Friday, June 26, 2009

Playas by Martin Parr

If I understand correctly, Martin Parr and the publishers of his new book Playas, Editorial RM and Chris Boot, left all creative control of the book to the printer they employed in Mexico. That is, the design, sequencing, format, everything. This decision was made after asking several different low cost printers to design a cover and then Martin picked the best (or worst depending on how you look at it) and that company won the job to do the whole production. The result may be the best Martin Parr book in quite a while.

Playas is Parr's take on various beaches through Latin America. His subjects dip into the water and take the sun amongst a variety of detritus both bought and washed ashore. They or should I say we, come off as an awkward lot as he points us to micro-bikinis, flesh in all sizes and shapes, and the wide variety of relaxation techniques.

The first image which appears on the front endpaper shows a train of people either arriving to or departing from the sand. Behind them a sea of bodies have staked a claim amongst the umbrellas and small cabanas that litter the horizon. It is an image which sets a tone of exhaustion, both the physical and the visual. Throughout Playas there is so much information that, like being sapped of your energy from the sun, you sense the exhausting nature of a day at the beach.

Formally Parr does his best to juggle the information with a flare to accent the oddity. A green bottle of soda, a towel covered head, various magazine spreads (photography of photography) or an odd splash of color all get worked into frames that are often dense and complex. At their best, they are a surprise and at their weakest, they describe motifs as photographically common as a stale one-liner.

Bookwise, Playas wins hands down. Parr seems in near constant examination of humanity as example of bad taste. His book design's often flirt at this when what they needed to do was haul back and slap to convey that bad taste. The Last Resort, his book on New Brighton, added graphic blocks of color to accent the superficial, hyper-reality of his flash enhanced colors. One of his latest books, Mexico, tries its hand at being tacky with its cover design and bright green spine. What fails for me is that it is often graphic designer's idea of bad taste instead of the real thing.

The designer of Playas pulls out all the tricks and makes the photos seem as if they popped from a digital photobooth that might have lined the strand. Bordered by graphics of palm trees and the ubiquitous truck mud-flap silhouette of a nude woman, Parr's images have found the frames they have wanted for a long time. Small in format and made from cheap material, Playas will test the reader's strength to stomach kitsch with other added faults in production like severe non-registration and inconsistent page trimming that snips into the images and graphics.

Playas retails for $7.00 and I hope it stands the test of time a lot better than the beach umbrella I bought last summer for roughly the same price.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Landmasses and Railways by Bertrand Fleuret

Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer do!
I'm half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won't be a stylish marriage,
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two. - Lyrics by Harry Dacre, 1892

Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles, 1979

When Dr Haywood Floyd, played by William Sylvester in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, first approaches the newly discovered monolith on the moon, he and his fellow scientists do so without the fear and apprehension their ape ancestors had two million years prior. Rather, like a group of tourists, a photo is arranged and snapped. They have evolved to a point and their tools have improved, but faced with the understanding of what stands before them, they are powerless to do anything but snap a photo.

Whatever the name of the planet that Bertrand Fleuret touched down upon in his new book Landmasses and Railways there is much that initially looks familiar but upon closer examination, it is a world drawn from metaphor representing a frightening vision towards the future. I won't belittle this book by describing it as a "message," but it does emit an ear-piercing alarm as unsettling as Kubrick's monolith.

The first chapter, The Meloncholy of Departure describes the touchdown. Our vehicle, an 18th century wooden and glass pod (now preserved in some museum) leaves us far from signs of civilization. Water and mountain ranges will need to be crossed but first our sight will need to recover. The first images have us seeing through a haze in which we make out only part of the landscape leaving it difficult to get our bearings.

Chapter two, we approach a city and the feeling that we have touched down on a familiar planet is slightly assuring but not entirely. Are we home again? Gravity works holding the landscape in place but occasionally there are inexplainable light aberrations that hint at different rules of physics at work on this planet (or have our eyes not fully adjusted to the new sights?). Inside the walls of the city we encounter others who seem to be as new to the environs as we are. They wander almost dumbfounded not seeming to accomplish anything but staring (and take photos) at what has been created - like so many tourists.

A building is encountered, abandoned as if after an apocalypse. Searching among the debris, we see that technology and tools of man have flourished but amounted to a cold, emotionless state while pictorial representations of "civilization" paradoxically depict warmth and vitality. After such discoveries, escape back to "the garden" might be a relief but for the realization that one cannot return home again - consequences have been created and will resound at every turn. A dead bird and monstrous horse signal that the garden is tainted.

A card slipped into Landmasses quotes the photographer William Gedney as stating, "All facts lead eventually to mysteries," which rings a similar note to Winogrand's "There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described." This was my journey in Fleuret's novel in photos and certainly your own will be different. It is a book full of possibilities which for me is the joy like any great work - trying to grapple with its mysteries and discovering what they unlock in you.

Landmasses and Railways is the size of a hardcover novel. Its design is as straight forward and clean as pages of text would be. The matte paper and printing provide a fine foundation. Landmasses and Railways was published by J&L Books. An advanced edition of 100 copies bound in a different color buckram, signed and numbered, is available through

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Manx Stamp Album by Chris Killip

One of the perks to being one of the few photographers of note to come from the Isle of Man is that the postal office will eventually come around to issuing a stamp set featuring your photos. This honor has been bestowed upon Chris Killip and the occasion inspired him to create a small and very limited booklet called A Manx Stamp Album.

A Manx Stamp Album of Water Mills and Thrashing Mills 1970-1973 features the eight images that now grace the stamps. It was a huge surprise to me that only two of the images had made it into Killip's first book Isle of Man: A book about the Manx, even though they would have been a fine addition to the edit. Made around the same time as the pictures that did make it in, these describe the water-driven mills and crop thrashing machines employed to work the land.

Chris's portrait of the Isle of Man had more to do with a community whose identity was being encroached upon from the rich who were buying up the land as tax sheltered property. My initial drastic misreading of this work was clouded by a romantic tenor that I was ready to tarnish this work with. Turns out when you spend time with these photos and see the finer details of lives worn by constant work of the land, they become much less idyllic and more about survival.

The design of A Manx Stamp Album is simple. Small in trim size fitting to the scale of stamps, it features the photos on the right-hand side and each stamp adhered to the facing page. It is signed and numbered on the last page and was published in an edition of just 24. It comes enclosed in a small envelope that has been mailed on the first day of issue to Killip at an address in the Isle of Man and of course the postage used was his own stamps.

I should also mention another Killip rarity which is a booklet of postcards published by the Side Gallery from his exhibition of the Isle of Man work. It has 6 cards hinged together with a short essay by Nigel Kneale. Again, one of the images that appears here is not in the actual book version.

Lastly is the limited edition version of his newest book, Here Comes Everybody. This is by far a much more elegant edition. Each photograph was printed separately and attached to the page making this the true photo album which the trade edition strived to be. The covers lock closed with two flaps of cloth covered board and magnets.

This edition of 300 comes signed and numbered with a print.

For more information or to order A Manx Stamp Album visit

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Plan by Michael Schmelling / Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt by Jacob Kirch

As you can see I am doing some Spring cleaning with the Photobook Exchange so I thought two book reviews along those lines were in order. Michael Schmelling's The Plan from J&L Books and Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt by Jacob Kirch from the Institute for Book Arts in Leipzig will help with some tidying up and making a few home improvements.

In 1992 I moved into a tenement railroad style apartment on 35th street and 9th avenue in Manhattan. The elderly woman who occupied the place before me was a compulsive hoarder of cloth swatches and scraps that she would gather from the dumpsters of dozens of garment sweatshops that lined my street. I heard from neighbors that she had filled the front room of the apartment which was about 10' x 12' to a depth of about 5 feet deep with the swatches. It took two days to cart all of the material to the street and when the workers made substantial progress, they uncovered a full dining room set and various pieces of furniture that hadn't seen daylight for years. When I moved in I had one milk-crate of books, another full of clothing. The space echoed for about a year.

Michael Schmelling has been photographing the results of compulsive hoarding by tagging along with a New York-based agency called Disaster Masters as they venture into the homes and apartments which are filled to the threshold with clutter. His new book The Plan could be seen as not only documentation, but an extension of the mindset of someone suffering from pathological hoarding. At approximately 600 pages, the amount of material is as overwhelming as a room full of useless possessions.

The Plan opens with a small polaroid photo of a washbowl within which sits an arrangement of beer tabs found in Walker Evans's home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The lip of the sink is cluttered with other found objects rendering the basin unusable; not to mention the sign that rests just above the beer tabs that reads, "Please do not disturb the arrangement of tin beer caps in this washbowl." A still-life to be photographed to one day? or ready-made sculpture that has taken over a bathroom?

Schmelling finds hundreds of small still-lifes to describe and much of The Plan is concerned with those that follow in the spirit of Evans's beer tab arrangement. Setting about looking through this book is as unsettling as what the photos describe. It is bulky yet as unwieldy as a small phonebook. Its thin pages make it nearly impossible to grab just one. Its ink comes off on your fingers and smudges the white covers. Its construction leads to some confusion with a section of green pages (why?). In short, it is probably the perfect representation of a book about the disgust and repulsion of out of control filthy and clutter. Would you expect a book about such a subject to be clean? Why the green pages? Perhaps because venturing into one of these rooms piled high with junk is about as unpredictable as a book that suddenly reproduces its last pages in monochrome green.

There is a method to the madness but you need to decipher just what that is.

Once your home is cleaned and everything carted away by Disaster Masters, you can start repairing the damage. Jakob Kirch's Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt could be the guide you are looking for.

Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt is an artist book/ graphic design thesis that compiles various illustrations that were common to home improvement magazines from 1975-1990 in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). Initially interested in Claude Lévi-Strausse's distinction between the "engineer" and the "amateur handyman" (an engineer makes use of objects made for a particular project, the handyman uses whatever is available to him) Kirch set up some formal rules in the creation of his book. The illustrations were chosen for their formal qualities yet Kirch arranges them into compositions on each page according to their original positions as they appeared in the handyman's magazines, making editing into a subtractive act to avoid overlapping images. Moves between subjective and an objective sets of rules, Kirch's new guide to home improvement force the formerly step-by-step illustrations into new associations that are puzzling yet hint at a deeper pool of knowledge beyond the rational.

The design of Platz is brilliant. It is comprised of 13 staple-bound booklets glued together to form one book. Each "section" provides illustrations from individual magazines and the last booklet - reproduced in bright yellow - provides a legend to provide each photo's caption and determine which magazine the illustration came from. This section folds out just beyond the main book block so it can remain open while the reader flips through the book, making access to the captions easy. Platz was published in only 150 copies by the Institut fur Buchkunst Leipzig in 2006 and is available for 30 euros.

The similarities to Schmelling's The Plan make these quite the pair. They are remarkably close in trim size, quality of reproduction (very rough), type of materials (thin paper) as well their tenor of what human activity creates and what it looks like when reinforced by a logic that might escape most people's understanding.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Denver by Robert Adams

This year sees two re-releases of Robert Adams' books, Denver and What We Bought: The New World from the Yale University Art Gallery.

Denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area 1970-1974, the second book, in what could be seen as a trilogy starting with The New West and ending with What We Bought: The New World, was originally released in 1977. In Adams' words he "wanted to explore whether a romantic view of Denver and the American West was entirely wrong." In 93 photographs he presented his critique of America's poor stewardship of the land with rapid expansion of housing and obsessive consumption.

John Szarkowski's "suggestion of redeeming value" in regard to the buildings, homes and roads as he wrote in his introduction to The New West three years prior, is questioned in this body of work starting with the first chapter and its almost sinister heading Land Surrounded; To Be Developed. The promise of expansion to provide better way of life, a new start, is dashed with the trampling of the landscape. Motorbikes carve pathways into prairie land and an impotent fire hydrant stands comically within foot high scrub while smoke from a fire is seen miles away on the horizon. Man acting on his folly has identifiable consequences but within the historical flow of action, those consequences are sometimes difficult to determine in advance. It is this selfish behavior which comes under Adams' gaze throughout the book while the paradox of a love for people "who are, although they participate in urban chaos, admirable and deserving of our thought and care." That romantic western view of John Ford and the like isn't so much a lie or entirely wrong but that of a much smaller scale.

Adams describes exteriors and interiors of homes which, although complete with the amenities of convenience, seem sapped of any spiritual character. His are descriptions of the superficial. A room crowded with furniture of competing styles or a relatively empty one whose long expanse of couch seems metaphor for a desiree for endless comfort over all else.

Although mostly unpeopled but for distant figures dwarfed by the landscape, Denver does contain a few images that resemble portraiture. More indirect in approach, they describe a factory workers toiling over their repetitive work and a few shoppers wandering among aisles of brightly lit products. A couple of photographs which show their subjects in profile and perhaps in a moment of reflection might serve as self-portraits of the artist. Both subjects seem to represent visually the only conscience in the whole book.

This edition of Denver strays from the original in picture count and design. These changes are significant and notable since Adams himself has been said to have disliked the final book. He called it a "compromised fragment," which may be in reference to the words of his introduction where he states being taken by Yasunari Kawabata's phrase, "My life, a fragment in the landscape." The original is also very poorly printed. Although that lightness of the printing may accentuate the sense of "perpetual noon" as Lewis Baltz described the quality of light in these pictures, this edition's tritone plates with separations by Thomas Palmer are beautifully mastered.

The change in design brings this volume down to the same trim size as What We Bought: The New World. The plates however are
slightly larger accounting for the vast amounts of white that surrounded the photographs in the original. Gone also are the blank white pages that appeared occasionally breaking the sequence and rhythm. This new edition presents a long train of images broken only by the chapter headings.

The other change is with adding 26 photographs. A few fill in the previously blank pages which faced the chapter titles in the 1977 edition while others make for new pairings within the sequence. It is interesting to note that What We Bought: The New World arose from the Denver project as that book came from a box of
images which didn't make the original Denver edit and had been stored away for years. Now 26 previously unpublished images have made their way back into the book proving that photographic editing is an on-going process of evaluation which shifts with time.

None of the changes draw any complaint from me only praise. It may have taken 31 years to do so, but this new volume is now more beautifully realized than the original and no longer a compromised fragment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Visible World by Fischli & Weiss

Seeing the foot thick book dummy at the Fotobook Festival in Kassel by Katharina Gaenssler has me looking at books which challenge the viewer with a bulk of imagery. That dummy must have had thousands of images, many of which on their own wouldn't hold water but that obviously isn't part of the artist's mindset. Gerhard Richter with his Atlas explored bulk images as reference points to culture and I would even point to Gilles Peress' Farewell to Bosnia which is in his words, is an "unedited book" of the Balkans wars. Fischli and Weiss' Visible World
(Sichtbare Weld) published in 2001 by Walther Konig is another worthwhile exploration of the book as mass of information.

No text and with 8 photographs per page, Visible World is a globetrotting description of landscape and cityscape contained in a few hundred pages. Their approach seems to be from a tourist perspective. A great deal of what they describe would have drawn any passerby to lift a camera to the eye. Horizons are straight and the depth of focus sharp. They are seductive in beauty from the light to the color in the same way that postcards describe "good" representations. They point towards the exotic and the familiar with equal distance both formally and emotionally.

Seeing them arranged as grids, time is stunted. Repetition with only slight variance to framing brings to mind contact sheets but as long as we may linger on one vista, an entire continent can be spanned within one page. It is a catalog starts and pauses and I would draw momentary comparison to their video The Way Things Go in how these often disparate images link up and push the flow of the book.

What seems to be missing is any sense of how one would perceive the world through the daily media or human experience. War, famine, terrorism, disease, poverty, pollution, natural disasters are all distant concepts from what is described here. It is a pure world where harmony and a sense of calm persists. I think it is fitting that this book was published in the year of 9/11 since that disconnect is so strong. Theirs is essentially, as the title suggests, the superficial world as we may pass through it disregarding deeper thought. The hippo emerging from the water is only seen as he breaks the surface, the rest is not visible.

The sequencing jumps from continent to continent and since this is presented as one venture in continuum, the comparison of one landscape with another weaves the world into a tighter, neater package. History is also present where the primordial (crocodilles and hippos) and unblemished horizons mix with man's modern presence (billboards and inner city traffic).

The longest pause is on airports. Near the 2/
3rds mark, they spend several pages of grids describing the planes and terminals that made their adventure possible. I raise this because it was their book Airports that first made me recognize that whoever was behind the camera (Fischli or Weiss or both), they actually craft wonderful individual pictures. That section departs slightly from the traditional tourist view (although many amateur's make pictures of the planes they are about to enter at the start of their trip, most are not as obsessive as is observed here).

As much as most of these pictures already exist in our mind's eye (they are so common to guides about how to take "good" photos), and can be considered cliches of tourist confirmations rather than discoveries, they have a sense of banality but also are compellingly beautiful beyond expectation. Because of this one might get
the sense of a parody at work; a dissection of tourist views thrown into a conceptual mass of photographs.

The task of describing the totality of the visible world is, of course, impossible. This fragmentary view which spans so much distance and appears cyclical, provides a pleasure in taking in only a small portion of truth and with willing participation we follow in tow, embracing blissful ignorance.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Wald by Gerhard Richter

It seems one can't move within a bookstore now a days without risk of knocking a new Gerhard Richter book off the shelf. One however caught my attention, Wald published this year by Walther Konig is more artist book than catalog and due to its smaller size you might not have noticed it.

For a few years, Richter has been photographing in a forest near his home in Cologne, Germany. 35mm in format the first impression might be that these are paintings. They follow some of his formal traits and the color palette and range of tone will seem familiar as well. A dense book of 285 photographs, all verticals, he loosely groups them into categories of form. Horizontal branches, vertical groupings, logs and fallen growth are framed into compositions where the line of branches reminds one of his swipes of the palette knife across his paintings.

What amazes me is that the vast number of images does not diminish their individual attraction over the course of the book. Interspersed are short texts which are, as I have read elsewhere, nonsensical passages chosen from forestry magazines and compiled via a random text generator. The text, perhaps like the forest itself, becomes most dense in the middle of the book and from start to end, it has a presence that fades in and fades out.

I wrote before about Richter's experiments with overpainting photographs and the idea of a ready-made artwork that is dependent on one action guided by instinct. That of course is photography itself and for the seeming casualness of these photographs, they actually reveal a maker so skilled and informed that each holds a unique appeal. Each solid yet testing different combination of form that risk repetition and failure.

Beautifully printed and in my opinion, the perfect size, Wald is a pleasant break from the many Richter books which I find so unsatisfying. Finally a return to examining an artist in full exploration relating to the world rather than just another catalog touting his greatness.

Friday, June 5, 2009

School by Raimond Wouda

I have mentioned many times my fascination with photography is mainly due to those rare moments when a camera in the hands of a skilled practitioner can achieve the miraculous. That is, when a photograph contains so much information, reordered to perfection where every element within the frame keeps adding surprise and revelation. It does not happen often.

This is why I am so envious in some ways of painters because they can control each element or figure. Brueghel's dancing peasants, Ingres' Turkish bath, or Poussin's ordered chaos of The Rape of the Sabines deal with multiple human figures which all find their place within a deep space. Those paintings hold so much descriptive force that new discoveries upon repeated viewings are a part of their draw. For me, in photography, the image first must keep me engaged even after hundreds of viewings and this is why 'ideas' behind images are much less compelling when the execution of the work does not master the thought. This is one reason the work in schools and colleges of Raimond Wouda is so compelling to me.

Wouda started to observe the relationships among groups of teenagers while they were on the school playground across the street from his studio. Something about those observations drew him to approaching the institutions in order to gain access to their hallways and common areas with his view camera and strobes. It wasn't the classroom he was interested in but what was happening when the students were on their own and what that might reveal if photographed. His newest book School from Nazraeli published this year brings together a tight edit of 35 of these images.

School is often less about learning the classroom lessons but learning about your place in societal structures. Groups or cliques and those desires to be accepted often form confidence or devastate it. Finding your place was a form of recognizing something of yourself in others. Being in school was often about being obsessively aware of your body, each movement and what it might reveal about you. Clothing, hair and accessories merge into your identity within fads that have little to do with you as an individual. What is so amazing about Wouda's work is that with all of this self-awareness present in such an environment, he and his cumbersome view camera and strobes could somehow go about their tasks relatively unnoticed. Photographers do not tend to tread lightly.

His camera is the omniscient observer. The height, beyond normal human perspective, describes from above and allows for renderings of a deeper and more complex space. We do not experience just a foreground and background but a full field of view which is made more intense with the amount of characters he juggles. Massimo Vitali would be a natural comparison but for me his images are too wide angle and he treats the characters as minor players within the large expanse of landscape. Here Wouda gives equal treatment to both people and environment. There is no hierarchy but a complete merging of form between the two.

Like a painter, Wouda is able to choose moments within a chaotic environment where each element and character finds their own space in which to be described clearly. It is within these moments that small individual one-act plays are caught, cliques formed and individual personas perceived. An image of a school dance shows a clear divide of male and female while each group eyes the other with desire stifled by hesitancy to breech the divide alone.

My fascination with these images extends to the edges of the frame. Wouda's other strength is his ability to fill the frame even to the very edge and somehow the world cooperates to introduce more interesting elements. Page 17, a boy in a red shirt with an angled black stripe across his chest near the left side of the frame pauses against a slice of a brick wall while on the opposite right side a young woman in white looks left and a boy seated at a table nearby clasps his hands in front of him, elbow at the very frame edge and angled to mimic the black stripe of the boy on the opposite side. All of these small elements hold the tightness of the frame while in between a frieze of faces and gestures.

Add to the complexity, color. Once within the already difficult task of creating a new order from chaos, the introduction of color can either break or enhance compositions. A distracting color could grab attention from the rest of the frame destroying its integrity. The cover image of school was shot within a locker area - a space that Wouda works often. Within this image, reds become important signifiers of holding the frame together. The bottom left, a young woman's shirt starts a line of red shirts that continues to the back of the space, meanwhile the balance on the right side is achieved by a couple of flower ponytail holders and a last minute product placement of a Coke bottle sitting within a locker at the very frame edge. You could go on and on noticing the arrangements of blues, yellows and blacks as forms within forms.

As formalism itself is only interesting to a point, the real pay off is in the stillness of revealing moments. Among the juice boxes and backpacks, it is the expressions and readings of body language that are important. One exudes confidence while another awkwardness. Two boys flirt with a woman while others look on with curiosity. A few boys hang around a vending machine fronting toughness within the candy-colored safety of a hallway. These pictures show the building of our inner foundations which can sometimes seem formed from the painfully trivial.

As a book School follows Nazraeli's usual clean design and choice of materials. It gives fine treatment to the photos in scale and printing. It is handsome but I have to say, after experiencing some of the great design talents from The Netherlands I wonder what this would have looked like in the hands of a different designer. The edit is very tight and although I do not know what was left out, every photo included is worth its weight.

This is the 4th in Martin Parr's selection of ten bodies of work. His tastes and mine tend to differ a bit but with the selection of Wouda, we couldn't agree more. This work is THE reason why this medium is unlike any other and to me, these photos are clear examples of why I will never tire of its surprise.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Novemberrejse by Krass Clement

Krass Clement is known for his great book Drum from 1996 but did you know that he is a seasoned book maker with 17 other publications under his belt? While at the Fotobook Festival in Kassel I was able to get a hold of two as well as see a few of the others and this larger exposure has me begging the question - Why is Krass Clement not more well known?

Krass's approach can seem traditional at first - it's black and white, small camera, etc - it uses a language which I think people immediately pigeon-hole as old-fashioned or not 'contemporary' and this is a shame because it merits much further attention than it obviously gets.

His book Drum was rumored to have been made with 'three rolls of film and five pints of Guinness' while in a small pub in Drum, Ireland. It is a book which on first glance looks very traditional in regard to its design and format until you start to follow the sequence. People have spoken of its filmic quality due to the repetition of images and concentration on a small amount of time (a few hours? an hour? 30 minutes?) as one character in the bar slowly moves off to drink alone and it is within these subtle (often very subtle) shifts in the pictures that minor changes in body language become all the more meaningful. What is most difficult, is that being filmic wouldn't be enough without each image standing on its own.

A few of Krass's books employ this implied sequential method and his newest book from Gyldendal, Novemberrejse does so beautifully.

The book opens with a prelude of sorts. We enter a town, it is dark and the air is hazy with fog, the interior of a barber shop shows signs of life and we watch from the window a few men finishing their days work. Quickly Clement establishes through just a few photos that we are looking through someone else's eyes. This is not photography as a fly on the wall omniscient observer, whoever this protagonist is, they're made of flesh and blood and like us, they are exploring unfamiliar territory.

Novemberrejse, or November Journey, is an implied narrative of a stranger visiting a small town (Rubjerg in Denmark). You get the feeling he is a stranger first from the general tenor which is a bit dark, lonely and melancholy but also because he (it seems like a man to me) doesn't seem to be able to connect with the natural rhythms of the town. He wanders observing and re-observing the lay of the land and some of the repetition of the images act as a way of establishing landmarks - familiar territory - tracing and re-tracing steps. The white building on the book's cover is seen within the sequence twice as if passed multiple times on the street.

He seems out of sync with life. The stores are mostly shuddered and for a short while the only human connection is observing a few people waiting at a bus stop across from his rooming-house window. When he is invited into the parlors or kitchens of the local's homes the warmth of new connections only lasts as far as the door's threshold before the mist and grey skies dampen spirits.

Towards the end of his stay he is met with different servants or guides; a man in a bowtie, the hotel staff, and finally a haunting image of a ferry worker directing us onto the ship. It is dark and after the implied stasis of the previous sequence, we may be entering a boat that will either provide escape or further loneliness. The tenor is not offering much in the way of promise.

As I mentioned before, the sequence alone would not hold water if it weren't for the prowess of the photographer in making great individual images. They are graceful and finely constructed frames, full of information and tonality that extends into the deep shadows.

Vertical in format, Novemberejse is fairly traditional in design but elegant none the less with fine choices of material. The printing
is well done although perhaps the choice of a finer printing screen might have been wise on the part of the publisher. A very minor criticism for this book but I think a finer screen would better serve the grace of his print tonalities. I know I have already pointed out a few books which are my "best of's" for the year but Novemberrejse has secured a slot very high on the list. This is a new favorite. Perhaps because I find a connection in image making similar to my own or maybe simply because I like being within his photographs

Another of Krass's books I was able to get a hold of is Hvor Ingen Talte. This is an entire body of work shot on one day during a state funeral in Moscow on August 24, 1991.

Again, on first glance the 38 photographs that make up Hvor Ingen Talte will seem to follow in the traditions of a street documentary-style genre except the repetition of form to each image hints at an almost conceptual frame reigning over the whole body of work. Each image describes a few figures within the frame, some aware of the photographer and some not. Photographed from a relatively close distance, they are direct but not confrontational like Klein or Winogrand. These are calmer images that contain a grace common to Clement's images.

Whereas Weegee famously turned from the event towards the crowd for a more human expression of event, Clement keeps from providing
much in the way of information regarding the significance of this event rather his are mostly unguarded moments fully implying a gauge of the inner thoughts of the individuals. Small gestures as simple as the clasp of hands or twist of the shoulders while leaning on a fence - the rewards of each image reveal themselves seductively.

The repetitive form invites perception of the pictures as an on-going train much like the long pan of a newsreel camera. In fact, the observant will notice individuals at the edge of one frame sometimes appear in the next. Only occasionally is this line broken with a vertical or an image that completely breaks from the rest through approach but all add up to a group portrait during a collective moment.

Hvor Ingen Talte isn't the best example of fine bookmaking as the materials and design are so ubiquitous of so many photobooks from the late 1980s early 90s it seems generic, which is a real missed opportunity. It isn't going to be the package that draws you to discover these pictures but take my word for it, it is a fine body of work that again amazes me that this was from one day's worth of film.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Health and Efficiency by Dr. Lakra

Dr. Lakra, Jeronimo Lopez Ramirez, is an artist from Mexico known for the embellishing of various surfaces ranging from magazine pin-ups to dolls to human skin. A tattoo artist by trade his series of irreverent etchings over images torn from vintage nudist magazines is now contained in a book called Health and Efficiency from Editorial RM from Mexico City.

The nudist magazines he used as the starting point for his art were purchased from an outdoor market in London. Cloaked in appreciation for nudist values, the upbeat tone of these soft-core mags is despoiled by his cast of devilish characters and surrealist fantasy.

Dr Lakra gives image to the transformation of man into beast or demon unlocked by a lapse of sexual repression. Demons that surround the women with lascivious craving are literally etched onto the page with tattoo needles and ink. Where as porn has a natural way of sneaking past critical evaluation and slipping into the id, Lakra's images by design depict the id in all of its drooling self-gratification.

Lakra turns the Eden-like gardens of the nudists into a post-apple opening of Pandora's box. The amphibians, serpents, bats and plethora of genitalia that escape turn the idyllic innocence into a gang-bang tinged with sado-masochism. Lakra pencils in tattoos of the tribal and prison variety on the women's bodies partly empowering them with a protective skin that seems to ward off the acts of rape and defilement.

These are violent images pierced with humor, the embellishment of the reproduction offers angry fantasy that borders into misogyny. Lakra's parade of creatures prey on the women while at the same time expose humiliating masturbatory desire. Many of his phantoms are left simply watching, unable to participate beyond launching their seed in from the margins.

Lending to the tradition of the depiction of death like Jose Guadalupe Posada or Manuel Manilla, Lakra's skeletons possess their senses and desires. These beings return to drink, eat, (fuck), taking part in earthly pleasures. The Kamasutra meets the Tijuana Bible.

Health and Efficiency (the name of the magazines the source material was gathered from) is covered in sensual black felt with Dr. Lakra written in a silver debossed flowing script. It gathers 41 of Lakra's guilty pleasures and although it invites reading in one sitting, it is better in small doses. Abraham Cruzvillegas, Lakra's partner in crime pens a fine introductory essay. If you aren't a Spanish speaker, be sure to order the English edition.

A precedence could be found by way of Dr Lakra's father who is the great Mexican artist from Oaxaca, Francisco Toledo. Toledo's own watercolors and drawings often feature a mix of man and nature with his own odd twist of sexuality and preoccupation with imaginative couplings.

In 2004 while walking down the street in Oaxaca with my wife I spotted the maestro himself approaching us on the same sidewalk. Shyly introducing myself in my broken Spanish, I mentioned we had just see an exhibition of his and bought the catalog. Being such a moment of synchronicity, he inscribed it to us before sliding back into the anonymity of the crowd where he seemed more comfortable. Francisco Toledo: Libreta de apuntes (Sketchbook) is a facsimile of one of his sketchbooks from New York in the 1980s (it even has a green Pearl Paint price sticker on the cover) published in 2003 by the Fondo de Cultura Economica and the Galeria Arvil.

Toledo's world is populated with a fantastic zoology of beings. Coyotes, turtles, crickets, fish, deer, rabbits become symbols of animism without shedding a bit of their horny nature. A deer screws a turtle who's head is kissing another within a doubly-penetrated woman. Others copulate like puzzle pieces finding a new form of hybrid species. Shocking and provocative, his seems to be a desire to twist traditional depictions of man and nature while creating new implied fables.

Hierarchal structures upset, man is not at the top of the pecking order but an equal among the smallest of beings. His animals possess sleek bodies of muscle and tone while his humans are obese and sluggish looking. His color palette earthy and liquid. This sketchbook, as expected, reveals intuitive action in combination with more fully realized works but all add to his forever morphing mythology.

Nicely produced except I would have liked a nicer paper choice, mine is an edition which comes housed in a slipcase which has an original work affixed to the cover. There is a regular edition without the limited slipcase.