Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blackout New York by Rene Burri

On November 9th, 1965, a Northeast power failure effected, New York State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey and even parts of Ontario, Canada. It was said that over 25 million people were caught in the early evening blackout which lasted until the morning hours of the following day. The cause was a wrongly inserted relay switch in a power station near Niagara Falls. Rene Burri ventured out into the darkness with a handful of films to photograph and the resulting images have been published in a limited edition, Blackout New York from Moser books.

Photographing only by flashlight, candle light, or car light, Burri pointed his camera at the stranded commuters as they try to deal with the situation. Some gather in Grand Central to wait it out while others pack onto buses and cabs to find their way home. There is the suggestion of nervousness but panic isn't present.

Looking through Blackout New York, one starts to notice how small amounts of light - providing the minimum amount of information - spur the mind to fill in the bigger picture. Burri's slow black and white films, push-processed to build density in any middle-tone and highlight in the exposure results in super contrasty images that are often abstract. In one only a hand holding a lighter to the dial of a phone is recorded surrounded by vast amounts of black. The opening image features several people barely registered on the film, mostly described by flashes of white from their shirt collars. It takes us a few moments to adjust to these pictures. In a funny way this book is also partly about photography's technical limitations under these extreme conditions.

There is a fine line between underexposed images that succeed despite their flaw and those that succumb to it. In this edit there are a few images that just aren't resolved enough to merit inclusion - the aforementioned opening image for instance. When there is enough of a record made, the images glow from various light sources and people appear like apparitions out of the velvety black.

Nicely printed, Blackout New York reproduces the images as mostly double page spreads which means they run across the gutter. This design choice is distracting as the images, due to their limited detail, need fewer hurdles for us to jump over to decipher them.

At Arles last year I heard that Burri had an installation in a blackened room where the viewers were given flashlights to view these photographs. I didn't see the show but I can guess that would be an interesting way to experience these photos. In the dark with a slight sensation of unease resting on your shoulders. Your flashlight in front of you darting here and there, trying to pick up what little there is to see.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith (Reprint) by Jason Eskenazi

Originally Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith was published by De.MO but only half the print run was realized so it sold out quickly and disappeared from everyone's radar far too quickly. Jason has taken on the task of reprinting another run so that those who missed out on the first round can easily acquire a copy now through his publishing company Red Hook Editions. Ordering info can be found here. Below is my original review from July of 2008.

Jason Eskenazi's Wonderland, A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith is the culmination of ten years worth of work describing aspects of contemporary life behind the Iron Curtain. Taking a page from literary fairy tales and children's stories, Wonderland is structured - less as a documentary project - and more as a metaphoric journey into the quirky landscape of the former super power as it shifts from a communist empire to a wild mix of deeply rooted traditions holding out against creeping influence of the west.

Eskenazi, a Guggenheim fellow, opens the book with an image of a woman's back as she pensively looks out an apartment window overlooking Red Square. The flowery patterns of lace curtains hang over our protagonist as a reminder of innocence or perhaps idealism as the real world outside draws her attention. The sequence quickly evolves into the traditional storyline of a fairy tale - a young child is thrust into the world to fend for herself in an almost hallucinatory state, losing her innocence in an unsheltered world.

As the photographer, Eskenazi steers her journey to reflect the changes taking place within the empire. The agrarian culture seems to be far outdated while the more modern industrial infrastructure collapses. The women change from timid peasants covered head to toe in traditional worker garb into miniskirt wearing, hyper-sexualized beings. The only structure that seems to remain strong is with the military where men exercise and wear crisp uniforms but to defend what? An ideology or an empire now split into individual states?

Lingering remnants of statues, now headless, the slaughtering of a goat, and a barber shaving a man's neck are brilliantly sequenced to remind us that the head is now coming off and the state is dissolving into the fantastic. Our protagonist experiences war, poverty, drug addiction and rape while ballerinas and princesses appear in working in factories or wandering through dingy stairwells.

The style of Eskenazi's photography follows the lead of the likes of Gilles Peress -- an accomplishment considering the plethora of bad photojournalism that is far too wrapped up in visual geometry and gymnastics at the expense of deeper content. Eskenazi has learned to make compelling photographs that have the strength of both form and content.

Although my description may make it seem like a complete downer, Wonderland isn't a harsh book on the surface a'la Nachtwey or Richards. The deeper meaning may be dark but like a children's story, it is delivered with the rhythm of adventure into a landscape of the mysterious.

Funded in part by the Joy of Giving Something Foundation, Wonderland has a handcrafted feel to the design with an uncovered book-board cover and exposed spine. My only real criticism would lie with the trim size. At only around 5X7 inches, it seems like larger work forced into too small of a package. A small criticism but noteworthy.

Stalin had once said "We were born to make fairy tales come true." When the wall finally fell it was clear that the fantasy had not been realized to what was promised. As he writes, Eskenazi explored through its remnants "searching for metaphors but realizing, too late, that I had brought my own when I first arrived. And now that it's time to leave, I sit for a few moments on the edge of the bed to assure safe travel, as the Russians do, just before I lock the door, unable to return to what perhaps never was."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Long Live the Large Family by Carl Johan de Geer

The accomplishments of Carl Johan de Geer are far and wide. Photographer, filmmaker, painter, musician, television show creator, novelist, silk screen artist, textile designer, editor of the counter-cultural mag Puss (Kiss) and general outspoken critic of political and social elites. Never heard of him? That isn't uncommon apparently. A week ago I hadn't either.

Geer's book of photographs from 1980 Med Kameran Som Tröst (The Camera as Consolation) looks like one of the undiscovered greats of Scandinavian photography. Four photos to a page - life laid out in quadrants. A new 'zine-style publication from Dashwood Books and the Boo-Hooray Gallery called Long Live the Large Family gives a sense of his extended family from the mid-60s and the early 70s with a similar flavor.

Geer was born into one of Sweden's most powerful families but in the late-50s he started to work against his privilege within the subculture of Sweden's underground art community. His bohemian friends in Stockholm became his camera's subject as they rallied against the status quo with political critiques and sexual openness.

His "style" is that of a quick-handed snapshot. I wouldn't go as far as saying these are great photos individually but together they weave a tone as free and pleasurable as the idea of youth itself. This is not the bitter tears of Nan Goldin twenty years before with the needle and the damage done but a Leftist romp embracing creativity and exuberance among friends. It all has the spirit of change about to happen instead of the capitulation of self medication.

Long Live the Family is a 40 page, staple bound 'zine printed on heavy paper. Its printing isn't perfect but that would be missing the point. It remains as immediate and non-conformist as the subject requires. The reproductions were made from four image panels which make up photo collages he created for a 1979 exhibition at the MoMA in Stockholm. Long Live the Large Family was published in an edition of 250 copies.

For those of you in NYC, check out the exhibition at Boo-Hooray c/o Steven Kasher Gallery at 521 West 23rd street between 10th and 11th avenues. There will be a closing party this Saturday from 6-8pm. Go and check out Carl Johan's books on display, a small archive from Puss magazine, material from the Galleri Karlsson, and the great political silk screen posters that line the walls. Beer and sandwiches have been mentioned.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Maps by Nicholas Calcott

The 12th Press is a Paris-based publisher which is focusing on small edition photobooks and 'zines. Recently I picked up a copy of their newest publication Maps from Nicholas Calcott, the owner of 12th Press.

Calcott is the author of Maps but his name doesn't appear in or on the book at all - call him an archivist hidden well from view. Maps consists of 10 aerial photographs made over Poland and Eastern Germany by the Luftwaffe just before World War II.

Like satellite surveillance images or those from moon exploration, these photos become abstractions which with the overlying grid and imposition of city names, becomes a fascinating mix of image, text and line.

Farmlands - I assume (or forests maybe) - from this vantage point, are described as varying shades of grey butted against one another like planks of wood. Each photo must represent hundreds of miles worth of area and an interesting aspect for me is seeing how man effects the landscape. In some, chaos reigns from this god's eye view, while in others, man somehow managed to create a beautiful tapestry.

Introducing the information (at the end) that these images were shot by the Luftwaffe obviously taints how we look at these images and the thoughts that follow. German planes effectively bombed many cities in Poland into submission in September 1939. Bombing sorties and the lay of the land were determined by these same maps. Calcott gathered this material from the German Federal Archives.

Maps is handmade with rich inkjet printed 12" square plates on very heavy paper. It is screwpost bound and issued in an edition of 100. More info can be found at the 12th Press website.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fallen Books by Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson

A few years ago I was in Mexico enjoying a great jalapeno-induced mindfuck when I awoke to my bed rocking violently back and forth for a couple seconds. I wasn't sure I hadn't dreamt it until I saw through the darkness of the room the ceiling light slowing from a wide sway. In the morning I asked my wife if she felt the quake since, at the time, her gentle snore hadn't skipped a breath. She said anything she could sleep through wasn't a "real" earthquake even if the earth done quaketh. She's from Mexico City. For her, anything under 6 point 5 is either your imagination or gas.

For those living in areas with heavy seismic activity a common experience might be reshelving books that have toppled from bookcases. A new artist book from Aaron S. Davidson and Melissa Dubbin called Fallen Books explores images taken in libraries after earthquakes have done their worst to the Dewey Decimal System.

Davidson and Dubbin have organized their archive according to a modified Mercalli Scale, a graphic alternative to the Richter Scale that quantifies how strongly an earthquake effects the surface of the earth. Its color code indicates the intensity of the quake as it ripples out from the epicenter. Each photo is accompanied by basic information of date, place and library name. The back of each page is printed with the color as each episode corresponds to the Mercalli Scale.

In their statement, Davidson and Dubbin start by saying that "Books are earthquake proof." A seemingly confusing sentence that leaves me uncertain about what they mean. Many books are damaged to the point of being unusable - spines broken and book blocks wrenched from their cover-boards after great falls. They are hardly "earthquake proof," but I won't dwell on that.

What I will dwell upon is the way the artists chose to reproduce the photographs in what would otherwise be a fascinating book. The images, culled from various sources, are snapshots. They were made a straight documentation of the damage. Bookcases listing heavily off center and piles of books flowing into the aisles described with the passionless eye of an insurance agent. That to me is interesting but the oversized line screen and dot patterns in the reproductions reduce the quality too much for my tastes. Certainly this was a conscious choice and not simply a technical factor.

Fallen Books was published in an edition of 500 copies by Onestar Press. For those who know the publisher, they have put out mostly print-on-demand style books which conform in size and general quality but cover a large artistic range. Interestingly this title (and the recent book from Monica Haller, Riley's Story) departs with an inventive design by Francesca Grassi. Bound with metal screwposts and using uncoated paper stock, my disappointment with the image quality is abated somewhat by the form.

I want to like Fallen Books partly because of the subject but also because it allows a freak like me to take a perverse, vicarious pleasure in thinking of the horror I'd face of finding my own library in piles on the floor. It works on both counts to a point, but the faults leave this hardly earth-shattering.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Nothing But Home by Sebastien Girard

In addition to Alec Soth's Allowing Flowers, the second book about home I'd like to mention is the Toulouse-based photographer Sebastien Girard's new Nothing But Home. Self-published in November of 2009, this made my best of the year list and was one of the only books that I brought home from Paris Photo.

Nothing But Home opens with wall-paper patterned endpages and the quote: "The simplest way is to take up everything again from the beginning, lie down on the grass, and start over, as if one knew nothing." What follows is an almost clinical examination of small details made while Girard's home was being renovated. His style is at times cool and detached and very claustrophobic. He describes with the eye of a building inspector, examining each imperfection which will need attending to during the construction; a paint drip on old faded wallpaper, dangerous bent nails sticking out of a wall joist, loose and wild wiring sprouting from a light socket.

Girard allows no breathing room in these photos. Perhaps metaphor for the extreme personal attention one gives to rebuilding of home, he keeps his framing tight. The artificial lighting gives the perception that all of the handy work is happening at night - a clandestine operation of transformation.

He provides no "before and after" photographs - we don't know the lay of the land at all. The closest to such an establishing shot is a photo of a stove top with rusty burners upon which sits a photo of a man's den complete with leather bound books, a brandy bottle and a roaring fireplace. If that photo represents the desired end-point then we have a very long journey clouded in spackle dust ahead.

Nothing But Home has the feel of many wonderful spare books coming from Amsterdam. Clean in design , it was bound in Holland but finely printed in Girard's hometown of Toulouse. It is in a first edition of 500 and also comes in a special edition of 100 copies with a print.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Allowing Flowers by Alec Soth

With the economic crisis and the toll on the housing market we saw and heard hundreds of stories about families facing foreclosure, eviction and/or homelessness. Photographers tried to tell many of those stories through their pictures - to put the human face to the catchphrase of "main street." A noble thing to do, but those stories do little to put people back in their houses or help with the difficultly of such a rapid change to people's lives. Finding a way to give back to your community through your photography is something few have been able to achieve, but Alec Soth has found one.

Alec has teamed up with a Minnesota-based non-profit housing developer called CommonBond Communities with the goal of providing 4000 affordable apartments and townhouses to needy residents of the Upper Midwest. Alec photographed some of the residents of the CommonBond homes and produced a beautiful book called Allowing Flowers that is given away as a gift to people who donate significant sums to the effort.

Soth uses flowers as a motif as they appear in one form or another in each photograph. The metaphor is obvious but appropriate. These homes are grounds to grow and brighten lives.

The few portraits that are taken where we can see some of the interior spaces also seem to be describing lives in transition - they start to ask when a "house" becomes a "home." In one photograph a man at the far left edge watches his sleeping child laying on the floor, in the background, framed photos rest on the floor instead of hanging on the wall. In another, a woman sits at the table in her dining room which is so pristine and tidy, the lack of signs of wear is almost a little sad.

Other photos feature portraits made outside in the communities - a family lays on a perfect patch of green grass in one where Alec is channeling the best qualities of Nicholas Nixon. In another, a woman partly obscured by a tree walks a pure white cat.

I feel odd "reviewing" this book when the real accomplishment is in the funds it will raise for this housing project. The book is available to those who donate $5000.00 to CommonBond (a $25,000 donation gets you a book and a print). Each copy is unique due to the screen printed cover boards and the interior printing is finely done by Trifolio in Verona. The ultra-clean design is by Catherine Mills.

Most of us probably won't have the money to put towards this fine effort. At least not enough to get the book as a gift, but for the few that might - it's not about the book, it's about a home.