The internet’s out, so I’m grumpy.
Yesterday, it was the electricity.
That’s life here in the Rocky Mountains. (And in New Mexico in particular.)
You learn quickly that everything is a trade-off.
On the one hand, we have the nature and the culture, both among the most unique and astonishing in the US. On the other, we have the poverty and incompetence, which compete daily in a twisted dance of darkness.
If you study ancient religion and philosophy, it’s clear that different groups of humans, in disparate parts of the planet, came to an understanding of the power and ubiquity of opposites.
In places as widely spread as Far East and Southern Asia, the Middle East and Peru, iconography or words developed to specifically describe the phenomenon.
We’ve all seen cheesy tattoos of the Yin Yang symbol, but that doesn’t strip it of its import. We Jews have the separation of Earth and Sky in the opening of Exodus, and the Chavin de Huantar culture, in the Andes, made art in which graphic lines had two purposes: strands of hair also functioned as snakes.
These days, when someone wants to discuss dualistic thinking, without any nuance, they describe it as being black and white. (We’ve all said it: he or she doesn’t understand complexity, and only thinks in black and white.)
Ironically, as any photographer knows, black and white photography is all about shades of gray. Tonal range is defined by it: how many different gray tones have you produced to create a rhythm with your whites and blacks?
Black and White photography was the gateway for almost all art students, before the 21st Century. It was the first language you learned, before moving on to color.
These days, only a tiny percentage of photographers learn one before the other. It’s almost all color now, and black and white is a niche, or a filter to slap on in Instagram when you want to be artsy. (Or when your light is crap.)
In the art world, there will always be black and white, but here too it has migrated into the realm of “alternative process.” It represents the past, from a McLuhan-esque perspective, so it can be utilized for nostalgic purposes, or to mess with viewer’s temporal expectations.
Occasionally, though, we’ll find a project that is straight-up throwback. It presents the kind of pictures that feel like they were made by a member of the Rat Pack, reincarnated for the Justin Bieber era.
That’s what I felt about today’s book, “Almost True,” by Steven Bollman, published this year by F8 publications in the Bay Area. He sent it in a few months ago, and it sat on the pile, patiently waiting its turn.
I popped it out of the cardboard yesterday, and was very glad I did. (Normally, I look and write, but this one required a bit of contemplation, as far as how to approach it properly.)
“Almost True” sounds like “Almost Famous,” another throwback project, when Cameron Crowe summoned his halcyon days as a young reporter onto the big screen.
The title also messed with me a bit, as I kept waiting until the end text to learn whether the book was something other than it appeared to be.
It seems, on surface level, to be an exceptionally well-edited group of old-school, black and white street photographs. We sense the stylistic influences of Cartier-Bresson, Frank and Friedlander everywhere, but that’s OK.
Who hasn’t been influenced by those lions, and how does one even begin to make work like this without seeming derivative?
Well, there are a few ways.
1. Make really damn good photographs, and show us a wide range of times and places.
2. Drop in temporal references that cement the project in the now, as opposed to the then.
3. Give the pictures a way to live together that doesn’t evoke someone else, thereby making room for your own voice.
I don’t think I’ve ever dropped into listicle form here before, so there’s a first time for everything. But it reinforces my point: structure can have power.
This book is broken down into sections, with clear themes, and I could feel it from the start, before I knew what it was. “Almost True” made me guess from the get-go, but I didn’t get it right away.
In Chapter 2, I noticed the contortionistic positions of the subjects, and that gesture and body positioning were the hook. So I flipped right back to Chapter 1, and noticed that every picture featured people looking up and away.
Chapter 3 was pictures within pictures, including a nudie poster, (Boobs Sell Books,) and a cool Tupac reference. Then we have people separated by barriers, and Chapter 5 is about connections between consecutive images.
For example, one image has a finger pointing, and the next is of a bird in the sky, in that exact spot. This section also gives us our first dead body. (Seemingly.)
In my read, the subsequent chapters were about women, then transcendence, men, and finally the last one screamed “film stills.”
The artist might quibble with me, for all I know, but that’s also part of creating these implied narratives: they always leave room for the viewer to complete the story.
Frankly, I think this is a killer book. I’m glad I waited a day to write, because the appreciation sunk in, despite the fact that I liked the book immediately.
Yesterday, I was in suspense, waiting to find out of any of this was fake, because of the suggestive title. But the well-written essay, by Alfredo Triff, and the simple, geographic titles, (from 1987-2017) prove it is a collection of straight photos.
There’s lots of chiaroscuro, and a high-key style in general, (not so many creamy shades of gray,) but it fits the neo-noir vibe perfectly. And including images of things like drones, (See Listicle #2 above,) also sets this apart from images made in earlier eras.
Basically, this one comes highly recommended.
Now if they can just get the internet running again, my mood might turn around completely.
Bottom Line: Excellent, compelling collection of black and white street photography
If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at email@example.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so that we may maintain a balanced program.