Don’t you just love it when things pan out? It doesn’t happen all that often. There are so many things that can muck up the works, when one strives for synchronicity.
Last week, we showed you early work from an acknowledged master: Martin Parr. Wasn’t it fun to see his youthful vision? How sympathetic and romantic were those pictures?
And then this week, we ran an interview with Aline Smithson, who recently published some projects from the 70’s on Lenscratch. Apparently, what’s old will forever be new again. I’m sure there were Pharaohs going on about “ochre is the new black,” but of course we’ll never know. (Unless time travel gets invented one day. And then, I’d probably just ask a Pharaoh why he tried to keep the Jews as slaves. Didn’t he know we were the Chosen People?)
Given the path I’ve unwittingly followed this week, of course the very first book I picked up off the stack, “Bottrop-Ebel 76,” would be a publication of early work from 1976 by Michael Wolf, another of contemporary photography’s darlings. I’d suggest that it was destined to happen, but then I’d probably lose 10% of our readership. (I can only be so much of a new-age-freak before the New Yorkers stop reading in droves.)
Yes, this book even features an amazing photo of a dude with a ladder, just like last week. (Only this time, they were smart enough to put it on the cover.) So, what’s this one about then?
For a university final project, Mr. Wolf hung around the coal miner’s neighborhood of Ebel, in the town of Bottrop. (Hence the title.) Just as I can recall the joy I felt at pointing a 35mm camera at everything that walked, when I was 24 and in Europe, these pictures also reflect a less specific eye.
They’re really good photographs, for sure. The anticipation of a pig’s slaughter, contrasted against the jimmy-rigged football being kicked around in the background. The intensity of a fu-manchu mustache, or the cold eyes of a 12 year old smoking a cigarette. There’s a dude getting naked in his kitchen, and a little girl swinging in a doorway.
All are cool to look at. For sure.
But the closing essay ties these pictures directly to Mr. Wolf’s current work: faces pressed against the cold glass of a Tokyo subway, or the artist’s camera pressed against the computer screen, documenting Google’s world domination.
I don’t see it that way. Just as I was fascinated when I once saw a show of William Eggleston’s first B&W pictures at Cheim and Read, I love looking at where a really good artist comes from. Aline Smithson also referenced how differently we see the world in our 20’s, relative to the wisdom we accrue thereafter. Pushing 40, I’d have to agree with her.
So you might find these pictures brilliant. You might even buy the book. Cool. Enjoy it. But by now we know that’s not why I highlight a photo book each week. I do it because I’m pretty sure you’ll find it interesting, and seemingly, you’ve all learned to trust me. (Suckers.)
Bottom Line: Another look at young work by a famous photographer
I was just watching the oddest film. It’s a Western called “Paint Your Wagon, made in 1969. The movie features two of the best faux-cowboys who ever lived: Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.
What’s strange about that, you ask? Fair question. Two infamous tough guys in a Western. That’s what most people would call normal.
Except this Western was also a musical. And both of those badasses were singing their hearts out. Can I get a WTF? (Though one might rightly mention it’s not much weirder than Russell Crowe belting melodies as Javert in the film version of Les Mis. Maybe he salvaged his performance, but I couldn’t make it past 15 minutes.)
Where was I? Right. Clint and Lee. At one point, early on, Lee Marvin admits to having melancholy. Which seems like an olden-days code word for depression. But I can see how they would have preferred the former moniker, as it has a sense of romance to it.
Lee Marvin was telling Clint that solitary mountain men, on certain cold, wet days, could get lonesome in a way that was more like a disease. It hit home, as I’d seen those same weary eyes just this morning, as I drove my son up the hill to school.
We haven’t had much snow here in Taos lately. It’s been discomfiting, but also pleasurable, to bask in the 48 degree days, flush with sun. Until yesterday. When a sorry-gray-haze descended from the North. It’s cold now in a way that makes you sad. No two ways about it.
I tried to explain that to my son, but, as he’s only 6, he was dubious. He blamed it on the fact that he didn’t like his substitute kindergarten teacher. But I knew better. He merely had a case of melancholy. (As do I, at the moment. Truth be told.)
Which is why “The Non-Conformists,” a new Aperture book by Martin Parr, is perfect to share with you today. It will allow me to disseminate some bleary sorrow around the planet tomorrow, when this article will be published. (Does that make me a wintry-grinch? An emo-scrooge?)
The book, which features a fair bit of well-written text by the artist’s wife, Susie Parr, was made in and around the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge in the North of England. Now, I don’t know if the East Midlands counts as the North of England…but if it does, I can personally verify that it’s the bleakest, coldest place I’ve ever been. So these photos made a lot of sense to me today.
The project should be super-interesting to you, as it was made in the mid-70’s, very early in Mr. Parr’s career. In fact, you may never have seen these pictures before. And they do capture the idealistic spirit of the youthful eye, I’d say. They’re nostalgic, and almost sentimental. The scathing wit and prodigious use of color, for which Mr. Parr is so-well-known, had not yet emerged in his style.
The pictures are stark, yes, but they’re very respectful. Mr. and Mrs. Parr, who were not-yet-married at the time, spent a year or so documenting the parts of the local culture they were sure would soon disappear. Things like a family-run mine, a cinema with a projector run on carbon, and a beautiful brick chapel in Crimsworth Dean, that has since been converted, we are told, into a private residence.
The pictures are really good, for the most part, and a few are downright brilliant. An early image, just before the title page, shows a man perched one-footed on the top of a step-ladder, mending a door frame. If I were to ever select a photograph as perfect, this might be the one.
Later, we see a traveling hairdresser, and two white mice adorning a man’s hand, as a part of a “mouse show.” (Obviously. Hasn’t everyone been to a mouse show before? Not me. I just kill the bastards whenever I get the chance.)
Back in the day, when I was growing up, schools used to be into making time capsules. You know, burying something in the ground to be dug up at a later date. That’s what this book feels like to me. More than anything, it’s an effort at cultural preservation.
Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to tend to my fire, and think up some other ways to put a smile on my face. Since I’ve just passed along the melancholy to you, I’m beginning to feel better already.
Bottom Line: Some fascinating, early B&W work by Martin Parr
The French have laws to protect their culture. Films. Cheese. What have you. It’s embedded in the legal code; a bulwark against rampant McDonaldStarbuckWalmartization.
Similarly, the Romans insist a good tomato sauce can include garlic or onions. But not both. Try to mess with a traditional recipe there and you’ll be met with either shock and horror, or anger and gesticulation. It’s not the done thing, messing with their bucatini all’amatriciana.
It’s these little, idiosyncratic elements of human existence that differentiate one society from another. Culturally speaking. We all need food, water, shelter, family, and a way to provide for ourselves. These are non-negotiable elements of human existence.
On the big stuff, almost all human societies have come to an agreement. A roof over you head is better than a cave. Toilets are preferable to outhouses. Cell phones are better than smoke signals. And guns and ammo are more efficient than bows and arrows.
Yet in some places, black is a funerary color, while elsewhere it’s white. Which is the proper bridal color at weddings in some places, while elsewhere it’s red. Rotten shark meat is a delicacy in Iceland, but you couldn’t get me to eat it for $50. I’ll tell you that much.
These details have fascinated photographers for as long as we’ve used cameras. Why? Because we’re observers, and the camera is the ultimate recording device.
With respect to the weird stuff, in the 21st Century, if something eccentric is going on in any part of the world, the global photo community has heard about it. Last summer, for instance, I saw a project about a small community in the Albanian mountains. There, unlike everywhere else, (except Northampton, MA,) there is a group of women who live their lives as men. They take an oath, swear to be asexual, and are left to walk the earth as if they were Adam rather than Eve.
I mentioned the project to one of my editors, who told me he’d seen photos of the sub-culture before. Everyone knows about it already, it was suggested. So I was not exactly shocked when I picked up “Sworn Virgins,” a new book by Pepa Hristova, published by Kehrer Verlag, which presents a thorough portrait-based examination of the women/men. (The narrative is introduced by a set of establishment shots with a serious cinematic bent.)
I’m not sure you’ve seen this world before, though, and the book is very well put together, so I thought I’d share it with you today. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the artist is derivative; rather that it’s just really hard to find something new to observe these days.
What most interested me about the book was its seeming anonymity. The title and artist’s name are incised into the spine, but were not legible. And there is no title page, or authorial information in the front of the book at all. So it wasn’t until I scoured the end credits that I even found the artist’s name.
Lacking that knowledge, I was left with only the story to parse. The book is divided into segments that are separated by a few pages of small, pink paper. Each contains the subject’s name, and a brief bit of info about each of them. (Great use of a paper change to keep the viewer interested.)
You’ll be enchanted by the weathered lines in each woman’s face, and scratch your head in wonder at the veracity of their biological sexuality. A woman? Really? Can it be?
Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll just think they’re sequestered lesbians living in a world that created a convoluted way of explaining human sexuality. Further text suggests that the tradition evolved out of a dearth of men, as so may Albanians died at the hands of violent vendettas. (Albanians being to Italians, gangster wise, what Russians are to Jews.)
OK. You get the point. This book will provide a window into one more way of understanding the absurdity of the human condition. Is it for you? I don’t know. I guess that depends upon what your definition of is is.
Bottom Line: A well-made book that explores Albanian transvestites
Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.
A couple of years ago, I noticed a pattern. I’d throw my back out every year, during the first week of December. Every. Freaking. Year.
I realized it was not a coincidence. A year is a natural cycle, and come December, we’ve all hit the wall. It’s been eleven months worth of work, drama, and all the other things that slowly sap our life-force. By now, we’re all feeling weak and wobbly. (But my back has held up this year…knock wood.)
With the New Year just ahead, we limp into the holidays. Little problems loom larger. We find ourselves distracted and worn down, like a football player in extra time. I’m here to give you the good news: it happens to everyone.
You are not alone.
Just the other night, for example, I bungled badly while answering the phone. We’d just put the kids to bed, after a very long day. I’d sat down a minute earlier, thrilled to finally be “off-duty” for the day.
Then the phone rang.
At that time of night, it’s almost always my mother-in-law. Almost always. So when I pressed the button, I had some clear expectations.
Instead, I was met by a strange voice. A solicitation call. “What do you think about same sex marriage rights,” asked the unnamed caller? In a flash, I was angry. Just leave me the f-ck alone, I thought, so I can watch some vapid television.
What I said was, “It’s none of your business what I think.” Then I hung up.
Thirty seconds later, I cringed. Not only was I impolite, but I realized there was a decent chance the call was made by an organization supporting same sex marriage. Oh shit. They might put me on the homophobic list. What if anyone found out?
I actually thought that. What if people suspected me, the super-liberal-art guy, of secretly hating gay people?
Yes, we’ve come a long way here in the US in a short span of time. “Will and Grace” might have seemed revolutionary ten years ago, but we have officially entered the Gay-Mainstream phase of American culture.
Barack Obama’s election obviously did not erase 200+ years of institutionalized racism. So I’m not here to suggest that homophobia has been conquered, only that it is no longer an acceptable position, in most of society. (Again, thank goodness.)
Because one only has to look back to “Hustlers,” the seminal photo series by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, for a reminder of how far we’ve come. It’s waiting for us, conveniently enough, in a new large-scale, hardcover, yellow book from Steidl.
This is one of those books where there’s only so much I can say. It’s a masterful project that has been revered, rightly, through the years. Now, you can own it, in an exceptionally well-made object. But it costs more than PLdC paid each of those lonely boys and men, back in the day. (To take their photo. Not for a quick hummer in the alley behind MickeyD’s.)
The photos are titled by the name of the subject, where he came from, and how much the artist paid to take the picture. But that last piece of info is not provided until the end. A viewer might guess that it was the amount the “sex worker” charged for some actual action. (The closing statement reveals that the two prices were meant to correlate. It also states that the project is a tribute to the artist’s brother, who died of AIDS. Not something I knew beforehand…)
It goes without saying that these hustlers were down on their luck; plying their trade on Santa Monica Boulevard, one penis at at time. The pay was poor back then, and I doubt it has kept up with inflation. They just grab the coin, and use it to buy some booze, or drugs, or maybe a date with a higher class sort of fellow.
The pictures are so excellent that at first, they do pass for “taken,” rather than “made.” Then you reach the page where the guy is draped ever-so-gently across the sidewalk, covered with a blanket. Even a guileless viewer, who knew nothing of the artist’s meticulous set-ups, might question that reality.
Throughout, while flipping, I would be temporarily floored by the lighting in a certain image. Or the interplay between bodies, when more than one subject was present. Truly fantastic photographs.
Now, we see them as artifacts of a time that seems ancient. But it’s not. Sometimes, culture moves so quickly that decades can seem like centuries. Do you really remember what it was like not to have a cell phone in your pocket? I don’t.
We’d like to think that with the battle for equal rights on the upswing, we’d turn our thoughts to immigration issues, or prison reform, or our antiquated drug laws. All of which do intersect with this book, as well.
But sometimes, on a bleak December day, it’s nice to remember why you feel so tired. (B/c it’s the end of the year. Remember?) And it’s also nice, occasionally, to be happy with the progress we’ve made. Such as it is.
Bottom Line: An instant classic. Get one if you can.
Welcome to my third annual Thanksgiving column. Once again, we celebrate our forefathers: the ones who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to take over a continent blessed with untold natural resources. Yes, we Americans eat turkey to honor a genocide.
As you know by now, I love this country. (Despite being aware of our blood-drenched creation mythology.) People throughout history have done bad things to one another. Once word got out that there was land for the taking, and trees for the felling, it was only a matter of time before shit got real.
Sure, we can be cynical, and dismiss the entire American experiment as one of rapacious greed. But what’s the fun in that? Isn’t it better to mock the Puritans for their lack of humor, obsession with witches, and fastidious yet spartan fashion sense?
Even today, their name is evoked as a pejorative term. Puritanical. We only thank them for founding our country once a year, because that’s about as much time as we can stand to think about their no-dancing-no-fun-having lifestyle.
Our Manifest-Destiny-ness is counterbalanced, of course, by the narrative of a nation of immigrants. We are a new society, and have proved a haven to those seeking a better life, though we rarely greet them with open arms. They come anyway, and many generations have been able to ensconce themselves, forging a safer future for their offspring. (Big ups to my now-dead-great-grandparents for making the move. Staying in Europe would have been very, very, bad for my bloodline.)
Ever since our Siberian ancestors, 15,000 years ago, Americans have been walking, swimming, sailing, floating, driving, and even riding bicycles to the land where the streets are paved with gold. This country is the perfect embodiment of the imperfection of the human condition. We do some things really well, and fail at least as often as we succeed. (Could Obama really not find anyone in the whole country who knew how to build a freaking website?)
No matter what changes in America, people continue to move here seeking a fresh start. Just like the auto mechanics and scrap metal traders at the heart of Jaime Permuth’s new book, “Yonkeros,” published by La Fabrica in Spain. (The country for whom the Italian, Cristoforo Colombo, forever altered the course of history by discovering Hispañola.)
The title refers to a nickname for those types of businesses, which are found on a small peninsula called Willets Point, in Queens, NYC. The place is charmless in a way that’s charming, and gritty in way that allows for the subtle observation of beauty. In other words, it’s the ideal place for a long-term photography project.
Mr. Permuth is himself an immigrant from Guatemala, and it’s not hard to see why he was drawn to the place. The inhabitants come mainly from Mexico and Central America, so we don’t have to wonder if their conversations were carried out in English. (Que tal? Me llamo Jaime. Soy fotografo. Podria tomar su foto, por favor? No, no soy immigracion. Es seguro.)
It’s a perfect symbol for America, and the contradictions we can never escape. We killed a bunch of people and took their land so that we could set up a country where are men are free. (But not the slaves, of course. Or the women.)
We have a big statue in the New York harbor that offers to accept the tired, poor, and huddled masses. Unless we build a huge fence at the border to keep them out. We don’t want to pass immigration laws, because if we don’t, it’s like the 11 million illegal immigrants don’t exist. Our laziness converts them into phantasms; ghosts that are really good at fixing cars, cleaning houses, and picking fruit.
The book, the nominal subject of this diatribe, contains many pictures, so it’s likely you’ll have your favorites. I love the ones that are razor sharp and slightly surreal, like the deflated soccer ball, perched atop a car, reflecting clouds in the shiny painted metal. The few color images are a bit out of place, until you see the glowing pink sky above a snow-covered world. (Gorgeous.)
I also found a highly-pornographic image embedded on a small TV, which caught me by surprise. There is enough image diversity in the book that it entices you back, confident you won’t have seen it all just yet. Which is a good metaphor for the human condition, I’d say.
Yes, we’ve seen many things before. Almost everything, in fact. But that’s the keyword, isn’t it? Almost.
Bottom Line: A cool book about immigrant culture, perfect for Thanksgiving
Last week, I wrote about conflict of interest. Or at least I mentioned it. Which was a first.
These days, when everybody is connected to everyone else, it becomes much more difficult to speak the truth. We become co-opted by our relationships, occasionally, and I do wonder how often I’m affected.
I’ve worked hard to write with honesty in this space, and I hope it’s branded me a straight shooter. (Or more likely a big-mouth. So be it.)
Where am I going with this? I’m currently in the second article of a short series about the Medium Festival of Photography. It was founded by a very good friend of mine, and I went to review portfolios for APE and Lens, and to deliver a public lecture about my work.
As I’ve already written, the festival was truly exceptional. Will you believe me, knowing I’ve got a personal connection? Medium certainly invited me knowing I’d write about my experience there. (Which was overwhelmingly positive.)
But what about the bad stuff? Will I be critical, or will I keep my mouth shut? I’ve been asking myself that very question. What to do?
It’s funny, but the one dark mark on my time there had nothing to do with Medium, per se. And still I feel awkward sharing. But I will. (Can’t. Stop. Fingers. From. Typing.)
I almost-met a fellow artist and blogger at Medium, and was seriously put off by his boorish behavior. I’ve already written about his book, and reviewed it very positively. So there was no prior bad blood.
Doug Rickard, who appropriated and photographed images of poor people on Google Street View, gave me the velvet-rope-ignore-treatment, on three separate occasions. I was taken aback, as it had been a while since anyone pretended I didn’t exist, from such a short distance. (18 inches. I could practically smell his breath.)
Mr. Rickard lectured directly after me, and came very close to shoving me out of the way to get to the podium. He didn’t even muster the obligatory head nod, or half smile, that most civilized people would. It was like a microcosm of high school. He was the burly jock, and I was the black-clad artsy kid, not significant enough to acknowledge.
I write this knowing many of you will read these words as vengeful. I’ll show him! (Shakes fist.) Who does he think he’s dealing with? It’s inescapable, that you’ll think this.
I should add, Mr. Rickard was a pretty big guy, like a Sacramento version of an amateur SoCal motor-cross racer. (Replete with a flat-brim, bro-style baseball hat.) He might genuinely try to kick my ass. So that’s another reason to keep my moth shut. In addition to looking petty, and disappointing my friend Scott.
So why dish? Because I think the mere fact that I feel this uncomfortable telling the truth, after years of bragging about my propensity to do so, makes this a worth-while endeavor. And it’s also a hugely teachable moment for the rest of us.
There is no privacy anymore. It’s gone. Mourn it as you will, but it’s not coming back. Our behavior is a reflection of our brand, and our reputation. No matter how successful you are, you need to treat people well, or it will come out. Whether it’s Terry Richardson facing boycotts, or this dick Doug getting outed on the Internet.
My lecture, just before his, focused on the genuine effort necessary to see symbols in the world and embed them in art. To recognize connections. To choose to make meaning from life, whether you believe it resides there inherently or not. We say it every day, right? We’re all connected. What does that even mean?
I’d mentioned Mr. Rickard’s work in my lecture, as I showed a project I’d done in 2006-7, in which I photographed the computer screen. The resulting photos were absurd and random pixelated portraits, fragments from jpegs I’d stolen from various dangerous parts of the Internet. I don’t typically show the pictures, as I felt the series was too derivative of Chuck Close’s aesthetic. I gave Mr. Rickard a shout out for getting it right.
And of course, Mr. Rickard was also a member of Richard Misrach’s young artist salon. We reported on that after Mr. Misrach’s lecture in Tucson last year, when he’d shown work by several younger Bay Area artist friends of his. I felt awkward telling you guys about it, as it seemed like the epitome of the incestuous behavior at the heart of this now-rambling article.
My pixelated portraits might go over well one day, or I might keep them in a drawer. Regardless, I haven’t seen that many things quite like them.
So you’ll appreciate my shock at reaching into my book stack, and discovering “11.21.11 5:40pm,” a new book by Richard Misrach, published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. (Whose Gallery Director I know from his days in Santa Fe.) If you’re ready to hear about a book, congratulations. You made it. And what day is it now? (I delivered the article to Rob on 11.21.13)
This book is strange, and you likely won’t want to buy it. It’s conceptual enough that it might seem too narrow for a collection, given the price. (Or perhaps it’s meant mostly for collectors. What do I know?) But it also happens to be one of the most interesting books I’ve seen in my time as a book reviewer.
It opens with a view of a couple down on a beach, seen from a terrace above. I was immediately reminded of Mr. Misrach’s other ocean-and-beach-based projects. That’s where the similarities end.
We notice that the young couple is taking a dual-selfie. Or joint- selfie? A couplie? What’s the proper nomenclature here?
Each subsequent page turned reveals a closer version of the previous photo. It devolves to pixels, and then the black of a presumably singular pixel. (Like the deep black of that awful Sopranos ending. David Chase: you’re better than that.)
Then. A surprise.
The image begins to resolve again. Pixels. And then a pixelated portrait. Finally, the image is sharper still, and we see that we’re looking at the portrait of the couple. The one that they actually took of themselves.
What? How did he get that? What the f-ck is going on here?
Awesome. A little worm-hole gem. So odd and smart and surreal. I love it. But will you want to actually own it? That’s another question.
It’s taken me almost ten days now, since I returned from San Diego, to get my head together. It’s forced me to ask some hard questions.
You’ve got to make up your own mind about how much you think I’m holding back, these days. I’d like to think I put my integrity out there each week, but this is one big icy-yet-twig-strewn slippery slope. It’s new territory, and through this column, you’ve come along for the ride.
So I hope to continue to earn your trust, and I’ll endeavor to keep it real. But there are now layers to be parsed, and I accept that’s going to happen. Medium expected I’d be me, and I’m sure they’re now thinking that if the worst thing I can say about them is that one of their lecturers was rude…they’re doing pretty well.
It’s helpful to be reminded, though, that we need to take a hard look in the mirror. In a networked world, in which we all become beholden to one another, it’s good to be conscious that it’s happening.
I’ll be honest with you: I’m spent. Last week, I visited the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego. We interviewed the founder last year, my good friend Scott B. Davis, so it will come as no shock that I attended this year.
It was a pretty phenomenal experience, and I’ll recap the best work I saw in an upcoming article. Regardless of my potential bias, I have to tell you I can barely string together clauses to make a sentence right now, much less build an intelligent article out of disparate paragraphs.
Not. Going. To. Happen. Today.
Why, you ask? Why have I not recovered in 5 days? It wasn’t a hangover, if that’s what you’re thinking. I barely had any booze at all. No, what happened caught me by surprise, like a wisp of wind in an airless room.
Medium functioned on a level that re-awakened my dormant idealism. There were so many wonderful people bouncing around, and the resulting conversations were both deep and long. (Insert random dick joke here.) The spirit of creativity was rampant.
It reminded me why I got involved in photography to begin with, and encouraged me to give and share, rather than take and want. I reviewed portfolios, and even broke the sacred 20 minute rule. All my sessions went 25, and I was happy to offer the extra time and energy. It just felt right, under the circumstances.
I promise to share more about what Medium is doing right at a later date. Today, tired and emotionally drained as I may be, I still have to review a book. No vacation days in my line of work.
I thought I’d carry through the spirit of Medium into this review. “#Sandy” is a new book of IPhone photography made in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, edited by Wyatt Gallery. Like many others, I helped support the book’s publication, and received a small credit in the back. Hopefully, this will not count as my second conflict of interest in one article. (If so…you might want to lighten up.)
That the book arrived here the same week that another Superstorm killed people and ruined lives is not a shock to me. We were told these events would happen with more frequency, and it has come to pass. I may not live near the ocean, but one of these days, I’ll have to worry about “SuperFire Felicity” burning my house to the ground. No one is immune.
This book is getting a lot of press, and rightly so. A bunch of photographers banded together to put their work out there for a good cause. (100% of the book’s proceeds go to Occupy Sandy.) Their intentions were noble, and the pictures are harrowing. You will likely have seen some of them before, because folks like Ben Lowy got their images a lot of air play during last year’s protracted misery.
It’s easy to look at ventures like this and dismiss them as attempts to co-opt the spirit of giving with the insatiable desire for publicity. It’s a savvy way to build positive street-cred. For sure.
But as I re-learned last week, thinking in such ways can be counter-productive. Sometimes, one just has to be willing to spread the positive energy with full force. Sometimes, we have to put others before ourselves. This is a part of the social contract. And this week, while others are suffering on the other side of the world, I thought I’d leave you with something to think about.
Bottom Line: Collaborative book project in the face of tragedy
I was lying in bed the other night, trying to fall asleep. Dreamily, I asked my wife a question. What are the five places you’d most like to visit? She named them, but I couldn’t follow along. By the time she turned the question on me, I was already unconscious.
I thought about it the next day, when I awoke. I whittled down to Germany, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. As I recited the list, I realized I had chosen the former Axis powers, and two Communist countries.
OMG. What does that say about me? Am I a less-than-patriotic American? Or a horrible Jew? And what about Africa and South America? Does their Continental omission mean I’m also secretly racist? Or do I just really like asking absurd, rhetorical questions?
Frankly, I haven’t been to Italy, the artist’s paradise, in a decade, and I’ve never been to Asia. So that covers 4 out of 5. As for Germany? I was in Lübeck once, very briefly, about 15 years ago. The people in the North were very nice. They kept buying me beers, incredulous that I’d come to their part of the country, rather than Bavaria. And the currywurst was super-delicious.
I’d like to go back, because who wouldn’t want to visit Berlin these days? But there’s something else, and it has far less to do with WWII than you might imagine. I just seem to groove on the German aesthetic. I love that they are so serious about their formalism and craftsmanship. And they’re eternally curious, without ever seeming to believe they’ll hit upon an answer.
Take this week’s book, for instance. It’s called “Landscapes & Memory: Thirty photographs” by Jo Röttger, published by Peperoni Books. Does it consist of exactly 30 photographs? Of course it does. Are they exquisitely composed, and built as well as a Maybach? Did you have to ask?
This book is excellent on multiple levels, but really excels at reminding us why iPhones are cute, but will never replace a large format camera. And why journalists and artists are…not exactly the same thing. (Much less citizen journalists.)
I’m not here to disparage the growing number of amateurs out there. Hell, if they’ll call me a journalist, they’ll clearly let anyone in the club. It’s an important job, sharing the news, but it’s not the same thing as making art.
This book gives makes the difference very visible. The artist was seemingly embedded with the German military, and made photographs in their company. He shot them while they were training in country, and also while they were active duty in Afghanistan.
The formalism is impressive, as I mentioned, but so too are the beautifully drained colors seen at dusk. The mid-day-desert sun leeches desire from the world too, and that blister-bright palette is on display as well. These pictures beg to be seen at 40″x60″, and I wouldn’t doubt that they’re built that large for exhibition purposes.
I was certainly reminded of Simon Norfolk’s work, but then Mr. Röttger kicks the whole thing up a notch. (My first, and last, Emeril Lagasse reference. Bam!) At the end, he photographs the German soldiers while they’re training in some Alpine landscapes that are straight out of “The Sound of Music.” (Which I’ve never seen, but am more than happy to reference here.)
Where are the lederhosen? Where is the alpenhorn to summon the shepherds home for strudel? I don’t know, and I don’t care. These pictures are so damn good, I want one for my wall. Hell, I want to build a bigger wall, and then put one of these bad boys up.
This project offers what I wanted, and then rejected from the Luc Delahaye photograph in the War/Photography exhibition I reviewed at the beginning of the year: the size, sharpness, clarity and patience that a big camera offers, without the knee-knocking sense of exploitation. (i.e., profiting off of a dead Talibani soldier. Delahaye might not have stolen his boots, but what he did take was worth $20,000 a pop.) Regardless, I do hope you enjoy the book.
PS: I’d ask you to share your top five list in the comment section, but when’s the last time that worked?
Bottom Line: Exquisitely crafted photos in Germany and Afghanistan
I love a good paradox. We photographers relish rare moments alone, prowling a foreign land with a camera in hand. (Maybe another in the pocket.) The lone wolf roams, hunting for pixels.
But no one gets very far these days without a good team. Success is impossible without friends and colleagues. In order to get more time by yourself, you have to play well with others.
I was reminded of that when I visited Photoville on my trip to NYC in late September. I might have mocked the MoMAPS1 art-world-hipsters last week, but at least they showed up to represent. So too were the crowds in evidence at Photoville, a photo festival that practically kisses the East River from it’s waterfront perch in Brooklyn.
“Rent some shipping containers, and they will come” is not the kind of quote that launches popcorn blockbusters, but it does seem to sum up Photoville’s premise. There were plenty of metal-clad photo exhibitions on display, along with other containers showing off new Ipad apps, or offering to take your tin-type portrait. It was like a county fair for photo-geeks, and I was thrilled to see so many people out in public, interacting with art and each other.
The festival was founded and is run by Sam Barzilay, originally from Greece, and his wife Laura Roumanos, of Australia. Nothing like Brooklyn to bring people together from all over the world, right? (Where’s Marty Markowitz when you need him? Can I get a shout out?) The festival is free, and the largest source of funding was from the Dutch Government, I was told. (As if we needed another reason to love the Dutch.)
Again with the paradox.
This week, we published an interview with Chantel Paul, who recently curated a California triennial at MOPA in San Diego. Do those artists really have something in common, just because they live in the same roughly defined land mass? I heard there was a show of Texas photography in Houston recently as well. Was it all about pictures of cattle?
I know that’s a dumb question, but it masks a better one: is regionalism actually dying, as John Gossage suggested? In a world in which culture moves at the speed of light, and information is no longer subject to the ravages of time, are we all just plugged into the same machine?
If you’re curious as to whether there’s even an answer to that question, why not check out “New Irish Works,” a book published this past summer by the Photo Ireland festival in Dublin. (Did you actually doubt I’d wind my way to a book review? Is the Pope Catholic?) It contains imagery by 25 young Irish photographers, including Paul Gaffney, whose book I previously reviewed.
I’ll spare you the trouble of guessing: I couldn’t learn much about Ireland through this book, but I do like it a lot. The practitioners have vastly different processes, though two photographers were shooting the television screen. (Barry W. Hughes and Muireann Brady.) I saw buckets of blood, (Patrick Hogan) wisps of minimalist nothing, (Roseanne Lynch) and light from a flash illuminating a sheep’s fuzzy ass. (Miriam O’Connor) Ms. O’Connor also took the perfect photo of a cheap motel bedspread, so good for her.
You might question why I’m highlighting this book, if we don’t learn anything about Ireland in the process? I laud the collaborative effort and community spirit that good festivals embody. Plus, there are cool photos inside, and you’ll definitely get a sense of what this young generation of artists is contemplating. Is that enough? If not, go buy yourself a Guinness and drink it.
Bottom Line: Cool book with work by a slew of young Irish artists
I don’t buy a lot of books. Perhaps that makes me a bad book reviewer, but there it is. I live in a minimalist house, with little storage, and I do get to look at more books than just about anyone. (I just have to give them back.)
So when I found myself at the New York Art Book Fair at MoMAPS1 last month, I definitely didn’t expect to buy anything, even though the fair was more a packed marketplace than an engaging exhibition space. It’s hard to say how much money changed hands, because I was too busy trying to figure out how to navigate the crowds. (Of obnoxious hipsters. Is anything more uncomfortable than watching a bunch of artsy types lined up ten deep outside a schoolhouse bathroom? Talk about a stink vibe. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
I’ve been called a hipster before, and it will likely happen again. Having lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I suppose the moniker was inevitable. But I’m the last guy to walk around with an ironic mustache and a sour look on my face, so there are limits.
Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself obsessing about a super-cool black hard-cover book I found on a simply adorned table. It sat there, alone, topped with a yellow post-it note that read: last copy, $10. $10? Are you kidding me?
Whether it was the ridiculous price that made me reach for the book, or the fact that the air surrounding this particular booth didn’t reek of insecurity, I cannot properly say. But reach I did, and I soon fell in love. What was it, you ask? A typography book put out by a Swiss art school. (ECAL/ University of Art & Design Lausanne, Switzerland.)
Does anything sound less sexy than a book about typography made by a country famous for watches and banking? I doubt it. (But it might be a fun game to try. What could be less sexy? How about a sweater knit from wet dog hair? Or a six-day-old hamburger?)
Right. The book. It does contain interspersed photographic images, which often come from magazine covers or exhibition posters. But the photos are there as supporting examples of high-end typography. Page after page of just the alphabet, rendered differently. It might take an expert to suss out the expectations of intended impact, but any layperson can see that when shown together, the effect is a bit hypnotic.
Must. Have. This. Book.
That’s what I thought. Unfortunately, I was faced with a day of running around NYC, and the kind-of-large object would not fit into my green, Brooklyn Industries manbag. (Yes, I bought it in Williamsburg. Make of that what you will.)
What was I to do? Believe it or not, our friends at photo-eye had a booth in the fair, and they kindly agreed to ship it back to New Mexico for me. (Thanks, Mel and Vicky.) Therefore, I’m writing this review of a book only nominally pertaining to photography, and we’ll see what you think.
I’m not entirely sure why I love this book so much, but the ineffable beauty is part of what I enjoy. If you find that typography can be fascinating, what else is there to learn from this big, spinning planet?
We really do take this facet of communication for granted. As photographers, we always think about the quality of the pictures. As writers, we worry about the words we conjure, whether they’ll be good enough to get the job done. (Or whether they’ll be edited outside of our control.) But how often do we consider the structure of the letters themselves?
It’s obviously a lesson we can apply to the wider world. If typography is more interesting than previously thought, what else is out there? Bird watching? Particle physics? Soduku?
Bottom Line: Super-cool book about an esoteric subject
Have I ever told you that I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? Of course I have. Like, a million times. I say it constantly.
Is it a nefarious part of my personal branding? (That Blaustein. Always makes it about him.) I suppose it’s possible, if you believe me that much of a cynic. But I think it’s something else.
Writing for the global Internet is a strange job. Technically, you know you’re reaching a lot of people. But that reality is abstract, like a cloud that looks like the European Continent. Knowing readers are out there is nice, but it has no bearing on my daily life.
It’s very remote here, which is why I bring it up so often. Most of you are living in the urban world, where things run smoothly, and you can get decent takeout almost anywhere. Never before, in the history of time, could we have this sort of asymmetrical dialogue. Without the Internet, I wouldn’t be able to live the way I do. (Which includes having to fire up the wood stove on this, the first un-official day of winter. Snow outside already?)
That I can remain connected and removed enables me to have the perspective that I do. Sometimes, things work out perfectly. Take this morning, for instance. I just swiped through Twitter, and saw a few people saying that the Lori Nix exhibition at ClampArt was a must see. Cool, I thought. Good for her. But what the f-ck does that have to do with me?
Good question. Because not three minutes later, I reached into my book stack, and “Voila!” There it was. A new monograph, “The City,” by Lori Nix, just published by Decode Books in Seattle. (I love that the credits mention the color correction was done domestically, before the printing transpired in China. Lest we be confused…)
I’ll say it straight off. Totally fantastic book. Amazing work, beautifully printed, and I even like the way they constructed the narrative. (A few photos, for the uninitiated, then an essay to explain and contextualize the project, and then all the gorgeous plates, with a few detail shots thrown in to make sure you realize the labor involved.)
Are we done now? Of course not. I forgot to tell you what Ms. Nix’s work is all about. I think my cold bones are clouding my intelligence. Is it possible to lose IQ points when it’s cold outside?
The photographs in “The City,” and presumably on the wall in NYC, are supremely intricate dioramas of interior scenes in a post-apocalyptic world. (Thank god for spell-check. I butcher post-apocalyptic every time I type it.)
Whether it’s the zombie fetishists, the nuclear war junkies, the climate change fantasists, or the Jesus freaks, there are lots of people out there convinced we’re going to end ourselves shortly.
We certainly possess the means to do it. Personally, I think our survival instinct is such that it would be very difficult to eradicate humans off the face of the earth. Terry Gilliam’s underground fantasy from “12 Monkeys” is far more likely, if the shit hits the fan.
The photographs owe a debt to James Casebere, whose brilliant work I saw in Washington DC a few weeks ago. (A description of which will have to wait for a subsequent article.) The craftsmanship of the scenes is mind-boggling, as is the photographic construction. Great color, great light.
The sad beauty is melodic, in that you enjoy it, while still understanding that it’s prophesying your own doom. (Or that of your grandkids. Hard to say.) The dead mall photo, which was like a Play-Do version of Brian Ulrich’s “reality” picture, was superb. As was the control room image, which I preferred to Thomas Demand’s Teutonic version. That there is a conversation with contemporary art Easter egg-ed inside is just a bonus treat.
I hate to give away surprises, but there is a photo of a Natural History Museum late in the book, (Sugimoto reference) and the roof has been blown off. I had to look several times, but up in the sky, one can clearly make out a Pterodactyl. (Or is is a Pteranodon. Given that I have a six-year-old, I ought to know the difference by now.) So what does that mean? Do the Dinosaurs come back? You’ll have to ask Ms. Nix.
OK. Now we’re done. Fantastic book. You should buy it if, like me, you’re far away from NYC, and can’t see the prints for yourself.
Bottom Line: Brilliantly constructed scenes of what it looks like when we’re all gone.
I just tried to write the opening of this column in Spanish. I was trying to be funny, but it didn’t make me laugh. Trying too hard never works. (Except every now and again.)
Books, at their best, are experiential. I suppose that’s why we love them so much. Think of your favorite novel. How old were you when you read it? What did your hair look like?
As we grow, we change. It’s the necessary way of things. But is there a part of us that’s always there? Do our young, angsty, stupid selves still remain down deep, a few levels above the reptilian brain?
Photo books, especially the ones I’ve been writing about lately, can manipulate your experience to give you two versions of the same thing, if done correctly. Clever use of text, at the end, can allow a viewer to go back and look at the photographs again, relating to them in a completely different way.
The pictures just need to hold your attention the first time, when you don’t know what the f-ck is going on. This week’s book is no exception. “But Beautiful” is a new publication by the Spanish artist, Cristina Nuñez, recently published by Le caillou bleu. It’s a strange little piece of work. I’ll tell you that much.
The book doesn’t give you any details until the end, as I alluded. Going through naked, as it were, you aim to put things together. A historical photo? Looks like a dictator. Is that Pinochet? No, definitely not him. Who is it? (Later I learn it’s Franco. Shouldn’t I have known that? How come he’s been depicted so much less often than his Fascist brethren?)
Some cool historical photos are mixed in here and there. We see some guys are lined up along the upper reaches of a clipper ship, like suicidal birds on an airplane’s wing.
A woman begins to recur. She obviously looks different as she ages, but it’s still her. (The big lips are the giveaway.) Then we see her, glammed up, on the cover of a magazine. It mentions Madrid, so we are in Spain. She used to be a model?
Then she’s older. Mannish. And ripping out some seriously “unsubtle” emotions. What was that again about not trying too hard? Sometimes, maximum effort in front of the lens works rather well, thank you. She is gripping to look at, who ever she is. (We can assume she’s the artist? Right?)
On we go, and there are the obligatory nudes, some of the main character, some not. And more portraits, most of them razor sharp and cool. Throw in a few more super-uncomfortable looking self-portraits, a couple of beautiful water and sky shots, one last bout of historical photos, and bob’s your uncle. You’re done.
Who is she? What’s going on here? How does it all connect? You wonder all these things. In the back, each image is described in enough detail to clue you in. So you return to the beginning, and look at each image again, while reading the caption.
A family association with Franco. Drugs and prostitution. Multiple lovers. 3-year-old child self-portraits. It’s as fascinating as your imagination made it out to be the first time. We end with another historical shot: this one has some serious mad dogging going on, and a shoeshiner to boot. And then a final portrait, of the artist’s senile mother, staring daggers through your now emo-braised heart.
Bottom line: Odd but well-done book, very revealing
For the first time ever, I ran out of books. It’s been a while since I’ve been to photo-eye, and I’m due there tomorrow. But that doesn’t help me today.
Frankly, I wrote a column yesterday based upon a book I’d previously rejected four times already. It was all I had, and the resulting effort was tepid at best. What to do?
Fortunately, earlier this morning, my wife rustled up a package from our overly-messy mail pile, and showed me that someone had sent us a book. It’s begun to happen more often, lately, as the word has gotten out that I review photo books. So I slit the cardboard, and took a quick look at what was inside.
Really, the only reason I’d choose to write an entirely new article is that good books prod good writing. And boring books bring you the kind of reviews that make you wonder if there isn’t someone better for the job. (The line forms in the rear…) Mr. Gaffney has put his soul into this book, and I’ll aim to do it justice.
The delicate, gray, soft-cover book is slipped into a colorful, pink and yellow half-cover. It sends the message right off that muted colors and vivacity can co-exist. It’s not an easy pairing, or more would attempt it, but it works well here.
Begin to leaf through, and immediately we notice the beauty of the color and light. I suspect it’s Ireland, given the artist’s provenance, but eventually it doesn’t matter. The title is instructive, so we take it for what it is. Each photo gives us the sense of a flaneur out and about, albeit one with Zen sensibilities.
If an artist is going to make one more book about lonely wandering, the maker ought to have a pretty interesting perspective on the whole venture. No worries here. Again and again, the misty light seduces, or the pop of earthy color, the luxurious nature of green, or a depression made by a sleeping animal.
Natural structures in the woods are paired off with animal burrows, and man-made over-passes that look like large-scale sculptures leading to nowhere. I busted out the nature walk just yesterday, to clear my mind for writing, and yet these photos make me long for a more humidified environment. No wonder why all those Irish folks have un-wrinkled skin.
Finally, we reach a beautiful poem by Antonio Machado, in Spanish and English, which tells us nothing the photos don’t. (But it does class up the joint a bit.) Only in an accompanying PR postcard did I learn that Mr. Gaffney spent a year walking 3,500 km to make the pictures.
It was the rare case of that extra info being purely extraneous. The photographs communicated the practice, and its purpose. How often does that happen?
Bottom Line: Very beautiful, thoughtful, self-published book
I almost wrote about a different book today. I thought about it, but decided not to. The putative subject was an area in Central Asia dominated by countries that end in “stan.” Flipping through the pages, I was taken by the generic-ness of it all.
People don’t like it when I use this space to be critical. For book reviews, I’ve learned to keep the gloves on. (And take the brass knuckles off.) So I chose not to write about that book, even though it was interesting, in the manner in which it looked like so many other projects I’ve seen before.
If you look at photo books (partly) for a living, eventually you’ll see just about every place on Earth. That I’m doing this in one of the more remote locations in the US is at least a little bit ironic. I look out my window, and I see horses, hills and mountains. I look down into the illusionistic space of a book, and I can tell that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more than a little similar.
So when I opened up “Semicircle Law,” a new book by Tomoki Imai, (published by M.27,) that was my state of mind. The desire to suss out a locale, as quickly as I can, is something of a game these days. Given the artist’s name, my first thought, obviously, was Japan.
But there was no way to know for sure. The mountainscapes were as generic as landscapes can be. No Himalayas, these. The scrubby jutting land could be anywhere. Keep turning the pages, and no real hints emerge. When the snow comes, I feel better about the obvious guess: Japan. I close my eyes and see the snow monkeys sitting in their natural hot springs.
Are we in Hokkaido? That is my guess, now. And then I wonder if people ever get into the springs with the monkeys. Can’t you just imagine some dumb tourist getting his willy torn off by a savage monkey? That would be horrible.
Eventually, the pictures stop. Your guess is as good as mine. And then the text starts. The very first page, post-photos, shows a map of the area surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. BOOM. We’re going there.
Yes, this is one of those books that doesn’t tell you what the f-ck is going on until the end. An essay by Charlotte Cotton divulges the details. The photographer repeatedly penetrated the 20km forbidden zone set up around the disaster site. Not unlike the better known Trevor Paglen, he skulked into the hills to bring back secret photos for the rest of us. (And likely braved some serious radiation. Crazy bastard.)
So this book becomes a bit like a new-fangled version of “The Usual Suspects.” You can’t know what’s going on until you do. And then it changes everything about your perceptions of what you just saw. The two written pieces focus on the brilliance of the post-post-post modern, post-human nature of the project. It’s genius, they imply.
I’m not sure I agree. The pictures are graceful, but boring, in a way, and meant to be. It’s a smart project, and perhaps an important one. But to me, it says more about our own expectations of the drama linked to disaster. Banality is probably a better way to go about telling these stories. Because those of us who live in safe places would likely be shocked at how commonplace horror can become.
Bottom Line: A very smart, brave, and probably dangerous project
Without intending to, I suppose I’ve become a real journalist. Were we to go back to my first APE post, in the summer of 2010, I suspect we’d find the writing a good deal less evolved. I was faking it until I made it.
I knew I was doing the job properly when I recently interviewed a slightly addled 94 year old man in his nursing home bedroom. I drove 3 hours to Albuquerque, just to get the story right. (And three hours back, obviously.) The conversation was enlightening, as the man reminisced about his experiences in World War II, seventy years prior.
His son, who followed his footsteps as both a doctor, and a conscientious objector, mentioned how differently we view war in the United States, since the abolition of the draft. When it was the law of the land, almost anyone could be absorbed into the fight for freedom. Everyone knew someone who had suffered.
Now, we have what he referred to as a “warrior class.” People who we pay, (and not well,) to do the fighting for the rest of us. I can’t speak for you, but I don’t personally know anyone who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. I suppose I don’t mix with the warrior class. What I know, I know from the media.
Occasionally, though, one does come across a narrative that cuts through the emotional exhaustion. Dr. Cobb’s tale was one such circumstance. Or the time I talked with Ben Lowy about the way bombs function very differently in real life than they do in the movies. (Light travels so much faster than sound.)
This week’s book is another such example. If you want to feel personally invested in things, if only for a little while, I’d heartily recommend Guillaume Simoneau’s new, aptly titled book, “Love and War,” recently published by Dewi Lewis in England.
I’d heard of this project at Review Santa Fe in 2011, but hadn’t seen so much as a photo. Buzz is a real phenomenon, like momentum, and lots of people were talking about this work at that festival. Still, I never got around to Googling it. (Thankfully. I would certainly not have enjoyed the book as much without the surprise factor.)
Apparently, the artist met a young, beautiful girl at the Maine Photographic Workshops in 2000. It was a different era, as we all know. Nobody gave a shit about Osama Bin Laden, who’s since turned the world upside down, before sinking to the depths of a forgiving sea.
The object of his (and our) affection, Caroline, eventually joined the military, and served in Iraq. She also married someone other than Mr. Simoneau. Eventually, they reunited. It’s implied, though never explicitly stated, that they conducted an affair. I suspect it was a complicated relationship.
The book tells the story in a non-linear fashion. They were together in Goa on 9/11/01, and then another photo shows a newspaper from 9/12/01, photographed ten years later. The headline speaks of George Bush bringing the culprits to the book. Is that a Canadian expression?
Caroline is visually compelling, and all of these photographs are superb. I can see why my colleagues were taken with this tale two years prior. The photos, like the subject, have charisma.
There is an essay at the end, which she wrote, that is like a kick in the gut, by a mule in a foul mood. It hurts, for a little while, but makes the preceding beauty stand out that much more.
I’d bet this is one of those books that will make all the year end “Best Of” lists that will start to pop up before you know it. (Has anyone seen a Christmas tree yet? I wouldn’t be shocked if someone somewhere is trying to kick off the shopping season in September.) It’s a great book, and will deserve the forthcoming accolades.
Most of us will never know what a charred body smells like. Or peek into an exploded tank filled with melted flesh. That’s for the best. Because I now know of at least two people who have nightmares about such things, and I’m glad my psyche was spared.
One last thing, because I forgot to mention it before now. There are photos in the book that show communications, between the lovers, in the form of photographed text messages. I’m sure this has been done before, but it’s unlikely to have been done so well.
Bottom Line: Beautiful photos, innovative story-telling, great book
I’ve made a huge mistake. Of course, you’ll assume I’m quoting Arrested Development. But I’m not. I haven’t even seen the new episodes, as my ass-backwards slow Internet is not good enough for Netflix streaming service.
I’ve actually made a huge mistake. Last week, I told you about my voracious neighbor, who is re-shaping nature to fit his whims. He has the money to do it, and that’s all that matters. But I used that intro a week early. Should have saved it for today.
Such a bummer.
Now, I don’t have an opening rant worthy of the book I’m about to discuss. I already talked about the fact that we manipulate the Earth’s environment at our peril. So what am I supposed to open with today? The Beatles? Chemical weapons in Syria? Why Tony Romo sucks, despite the fact that the Cowboys beat the Giants Sunday night?
F-ck it. I’ll just talk about the book.
“The Line” is a new soft-covered publication by Palíndromo Mészáros, published by the Universidad de Cádiz, in Spain. In case you’re wondering, I’ve always had fantasies of being an old, crinkly retired dude, sipping sherry in Cadiz, staring out at Morocco. Does that have anything to do with the book? Of course not. But since I cut the intro short, my personal narrative is creeping deeper into this week’s book review.
The book includes a tan band that sits snugly across the bottom, like a band-aid covering a bloody wound. Were that the simile were less appropriate. Alas, it is.
Remove the partial-slip-cover, and you’re faced with a photograph of a forest, with the bottom of the trees covered in ochre. (I love that word. Makes anyone who uses it seem smart. A lesser mind would just say red.)
What’s going on here? You’ll have to wait to find out. Next comes a piece of translucent, Rioja colored paper that’s partially blocking a somewhat-cliché photo of a road, receding into the distance. Yes, we’ve all seen that picture before. But at the beginning of a book, it’s obviously being used to lead us into the narrative. Nice device, I say.
Soon, we see a beautiful, flowering tree, covered, to a point, with that same ochre dust from the cover. The architecture screams Europe, but what’s happening here? Has Christo gotten loose with the paint again? Is it a large-scale performance piece that we just haven’t heard of yet?
The line of dust continues, through the eerily empty, mostly bleak landscape. Ominous vibes are building, for sure, but not until we find some text, in the middle of the book, do we know what is going on, and where in the world we are.
Apparently, on October 4, 2010, a horrible industrial accident befell a couple of villages in Hungary. 35 million cubic meters of toxic waste swept through the area, killing some, and ruining the environment. Perhaps forever, but it is not specified. The text is originally presented in Spanish, and the subsequent English translation is a bit Googly for my taste, but I suppose it is kind-of endearing. (And the Roger Fenton, Atget and Bill Owens references are right up my alley.)
From there, the line winds through the rest of the book. The photos are uniformly well-made, and contribute to the overall-very-high-quality-nature of this publication. Really, it’s just so well-thought-out.
It closes with what we assume to be the factory itself, then a big pile of the red stuff, and then a second sheet of the see-through elegant paper. Fantastic, if tragic. (How many times have I echoed that sentiment, as so many photo books deal with difficult subjects?)
The book accompanied an exhibition of the work, and both, presumably, received public financing in Spain. That the brokest country in the world is supporting artistic documentation of an environmental disaster in another European country is enough to get you out of bed in the morning. (That, and good night-dreams about waking up to cafe con leche and churros, before switching to sherry and tapas. Man, those guys have it good, even if they do have 25% unemployment. Not a bad way to spend a job-less day.)
OK. We’re done here. Yes, I’ve shown you most of the photos in the book, because there aren’t that many to begin with. But don’t be a mooch. Buy the thing, and support some Spaniards while you’re at it.
Bottom Line: Exceptional production of a far-too-common occurrence
My next-door-neighbor spent most of the summer erasing a hill. Even now, as I sit and type, enormous machines are cranking and clanking away. They dig the dirt, gather the boulders, and then large trucks come and cart the land away.
He’s building a road a few hundred yards up the valley, so the hill has slowly disappeared, while the road takes form. Though humans are at nature’s mercy, we do our best to deny that reality. Foolishly, we think we’re capable of more than we are, simply because we know how to design and build things.
Most of the time, we only scratch the surface of this enormous orb. Occasionally, as we’ve seen in photographs of mining operations, we bore down a bit further. Either way, we rarely consider that the Earth is thousands of miles deep. There are rivers of water, and then lava flows, beneath the concrete on which you tread.
Wherever you live, it is difficult to get a fresh perspective on things; to be reminded our precious turf is a small fraction of the planet. Aerial photography is often used for this purpose, and it works. And we can all conjure the image of Earth taken from space. Close your eyes and try. (It’s not difficult.)
Asako Narahashi has come up with a different methodology: photographing land from the perspective of water. Wade, swim, photograph, and everything will look different. I know this, having just put down “Ever After,” the artist’s new monograph put out by Osiris. It is one beautiful production.
That’s the word that kept popping into my mind: beauty. How often do we dismiss that term as not-significant-enough? How many of you have that as your simple goal; the creation of beautiful, well made things? Were you to read the lengthy interview with Ms. Narahashi at the end of the book, (which I admit I only skimmed,) you’d see that she has loftier ambitions.
But I’m not sure they’re met, and I’m not sure they’re necessary. Looking at the photo of light gleaming off the ocean waves, with Mt. Fuji looming in the background, I wonder whether I could ever want anything more? Wow, is that a gorgeous picture. Though I haven’t complained until now, I’m actually feeling rather crappy, laid up with a cold. That photograph made me forget about my temporary troubles. I could look at it forever, withering to dust.
Flipping through, I briefly considered that the photos represent the view from inside a Tsunami, barreling towards shore. But they lack the sense of violence, so the thought was quickly discarded. And I was surprised when I recognized Amsterdam, seen from the vantage of a canal.
Only then did I realize the book moved beyond Japan’s shores, with photos taken in Dubai, Santa Monica, Brooklyn, and other places. It made for a nice diversion from my virtual Japanese vacation. Less successful was the later interspersing of land-based images. Certainly, though, the artist is free to mix up her pictures as she chooses.
That’s about it for today. I’ve got to go take some cold medicine, and put my sorry ass to bed. But this book is a keeper, and I’d heartily recommend it for your Fall Season Shopping List.
Bottom Line: Gorgeous photos of (mostly) Japan, taken from the sea
Do they still eat people in Papua New Guinea? Apparently so, I read. But I’m not about to hike up into some jungly mountains to find out for certain. N.F.W.
Whether they still practice cannibalism there or not, we can all agree that people have come up with some seriously weird shit along our evolutionary history. You’re obviously reading this on some sort of digital device, so you’ve progressed beyond subsistence living.
You likely own an Apple product. If not, certainly Samsung. Worst case, you’ve got an LG something-or-other, as those Koreans are making good products these days.
Whatever you think of our 21st Century, First World lifestyles, we’ve come a long way from hunting animals with spears and eating alligator meat. Right? People don’t live like that these days?
But of course they do. (I tricked you with my rhetorical genius.)
Those folks are out there. We just don’t interact with them, unless we’re on some sort of safari/favela tour. (Hey Marge, get a look at the saggy boobs on that old Abo.) Naked savages exist in fantasy worlds. They don’t feel the crunch of cracked dirt beneath their callused feet. Do they?
If you doubt me, check out Sebastião Salgado’s new coffee-table book “Genesis.” Is this the first time I’ve reviewed a coffee-table book? For sure. Is it the type of work I normally proffer on a lazy Friday? Not really.
But I always, always preach that we need to get out of our comfort zones, and experience new things. That applies to me as well. No edgy-little-art-book-number today. No sir. This here is a genu-ine Taschen publication, meant for the masses.
What can I tell you about it? Are there a lot of boobs, presented in a manner that will make you feel a smidge awkward? Yes. There are. But I’m not showing them, as I used up my August boob quota last week. (Right, Rob?)
Set that aside, and it is a fascinating collection of images, by any measure. The artist has labored and trekked across this planet, many times, just to create this group of images. We see jungles and deserts and snowpack, oh my. There are indigenous groups who live in every extreme climate you can imagine.
It’s a powerful reminder there are people who exist as if it were 10,000 years ago. Poison darts. Drinking cow blood. That kind of thing. Mr. Salgado has photographed them for us, and if you don’t find this interesting, there is something very wrong with you.
The animals are here too: penguins, hippos, giraffes, crocodiles, monkeys, jaguars, you name it. Some of them are dead, festooning the backs and outfits of the natives who ate them. That might not even be the strangest body modification in the book. I’d go with the gourds or bones stuck through the chins of the Amazonian folks within.
Whether or not you appreciate the slightly ironic tone with which I am discussing this book, I must stress that the project is a massively impressive undertaking. This book is clearly meant for all of us. Mr. Salgado wants everyone to remember the world is infinitely less virtual than we realize, and I commend him for the effort.
Bottom Line: Massive coffee-table book with broad global vision