Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Three Penny Review #96: Robert Frank

File this post under: "More Robert Frank stuff I need to fill my life with."

Back in Winter 2004, the charming literary quarterly The Three Penny Review illustrated its Issue #96 entirely with Robert Frank photographs. The photos are mostly from his London Wales book published by Scalo (2003) and re-printed by Steidl (2007).

Throughout the issue, 14 of Frank's photos accompany various articles and although it may not seem like much, as a whole it is a nice way to experience these few images. The Three Penny Review is printed on heavy weight newsprint, folded into quarters and this format suits the roughness of subject and tone.

The Three Penny Review and other literary quarterlies like Granta and The Paris Review publish portfolios of photographers in each issue. Three Penny however is the only one that I know that dedicates entire issues to a single photographer to be featured along with the articles. Issue #118 from the Fall of this year features work from South America in the 1970s from the photographer (and my publishing partner) Ed Grazda.

Back issues can be ordered online directly from Three Penny.

The Three Penny Review Back Issues

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

13 Million Tons of Pig Iron by Bruce Haley

In 2003, the photographer Bruce Haley self-published a wonderful limited edition portfolio called 13 Million Tons of Pig Iron. Sparing no expense by printing with the legendary Meriden Gravure in a unique drytrap process on heavy weight paper, the portfolio consists of 13 loose plates of photographs plus title and edition plates. All copies are signed and numbered in an edition of 500.

Starting in 1999 and working with a 35mm panoramic camera loaded with black and white film, Haley wandered the industrial wastelands of Eastern Europe. Abandoned factories and mining facilities given over to rust, transform into toxic sites that pollute the surrounding landscape; pipes emerge from the ground and continue to spew toxins into the water and air; neglected heavy metals contaminate the ground water. The detritus of a once huge industry now lays waste as scrap on a mammoth scale creating uninhabitable dead zones poisoned for generations.

Haley's photographs are contradictions. They are seductively beautiful yet describe the decay and ruin of an industry. Twisted plates of tarnished metal reflect the sunlight with a full range of grays so attractive, it may be hard to imagine they looked better when new. Inside the factories, the equipment looks as if the workers had just left their stations if not for the fallen ceiling material that now covers everything like snow. The only human presence felt is the ghost of repetitive labor punctuated by a safety poster which depicts a recoiling worker with his hand caught in his machine.

These are also pictures about weight and resilience. The sheer magnitude and heft of the iron machinery will promise lifetimes of painfully slow transformation if left on its own. 13 Million Tons of Pig Iron describes that devastating legacy.

Haley uses the panoramic well by filling his frames with graceful lines and geometry. His black and white photos can be grainy which, in my opinion, is an interesting choice considering most people's tendency towards using a larger format for tactile clarity. The grain here, I do not think it's a stretch to say, adds to a sense of everything simply dissolving.

The construction of the portfolio from the drytrap prints to the folded enclosure and belly band that holds it all together is so well made with quality materials that the whole package feels as nice to the touch as it is to view. The belly-band features a hammer and sickle centered in a red star - the edges of which are chipped and broken, much like the ideology which celebrated the creation of all that has been now left to the elements.

Bruce has a limited quantity available. For inquiries contact him directly at

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Simple Present by Bert Danckaert

The wear and tear on any city -- the effect of living -- is apparent to everyone who lives in urban environments. The ability to see what tourist bureaus airbrush out of brochures -- to momentarily stay repulsion -- and examine these physical flaws with a mind towards aesthetic value takes a bit more effort. Clutter that collects in the corners of a building's outer walls or various pieces of detritus still holding the promising of being useful are left leaning against walls and forgotten -- all become a part of our sight-line in the urban landscape. Left on their own and perhaps unintentionally arranged by human hands these chance sculptures -- unwanted installations -- can be arresting sights to stumble upon. Bert Danckaert's book Simple Present published by Veenman is a celebration of these sights found in Beijing.

Simple Present is full of spaces that are more familiar than foreign. They transcend strict attachment to place. This may be Beijing but it could easily be Eastern Europe, Latin America or parts of the United States. The larger information -- wall construction, types of cars, architecture -- is more or less universal while a few smaller details -- signs with native characters, monuments -- key the viewer into the 'foreignness' of place. Regardless of the influence of the smaller details, the main tenor is one of the recognizable urbanized world -- or on a grander scale, the globalized image being created of modern urbanized world.

Danckaert's work explores this notion of what is 'typical' and 'authentic' about a particular place -- the thought that the basic structure of modern urban environments is essentially very similar and it is the major landmarks that create the sense of individual identity. When one thinks of China, images of the Great Wall or the Forbidden City create this sense of dynamic difference but for the locals, those places are anything but typical. The authentic is found near their workplace or their apartment building.

Danckaert's photography describes these places with rigid formality. Throughout this book of fifty images, roughly half of which frame their subject squarely facing a wall. The other half describe their subjects at a 45 degree angle. This rigidity, which seems intentional, could work in his favor conceptually but I wish over the course of the book that there was more variation of frame and relationship to subject. Each points out worthy content that are often complex visual gifts but a larger sense of scale couldn't hurt. In my opinion, this present is formally wrapped a bit too tight.

The book itself appeals to most all of my weaknesses. It employs a very clean design, very fine printing, great use of materials and it has a wonderful dustjacket with a slight stippled texture that feels great in the hand. Jan Blommaert contributes an fine, thought provoking essay that avoids a heavy-handed examination of the work.

It is interesting that Beijing just hosted the Olympics after spending 40 billion dollars creating an image the world would concentrate on for a few weeks. That image seems 180 degrees from anything that would normally spring to mind with the suggestion of 'Chinese-ness.' The scale of the architecture and the insanely orchestrated opening and closing ceremonies might have held to the notion of what greatness the masses can create, but the look and feel of those environs felt like a bridge to the West and the larger world that is becoming so familiar.

Monday, September 8, 2008

David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings

David Deutsch is an artist who has used color photographs as source material for his paintings of houses and other architecture in various landscapes. In recent years, he has also made black and white aerial photographs and exhibited them along with his paintings.

A handsome two book slip-cased set called David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings from Twin Palms published in 2004 features these striking paintings and photographs.

Deutsch employed a helicopter and a high powered search light in order to make photographs of suburban neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Black and white grainy images, shot at night, illuminate the roofs and yards of homes that, by the circular glow of the searchlight, appear in an atmosphere of suspicion. The language of these photographs is one of surveillance and they are filled with the tension of searching for clues at a crime scene.

The contrast of blown-out highlights and hard shadows that fall away at the edges of the searchlight's illumination keep the viewer's eyes jumping back and forth over the plane of the image. It is not unthinkable that your mind is waiting for something to dart into view from a side yard or line of shrubbery as seen in many police videos of criminals evading capture. In essence, the way we read these photographs turns the natural subject on its head - we look for something that isn't there often bypassing the information that is. These photographs are exciting but not really pleasurable to view.

Deutsch's paintings are the opposite in feeling. The color palette of his oil on linen is delicate and easy on the eye. Illuminated by daylight, the tension from the suspicion of the photographs is substituted for harmony of landscape and tone. Somewhat abstract, the fields of color bring beauty and pleasure of seeing in contrast to the grit and menace found in his photos.

David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings is beautifully produced and includes a two-part essay by Laurence A. Rickles called Haunts of Assimilation.

David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings

Sunday, September 7, 2008

5B4 Donation Print Offer

See print donation website for details.

Baghdad Calling by Geert van Kesteren

The United States isn't as good as it used to be at toppling foreign dictators and installing US friendly puppets. Long gone are the days of installing a leader like the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into Iran or Augusto Pinochet into Chile and overlooking the brutality of their governance. We all know how the US was in bed with Saddam before he invaded Kuwait and complicated a US financial interest by preparing to drive up the price of oil. Once he did that and became a devil, the music to "spread democracy" was turned up to 11.

So...11 years later after one successful terrorist attack we stop pursuing the real culprit responsible for 9/11 and invade Iraq under false pretenses with a scared and misinformed American public providing the proper momentum. There is no real governmental plan for controlling what is being dismantled and when damage control is attempted it fails miserably due to incompetent governmental oversight.

The devil is caught in a spider-hole, fattened with Cheetos and then hung. As soon as he disappeared the country dissolved into complete chaos of a power struggle civil war that puts even human rights activists into an ethical quandary. At least when the devil ruled, people could go outside, shop at a market, have neighbors who followed a different religion, children could go to school, life could be lived if under a certain amount of dictatorial threat. Now rampant murder and kidnapping are the mainstay -- there are more ways to die than live. American troops there are seen as occupiers and hated. Five years and counting and in a perverse twist out of desperation, many Iraqis miss their devil and the safety they felt under his thumb.

If you'd like to know what Baghdad is like today then Geert van Kesteren's new book Baghdad Calling published by Episode books will give you an idea. It is a terrifying report from the world's most dangerous city.

Baghdad Calling is a book of assembled stories of Iraqi citizens living in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq and it isn't the work of one author but of dozens. Being that Baghdad is far too dangerous now for any foreign journalist to be wandering the streets, Geert has assembled a team of locals who document the state of their city with small digital cameras and cell-phones. These images are punctuated by Geert's photographs of the Iraqis that have sought refuge out of the country.

The amateur photographs portray a city that is desolate -- dead. When the cameras venture out of doors they are usually shooting out of car windows. When the camera operator is out on the street, the photos convey a strong sense of being exposed to danger. So much so that it is a relief to turn the page and find the observations continue and no immediate tragedy has occurred.

On one page spread there is a photo with a caption that reads, 'I was in my college talking to my friend's father who wanted us to convince this friend to return to Iraq to continue his studies and as we were talking this big explosion took place.' The photo shows the silhouette of a man in a sunny courtyard, beyond him is a small mushroom cloud of dust and debris pushing into the sky. Others describe the destruction of neighborhoods and the bodies that can be found littered along the roadsides, hands tied behind their backs. Shocking sights that are presented without the aesthetics of contemporary photojournalism. Direct responses made all the more horrifying by the sketchy image quality of the amateur tools.

Interspersed among groupings of double-page spreads of the amateur photographs are short texts that sandwich Geert's photographic contributions. The texts are the personal experiences from the Iraqis living in such chaos. Fascinating and well-written, they describe with horrifying detail the madness and psychological damage that has descended onto these lives -- leaving the reader to sit uneasily in its wake.

Baghdad Calling is a follow up to Geert's 2003 book Why Mister, Why? and it follows a similar approach in construction. Both use a thinner, less precious paper which is perfect bound together. Baghdad Calling reproduces the amateur photos on pages of newsprint while the text and Geert's photos are on thin but smoother paper for better image quality. The effect is one of switching from lo-fi hellish nightmare to high-fi fantasies of safety.

Due to the nature of the paper and materials, Baghdad Calling can be easily damaged. Even cursory reading leaves its marks on the cover and internal pages, which seems appropriate. This is a book about cause and effect. An appeal for us to ensure something will be done in response to the desperate needs towards people's safety and welfare. The damage needs to be attended to.

Baghdad Calling

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Complete Films of Robert Frank: Volume 2

"A decision; I put my Leica in a cupboard. Enough of lying in wait, pursuing, sometimes catching the essence of black and white, the knowledge of where God is. I make films. Now I speak to the people who move in my viewfinder. Not simple and not especially successful." - Robert Frank

Not simple for sure. For an artist who is not interested in any compromise of vision, his are film works that challenge everything from notions of "professionalism" to narrative structures. Volume 2 of Steidl's Complete Film Works of Robert Frank presents three films; OK End Here (1963), Conversations in Vermont (1969), and Liferaft Earth (1969).

OK End Here is possibly one of his easier films to digest. The story is about a handsome young couple stuck in the inertia of a relationship and wiling away a Sunday afternoon. They don't have anything to do and obviously do not know what to do with each other. The silence between them, the inability to fully communicate, to listen, seems under examination here. The woman desires communication, "Talk to me," while the man answers almost mockingly, "What do you want to talk about? Politics? Films? Proust?" "Just talk to me," she counters.

These moments of exhausting distance between the couple makes the title sentiment OK End Here an obvious resolution. It seems as though we are waiting for the one word or sentence that will cause the relationship to crumble. Instead they plod along with their day receiving a couple of visitors to their apartment and then venturing out into the dreary grey day.

Later while the couple is at a restaurant they are joined by a friend and the woman he was dining with. Among the small talk, the woman starts to read a letter from a man who ended a relationship with her. For a while our female protagonist listens intently but soon the swirl of conversations and laughter of the restaurant drown out all interest in what the woman is reading despite the obvious emotional importance of the letter. In tears she runs out of the restaurant exclaiming, "You're all only interested in yourselves!"

Frank's couple then walks the streets and the woman says that he will become 'old' (old as in age or old as in a stale relationship?). They enter the building's elevator, she cuddles up to him and as they smile warmly the doors shut. OK End Here.

Conversations in Vermont is Frank's documentary form of self examination through the images and words of his two children, Andrea and Pablo. Photographed mostly by Ralph Gibson, Frank interviews them about how they felt about the life they led in NYC and the life they now lead in a Vermont. Interspersed are scenes of still photographs of his family and some of his well known images from The Americans.

The film starts with a self portrait of Frank cleaning the camera lens as it is running film. He says humorously, "Let's see." Conversations is a look into the past and a confrontation of sorts. Frank appears to be wanting admission of something he feels guilty about -- like a father who has failed to raise his children "normally" whatever "normal" may be. The conversation with Pablo addresses that very question but it is what is not said that is all the more meaningful. It is a display of Father and son drifting apart and the pain of that gap.

This curious film is rough and direct. Frank appears before the camera as interviewer and director assuring that the film is actually more about his internal questions than the direct answers from his children.

Liferaft Earth, made the same year as Conversations in Vermont is the documentation of a 1969 hunger strike that took place in a parking lot in California. Surrounded by a huge circle of plastic sheeting, one hundred hippie types stage a "starve-in" to bring awareness of world overpopulation and under-nutrition. Frank and Danny Lyon who recorded sound join the "liferaft" to document the "hunger circus" and media attention it gathers. (Is that Andy Warhol inside the "raft" with a super 8 camera?)

As the participants start to succumb to starvation and difficult weather, Frank and Lyon also decide to leave. After a hearty meal, Frank confesses his shame in giving up "I didn't have the guts," and he and Lyon set out to face the remaining days of the starve-in which had been moved from the parking lot to a house in the woods near San Francisco.

Frank and Lyon wander around the home asking people "Are you alive?" while the 52 "survivors" have conversations, argue and participate in primal screaming. Liferaft Earth is a political film but also like most of Frank's works, it is also one of self-examination where he balances between being an outsider and one of the group.

Frank's films are rarely screened so most who have come to know The Americans for its brilliance haven't been able to follow the path of his film work. I find it curious that other than the legendary Cocksucker Blues and Me and My Brother, these haven't really gotten much attention besides from the most diehard of Frankofiles. Difficult as they are, it cannot be denied that each is a unigue inquiry into life that do their best to break with convention

Each set of these films comes in an inventive packaging in the form of small DVD sized film canisters enclosed in a cardboard box made to look like a 16mm film stock package. Each of the DVDs has both PAL and NTSC formats. Volume 3 to be reviewed soon.

Buy Online at Steidlville

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

RFK Funeral Train by Paul Fusco

Few bodies of work deserve three different book incarnations. In 1968 Paul Fusco was on the train that transported Robert Kennedy's body from New York to Arlington cemetery. For over seven hours, he made thousands of photographs of the Americans that flocked to pay their respects as the train went slowly by.

From his moving and somewhat limited vantage point, Fusco created a body of work that day that appears even conceptual when compared to his normal practice of the documentary traditions involving assembling "stories." His frames, perhaps guided by instinct more than ever before due to the nature of his fleeting subjects, pose interesting quires into photographic description. Example being, the question of how small a detail can be in a photograph and still carry the full weight of the frame. Many of Fusco's "funeral train" photographs are repetitive in essence but each is filled with the subtle gesture and body language that, even when perceived from afar, conveys so much meaning.

Fusco's remarkable feat was to make so many images that can sit alongside one another even when they appear similar. The arrangements of bodies alongside the train tracks for the formally minded never ceases to excite. By not shooting with super fast shutter speeds as might be expected to freeze movement, Fusco's combination of speed and panning the camera -- locking onto subjects as they pass by -- dictates an fine mix of sharpness and blur. By the end of the day, the crowds dissolve into a swirl of purple blue as the train arrives at its final destination.

The first time this work was published in book form was 30 years after their making. To accompany an exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery in London an edition of print-on-demand books was created using a Xerox DocuColor 100 Digital Color Press. The entire intended edition of 350 copies with nine different covers was never full realized (two hundred were actually printed) but RFK Funeral Train would finally existed for a wider audience.

The quality of the printing and construction of "perfect" binding (which is never perfect) is a bit sketchy. The technologies have a limited capacity of rendering all of the colors and the darker tonalities disappear completely. That being said, it is these faulty characteristics that make this the most touching of the three books published on this work. The flawed and almost improvised handmade feel suits the sense of an immediate response to a moment and the emotion witnessed.

In 2000, the second edition of RFK Funeral Train was published through more traditional print technologies by Umbrage Editions and Magnum Photos. This edition followed the original only in the most basic ways. The photos face pages of black and the typography was the same but the trim size was enlarged by an inch in height and an inch and a half in length. In the original, the photos appeared bleed on the page and this new edition they were surrounded by a bit of black margin. The edit and sequencing is different and most notably, the printing improved greatly.

This was the edition where I first experienced this work and only in retrospect after seeing a friend's copy of the original would I prefer that first Xerox edition. That said, the Umbrage edition is elegant and serves the work beautifully.

This year Aperture has released the third book version called simply RFK.

RFK has been published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination. This version is not another rehashing of the same images from the first two books but a completely new edit that benefits from a discovery of slides from the LOOK magazine collection at the Library of Congress. RFK includes more than seventy unpublished images as well as photographs Fusco made around New York's St. Patrick's Catherdral and the night-time burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

The most notable difference besides the name change is the size and density of this new edition. With an expanded trim size to 9.5 x 12 and at a solid inch thick, this project has blown up into a full size coffee-table book. There is even an additional text by Vicky Goldberg aside the essays by Norman Mailer, Evan Thomas and Senator Edward Kennedy that appeared in the Umbrage edition.

The justification for doing this new edition after the discovery of the wealth of material in the LOOK magazine collection is understandable but in my opinion, the inclusion of the non-train photographs from the viewing in St. Patrick's and the interment in Arlington dilute the work as it stood in the first versions. The tightness of the book is now broken into three sections -- the viewing and interment photographs are not substantial enough to act as any more than bookends to the real outpouring of emotion found along the train tracks. The photos in those two sections aren't bad (the night-time burial images are wonderfully made) but they do not seem necessary and they aren't -- the first books proved that.

The real payoff in RFK is with the additional trackside images. There are so many wonderful and varied photographs that didn't make it into the first versions that it was necessary for a third visitation to the work. The most impressive of which has Fusco describing tiny figures lining overpasses and on distant baseball fields frozen in a communal moment of reflection where the stillness and the slightest of body language speaks volumes.

Jack Newfield, an acquaintance of Kennedy's, wrote of the time: We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had been assassinated. And from this time forward, things would get worse; our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.

What Fusco documented alongside those rail tracks was sadness that would lead to frustration, and eventually to the extreme cynicism felt towards leadership today. This remarkable document holds that cynicism at bay -- if for just a few precious moments.

Note: Composites do not reflect actual tonal values of each book's printing quality.

Book Available Here (RFK)