Friday, May 29, 2009

Three books of found photographs...

Michael Abrams' book from Loosestrife a couple years ago, Strange & Singular, raised the bar on collections of found photographs and just when I thought there was no need for another book of them, no less than three have crossed my doorstep in the past few weeks that have been refreshing in approach and presentation.

The first two books Lesen and #01-105: Anonyme Fotografien aus Deutschland come from the same author, Gunther Karl Bose and the Institut fur Buchkunst in Leipzig.

Lesen, which means "read" in German is my favorite. Credited with Bose and Julia Blume as the authors, the book opens with several pages of spotty xerox black which seem more appropriate to open a Dirk Braeckman book than one of found photographs. The concept seems to become clear as we come upon the first plates which are family snapshot-type photos of people reading while on the opposite facing page is a xerox image of a page from an open book. Is it supposed to be the page the person is reading at the moment the photo was snapped? This conceptual implication is belied by close examination which reveals inconsistencies but still, the presence of the pages greatly expands our own imaginative fancy.

Lesen has a great design and that in itself makes this book one step above the norm. The contrast of the well-printed photographs to the xerox images is visually dynamic as is the gap of time between images clearly made in the distant past sitting opposite modern reproduction.

Published in 2005 by the Institut, Lesen is only 300 copies. ISBN: 3-932865-40-5. According to the Institute's PDF catalog this book is only 13 euros which makes it certainly the cheapest and most enjoyable books I have had the pleasure of viewing so far this year.

#01-105: Anonyme Fotografien aus Deutschland is an earlier book from Bose published in 2003. Also very inexpensive (13 euros) it has the production values that most 40 euro books do not. This a collection of 105 anonymous photographs from Germany run in a linear fashion across the bottom of the book pages. The design, like in Lesen, makes itself felt early on and encourages reading the links between each photograph.

Most of the photographs do not have dates but those that do seem to have been made between the early 1900s and the late 50s. One interesting design characteristic is the sporadic inclusion of any numeral or identifying marks that appeared on the original print. For instance one reads: Stealit - Magnesia - AG Bln. - Pankow Florastr. 8 Weihnachten 1933, which seems to indicate the type of photo process, the company address and the photo's caption which for this was Christmas Day 1933. Many of these markings are cryptic and nonsensical while others indicate dates or location. They float in the large white space on the page due to the bottom alignment of the images.

If you get a copy, be sure to peek under the dust jacket for an interesting design of debossing into the cover board. There must be something in the water at the Institut fur Buchkunst in Leipzig because I have now acquired several books from their catalog which I will be mentioning in the future. Great stuff and wonderfully inexpensive!!

The last I will mention is another offering from Paul Shiek's publishing company These Birds Walk. Away by Abner Nolan starts on the road with a couple speeding down the highway with the top down, the tones of the print fading almost to oblivion. The following images take us on a short tour of family and place, intimacy and detachment.

His choice of images reflect a fascination with deterioration and technical flaw which interrupt much like the hazy veil of memory. These become open ended fragments which when pleasantly paired can achieve interesting dynamics but I feel the book is either too short or too sporadic for it to lead up to a larger understanding of why these images, in this order, etc. Fragmentation can be interesting as memory itself is not a continuum but bits and pieces often shuffled and fleeting much like the opening and closing images.

Away follows the format of the TWS Subscription Series #2 that are a bit larger in size and have the fun repetition of the author's name and red title stamping on the cover.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Spoils from Germany and Holland

One great thing about traveling for me is the discovery of many books that are hard to find in the States. This trip was particularly fruitful and by the time I arrived back home I had two large boxes waiting for me. Here are a few things that caught my attention in no order of importance.

When in Germany, look for German books. I found a great copy of a book I passed on buying twenty years ago and have regretted it for the past ten. Michael Schmidt's Waffenruhe has now made its way onto my shelf. I paid a bit for it but a very good price considering thanks to getting it from a friend of a friend. Thanks Egbert and Sebastian.

I also found a small catalog from the Kunsthalle Bremen, Michael Schmidt Fotografien. Published in 1999, it is a good selection that seems to be a mini-retrospective but the printing suffers a bit. Solely for Schmidt obsessives and in Germany they can be found for just a few euros.

I found three super cheap Christian Boltanski books: Zeit, Les Suisses Morts, and Sterblich.

I have always wanted a copy of Fischli and Weiss's Visible World and found the German edition readily available at regular prices. There is no text so it reading Sichtbare Welt as the title is something I can live with.

I met Krass Clement at the Fotobook Festival so I bought his new book Novemberrejse (November Journey). This is a really good one which I will spend more words about soon. Highly recommended. Krass also gave me one of his
older titles Hvor Ingen Talte which is another fine book of photos he made at a state funeral in Moscow. This will also be covered here at a later date.

My fascination with Russian works was sated by the discovery of a reprint/study of Mayakovsky and Rodchenko's Pro Eto which was published in 1994 by Ars Nicolai. This starts with a facsimile edition in the front (black and white illustrations of the Rodchenko collages) followed by essays and additional plates that show the same collages in full color. The texts luckily are in Russian, German AND English.

Following closely in excitement was finding the reprint/facsimile of El Lissitzky's About Two Squares which was released as a two book set by MIT. Now out of print, these facsimiles themselves command some expense. What I found is only one of the books but it was only around 10 euros.

In the "books on books" department I found 'remainder' copies of Russian Book Art 1904-2005 available for 14 euros. This is a book I saw first through Ursus in New York with a large price-tag of $90.00 dollars. Funny how that happens right?

John Baldessari: National City from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego is now a remainder in Germany of all places so I picked up a very cheap copy.

For rarities, my other discovery besides Waffenruhe was Ed van der Elsken's Sweet Life (German edition) for a mere 75 euros. That is a very good price but this same book can be found in varying conditions actually starting fairly cheap
ly at around 140 dollars plus shipping. This copy is virtually unread interior with only very slight chipping on the dustjacket at the edges. My luck was in force as this copy had literally just been bought from a person selling books to the store and the bookseller had just started to clean the cover when he asked me, "Do you know this book by Ed van der Elsken?"

Eva Leitof's Rostock Ritz published in 2005 made it back to NYC. I reviewed her book Deutsche Bilder eine Spurensuche 1992-2008 last year. This book is one title I couldn't buy at PhotoLA just because I had no way of actually getting it home.

Raimond Wouda - who's book School from
Nazraeli is going to get full treatment here soon because it is a new favorite of mine - made two other books that made their way home with me, Sandien and A'dam Doc.k. Sandien is a brilliant book which was recommended to me by no less than 6 people within a week so it was imperative that I get a hold of one while in Amsterdam.

Ever since the inaugural issue of PA magazine from David Campany that featured Patrick Faigenbaum along with Jeff Wall, I was compelled to get a copy of Faigenbaum's Tulle. I may tackle that book at some point.

One of the most exciting discoveries was a book by the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, My Mother's Album published in 1995. My initial impression was that this book has a similar seductive quality as Boris Mikhailov's Unfinished Dissertation with its ephemeral quality. I can't wait to spend some time with this one and see what its all about. This will get some space featured here soon as well.

I found two books by Koen Wessing the author of Chili September 1973. O Mundo de Koen Wessing is a good hardcover exhibition retrospective from Portugal on this fine Dutch photojournalist. The second is a copy of Koen Wessing's Flashes from South Africa an oversized 36 page booklet published in 1993.

An interesting artist book made from found images called I Want to Eat by Mariken Wessels was irresistible and will get some coverage too.

Marijaana Kella's book which was in Parr/Badger Vol. II has a body of work I like very much, the Reversed portraits. This was the sole deciding force to bring this one home.

I was able to get home safely a copy of Jens Liebchen's oversized Playing Fields published in 2005 by J.J. Heckenhauer. I hope Jens gets to work on a new book because he has a habit of challenging perception.

Vija Celmens' intricately detailed drawings are a favorite of mine but few books published of her work do it justice. A hardcover catalog from the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt features larger illustrations and the best I have seen so far, so it has found a new home.

In the "who the hell is that" department, Jutka Rona's 1975 conceptual artist book Wolvenstraat was a great suggestion from Yannick Bouillis of Shashin Art Books in Amsterdam. This book will be covered further later.

And lastly, one book that I was extremely critic
al of but did not have has finally broken my resistance will power. Empty Bottles by Wassinklundgren is now in my house. I am tempted to write a re-evaluation of this book to more clearly express my views.

I think that's all...any more would just be the work of madness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

There I Was by Collier Schorr

The basis for Collier Schorr's newest book There I Was is almost a cinematic cliche. A friend of her father's who was the local champion muscle car driver of Ditmars Avenue gets drafted into the Vietnam war and killed within the first month of his tour. Every war film has one, a Brooklyn or Queens eighteen year old straight from central casting with an endearing accent who's hometown pride is worn on his sleeve. Always a bit player, they usually wind up dead by the third act.

For Schorr, Charlie Synder aka Astoria Chas, was that bit player. His story is a subject ripe with ideas about masculinity - a teenager already engaging death before war via his passion for racing, going to war ("No one wanted to go, but if you were from Astoria, you just plain went.") and transformed into a "man," and after his death, neighborhood legend. The dramatic change that usually follows one's return from war as seen in films like The Deer Hunter, haunted by their own brutality or that of others, would not be witnessed. No evidence of that damage to tarnish his image compounded by the legend of his car, which would later be raced by friends and set track records.

Schorr is often engaging in ideas of masculinity and There I Was explores those notions through drawings, photographs, and ephemera from this story. Schorr's father has known Astoria Chas and had written a few feature stories about him for muscle car mags in the late 60s. Where her father had mainly concentrated on the '67 Corvette Chas raced, Schorr uses the story to create a portrait of youth in transition.

Her drawings of young soldiers bring to mind (and are often revisionings of) famous war-time photos by the likes of Burrows or David Douglas Duncan. Vulnerability is read on the faces and in body language of her minimalist sketches. One soldier curls into a ball and another covers his face with his arm while his mouth reveals distress. Before the weakness shows, a photo of a silhouetted figure, bare chested and wearing a helmet fills the mind's image of a silver screen hero projecting sex appeal.

Schorr has in the past explored the real and the imagined with her work in Southern Germany. Here, it is the shift in mediums which initiates ideas of artifice. Her sketches from war reportage mixed with the staged photographs point to a gulf between both medium's ability to describe past history let alone provide a complex portrait of its players.

There I Was is handsome down to the heavyweight matte paper and clean, simple design. The whole endeavor has a lightness that adds an interesting contradiction to the weight of the subject. The title There I Was could be coming from the mouth of either Schorr or Chas and if from Schorr, it reads as a memorial - a remembrance of a time long ago. Or perhaps, with this current conflict, it is not about the past at all.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Scrapbook by Donovan Wylie

For the past few years Timothy Prus and The Archive of Modern Conflict have been responsible for publishing and co-publishing some of the more interesting photobooks being made. They* had a hand in Stephen Gill's Hackney Wick, Hackney Flowers and A Series of Disappointments. They co-published Henryk Ross' Lodz Ghetto and Larry Towell's The World From My Front Porch with Chris Boot. They produced Nein, Unkel the scrapbook of Nazi snapshots. They published Thijs Groot Wassink's Don't Smile Now. Currently along with Steidl they have co-published Donovan Wylie's newest offering, Scrapbook.

The sectarian violence in Northern Ireland permeated households and extended into personal albums which held family photos sitting alongside clipping from newspapers that kept a gauge of daily life. These scrapbooks often held an odd timeline of the personal and public while encompassing a range of emotional responses to the situation.

The idea of a non-sectarian version of a scrapbook from Northern Ireland, one that pronounces both "aich and haich," is a curious document. In war, the divide between sides can be so great that communication towards resolve is seemingly impossible. For the conflict in Northern Ireland, the single mindedness of Thatcher in clash with the tactics of the many factions of the Irish Republicans split the country where identification with one side or the other not only made everyone a player but was essential. Wylie and Prus's album is meant not to be the view of one but of many. It is a communication between two opposing forces from a fictitious witness. Decorative yokes from the Orange Order sit in close proximity to hand drawn displays of support for the IRA. The reverend Ian Paisley's doughy face pops up several times making him the ever-ready political opportunist while a recipe for a Christmas plum pudding ends with the directions "Serve with Bogside sauce and Petrol Cocktail."

Each viewer of course will flip through this scrapbook with their own politics extending through their fingertips which makes this object perhaps less of a communication than a dual argument wrapped in the same cloth.

Bookwise, Scrapbook is mostly well done although the cover stock feels a bit on the cheap. I realize that part of the idea is the irony of such a serious subject sitting within a dime store scrapbook but I wish that a little better choice had been made for the cover. The interior page stock is well chosen and conveys a strong sense of handmade craft.

On a similar note, the visual artist Steve McQueen's intense first film Hunger gives study to the lives of Irish political prisoners in the notorious HM "Maze" prison. Centered around the various protests for basic prisoner rights - right not to wear a prison uniform, right not to do prison work, right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits, right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week, full restoration of remission lost through the protest - it depicts vicious beatings and abuse from prison guards reflective of the stubborn no negotiation policies of Margaret Thatcher that cost the lives of many during hunger strikes.

Prison officials took away the toilets in each cell to which the prisoners responded with a "dirty" protest by refusing to wash, cut their hair, and due to the lack of facilities, smeared feces all over the cell's walls and poured their urine under the doors so it flooded the hallways. Since they refused to wear the clothing of criminals the prisoner's sat naked covered in dirty wool blankets. The discomfort and frustration felt by the guards fed the intense beatings and abuse. In the hands of McQueen, there are few portrayals of hell on earth as visceral as this one.

The film is structured in three acts. The first introduces the characters in the prison through an almost dialogue-less half hour portrayal of the abuse and violence. McQueen's camera is poetic while keeping a claustrophobic tenor within the prison. The second act is an exquisitely acted 22 minute unedited conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest talking over the morality of going on a hunger strike. Taking a page from Bela Tarr or perhaps McQueen's countryman Alan Clarke whose long takes defy traditional filmmaking,** this pivot point of the film left me exhilarated from its endurance and grace. The final act follows the last days of Sands' life as his body transforms with agonizing reality. It is an intense depiction that leaves little room for relief. This film is not for the squeamish.

* Who 'they' are beyond Pruss is something of a mystery as the 'Archive' has no website and little information leading to an actual entity from what I can find.

** Bela Tarr's masterpiece Satantango has by my estimate only around 150 cuts/edits to the film over its 7.5 hour running time. Alan Clarke's Elephant used long-take steadycam shots to depict sectarian murders.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Back to Okinawa 1980/2009 by Keizo Kitajima

Keizo Kitajima's newest publication via PPP Editions Back to Okinawa 1980/2009 is a revisitation of work he shot in clubs and bars in Koza, a red-light district situated near the US Air Force base of Kadena. Kitajima was a student of Daido Moriyama and set about working the nightlife selling prints to his subjects much like Katsumi Watanabe had been known to do in the late 1960s early 70s in Shinjuku.

Kitajima's plan was to self-publish bi-monthly magazines of this work starting in 1980 called Photo Express Okinawa but only four issues were realized. Each of these booklets - probably the equivalent of the low-fi music 'zines of the time with their DYI tenor - covered a specific period of a few weeks (ie: January 1-15). These short visual diaries were about the equivalent of one dollar and Kitajima priced it to be cheap and affordable to anyone who wanted a copy. This book reproduces all of the images that appeared in those four issues but with a new design and arrangement.

Kitajima's subjects reflect the influence of the near by military base with many photographs portraying Westerners getting drunk, dancing and mixing with the locals. Although this book concentrates on the Okinawa work only and includes no New York photographs, a couple years later Kitajima would live in New York where he would scope out a similar territory in the East Village among the now legendary rock clubs CBGB's, A7, Max’s Kansas City and The Mudd Club.

Kitajima ssys of this work: “Affection, hatred, rejection, acceptance: everything was there in Okinawa and nothing was a given. I wanted to make photographs that transcended all that… My generation was profoundly impacted by America. It is impossible to objectify my feelings about it.”

On the surface, this book's first impression is one of quality and elegance. At seventeen inches tall and a foot wide, the heavy silkscreened cardstock cover is beautifully done and the accent of the black thread binding a nice touch. Most of that excitement disappeared for me as soon as it is opened and with the discovery of 36 pages of cheap newsprint that make up the interior. It isn't just that the newsprint is cheap but since there were no negatives or prints to do proper scans the publisher has scanned from the magazines resulting in images that are completely broken up by the original magazine line screen. High contrast and poorly printed, we struggle to make out what is going on in the photos. Many are translated into blotches of black tone where even the most grand of gesture gets abstracted.

One may argue that, like I mentioned above, this could be comparable to 'zines of the time and honestly I like that thought. The quality does bother me but I often like the low-fi when it works. What is not comparable to 'zines is that the starting price of this newspaper booklet was $100.00 (it is signed by Kitajima and only 250 copies). Now, just a couple weeks after release the price has been raised to $135.00 (feel the panic?). I'm going to leave this one for the collectors and wait to see how the planned 900 page book from Rathole Gallery on Kitajima turns out.

Special thanks to Bryan L. for the loaner copy.