The PhotoBook

August 31, 2010

Christoph Lingg – Shut Down

Copyright Christoph Lingg 2007 courtesy Edition Aufbruch E.U.

The beautiful industrial landscape photographs of Christoph Lingg are in stark contrast to the general malaise that appears to be infecting the many industrial sites in his photobook Shut Down; Industrial Ruins in the East. It is evident that Lingg has traveled extensively searching for a specific type of industrial waste; places where structures of commerce have outlived their perceived usefulness and have subsequently been abandoned, idled and are no longer functioning. This project has much in common with Bernd and Hilla Becher decaying industrial structures, Eugene Atget’s old Parisian structure in transition, Eugene Richards abandoned Western plains farmhouses and John Bartelstone’s decaying Brooklyn Navy Yard.

 Lingg is investigating barren sites, which are now only inhabited by crumbling and fading buildings, silos, towers, and infrastructure. These places also have a flawed beauty that seems to intrigue Lingg with their design, lines, mass and varied patina of rusting hues. These are places that are similar to Henrik Saxgren’s Unintended Sculptures, where Lingg has found some of the magic of the readymade object, where everyday absurdities hint at surrealism.

 Lingg’s viewpoint attempts to be objective and almost as aseptic and clinical as Bernd and Hilla Becher’s black and white industrial photographs of abandoned industrial sites, but without their compositional repetition. Lingg’s color photographs are meticulous composed and sharply detailed, evidence of a large-scale camera which is so well suited to the investigation of industrial landscapes. His color photographs are very saturated but frequently have a somber tonality, suggesting the darkness of the economic pall that has come over these once and proud locations of industry. The tonality provides a hint of subjectivity for what I perceive as the photographer’s negative condemnation of what is being investigated.

 His foregrounds are usually vacant and empty, revealing no redeeming value, similar in spirit to the vacant and collapsing structures. He shifts the focus on this foreground as to emphasize that this is the central point, with the decaying structures seceding into the background, as lesser elements. This also creates a visual effect of more space within the photographs, attempting to establish a broader context for his narratives. Lingg’s photographs are elegantly composed to bring forth an esthetic balance and design, attempting to make these places visually appealing even in the pathos of the situation.

 Frequently Lingg pares the different viewpoints of the same general location on facing pages providing a richer narrative about each location. Sometimes there is a glimpse of an individual or equipment that is in the process of reclaiming these structures, extracting some industrial nourishment for another facility. Nevertheless, I do not feel the presence of redemption, tolerance, restoration and re-birth.

 An abandoned structure looms in the middle ground, surrounded by a field of green, with just a glimpse of a white church steeple barely visible amongst the rusting structures. An interesting narrative about the frailty of mankind contrasted against an enduring religious belief that the church continues on in spite of the fluxing economic conditions. I also can not help but note that the religious building is bathed in white, while the futilities of man are darkly rusting hues.

 In one photograph, the foreground is occupied by a vacant and abandoned skeleton structure, while across the greenish river a new and modern appearing high density structure has arisen. Almost lurking in the edges of the foreground is an industrial truck that appears to be collecting the structures remnants; while at the opposite side of the river is a modernist appearing park and canopy structure, providing a stark contrast of the new life looming over an old economy.

I found one pair of photographs particularly haunting in which dirty and ragged industrial clothing was left hanging in place on hooks amongst other hanging hardware and now appears like bodiless ghosts who were left to wonder through this barren faculty.

 Even as the interiors are detoriating, the ensuing results can still create beautiful abstractions, such as the photograph of the wall of yellow peeling paint. It could have been tempting to isolate these forms, shapes and colors to create an aesthetically pleasing photograph, but Lingg chose to include within the frame the counter top and abandoned dusty shoes, creating a more objective and documentary style photograph, reminding me of the story of the Beauty and Beast.

 Unseen are the individuals who labored and once depended on this manufacturing site for a living. Likewise the families and the adjacent community which had depended on this factory for its economic livelihood are not visible. These structures at one time were teeming with people, but who are now sadly missing, with the expectation of a few individuals who appear to be picking through these industrial bones, attempting to find something of value or benefit that might have been earlier overlooked. A factory which ceases to operate has far-reaching implications. It may appear that the decaying and rusting facilities are symbolic of a once thriving business that operated this site, but frequently the corporate business still lives on, only now in another less expensive location.

 I also sense a caustic commentary about a disposable society, such that a substantial factory built from brick and steel can be viewed as impermanent and considered industrial waste. That unneeded factor sites can appear to be a casual liability, much as we might dispose of a paper wrapper after enjoying a sweet confectionary.

 These are melancholic appearing places, more about death than life, a beautiful and yet sad narrative. For me most of the traces of life are no longer present, just the industrial bones left to bleach and rust in the natural elements. There must be memories here, but I do not sense that these are places of dreams, unless you count nightmares. These photographs do not seem hopeful.

 Lingg’s photobook is itself a beautiful and unique object; the book’s cover has incorporated thin rusting metal places, making each set of covers very unique and fitting representation of what lies between the covers. The book has been assembled by hand with screws, which would appear to allow the book to lay flat, which it does somewhat only when you pause mid-book. The book is cased in a stenciled industrial grayish paperboard, probably recycled pulp, slip cover. The essays are provided by Susanne Schaber, Richard Swartz and Serhij Zhadan.

by Douglas Stockdale

August 24, 2010

The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans

Copyright the estate of Frederick Evans 2010 courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum and photo-eye

The retrospective monogram, The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans, curated by Anne Lyden, complemented by Hope Kingsley’s essay, provides a wonderful tribute to this renowned English photographer (b. 1853, d. 1943, England).

Evans was an active photographer from the early 1880’s well into the 1930’s. Although his subjects ranged from portraits to the rural landscape and English country homes, he is best known for his poetic photographs of English and French Cathedrals. Evan’s aesthetic interpretations of these “great ecclesiastical sites” were praised by Alfred Stieglitz, who featured Evans photographs and writings in his journal Camera Work (issue #4, 1904) and exhibited Evans photographs at his “291” gallery in New York in 1906.

The book includes Evan photographs from his entire body of work. His cathedrals photographs are from his studies at Canterbury, Gloucester, Lincoln, Ely, Wells, Southwell, Durham, Westminster Abbey and Winchester in England, and Rheims, Bourges, Arles and Rouen in France.

Even though I have seen Evan’s “A Sea of Steps” (Stairs to the Chapter House, Wells Cathedral, 1903) countless times, it still remains one of my favorites Evans photograph and I still consider it amazing tour de force. This one photograph seems to embody all of the aesthetic beauty that Evans aspired a photographic print to achieve.

Although Evans became a member of the Linked Ring in 1900, he was a strong advocate of the straight photograph, utilizing unaltered negatives and photographic prints. This was in marked contrast to the then prevalent photographic altering practices of the Pictorialist and other members of the Linked Ring.

Evans photographic techniques and style laid the foundation for the practice of pre-visualization and the concepts behind the zone system. His idea for the aesthetic appreciation for the photographic print as an object has a large influence in the modern practices of matting and display of photographic prints. Thus many of book’s interior plates illustrate Evans photographs in the context of the multi-tiered mattes that he chooses to complement and enhance the experience of a specific photographic image.

The book is printed on luster paper and although the interior printed plates are unvarnished, the resulting images have a beautifully long tonal range, probably not equal to the original; it provides a wonderful appreciation of Evans evocative photographs. Each interior image has been printed as close as possible to the color tint of the original platinum print, with a full range of pale yellow, light greens, hint of rose and a full variety of grays, enhancing the reading experience of the book and a further appreciation of Evan’s photographs.

By Douglas Stockdale

August 13, 2010

in-public – Ten Years of in-public

copyright the photographers 2010, courtesy of in-public

To celebrate the ten year existence of the on-line group of photographer affiliated with in-public, they have self-published a collection of their photographs. Each of the 20 photographers that participate with the group has the opportunity to select 10 photographs of their work in conjunction with a brief biographic interview.

The photographers represented in this photobook are Nick Turpin, David Gibson, Richard Bram, Matt Stuart, Andy Morley-Hall, Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, Adrian Fisk, Nils Jorgensen, Jesse Marlow, Melanie Einzig, Jeffery Ladd, Amani Willett, Gus Powell, Christope Agou, Otto Snoek, Blake Andrews, David Solomons, George Kelly and Paul Russell.

The glue that holds the group together is an interest in street photography, an affinity toward the recording of the cultural interaction of an urban society that is played out on or near the streets in which these contemporary photo-flaneurs haunt.

As evident from studying this photobook, this group of photographs is very diverse in their photographic styles and interpretations of the human drama that unfolds before them. The photographic content ranges from humorous visual puns to very dark poetry, with a lot of opportunity to create your own narrative.

From my brief association with a small web-based photographic group, I understand some of the dynamics, support, challenges and eventual friendships that can help sustain a group of individuals with a similar interest.

Jonathan Glancey in his introductory essay sums it nicely; “Most of all, what I see here and despite whether or not individual images seem sad, mocking, haunting or plain funny, is a genuine if not obvious humanity at work behind twenty brilliantly focused lens. How frail, and so very human, we seem in the mighty construct of the modern city.”

by Douglas Stockdale

August 10, 2010

Squale – Mauerreste

Copyright Squale 2010 courtesy of the artist

The only descriptive information that is provided in Squale’s DIY photobook Mauerreste is the subtitle, The Berlin Wall – 20 Years Later. This photobook is printed in low contrast on a flat stock, which accentuates the middle gray moodiness of the photographs. Berlin and its outer boundaries appear to be neither a happy nor upbeat place.

 Few people are contained within the photographs, predominately photographs of the urban landscape that include structures, walls, watchtowers and other artifacts that once divided a city. A watch tower has become an abandoned monument in the midst of the surrounding apartment homes, which seem to tower over this decaying structure. The adjacent barren tree is symbolic of the former personnel who manned this guard tower, appearing dark and lifeless on this gray and gloomy day.

Now the famous US Army check-point Charlie is a tourist location, the few individuals evident in the background of this photograph are dark and featureless. This photograph spans the two facing pages and the check-point structure is fractured by the book’s center gutter. The two pages create a disjointed and uneven photograph, with parts of the image obviously swallowed by the photobook’s binding. Even the large photograph of a portrait within the photograph is no longer whole with the face of the individual depicted now hidden from view. The photograph takes on a dark and mysterious narrative.

 One of the more interesting photographs is the fractured sign, with a section standing on each facing page. The contents of the sign are largely missing, but appear to be written in German (Deutsch), but on one of the supporting posts, in almost English is “Worthless Designshit”, guessing that the part of the D is missing in Designshit. Worthless is an English word that indicates no value. Designshit is not an American English word, (perhaps a British English word?), but has similar construction as the German practice of progressively adding words together in a long stream of consciousness. These words, with the fractured and incomplete sign posted in the vacant foreground together create a compounded and symbolic image of deep disappointment and despair, if not a silent rage.

 The overly gray photographs create for me a depressing narrative, such that the realities of a reunited city and nation have not lived up to the hope-filled expectations.

 The binding of this DIY photobook does not permit a lay flat presentation. This photobook is devoid of captions, page numbers or essays. Very minimalist.

By Douglas Stockdale

August 8, 2010

Paula McCartney – Bird Watching

Copyright Paula McCartney 2010 Princeton Architectural Press courtesy of the artist

I must admit when I first saw the first announcement for Paula McCartney’s photobook Bird Watching, it drew a long yawn. I mean, OMG what were the photobook publishers thinking? When I later learned that Darius Himes had written the Afterword, I started to reconsider my initial response, such that I subsequently acquired a copy from Paula. How ironic, that for this delightful book, I am going to have to admit that I initially got it totally wrong and I will now have to eat some crow (Styrofoam, of course, as no real animals were hurt in the writing of this review).

 Usually a good place to begin while reading and attempting to understand a photobook is identifying the subject or subject matter. In a wonderful way, this is not such an easy task with Bird Watching, which is a little bit more complex than the title and initial browsing reveal. Yes, it could be a bird watchers journal, until you discover the photographed birds are not real. It could be a charming fictional work, if in fact the photographs are real landscapes with real fake birds. It could be a satire on those who enjoy bird watching, or any obsessive hobby, but there is a very light and joyful aspect to this body of work, that does not feel the heavy weight of irony or a caustic narratives, but more of a wink or two between friends. I feel in the end this book is about creating an object of fantasy that relies in part on photography to help facilitate McCartney’s playful story.

 McCartney has incorporated a lighthearted hand-written narrative with her delicate ink drawings in conjunction with her photographs to recreate a humorous bird watchers “trophy” journal. This is a fictional scrap book that is inclusive of various bird sightings and personal memorabilia and appears similar to one that you might suspect an actual bird watcher might compile, with an exception to photographs of the fake birds.

Her color photographs have the aesthetics of a bird photographers manual, the subject is composed somewhat central within the framework, and the depth of field is shallow, similar to the effect of a long telephoto lens that are required for photographing the real birds. The birds are sharply focused, thus making it relatively easy to determine that these in fact are not real birds, although positioned on branches in a very similar manner as to the real variety. The shallow depth of field also creates interesting landscape photographs, providing a hint of geographical context that is consistent with the location of the real variety of the fake birds depicted.

Darius Himes in his essay, states: “We’ve been trained to think of photographs as documents of things that really happened in the world: that we, through the photographer, are silent witnesses to the forces of life and nature and man. In many ways, this holds true in Bird Watching. McCartney was there, and so were those pieces of Styrofoam that look like birds. And while the initial enticement of her images leads to a brief poke in the eye, we are not so stunned as to recoil in disgust. She’s not laughing at us by drawing us into her fantasy, rather she’s playfully reminding us that all photographs indulge in certain fictions. And like any good book, she takes us on a journey that is educational and inspiring.”

 McCartney’s photobook is a delightful mix of landscape photography with charming double-takes, with a witty, if not outright humorous, captions and commentary that continues in character, and provides an overall fun experience. This is one photobook that I am very happy that I gave a second chance and a photobook that I can definitely recommend.

by Douglas Stockdale

August 4, 2010

Simon Roberts – We English

Copyright Simon Roberts 2009, courtesy of Chris Boot Ltd & Simon Roberts

When I first became aware of Simon Roberts photobook project that would eventually develop into We English, I was very intrigued by the concept, his past photographic work in Russia, and what he was attempting to investigate in his own homeland. And probably as well for personal reasons, that although I am a sixth generation American, my family roots are traced back to Northern England. So I was also interested in learning more about my really distant cousins.

Robert’s photobook We English is a wonderful mixing pot; an autobiographical and cultural narration placed in generous landscape settings about those who call themselves “English”. It is not meant to be an exhaustive examination, but he has selected “English leisure” activities that occur in the open, which means frequently his photographs appear like peopled landscapes. Roberts also appears to have investigated a broad cross-section of English leisure as to be inclusive of most social groups, from those who attend the horse racing and polo matches to the banks of the river for swimming or bustling amusement parks and football (soccer) games.

Knowing that Roberts is using a large format camera, which is usually difficult to ignore, nevertheless, even when standing in front of a large crowd, he seems to have become invisible. It usually takes a while to find someone in the midst of the activity that has direct eye contact with his lens, otherwise, everybody appears to be absorbed in the activity at hand.

While utilizaing the large format camera and what appears is a small aperture, Roberts creates beautiful color photographs that are rich in content, color saturation, sharp in focus and loaded with details. There are generous amounts of geographical terrain in his photographs and consistently composed to allow enough sky to provide environmental clues about the climate of the region. All of the photographs are framed horizontally which provides an expansive feeling the images.

As to the photographs, it is still difficult for me to really say that I can understand something about a group of people while viewing a single moment in time. There are some interesting clues that after a time I might be able to say that based on my own experience, this is what I feel and maybe to extrapolate that to what others might be experiencing. This is one of the points of Andrew Phelps photobook Not Niigata, that even when I am looking at a foreign society, and think that I see something familiar, that I still can not really say that I understand their society or culture. It is best to admit that I don’t really understand much at all.

Nevertheless as an American, there are English activities that I can relate to; seaside walks on expansive beaches, swimming in a river or creek, picnicking in a park, hiking a trail, bicycling, sledding during the winter (when we visit the mountains), fishing at a pond, touring with a camper, attending amusement parks, playing a round of golf, an afternoon riding go-carts, attending a sporting event, and boating on a lake.

It is in studying the details of Roberts’s photographed events that I start picking out the differences between my personal experiences and actual content that is evident.  The collision of fact with perception forces me to question what it exactly that I see. Yes, I recognize the activity and it does appear the same, but in fact it is different. Once that door is open, then these seeming simple photographs become much more complex and bundled together in this book, weave a very enjoyable narrative.

The complexity of another culture and society is exemplified when there are unique activities photographs, such as the formalized bird shootings, a Mad Maldom Mud Race, the Haxey Hood (hunt), polo matches, gardening Allotments (green space gardens and accompanying shed), and pigeon racing. Roberts photographs English events that I label as cultural oddities, such as the semi-formal picnic, when a man needs a nice bow-tie to complement the occasion. I also observe the activities occurring in what appears as unique English terrain of steep rolling hills and valleys or adorned with the ruins of a castle.

It appears that a day on the beach may require a number of layers of clothing to apparently to stay warm and dry. Usually, as previously noted, Roberts photographs are inclusive of the sky, which is predominately overcast, cloudy and moody appearing, which coincides with the beach photographs with the individuals wearing the additional layers of clothing. By contrast, it may be necessary for me to dress in a similar manner on our Southern California beaches about one month per year.

In the Introductory essay, Stephen Daniels states; “The precise places and pursuits of the English Outdoors – racegoing, seaside promenading, picnicking, angling, hiking and heritage visiting – may have changed over the past century, but much appears to remain the same. Some older traditional pastimes such as street football and cheese rolling have either survived or been renovated, even reinvented. How far these places and pursuits are regarded as forms of national or even patriotic identity by the participants themselves, rather than by those who merely observe the English Outdoors, remains an intriguing question.”

In Roberts Afterword commentary he states; “…I knew I’d begun to develop a formal composition to my framing which would define the direction of the work. I would move away from photographing the individual and engage instead with the idea of the collective, of groups of people populating the landscape. Photographing from elevated positions (often from the roof our motorhome, as it turned out) would enable me to get a greater sense of people’s interaction with the landscape and one another. I also decided that the figures would be relatively small in the frame, although not always so small that you couldn’t make out some facial expressions, what they were wearing and their activities….I liked the idea of what appeared to be predominantly pastoral landscapes becoming, on closer inspection, multilayer canvases, rich in detail and meaning.”

Roberts narrative captions in the Commentary section provide an additional autobiographical insight to this project and the accompanying photographs, such as the photography of the kids sledding in the winter at the 17th hole of the Tandridge Golf Course in Oxted.  The commentary provides a new layer of meaning to aid in both seeing and interpreting the photograph with his “local English” knowledge that is probably not readily event to those who are examining these photographs with a different cultural background and experience.

What I enjoy in these photographs: color, design elements, details, balance of the photographs, all of which allows me to dream and free associate. This book is an extraction of a certain group of people in nice circumstances, on holiday, when things should be right. Even though by the end of the book, do we really know that much more about the English culture? Perhaps we may gain a small insight and a hint of the English society, but that does not take away from the enjoyment of Roberts’s photographs.

The large horizontal format book elegantly matched to the large format horizontal and detailed color photographs, classically designed with a small white margin around each photograph, as though looking through a window. Essay by Stephen Daniels and Afterword by Simon Roberts.

by Douglas Stockdale

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