Friday, July 30, 2010

720 (Two times around) by Andrew Phelps

“Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential.” - CR Stecyk

"Richard Armijo was kicked out of Whittier (skatepark) again for the last time. Maybe his hair was too short, maybe it was his attitude, maybe he just doesn't care. Things are different this go around because Richard and his friends say they're not going back...Ever." - CR Stecyk

The only other thing I was ever good at in my life before photography was skateboarding. I spent nearly everyday from 1980 to 1989 throwing my body around like a dishrag in roughly paved drainage ditches and halfpipe ramps in Arizona and later New Jersey and New York. Those hardcore years are scarred into my hips and shins. After art school, a part of my life has been spent struggling to stay connected with the feelings I had skating back then. I still kick around a bit and tell myself I "still skate" but it is more in my mind than reality. I was never good enough to gain sponsorship, never liked competing, and now, at 41, suffer a bad knee and the worst of traits a skater can feel, fear. I hold on by watching videos of new generations perform feats on the streets and ramps that my generation couldn't have thought possible. It is a passion, like photography, I imagine I will take to the grave.

I make strong comparisons between skating and photography. Both require large amounts of passion, attention to your surroundings, perseverance and risk taking. I see a skater's line as artistic and improvisational as anything William Forsythe choreographs, as sculptural as Richard Serra, or as mind bending as Matthew Barney. It has creates its own language, both in words and form that is as unique as Kurt Schwitters or John Cage.

There are many books on skateboarding but most fail because they suffer from the same trait that I have succumbed to, nostalgia. Powerhouse Books just published Full Bleed which is a compilation of images from the 70s through the 2000s of east coast skaters tearing up NYC. It's an interesting highlight reel of greatness but nothing more. It leaves me in the past like so many now distant memories, where as Andrew Phelps' newest book 720 (Two times around), a small self-published, spiral-bound book of 16 pictures in an edition of 100, holds more of the actual spirit of skating than any image of Huf or Gonz caught at the apex of a trick.

While photographing in Austria, Phelps discovered an abandoned corporate building which had been infiltrated by skaters. They set up makeshift ramps and obstacles with the aid of a few power tools and ingenuity. Left behind doors unhinged from their frames and upturned desks transform into a playground within the wasteland of empty offices and corridors of failed big business.

There are no skaters present, no "tre-flips" or "blunt slides" being performed. Their presence is felt by the wheel marks on walls and blackened, waxed edges of ledges. The improvisation of construction and the lingering excitement of what must have been felt upon the first run up any of these obstacles hangs in the air. Graffiti on the walls marks a list of the fleeting accomplishments. "Mario bailed" but Phil pulled a "backside crooked grind." That unique language again. For the uninitiated it is nonsensical, but to see a backside crooked grind, that is a universal language.

720 (Two times around) is dedicated to both Mike McGill and Robert Adams. Mike McGill revolutionized skating in the 80s with the invention of a spinning 540 degree air performed 5 feet above the lip of Del Mar skatepark's keyhole bowl. It was a spectacle which stunned onlookers and marked a turning point in skating - perhaps like Adam's The New West marked a turning point in photography. As Phelps concludes in a brief afterword, "When I dream of skating, I'm Mike McGill. When I dream of photographing, I'm Robert Adams." Two very different sources of inspiration, one spectacular and the other deceptively not, both meeting the same outcome to push a medium of expression forward for new generations.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Two books by Mariken Wessels

The last artist book Mariken Wessels published was a narrative of found material she discovered in an Amsterdam shop. Elisabeth - I Want To Eat is an assemblage of old photographs, postcards and letters that describe a young woman's life budding and then, rather shockingly, leading towards depression and, what I read as, an implied suicide. It is a reconstruction which blends some fact with loads of interpretation.

In one of the letters translated from Dutch, Elisabeth's aunt, in an attempt to help Elisabeth think differently about her life writes, "But unpicking yourself, that can be done, why am I doing this, couldn't I do it better (for me and for everyone else) in a slightly different way? Each little thing builds the whole. In accordance with the same system as all matter is built up from molecules and atoms." This suggestion of parsing and twisting the events of her life is also the strategy Wessels employs in these works. We grapple with trying to understand this life presented to us through only a few pieces of ephemera which insists that our own twist of psychology intervene.

Wessels' newest artist book, Queen Ann. P.S. Belly Cut Off from Alauda Publications is a look into a life of a woman named Anneka.

Anneka appears to be a woman haunted by loneliness and obesity yet she puts forth a fun-loving and warm, if at times slightly demented, demeanor. When we are shown recent images of her, she (or the artist) has painted their surfaces with adornments such as brightly colored hats or veils or cut out parts of herself in the pictures with shears. In some, she adds a second coat of lipstick or nail-polish that transforms her into an over-the-top eccentric where we might question her sanity.

In one image from which the title refers, she writes, "In a way I really do feel like a "Queen." I think that fits. Although lacking the wealth but perhaps like our image of famous queens, Ann is also slightly lonely, unsatisfied, and displays vengeful violent streaks which in this case, she plays out on her own image rather than others. She seems to mock even her own ideas of beauty in how she "improves" the picture makes herself presentable - all ribbons and bows with make-up dripping from her eyes.

In both Queen Ann and Elisabeth, sexuality is an overt presence. In Elisabeth a suite of scratched nude photos (think G.P. Fieret) is presented, perhaps made as self-portraits or by a lover. In Queen Ann, photography as a somewhat transgressive act is also included - that of what appears to be a middle interlude of stills from a sex film (with Ann as the star?). This is followed by a more recent image of Ann holding an image of herself as a young attractive teenager - the weight of wishing for the past is felt.

Although melancholy in overall tone, Ann's unique character and playfulness outshine her underlying problems with aging and self image. The last images, shot on super-8 film, show her running and twirling, arms outspread, in a forest. A smile is sensed through the grainy and blurred image just before she disappears behind a stand of trees.

As with many contemporary books from The Netherlands, both of these are beautiful objects. The care and attentiveness to "the book" is felt but never trumps the content. In Elisabeth, English translations from Dutch type-written on green tissue paper are loosely laid in are a wonderful touch, and Queen Ann includes a sealed glassine envelope of 4x6 inch snapshots. It isn't clear if this last element, the glassine, is meant to be torn open or whether the images are meant to be viewed through the translucent paper (the metaphoric haze of memory?). You decide. Maybe in that case, collectors should buy two.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Car Crash Studies 2001-2010 by Raffael Waldner

The skin was broken around the lower edge of the sternum, where the horn boss had been driven upwards by the collapsing engine compartment. A semi-circular bruise marked my chest, a marbled rainbow running from one nipple to the other. During the next week this rainbow moved through a sequence of tone changes like the color spectrum of automobile varnishes. As I looked down at myself I realized that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the patterns of my wounds. - from Crash, J.G. Ballard

I have never been in a car crash. Two friends of mine were once in a nighttime high speed head-on collision - one, the passenger, died immediately; the other, the driver, walked from the car physically unscathed. For years, it wasn't the details of the actual accident that were described to me that I dwelt upon, but the story told to me by my surviving friend when visited the car at the police lot to collect his personal belongings from the interior.

The car had been hit on the right front passenger side because he had instinctively jerked the wheel to the left at the last moment. The passenger seat, with Mike, had been compressed so that it came to rest near the trunk. By my friend's account the entire right side of the car was shorn away but the left side, except for the doors jammed into their casings, looked clean. There was something in his description about the post-violence, the lingering event felt in the crash dust seen in the bright afternoon sun, that was more horrifying and memorable than his descriptions of the moment of impact.

Raffael Waldner's Car Crash Studies 2001-2010 just published by JRP Ringier brought these thoughts back to mind.

For the last decade, Waldner has concentrated on automobiles, photographing "the impact of violence and the way it changes the product." The results of his nighttime ventures into scrapyards photographing wrecks might be seen as a sort of attempted typology of the unpredictable transformation of an object that took place in matters of split-seconds.

His still-lifes, described with large format precision accentuated by strobes, are loaded with the tension between beauty and the horror of the implicit event that occurred. If it sounds or looks cold, it is. His is often the sensibility of a scientist, or an insurance photographer might take to matter-of-factly complete an accident claim. Their simplicity is belied by the new forms of twisted metal, the spider-web of windscreen glass, the scratched and battery-acid burnt paint varnishes that he focuses upon.

A degree of fetish is apparent, both on the part of the photographer and reflecting on car culture. The autos shown here are mostly high-end sports cars of a variety common with associations to wealth, sexuality and vanity on the part of the driver. They are expensive status symbols rendered valueless in an instant - the sexual prowess of the driver left limp in a cabin full of flaccid airbags and useless gear shifts.

Waldner breaks the book into various section starting with the surface damage to the car's skin. Abstract and painterly, these feel more like a conscious artistic decision, something that many of the other images seem to resist. He follows with sections on areas of impact that sequentially move us closer and closer to the details. The last sections are interiors and finally a small suite of engine blocks removed completely from the vehicle. The sequence might suggest a sort of autopsy (no pun intended), moving from outer body to inner and diagnosing the damage to individual organs.

If Waldner's book has one flaw I feel it is in the amount of photographs. It is oddly sits between not being 'Becher-exhaustive' enough to feel like a full exploration of a 'typology' and having too many of one section over another. This might be due not through lack of the photographer having material but from the editing which was done by Christoph Doswald. This is not a crushing blow to how the entire book functions but rather like a small design flaw that might be perceived after several test drives.

Car Crash Studies 2001-2010 includes closing essays by Christoph Doswald and Maik Schluter.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Quatorze Juillet by Johan van der Keuken

My best find while in Europe during the Kassel festival was a new book from Willem van Zoetendaal on Johan van der Keuken called Quatorze Juillet.

In July of 1958, Van der Keuken was wandering through Paris and happened upon a street celebration. A stage had been set up, music was playing, people were dancing and Van der Keuken - like most photographers might - took the opportunity to shoot a few rolls of film. The day resulted in one of his more well-known images of a couple dancing which has made it into several of his books - 6 to be exact including Paris Mortel. Most all of the other negatives were never published.

Quatorze Juillet is a book of the other images he made that day presented in a cinematic sequence which gives a look into a much larger, and delightful, afternoon along the Seine. Edited by Noshka van der Lely and Willem van Zoetendaal this construction of a larger narrative suggests Van der Keuken's interest in "stills that move", a curiosity that would later lead him into film-making.

On page one we encounter a couple, they dance, closely embraced, in a vertical image which isolates them from other dancers and celebrants. As Van der Keuken twirls around them photographing, the larger celebration is revealed. People on the periphery become the new leading players and smaller narratives develop - a man approaches a group of young women, another walks through the frames carrying a long ladder, a car speeds around the corner whooshing through the crowd. Small flirtations take place and the photographer works works like a fly on the wall - testing each frame and trying variations which, in my mind, are as wonderful as the image he finally chose as "his best" from the day. This is not a re-edit of mediocre pictures made better by the inclusion of others.

As with most of Van Zoetendaal's books, the care in making Quatorze Juillet is excellent. The choice of paper stock - an uncoated matte stock - is bound sempuyo-style producing a double thickness of each page.

The printing was done by Calff & Meischke in Amsterdam and while I was visiting Holland I stopped by the printing facilities to visit Freek Kuin who had just finished printing the book after testing out several paper and ink variations. Stacks of proofs laying on the floor revealed slightly different interpretations of tone and contrast. Each looked good on their own but when directly compared, slight shifts of color emerged, the contrasts popped or the ink suppressed details. The final result made apparent the vast choices to be made in book reproduction and Freek is an extremely passionate craftsman in putting ink to paper.

The design is also superb. Van Zoetendaal designs most of his books and the placement of the images on the page in Quatoze Juillet is a fascinating study of design. The images are oriented towards the bottom of the page, not extreme enough to be readily noticeable at first, but it pushes the sequence along, connecting the images and grounding them - amplifying Van der Keuken's vantage point since a few of the pictures were shot from the elevated musician's stage.

I received one of only a handful of advanced bound copies of this book that were made to show in Kassel so I am not sure if the book is officially out yet, but this was made to accompany an exhibition of the work at FOAM in Amsterdam this year. I don't know how many they made but if you can get your hands on one, I doubt it will disappoint.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bernhard and Hilla Becher: Ephemera, Catalogs and Books from Librairie 213

I am finally home again after the second leg of my European tour. Can't say I am happy about that but the photobook burn out I felt after the Kassel Photobook Festival, which started my trip back in May, seems like such a distant memory now. All of my new acquisitions have more or less made it safely to the States and I am going to ease back into regular postings if time permits.

My brain is still recovering from the trip so I thought I would start with a book/catalog which doesn't require much effort from me. It is an overview of ephemera, catalogs and books that have been published on Bernhard and Hilla Becher from Librairie 213.

Librairie 213 is the French book dealer Antoine De Beaupre. Some of you might know him from the Galerie 213 and the slickly designed exhibition catalogs they published in the late 1990s - most notably, one on William Eggleston that has all the plates tipped onto the pages.

This catalog on the Becher's work starts with their earliest appearance in an art magazine review in Die Sonde in 1964 and progresses through their recent books published as late as 2010. Much of the early ephemera such as promotional posters for Anonyme Skulpturen and exhibition announcement cards are the reason to pick this catalog up as many of these items have been lost to history. Last year at Paris Photo Antoine had a framed copy of the Anonyme Skulpturen poster from the Moderna Museet and if expendable income were at my disposal, it would be on my wall right now.

With each entry there is only the most basic of publishing information, all in French, so this teeters between being just a sales catalog (no prices are listed) and a bibliography for Becher scholars. It was printed in an edition of 500 with 50 copies numbered and signed by Hilla Becher.

As with all of Antoine's publications, the design is by Olivier Andreotti of Toluca Studio. At approximately 11 x 11 inches and with high production standards but for the occasional slight Morey patterning in the plates you might over look the 25 euro cover price.

Note: There is no mention of this book on the Librairie 213 website but perhaps email Antoine about getting a copy.

Each year, seemingly made and given free as sales pieces for Paris Photo, Antoine has produced a few other fine catalogs. In 2007, his booklet on 31 Japanese books from 1968 and 1982 is worth looking for if there are any left floating around. Although it is well-trod territory and most of the books won't be a surprise, again the production standards are wonderful.

The same goes for his book on German photobooks En Allemagne from 2008. This one charts an implied timeline of 66 books starting with Renger-Patzsh and Rudolf Schwarz's Wegweigsung der Technik and ending with Jorg
Sasse's D8207. Neither of these last two catalogs specify how many were made.