Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ceau by Christophe Buchel and Giovanni Carmine

Many years ago I sat around a table drinking rakia with a handful of Bosnian Serbs and one was expounding on how he felt sorry for the fate of Nicolai Ceausescu, the dictator of Romania whose 24 year hold on power was cut short by firing squad in 1989. This particular Serb's argument had much to do with the memory of Ceausescu's virtues being erased by masses of Romanians "rewriting him into a villian" (his words). When he asked what I thought I was afraid to say anything because the little I knew about Ceausescu - the outlawing of abortion, the prevention of AIDS testing, crippling the economy, strong police responses to any opposition, and all of the tv appearances around food while his country was rationing (à la Haile Selassie) - wouldn't really have gone over well. My Serbian friend kept citing the quick trial and execution that followed the coup overthrow of Ceausescu's regime condemned him to infamy and slander. My opinion around that table was not popular -- you rule inspired by Stalinist dictum then you die by Stalinist inspired firing squad.

Like Stalin, Ceausescu created a cult of personality around himself and his wife Elena. The self-proclaimed "Genius of the Carpathians" and his wife, the "Mother of the Nation," commissioned thousands of painted portraits that would keep their heroic status an ever-present part of daily life among Romanians. The new title by Steidl, Ceau, presents almost 350 of these paintings in a handsome new book.

Political paintings such as these are almost predictable. They mostly portray the subject as an everyman who is inspired to lead -- conveying the idea that he is just another Romanian "Joe Sixpack" if you will, working hard and dedicating his life to bettering his country. From that startingpoint they evolve, elevating his everyday man status into god and savior. That in itself is probably not enough to sustain a 350 page book but what sets this collection apart is the variety of painting styles that describes that elevation.

The artists seem students of everyone from Ben Shahn to Lucien Freud. Page 23 drops Ceausescu's visage into a Rauschenberg-like collage. Several resemble a Diego Rivera inspired mash-up of industry and hero worship. On page 69, Ceausescu is surrounded by a group of Henry Darger's "Vivian" girls turned into "pioneers." Page 125 describes three scenes involving Nicolai and Elena overlaid by the monochrome colors of the Romanian flag in a style so close in draftsmanship and color palette to Mark Tansey it is almost unbelievable to discover the artist is Eugen Palade. So many portraits were painted that Salvador Dali was said to have once sent a tongue-in-cheek "letter of admiration" to Ceausescu.

Edited by Christophe Buchel and Giovanni Carmine, Ceau as a book is a tight elegant package. The gold debossed title on a white leather flex-bound cover sets the proper mood for hero worship. The end of the book provides a transcript of the December 25th, 1989 tribunal in which Ceausescu and his wife are tried and sentenced to death by firing squad.

The effect of Ceausescu's policies are still being felt with tens of thousands of children born under the strict abortion laws that wound up on the streets homeless. What my Serbian friend was referring to that was good about Ceausescu's rule I am still not sure. Perhaps I should send him this book so he can remind us of all that was good in Nicholai's utopia that was Romania for almost a quarter decade.

Friday, October 24, 2008

CDG / JHE by J H Engstrom

The bright orange bookcloth of J H Engstrom's new book from Steidl CDG/JHE gives an impression that it may hold promise of something light and cheerful. The internal content however is another story.

In this body of work, Engstrom sets us in the midst of Charles de Gaulle airport and, like a traveller who somehow can't seem to make it into the terminal or the exit, we wander a no man's land heavy with concrete barriers and odd bits of technology. There is a sense of stillness (in a place where everything always seems full of movement) that is almost apocalyptic.

Engstrom distresses his prints somehow and the resulting haze of greyness acts as a veil suppressing tone, color, saturation and light. While the parking lot may be full, there are no people save for one driving a baggage cart, seen only after close inspection. The stillness, in combination with the ashen air, seems daunting and inhospitable.

What we are to make of this I am not entirely sure. The photographs, with their tones of greyish blue and desaturated color are oddly beautiful. What they describe is territory that has a structure and machinery but it has all been left in dust. We pause in front of various objects: a baggage cart piled with wood, a swirl of tar on a patch of roadway, a pair of rubber boots half buried in the dry soil, the stilled luggage return and a maze of overpasses. We may wonder at their existence or use but their form is what is engaging and seductive.

After 46 images, Engstrom finishes the book with 7 images that are stills shot of a video of a man and a woman meeting and embracing. (In an airport?). That is certainly implied but uncertain. Brightly colored without the distressed look of the previous work, these few images as the final act of the book, distract from the initial tone and rhythm that we
have settled into. Their inclusion seems to hint at a conceptual framework or meaning that is unclear and ultimately bothersome. The contrast between the two is not enlightening nor necessary.

Overlooking the last few pages, CDG/JHE is an compelling if enigmatic work. Due to the seductive tonalities and the cleanliness of the design, I don't mind lingering in this world of airport still lifes. But in such an environment where movement is the preoccupation, those that get left behind might risk absorbing the melancholy involved in standing still.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Printed Picture by Richard Benson

Today we are so accustomed to seeing printed imagery on every available surface that it might be hard to imagine a time when mechanical reproduction did not exist. Apart from text reproduction through movable type and the like, the first images reproduced in multiple copies were from woodblock prints in the fifteenth century. It is arguable that the advancement in technologies of reproduction are the most valuable contributions to communication since the development of language itself.

Take for instance an example that dates back as far as the first century where Greek botanists understood the need for visual statements to make their verbal statements intelligible. Problem being that there were no means available to reproduce exact copies of images so there was distortion from image to image caused by the hand of the copyists. The poor results caused the botanists abandoned images for words alone but those descriptions could not suffice in making the plants recognizable to other botanists, especially ones from other regions. In short, there was a complete breakdown of scientific analysis due to the absence of repeatable pictures.

Much of the art I have experienced has been by way of reproductions. I have said before that out of all of the arts, photography is the most suited to the printed form - thus, why I covet books so much. I would actually argue that with very few exceptions, we absorb more from a photograph when we look one in a book than when we are facing one on a museum wall. Whether it be the power dynamic of a museum where one navigates art among museum guards and in wealthy institutions that "tell" you this is important whether you respond to it or not.

Books are as John Gossage describes, a "lap medium." You operate a book with an intimacy and at your own pace (in the comfort of your own environment). The pages act as natural breaks to where, in a museum, seeing the next photograph on the wall out of the corner of your eye, might encourage you to move through an exhibition faster than you normally would. It is said that on average a person spends about 3 seconds in front of any work of art before moving on. Whether that is due to crowds or the attitude of somewhat unwelcoming galleries, we are being influenced. Books provide a personal comfort zone that allows a more direct experience. Go to museums and galleries for sculpture and paintings.

In the celebration of printed matter, the Museum of Modern Art has just launched an exhibition and book entitled The Printed Picture by the former Dean of the Yale Art School and photographic printing guru Richard Benson.

Over the years, discussion to the importance and interpretation of printing techniques is not new, one can point directly to William M. Ivins' Prints and Visual Communication (to which I owe the example of the Greek botanists) as a prime source, but Benson's text traces the history of printmaking through very accessible texts set alongside a rich array of printed material from his personal collection. Where the Ivins text is first rate, the examples offered through illustrations are basic and the details limited to black and white. Benson's The Printed Picture is a flush with enlarged details and full color illustrations that are as beautifully printed as the originals.

In each chapter, different techniques are described leading up to and through the evolution of modern photographic reproduction. For those interested in such techniques this book is as valuable a text as you will find. Benson tested these waters before with the book and exhibition from the Yale gallery in New Haven, The Physical Print (see 5B4 here). As he did in that book, he describes each process here using well known images from photographers but it is the examples of more commonplace ephemera that provide the richer understanding and deeper interest for me -- seed catalog illustrations, a section of a piano roll, punch cards, advertisements and even a DHL bar-coded delivery sticker on cardboard all find their way into his collection.

Admittedly after having just spent several days on-press overseeing the printing of the first titles in my own book series, I am the captive audience for the subject of this book. At its most basic level, it is about the pleasure of the printed page and the microscopic dots that spur that pleasure. Those dots and their structures are the various dialects of language that visual artists use. What could be a more fascinating subject for anyone interested in art books?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sonne, Mond und Sterne by Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Seeing as North America's rampant unregulated free market-style of capitalism is collapsing in on itself, Fischili and Weiss' Sonne, Mond und Sterne (Sun, Moon and Stars) may serve as exhibit A when we finally step back and sift through the wreckage.

Sonne, Mond und Sterne is an 800 page artist book comprised of hundreds of magazine advertisements arranged loosely into a narrative of 20th and 21st century temptations. Unrelenting in its scale, their barrage approach is perfect for a subject as obnoxious as the continual bombardment we face to advertising. Originally conceived as a corporate annual report from Ringier AG for 2007, this volume was edited by Beatrix Ruf of the Kunsthalle Zurich.

I take this as proof of a society gone mad but I imagine Fischili and Weiss are too smart for such a simplistic reading. Their's seems to be an art of embracing the nature of the societies we have made, and I could guess that this collection is their scrapbook of pleasurable "ready-mades" that for them induce more of a wide grin than a grimace of horror. Deadly sins such as gluttony and greed can be both disgusting and desirable after all.

Sonne, Mond und Sterne
is paperback and the size feels like a super heavy phone book. There are no accompanying texts or explanations of what it is or why it exists. It was published by JRP/Ringier of Zurich.

The promise of fulfilling needs (and creating new ones) is what advertising does best -- offering the idea of a more manageable life where convenience is a given and happiness is available right off the shelf. In short, promising the Sun, Moon and Stars at a good price.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A New History of Photography by Ken Schles

"Monkey see, Monkey do, everything I say sticks twice on you."

At the School of Visual Arts, where I was a photo major in the late '80s, I was required to attend a history of photography class taught by William Broecker (1932-2007), the distinguished William Henry Jackson scholar. By the time the class would begin at ten in the morning my sugar high from breakfast would be long gone and Bill's steady soothing voice would lull me into a deep sleep. If I learned anything in his class it was through REM and the two books he assigned, Beaumont Newhall's A History of Photography (MoMA 1982) and Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography (1st edition 1984). The Newhall was still in pristine shape by year's end, while the spine on the Rosenblum was ready to call it quits.

Admittedly, the illustrations in both took precedent over the texts and I would flip those pages lingering over certain images that would stay with me as I ventured out into the world in pursuit of my own work. Those influences are hard to shake - if that's ever completely possible. Instead they served to inspire and challenge, blending and shaping my own interests. After digesting certain descriptions or illusions of human behavior as seen in the best of Winogrand or Levitt, it was inevitable that those would stay on my radar of what was possible to commit onto film. Influence is poisonous and shaping at the same time. Many photographers will go to great lengths to distance themselves (at least in their statements) from being perceived as following too closely in the footsteps of another no matter what the work actually reveals.

Using Beaumont Newhall's Photography: A Short Critical History as a model, Ken Schles has created his own timeline with A New History of Photography - a limited edition book published under Markus Schaden's imprint White Press.

Schles' "new history" includes the likes of August Sander, William Henry Fox Talbot, William Klein, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Joel Peter Witkin, Man Ray, Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Michael Schmidt, Berenice Abbott, Paul Outerbridge, Frederick Sommer, Julia Margaret Cameron and around 90 others. The difference is that all of the images were actually made by Schles himself.

Initially asked by Markus Schaden to create a new work based on a book for a show called Marks of Honor, Schles revisited over thirty years worth of his images and assembled 106 images where he seemed to be directly channeling photographers of the past. Subtitled, The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads, Schles explores the basic nature of the human being as sponge.

Based on what I have written so far, this book might seem to be an easy concept to wrap ones mind around...that is, until the viewer sees that at no point does Schles identify the original image-maker he was channeling. The result of which places the steering wheel of this "new history" into the hands of the viewer.

Some are obvious, Schles' Outerbridge and Klein have direct connections to the original but most others blur image-makers into sub-divisions of influence amongst themselves. This all, of course, relies on the viewer's breadth of knowledge to either expand or contract the history itself.

In the first fifty pages of A New History of Photography, Schles writes at length an exhaustive look at all aspects of influence and provides a mind-bendingly complex (and well footnoted) understanding of his medium and practice. Smart and beautifully written, Schles seems to be channelling the great writers on the medium as well. Unlike the Newhall title, there is little hierarchy here between the words an images -- both hold my attention in equal measure.

The construction of each copy was done by hand and is more of an artist book than anything else. The printing actually utilizes a print-on-demand technology that has no evidence of being so at all. On heavyweight paper, the reproductions are very impressive. Whether black and white or color they read as offset printed images -- I was frankly shocked when I was told that this was print-on-demand.

But the fine printing is only one aspect, the book is finished with binding and casing done with an elegant rounded back binding (using three folio signatures that allow the book to open very flat) and hardcovers with debossed titles. The typography of the 50+ pages of essays is beautifully realized complete with stocked columns of footnotes. The finishing touch is the enclosure of a dustjacket, printed to look like a weathered copy of Newhall. My only criticism would be that the type choice for the individual captions is a bit big and clunky.

A New History of Photography by Ken Schles has been published in an edition limited to 350 signed and numbered copies. The production costs of the hand construction obviously makes this a somewhat expensive title retailing for around 198 euros. I hope they will be able to produce a more affordable version at some point because A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads is sure to rank high on my list of the Best Photobooks of 2008.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Christie's William Eggleston Auction Catalog

For those of you who may want to pull your money from failing banks, soon you will have the option to tie all of your savings up into William Eggleston prints. On Monday October 13th, Christie's will hold an auction dedicated entirely to the Eggleston prints currently in the Bruce and Nancy Berman collection. A handsome catalog presenting the lots is now available.

Much like the catalogs dedicated to the Robert Frank sale a few months back and the couple recently auctioning Diane Arbus prints, these are more like mini monographs than a typical catalog. This one is over 90 pages worth of images that must run into the hundreds - several of which I hadn't seen before. Most of these are attributed to a series called Dust Bells Volumes I & II. It is an amazing collection of a wide variety of work.

Through a series of foldouts, the lots are presented with estimates - some reaching astronomical figures as might be expected from the rise in popularity of Eggleston. Most interestingly of which are the five Los Alamos portfolios which include 75 dye transfer prints and valued at $350,000-550,000.

My personal favorite Eggleston image -- Sumner, Mississippi, 1972 -- which describes two men, one white one black, standing in a wood near a white car is estimated to set me back $50,000-70,000 for a dye transfer printed in 1999.

Lot 113 offers an interesting sister image to his famous red ceiling photograph -- describing another light bulb backed by a ceiling of badly warped plywood. Both were taken the same year, 1973. This one is valued at a modest $8,000-12,000.

There is no chance of my participating but I may go to watch to see if there is any sign of the recent economic rollercoaster. There certainly weren't any signs during the last rare photobook auction but then again, the world has drawn a little closer to the apocalypse since then.

Christie's William Eggleston Auction

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark

The Oregon State Hospital is getting a lot of attention due to recent reports of a plan to demolish and build a new facility. The hospital made famous by the Milos Foreman adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is also the subject of two recent photobooks as well -- Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark and Library of Dust by David Maisel.

Recently the publisher Damiani released a new edition of Mark's 1979 book Ward 81. Introduced to the hospital in 1974 by the film director Milos Foreman who invited Mark to photograph on the set of Cuckoo's Nest, she continued to photograph the women's ward #81 as her first self-assigned project. As Mark relates, the writer Karen Jacobs and she slept in locked cells in a deserted ward next to #81 for six weeks. The resulting 86 photographs describe the daily routines and general malaise of the inmates.

Earlier this year I found a copy of the original Simon and Schuster hardcover of Ward 81 in very fine condition and on a bit of an impulse I bought it for $100.00. In comparison to this new edition there are only a few noticeable differences. First, the trim size is slightly larger with the newer version -- oddly by only about 1/2 an inch on both dimensions. The sequence of photographs is the same although two images that appear at a smaller size in the original appear larger here. There is also a noticeable difference in the handling of the typography. This version is much cleaner with fewer "orphans" at the line breaks.

The reproductions of the newer are far more open and render much more detail than the original, also resulting in a huge contrast difference between the two. Normally I would enjoy such an improvement but the emotional tone between the two seems remarkably different. At the risk of cliche, the harder contrast of the original gives a stronger sense of anxiety -- the newer version seems a bit gray and dull comparatively.

At the end of the sequence in this new version, Mark has added ten previously unpublished images that were mounted to cards and used as reference by her printed Richard Gordon. In my opinion, with the exception of two or three of the images, nothing new is added by their presence as most seem to be variants of images that appeared in the original sequence.

After spending some time with these two versions I have come to feel that Ward 81 is a bit thin on the whole. The photographs become repetitive and many of the portraits are less than compelling because of their inability to lend more than a superficial view of mental illness. Grimacing faces and moments of depressed solitude are expected and already ingrained in our preconceptions about mental illness - it is only when some of the comaraderie between the women emerges in a few pictures that we start to enter new and unexpected territory.

David Maisel's Library of Dust to come soon...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State by Steven Heller

In the summer of 1921, a newly designed flag for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei appeared, 'its effect at that time was something akin to a blazing torch.' The design featured a brilliant red flag with a shocking white disk and a black swastika sitting in the middle.

Although formerly a sign of good luck and prosperity -- swastikas were found in many cultures including from Troy, in Etruscan craftworks, Corinthian coins, even on the WW I uniforms of the 45th American Infantry among hundreds of other examples -- it would forever be tarnished as a symbol of having anything to do with goodness. Its horrific appropriation by the Nazis would essentially erase and rewrite its former history to all in the Western world.

This attention to symbols and design created the first intense use of image "branding" within a totalitarian state. Germany, under the failed artist Adolph Hitler, was subjected to an overwhelming experiment in using graphic identity techniques -- logos, trademarks, images -- to trigger instant recognition of the ideals being put forth by his leadership. As Aldous Huxley wrote in 1958, "Twenty years before Madison Avenue embarked upon 'Motivational Research,' Hitler was systematically exploring and exploiting the secret fears and hopes, the cravings, anxieties and frustrations of the German masses."

In his new book Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State, the extremely prolific writer and graphic designer Steven Heller explores these modern methods of manipulating public opinion through design.

Iron Fists examines four of the most significant experiments in the selling of a totalitarian message; Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Communists and Communist China. Profusely illustrated it focuses on material found in posters, magazines, books as well as their individual components in the use of typefaces, color, slogans, and logos. For those fascinated with graphic design this book is a must although it may sit uncomfortably on the coffee table next to much less emotionally jarring works.

Of course for me, the Soviet approach and utopian visions of El Lissitzky and Rodchenko are always a fascinating read, but the chapters in Iron Fists on Fascist Italy and the Chinese cultural revolution drew more attention from me this time. Where, however is the chapter on Japan? I'd have thought that would be a given.

Heller is a fine guide through this material and the examples of design he presents are first rate. Some of the most disturbing examples could be found in his inclusion of anti-Semitic children's book illustrations that were designed to shape the most impressionable minds.

The production values of Iron Fists are very high -- the printing is beautiful and the acetate cover is a fine addition to this volume. That said, those qualities make this is a pricey book -- retailing at $90.00. Iron Fists is published by Phaidon.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The World from My Front Porch by Larry Towell

I am always amazed to learn of photographers who don't make photos of their home life along with whatever else they consider worthy subjects. Photography for them is something that is turned on and off and requires leaving either home or country to accomplish. There are photographers who are collectors of everything, and those who selectively work on specific projects and do not turn the camera elsewhere. I find this is a common attitude coming from students and most have trouble if asked to expose five rolls shot within their house or of their family -- they would happily make photos of strangers but wouldn't necessarily think to describe the person they say 'I love you' to everyday. The cliche 'Home is where the heart is' doesn't seem to play for many photographers -- home is where the lens cap stays on.

Just judging from the books of Larry Towell you might imagine that he is never home but off shooting in a warzone, or living with other families rather than his own. The World from My Front Porch belies that impression and brings a wealth of his personal photographs of family and home in a handsome new book just published by Chris Boot and the Archive of Modern Conflict.

The World from My Front Porch is more than a selection of images of home but a full-on family album with an extended history of the farm Towell and his family have lived on in Canada. Towell's farm sits on land once owned by land surveyor Samuel Smith in the early 1800s and this album is littered with photographs of objects that give a full presence of Smith's history. Photo album pages from Towell's ancestry run head-on into a section of his own work photographing his family.

In my opinion, Towell's best work is The Mennonites published by Phaidon in 1999. This work in Front Porch sits in close relation being more about the everyday observations than a news event. It is also a book about the outside influences that shape our lives. For Towell's family it is country living and the legacy of generations of families who worked the land and built what they needed instead of simply consuming. They seem to be more interested in communing with nature and being healthy stewards of the land around them.

As a book this is a remarkable accomplishment. Again I have to point out that Stuart Smith of Smith design is behind the look and feel. A puffy cover (with fabric corners and spine) and the heavy mate paper that has a nice texture for the historical pages are all fine choices.

Throughout the book Towell lends his writing, and for those who have not read his work, he is as good with the pen as he is with a camera. The back third is spent examining Towell's work done away from home by way of magazine spreads (presented as objects with a drop shadow), paper ephemera, and objects collected on his journeys, including tear gas canisters, a child's slingshot, and door handles from Palestinian homes destroyed by Israelis. Like the surveyor's chain in the beginning of the book that belonged to Samuel Smith, Towell assembles these artifacts that are both historical and meaningful, and beautiful in their own right.

Chris Boot proves to be one of the more interesting publishers of contemporary photobooks -- The World From My Front Porch is yet another shining example.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Naini and the Sea of Wolves by Trinidad Carrillo

I am a little late to this party but Farewell Books has a new release called Naini and the Sea of Wolves by Trinidad Carrillo that is well worth some additional attention as it has now won the Swedish Photobook Award for 2008.

I wrote about three books Farewell had released last year by publisher Martin Lange and the wonderful small conceptual piece by John Divola As far As I Could Get. This new title sees some improvement as far as quality. Naini and the Sea of Wolves is produced in offset printing as opposed to the usual laser printing they have employed on the first few titles.

Naini is a dreamy book - a mysterious little sequence of square photos that implies both an awareness of the beauty of the world as well as its harsher realities. Two children stand outside of a cave, the entrance of which is littered with human skeletal remains. A tiny dog lays curbside after apparently being hit by a car, the entire scene bathed in an etherial red haze. The last in the sequence is an almost surreal image of four young people on a beach with a huge sea lion sitting at the water's edge.

At 7 x 6.25 inches, it fits with the usual petite size of most of Farewell's releases. This one actaully reminds me of the elegance that used to be found with Editions Filigrane from Paris. The paper is nice, the printing looks good and the simplicity of the book makes it hard not to like. That and you can't beat the price - $20.00.