Monday, June 20, 2011

Drawings on a Bus, 1954 by Ellsworth Kelly

After the Kassel festival I suffered from a bit of photobook burnout. The festival is growing to a decent size but 4 twelve hour days looking and talking about books can send even the most dedicated to seek a break. So, I wanted to intersperse a few non-photo related books over the next weeks which I found irresistible on this trip.

The first is a book which was published by Matthew Marks Gallery and Steidl in 2007 and can be found at a very cheap price on some remainder tables in Europe - Ellsworth Kelly: Drawings on a Bus, 1954. My copy set me back a measly 12 euros.

After six years in Paris, Kelly returned to New York in 1954 where a friend gave him a hardcover publisher's dummy of an old Sigfried Giedion Bauhaus book from the 20s thinking the blank pages would be perfect for sketching.

While riding the bus, this sketchbook (number #23), was filled with the chance drawings of the bus window shadows as they fell across the pages. Quickly marking the pages with the various changing shadows, he later inked in the outlines at his studio. Some of these sketches he later developed into larger paintings.

Abstract and in bold black and white they define the space on the page with graphic impulsive gestures which seem closer to typography than a response to simple light and dark patterns on the paper. The sequence reveals the pages filling with more black giving the sense of zooming in on the subtle nuances of these shadow/letter forms until an oval void spread across facing pages punctuates the ending.

The size of the book, the cardboard slipcase, printing and length feel near perfect. The fact that the blue cover - originally designed by the great Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for Giedion's book Bauen in Eisenbeton, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Frankreich - remains intact with Moholy-Nagy's typography and design suits the content in resonant ways.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

L.A. Women by Joachim Schmid

One of the foundations of Joachim Schmid's work is the thought that there are way too many photographs in the world already so why not put those that exist to some intelligent use. At least, let us look at them a second time and contemplate their existence, or recontextualize them and introduce further questions of what we look at, what we draw in meaning, and what are the lasting values of the images. His latest book L.A. Women has a darker, real life context which is why I have chosen it as a follow up to Watabe Yukichi's A Criminal Investigation.

In December 2010, the Los Angeles Police Department released 180 photographs of women found in the home of a known serial murder suspect. The release of the images was a public appeal for help in identifying the women who might be missing and those still alive as the known victims number only a dozen. The photographs do not tell which are which, they provide only a pool of possibility.

Without the context of sensational serial murder attached, the images appear to be innocuous portraits made with poor quality film, digital and video cameras. All are black women but for two whites. Some would look like pictures that people post to Facebook pages or snapped by friends. Many of the women smile, some appear asleep, many sit in the passenger seats of cars. A few of the images reveal small clues that some of the women might be exposing their breasts to the photographer although none of the croppings reveal any nudity.

With the context of being attached to the suspect, we search for grim clues. Many of which appear to have been taken in the back of a van. We notice that the rear windows have been masked with opaque paper or tinfoil. Some might be prostitutes but as Schmid says in his introduction, "We don't know," not even if the suspect took the images himself. One is snapped standing outside of the vehicle through the open passenger side window. She smiles as if stopping to chat with a neighbor. Does she know the driver or is the smile an automatic instinctual response to the camera? Is she being enticed into the car? offered a ride? In another, the photographer casts a shadow as he(?) frames a vertical but nothing is revealed that might lead the investigation. We feel the pull of information but are left dangling within the eeriness of the images.

We stare into the faces, some blurred by technical imperfections, and are confused by their calm expressions and smiles. We know the potential of the situation they are frozen within and for a moment we connect on a basic human level for survival - to warn and protect. Or, perhaps like viewing an image of a person before execution, we look to feel fear and master death one image at a time.

L.A. Women is available through Blurb. Joachim Schmid is a part of the ABC (Artists' Book Cooperative) which is currently the subject of a show at New York's Printed Matter.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukichi

Many of you have wondered if 5B4 is dead. The answer is no, I needed a two month break. Not because I am too busy publishing (I always keep myself very busy) but because I was having trouble finding things to write about. I am not a professional writer nor critic so finding something to say which I haven't already in the past 400+ posts can be a bit of a task. That said, I just attended the Kassel Photobook festival with a small satchel of items which has me excited to spread the word on a few books I discovered. Watabe Yukichi's A Criminal Investigation from the publisher Xavier Barral is my first choice of favorites so far.

Sitting closely to the tradition of a photo novel, A Criminal Investigation follows a police detective in 1958 Tokyo as he investigates a gruesome crime - the discovery dismembered body near Sembaku Lake in Ibaraki Prefecture. Accompanying the detective was the photographer Watabe Yukichi who seems to have documented the progress of the case as thoroughly as the investigators did to the crime.

Yukichi was a freelance photojournalist who was granted special permission to document the "dismembered-corpse case" as it was referred. Shooting in black and white 35mm, the results play out like a film noir, complete with the detective looking more and more like a Japanese Humphrey Bogart as the story develops. In fact, as one becomes drawn into the filmic quality of every detail of the pictures and sequence, it is easy to overlook that this was an actual criminal investigation was of something so sinister.

As a photographer, Yukichi worked this situation with apparent vigor. Each and every picture is interesting in its own right - I can't find a superfluous image in the edit. Bookwise, A Criminal Investigation has a near perfect form and tone for such an essay with Japanese folded pages and a deep gravure-like printing. Its unique page twisting design causes interesting breaks in the flow of images like small chapters or vignettes as the case turns its various corners. A minimal amount of text contributes the facts of the case and the conclusion which took several more years to solve. I won't spoil the ending.

A Criminal Investigation was co-published by Le Bal in Paris which currently has an exhibition of this work along with Yutaka Takanashi and Keizo Kitajima. Copies are available in the Le Bal bookshop.