Saturday, November 29, 2008

Malick Sidibe: Fondation Zinsou catalog

I have written before about Malick Sidibe and his now famous studio in Mali and his documentation of the youthful nightlife of Bamako. Sidibe has recently been a subject of a major exhibition in Cotonou, BĂ©nin at the Fondation Zinsou and they have published a great book of his work that I highly recommend.

Titled simply Malick Sidibe, it is a 190+ page hardcover catalog that covers most all of his known subjects such as the portraits along the Niger River, Feast days and ceremonies, portraits on motorbikes, boxers, the various studio portraits, musicians, DJ nightclubs, fashion and an interesting series of people photographed from behind called Morning Back View.

This catalog has very interesting production values unlike most. The rich black cover boards feature silver debossed foil stamping and a reproduction tipped in. The inner pages are coated with a very high glossy varnish over the entire page except for a quarter inch margin at the very page edges. The reproductions are in duotone and look good under the heavy varnish. At two points in the book, small booklets of photographs on thin matte paper are sewn between signatures. These are little books within the larger book that are a pleasant surprising break from the flow of the rest of the sections. Also the designer has images in the studio portraits sections flow off the page and continuing on the verso like a filmstrip.

What I am drawn to since I mostly know Sidibe's work is the design of this book. It is unexpected and I do not think undeserved or over-designed. Its handsome presentation invites me to sit longer with work that in other books I passed by in haste.

There are three downsides I can find. One is that the varnish is so glossy that it sticks the pages together and they need to be pulled apart as if stuck by electrostatic. The noise of the whole ordeal is a bit disconcerting and even after they are separated, they tend to become stuck again after the book is closed for a while. The second is that with the smaller booklets sewn in between signatures I have seen several copies where the bind separates at those spots causing the signatures to loosen. It is a book you'll want to be careful with handling. The third is that the essays needed better proof-reading as there are typos in the English translations that are surprisingly easy to spot.

If you do not have a book on Sidibe then search out a copy of this one. Even with the few flaws, it is one of my favorites discoveries that I brought back from Paris.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Photography to Mid-Century: The Technical History: A Sale

Need to own one of the most comprehensive technical collections on photography? See below:


In this, my 32nd year as an antiquarian bookseller, specializing in the
literature of photography, I am pleased to present for sale this most
comprehensive collection of journals, manuals, and trade catalogues that
chart the technical history of photography and photomechanical
reproduction. There are three pdf files on our website that constitute the complete catalogue of
the collection, with representative illustrations. These files can be
downloaded or printed, and viewed at Please note that
the search function of this website does not apply to these pdf
files. This collection is being offered as a single unit for $1,200,000.00
and inquiries should be directed to Andrew Cahan.

Specializing in Rare and Out-of-Print Photographic Literature
PO BOX 1531
Durham, North Carolina 27702
Tel: 919-688-1054
Members of ABAA and ILAB

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Last Days of W. by Alec Soth

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show made an interesting observation in the days after Barack Obama was voted President-elect. He mentioned that walking in the streets of New York he noticed everyone was making eye contact with each other and silently nodding. It was my experience as well, loads of strangers engaging in secret handshakes of a 'job well done.' Here we are counting down the days until the blue light appears on the horizon.

Without revisiting the litany of problems this country faces, as we know them all too well, it is as if she is emerging with divorce papers from an abusive marriage. Hopefully the restraining order will be granted for there will be no jail time served.

Alec Soth's latest venture on the printed page is a self-published newspaper with the gothic-script title of The Last Days of W. 36 photographs within which even the inanimate objects look simply worn out and exhausted. With many of us down on our luck, this is supposed to only cost you a fiver.

A crumbling empire? or one just running out of gas. The fuzzy dice draped on the dear skull have turned up snake eyes and the bank moves in. A painting has Jesus closing a business deal (In Greenspan We Tru$t). A young soldier stares blankly, waiting for us to help patch his peanut butter and jelly wounds. Pawn shops and Osama Bin Laden pinatas are the New Order. Take a tissue if you feel your eyes well up.

Fireworks play second act to Arby's and Chevron while the political scenery kills the foliage it uses for realism. Camp Purgatory flies an inverted flag (have those messy socialist hippies no pride?). A grandmother, who should be staring with wide-eyed pride over a newborn, becomes a walking billboard for the housing crisis. The gate is left open after the Oval office is hastily emptied and we awake, without the shirt on our backs, wondering what just hit us. Did a natural disaster sweep our house away leaving us untouched and in bed? An epilogue of 'Either dusk or dawn'? Only time will tell.

All of this presented without the reactionary high blood pressure and boiling rage? How dare his description have a soothing effect. I want to knee-jerk someone in the groin! Who the hell is Soth's therapist? Better yet, do they have an opening for Monday?

Available at Dashwood Books

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oxbow Archive by Joel Sternfeld

Joel Sternfeld's new book Oxbow Archive seems to takes its point of departure from the Thomas Cole painting completed in 1836, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow. The view described, looks over a landscape that is split into quadrants. A patch of foliage sits in the bottom left corner nearest to where we 'stand' while to the right overlooks the distant u-turn of the Connecticut River - the Oxbow. The sky is divided in tone as a thunderstorm recedes moving out of frame to the left. From the elevated vantage point and dramatic view from the Mount Holyoke Range it may, at first glance, look to be a God's eye view - that is until we discover the tiny figure just below and almost out of sight, standing in front of an easel painting but looking at us from over his shoulder. On the cliff edge, a small travel stool and a closed umbrella sits where - we might suspect - the artist sought refuge during the storm.

The proximity of this area to where Sternfeld resides allowed almost daily trips to wander and photograph. Equipped with his trademark 8 x 10 and color film Sternfeld first made a photograph in this region in October of 1978 - a photograph of a thinning stand of trees that competes for the viewers attention from the distant meadows. Unlike Cole's seemingly floating vantage point, Sternfeld plants us firmly on the ground and in the shoes of the artist we discovered quickly painting the sun breaking after the storm. It is a strictly human vantage point he provides. The amount of foreground he includes is easily imagined extending directly under our feet. As Sternfeld trudges over fallen corn stalks or onto soft sand he extends that tangible feeling to us.

Like Cole's painter may have experienced after the thunder receded, Sternfeld takes in the silence of this landscape, only breaking it with his boots. The views are still and quiet - even the geese found in late November have stopped for a rest amongst corn stalks. With so much emphasis on the perceived silence and the foreground terrain, these pictures remind me less of the painting that that inspired them than the sounds the explorer made with his footfalls.

Sternfeld dates his photographs and the 77 plates run the course of a year. Sequenced, they chronologically describe the shift of season and color temperature much like Cole's painting with its shift from storm to sunlight. Sternfeld commits to film this variation which Emerson alludes in the quote that starts the journey; "To the attentive eye, each movement of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again."

Oxbow Archive
is consistent with Sternfeld's book format of the slightly oversized coffee-table book that allows for large plate reproductions. The clean design leaves one image per page oriented on the right-hand side. There is no text other than the Emerson quote, a good decision as none is needed. The printing is simply beautiful, capturing the subtle variations of hue that are part of his palette.

This is a book about a walk, a year's worth of day trips into nature. There is no fear of the unknown or of the wilds of nature. We will not get lost as there are constant signs of past exploration and paths to lead our way home. To me it serves as a reminder of tranquility, grace and beauty - all things too easily forgotten in a world struggling to right itself.

Joel Sternfeld Oxbow Archive is published by Steidl.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Early Color by Saul Leiter - Reprint

Quick note for those of you who missed out on the first edition of Saul Leiter's wonderful book Early Color, the reprint is available for order. It specifies FIRST EDITION but it is actually a second printing of the first. Who cares. It's a really good one and they go quickly.

Book Available Here

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Keine Experimente by Dirk Alvermann

The name of the photographer Dirk Alvermann has only been familiar to me for about a year. Surprised by the photographs, design and layout of his book L'Algerie - his account of the Algerian war for independence published in 1960 - he is definitely worth knowing although it isn't easy to find the books nor information on him. While in Paris I found his second book Keine Experimente published in 1961.

Keine Experimente: Pictures of Basic Law is a book about the general attitude of the West German population towards the changes brought about in West Germany with the election of the CDU party. Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany ushered in an era of rapid economic growth for post-war Germany that was essentially a free-market economy that spurred upwards of 8 percent growth per year. Adenauer's "Keine Experimente" (No Experiments) slogan symbolized a more practical approach to politics for people who had just years prior experienced the ideologies and economic upheavals of the war period. Although living standards did improve for most Germans, it was a policy that would have a similar effect to "trickle-down" economics of Reagan in the United States where large gaps between the rich and poor would be created and where wages for workers stagnated.

Alvermann's photographs made between 1956 and 1961 are juxtaposed against the first 9 articles of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany and in part acts as a critique of the consumerism and the attitudes that the free-market brought. The book opens with a page spread of a crowd locked behind a gate reminiscent of a concentration camp. A reminder of a difficult history that many of the population wished to disappear -- something the new economic policies made easier. When the gates open into this new society we are faced with billboards offering the Ten Commandments and bottles of Coca-Cola. The faces of the workers on the following spread seem confused and uncertain.

Much of the work is festive in tenor with many images of carnivals and gaiety. Brass bands and parades of uniformed soldiers march announcing the new era in stark contrast to an attitude of reducing militarism. When he shows similar scenes of workers shuffling along, their lack of energy and despondence is a point of focus.

Alvermann's design and image juxtaposition is full of experiment. He clips and crops images into graphics to make his point. He reminds readers of the Nazi past while the people in the images seem to be more willing to turn away. He focusses on the young children playing in the streets, the young generation which will return to confront the past with more introspection than any since. In many images Alvermann seems to be passing the torch to them, reminding us that they will be the ones to suffer for the populace's will to turn from its history. In one telling image Alvermann photographs a child aiming his toy gun at his own head in mock suicide while a line of saints in a store window stand over him.

Keine Experimente's construction and, again, Alvermann's use of design is most effective. Like with his book on Algeria, he creates a kind of photojournalist's Klein's New York utilizing slivers of photos and graphic pairings that are visually exciting creating new meanings from disparate images -- a kind of assemblage of history and commentary.

Keine Experimente is a pocket-sized book with glossy illustrated hardcovers and is not much larger than a common novel. The printing is on rather cheap paper but the low-fi production is very seductive and adds a gritty edge to a supposed bright reality.

Editor's note: I really need a copy of Dirk Alvermann's Algeria book. If I have a reader out there that has more than one copy and would be willing to sell it to me, please contact me through the Errata Editions website. Surely someone out there can help me out.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Beaufort West by Mikhael Subotzky

Fear is a huge driving factor in 21st century life as evidenced by recent political acts of desperation. Terrorism, crime and illegal immigration have kept the media busy with threatening sounding stories and "what might happen" scenarios that appeal to isolationism and make people comfortable with their natural tendency towards xenophobia and racism. Division created by infecting viewers with enough anxiety that they imagine the barbarians are at the gate and those entering are less than human. This is one of the many underlying themes in Mikhael Subotzky's new book from Chris Boot called Beaufort West.

Beaufort West is a small town in South Africa -- a transit point for food or sleep that sits on the long road between Cape Town and Johannesburg. As described by Subotzky, it is trapped in its own "victim/perpetrator divide" due to unemployment, crime and domestic violence. As Subotzky describes, "The problem is that so much of the way crime is represented in the popular media polarizes victim and perpetrator, us and them, the law-abiding citizens and those who the law-abiding citizens have to fear. I almost see this as a new kind of apartheid - between those that fear and those that are feared."

The town radiates out from a large traffic circle within which lies the town's prison. Subotzky uses this metaphor as the starting point for an exploration into the town's post-apartheid reality. Perhaps in proportion to the economic reality of Beaufort West, Subotzky spends more time among the lesser fortunate black residents. Trusted to work freely, he describes their lives with surprising intimacy that at times even surprised him. "Major and I were hanging out with a group of gangsters, and they were talking about going off to rob someone's house... To my surprise they asked if I wanted to come along."

Subotzky structures Beaufort West as if we were airdropped into town and left to wander. Quickly we get swept up in the lives of the marginalized; the trashpickers at the local dump, the white citizens at a livestock show, households that set up makeshift taverns in their homes, a prostitute as she engages in sex with truckers, and finally, Subotzky leads us to prison - the final stop for many of the residents.

Subotzky's photographs are more in the camp of greats like David Goldblatt, whose In Boksburg Mikhail cites as an early influence. His medium format camera and color film frames both the spontaneity of action and the stillness of portraiture with well made compositions. These photographs owe much to the different qualities of light to add another seductive element. Whether natural or artificial, the scenes are bathed in light that falls gracefully onto the grit and grime of interiors and exteriors alike.

Beaufort West is a tight edit of 45 photographs and the book's dimensions at approximately 11" x 14" allow for a nice large plate size. The design is very clean down to the spare blue fabric coverboards. In the rear of the book, after the plates, Subotzky provides a bit of text about each image which reads as a running commentary about his process and his discoveries made during the course of his exploration.

Beauford West sits in the middle of the South African desert as a kind of real life purgatory. As Jonny Steinberg writes in his afterword, "These photographs thus represent a place in which far too many people do not possess the basic structure of what we regard as an inhabitable life; a sense of life as a project, or at any rate some sort of progression; the notion that one might leave a legacy, or build something that survives one's own death." It is that state of lethargy and punishment contrasted with a purifying grace that radiates from the subjects that Subotzky skillfully brings to our attention. In short, this is a remarkable first book from a young photographer.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Berenice Abbott two-volume slipcase set from Steidl

I find it interesting when a book makes you sit up and reassess an artist that you may have not been interested in before. For me, Berenice Abbott was important because of her recognition of Eugene Atget as one of the greatest artists of his time and her work to preserve his archive. Her photography, mostly of old New York, always took a backseat. Turns out Steidl and Commerce Graphics have just published a two-volume, slipcased retrospective that is so well done I can't believe I could have so easily averted me eyes before.

Volume I is dedicated to Abbott's early work, portraits and scientific photographs while Volume II covers the 27 years of work that made up her monumental Changing New York project.

In 1924, Abbott, who had left the United States for Paris three years earlier, met Man Ray who was looking for a photo assistant for his successful commercial studio -- someone with as little photo experience as possible so he could train them to his specific process without resistance. This was her entre into a seventy year career as a photographer. She worked under Man Ray for a few years until breaking off on her own as a portrait photographer and it was during these years as an assistant that she discovered the photographs of Eugene Atget. Turned out that Atget's studio was very close to Man Ray's and Abbott would rapidly become fascinated with the older photographer's studies of Paris at the turn of that century. Later, it would be Abbott that would find a publisher for the first book of Atget published three years after his death, Photographe de Paris.

In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and under the influence of the scope of Atget's Paris work, she embarked on her now famous project documenting New York City's energy and evolution. For me, it is the second volume of this slipcased set, concentrating on the New York work, that is most interesting.

Using a Century Universal 8x10 with a 9.5 inch Goertz Dagor lens she described the storefronts, streets, signage, residential neighborhoods and in some cases, the people of NYC. Working out the technical concerns on the ground while working, she later found funding through the Federal Arts Project for a few years. To Abbott, she was not just photographing buildings but analyzing each element of an urban environ, including its history. "The tempo of the metropolis is not of an eternity, or even time, but of the vanishing instant."

It is this quote that for me takes on such significance, for if it were not for artists like Abbott, or Atget before her, who describe these cities with such eloquence and exhaustiveness, then we wouldn't have the same understandings of transformation and history as we do now. The spirit of the ages reflected in their photographs is part of what defines those images -- part of why it is so important that they exist. Modern urban photographers, even those working in the stylistic footsteps of others, are, in the least, providing visual statements that work in similar ways.

As a set, this is the definitive collection of 268 tritone reproductions. Richly printed, everything from the paper stock to the tip-on reproductions on the book covers is elegant and seductive. The images sit on the right-hand side of the page spreads and are often accompanied by short texts from Abbott regarding the making of the individual images. Hank O'Neal provides a fine essay on Abbott life and practice in Volume I.

Abbott lived to 93 and pursued several projects until around the 1980's, still, it is the New York work that stands out as her finest achievement. One of the the most sobering lessons to be learned from Atget is one of ambition. Perhaps his dismissal of traditional concerns of creating "art" or of being an "artist" ("these are documents I make for artists"), the most liberating. Fueled by both, Abbott shifted Atget's lament of the past towards the optimism of a progressive, post-depression future filled with modernist marvels. Both were intoxicated with cities and, after great effort, left behind their documents for artists and historians alike.

PS: This is my Atget print that hangs at the front door of my apartment. It is the first thing I see when coming in from the world and last thing before venturing out into it. In that location, it seems to pose more of a challenge than inspiration. Maybe I should move it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Television Notebook by Robert Weaver

The most exciting discovery that came from Andy French's photobooks sale was a small illustrated datebook published in 1960 from the CBS Television Network. Titled, A Television Notebook, it contains pencil drawings by Robert Weaver that allow us a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a '60s TV studio.

Weaver sought to join illustration with journalism much in the way it existed before photography replaced it as the more acceptable medium for journalists. Although I never met him, Weaver taught at my art school SVA in the '80's.

Weaver's sketches in this notebook are fascinating. His compositions are complex - bringing both the chaos and control of production into each drawing. A couple of technicians with hidden faces stand behind some large lighting reflectors. A mass of cables from a lighting rig hangs over a cameraman at his post. Four men stand with their shadowed backs to us holding cable from a huge television camera. Make-up tables, extras, stage sets, props, editing rooms all are the center of attention rather than the "stars." If forced to make a comparison to another artist, I would say he is like Robert Frank with a pencil. Many of these had instantly reminded me of the few published Robert Frank photos made on television sets in Burbank.

Each drawing is reproduced over lined pages of a datebook giving the sense of looking through an artist's sketchbook. Laid into each copy is a calendar bookmark with an introduction by then CBS President James Aubrey. He writes, "If, like Alice in Wonderland, you could walk through the looking glass of your television set, you would find that for every performer you see on the screen there are ten more behind the screen, performing their tasks with equal dedication and split-second precision."

This datebook was one of a series published each year by CBS. The others feature other illustrators known and obscure. Out of the few that I have seen, this was by far my favorite. It is hardcover with the CBS "eye" logo debossed into the cover. The trim size measures only 6.5 x 6.5 inches square.