Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Paris: Carnet de Recherche by Krass Clement

Seeing the name Paris scream across the cover of Krass Clement's newest book Paris: Carnet de Recherche I braced myself for disappointment. The "home" of street photography has produced numerous books in the past which find themselves amounting to little beyond "greatest hits" collections of images offering syrupy nostalgia and no surprise. Clement is well aware of those familiar trappings - perhaps that is why the cover image printed right on the book's cloth shows a romantic Paris metro X-d out by a couple of steel girders. His is an uphill battle which I am delighted to see proves he is an artist who tests our expectations.

As in the best of Clement's books, Paris: Carnet de Recherche is a personal journey. Starting with a suite of images entering the city by train, we pass by cold landscapes of factories in dense grey light. Upon arrival, the city itself and its citizens appear weighed down and sluggish. Light seems to fight to illuminate the architecture and streets. It is hardly a warm arrival - our first destination - an empty cafe.

Photographed in both 35mm and square formats, Clement weaves through the city lingering for moments on small sequences of images - a woman improvises a dance in a bar that briefly lightens the mood; a protest in the streets led by youth. Interspersed are a few intimate images of women in hotel rooms, perhaps we are not traveling alone but our wanderings in the streets seem perceived through the eyes of someone longing for connection. Less for connection to place but for people.

In many of Clement's books of the past there is an obvious filmic quality. The repetition of images allows the subtlety of events to play out with surprising result without feeling indulgent. Following the gestures of a man swallowing a drink while two women gossip in the background is resonant in its simplicity. There is less of that "step by step" quality here which I find often so powerful, but I suppose it is due to when these images were made in his life as a photographer. Photographed in the 60s and 70s these would consist of early works of Clement's perhaps done before he was fully conscious of the methods he would employ in his later work and bookcraft. Here the sequence at times feels like a stream of jump-cuts and can appear sporadic. This might have been a fatal flaw to the book had Clement not been the great photographer he is. Still, he finds the connections between the individual frames to form links that, for the observant, will not disappoint. The end picture of a sequence of nighttime streets protests of youths burning a car is of a small wedding party where the wedding dress and veil reflect the previous conflagration. In another pairing, a woman on a subway hangs on the arm of a lover while on the facing page, a woman supports a dress she is offering for sale at a street market.

Bookwise, Paris: Carnet de Recherche is beautifully done. The publisher Gyldendal which releases many of Clemen't books has again done a superb job with design and printing. One relief is that there is no introductory text nor afterword - the photographs are allowed to stand on their own as an open-ended journey.

Clement's Novemberreisse from 2008 was one of my favorite books of the year and I was happy to see Paris: Carnet de Recherche appear as a "best of" suggestion by a couple people in the comments of my 2010 list. It was a steady contender for inclusion on mine as well but it has taken me some extra time to fully appreciate its nuances. Like most of Clement's best, it is a slow and quiet burn that lingers long after the covers are closed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Dear Knights and Dark Horses by Thomas Roma

"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." - Thomas Wolfe

In 2005 I agreed to make some photographs for a non-profit organization concerned with returning veterans who were facing homlessness. For various reasons they had fallen through most societal safety nets after being denied their military benefits and were then living in shelters or worse, on the streets of New York. I was put in touch with a man living on Staten Island who's disability benefits had been revoked. What he did initially get in benefits from the government was now being asked to be paid back. Broke and unemployed, he and his young family were facing eviction from their home.

We talked and smoked cigarettes on his front porch while I made a handful of pictures. He was 29 and had spent two tours of duty in combat in Iraq. He spoke openly and even with excitement about his friends who were still serving as if he had just returned from an amazing and successful fishing trip. He asked if I would like to see some of his photographs.

On his laptop he previewed for me hundreds of images; his friends posing with futuristic weaponry and displaying a bravado that belied any apprehension. Interspersed were dozens of images of bodies of Iraqis strewn along the roadsides and in ditches. I say the word "bodies" but they looked more like rumpled bedsheets of skin with a limb or bone protruding indicating it was once a human being. He revealed no emotion but his pace slowed to half time, lingering on the photos of the bodies longer than his friends. I masked my inability to stomach his slideshow by staring at his hand working the computer mouse. I asked him if he looked at these pictures often and he said "all the time." Almost sounding hurt he added that his wife wouldn't look at them with him. He also mentioned he wished he could go back and serve a third tour or longer. He had found something inside himself there that he seemed to long for now that he was safe at home. I think of that man as I look through Thomas Roma's book Dear Knights and Dark Horses published this year by Powerhouse.

How photographers shape their personal protests vary greatly. Some book a flight and search out access to war to photograph directly and other do so in a more nuanced way. Roma is not a photojournalist. His book is a quieter, less immediately sensational protest, but none the less powerful. For those unaware, Roma has been photographing in Brooklyn for thirty years and is a prolific bookmaker. He is not a world traveller and rarely leaves home to make photographs. What connects him to home, his values, and desires, is woven into the texture of his pictures.

In January of 2004 Roma photographed Army National Guardsmen of the 258th Field Artillery Regiment as they were about to be deployed to Iraq from Jamaica, Queens in New York City. He pairs these portraits with a collection of pictures of coin-operated pony rides that can be found outside of many convenience markets and drug stores in his home city of Brooklyn. Divided in the book - the pony rides first, then the soldier portraits afterward - the pictures metaphorically comment on bravery, past youth and the moment felt when required to leave home. It avoids glamorizing war and bravery, instead concentrating on the individuals without depicting them with pity. These are the same men we sit next to on the subway, stand in line behind at the bank, or work beside.

If we associate youth with going to war, one will be surprised to see that a majority of these portraits are of men who appear to be older than expected. Perhaps some signed up for the National Guard with the intention of taking advantage of college money or a paycheck, playing the odds that history wouldn't thrust them into combat. Decked out in fatigues and loaded down with equipment, there is a weighty sluggishness present in the postures which I find unsettling. They are momentarily frozen like their dime-store counterparts waiting to be set into action. In front of Roma's camera, they look off towards an uncertain future while background details sometimes foreshadow their vulnerability. In one image, a ghostly disembodied leg marches through Roma's slow exposure.

The size, the sing-song title, and the simplicity of presentation of Dear Knights and Dark Horses, share qualities that might bring to mind it is book meant for children. One could argue it is. It is a parable of how experiences change our lives. Most of us will never go to war, our lives will change and our perspectives shift through less life threatening means. War however seems to change people like a blunt instrument. Like the man I met in 2005, they come back changed forever.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream by Jindřich Štyrský

While in Prague last Spring I found a facsimile reprint of Jindřich Štyrský's Emilie přichází ke mně ve snu (Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream) published by Torst in 2001.

Originally published in 1933, only approximately 20 known copies remain of Emilie přichází ke mně ve snu. Štyrský was a painter, poet, photographer, collage artist and editor. A founding member of The Surrealist Group of Chechoslovakia he edited for the Erotiká Revue that included illustrations by well-known Czech artists and had an imprint called Edice 69 (Edition 69) where Emilie přichází ke mně ve snu appeared as volume 6.

Štyrský was fascinated by dreams and recorded his own through writing, and later, drawings. For him, the dream state was a storehouse of motifs that he would join together in collage and painting until his death in 1942.

Styrsky's imagery is a blurring between the erotic and the morbid. Using hardcore porn clipped from German and English stereo-cards and books, Styrsky disassociates sex from procreation and conceives of it from a purely pleasure giving point of view. The incongruous elements of plant details, a parachute and starry backgrounds emphasize the orgasmic while skeletons, men in gas masks, coffins and disembodied eyes draw a more sinister tone. Styrsky may have been poking fun at puritans who certainly would have been enraged by the montages by including the darker elements. As Bohuslav Brouk wrote in his afterword for Emilie; "People who hide their sexuality despise their innate capabilities without being able to rise above them. They deny their mortality...Any illusion to to their animality, not only in life, but also in science, literature and art, wounds them because it disturbs their day-dreaming."

This reprint brings together 12 photo-montage, the introductory erotic dreamscape written by Styrsky about Emilie, the afterword by Brouk and a modern essay by Karel Srp written in 2001. The original edition included just 10 photomontages, Styrky's story and the Brouk afterword. Two plates from the series which were edited out of the original might have been excluded because of suspected child pornography. Those two have been included here.

The book is printed on paper I imagine was chosen to reflect the original, it is matte in finish and the typesetting seems to also reflect the older edition as well. The original however consisted of the ten plates tipped onto the page and not printed.

Another edition I discovered of Emilie přichází ke mně ve snu was printed for the Ubu Gallery in 1997. This edition features a black cover, is slightly larger in size than the original (only about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in height and width) and is printed on a glossier paper stock. This edition includes the same texts as the original translated into English. The original texts were in Czech. This edition also includes the two additional controversial plates. It was published in an edition of 1000.

Note: Thanks to Charlie Rhyne for informing me about the Ubu Gallery edition.