Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paris to China

Just a quick note to say that I am on my way to China to go through the grueling press checks on the next Errata Editions books. I have spent a few days at Paris Photo and will give a recap of events when I have a moment to relax. In the meanwhile, here is an interesting Ilya Kabakov book you should search out. Cheers...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

In This Dark Wood by Elisabeth Tonnard

Last weekend was another small artbook fair in New York at which I made an exciting discovery in the work of a young Dutch poet and visual artist named Elisabeth Tonnard. Tonnard has been in residence at Rochester's Visual Studies Workshop and has created several artist books over the past several years. One title that was a must own for me was her book In This Dark Wood published in 2008. I am one year late to add this to my Best of 2009 list but since I make the rules here, I will happily add it anyway.

In This Dark Wood presents a selection of photographs from an archive that is currently housed at the Visual Studies Workshop. The pictures are from a commercial photo firm called "Fox Movie Flash" which was owned by a man named Joseph Selle. Working in the San Francisco area, Selle and a team of street photographers made casually framed fleeting portraits of pedestrians intended to be sold to the passers-by after development.

Shot with half frame cameras that would hold a 100 foot roll of 35mm film, each roll captured more than 1500 photographs. The archive consists of over a million images made from the 1930s to the 70s.

Tonnard constructed her book using 90 of the photographs paired with 90 different English translations of the first line of Dante's Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la via diritta era smarrita.

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Selle's unsuspecting subjects walking alone and caught in the light of the flash, become the multitude of alienated souls wandering "the dark woods" of the city. What is amazing about this work is how, accompanied by the suggestion of the text, the environs surrounding each subject heighten the metaphor. Movie marquees caught in the upper corners of the frames read movie titles of violence and doom; "Ring of Fire," "Hell is a City," "...from Hell," "Petrified World, "Nightfall," "Corridors of Blood."

Tonnard sequenced the photographs to emphasize repetition and further sense of - in Tonnard's words - moving "incessantly to and fro" without seemingly making any progress much like Dante's lost souls. By stressing the difference in translations, Tonnard is also emphasizing the fluidity of language and thus a path that may appear straight but is in constant flux.

In This Dark Wood is a print on demand book in an open edition. The size of a trade paperback it is simple in its design and construction which can make the price tag on first glance seem high. It isn't an elegant presentation (her creation is certainly deserving of better treatment) but the photographs are wonderfully striking and not without their individual surprise.

Highly recommended.

Check Elisabeth Tonnard's website for other books and ordering information.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fun and Games by Lisa Kereszi

Our desire to give into fantasy and escape everyday life has led to the creation of outlets so seemingly absurd I wonder how we'll be perceived as a species in the far future. We love sitting on the edge of fear, we love movies that are like roller coaster rides, we love to feel out of control, if just for a moment. We don't really concentrate on the finer details. We are seduced into the experience by colorful lights and surreal imagery that in the bright light of day often appears sad and frayed but we suspend disbelief for the sake of fun. Lisa Kereszi is fascinated with such places whether found inside a strip club, on a beachside boardwalk attraction, or in a disco. Her new book from Nazraeli Press, Fun and Games, presents 49 photographs made in such places.

Fun and Games opens as many great books have, with an open doorway. It is almost an obvious joke as Kereszi's doorway was found at the entrance to the Spook-A-Rama on Coney Island. A single wide eye stares back at us before we enter, reminding us that it is all fun and games until someone loses - Ok you get it.

Kereszi's deadpan gaze focuses on the kitsch and the tattered. She emphasizes the poor constructions and wear from use evident on the walls and carpets. In one, the remnants of spilt popcorn litter the ornate carpet pattern of a movie theater. A laughable cliche of a phantom is airbrushed on a disco wall. In another she describes the thin strands of cord hanging from the ceiling which have startled many in the pitch dark of Deno's Spook-A-Rama.

In the light, these small details are center stage and their artifice obvious. Pointing out kitsch for simple laughs is easy to do and many young photographers have been ensnared by such tactics but Kereszi seems to be doing her best to seduce and allow us to be taken in and amused. These are not automatic yucks but resonant images full of hope found in a disappearing landscape that is rarer to experience in our search for high tech entertainment.

As a book Fun and Games sticks to Nazraeli's design and construction. Glossy laminate boards cover the usual large plates and typography. I tend to like the work Nazraeli publishes in their books but I do wish they'd mix up the design and feel of their titles. After so many similar books they seem very formulaic in their book-craft.

Kereszi's first monograph, Fantasies was interesting but the images I responded to the most in that title where the still-lifes and incidental scenes similar to the ones featured here in Fun and Games. This is a tighter edit and altogether better book. She seems more in control, while we, through her photos, may entertain the many ways we wish to lose ourselves in fantasy.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nationalgalerie by Thomas Demand

The second of my installments of best books of 2009 also comes from Steidl, Thomas Demand Nationalgalerie.

This is a catalog was published in conjunction with Demand's exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and it was timed to mark two points in German history - the 60 year anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany and the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since Demand's work always concerns itself with pivotal moments in history and reconstructing an artificial representation to be re-imagined and "remembered", this timing could not be more perfect.

As with many of Demand's books/catalogs there is a strong attempt to make an elegant object. Nationalgalerie has stark, egg-shell colored buckram covers much like any common library book - simple typography announces the title. Opening to beautiful wall-paper style endpapers, each of the 38 plates is printed on two-page foldouts which require care and patience to view. On the cover of each foldout short text passages by the German playwright Botho Strauß are printed. The passages less explain the images directly but philosophically question what we are seeing and re-experiencing.

For this exhibition, Demand chose exclusively 'German' works inspired by German history. Looking through the sequence, Demand jumbles that history into a distorted timeline that questions the relationship of one moment to the next, much in the same way that Richter's Atlas or Schmidt's Un-i-ty does through their own free association of images.

The plates in Thomas Demand Nationalgalerie are beautifully printed on fine paper stock and the size allows each image to be reproduced at a large scale. This scale is important yet not for the usual reasons. Demand's paper constructions lack the pollution of exacting details which photography usually obsesses over. His is a less cluttered representation where the viewer might be side-stepped by the small imperfections in his constructions momentarily but the overall cleanliness invites us to inhabit each in ways we wouldn't if it were a historical image. As Strauß writes of Demand, "Art alone has the power to exchange much for little. Consider Demand's models of sublimated space. The magical emptiness clears our world of a great deal of superfluity."

The one draw back to Demand's work in book form is that the same images are present in several volumes often making ownership of more than one unnecessary. I have acquired several over the years but the ones I have kept are few. The 2006 Serpentine Gallery catalog I wrote about last year is a must, the 2007 Processo Grottesco is a must have for the wealth of source material and wonderful design, and now this new Nationalgalerie volume has bumped a couple of the earlier retrospective books like the 2005 MoMA catalog and the 2000 Cartier catalog off my shelves. If you are looking for your first book from one of Germany's most important artists, look no further.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Protest Photographs by Chauncey Hare

Over the next month, time willing, I will be featuring several books which are my picks for best books of the year. The first is the new Steidl and Steven Kasher publication of Chauncey Hare's Protest Photographs.

Chauncey Hare is known primarily for his 1978 book Interior America from Aperture. Attuned to his own estrangement in the corporate world being a research engineer for Standard Oil, he began photographing as an escape from his everyday routine. In his written introductory essay he describes the physical and psychological toll that such an environment had on his health including daily nausea and extreme panic disorders from which he suffered. These unpleasant attacks would let up as the week ended and Hare could look forward to photographing during the weekends.

Starting with 35mm and graduating to a Burke and James 5x7 camera, Hare was initially too shy to approach people directly so he described the landscape around the homes of Richmond, California where he lived. On one occasion in 1968 Hare was approached by a man who offered to sell him a camera. This invitation into the man's home led Hare to start to explore the interiors lives of the workers in the area. Citing the resonance of photographers like Evans and Russell Lee, Hare methodically worked to gain access into people's living rooms and three Guggenheim fellowship facilitated a large body of work that has incredibly remained under the radar of many younger photographers.

When I was in art school, Hare's Interior America was a book that often came up in conversation with my teachers. What struck me was his indelicate use of artificial lighting. His strobes aren't softened to reduce strong shadows and often the blanket of light is harsh. It is if he wished for every hard edge to be revealed in crisp uncompromising detail.

The original edition of Interior America followed a straight forward design from Marvin Israel keeping to one picture on the right and a short caption specifying place on the left page. It suffered from a weak printing which made Hare's pictures on first glance seem unimpressive. One had to fight to fully sense the power of those 77 images. The whole endeavor feels cheap and so typical of books from the late 70s.

Protest Photographs is a more direct title for the work. Hare's response to the claustrophobic atmosphere and spiritual desolation in the workers lives (and his own) is its driving force and his main concern. It is his vision of what could be extraordinary lives dulled by joyless routine and loss of personal meaning - anesthetized cogs in a machine.

Protest Photographs expands the edit of Interior America to include many more images as well as photographs Hare made within the offices of corporate world he was rallying against (Hare once handed out protest leaflets at a lecture at MoMA protesting the Mirrors and Windows exhibition that included one of his images as he didn't approve of the museum's corporate sponsor). The printing is light-years better than the original, restoring Hare's extended tonal range and giving it its full due.

Hare was considering destroying all of the existing prints and negatives of his work unless the Bancroft Library at the University of California would accept it as a donation. The wealth of material which includes taped interviews he conducted with workers and corporate managers, slide shows, 50,000 negatives, 3500 prints and 30,000 35mm slides.

In the late 1980s Hare gave up photography to become a therapist who concentrated on work related abuse. Perhaps he saw how it is difficult for photography to truly make a change, or, was photography just a step in many outlets to spread the message of shifting priorities to one's own happiness and fulfillment. Hare lived in both those worlds. His view was saved and is now available in this book - kept out of a bonfire that couldn't possibly have consumed his anger.