The PhotoBook

June 30, 2009

Roger Ballen – Boarding House

Boarding-House_cover

Copyright Roger Ballen, 2008, courtesy Phaidon Press

For most of the photobooks I review, they usually are stand alone books, but I feel that Roger Ballen’s recent book Boarding House needs to be placed into a larger perspective.  Specifically to the content of his two previous books, Shadow Chamber, published in 2005 and Outland, published in 2001, both by Phaidon Press. Otherwise, it feels like I have walked into the middle of a fascinating and entertaining discussion, but I am left at a loss of what the topic is.

First, a little background, Roger Ballen is a New York born photographer who is living in South Africa since the 1970’s. He was a mining consultant while concurrently making personal documentary photographic projects in South Africa, many of which were subsequently published as books. He has experienced the social-economic turmoil in South Africa as the previous status quo was literally turned upside down.

Regretfully, I do not have either of Ballen’s two previous books, but the book’s images on Ballen’s web site are sufficient for me to develop an introduction to his current book. Outland was the photobook that Ballen created in 2001 which was a substantial departure from his previous documentary work. It introduced new elements, a change of location, blurring of reality and fiction, the creation of a set, and what we might now call cinematic images. But like his earlier documentary projects, Outland appears to have a heavy amount of human content and central to the book’s theme. The people in his photographs have now become actors in Ballen’s framework, the first two photographs from this book, below.

The photographs in Outland are a little easier to read, not as abstract and obscure as they will become in his later books. Due of the changes in South Africa, the implications of a white man lying on top of a bed, while a black man lies under the bed (Elias coming out from under John’s bed, 1999), seemingly trapped, seems an obvious comment about the social-cultural order. This of course is not an issue for South Africa alone, and it universally speaks to the subjugation of any minorities.  Likewise, a white person sleeping in bed (Portrait of a Sleeping Girl, 2000), with what could be the symbolic white ancestors looking down from the hanging photograph, and meanwhile a black cat takes a dominate position on top of the unconscious person.

In Outland, I see symbolic gestures of the people, meaning laden graphics applied to the walls of the odd theatrical stage, where everything seems orchestrated. The structure of the photographs is consistent, the shape of the square boundaries, the flat lighting introduced by the direct flash, printed middle key with an absence of pure blacks. The photographs are purposeful non-traditional,  lacking the full black and white tonal range I usually associate with modernistic photographs.

Subsequently Shadow Chamber, published in 2005, has the same photographic attributes of flat lighting, printed middle key with a mid-value compressed tonal range, the grayness of the photographs reflecting the grayness of the content. There are more gestures and graphics on the walls, perhaps more animals and it seems the actors are starting to move more to the background. For me, the content in Shadow Chamber  becomes more abstract, harder to read and decipher. Which is not to say that it is any less interesting, however it is not the same moralist story that we see in Outland.

Which now brings me to Ballen’s recent book, Boarding House.  Like Outland and Shadow Chamber, Ballen continues to use a similar photographic style, direct lighting that flattens the photograph, low contrast tonal scale predominately within the middle grays, collaborative actors performing upon a stage, with the walls becoming graphic backdrops and an integral part of the set. Another stylistic aspect of Ballen’s photographs is that his process creates a flat two-dimensional plane, similar to the process of flattening the adjustment layers on a Photoshop image, eliminating any hint of three-dimensionality. His process emulates the ensuing two-dimensional aspect of the photograph itself, whether as a print or a page, and speaks to the photographic process as an abstraction of reality.

A part of where the fact and fiction blur is that this project was created in a real building that is acting like a boarding house.  Just not a traditional boarding house that most might imagine, but a three story abandoned industrial building in a industrial area. The actors are actually the building’s squatters, who seemingly are willing to participate as collaborators in these constructed stories. We see what they call their home, thus a part of their reality.

In Boarding House, the participants, his actors, drift further into the background, behind walls, into buckets, under parts of the set, out to the edges of the photographs frame. We see only parts of the actors, their hands waving over a blanket, eyes peeking through holes, feet dropping in from above, or an arm extended into the frame and into a snake’s mouth. They are still an important element, but no longer taking the center stage. There are also animals, the ducks, rats, mice, dogs, puppies which can randomly make an uncontrolled appearance, as well as parts of animals that can be strategically positioned.

The painting and drawings on the walls and sculptural elements create a work on a temporary canvas. The drawings are only fleeting, soon to be just a memory after some-else takes over this room and space and implements the changes they feel necessary to create their living quarters. But for an instant, this is Ballen’s work space, his studio, his theater.

Ballen’s altered interiors reminds me of the work of John Divola, who’s body of photographic work started in the mid-1970’s of appropriating temporarily abandoned buildings (Vandalism and Zuma Beach Series), then painting and deconstructing the walls and space, subsequently photographing the effects. Only the photograph of the creation remains.

I find Ballen’s book to be very complex. The photographs evoke dark thoughts about curious and mysterious events.  I found the strangeness of these photographs to be bizarre, with some outright scary. The bizarre and out of context events depicted, with the symbolic drawings on the walls, doors and furniture create a surreal appearance. These photographs have become more abstract and to me, more complicated, both harder to read, but also loaded with more alternative contextual meaning.

This is a gritty gray book, and with each page turn, I found another imaginative and complex photograph to spend time with. I think that I only have scratched the surface for all of the potential meanings that lay within the context of Ballen’s photographs. This book depicts a noir theater created out of Ballen’s imagination.

Another resource is the interview of Roger Ballen by Darius Himes, co-founder of Radius Books, about this book, which can be found here, where Ballen states the following about his black and white photographs:

I can’t separate this work from black and white because I don’t think in color. I’m 58 years old, and I’ve been doing black and white since I was five years old. I don’t really like color. I like color paintings, but color pictures give you a wrong impression about reality. Most people think the camera is a factual instrument to duplicate reality, or objectify reality in some way, which is completely wrong! A color photograph leads you to believe that whatever you’re seeing is the real color, when in reality it’s photographic color. In very few cases, artists can manipulate color to create meaning the way a painter does. But with painting we never start with the assumption that reality is being duplicated. What worries me about color is that there is something artificial about it, but it won’t admit to its artificiality.

For some, these metaphoric photographs will be a delight, for others, as the contextual meaning has become more obscure, a challenge. Trust me, I think that this book is a challenge worth taking on and recommended.

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Outland, copyright of Roger Ballen, 2001

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Shadow Chamber, copyright of Roger Ballen, 2005

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By Douglas Stockdale

June 24, 2009

The PhotoBook on Facebook

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS — Doug Stockdale @ 5:58 pm

At the urging of Andy Adams of Flak Photo, I am experimenting with Facebook and I now have a fan page set up here for The PhotoBook. To be honest, I am not sure how this will work out, but I am willing to give it a try. As you might guess, I have not been a Facebook user until very, very recently.

My current thinking about this: my photobook reviews will be published right here, no change. On Facebook I will provide more background information,  trying to keep in what I think the spirit of Facebook is about, more details of what I am working on and the progress I am making for each photobook review.

So if you are interested in becoming a fan, please check it out. Thanks! And please let me know what you think about all of this, eh?

Best regards, Douglas

June 23, 2009

Graciela Iturbide – El Bano de Frida Kahlo

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Copyright Garciela Iturbide, 2008 courtesy ROSEGALLERY

This an interesting little book, perhaps two books within one set of covers, a fictional story, complemented by a related photographic body of work. The fictional story is written by Mario Bellatin, titled Demerol, Without Expiration Date and is about the “recent” artistic work being completed by Frida Kahlo. Except of course that Kahlo passed away in July 1954. But I guess that is what makes this story interesting, eh? But this story is not what captures my interest, it is the photographs by Graciela Iturbide.

Starting from the reverse side of this book is Graciela Iturbide’s El Bano De Frida Kahlo, a photographic project about the bathroom of Frida Kahlo. This photographic project was created at Kahlo’s home at La Case Azul (Blue House), located in Coyoacan, Mexico City, a museum housing the artifacts of her life.

One aspect of trying to understand a photographic project that is essentially about a specific person, is to better understand who the person might be.  I found myself learning a lot more about Frida Kahlo.  I came to better understand the difficult life that Kahlo had to endure, while yet pursuing her artistic passion and maintaining her marriage, divorce and then re-marriage to the sometimes larger than life artist, Diego Rivera. But Iturbide’s project is more intimate, private and personal, and we see very little of Kahlo’s creative endeavors.

As background for Iturbide’s book, Kahlo had a number of personal medical problems to overcome, such as polio as a young girl. More tragically, she was in a severe bus accident in 1925 that  led to numerous surgical procedures, the eventual lose of one leg and the majority of her time in constant pain for the remainder of her life. A difficult life.

Iturbide photographed one of Kahlo’s private sanctuaries, a place that allowed her to deal with her pain, problems and come to grips with her personal situation. In addition to the essentials of a bathroom, I see within the photographs the needed elements for someone who has special needs. The first photograph in this book illustrates the many pieces of equipment that were needed by Kahlo. There is also a poster of Lenin, perhaps to provide Kahlo with inspiration, but it seems odd in this context, located within a bathroom.  I see back braces, crutches, arm braces, body braces and other medical devices that Kahlo required from time to time. Iturbide also photographed a gown that Kahlo wore (below) with the multitude of stains that were acquired over the many years of use. The hanging gown, with it’s gauzy semi-transparency, seems to create a presence of Kahlo herself.

The walls have extra hand holds and side railings. There is a hot water bottle mounted on the wall, immediately accessible, probably to help sooth away her constant pain. The enima tubing that had to help her to maintain some semblance of  personal hygiene and maintain her sense of humanity. The poignant photograph of the back brace hooked on the wall, but located ever so near a side hand railing, although a nicely geometric photograph, the content of this photograph saying so much more about the condition of the user. There is a photograph of her artificial leg, but taken propped up outside against a wall, perhaps in the courtyard, a little symbolic of the duality of this medical device. A medical earth-bound necessity but yet a potential source of freedom, to be able to extend oneself beyond the confines of any one place.

In one photograph, I see that her bathroom has a large window that the two sides spread open to the outside. In another photograph, it bathroom window seems to be located on the second floor of the house, adjacent to what appears to be a tree lined courtyard. One can only speculate that if this window was a symbole or even a souce of an escape of her thoughts from her current conditions.

I see the elements that remind me of the humanity of a great artist, the details of everyday life that had to be dealt with. These are reminders of the fragility of the flesh, which probably kept Kahlo very grounded. We witness her somber and stained medical gown, very unlike her public persona we see so often in her paintings in which she is wearing wildly colorful and decorative dresses. The medical gown speaks of the personal hardships that the many resulting surgical procedures probably had on her and to remind us of what her spirit accomplished in the face of these hardships.

The book was jointly published by ROSEGALLERY and Galeria Lopez Quiroga, published in both English and Spanish versions. The hardcove book printed in China, has duo-tone photographs with a spot lacquer finish. The resulting small photographs are delicate and like little gems to be enjoyed, although I would like to have seen them printed larger.

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by Douglas Stockdale

June 19, 2009

Linda Connor – Odyssey

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Copyright Linda Connor, 2008, courtesy of Chronicle Books and Joseph Bellows Gallery; Astrophotograph, copyright of the Regents of California, the Lick Observatory Plate Archive

In Homer’s Odyssey, an early Greek poem, Odysseus is on an epic journey and encounters endless trials and tribulations during the ten years it takes for him to reach his home. Odysseus was not only trying to reach his home during his struggle to re-establish himself, but was also on a search for his inner self. The poem itself is also noted for having a non-linear plot, starting with events in the middle of the story with flashbacks as the story unfolds.

Linda Connor’s book Odyssey is also about a search, in her case, the object she is seeking are sacred places, where there may exist the presence of a universal force. And like Odysseus, this personal pursuit for this elusive subject has taken Conner on a global journey, and the search for something elusive as a sacred place is not unlike the search for one’s self

Her photographic content is as much about capturing a sense of mediation as the images could be a source of mediation and reflection. Connor captures multi-cultural, multi-religious ceremony, rites, sites, places, events, those who might lead the way or help provide the truth, and guides to eternity.  Odysseus also had to use subterfuge, secrecy, hiding, disguises and cunning during his struggle and pursuit, so likewise, things are not always what they appear.

In attempting to capture the essence of sacred places, she also has to confront religious places and practices, which are equally elusive. Thus her photographs are loaded with traces of the unseen, transcendental moments, beliefs of the deities and the greater mysteries that lay just beyond our comprehension.

I could not help but notice that a lot of time was spent in editing this book, as I sense some very strong pairing of images as they face each other across the spread. The paired photographs play off each other, reinforcing the content with repetitive designs, ideas and suggested thoughts. I have tried to provide a sense of the pairing with images that I selected from the book, below. Each photograph stands on its own very well, but in the context of the selected facing photograph, she truly achieves the tricky math of 1 + 1 = 3 & more.

She provides very complementary ideas and concepts with the context of paired photographs in her attempt to grasp these sacred sites and the potential meaning that extend well beyond of our ability to comprehend.  Such as the pairing of the nineteen century astrophotographs of the star studded sky, symbolic of the heavens, with the normal viewpoint of the sky through the trees. Then I notice that the patterns created by the stars are not unlike that of looking up at the sky through the trees. To link a difficult concept of infinity to something more attainable and comprehensible.

The sequencing of the photographs through the book are perhaps not as strong as the paired images, but it something that you may only notice somewhat later after the fact.

Her photographs are printed one large image per page, within out any edge bleeds or images straddling across the gutters, which makes them a pleasure to look at.  However, all of the photographs are printed on black pages, thus each photograph is surrounded by a rich, black margin. The black margins seem to effect how my eyes view the photographs on the page.  Although I think in this instance, it adds to the mystery of her images, with the photographs emerging out of darkness.  The effect is similar to the content of many of her images, an illuminating shaft of light emerging from the unknown.

So if like Odysseus, who was trying to reach home, was really trying to discover who he is, what then is Connor searching for within these scared sites?  We are left with only some really tantalizing clues in this beautiful illustrated book.

The hardcover book, with dustcover, is of a nice size of 12 1/4 x 11 1/2 to provide nicely illustrated photographs, with an enlightening two part afterward, an informative conversational discussion by Linda Connor with Robert Adams and Emmet Gowin. There is also an essay by William L. Fox.

 

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Plate139_from_Monastery_Roof   Plate139-Monks_watching-festival

 

By Douglas Stockdale

June 17, 2009

PDN’s PhotoAnnual 2009 – book list

I was turned onto PDN (Photo District News) magazine about a year and a half ago at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Before that, I just saw it as a professional photographic magazine, for wedding and commercial advertising photographers. Wrong.

In PDN for May 2009, they have issued their PhotoAnnual for 2009. I think that the September issue is their book issue, but I usually have found something of interest in almost every issue. This month, PDN has a category for Photo Books amoungst their various catagories. So how did I stack up, eh?

At the moment, I have published one review from their book list; Nina Berman’s Homeland, but I have two photobooks that I am working on with pending reviews; David Maisel’s Library of Dust and Eugene Richards The Blue Room.

Not too bad, seems we are somewhat in sync.

Of the books that PDN has listed, I see a number of photobooks that are interesting: David Stewart’s Thrice Removed, Donna Hixson’s self-published Shadows on the Plains (resemblance to Eugene Richard’s The Blue Room, above), and Joshua Lutz’s Meadowlands and possibly if I could find it, Rob Hornsta’s self published 101 Billionaires.

There are three that are on the border-line for me; David Graham’s Almost Paradise, Michal Chelbin’s Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes and Other Traveling Troupes, and last, Erwin Olaf’s Erwin Olaf.

Okay, so now I have a short list of books to acquire. sigh. Any donations??

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

Update;  I just received from Dan Nelken a copy of his book, Till the Cows Come Home, a 2008 PDN book of the year.  So look for a review of this delightful book hopefully before the end of July. And Nelken’s book was published by Kehrer Verlag, one of the book publishers receiving recognition in this same May 2009 issue of PDN. Very nice.

June 14, 2009

Eiji Ina – Emperor of Japan

Ina-Emperor_of_Japan-cover

Photographs copyright of Eliji Ina, 2008, courtesy of Nazaraeli Press

Eiji Ina’s recent book, Emperor of Japan, is part documentation, part examination, and part aesthetic observance. He has documented the burial sites, miasai, of the Japanese Emperors since the Kofun period, which reaches back approximately 1,600 years into history. While Ina was at each of these sites, which are spread across Japan, he also photographed the surrounding landscape terrain which is included within the Imperial Gardens. Thus the book has the feel of a collaboration that might have occured between Minor White  and Brend & Hiller Becher.

From the book’s description provided by the publisher; 

The scenes that Ina has captured – not of the tombs themselves, but rather the places for worshipping at the tombs, and the surrounding gardens and landscapes – were created by the emperor system, with its claim of an unbroken line of sovereigns, that served as the foundation of the modern nation state of Japan.

In one sense, this body of work by Eliji Ina reminds me very much of the Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Typologies, such as the examples that are here and here. For the burial mounds, Ina provides a consistent viewpoint, with the subject presented straight forward & centered and the horizon at a fairly consistent 1/3 point within the horizontal images. The photographs all appear to be taken at the same time of year, during an overcast sky that allows a glowing light, but few shadows, thus we have shadowless trees and architectural features. Regarding the photographs, they exhibit an almost full range black & white values, but seemingly without the darkest blacks and few really white highlights, creating a podominate grayness consistent with the overcast days that they were photographed.

The burial mound’s are photographed at a mid-range viewpoint, rarely providing a larger overview of the surrounding landscape. The repetative burial mound compositions are formal and tight to create a consistent appearance.  There are similar page layouts to the Becher’s work, with multiple burial mounds on the same page to work as a typographic theme.  And similar to the Becher’s Typographic series, there are no people present, but there are the traces of their presence.

This group of photographs serve to illustrate the similar but yet different burial sites that have evolved over the last 1,600 years.

As a counterpoint to the consistent stylist documentation of the burial mounds, there are the accompanying landscape photographs. Where as the burial mounds are formalistic, the landscape photographs have a very broad range of subject, composition, and focus. There are tight arrangements of the underbrush, narrow slice of focus of the groomed rocky ground cover, mid-point compositions of the ponds and waterways, and straight down viewpoints of the growing ground cover. These landscapes photographs create for me an equivalence, much like Minor White’s photographs in feeling to the potential sacred experience of the Japanese who visit these burial mounds.

One large difference between the Becher’s books and this book is the layout, pairing and pace of the photographs through out the book. Where as the Becher’s maintained a rigid consistency of how their photographs were illustrated, Ina’s book has a lot of variability, that in many ways improves the readability for me. My issue is with the occasional black backgrounds for the group and individual photographs. Especially for the few pages where a small photograph of a burial mounds is printed on the large black page, this combination just seems to fatigue my eyes as the large black page seems to compete for my attention equally with the smaller image.

In contrast, what I do enjoy is the pairing of the photographs in which there are facing pages of a burial mound and a garden landscape. On one side is a large photograph of the burial mound in which you can fully appreciate the content of these cultured and manicured landscapes.  On the facing page is the corresponding natural landscapes which is totally random and free form in how it exists, a total opposite to the controlled burial mound sites.

Interestingly while examining the content of these photographs, I find that these burial mounds, regardless of how long ago that they were created, are still well maintained, orderly, well manicured, structured. As mentioned earlier, there are traces of visitors, perhaps those who may have just stepped out of the picture frame.  I see the foot marks and other disturbances of the raked gravel before the burial mound gates. Somebody has been here recently, there presence almost seen, but surely felt. I also find myself confronting my own sterotypes about the Japanese culture, as I find only a few of these burial mounds have the orntatness that I would have expected, such as the photograph of the burial mound of Emperor Konoe, the fifth image below.

Within the photographs of some of these these sacred sites, I see the signs of the current society starting to intrude, bridging the reverence of the past with the reality of the present; such as the television antennas and other signs of current technology.

This book is about mortality and immortality, time, tradition, reverence and about the on-going social and technological evolution. That opposites occur in life, the pursuit of control and order, but yet the unpredictability of a natural world which continues to remind us of how little we can really control. We do our best, but it is a constant battle to survive. Even the gardens and areas surrounding these burial sites that are intended to be part of the sacred experience, the man-made ponds, the carefully planted trees, will become wild and unrulely without constant attention.

The hardcover book is case-bound with an elegant black Japanese cloth and has photographs tipped into both the front and back covers. The book’s impressive size of 11 1/2  x 14 1/2″ allows the large singular images to be easily studied contemplated. There are 145 duo-tone plates within the 132 pages, with the images lacquor coating in combination with the beautiful printing creates a wonderful presentation of this body of work.

By Douglas Stockdale

Update: Eiji Ina has been recognized for this photobook, details here.

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June 9, 2009

APhotoEditor

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS — Tags: — Doug Stockdale @ 4:51 pm

This morning, I received a nice comment about this blog from Rob Haggart, who writes the always informative APhotoEditor. nice.

I have been reluctant to self-promote my book reviews until I had what I thought was sufficient content, but now I believe that I am at that point. So if you appreciate my book reviews and want to help promote the site, please link me up! (Yes, un-abashed self promotion, eh?)

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

So later in the day:  More thanks go out to Jen Bekman’s Hey Hot Shot! blog for a really great article about this blog with a very kool endorsement as a “must read”, and a Rss feed on Andrew Hetherington’s What the Jackanory.

Thank you all for the wonderful feedback, appreciation and support;- )

June 09 Update

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 12:26 am

First off, just a quick thanks to Miguel Garcia-Guzman for the very nice comments on Exposure Compensation about my writing and reviews on the blog.

Although we are in the middle of installing some new flooring (wood in the studio, carpet in the house), I have a number of book reviews that are pending. I am waiting for requested images for Eija Ina’s Emperor of Japan and Linda Connor’s Odyssey to publish these two book reviews, hopefully by the end of the week.

Looking ahead, I will soon be publishing my thoughts about Candia Hoefer’s Libraries, Roger Ballen’s Boarding House, David Maisel’s Library of Dust, Jerry Burchfield’s Understory and Louie Palu’s Cage Call. And today I just received my copy of Debra Bloomfield’s Still. One of these will probably be my 50th book review, a nice little accomplishment, eh?

These books provide a very broad and interesting cross-section of photo books, from Bloomfield’s lyrical oceanscapes to Ballen’s troubling and challenging photographic project recently completed in South Africa.

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

June 5, 2009

Bernd & Hilla Becher – Basic Forms

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Copyright 2009 Bernd und (and) Hilla Becher courtesy Schrimer/Mosel Verlag

After reviewing the catalog for the Becher’s exhibition at Museo Morandi, I found that I wanted to further explore Bernd and Hilla’s photographic body of work. Thus I acquired this book, Basic Forms of Industrial Buildings, published by Schrimer/Mosel Verlag in conjunction with the Becher’s Hasselblad Award in 2004. As an engineer, I feel an interesting connection with their photographic content.

The book has the singular images of the Becher’s work that I was interested in studying, but also provides photographs that are somewhat atypical for how I had come to think of their body of work. The Bechers had developed an exhibition style that is very similar in format to the Museo book,  referenced above. The photographs in the Museo book have a lot of similarity and consistency derived from the Becher’s tight editing process, but these are not the only photographs that they made at any one location and typographic subject.

The water towers on the New City City roof in 1978 was made early in their career as they continued to develop their stylistic approach. The front-on viewpoint with the main subject located dead center is clearly evident. I can easily discern the details of this wooden structure that probably has been long replaced. Where many of the Becher’s photographic compositions isolate their subject, this photograph includes many other water towers in the near vicinity. The repetition of those sculptural shapes within the frame of this photograph is wonderful, but unusual for the Becher’s body of work. I attribute that to the fact that most of the larger industrial subjects that they photograph are in fact in isolated locations. I think it is very hard to find two or three blast furnaces in close proximity.

Apparently the Becher’s also photographed the broader industrial landscapes where their subjects were located, either to provide a point of reference or to develop another topic that they were investigating. Eventually they must have discovered that the tighter compositions were more abstract and and created sculptural mass and space in appearance.

Thus the overview of the blast furnaceinYoungstown, Ohio, 1893, second photograph below, provides an interesting view point of the middle groundof this industrial landscape. It seems evident to me that this photograph is consistent with their progression towards abstracting the shapes and forms of the industrial buildings and fixtures. The shape, lines and mass of the primary blast furnace are clearly seen. The background horizon of the distant homes and railroad supply lines have become more abstract, while the details in the foreground of the activities and infrastructure to support the activities to make this blast furnace function are clearly defined. This photograph provides more of a touch of humanity, still an abstract presence of those who built and made this industrial process operate.

Occasionally the Bechers photographed the internal details of these industrial sites that they were provided access to, such as filter plant that resides within the larger production area in Belvall Luxembourg, 1996. I see again, how they positioned their camera’s location and subsequent created the image composition to islolate forms and analyze structure.

As an engineer, I appreciate the photographs of the form following function and that good industrial design can have aesthetic qualities. As a photographer, I enjoy the sculptural shapes and masses that they isolate and create. As a social observer, I find that even when form follows function, that different cultures and societies discover, develop and evolve different solutions, which is diversity and affirmation that there is usually more than one right answer.

The introduction by Susanne Lange is insightful and beautifully written. Although Lange wrote her doctoral thesis on Bernd & Hiller Beecher, this is an easily read and informative text, which provides a fairly complete overview of the Beecher’s methodologies and oeuvre.

The hardcover book with slipcover measures 7 x 9 3/4″ with 144 pages and 61 duo-tone plates and nicely printed and bound at ESB in Verona, Italy.

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by Douglas Stockdale

June 3, 2009

Todd Oldham – Bedrock City

BedrockCity

© 2008 Todd Oldham Studio – Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com

Driving along US Interstate 40 across the Western U.S., I might have seen the signs announcing the opportunity to visit Bedrock City and my thoughts would have drifted off to one of the many Flintstones cartoons I enjoyed as a child. Or perhaps you had a car load of kids driving along this same endless stretch of road, and upon seeing the signs, they began to bedevil you during the ensuing drive, for just a quick stop to stop and see and THEN everyone promises to be good. Todd Oldham, a designer and photographer, did visit Bedrock City many years ago, and has now returned to provide a whimsical and insightful take on this ageless, but aging memory.

In one regard, this book is a documentary of an amusement park, which was developed in the high desert of Arizona, some 35 years ago. The site is a twenty acre re-creation of the Flintstones cartoon home of Bedrock City, a cartoon series developed by Hanna-Barrera studios. It is located off the beaten track, North of Williams en-route to the Grand Canyon. Not exactly near any large cities, and not a destination in its own right, such as a family visit to Disneyland.

I think that Oldham captures the tacky essence of this side attraction, the bright, fully saturated cartoon colors, the silly signs, the crude representations of the animals and unsophisticated characters of this cartoon series. He photographs these larger than life structures, which represents a fictional time and place.  When I try to think of these photographs with the eyes of my grandson,  I think that he would go off the wall with delight. As a child, he would look beyond much of the surface content and allow his imagination to go wild.  

And he would probably be bugging us for a long time to go visit Bedrock City.

I am struck by the absence of people in Oldham’s photographs, although I can detect the traces of their presence in the footsteps in the dirt. It is a bit odd to have a documentary of an amusement park, a place for people but without the direct presence of anyone. As a result this forces me to see the infrastructure and design of the buildings and components of the park itself.  I become more aware of its surroundings, see the high desert terrain and open landscape in which it is situated. The effect makes me feel more isolated, a contradiction in what this light hearted attraction is supposedly about.

In one sense this book is about our youth, to have wild fantasies, and while remembering the cartoon series, it provides romanticized thoughts about ideal family relationships. A time of fun, joy, and escape.  In another sense, it is about the hard edge of adult realities that are looming in the near distance of  childlike innocence. The potential hard landscape of adulthood, which can become dry and desolate, such as that lurking in the far distance within his photographs.

The photographs show that this attraction is old, dated, and representational, with worn, crude construction.  You see glimpses of the inner structure peeking out and holding up the facade.  The cartoon characters are crudely constructed, hard and inanimate, and they seem to project little or no warmth for me. Oldham’s photographs of this place also puts me on edge, because as an adult, I see beyond the best intentions of the place and the crude infrastructure that is lurking in the edges of the frame.

On the surface, this is a lighthearted body of work, but I find it have a subtle cynical edge to it.

The book has a few very whimisical and unusual elements for a photographic book, such as the 3 postcards located inside the back cover that you can detach the perforations and mail. Much like the post cards you would obtain at the souvinor shop, and oh yes, they are that tacky. Very cool.

 The book’s dust cover can be easily removed and morphs into a fun two-sided poster, with one side loaded with Bedrock City trivia. The printed stiff cover book is 8 1/2″ x 11″, 60 pages with one perforated gate fold. The Introduction is provided by Oldham and includes an article about the book written by Michael Graves, another noted Designer.

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By Douglas Stockdale

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