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)