Saturday, April 26, 2008

A new book and documentary on Miroslav Tichy

The other day while browsing through the bookshop of the New Museum I discovered a new book on Miroslav Tichy published by the Taka Ischii gallery and the Foundation Tichy Ocean. I have been patiently waiting for the release on Tichy from Hatje Cantz due out very soon but this book may beat that title to the punch as this is hard to top.

I have written about Miroslav Tichy before so for those of you that need some background on his work I would refer you to my other article here at 5B4. That being said, Tichy is still much of a mystery in terms of the facts of his life and background. Immediately after my first posting I received a flurry of e-mails stating that much of what is written about Mr. Tichy (including much of what I wrote) is factually incorrect. The texts in this book repeat many of the same stories about Tichy being subjected to imprisonments and prolonged stays in mental hospitals due to his outsider stance towards society. The writer is Roman Buxbaum who claims to have spent much time with Tichy and whose father was Tichy's doctor. Buxbaum is also one of the main parties behind Foundation Tichy Ocean, an organization whose purpose is in making Tichy's work known to the world. The question is, does Tichy as such an outsider artist want his work to be known to the world at all? Or is this a man who would prefer to avoid the attention? Partly this seems to be an issue in the differing views of this mysterious man and his art. In the text Buxbaum asks if Tichy would find enjoyment if an exhibition of his work was organized in Prague -- to which Tichy replied, "Enjoyment is a concept that I absolutely disallow. How could such a skeptic enjoy something! -- Momentary feelings! I don't take seriously anything that I feel or think."

The first thing you notice about this book is the design and the materials used in its construction. Like Tichy's handmade cameras and improvised photographic technique this book reflects a similar handmade quality by using raw uncovered book board that seems like material that Tichy himself would frame his pictures with. Once you open the cover you're faced with exquisite blue and papers (that match the color of the title silk-screened onto the cover) and three signatures worth of heavy matte paper which contain a prelude of photographs of the artists at work followed by the Buxbaum text called Tarzan Retired.

The middle of the book is approximately 96 pages of photographs and quotes from Tichy. For these pages the designer has reverted to a nice Japanese art paper, common to quality photo and art books. The final three signatures provide Japanese translations of the texts plus a biography and bibliography as well as a list of the reproductions.

The photos of themselves are a wonderful edit of Tichy's imaginative and dreamlike city of women. In varying degrees of sharpness his female protagonists are shown sun bathing or simply walking in the street but all are reduced to basic forms and essence. The photographs are presented as objects with their rough edges, creases and tears and the occasional improvised over-matting decorated by Tichy's hand.

There is nothing about this book that I do not enjoy. From the exposed book-binders tape that covers the spine, to the wraparound dust jacket that only covers two thirds of the book, to the squareness of the neatly trimmed cover boards and book block -- this is a prime example of an extremely well thought-out and executed book object. I certainly wish there were more made like this.

As Tichy is a man with a very interesting past life who is now in his eighties and facing fame as an outsider artist, he of course would be the great subject for a documentary film. Luckily a director as sensitive to her subject as Natasa von Kopp came along first to create a portrait of the man before anyone else. Worldstar directed by Natasa von Kopp and distributed by Kloos & Co out of Germany has just been released on DVD after traveling to various festivals and winning many awards along the way.

Worldstar is a portrait of Tichy living in the Czech Republic like a hermit amongst the squalor of his home while being visited by various art gallerists and dealers introduced to him by Roman Buxbaum. Tichy throughout much of the film expresses reluctance to the current fascination with his work and seems to just want to be left to his life of "doing nothing" which he claims has been what he has been doing for the last 30 years. To be left alone is easier said than done as the hype around Tichy has his works selling for between 3,500 and 12,000 euros a piece. With that kind of money in question, it doesn't seem likely that he will be left to his wishes.

Although this film is not scathing in terms of condemning Buxbaum for his efforts to bring attention to Tichy, he does come off as somewhat of an opportunist who has loads of Tichy's work and whose best interest is with hyping the value of his archive than with Tichy as a human being. There is one scene, with Tichy slumped in his chair while Roman and others paw through stacks of photographs, that the cinematographer Beate Scherer frames with such claustrophobic results that it seems more like a mugging is taking place. This is compounded by the fact that at no point in the documentary is it clear if Tichy is being paid for the work or if he is at least being paid well.

Tichy in other ways is a hard nut to crack and thus a difficult portrait to paint. He makes blanket statements about life that seem too dismissive to be believable along the lines of the above quote about enjoyment and then he sits clearly fond of the moments when his neighbor (who has a watchful eye towards the motives of Tichy's visitors) comes to visit.

Worldstar is a beautifully shot and edited film (real film too) that at times seems to channel Tichy's own alternative techniques of soft focus and graininess to great effect. Tichy seems fond of the two filmmakers but at one moment he calls into question what all of the fuss is about when he asks, "Why does she film me? I am not moving. There is nothing here to film." Again calling into question if the film-makers good intentions really matter or if it is all different levels of harassment.

To be fair, film is as manipulative as any other medium. Moments of truth captured on film can be edited any number of ways to create vast distortions and untruths. Whether Tichy is being taken advantage of is still difficult to determine. I hope he isn't. Because much of what is implied would be difficult to bear and it doesn't end with greedy dealers and collectors -- it extends to the books and ultimately us as well.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Abeceda Dusevniho Prazdna by Zdenek Tmej

"Unmarried Czech workers will be used as a group in the most remote parts of the Reich and will thereby be prevented from starting families in the territory of the protectorate." This was the decree under which, in the autumn of 1942, Zdenek Tmej was ordered to the town of Breslau to serve in a forced labor camp. Tmej, a 22-year-old aspiring photographer, brought along a Contax and a Rolliflex camera intending to bear witness to the conditions and events that transpired in a Nazi-run forced labor camp and somehow he would was allowed to keep his cameras and photograph. His job in the Reich was to work at the train station unloading the mail trains and he even took this as an opportunity to order an enlarger and darkroom equipment as well as a 4 x 5 camera to be sent from Prague. He sold prints to keep himself in film flashbulbs and photographic paper. The resulting photographs and eventual book published in 1946 called Abeceda Dusevniho Prazdna - Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness, serve as an unrivaled insider's account of what it was like to live under the conditions of a Nazi forced labor camp.

Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness is one of the books that I was able to discover firsthand during the Christie's photobook auction and within the short time I was able to spend with it, like Bill Brandt's London at Night, I realized it is one of the finest photography books I have ever seen. Beautiful gravure printing was accomplished on thin delicate newsprint that gives the book an extremely fragile character. Each photograph is printed bled to the page edge and more often than not is separated by a page of text which was written by Alexandra Urbanova.

In essence the life depicted in Tmej's photographs is one narrowed down to the basics of passing time. Men are seen sleeping (in makeshift wooden bunk or row beds with straw bedding), eating (soured unpeeled potatoes or boiled cabbage), playing cards, and visiting the brothel next door (for the use of non-Germans only). From what I can remember there is not a photograph of the actual work that they were being forced to perform. Its presence is felt with the exhaustion and wear that is shown in both expression and shoe leather.

Their surroundings unlike in most photographs of labor or concentration camps reveals itself to be a space of former elegance -- used and disrupted by new improvisations to accommodate living for a large group of men. High arched windows (on which if one looks closely they will see a painted characters of Disney's seven dwarves), ornately framed mirrors, decorative ceiling moldings and bentwood chairs all give clues to this appropriation.

As I mentioned before, the tone here is one of passing time but it is not the usual show of overwhelming depression and abuse that one might expect from such a subject. The men, although forced to be there and exposed to constant physical exertion, seem to be dealing with the consequences and at times, expressing cheer in front of Tmej's camera -- especially while visiting the brothel and dancing and joking with the prostitutes. The prostitutes are the 'other' type of prisoner, and like the men in the camp next door, they express knowing smiles and bouts of laughter that momentarily removed them from their plight. Tmej's description is one of purgatory -- people stuck without the ability to move forward or backwards in a world, as the title suggests, of spiritual emptiness.

This book is obviously extremely rare now but I do want to direct your attention to a small book published by FotoTorst on Zdenek Tmej which is dedicated to this material discussed above. Called Zdenek Tmej: Totaleinsatz this is one in a small series of books of Czech photographers that some of you may be familiar with due to the inclusion of a FotoTorst on Josef Koudelka.

This book includes 87 of Tmej's photographs where as the Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness contains only 45. Oddly, in comparison neither book reproduces many of the same photographs. This FotoTorst publication offers many unseen images from the series and variants -- some of which are flopped versions of pictures that appear in Spiritual Emptiness. This also features a few photographs of the men actually at labor repairing railroad beds and unloading mail cars.

The series offers good printing and a fine variety of relatively little discussed photographers. In the case of Tmej, where else can you own some of the material from this great body of work?

Note: I purchased my copy in New York at the Leica gallery and it happened to have been signed -- maybe they have more. Many of the Leica Gallery's FotoTorst titles were signed due to a series of exhibitions they had on Czech photography.

Book Available Here (Zdenek Tmej: Totaleinsatz)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fantasies by Lisa Kereszi

The world of strip clubs and burlesque shows have always invited the imagination but often banned the camera. Surely this is because these places offer commerce that cameras can tap into that would be unfair to the performers if they were not offered their cut (one prime example of how photography, in its public image, has become less innocent).

It is a world that is filled with the air of the taboo even as every other television or print advertisement sells women's bodies as a commodity or gives notion of their potential dominance. It is also a world that nowadays splits men into two types -- usually defined by class; those that willingly admit and boast about frequenting such clubs (the working class) and others that try to veil their interest by wrapping it up in the often misapplied intellectualism of feminism and political correctness (the bourgeois). Lisa Kereszi takes us into the world of the modern burlesque show with her new book Fantasies published by Damiani.

The modern burlesque show seems to be less an invitation to look than a dare to do so. This is a modern world where it is more acceptable to admit to transgressive acts like a visit to a strip club, and because of this openness, the performers have embraced these perceived transgressions and the justifiable camp that seems to serve as an excuse. It is a world where the performers themselves wink at the audience by adopting stage names such as The World Famous Bob and Dirty Martini.

Lisa Kereszi within the first few pages lays out the similarities and differences with the modern burlesque show and its precursor. The first photograph puts us at the entrance of a pair of private booths in a club in Miami Beach -- on its walls, held by pairs of chrome poles, are metallic illustrations of high heel shoed legs offering up a cancan. The next spread of pictures features the dancer Dirty Martini in ballet slippers and balancing 'on point' in a moment of exaltation while on the opposite page an illustration painted on the wall of two busty silhouetted women grasping the same dancing pole sets the example for real life sitting opposite to fantasy.

The other fantasy that Kereszi alludes to has nothing to do with those in audience of the show. The women who are performing invest themselves in creating a persona, and in carrying that forth to the stage they are acting out their own fantasies. For a few moments, before the crowd, they become whomever they wish. One dons a bunny costume in a self-mocking gesture of innocence; another becomes a topless Catwoman who struts the stage in black leather; another becomes an innocent country girl who is too shy to meet the eyes of the audience while she unbuttons her red dress.

Kereszi uses still lives of the club interiors, portraiture, and a healthy dose of photographing on-the-fly in her descriptions but Kereszi's talent seems to lie more with the still life than the others with a few exceptions. Most of Kereszi's interiors seem to have been made during the off hours when the sun is still present and the bar back is busy bringing the night's liquor from the basement. They are exposed to be as superficially seductive as the women who will perform on stage. Kereszi concentrates on their wear and tear which translates as part seediness (often touched by humor) and part history and evidence of the last 'good time.'

The cover image is one that may be the best in the book for all of its summoning of all of the contradictions in this work between real life and fantasy, history and contemporary, and internal and external lives. The flaw of the book for me is that there is a very clear hierarchy in the work. The still lives clearly win our interest and stand up to repeated visits while many of the portraits are simply dull and poorly described.

Fantasies is a well designed if conservative approach to such a non-conservative subject matter. It is decently printed although I know Kereszi’s work to be more technically savvy than some of it looks here.

One added bonus is the essay by the great Lynne Tillman called Mental Pictures which starts off the book. Tillman is wise and perceptive to not only human nature but to photography’s twists and turns and all of its complexity. In tandem with Kereszi’s talent, it is worth the price of the show.

Buy online at Damiani

Book Available Here (Fantasies)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Two Diane Arbus catalogs and Hubert's Freaks by Gregory Gibson

At the risk of turning 5B4 Photography and Books into a site that only discusses current auction events I need to stay in the big money realm to direct your attention to two recent auction catalogs and a book of nonfiction on Diane Arbus.

The first is an auction catalog from Christie's in New York called Photographs by Diane Arbus for an auction that took place on Thursday, April 10. This was an auction of 51 prints from the collection of Bruce and Nancy Berman in conjunction with photographs gifted to the LA County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA and the J. Paul Getty Museum. It comprises the largest group of her photographs ever offered in one auction. The selection ranges from the very well-known to the never before seen -- 6X6 and 35 mm. At least four or five of these images are completely new to me and from what I can gather have not been published before; many of the other obscure images made their debut in the Diane Arbus exhibition and book Revelations. Since the catalog is entirely dedicated to Arbus's photographs it will become a must-have ephemera piece for obsessives. Christie's may still have copies for sale in New York, otherwise keep a sharp lookout in the vast auction catalogs stacks at The Strand.

The next auction catalog Diane Arbus: Hubert's Museum Work 1958-1963 is a part of an ongoing saga that started with the discovery of previously unknown Diane Arbus photographs taken in Hubert's Museum in New York City during her formative years as a photographer.

Bob Langmuir, a rare book dealer and collector of African Americana purchased a trunk full of ephemera that turned out to hold an archive of the mid-century Times Square sideshow Hubert's Museum. Within this archive were several photographs that after extensive research and authentication turned out to be valuable, previously unseen Diane Arbus photographs. One clue to Langmuir that these prints might be something of importance came early on in his research when he discovered an entry in an address book for Diane Arbus that was once owned by Charlie Lucas, the manager of Hubert's. Next to the address of 131 1/2 Charles Street were the notations 'Morns 8 - 10 Eves 6 - 8' which were possibly the hours at which Arbus scheduled time to photograph the sideshow. Langmuir then tracked down other dealers who had purchased ephemera from the same lot from where the trunk originated and in total, wound up gathering together 27 11 x 14 gelatin silver prints (probably printed by Arbus herself) and a hand written letter to Charlie Lucas that accompanied these prints that were presumably given as gifts. Langmuir, realizing the worth of his find, set about trying to find buyers for the archive including not only the Arbus prints but all of the Hubert's ephemera so that it would be kept together as a valuable historical archive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art expressed initial interest but due to a misunderstanding on how to proceed with the acquisition between Langmuir and Jeff Rosenheim the deal lapsed which eventually led to this auction.

The sale at Phillips de Pury & Company auction house was scheduled for April 8, 2008 for which this catalog was created, but being that this is a story plagued by setbacks, nervous breakdowns, and legal wrangling (the original owner of this material brought a lawsuit against Langmuir claiming that he had no idea that the photographs were valuable and now wants a cut of the action) it would only be proper for the ‘ending’ of this story to never really end as expected, but to continue to be shrouded in mystery. On April 8, 2008 Phillips de Pury & Company canceled the auction at the last minute. Speculation arose that it may have had something to do with the lawsuit but it seems that a private sale was arranged at the eleventh hour.

So this Phillips de Pury & Company catalog turns out to be a valuable contribution to the artist's legacy in terms of history. Even though some of these photographs were made for the performers themselves as snapshots, others indicate Arbus setting off on her journey into this underworld of characters, freaks and the marginal from which she would later become famous. As can be expected not all of the photographs are great or even good (the Arbus estate seemed to feel that revealing some of this work was akin to rifling through the artist's wastebasket) but part of their importance is in seeing how Arbus handles the 35mm frame and the 6 x 6 in the same territory. The photographs have a much different feel from format to format.

It is also interesting to note how the estate handles the authentication process. Upon submission of material and supporting documents that might point to a photograph as being from Arbus, the estate tries to locate the original negative. If the negative is found the print is stamped with a 'Diane Arbus print' stamp, copyright credit and limited reproduction stamps, as well as a certificate of authenticity. When the negative cannot be found authentication is refused -- which seems like a logical regulation to guard against fraud but through the course of this catalog there are a couple images that are still 'pending authentication' that so closely match another that has been authenticated, it seems 99.99% unlikely that they were taken by anyone but Arbus.

This catalog is sure to become a collectors item because of the story surrounding it so I advise seeking out a copy before they get squirreled away by those that will probably try sticker it with a high price. I can't imagine a Phillips de Pury auction catalog commanding a high price but certainly in the book world of today one never knows.

For those of you interested in a detailed account of the story of the discovery of these Arbus photographs by Bob Langmuir, a new book from Harcourt called Hubert's Freaks by the author Gregory Gibson will satisfy.

Hubert's Freaks is a complex story that bridges the different worlds of rare book dealing and ephemera collectors with sideshow culture and Time Square history and the big-money world of art -- all of which are subcultures as seemingly freakish as the subjects in the photographs in question. Ultimately it is a story about the ambition and dreams of Bob Langmuir as he navigates the difficult course of discovering, researching and finally selling the most important 'find' of his career while, at the same moment, his personal life and mental stability were at the point of collapse.

Gibson managed to write an informative and engrossing account of the events leading up to the auction described above by intertwining the stories and jump cutting through history to great effect.

Hubert's Freaks is a fast read and is sure to instill in the reader the notion that real life is definitely stranger than fiction.

Book Available Here (Hubert's Freaks)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sent a Letter by Dayanita Singh

Is it possible for a photographer's nationality to show in the characteristics of the photographs they make? Is there something inherently Swiss about Robert Frank? Nacho Lopez was deeply connected to Mexico and often tagged as a "Mexican photographer" in a way that many others are not, but what is it about his work beyond the subject matter that makes his work "Mexican"? Looking for the last two publications by Dayanitya Singh raised this question as -- as much as I can identify such things -- her photographs seem to display hints of the photographer’s origins. Her new set of books Sent a Letter has just been published by Steidl.

Sent a Letter is a slip-cased set of seven very small and intimate accordion folded books. Each was made as a gift for a friend and serve as a souvenir of a time spent with that person or of a time when that person was on the mind of the photographer. Singh creates two copies of each book -- one that is sent to the friend while the other remains with her in what she calls her "kitchen museum". Each book holds on average 15 to 20 photographs and like her last small book Go Away Closer there is no text in which to guide the viewer. Instead we are left on our own to discover and translate what these small photographic sentences add up to.

Dayanitya Singh is an interesting photographer in which to discuss this topic of characteristics of nationhood as she was schooled in the West at the International Center of Photography and has returned to India to make her photographs and this divide between East and West seems ever present in her work. She is also from a somewhat privileged background in a country where most of the population lives in poverty. In her work she generally avoids falling into the traps of the Western imagination in regards to clichés of poverty as her work is about the character of India and the divide between East and West but it is also these things seen through the eyes of a native person rediscovering her homeland. This is the important yet ultimately confusing clue to my original inquiry.

Each of these books has its spine labeled with a different city in India. Allahabad opens with an image of two men in what appears to be a museum dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru. The book progresses through different rooms that may have been his sitting room bedroom and library. One spread of two photographs shows visitors in trapped behind the glass partitions as they peer at Nehru's bed and belongings -- perhaps serving as a metaphor for those left untouched by his legacy.

The book entitled Calcutta is in some ways the most accessible for us as outsiders to these personal journeys as it features the book guru Gerhard Steidl himself on a visit through the city. Of course after a few pages in which we wade into the flow of the streets as you might expect, we are treated to many photographs of books being made by skilled Indian hands. Gerhard then briefly sits for a portrait in a photographer's studio, poses next to a wise goat wrapped in canvas, visits the Howrah Bridge (with another man whose stature from behind might recall Gunther Grass) and returns at nightfall to an elegant hotel.

The book Padmanabhapuram for me is one of the most interesting in that its tone is the most melancholic of all. It opens with human figures in a museum entrapped in glass cases -- by the fourth photograph the figure has turned into a skeleton. This is followed by a few photographs of seascapes made at dusk with heavy cloud filled skies and then of photographs of rooms in which the flooring shines like blackened water.

Danyanita includes a seventh book to set with a slightly darker colored cover which is a series of skillfully made photographs made by her mother Nony Singh. This book works slightly unlike the others in that it could be perceived as not only a letter sent but it could have been a letter received. The photograph show early family photographs that soon progress into a series of portraits of a daughter in the process of growing up. That daughter seems to be Dayanita herself but what is remarkable is that it also reveals Dayanita's source of artistic influence in that her mother's photographs contain a similar DNA as her daughters would later.

As books, it is refreshing that these stray far from the usual form. This is something that Dayanita started with Go Away Closer by presenting 31 photographs in a small inexpensive paperback book with absolutely no text. This set follows that precedent with the added enjoyment is that they could either be view page by page or by unfolding the accordion out revealing the entire poem at once.

The set also takes into consideration the tactile nature of books as each has a handmade feel due to their construction and the materials used. The rich printing adds to the preciousness of these objects.

The first thing one notice as they remove one of these books from the slipcase is that they want to expand. This is obviously due to the physical characteristics of folded paper that has not yet been forced to relax but for me it is also a metaphor of how these photographs work. They resist an easy translation and reveal themselves on a personal level over time. As the words printed on the cover of the slipcase allude (Sent a letter to my friend, on the way he dropped it. Someone picked it up and put it in his pocket) Dayanita has allowed us to open her mail but what we discover inside may have seemed meant for us all along.

Note: Dayanita Singh will be doing a book signing for Sent A Letter at the International Center of Photography on Friday, April 18th from 6-7:30pm. The ICP Bookstore is at 1133 Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) at 43rd Street.

Buy Go Away Closer at Steidlville

Buy Sent a Letter at Steidlville

Friday, April 11, 2008

Stephen Shore: Contemporary Artist Series + Stephen Shore: A Road Trip Journal

If one were to name a few photographers whose work is felt so heavily as an influence on the current generation of photographers going through various MFA programs then Stephen Shore would certainly be on the list. His decision, along with a few other photographers in the 1970s to choose color negative film and a large format camera was at that time groundbreaking whereas today it seems more the standard than the anomaly. After all, in teaching, large format cameras are often than necessary tool to impart a discipline and a concern for all factors of picture making. Planting a tripod emphasizes the decision on where the photographer, or his camera surrogate, needs to be standing. The stillness of the tripod and the slowness needed to control framing draws an awareness of where the edges of the frame fall, thus more often than not, making the photographer concentrate on the entire image instead of just a subject. The view camera also demands attention to be paid in placing the zone of focus. All of these are factors as well as our choice of film, format, and processing are not arbitrary decisions and, for me, part of the joy of looking at a photographer’s work is in sensing their particularity.

Thankfully these are skills that are still relevant to some and represent the last hold outs to our current Flickr mentality of "all bets are off." If I can imagine far into the future, I would wager that we will still be looking at the work of Shore and others and for very good reason. Call me a dinosaur, but I'm a dinosaur who knows what major ambition looks like and rarely is it fashionable.

Phaidon has just published a survey of Stephen Shore's work as a part of their Contemporary Artists Series and surprisingly, for such an important artist in American photography, there has not been a book dedicated to Shore's oeuvre until now. Perhaps this is because Shore's career seems to have had a loud beginning in the 1970s (being the only living photographer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- at 24 years of age to boot) and yet a consistent but vastly quieter shift in the 1980s and 90s. Maybe this was partly due to his immersion into academia but this decade has seen a vast renewal of interest in his current and previous work.

Much of the lore of Steven's career such as being a photographer in Warhol's factory, curating the All the Meat You Can Eat show of vernacular photography, his printing of postcards that he self distributed amongst the various postcard racks across the country, as well as his extensive road diaries are all collected here in print. Shore, because of his youthful success within the medium has always struck me as one of those rare instances of someone acting out their destiny. Beyond the show at the Metropolitan, Shore at 14 years old possessed the precociousness to ask Edward Steichen, then curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to look at his work. Steichen wound up purchasing three black and white photographs for the collection in 1962 (two years later John Szarkowski, Steichen's successor, would make the first purchase from Diane Arbus). It is also rumored that Shore's response to the question of "What is your philosophy?" that appeared on a questionnaire required of artists whose work was being bought by the museum was, "I am only 14 and I don't have a philosophy."

Christy Lange is the essayist responsible for guiding us through Steven's career and she does so with poignancy and an understanding necessary for the reader to absorb Shore's complex ideas of the medium. My favorite essay however is by the photographer Joel Sternfeld as he dissects Shore's image Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974. Sternfeld within 1800 words lays out one of the most complex readings of a single photograph and does so in a most pleasing and accessible manner. The book opens with an interview between Michael Fried and Shore and ends with a chapter of short essays that Shore has written over the years. One of the essays is a short extract from his wonderful book on perception that was reprinted by Phaidon last year The Nature of Photographs.

The contemporary artists series has always been an interesting and informative look at individual artists and its slight redesign has, in my mind, improved the quality of the presentation. Highly recommended for those both already familiar with Shore and for the uninitiated.

Phaidon later this year is also releasing the much anticipated Stephen Shore: A Road Trip Journal. The following is less a review, as I do not have the actual book yet, but more a preview of coming attractions.

A Road Trip Journal is a facsimile of the journal Shore kept while on a month-long trip across America in 1973 -- the trip on which he began his masterwork later published as Uncommon Places. It was also on this trip that Shore kept extensive notes and ephemera from every day's events recorded into an artist's sketchbook. July 06 1973 reads as follows:

Milage: 1424
Breakfast: Howard Johnson's, Lima, Ohio (Pancakes)
Lunch: Ponderosa Steak House, Battle Creek, Mich. (Steak)
Dinner: Howard Johnson's, Battle Creek, Mich. (Turkey Dinner)
Night At: Howard Johnson's, Battle Creek, Mich.
TV: CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, Room 222
Postcard Dist: 30 - Delphos, Ohio

10 Exposures Made:
Lima, Ohio
-Intersec.: Jameson + Richie
-Jameson Ave
Delphos, Ohio
-Intersec. 4th + Main
-Pitsenbarger Supply Co., 3rd + Main
-Intersec.: 2nd + Main
Battle Creek, Mich.
-Michigan Ave
-Couple, Michigan Ave
-Rm. 316 Howard Johnson's
-Toilet, As Above
-As Above

Glued to the pages beside this information are gas station charge slips (.45 cent gallons of gas!), postcards, parking tickets, Polaroid prints, receipts and other ephemera from a life on the road. A section towards the back of the book will show every image that Shore made along the way with his 8 by 10 view camera. An obsessive and Warholian undertaking, Shore achieves the creation of not only a great body of work during the journey but also this archive which gives evidence to the photographer as a collector of facts. Much of this at first glance reads with sly humor delivered with a straight face as can be expected when given such seemingly banal information -- that is until we get swamped with the flavor and tone of a country that makes this document the natural successor to Evans and Frank.

Stephen Shore: A Road Trip Journal is slated to be approximately 14 by 11 inches in trim size and over 250 pages in length. The production and printing is being overseen by Sue Medlicott, one of the best ink-on-paper specialists working today so the quality shouldn't be anything less than lavish. A Road Trip Journal is being published in a limited edition of 3300 signed and numbered copies.

Buy online at Phaidon

Book Available Here (Contemporary Artist Series Stephen Shore)

Book Available Here (A Road Trip Journal))

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Propaganda books at Christie's Photobook Auction

Most of you who are immersed in the world of photo books know about the upcoming auction at Christie's that is scheduled for Thursday, April 10. The preview has been on since last Friday and I've spent two afternoons since looking through the treasures and I wanted to share some of what I've seen since many of these titles are the rarest of the rare and 99.9% of my readership will probably never in their lifetimes get a chance to see their contents.

My concentration on this auction has been with the variety of Russian material since they are probably the least common especially in the fine condition in which these particular items are found.

The first item I asked to see was SSSR Stroit Sotzialism (The USSR Builds for Socialism) which was one of the first books that El Lissitzky designed for the State Publishing House IZOGIZ in 1933. It is a visual celebration of the success of Stalin's first five-year plan and Lissitzky employs a range of cut and paste montage, great use of typography, and fantastic graphs that as expected make much use of red.

Compared to others that I would go on to see later in the afternoon, this book was a bit restrained but still a joy to see. The estimate is set at $4,000 - $6,000.

The next book 10 Let Uzbekistana SSR (Ten Years of the Uzbekistan SSR) was designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. This book celebrates the joining of Uzbekistan to the USSR in the mid twenties through the use of numerous photographs printed in various tints, die cuts, acetate overlays, maps, and diagrams.

This book became illegal literature a few years after its production as during one of Stalin's purges many of the local party commissars had been killed or sent to labor camps. The owners of these books were subsequently required to either destroy the book entirely or go page by page and either ink over the faces or cut out the heads of the officials that Stalin wanted erased from history.

This copy is unique in that none of the pages have been altered and none of the officials "purged." It is also a rare deluxe issue as the endpapers are actual gelatin silver prints of cotton plants. The endpapers are attached to white plastic coated boards instead of the usual silk hardcovers.

It is an extremely beautiful book to look through but more so than the photography -- it is all of the physical design tricks through cutouts and the acetates that seduced me.

The estimate is set at $15,000 - $20,000

The next book Geroicheskaya Epopeya (Heroic Epic) was interesting to me partly because I just watched a documentary on Shackleton and the plight of the Endurance. Seems that in the mid-1930s a Russian icebreaker ship, the Chelyuskin, became stuck in ice during an Arctic voyage in Siberia. The crew was forced to live out the rest of the winter on a large ice floe until they were rescued by Soviet flyers.

Upon return to Moscow they were met with a heroes' welcome and were quickly dubbed 'Heroes of the Soviet Union.'

Heroic Epic retells the story most likely with a certain amount of imaginative fabrication but nonetheless with beautiful results. It includes numerous monochrome and hand colored photographs and a few fold outs as well as a flag shaped place mark made of cloth.

Because the story and locale is so similar to the Shackleton expedition, much of the photography is reminiscent of Frank Hurley's work except for the fact that at no point does the situation seem desperate -- the message is always one of 'we shall prevail.' This book also has a different subtext that 20/20 hindsight provides in that this was an adventure where a group of men barely escaped death and were celebrated for it in a time when Stalin kept a psychological threat of death close to not only the officials but the general population.

The estimate is set at $7,000 - $10,000.

I have saved my favorite of the Russian books for last. Raboche-Krest'yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya (Red Army of Workers and Peasants) is an unrelenting show of the military might of the red army. Designed by El Lissitzky and featuring some of his boldest collage and photomontage, no spread in this 200 page book fails to grab your attention. Lissitzky carries the party line that all of the military units, equipment, and leadership work like a well oiled machine and makes use of many typical constructivist compositional elements such as dynamic diagonals and shifting perspectives throughout a single photomontage. It is the last of these, through shifting perspectives that at times create a sense of vertigo in the viewer, leaving them on unsteady ground in the face of such an immensely powerful advance.

Entire sections of this book shift in tonality as the photographs are subjected to various color tints. Towards the beginning of photographs have a monochromatic brown tone which gives way to greens and blues until settling towards the back of the book in purple. This achieves a celebratory tone to his subject which in straight blacks and grays would probably solely to appear frightening and overwhelmingly intimidating.

The estimate is set at $10,000 - $15,000.

The next book No Pasaran! Isoania, Tom II (They Shall Not Pass! Spain, Volume II) was also designed by El Lissitzky and published in Moscow but it is about the Spanish Civil War.

This is the second of two volumes and it contains 98 black-and-white photographs from Robert Capa, David Seymour, Kassos and Mayo, and by Ilya Ehrenburg the author of the classic Moi Parizh (My Paris) and the person responsible for compiling this volume. Committed to the propagandistic fight against fascism through the photography and text it also starts each chapter with a propaganda poster illustration.

Although this is probably one of the better books on Spanish Civil War for its photography and design, I found it a little on the lack luster side. Of course keep in mind that the books that I viewed preceding this one set the bar at a very high level for propaganda books so my sense of judgment is probably a little askew.

The estimate is set at $1,200-$1,800.

The last book I am going to mention was also one of the most impressive but this time from Japan. Nippon (Japan) is according to Parr/Badger is "arguably the high point of both the Japanese propaganda and the modernist photo book."

This book was designed as a series of accordion folded pages strung together like a typical Japanese 'pillow book.' Each page features a photomontage intricately stitched together by individual photographs by staff photographers of Nippon magazine, a Japanese version of USSR in Construction. The result is a celebration of both military and cultural achievements set upon pictorial lessons from traditional Japanese wood block prints.

This book was interesting to me because of the way the viewer operates the material. Since it is an accordion folded book, when one gets to the 'end' of the first set of 16 photomontages the book is then flipped and the viewer continues through the other 16. In essence the book is cyclical with no end.

This book is not come up for auction in over 30 years. The estimate is set at $20,000 - $30,000

Bidding commences at 10:00 am Thursday morning. Bueno Suerte!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Menschen Erleiden Geschichte by Leonard McCombe

Who the hell is Leonard McCombe? Did I miss a meeting? Oh, I now know the basics -- that he was a Life magazine photographer and that he once made a photograph of a cowboy that inspired the Marlboro Man advertisements, and I know he is a Manx from the Isle of Man, but my recent discovery of his book published in Germany called Menschen Erleiden Geschichte (Humans Suffering History) demands that I know more about this man who created this incredible document of World War II. At the risk of ruffling the delicate feathers of idolatry I consider this work of such high quality that in my opinion it easily deserves an equal seat alongside that of Robert Capa 'the world's greatest war photographer.'

Published in 1948 by Atlantis Verlag, Menschen Erleiden Geschichte is subtitled The Face of Europe from the Thames up to Weichsel 1943-1946 and contains 212 photographs by McCombe. This title has text and captioning by Bill Richardson but being that it was published in German the text escapes me. The overall tone of this book from what I can make out is one of the human costs of war regardless of whether the participants are on the side of the axis or allies.

McCombe's camera pays as much attention to the events as to the inner emotional state of the subjects. Much of what is striking about this work is McCombe's ability to work and yet go unnoticed at times when the subject seems to be experiencing deep inner reflection.

McCombe starts his journey in Normandy France in 1944 with what looks like the French troops pursuing retreating German forces. The first picture shows a young soldier through the window of the vehicle as he blankly stares ahead as if foreseeing the events he is about to witness. Within the next few photographs the troops come under fire, crawl through ditches, duck for cover behind burning tanks, and navigate their way past fallen bodies. The town is in rubble, the population is displaced and McCombe turns his attention away from the fighting and concentrates on the costs. He doesn't seem to be using a lens any longer than a 50 mm so most of the description is up close and personal, giving the viewer a sense of tension from danger.

Within the next chapter, German prisoners of war are rounded up and processed in the wounded are attended to. It is within the sequence that McCombe momentarily turns his attention to a field surgeon as he operates in a makeshift hospital room while outside the dead are being recorded and buried.

The next major sequence brings McCombe into London and amongst the populace as they try and absorb the cost of the blitz from a couple years prior and return to some semblance of routine. This sequence is rapidly cut short by renewed violence in a small chapter called New Triumphs in Science, New Form of Destruction which shows the aftermath of a German V-1 pilotless bomb attack. This new technology would go on to kill almost 9000 civilians in Britain. Here McCombe makes his way through the chaos of the crowds as medical teams and civilians assist to the wounded.

After VE Day, McCombe made his way into Berlin in 1946 and a chapter called Down for a Long Time opens with a photograph taken at the train station as hundreds of homeless civilians crowd onto the roofs of the train cars. Again, McCombe's gaze is nonjudgmental even towards those in uniform. His camera connects with the universal humanity that bridges across nationality or politics.

The last chapter of Menschen Erleiden Geschichte as the book's subtitle suggests starts with us flying over Western Poland in 1946 before dropping to the devastation on the ground. The reconstruction effort seems pointless as everything is reduced to rubble. McCombe brings the book to a close with a short sequence of a makeshift encampment of Poles that are able to salvage little from what was left. The caption underneath reads as somewhat melodramatic; Rubble, tears and death -- that is the harvest of war.

As with many books that protest war, this one probably has its fair share of heavy-handed and cliché captioning (luckily for me I don't understand German to have that be a detractor) but the photography is exceptional. It is not just McCombe's humanism at work but the impression that he is everywhere at once and filling up his frames with a complexity that is rarely seen while a photographer is under such duress.

The book is beautifully printed in gravure and the design makes use of many exciting cross-page spreads and sequences. Small sections of Richardson's texts break up the photographs into sections and a running commentary underneath the images, accent the individual photographs.

McCombe has a few other books; Navajo Means People, The Cowboy, and You Are My Love and although each feature some fine work, this book is the most complete and shining example of his talent. W. Eugene Smith in an essay on photojournalism mentions Henri Cartier-Bresson and Leonard McCombe as two examples of 35mm "natural light" photographers, so obviously his work was well respected amongst his peers. With that in mind, I ask again, who the hell is Leonard McCombe? And why is it so hard to find any substantial information about this remarkable photographer?

A special thank you to Ed Grazda for the scan of the dustjacket.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Chemises by Malick Sidibe

Malick Sidibe started his career as a young gun for hire working under a French photographer Gerard Guillat nicknamed "Gege la pellicule" in Bamako, Mali in the late 1950s. His job was to photograph and "compile reports" on the parties thrown by middle-class youths of Bamako. Thus Sidibe became famous for photographing all of the events and ceremonies in Mali and especially the surprise parties thrown by groups of youths belonging to "clubs" named after the idols of Western music that was being imported into Bamako. The book Malick Sidibe: Chemises published by Steidl brings together these party photographs made between 1962 and 1974.

Malick exhaustively photographed each attendee of the parties either single or in small groups that pose against the walls or in corners of the room of the club. As described in the afterword by Jerome Sother, he would then develop and display the photographs in paper folders so that the partiers could come around to the photo studio and pick out the photographs they wanted to purchase. Chemises is a selection of these "administrative folders" that were culled from among over a thousand that were laying around in stacks in Studio Malick.

Beyond the cataloging aspect of the party’s events and the dress of the partygoers, one of the interesting aspects of this book is to compare it to the historical events of Mali from that time. Just prior to the first photographs in this book, Mali had gained its independence in 1960 which brought about an air of Western society and culture through music. In clubs called Los Cubanos, Les Las Vegas, Santa Monica and Florida the youths can be seen dancing and in some cases proudly displaying the records of their new music idols. The reflection of this new cultural attitude can also be found in the clothing especially in the shorter hemlines of the dresses worn by the women.

Towards the middle of this book, one of the "folders" is dated November 2, 1968 which was just days before a bloodless coup installed the military-led government of Moussa Traoré. Malick describes the resulting shift as, "independence was the energizing influence of young culture in my country. People went out and enjoyed themselves and had a lot of fun, and it was a very energetic place. But as the development of a socialist system took hold, imposing a police force that was in charge of taking care that people couldn't be out during the day and all that, this energy became much more constrained. So after '68, it was forbidden, for example, that women wear miniskirts. There were surveillance police who oversaw what the young people were doing. There were even times when people couldn't go out and take a walk." The next folder in Chemises is dated on December 31, 1968, but neither reservation in the excitement of the attendees toward celebration nor any conservative attitude can be found in the skirt hemlines. One might imagine being able to discern such a major transition as described by Malick as I expected to, but little seems out of the norm; the attendance seems of the same numbers, the dancing continues and the party goes on.

The edit of Chemises foreshadows the military coup as a few folders prior to the one dated November 2, 1968 is one from 1966 that shows the formation of the new military of Mali. Here we see a similar faces of the partygoers but now than in daylight and posing in uniform with rifles instead of with their favorite LPs.

Towards the mid-1970s, the parties where the youths would meet occurred less frequently and shifted to proper nightclubs instead of the improvised surprise parties. These nightclubs didn't provide the same interest to Malick so he therefore shifted his practice to camera repair and his now famous studio portraits that have been featured in other books.

Chemises is designed to look like a stack of the original folders that have been bound together in one solid block. The pages run a pleasing range of pastel colors onto which the photographs are printed with a slight detection of a shadow, giving them a three-dimensional appearance. The covers of the folders are marked with Sidibe's ballpoint scrawl of the club name and date and show the stains, tears, and ink stamps that accumulated through their use.

In a sense this is a family album -- an album that covers a dozen years of youthful gatherings that allow us to see not just the clothing trends but also the different pairings of couples as relationships shift from night to night. It portrays an Africa that is not bound to the exotic but rather the universal spirit of youth perpetually in search of the next good time.

Malick Sidibe: Chemises was co-published with Gwin Zegal on the occasion of an exhibition at the Fotomuseum in Amsterdam.

Buy online at Steidlville

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Andreas Gursky Kunstmuseum Basel Catalog from Hatje Cantz

Looking through the new Andreas Gursky catalog published by Hatje Cantz, one gets glimpses of our world that is both remotely familiar and vastly unfamiliar at the same time. Gursky's large scale digitally manipulated creations -- according to the artist -- are meant to be considered as individual works and not a part of a series. This is a fine notion to consider but the work represented in this catalog made within the past seven years seems inextricably linked and to collectively address an interesting moment in the history of mankind on earth.

After seeing a show at the Matthew Marks Gallery last year I became more entranced by Gursky's hyper sleek view of capitalism and communism in a newly globalized world. His attitude though is one of detachment. One system is not favored over the other. Of anything, he links them together with his photographs of large-scale dance clubs and concerts and makes everything eerily clean and seductive. From what one can gather being that Gursky does not concentrate on individuals, it is not as if the people in his photographs are suffering under the weight of the world has created. They are reduced to the collective species and this is how they adapt to and change their environment that is under examination here.

One group of photographs that were featured in the show and this catalog are large 7 foot-high, 20 foot long panoramic photographs of formula 1 race car pit stops. The pit crew looks like it is working like a well oiled machine where each worker is in motion for the greater good of the system in order to keep it running. Many of the positions and gestures of the workers could be removed from this context and placed into a constructivist poster created by Gustav Klutsis. This notion gets confused as each of the workers is wearing a uniform branded with the logo of a major corporation.

These photographs are constructed in typical layering common to Gursky. A quarter of the foreground at the bottom of the frame is blank roadway which removes us, as viewers, from direct participation in the scene; the pit crew, the center of our attention, takes up approximately the next third of the photograph; we then finish off at the top third of the photograph which describes a line of racing fans, mostly standing, who observe the pit crew from behind glass. Many of Gursky's photographs "read" in this manner for me from bottom to top as opposed to from left to right or right to left. What I found fascinating about these four photographs was that they called for comparison to one another in a way that much of Gursky's other work does not. In essence, setting aside Gursky's earliest series of security guards in Düsseldorf, these four images come closest to the direct lineage of the teachings of his art school mentors Bernd and Hilla Becker.

What Gursky is describing, and has described throughout much of his work, are grand scale examples of capitalism. The first two images in this catalog are aerial photographs of a man-made archipelago made from poured concrete and sand that creates an artificial paradise in Dubai. Surrounded by deep blue water, we look down upon the world where anything seems possible; all it takes is money and imagination. Following these two photographs that vary very little in their form, is a fantastical race track mapped out on the clean desert floor which may reminds us of the smooth line illustrations found on Grecian urns or, if this was in North America, the spiritual markings on indigenous pottery.

These few photographs when placed within the context of others that describe stock trading floors where chaos reigns and the trading floor is covered with the detritus of past decisions, hint at the vast series of mechanisms in place to make our existence and our creations inexplicably tied.

Towards the middle of the book is a different series of images made in Pyongyang, North Korea during the Arirang Festival. This is a festival where some 70,000 performers take the stage in to create massive mosaic patterns in celebration of the birth of the late Kim IL Sung. These images describe totalitarianism's idea of entertainment but ultimately it is display to show control over the masses but done with the subversion of inducing pride, thus making it all the more enjoyable for us viewers to pick out the few “dissidents” that have fallen behind in the choreography.

There are two photographs that interest me a great deal in this book when the two are compared side by side. The first describes a long line of check-in counters at an airport, above which hangs a huge arrivals and departures information board where the information for hundreds of flights are listed. The second, two pages later, describes cathedral windows that not only function in the same way as the airport information board that seems to be its likely ancestor. Both hold a certain amount of beauty but it is the elder that has drawn a small film crew in which to decipher its deeper meaning. These two are so closely constructed that they seem to act as bookends for the range that I see in Gursky’s work. He celebrates both ends of the historical spectrum and of man’s creations and seems to hint that both are inspired by divinity.

In looking through this catalog it does not take long before the viewer realizes that each photograph is literally constructed in the same manner. Gursky has scaled down the form of these pictures to his strategy of layering as described above to the point where it is almost precisely the same. His aerial views keep us from being an active participant in this new world, the day to day sense of life is brushed aside for these grand spectacles.

This is a very nicely printed catalog with a clean and elegant design but Gursky's photographs are not served well in books. Much in the same way that painting is best seen on the wall, in books works of this nature are mere reproductions that will always pale in comparison to the original. Gursky's prints are at such a scale now that they demand attention to not just the macro view but also to the micro-details and this is unfortunately not possible to convey in a 10 x 12 inch book. Think of this handsome title as a preview until you get to see the actual works in person.

Buy online at DAP

Book Available Here (Andreas Gursky)