Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Pile of Good Books

I receive many books in the mail, both ones I have requested and many that I hadn't. Some are revelatory which inspire words and others don't. I even receive many which I like but they don't inspire many words beyond a couple sentences. I usually keep those close by for a few extra weeks, hoping for more thoughts to brew and words to form - most times that doesn't happen and I move on to an easier subject. This post is a list of books that fall into that latter category.

If you are lucky enough to live in Berlin you might discover an issue of Bertrand Fleuret's Remora hanging on a light post or garbage pile. 16 pages of Bertrand's idiosyncratic photographs xeroxed for the masses to enjoy, ignore, tear apart or mistakenly piss on. Each is like a hand in the water signaling where the ship has sunk.

Mike Slack's High Tide was published in a very limited number (75 copies) by The Ice Plant in 2006. Mike's brilliant trilogy of books OKOKOK, Scorpio, and Pyramids feature his quirky polaroids of small details which fill the world with meaning. High Tide is a small catalog of polaroids made off TV screens of actors in close-up and with eyes closed. More like meditating than acting, each seems to have momentarily dropped their profession and found a personal truth.

Ed Templeton's Coming to Grips was released in an edition of 500 by the Japanese publisher Super Labo in 2009. Coming to Grips is a small 28 page booklet/'zine of portraits of Templeton's friends looking like they hit life head on. The physically damage is metaphor for the psychological within a community where innocence is lost quickly. Not so much a warning but a celebration of lives lived mostly on their own terms.

Lucia Nimcova's Unofficial published by Zoneattive Edizioni, 2008 (ISBN: 88-89303-08-5) is two books in a cardboard box which question the legacy of socialism in Nimcova's hometown of Humenné, Slovakia. One book is of mostly black and white photographs made throughout the 1980s by Juraj Kammer - a contracted professional photographer who documented social and political events.

The other book is made of contemporary color photographs taken by Lucia Nimcova, some of which comment on the imagined political power and lack of credible influence indicative of the town's leaders.

Guadalupe Gaona's Pozo de Aire (Well of Air) published by Vox in 2009 (ISBN: 978-987-1073-24-5) is a small hardcover book of image and poetry about memory, loss, and family. The elephant in the room is the disappearance of Gaona's father to the hand's of the military junta of Argentina in 1977 but Pozo de Aire isn't saturated with the overdramatic which could so easily taint such a project. Instead, the family summer villa on a lake in the mountains provides a meditative setting where old family photos flashback and present photos question the tranquility of the surroundings.

Terri Weifenbach's Another Summer sits in interesting relation to Pozo de Aire. Published by The Thunderstorm Press in 2009 (ISBN: 0-9841944-0-1) Another Summer is a small book of Weifenbach's recent work, directly personal it is centered around a summer holiday and discoveries made by a couple of bleach blond children. One gets the sense of Weifenbach trying to use photography to stave off time and remain in what seems to be an idyllic setting for growth and learning for these two children. For me, it achieves a melancholy increased by nostalgia that is hard to take - what does that say about me?

Thomas Manneke's Vilnius was published in 2006 by Artimo (ISBN: 90-8546-050-6). For 4 months Manneke lived in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, photographing without a plan and "wherever people would take me." The result is a partial portrait of a city and its youth culture in transition now that the state has become a part of the European Union. As with Manneke's other book Odessa (Schaden, 2008), many of the portraits are of young women - most seem to have become his muses.

Wout Berger's Like Birds was published in 2009 by Galerie van Kranendonk (ISBN: 978-90-72697-09-7). In Like Birds Berger drops his view camera to the ground for often exquisitely beautiful, spatially confusing photographs of plant life. I find the book oddly inconsistent with half of the photographs inspired and surprising and the other half familiar and ordinary. A brief suite of pictures made of cityscapes might be introducing the notion of man's negative impact on nature but the vibrancy of color and wealth of the plant life belies such a reading.

On sending books for review: I really appreciate people's generosity but I would rather not receive books without request. I respect too much the passion, money and effort involved in making any book that it makes me feel bad when something shows up unannounced and doesn't appeal to my fickle tastes. You are welcome to send an email introduction but realize that the chances something will inspire a posting are very slim and I would rather save you the expense and waste of a book. Thank you for your understanding.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Distance and Slow Boat by Onaka Koji

Yutaka Takanashi in an interview once described his approach while working on Toshi-e as, "...two conflicting creatures settled into my body. One is a 'hunter of images', aiming exclusively to shoot down the invisible, and the other is a 'scrap picker' who can only believe in what is visible." Onaka Koji, a contemporary scrap picker to Takanashi has produced several books over the past ten years, of which, Slow Boat and Distance are my favorites.

In Distance, a book published in 1996 by Mole, Koji wanders to the outskirts of an unspecified city and into its industrial wastelands. His photos rejoice in the weighty infrastructure of rail lines, roadways, and finally the worn down port where ships sit awaiting the next economic boom.

Aptly named, Distance feels like the eyes of a wanderer who is alone and wishes to remain to his own discoveries. Whether that be lines of oil drums on a deserted path or a view of a bus station and telephone lines made through a filthy window. There is a connection with place but not with the population. people are seen but they are reduced to gestures - a reminder that this isn't a beautiful apocalypse but a functioning, living city.

His black and white tonalities are rich and dense - at moments Koudelka might be lurking in the heavy shadows. The printing of Distance accentuates the heaviness and in general, is not a great book beyond the stunning photos. Its cover is atrociously designed with heavy-handed silver foil typography and a textured stock but don't let that spoil the photographs.

Distance is long out-of-print and way overpriced on the secondary book market so I recommend Slow Boat as a fine alternative. Published originally in 2003 and re-published by Schaden in 2008, Slow Boat would have made my 'best of' list for that year if I had known about it.

Again, Koji is a distanced observer of life both within and at the margins of another unspecified city. Much of this work was rediscovered by Koji and appealed to his sense that he had no recognition or memory of making them. He also makes mention of assembling the sequence not with a logical framework in mind but "just in accordance with my own feelings at the time."

Compared to Distance, the complicated framing remains but his tonal scale in Slow Boat has shifted slightly to an overall greyish cast. This veil of flatness creates a calmer mood suited to what appear to be lazy days within the city. There doesn't seem to be work being done (none is directly shown) and when pedestrians are in the streets, they tranquilly stroll along under tangles of electric and phone lines.

I see a kinship between Yutaka Takanashi and Onaka Koji in both practice and descriptions of contemporary life in Japan. Takanashi raced toward Tokyo in a sports car describing the landscape as a fleeting moment blurring at the edges, while in a couple of Koji's images a blimp can be seen, drifting over the city - its airy flight setting a different pace towards the city.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Three books from Willem Van Zoetendaal

Willem Van Zoetendaal is a publisher, gallerist and designer from Amsterdam who is responsible for releasing an interesting roster of books of contemporary Dutch photography. He came to my attention because of his elegant design skills and book production. Some of you may already have some of his book titles in your collections as he has published a couple of Paul Kooiker and Arno Nolan's artist books.

My favorite of Paul Kooiker's to date is Room Service released in 2008. Kooiker has published a few books in a series which take on full bodied nudes as a subject and Room Service does so with them posing in front of what I gather is his personal book collection. His approach is tight framings of torsos, legs and breasts that are at times reminiscent of Brandt - that is, if Brandt had just completed a workshop with Elmer Batters or G.P. Fieret.

Their charm is locked in the technically rough descriptions which allow flare, unnatural color fading, and ultra roughly screened print reproductions. For book lovers, there is a tension between which gains the most attention, the nudes, or our inherent interest in scanning bookcases for recognizable titles.

The third aspect of the work is the printing. Many of these seem to be rescanned images from offset prints as the dot patterns are huge, often reveling their four color matrix. For those who enjoy the quirks and superficial qualities of ink laying on paper, this one is a must see.

Another interesting title although entirely in Dutch with no English translations is Salto Mortale. Salto Mortale means a "dangerous undertaking" and charts the life of the Dutch owned airline company Fokker which dominated civil aviation from 1912 to 1996, the year they went bankrupt.

Using around 150 archive photos mostly from the 20s and 30s (and a lot of text), Salto Mortale explores the earliest plane designs and adaptations which led the company into producing many military aircraft used in World War 1 including the Fokker Dr.1 which was made famous by the German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, commonly known as the Red Baron.

Again, the lack of my ability to read the text is the downside of this book as it is very text heavy, but the beautiful archive photos make it an interesting find.

One last title to mention, Das Prinzip by Johannes Schwartz has me at a slight loss for explanation. The first publication from Schwartz, it presents one image each from several of his series. As a selection, I am drawn to his individual photographs but the larger relationship implied by the title is purposely confusing. The curator Moritz Kung mentions in his essay that accompanies the book, "Das Prinzip (The Principle) suggests a truth or a dogma, which is however not present in the various works... Unless of course one were to define 'deceptiveness' as a principle."

Schwartz turns his lens to still lifes which may be constructions in some cases, and others 'found' encounters with objects in others. I am reminded of some of Jeff Wall's non-personed compositions but Schwartz draws out their narrative and potential complexity through the titles of each work. Overgrown weeds and dirt might be alluding to floral patterns found in carpets in his work Scattered Rug (2005). His photos of children's playhouses lose their innocent qualities and take on a darker edge from their rough and makeshift appearances. In Das Meer (The Lake, 2004) pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are scattered on an aqua surface, within the chaos several rectangles of completed sections sit turned upside down.

What each adds up to or connects them is ambiguous and that is obviously Schwartz's strategy. On the surface this might appear to be a simple exhibition catalog with its cool and somewhat detached presentation but turning from page to page, we strive to search out those connections. What we are left with are a series of detached realities which accomplish what many books don't - Das Prinzip compels me to think.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lost Boy Mountain by Lester B. Morrison

Phone call recorded by Mr. Whiskets to Lester B. Morrison on 1/29/2010.

Whiskets: Les, the tape is rolling. Can you still hear me? I can barely hear you now.

LBM: Yeah, loud and clear. What do you want to know?

Whiskets: OK, so I got your new book in the mail. Is there any background about yourself you want to fill me in on?

LBM: Well, maybe it makes sense... (tape inaudible) ...I dropped out of the University of Rochester in 1991. I was sort of a local pariah in Rochester so I decided to move back to Minnesota. In my spare time I started to write my novel Lost Boy Mountain. I've been working on it for the last 19 years.

Whiskets: Is that how you met Alec? In Minnesota?

LBM: Soth? Yeah, I knew him a long time ago. I was a few years ahead of him in high school. We reconnected when I moved back.

Whiskets: What do you do for work? Are you an artist?

LBM: Not really. When I moved back I desperately needed some work and as I'd had some bio lab experience in college, I figured I might try to land a something at the teaching hospital but unfortunately my sketchy past came back to haunt me.

Whiskets: Sketchy past?

LBM: In college I designed an experiment that proposed to attenuate a certain strain of bacteria using gibberellin, a plant growth hormone. I didn't know much about the biochemistry, but I figured that, bacteria being simple plants, this stuff might do weird things to other organisms. It sure grew big fuckin' watermelons! Only problem was, I picked an organism called Pasturella Avicida for my test case - its common name is fowl cholera but I didn't know that. If it had gotten loose, it could easily have wasted all of Rochester's bird populace. Thanks to the superior wisdom of the lab director, that didn't happen, but for a long time afterwards, every time I'd see a dead bird I'd weep like a newborn. I did manage to smuggle out five grams of pharmaceutically pure gibberelic acid. I guess I could have grown some killer tomatoes, but I finally lost the stuff. Message to self: Check pockets before doing laundry.

Whiskets: Can you repeat why you dropped out of college? I think the tape didn't record that.

LBM: In my sophomore year I started doing psychedelics in a rather serious way. Some friends got hold of a bunch of Sandoz tabs. Sandoz was the only pharmaceutical outfit ever to produce pure lysergic acid diethylamide-25 and ergotamine in a form that looked like Pop-Rocks. Ergotamine comes from a fungal rust that grows on certain cereal grains. In high doses can cause vascular stasis, thrombosis and gangrene. That's how my buddy Ben lost his foot and resulted in me having extreme panic attacks that forced me to drop out of school. Well, that and the foul cholera episode. When it isn't turning you into a leper, the ergotamine slots so perfectly into the complex serotonin metabolism of the primate cortex. Brings about some random stochastic happenstance, some entropic slippage where - although you have the taste of cat piss in your mouth - you also find yourself trying to poke out the eyes of god. The morning after my first trip, I finally understood colors.

Whiskets: Ergotamine Pop Rocks?

LBM:Yeah, that shit's crazy, I haven't touched it after Ben lost his foot. Last year I got my hands on an entire pint of liquid LSD. This was the stuff that freaks in California were using to make blotter acid back in the 60s. But I had to be different, blotter acid and tie-dye isn't my speed. I decided to bottle the stuff mixed with dimethyl sulfoxide. That way, just touching will start you on the way to squeegeeing your third eye. I decided to make some quick cash so I crafted my own burette out of the tube of a Bic pen and marked up graduations up the side indicating how much liquid is in the thing. I attached a stopcock arrangement at the bottom so I could portion out small quantities into these tiny amber bottles.

Whiskets: You were selling liquid LSD mixed with DMSO?

LBM: It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. But damn, it was painstaking work filling those hundreds of tiny bottles. Turn the stopcock just a little, drizzle one full, cap it, next. There did get to be a rhythm to it after a while. But nothing is perfect because each time, a little bit would dribble down the side of the vial, and pretty soon my fingers were drenched. I couldn't wipe it off - this stuff was precious - so I just let it build up into a sticky goo, eventually it completely covered my hands. With the DMSO mixed in, I was tripping pretty much 24 hours a day.

Skin is porous you know. It actually breathes, which is why you will die if you paint yourself all over. I wasn't dying exactly, but my hands were starting to breathe. And I mean like, BREATHING. It was fascinating just watching them, but I had a hundred vials left to fill and I needed all my concentration. Without it, I knew there was a high probability I'd be counting the molecules in the tabletop inside of a couple minutes. But oh man, it was getting difficult. Little peripheral flashes at first, you know? Those darters you get? And then there was that optic nerve thing. I could close my eyes, sort of bear down on the muscles behind my forehead and an electric purple Major Fifth chord would arc across the inside of my skull.

I got nearly all the bottles filled before I started floating out of my body. The tension was incredible. Like before a storm. Big thunderheads rolling in, the temperature is dropping and the wind comes up, turning the leaves over the way it does, rustling through your hair and clothes. I couldn't stand it any longer. I licked my hands all over, drank what was left in the burette, then knocked back a couple vials just to make sure I'd be good and dosed. I still have super-power acid night vision, cognitive invisibility and... (phone disconnects) (tape ends)

Editor's note: Lester's book Lost Boy Mountain comes in a baggie filled with what looks like floor sweepings. I do not advise you handle it for prolonged periods of time.