Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Series of Disappointments by Stephen Gill

In July of 1955 Walker Evans published an article in Fortune magazine called the Beauties of the Common Tool. As an introduction he wrote, ‘Among low-priced, factory-produced goods, none is so appealing to the senses as the ordinary hand tool. Hence, a hardware store is a kind of off-beat museum show for the man who responds to good, clear “undersigned” forms…Aside from their functions -- each of these tools lures the eye to follow its curves and angles, and invites the hand to test its balance…In fact, almost all the basic small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor and purity.’

For this series he photographed in black and white and with his 8X10 camera pictures so reductive that his strategy was to have the viewer notice -- as if for the first time -- the beauty of form that can be experienced in everyday items found at a local hardware store..

Art photography today also has turned the corner where the individuality of the “photographer” is not witnessed through their prowess in picture-making but simply through their wit and imagination in drawing your attention to particular objects that they describe in similar plain-stated ways. For Evans it was the common tool. For Stephen Gill, one of England’s more popular young artists, it is collecting and presenting several crumpled and discarded betting slips from horse racing tracks in his book A Series of Disappointments. But before I get to this let me explain the other series of disappointments.

For me Stephen Gill’s books have mostly amounted to illustrating well thought out and somewhat entertaining gimmicks that suit the idea of a book whether it is buying a cheap camera at a flea market and using it to photograph the flea market and surroundings (Hackney Wick) -- burying photographs of Hackney Wick in Hackney Wick and then burying the books too (Buried) -- photographing street workers wearing yellow safety jackets (Invisible) -- or photographing folded toilet paper (Anonymous Origami).

Christoph Schaden called Gill’s strategy ‘form follows technique follows topic.’ For me this naturally leads into the dangerous territory of gimmickry. To pile a lot of backstory about a camera bought for 50p from a man selling items out of his car boot in Hackney and then using that camera to photograph the place somehow makes these images more interesting? As much as Hackney Wick was touted as “one of the most important photo books,” do the owners of that book pull it frequently from their shelves for the actual pictures made with that 50p camera? I don’t know the answer obviously but I suspect that most of the copies need a good dusting.

If there is one aspect to most of his books that cannot be upstaged even by the attention arresting gimmickry is a sense of true affection for this East London area. This is a place that will be cleared to make way for the 2012 Olympic Games and possibly no better objects will recall what was previously there than Gill’s books. I just wish he used his proven talents as a photographer (see A Book of Field Studies) rather than getting bogged down in cleverness and a plastic lens camera. I am not sure what it is adding besides a specific “look” that in the end is entirely superficial.

Hackney Flowers was the first book of Gill’s that I was actually compelled to get and I have enjoyed it over the course of many viewings. This was the project in which Gill laid flowers, plants, seeds and other material from Hackney over his photographs as well as over “found” photos and re-photographed the results. What we get are exquisite combinations of color and form that confuse distinction of scale and depth but most importantly, they are the first images from Gill that have an extended life beyond the conceptual gimmick. ‘Form follows technique follows topic’ that works for me. The affection felt in this body of work amounts to no less than a beautifully constructed love letter.

Gill’s latest book A Series of Disappointments is, as I mentioned before, a collection of folded and discarded betting slips that Gill gathered and photographed against a plain grey background. The title of each photo is of the betting details that are often found after performing unfolding “autopsies” after the photography had been completed.

This book has an appeal of “readymade” art just waiting to be discovered by a witty and imaginative artist but within each twist and turn, fold and tear of the slips, are the emotions contained in the hands that shaped them. One is shredded while another is twisted into a straw. One looks worn due to sweaty palms while another is formed into a curly-cue. Gill draws our attention to these plain-stated objects that sit as fictional guides to the original owners personalities at the moment of loss.

I like this book but after holding it to the same critical standard of some of the others I wonder if it will continue to spur thought. In time I may find my hands twisting the pages with the same frustration of one of the betting slip owners frustrated after losing $75.00 USD.

All of Stephen Gill’s books are wonderfully designed and made and A Series of Disappointments is no exception. This time Gill employs an accordion fold which allows all 36 plates to be displayed at once. The cover (with three different designs and colors) can be removed from the book block and holes at the top of the pages allows for hanging (clever, clever).

A Series of Disappointments was co-published in 3000 copies by Gill’s Nobody press and the Archive of Modern Conflict and judging from the retail price and past success of Gill’s books - once again the house is sure to win.

Buy online at Nobody

Book Available Here (Hackney Flowers)

Monday, May 26, 2008

La Semaine Heroique: 19-25 Août 1944

A friend of mine turned me on to an interesting little book on the French resistance during World War II called La Semaine Heroique (The Heroic Week) that presents 31 photos documenting the week of August 19th through the 25th of 1944 as Paris is liberated from the Germans.

The first thing one notices is the remarkable cover design with blue, white and red French flag motif along with the tip in reproduction of three resistance fighters shooting and lobbing grenades out of the window of a building.

The photographers are not individually credited by each photo but a list on the colophon page cites MM. Arthaud, Dosineau, Jahan, Roubier, Roughol, Serge, Zuber, and Suzanne Laroche as the authors.

The book starts with a short preface by George Duhamel, a doctor turned writer who had written about the horrors of the first World War which he experienced first-hand and later wrote critically about the rise of Hitler in a book called Defense des Lettres in 1937. The preface to La Semaine Heroique is obviously in French and its content escapes me but from what little I do understand he seems to spend more of the preface writing about photography being a delicate and profound medium of art than about the events of those days.

The first photo pokes fun of the German army with a photo made from a high vantage point looking down on soldiers walking alongside a convoy of horse drawn carts. The caption reads something to the extent of “The German Motorized army! Ten carts and a horse!” The streets look deserted in the first couple photos until the third that describes two of the FFI tentatively looking around the corner of a building. One has a pistol and the other a grenade. The photographer shoots from a low angle which seems less a choice to make the subjects heroic but out of concern for cover.

The design of the book places the photos on the right with captions appearing on the left facing page. All of the pictures are cropped into verticals but what I like is that there is a clean and airy feel to the book that is uncommon due to the usual design approach in war books of cramming loads of photos onto the page. Here it is one at a time and the captions imply the specific day of the week that the pictures were made. This may or may not be factually accurate as many of the photos just describe people stationed behind hastily constructed sandbag barricades. Few of the photos show any actual fighting - all is implied through distant smoke and some burning vehicles.

Much of this work is reminiscent of Agusti Centelles or Hans Namuth’s work done during the Spanish Civil War of the civilians forming makeshift pockets of resistance. Several of the better images are simple arrangements of figures in anticipation of the appearance of an enemy. My favorite image (which is worth the price of the book alone) is of a young German soldier who has fallen into the hands of the resistance and is in the process of being searched. It is a photo of a man whose head is swimming with fear and probably doesn’t even register the various disembodied hands that reach in from the edges of the frame to rifle through his pockets. This is one of the reproductions that has such heavy retouching that it almost looks like a line drawing were it not for the textures of the clothing.

One interesting added note is the production of this book was done in Paris just three months after the liberation. It was released on November 15th of 1944. This is a fast turn around for any book let alone one emerging just after a world war.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mist by Niels Stomps

Since my last post generated so much debate I thought I’d follow up with an example of a book that sits in close relation to the Wassink Lungren work but provokes much more thought and response from me. The work is by another Dutch photographer who is working in China -- his name is Niels Stomps and the book is called Mist.

Mist starts with a Harper’s Index type series of statistics regarding the effect of the Three Gorges Dam project on its surrounding environment. 172 fish species no longer able to reach their spawning grounds, 1300 archeological sites submerged, and the biggest cost of 1.3 million people displaced by 39.3 billion cubic meters of water.

Now I know that starting a book like this (and my description as well) leads one to automatically think this is a documentary project in the form of a protest against a humongous industrial project. Mist is not that protest book; it is more than that as it really is about the powerlessness of people in the face of overwhelming force. Whether that force is environmental or political, Mist is a book about being pushed to adapt your life around those forces that are presented in the light of ‘this is bettering your life so you should see its goodness and embrace the outcome.’ Mist happens to use an example found in China but this book metaphorically could be speaking to Americans against the war in Iraq or any other situation where the people are powerless to prevent the change.

The aforementioned statistics are followed by four chapters of photographs, the first of which is preceded by the words A window is a hole in a wall.

The Three Gorges Dam project submerged several villages with its gigantic river basin reservoir and new cities were built further up the mountainsides for people to relocate. These brand new cities did not evolve over a long period but sprung up quickly. They are planned out not to reflect the personality of the occupants but for an image of modernity and forward progress with little reflection of past history. What drew Niels’s attention in this first chapter were the small acts of defiance to this overwhelming city planning -- the most curious of which are the ‘rogue’ windows that were punched through walls of the high rise buildings by the new occupants as they saw fit.

The second chapter Climbing stairs like long-distance skaters refers to how these new environs change the flow and rhythms of life. These new mountainside cities are constructed on slopes so steep that sets of stairs need to be transverse in order to get from place to place. This constant ascent and descent takes its toll on the populace and forces them to establish a slower but steadier pace of life.

Chapter three for me is the most engaging as it so simply and poetically suggests the multitude of conflicting feelings about the dam project. Water for air, fish for birds is a series of people photographed from behind as they stand at the edge and overlook the basin reservoir.

Water tends to attract visitors but this body of water is loaded (quite literally for the submerged towns) with personal history and memory. These visitors seem detached from one another even if they appear in groups. The few whose faces can be seen in profile stare out at the water with what seems to be a mix of curiosity, remembrance, or resignation. Their body language doesn’t read as defeat so much as a longing to understand what has happened.

The last chapter, A landscape is not wide or narrow until somebody shows up is all about the confusion of scale. The sheer expanse of the natural landscape sitting alongside the magnitude of the newly created cities makes it hard to have a strong sense of scale within this man-altered landscape. Niels presents a small series of images that reflect this difficult perspective and as the preceding words suggest, it is not until the human element shows up that we understand not only the scale but the vantage point of the photographer. The humans act as literal measuring devices just as a yardstick does in Timothy O’Sullivan’s image of graffiti scratched into Inscription Rock in New Mexico.

Stomps medium or large format photography works as a string of images but I doubt I would have the same response to them on the wall as opposed to this form. The book feels like an entire work that can be revisited for further contemplation. The design is very well conceived as a horizontal book with the spine at the top and a mix of different paper stock. I like most all aspects other than I think the words preceding each chapter can be a bit heavy handed and lean towards pretension. Mist was published in 2007 by Veenman Publishers of Rotterdam.

With Mist, Niels Stomps has presented a complex book which is about modernization and the severing of emotional ties of people to their former comforts. It is a book that can be perceived as a warning of complacent attitudes or of the complete population control of states of power. The vision he presents shows those who may resist in the face of such overwhelming force will be crushed (or drown) in the name of progress.

Buy online at Veenman Publishers

Buy online at Schaden

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Empty Bottles by Wassink and Lundgren

I'm going to attempt something that will probably seem unethical to some -- that is, review a book that I do not own (or as I see it, review a book that I wasn't suckered into buying). This is a book however that I've spent some time looking through and admittedly have been tempted to buy (mostly due to the hype surrounding it) but every time I move the pages from cover to cover I have the realization that I'm looking at crap and therefore -- when my brain starts working again -- I put it back on the shelf and step away. This has happened a few times and each time I feel the pull of hype and I am able to repel it thankfully even with the sticker on the new edition touting its greatness.

The book I'm speaking of is called Empty Bottles by Wassink Lundgren and it won the Contemporary Book Award for 2007 at the Rencontres d'Arles photo festival in France.

Let me proceed by asking a question. How many photographers does it take to make mediocre photographs of Chinese people picking up empty plastic bottles? In this case it would be two. The photographic duo of Wassink and Lundgren have worked on many books together and Empty Bottles is the latest. Yes, that is right, this is a collaborative effort between two people. Stunning collaboration gentlemen. My question is are there two brains at work here?

The first printing of 750 copies sold out quickly after the hype at Arles with a copy now fetching over $400 on the Photoeye auction website. Hundreds of copies were available at the first annual New York photo festival which featured an exhibition of his work curated by none other than Martin Parr.

Now if you've noticed in the past here at 5B4 Photography and Books I do not particularly enjoy negatively reviewing books. Who would? I don't have axes to grind and I want to share work that excites me in a finely crafted book. In this case, what kept me picking up the book was the design and presentation and had absolutely nothing to do with what I realized was incredibly boring photography. Has photography turned down such a blind alley to where this is an example of something that we are holding up for higher consideration?

Arles or no Arles...don't believe the hype. I hope there is a day when we come to our senses and realize that there is much more to be offered and much more to get excited about. I can only hope that that day arrives soon as I do not think I can stomach picking up more of these empty vessels.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Kagero & Colors by Daido Moriyama

The genre of nude photography can be so silly much of the time. When I was in art school, seeing the photos of Wynn Bullock seemed ridiculous because of their contrivance and tired metaphor (or was I supposed to believe he just happened upon some nude woman frolicking in the ferns? Ah, mother nature…what a set of tits.) I am not having a go at Bullock alone as there have been plenty of others that are much more deserving for sure but what are we really interested in, the tired metaphor or the fact that whether male or female, people are curious about nude bodies. I think it is the latter or that had better be one damn interesting fern to steal my attention away.

Compare one of those photographer’s images with the photo of Emmett Gowin’s wife Edith pissing on the barn floor and you’ll see a huge difference. Both are contrived but Gowin’s Edith isn’t an object controlled by the photographer. She has a life and a personality that isn’t reduced to something superficial (and in my opinion ultimately degrading. Who wants to be reduced to a cliché?). To be fair though Gowin did try those fisheye photos later into his career of Edith and her son lying in the stream bed which should be forgotten in terms of his whole oeuvre.

I bring this up because the recent book by Powershovel Kagero & Colors by Daido Moriyama strikes me as the first book of photos I’ve seen of naked women in nature that doesn’t play the beauty card and in some odd way it is more forthcoming even with its ugliness and blatant misogyny.

Kagero & Colors was originally published in a completely different form as Moriyama’s fourth book in 1972. This version, which apparently includes never before seen photographs, is a beautifully oversized book of full bleed spreads in both color and black and white.

The subject matter is psychologically dark and disturbing. The cover image is of a young woman bound in fetal position with her hands tied behind her back. She is placed (or discarded) onto a bed of damp dirt and foliage. Her feet are filthy with soil as are the cheeks of her ass.

This book jumps from nudes that are warm in tenor as if the photographer is revealing an intimate, loving relationship with the women and others where pure hostility and harm seem to be inflicted. Most of the women are faceless beings which we look upon through the eyes of a lecher whose only concern is flesh and selfish pleasure. One woman is bound with her arms behind her back, rope taut against her breasts and laid out on the floor of a barn-like space as if a captive toy. This photo brings to mind Bullock’s most famous images of nudes and turns the tables on Bullock’s wholesome symbolism. (So much so that I wonder if Moriyama had those images in mind).

Throughout Kagero & Colors you can make comparison to other works by famous photographers. I’d say that Edward Weston was as fascinated with asses as Moriyama and when compared and they mirror one another wonderfully. Not to mention Weston’s photograph of the nude woman wearing the gas mask which has the disturbing element that much of Moriyama’s Kagero work holds. (And what about that piece of sea foliage included by Weston in his Book of Nudes that looks like the loops of some bondage rope? Ok, that maybe going a bit far.)

The one aspect of Kagero & Colors that bothers me a little more than the disturbing photos is that the gutter of the book imposes its own hostility and harm on the images. Most of these 61 center weighted photos get absolutely butchered by the layout of cross-gutter double page spreads -- the book does not want to open far enough to be effective. Otherwise it is a fine presentation of 61 photos from this series in terms of size and print quality.

If the aforementioned Edward Weston is more to your liking then a new book from the Getty Museum called Edward Weston Book of Nudes may be of interest.

This publication is essentially the study of a book mock-up made by Weston in 1953 of his nude photographs. Oddly although 6 books of his work had been previously published, in all only 7 nudes had been included in them. This mock-up represents the book that Weston had designed to address this discrepancy.

Edward Weston Book of Nudes presents 39 of the plates in addition to a full thumbnail layout of all of the pages of the original book that was declined by publishers back in the mid-1950s. The quality of the duotone reproductions here is exquisite with duotones covered in a tinted varnish. The design is credited to Stuart Smith who I believe is the same Stuart Smith from Smith design in London whom I have showered praises on in the past.

Book Available Here (Kagero & Colors)

Book Available Here (Book of Nudes)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Soul and Soul by Kiyoshi Suzuki

Before a few days ago I had not even heard of the Japanese photographer Kiyoshi Suzuki. By the suggestion of a friend I ordered the new catalog from the Noorderlight Photogallery in the Netherlands on Suzuki called Soul and Soul 1969 - 1999. Suzuki was a photographer who began his career in the late 1960s and he self published eight books between 1972 and 1998. He died at the age of 57 in 2000. By odd coincidence, the day I received a catalog in the mail I had also started cat-sitting for a friend who happens to have a large photo book collection and while skimming his book shelves I found the original edition of Kiyoshi Suzuki's first book published back in 1972. The Japanese title of Soul and Soul, Nagare No Uta can be translated as Song of Drifting / Song of Wandering / Song of Floating.

Soul and Soul is an odd little book in that it's structure of having chapters titled more or less after the subject. This implies a more objective/journalistic approach while the character of the individual chapters is one of a personal and somewhat enigmatic autobiography that sits closer to other books produced in the early 1970s by the well-known Provoke artists. For me the four chapters add up to the feeling of a personal history of growing retold through disparate images and very deliberate sequencing.

The first chapter, the coal-mine; so far away, opens with a photograph of a young boy with his head wrapped in a towel which is followed by a series of photographs of coal miners interspersed with what look like super eight film frames. This seems to represent the mining town of Iwaki City which was Suzuki's birthplace and the inclusion of the film stills gives the impression of these being experiences recalled through a hazy memory.

The second chapter called mid-summer seems to be constructed through the eyes of a mid-adolescent in that amongst photographs of the carefree nest of youth there is also a discovery taking place of the opposite sex in the physicality of bodies.

The third chapter, traveling actors, is a series of photos taken of Kyogen and Kabuki theater actors both behind the scenes and in mid-performance. This brings to mind in the viewer the long traditions and history of the country in conveying the teachings of morality through theatrics. It also implies a certain sense of conformity which is expected of young men and women passing from adolescence.

The last chapter entitled after hours places the young Suzuki into the modern world where we learn about the more 'sinful' pleasures of life with amorous rendezvous and alcohol blurred nights.

I appreciate much of the imagery but the overall tone of the book seems too conservative for my tastes. Mostly I think this is due to the design approach which when compared to Bye Bye Photography or other titles produced around this time would be considered very tame. If I were to compare the overall tenor of this book it would sit closer to many of the autobiographical Lustrum Press books of Ralph Gibson or Michael Mortone.

The Noorderlicht Museum is celebrating Suzuki with a retrospective and the catalog I mentioned above is a fine piece of work. The title refers directly to Soul and Soul but it is really an examination of several of Suzuki's books.

It starts with full page facsimiles of pages from Suzuki's Soul and Soul book maquette but instead of following their actual sequence, the catalog and exhibition's creator Michal Botman has taken creative license to scramble them up and make new pairings of pages. Included are all of Suzuki's handwritten notations and measurements as Suzuki had his hand in the entire process of bookmaking. After a few spreads of Soul and Soul Botman includes spreads from Suzuki's other books; The Light That Lighted the World (1976), Mind Games (1982), S Street Shuffle (1988), Southern Breeze (1992), Finish Dying (1994), Durasia (1998) and ends the catalog with another series of scrambled spreads from Soul and Soul.

Botman is an appropriate curator for such an exhibition and catalog as his own work in bookcraft directly relates to and is influenced by Suzuki. Kazuhiko Motomura, the man responsible for publishing two of Robert Frank's most beautiful and autobiographical books Lines of My Hand and Flower Is..., was also an early champion of Suzuki's books and was the person who introduced the work to Botman years ago.

The catalog is is as seductivly tactile as it is visual. The paper used has a nice texture and the cover design -- which is a full bleed facsimile of the maquette cover of Soul and Soul with crop marks etc -- looks wonderfully aged. Another aspect that I like is that the texts for the catalog appear in a small 6X6 inch booklet which is laid into the catalog. All in all, this serves as a fine introduction to Suzuki although I do take exception to the rearranging of the page order for the sake of the catalog. Suzuki seemed to be someone who painstakingly ordered his work to find the voice and here Botman has restructured labored sentences.

Buy online at Schaden

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Frank Aspesi catalogs

Most artists need to find ways of paying the bills and this usually involves stepping outside of their immediate interests. Unless, of course, they were born into wealth and the day to day search for money is unnecessary. I have the notion that good art doesn't naturally spring from that environment but I only have to point to Cartier-Bresson or Godard to look foolish making a statement like that. Having money has the positive effect of freeing up time to create but does the lack of day-to-day struggle for one's existence have an effect on the work as well? I'd like to think so but perhaps this is simply because I belong to the group of people that hang from paycheck to paycheck. As I've said before I make my living as a printmaker and my work week generally exists of two days worth of jobs. If I worked full time, I would never be a photographer (let alone spend the time to write about books) but yet I think if I had all the money that I needed then perhaps I wouldn't need to make photographs because there would be less at stake if I didn't. That said, I'd probably give it a go, if just for the experiment.

Robert Frank is not generally thought of as an editorial or commercial photographer but when he first arrived in the United States from Zürich that is exactly what he fell into. In fact, to find proof of this all you need to do is look through Stuart Alexander's bibliography of Frank published by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and you will find listings of all of the fashion shoots that he worked on. In 1947, after showing Alexey Brodovitch his handmade book 40 Fotos, he started working for Harper's Bazaar in July and by the end of the year he had done 39 published shoots for them. He seemed to work steadily for Harper's and Junior Bazaar until 1952 completing around 120 separate jobs as a fashion photographer. From 1952 onward one sees the gears of the art world being set into motion in regards to Frank's career with fewer and fewer entries regarding commercial work and more entries concerning his appearance as a young artist.

This posting is about three fashion catalogues from designer Alberto Aspesi, Milano which feature photographs by Frank that were shot in the late 1980s and the mid-1990s.

The first is 44 pages and features 19 photographs of shirt designs from Aspesi in 1989. Photographed in Polaroid positive/negative in the streets around his home near the Bowery he catches the models in states somewhere between posing and spontaneous interaction. The blurry urban backdrop and rough Polaroid edges provides a nice moody atmosphere of fashion meeting lower east side reality. This elegantly produced softcover is covered in thick black French-folded cardstock and the inner reproductions are on a decent paper stock typical of artbooks.

The second is a 44 page hardcover catalog of 24 photographs of jackets offered from Aspesi's Fall/Winter line of 1995-96. This time around Robert has hauled everyone up to Mabou, Nova Scotia where jackets would be put to good use. Here he mixes the obvious models with locals and even June Leaf shows up in a few photos. Since much of Robert's "art" with the Polaroid has been done up in Mabou several elements within the landscape that he re-uses in these photos will be familiar. A local man in flannel jacket and trucker's cap holds up a piece of glass upon which Robert has etched the word 'Jackets' (scratched into the negative) while in the foreground the clothesline from his famous 'words' photograph now holds up jackets and not photographic prints blowing in the winter wind. In other photos he uses newspapers and people holding up found objects as props to infuse the pictures with the sense of an added beyond the clothing.

Besides this book being hardcover the quality is much the same as the softcover described above.

The last catalog called Ideas was published in 1999 and it combines three of the campaigns including one of collages made in 1997. This was available for a while through SCALO but nowhere in the book do they have any credit on production or distribution. Where as the others were not publicly available, this one had a much larger printing and seemed made for more public consumption as a Robert Frank item of interest beyond the fashion aim.

The first two sections are most of the photos described from the series above (the individual books contain a few photos that do not appear in this collection) and the last section are the collages made in Zurich in which the featured products are light jackets. The collages include photographs in both black and white and color and other elements of film frames and scratched Polaroid negatives. To me these are a bit less interesting as the photographs alone are not intriguing like in the other series, it is the collage and surrounding support material that makes them something to pay attention to.

For what these are, these books are interesting items with good photography and nice design. I like many of the individual images even though they sit in the comfortable arena of risk-free fashion photography. It is clearly commerce and not art but it does hold some of Frank’s air of cool intelligent framing and the sense that there is more behind what meets the eye.

Note: For a different take on artists being hired to photograph campaigns that get published as a book take a look at Terry Richardson’s work for the Japanese company Uniqlo advertising their large line of t-shirts. Some of their shirts have featured Araki and Daido Moriyama photos and Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. That book called T-shirt Love is available in Uniqlo stores for $50.00.

Note to note above: Did I just call Terry Richardson an artist?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pretend You're Actually Alive by Leigh Ledare

In order to celebrate Mother's Day appropriately here is a mental picture I would like to pass along; you are 22 years old and you are standing at the foot of your mother's bed with a camera-- she lays in front of you in black see-through underwear with opaque black hearts stitched across the front that barely concealed her breasts -- she is looking directly into your eyes while her thumb has hooked the crotch of her panties and she pulls them aside revealing her shaved genitalia. And just as she gives you a come-hither look -- you snap a photograph.

Is anyone still reading? Okay I promise I won't paint any more mental pictures but I do want to draw attention to the tension you now feel in your shoulders and the large sensation of unease with your thoughts because if you choose to look through Leigh Ledare's book Pretend You're Actually Alive just published by PPP Editions that is what you will have in store.

Pretend You're Actually Alive is a disturbingly honest account of the relationship between mother and son as the typical family structure breaks down and a new one emerges that challenges all convention. Ledare's mother Tina Peterson is a former ballerina who now works professionally as a stripper and the man she is described as 'dating' is 22 years old -- the same age as her son Leigh.

Through photographs, type written and hand corrected pages of text, ephemera and video stills, Leigh paints a portrait of his mother as a fading beauty who desperately tries to renew a youthful image by way of adopting a hyper sexualized persona. Leigh in some text early on in the book reveals his curiosity toward his mother's sexuality began when he was around 11 when he would watch her and her friends exercising in tights. A few pages later a handwritten note is reproduced entitled "Girls I Wanted To Do" in which he adds "my mom" as the third person on the list (the bronze medal?) after Christie Brinkley but before Shelley Duvall. Instead of incestuously revisiting from where he once entered the world, he photographs her engaged in sex with her boyfriend and playing a pornstar in front of his camera. It would all get so overwhelmingly boring if it only struck the note of ‘here is my mother as an open sexual being,’ but it is woven into the larger picture of Leigh's own relationship with his wife and his brother's dysfunctional relationship with drugs.

This work was shot over a period of time (7 or 8 years?) and what is remarkable is Leigh's mother transforms her look from photo to photo and there is a slight sense of being unsure that you are looking at the same woman throughout the course of the book. In one she looks like a young bored woman listening to her boyfriend fumble through some guitar chords and in another she dons a jet black wig and looks like a severe headmistress. In others she looks waxen and dead and wears the milage of her life in her eyes ('like she's in a Goya painting being attacked by demons') and in others surprisingly youthful and exuberant. On the last page, she and Leigh appear in photobooth strips and they hug and peck with innocent mother and son affection until a last frame within which they look to be in a full open mouth kiss of young lovers. Out of all of the 16 photographs on that page, the open mouth kiss photo is the only one that does not seem to be played for the photobooth lens. It is, for the viewer, a moment of "proof" that has been hinted at but denied throughout most of the book.

Pretend You're Actually Alive is not solely an Oedipal tale (it gets better the faster you get over that fact) but an impressive family album of sorts where each page affirms that all of the skeletons are out of the closet. In fact, I take exception with the title of the book as for me it seems to be alluding to Tina's down-sliding life when actually just about everything in this book gives the impression that everyone involved is teaming with life and sensations no matter how severe or ill affecting. So why is it called Pretend You're Actually Alive? Anyone can see that this book vibrates with beating hearts and exposed nerve endings.

Ledare's photography is in a personal journalistic style of Larry Clark or Nan Goldin and has the sense of an immediate reaction with casual framing and a lesser concern towards the technical with flash used directly on the camera. This is one aspect that bothers me slightly as it seems many projects of this sort seem to contain mediocre photography that is stitched together to form an interesting narative, whereas I would love to see great photography stitched together to form that same story. What "great" photography is from me goes well beyond the subject alone. That being said, Ledare has accomplished something with Pretend You're Actually Alive that Larry Clark has not since Teenage Lust.

My only real serious problem with this softcover book is with its cost. Granted it is 240 pages but with a retail price of $80 it is far too expensive for what it is. I like the design -- the printing is decent (done in Massachusetts) and the paper is good but this should cost around $40. The publisher has chosen to house it in a cheap cardboard slipcase that is too big for the book and thus makes a rather wonky companion to an otherwise fine design. (Was the addition of this crappy slipcase -- that probably cost an extra $1.50 each unit -- simply a ploy to try to justify charging an extra $40 for the whole package?) To add insult to injury, I have heard that the pricing will increase after a certain amount of the 1000 copies are sold.

This is a book that will disturb many as it is common for son and daughters to avoid addressing their parent's sexuality, but remember that there is always therapy to get over any trauma should this book unlock any repressed feelings. That is, until the therapist asks with that knowing look, "Now...tell me about your mother."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Editorial Lumen Palabra e Imagen (Part II)

My first post of 2008 was on the long running series of books Palabra e Imagen from Editorial Lumen out of Barcelona published between 1961 and 1985. I featured the four books that I have seen in person but I had a hard time finding a complete list of the entire series. Several people weighed in but still no definitive list could be compiled. Well, due to the generosity of Horacio Fernandez we now have the list and below you will find the titles and photo composites to give you a sense of these books.

One note to keep in mind that is still a bit of a mystery is that someone wrote in with a title from 1975 that was supposed to be in the series called Dias de Fronteras, Dias Circo by the author Antonio Las Vegas and photos by Joan Fontcuberta. This title does not exist and the author seems to be a matter of fiction.

Fontcuberta, a man whose projects in photography have all been about weaving complex fictional narratives that pose as historical fact seems to be the prime suspect behind such a creation but Horacio Fernandez has mentioned writing to Fontcuberta who has denied being Antonio Las Vegas.

Anyway, here are the book titles and the comps. I can’t say much about them as I haven’t actually seen these titles beyond what you also see in the photos.

1. Ana María Matute, Libro de Juegos Para Los Niños De Los Otros. Photos: Jaime Buesa. Designer: Luis Clotet, Os
car Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen,1961.

2. Ignacio Aldecoa, Neutral Corner. Photos: Ramón Masats. Designer: Luis Clotet y Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1962.

3. Camilo José Cela, Toreo de Salón. Photos: Oriol Maspons, Julio Ubiña. Designer: José Bonet y Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1963.

4. Miguel Delibes, La Caza de la Perdiz Roja. Photos: Oriol Maspons. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1963.

5. Miguel Delibes, Vieja
s Historias de Castilla la Vieja. Photos: Ramón Masats. Designer: Hans Romberg, Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1964.

6. Camilo José Cela, Izas, Rabizas y Colipoterras. Photos: Juan Colom. Designer: Cristian Cirici, Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1964.

7. Alfonso Grosso, Los Días Iluminados. Photos: Francisco Ontañón. Designer: Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1965.

8. Pablo Neruda, Una Casa En La Arena. Photos: Sergio Larrain. Designer: Toni Miserachs y Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1966.

9. Mario Vargas
Llosa, Los Cachorros. Photos: Xavier Miserachs. Designer: Oscar Tusquets. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen,1967.

10. Federico García Lorca, Poeta En Nuev
a York. Photos: Oriol Maspons, Julio Ubiña. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1967.

11. Rafael Alberti, El Libro Del Mar. Photos: Francisco Català-Roca. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen,1968.

12. Alejo Carpentier, La Ciudad de Las Columnas. Photos: Paolo Gasparini. Designer: Mariona Aguirre y Toni Miserachs. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1970.

13. Carlos Barral, Informe Personal Sobre El Alba y Acerca de Algunas Auroras Particulares. Photos: Cés
ar Malet. Designer: Mariona Aguirre y Toni Miserachs. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1970.

14. Juan Benet, Una Tumba. Photos: Colita. Designer: Enric Satué. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1971.

15. Juan Ferraté, Veinticinco Poemas de Cavafis. Photos: Dick Frisell. Designer: Juan Ferraté y Toni Miserachs. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1972.

16. Julio Cortazar, Prosa del Observatorio. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1972.

17. Octavio Pa
z, Julián Ríos. Solo a Dos Voces. Photos: Antonio Gálvez et al. Designer: Toni Miserachs. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1973.

18. José María Caballero
Bonald, Luces y Sombras Del Flamenco. Photos: Colita. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen, 1975.

19. Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, Rimas. Photos: Isidre Trullas. Barcelona: Lumen, Palabra e Imagen.

Very special thank you to Horacio Fernandez for the information and photos of the books.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cafe Lehmitz by Anders Petersen

In 1968 Anders Petersen walked into Café Lehmitz for a beer. As he tells it, he sat down, placed his camera on the table, and shortly there after is engaged in conversation with another young man in the bar. After a quick trip to the men's room, he returned to find the patrons in the bar using his camera to take pictures of each other. Seeing this, it was only natural for him to seize the opportunity to ask if he could photograph them as well.

The Cafe Lehmitz sat at the end of "die sündige Meile" ("the sinful mile"), the red light district in Hamburg. Its patrons were a mix of workers, prostitutes, johns, pimps, alcoholics, homosexuals, transvestites and others who sat on the fringes of society and it was within this cast of characters that Anders Petersen made the 88 black-and-white photographs that makes up his classic book Cafe Lehmitz published by Schirmer Mosel in 1978.

Off and on for two years Petersen frequented the bar and made photographs of this "other" society but his approach reads not as a voyeuristic exposé from an outsider but of a loving collaborative diary of sorts that shows genuine affection. This band of misfits formed a new family and the café a new home. One remarkable aspect of the book is the sense of connection and acceptance between the subjects. World-weary and worn down by life, it seems that these desperate and down on their luck people had found a small refuge from judgment within the four walls of the Café and they reveled in that fact. These are the sorts that in the conventional world would be seen as failures and perhaps even pitiable -- more likely looked upon with disgust, but none of that is found in these photographs. Pity is not found in Café Lehmitz because all are accepted and even the oldest and the homeliest of prostitutes gets smothered with kisses.

I do not own the original edition of Café Lehmitz but I would like to draw your attention to three other books that contain this material. The first is what I believe to be a near facsimile hardcover edition that was published in 2004 by Schirmer Mosel. Near facsimile because the original Café Lehmitz was published only in paperback and this edition has a clear redesign of the front cover.

This edition opens with the text by Roger Anderson which describes not only the back story of Petersen's involvement with the Café but also a return to Café Lehmitz eight years after to see what still remained. The printing is well done and the reproductions are probably a bit richer than in the original.

I like the edition described above a lot but my favorite is actually an odd little pocket paperback version that was published in 1985 by Fischer Taschenbucher. This contains the same 88 photographs in the same sequence as well is the same text by Anderson but the trim size is 7.5 x 5 inches -- the same size as most pocket novels. The reproductions are rough as the paper is cheap and they are reproduced at a very small size on the page due to the format. The quality is cheap, but there is something charming about this photo book that poses as a novel. I can imagine the patrons of the Café having a tattered and dog-eared copy of this sitting amongst the pint glasses and overfilled ashtrays more so than any other.

This past year also saw a very small book published on this work this time coming from Japan and the Rat Hole Gallery. This incarnation is an elegant presentation of 25 photographs that I believe served as a companion to an exhibition. At 8.25 x 6 inches and covered in a burgundy material pocked to look like faux leather with the title and author is embossed in a white art deco font it sort of resembles a miniature menu. This book is more of a teaser than anything else although mixed within many of the iconic images there are a few that are not in the original editions and at least one is a variant (the dwarf posing with a crowd of men). The printing is well-done and rich and although I like the idea of the design (a small book with the images bled to the page edge) all of the horizontal images run across the gutter and in many cases they get ruined.

In an introduction to a book of drawings and watercolors by George Grosz (to which Anders Petersen could be compared), Henry Miller states, '" People are wonderful as they are." All people? Every last one? It seems hard to swallow. Only saints talk that way, you will say. Yet, unless we learn to see ourselves as others see us the wound will never heal and we shall remain forever separate and apart.' It is hard to imagine, least of all for Anders Petersen, that when he stepped off the Reeperbahn and into Café Lehmitz for a beer that he would encounter, let alone document, something saintly in that dingy bar filled with sinners. Then again only saints truly feel comfortable when surrounded by the sweat, vomit and tears of others.

Buy online at Schirmer Mosel

Friday, May 2, 2008

Secrets of Real Estate by John Gossage

If you were to invite John Gossage to photograph your neighborhood he could probably create an entire book's worth of work within a few city blocks (or rural lanes). He is a photographer who could probably work anywhere more so than most in that the small details that he asks us to pay attention to are common in our landscape where ever we live. The seeming insignificance of a crack in the sidewalk or a dried paint drip on a park bench is heightened into a state of importance that can be lyrical and beautiful or dark and apocalyptic.

Much of what he makes visible are man-made 'things' that were never meant to be more significant than their functions but when isolated in a photograph they speak of humankind in ways we could never have conceived had we walked by them in person. Much of my enjoyment of his work stems from the inexhaustible nature of observing all of the small sculptural bits of poetry that he is drawn to and in seeing how he collects the information in his photographs. It is not so much conceptual, as responsive. Photography is an act that is physical and Gossage's photographs show their physicality through often low vantage points that can have the viewer feeling like they are on all fours and examining the weeds growing on the edge of a neighbor's property. His work applies a childlike attention to the construction of the commonplace and often mimics the shallow depth of field of our eyesight. That and his clear understanding of how photographic description piles upon itself in the transformation of three dimensions into two is what makes each of these photographs a remarkable construction unto itself.

In the spring of 2007, Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis, Missouri invited John to photograph their city and a new print-on-demand book collects 59 of these images under the title Secrets of Real Estate.

Gossage's love of book craft is well-known and each of his monographs reveals his curiosity of finding new ways in which books can 'work.' Secrets of Real Estate 'works' much like a game of direction and redirection. Each photograph appears on the right-hand side page in classic photo book fashion except on the left-hand page there is a small detail reproduced from that same photo. These details are usually small second act components of the original photograph that redirect your attention -- causing you to seek them out in the original photo and thus creating a different perception of the original. The effect is to broaden your attention. Since many of Gossage's photographs use such shallow depth of field, their initial effect is to focus your attention on to the fact at hand, but the inclusion of the facing page detail belies that focusing. It becomes an interesting little game of pointing should you be interested in playing.

Secrets of Real Estate is a softcover book and since it is print-on-demand, the print quality is good but not great. It is however, light years beyond his first experiment with print on demand technology with his book Dance Card Volume 2 from Onestar Press. Gossage designed Secrets and it is being made available in a printing of around 250 Copies. Signed copies can be ordered from the Loosestrife website. The Sheldon Art Galleries also has copies but they can only accept orders through a mail-in or fax order form.

Buy at Loosestrife Editions

Available from Shelton Art Galleries