventively designed with many gatefold images and pages of mini-sequences that keep the book interesting. The paper choice is well thought out and the printing is good. Dimmock adds a 'photographer’s note' of a few thousand words that give some insight into her relationship with her subjects and Max Kozloff offers one of his more enjoyable and eloquent introductions.

I have raised the question before of who the audience is for books of this sort. Not that I think the work should be hidden, a book is a natural and perfect vehicle, but it is a world that I do not wish to participate in even voyeuristically. Because of Dimmock I have been given a taste of life on the ninth floor of 4 West 22nd street and I have found it bitter and so nauseating that I have permanently shut the door.

This is a decent book that I will be happy to never open again.

Book Available Here (The Ninth Floor)

Buy online at the ICP

Buy online at Contrasto