Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sanatorium by Rob Hornstra & Arnold van Bruggen

Due to my general laziness after the holidays I see that Andrew Phelps, the fine photographer and blogger of the booksite Buffet, has beaten me to the punch by mentioning Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen's newest publication Sanatorium.

Hornstra's book 101 Billionaires was one of my favorites of the year from 2008 so I was excited to see his endeavors with the Sochi Project were paying off and he had published this new title with help from donors.

is offered only to people who donate to help fund his version of slow journalism documenting the changes taking place to Sochi, a town in Russia, which is preparing for the arrival of the 2014 Olympics. Working alongside the writer Arnold van Bruggen, Hornstra plans to photograph in the area over the next five years, and along the way, publish magazine articles and books to get the multitude of stories out. Sanatorium is the first.

In 1919, Lenin decreed that localities with curative properties should be property of the people and used for curative purposes. Accordingly, many sanatoriums sprung up along Sochi's 90 miles of coastline.

Hornstra's description is clean, large format portraits and interiors lit with flash. The environment seems filled with out dated machinery that looks as if it would do more harm than good. In one, a boy sits in a bathtub which is lined with tubes and spouts that look more for torture than healing. In others, the curative machinery Hornstra photographs look like left over props from science fiction films with their arm-like protrusions and incomprehensible purpose.

The metaphor of wish fulfillment is in the air. Wish fulfillment not just for the healing powers of the machinery, mud baths or mineral waters in the sanatorium pictured but also in the face lift that Sochi is getting for the 2014 Olympics. What will be the outcome of the world's eyes falling on Sochi and the years after it is all over.

Book-wise, Sanatorium is short (21 photos over 42 pages) but its sexy design and production values deserve attention. Designed by Kummer & Herman out of Utrecht, they employed an interesting double stitch binding that achieves a squared off spine and a division of text from the photographs which were printed on different paper stocks from one another. Sanatorium was printed in 350 copies.

To donate to Hornstra and van Bruggen's check their website here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Portfolio: 40 Photos 1941/1946 by Robert Frank

Before arriving to New York, Robert Frank prepared a portfolio of 40 photographs in order to introduce his work to magazine editors. Upon close inspection, Frank's work from the time treads a fine line between the older school pictorialists with Aldolf Herz at its center and the New Vision advocates which included Frank's teacher Gotthard Schuh. The New Vision shows through with his experimenting with angles and pairing images sans text or caption while the pictorialist in him finds an attraction to beautiful vistas and architecture as well as the rural farm life outside of Zurich.

Opening to the first page of Frank's Portfolio just published by Steidl, we are faced with an open phone book, brightly lit and lying on a field of black. I can't help but to think this is Frank's sly nod to the difficulty he may face upon breaking into the field of commercial photography. An open phone book, full of names, it is as if Frank is saying 'find me, pick me' among thousands of competitors.

It is also an image of weight as the book seems to be surrendering under its own heaviness. This is followed by two images which are weightless - the first of a snow scene and the facing page, a ray of sunlight described from a vantage point where we feel as if we are hovering over a small mountain village.

The 'weightless' and the 'grounded' are two opposing themes that Frank repeatedly uses to move us through this sequence. Three radio transistors in a product shot float into the sky while a music conductor, his band and a church steeple succumb to gravity on the facing page. Even in this image Frank shifts focus to the sky and beyond - the weightless. When he photographs rural life, the farmers heft whole pigs into the air and another carries a huge bale of freshly cut grain which seems featherlight but for the woman trailing behind with hands ready to assist.

Considering this work was made while fascism was on the move through Europe, external politics is felt through metaphor. A painted portrait of men in uniform among a display of pots and pans for sale faces a brightly polished cog from a machine - its teeth sharp and precise. In another pairing, demonstrators waving flags in the streets of Zurich face a street sign covered with snow and frost, a Swiss flag blows in the background. in yet another of a crowd of spectators face the illuminated march of a piece of machinery - its illusory shadow filling in the ranks. These pairings feel under the influence of Jakob Tuggener, whose work Frank certainly knew. Like Tuggener, Frank tackles the task of seemingly incongruous subject matter and finds a harmony through edit and assembly.

Again and again throughout this portfolio, Frank is not just trying to show his prowess in making images but in pairing them. They define conflicts in life. One boy struggles to climb a rope while a ski jumper is frozen in flight. Fisherman bask in sunlight while two pedestrians are caught in blinding snowfall.

Like the telephone book of self-reference at the beginning, Frank finishes his sequence with a climber reaching the summit of a mountain. He is connected by safety-line to the person making the photograph. The climber looks a little like a young Robert Frank, and if one suspends disbelief for a moment, the bright line of rope caught in the sunlight, leads straight down to a dangling camera lens - tying the young Robert to the medium for which he seemed chosen.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bettie Kline by Richard Prince

In the past twenty-five years I have never looked at one of Franz Kline's paintings and thought, "That might be Bettie Page's vagina." Never happened. Robert Motherwell maybe, but Kline? Richard Prince has a new artist book called Bettie Kline and the content may shift the way you look at Kline's works forevermore.

In the 1950s Irving Klaw had his infamous studio at 212 East 14th street which churned out pin-up photos and stag films featuring his most popular model Bettie Page. I lived for a time on the second floor of 212 in the loft which many of those films and photos were taken and the door of the then uninhabited first floor still had a large decal announcing Klaw's "storefront." I knew of the history but I didn't know that Franz Kline had lived for half a decade in the loft above the one I shared. According to this book, Kline would use many of Klaw's models as figure studies and Page would become Kline's favorite muse - apparently he was head over spiked heels for her.

This book brings together a few dozen of the hundreds of pen and ink sketches Kline produced set aside photographs of Page that were popular wares from Klaw. In retrospect it all makes complete sense. Page's bangs, black garters and bondage gear contrasting with her flash burnt white skin become obvious mash-ups of light and dark that Kline responded to with further abstraction.

Seemingly less a sensual response to body, it is the taught contraptions and ropes which bound Page into contorted poses - the "push and pull" of tension-filled line - that Kline put to paper. In a few, his sketches take on her curvy body with less abstract approach but these are less interesting visually. His strength is when the artist/inspiration relationship is kept secret - a subliminal nod to the calendar girl in large swaths of roughly applied black and grey.

Published by the Gagosian gallery, Bettie Kline is a beautiful book. Exquisitely produced, it is printed as a series of images stuck to the page with cellophane tape. The text, in the form of a typed letter that came out of a letter dropping Olivetti, gives us the history which reads as fact, but the book retains the feeling of a constructed reality where fiction is still a lingering possibility.