The PhotoBook

February 27, 2009

Martin Schoeller – Female Bodybuilders

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Books — Tags: , , , — Doug Stockdale @ 5:00 am

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Copyright of Martin Schoeller, courtesy of Pond Press and Ace Galleries

There is no doubt that the photographs in Martin Schoeller’s book, Female Bodybuilders, published by Pond Press last year (2008), have graphic impact. The large format color photographs are printed at a large size in this big book, 10 3/4″ x 13″, thus there are few missing details of the women in the photographs.

This body of work resembles Schoeller’s professional portraits, using the same stylistic lighting and dead-pan facial posing, as evident in such subtlety as the same catch-lights in the women’s eyes. Unlike his other published portraits, the camera is allowed to be drawn back a little and reveal some additional aspects of the women bodybuilders being photographed.

Stylistically, this body of work is a continuation of Irving Penn’s field studies and Richard Avedon’s black and white portraits, both of which brought the large format camera and portable studio to the subject. More currently, it resembles the contemporary photographs of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders XXX – 30 Porn-Star Portraits. Although with Greenfield-Sanders series, with his two comparitive photographs of each person, we come away with a little understanding of who the real person may be.  I am not sure that I can say that about these women.

In this series, the details of each woman’s physical features are clearly captured, the pores of their skin, the protruding veins in their muscularly developed arms, and even the evidence of the skin damage from repeated tanning to prepare for their athletic competitions. Fascinating physical details about the women who have become bodybuilders.

In one regard, the photographs are very captivating, perhaps as a result of the studio lighting set-up which provides a documentary feel. The light creates a soft glow off the scheen of their skin and provide an almost three dimensional relief of their muscular build. The women are posed straight forward, with the resulting side lights sculpturing their well defined shapes, mass and lines.  We are met with their direct gaze, they do not seem to flinch.  Likewise, I also find the  photographic effect somewhat like a series of mug shoots, as though with their toes on the line and looking in the lens, sans a line up number.

As I move through the book, I find that I am more attracted to the women’s facial features and expressions.  I am searching for something that might tell me about their emotional state while being photographed, something about them as a person, who they are beyond this potential stereotype of a female bodybuilder.

I am not aware of what the women were asked, or not asked to do, during the portrait session, but their expressions are much like Schoeller’s professional portraits, either passive or pensive. As though the photographer after setting up the portrait session, was lying in wait for his particular flat trademark expression to appear.

There are  small biographies provided for each woman in the book, and interesting how many discuss their strength and femininity.  Yet the photographs provide hints of their femininity and seems to dwell on their inherent physical strength, not unlike the muscularmass and definition of their male counterparts. Their physical beauty is unlike like the more graceful muscular definitions of an Olympic swimmer or runner, perhaps more like the tight muscular build of a Olympic gymnast.

But if you place your hand to block the view just below their chins, you have a couple different set of photographs that allows you to see their feminin and individuality as expressed in their hair style, makeup and the jewelry. Perhaps that is the contradictions that Schoeller is attempting to document about these women, the potential conflict between their self perception and their developed exterior muscular contours.

Schoeller has documented a slice of a sub-culture, and maybe to their own credit, these women have found ways to allow their individually shine through. They have knowingly placed themselves in the limelight of subjective judging, allowing other to define them within some arbitrary boundaries. They are under constant scrutiny, much like any actor in play who knows their part in a performance.

These women are not strangers to the camera lens, although this temporary studio with its large format camera may have been a slight departure. I find a weariness in some of their eyes, as if they are on-guard, not knowing if they can trust, such as a good likeness to be made or to be potentially taken advantage of. Yet they know that they are again on display, many taking a pose to put all of their personal development work to their own best advantage, flexing their arms, shoulders and abdomens. A very interesting series of photographs.

 

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Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

February 20, 2009

Lee Friedlander – New Mexico

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Copyright Lee Friedlander, 2008 published by Radius Books

 Lee Friedlander: New Mexico was published concurrently by Radius Books with the Friedlander exhibition at the Andrew Smith Gallery, Sante Fe, NM in the Fall of 2008. Thus in one sense, this book can be viewed as one heck of a great catalog.

Usually I defer to the end of the review to discuss a book’s workmanship, such as the paper and book binding, but for this book I will make an exception, in as I almost screwed up my copy from the get-go. I was mildly surprised when I opened the book for the first time to find the front end papers missing, the binding not glued or sewn to the spine, as well as the back end papers also missing, with the page page glued to the basic cover plate. Yikes!

My initial thought was that this was a Chinese book-binding screw-up. But then as I had my bottle of book binding glue in mid-air, I had second thoughts as I studied the re-seal-able poly pouch that the book came in. hmmmmm, Radius Books is innovative, so perhaps I should check-in first and not make assumptions (I need to get better at this).

So after a quick query to Darius Himes, co-founder of Radius Books, I received the following reply, which is probably best stated in his own words:

No, you’re not going insane. The book is a very intentional object:  no end-pages, the book block “sits” against the raw book boards, naked and exposed on the rough terrain of those boards, if you will.  The back of the book block is secured to the back board as a structural device.  This very raw object is clothed in a very elegant dust-jacket with a debossed and duo-tone printed, inlaid image.  Again, the effect is a raw object clothed with elegance (kind of like New Mexico and Santa Fe itself).  So, no, the book is not supposed to have front end-pages and the spine is not meant to be glued to anything…. you’re seeing right to the skeleton of any book.

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skeleton of this book

Update: I have subsequently found out that this is type of book binding is known as Tape Binding and I have added this term to my side bar of book definitions.

So now, getting into the book itself. As to the relevancy of another Friedlander book, this has already been discussed by Jeffery Ladd on SB4 and the counter viewpoint by Darius Himes on his blog, DariusHimes, so I do not need to cover this again. I think that Darius’s quote by Friedlander is probably most telling;

“This is not an important body of work, so I don’t want a big pretentious monograph.”

Thus Darius sums up the books intent as ” in the sense that this work is not ground-breaking. He’s (Friedlander) not pushing the envelope, he’s not looking to re-forge a photographic identity, he’s not looking to make his name with these photographs, nor, in the end, with this book” …”to think of each of Friedlander’s books as though they are each a poem in an anthology”.

As to this body of work by Friedlander, I think it is agreed that he does not break any new ground, but it is a continuation of his “voice” as expressed in his particular photographic style. Much like hearing a new song on the radio and instantly recognizing the voices and melodies of one of your your favorite groups. You enjoy the current song with its new lyrics, but you also are carried along with memories of their earlier recordings.

This body of work is topographical about a place, but in true Friedlanderism, you may not not be able to state that you know a lot more about New Mexico per se for reading the book.  The book does reinforce the Friedlander style, both with the photographic content as well as how the images are displayed on the pages.

The book has essentially two types of Friedlander photographs, in the car/urban landscape and the multifaceted and slightly destabilizing natural urban/rural landscape photographs. All of course with the trademark super-wide square format of his Hasselblad,  blazing bright front lighting with something up close and out of focus that breaks up the resulting image. And his shadow in the lower edges to provide that missing human element.

His work has become more mature and the initial jolts that resulted from his earlier work are no longer occurring, but now with repetition, it allows you to perhaps dig a little deeper. He continues to come back to those same viewpoints and compositions, no longer thought of as chance mistakes, but as deliberate  and accepted acts.

I am reminded of the quote from Frederick Sommer, another photographer of the Southwest, who stated; “It is the time you spend setting up and considering the scene that is the art of photographing; it’s really of very small consequence whether you press the button or not. “

Yet for most of us, we may not push the button when we saw these same sights, but Friedlander does consistently press the button for very similar compositions.  Much like an urban landscape photographer in Southern California who is instantly drawn to photographic compositions if palm trees are present. For Friedlander the things that draw him out is the act of photographing out the car window, compositions that contain things that can divide the image, a mess of bushes or tree limbs that can obscure the “facts”. Which are now “Friedlander moments” as we pass through a parking lot or down a sidewalk, glance over a fence, come across a bizarre hedge or unable to find a clear view of landscape subject.

These are all things that we see as we move about in our daily lives, but do not give enough significance to to commit to memory and experience. Until we have seen Friedlander’s photographs, and the quick synapse of recognition occurs. Unlike Aaron Siskind, who had stated that for him “a photograph should be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order“, Friedlander appears to be searching for the corollary disorder and a high degree of chaos.

For me, Friedlander photographs are metaphoric for the disorder and chaos that occurs in our daily lives, the things we try to shut out in favor of the better memories and experiences. Things are not always pretty, but can get messy, especially if we take note of how things do grow and flourish in nature. We might step to the right or left to get an unobstructed viewpoint, but momentarily we were standing in front of the pole or sign post. And that did leave us uneasy and uncomfortable.

So we have tried to create and make a comfortable order in the middle of chaos, but as Friedlander chooses to again and again remind us, we may be only momentarily fooling ourselves.

The order and sequencing of the photographs within the book are a nice flow, with related photographs on facing pages that provide that additional viewpoint of a Friedlander moment. The hardcover book with dust jacket is 11 1/4″ x 12″, which allows plenty of space for the photographs to well displayed. There is a narrow white margin of approximately 1/2″ around each square photograph, with no bleeds or two page spreads of the same image, thus nothing lost in the gutters. And there are 45 duotone photographs within the 80 pages, along with a Forward by Andrew Smith and an essay by Emily Ballew Neff. A very pleasing design by the team of  Skolkin+Chickey, two of the Radius Books principals.

A limited edition of 200 books with slip covers is also available.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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February 6, 2009

Virginia Beahan – Cuba

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Books — Tags: , , , — Doug Stockdale @ 6:07 am

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Photographs  copyright Virginia Beahan, courtesy of Pond PressJoseph Bellows Gallery

Virginia Beahan’s new book Cuba, Singing with Bright TearsPond Press, available in April 2009, is a big, breathtakingly beautiful book that takes full advantage of Beahan’s large format photographs.

Her landscapes are a delight to read, with a tonal palette that reminds me of the seminal Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light photographs.The hard cover book is 12 3/4″ x 11 1/4″, which provides pages that are 12 1/2″ x 11″, and plenty of real estate for the images, all of which are surrounded by a classic white margin, a nice design by Kay Homans. When a photograph requires a two page spread, there is nothing lost in the gutter, as the images on facing spread each continues with the white margins. And in the one case of a three page gatefold spread, all three images retain their white margins, which creates an impressive spread of photographs as it opens before you, and you see the full effect of this transfixing photograph of the bay.

The series also takes on a documentary feel, especially the first section, with her captions placing the photograph’s into a contextual relationship to Castro’s control and the current economics. We also see the irony of what Castro had hoped to create, versus the almost poverty level subsistence that his people now maintain. It is also evident that their lives are lived with a somewhat quiet respect and dignity, making the most of what they do have.

I also enjoy Beahans  wry humor, of the Cuba which is taught to fear the potential next invasion from the “imperialist” USA, but yet a run down ball field is ready to report the progress of the ball game with a mix of American and Spanish. When you are Out, there is really only way to state that with the proper baseball authority, eh?

The current state of Cuban under Castro is shown with empathay by Beahan, providing a balanced and sensitive view point. Cuba is has become a very third world country, as its economic security with the former USSR is now a thing of the past. All of this may change again with a coresponding leadership change. If Cuba is allowed to have a huge tourist flux from the United States, this landscape will morph rapidly again by the resulting tourism infrastusture investments.

She captures the colorful Carribean residences and businesses facasdes that make up the Cuban urban landscape, using that wonderful sun drenched light. I have had the pleasure to work and play on the islands surrounding Cuba, each with their own particular landscape that reflects their respective culture.  Thus I can almost feel the humidity rising off the pages and smell the heavy fragrances of the Carribean .  Such that these photographs resonant with memories within me.

One single image can not really define a culture, but only provides a snap shot or visual “sound” bite. Beahan seeks to go well beyond that with this series of photographs. There is a sense of what Cuba is as a result of the accumulation of her landscape images. To go beyond the facades and to patiently observe, all the while,  she is being obviously seen. There is a small dance taking place between the Beahan and those who are in the landscape before her camera.

As a result of her photographic tools, she does move slowly and while looking at the surface topology, finds hints of the underlying subtlety that define the Cuban culture. She does not capture the full essence of the island, which would not possible with her photographic tools and techniques, but she does capture a slice of that essence very well.

The hardcover book with dust cover has 162 pages, with 97 color photographs, with essays by John Lee Anderson and Pico Iyer. Although I have not been to Cuba, I now feel more of connection than I had before reading this book.

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La Socapa From Club Nautica, Santiago de Cuba, 2004

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

February 3, 2009

Humble Arts – Collectors Guide to Emerging Art Photography

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Books — Tags: , , — Doug Stockdale @ 4:35 am

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 Humble Arts has published at the end of 2008 an informative softcover publication, Collectors Guide to Emerging Art Photography. This is by no means inclusive of all of the emerging fine art photographers, but it does provide an interesting selection of many photographers who are starting to create a presence.

This 10 1/4 x 13″ softcover, 180 page book does provide a brief glimpse of each of the 163 photographers selected by the curators of this special edition book, Alana Celii, Jon Feinstein & Grant Willing. What I like about this large size book is the ample amount of room that allows the photographs to be seen and more critically reviewed on the wonderful printed luster pages. What I don’t like about this large book is knowing where to put it, although resting on its spine, I can get it pretty much out of traffic.

Like wise, one photograph per photographer is enough only to just tease the appetite, but that may be the point, eh? I did find that it did take only one photograph to provide enough information to determine who were the social exterior (landscape) photographers from those who provide the intimate people photographs, and those who subtly manipulated the two dimensional “reality” to those who created completely new realities. And those who did not fit nicely in pre-defined categories, which was nice.

The selection as noted above, was very broad and nicely balanced, although there were a minimum of heavily manipulated alternate reality photographs. Some of the names may even seem a bit familiar to be classified as “emerging” part, such as Amy Stein, to the very unknown or some in between such as Liz Kuball. Also interesting that the book’s curatorsthought enough of themselves to jury each other into the book, which question’s some of the books objectivity.  Nevertheless, I appreciate the international representation within the book, looking beyond the US borders, although there is a heavy US presence in the book.

A nice reference book, as it may help with linking a briefly seen image while cruizing the web with a name. And it always seems that those brief glimpses create memories that be-devil you later, as just who was that photographer?

 Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

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