The PhotoBook

November 19, 2010

Simon Harsent – Melt

Copyright Simon Harsent 2010 Pool Productions courtesy photo-eye (http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2010/11_18_Melt.cfm)

After leaving the Midwest over twenty-five years ago for Southern California, I am now content to visit the snow on our annual ski trips. I have fond memories of the first snow or awaking with a fresh white blanket covering our yard, but I recall with equal feelings trudging to school with a wintry blast stinging my face or wading through the early spring slush. Thus it is difficult for me to comprehend a growing interest in icebergs, while it is apparent that these floating structures have stirred the imagination of a growing number of photographers. Joining them is Simon Harsent with his recent photobook Melt, Portrait of an Iceberg.

My first impression Harsent’s documentation of various icebergs during their migratory pathway was investigating a collective portrait of an iceberg. The difficulty that I have with this concept is the implication that if we were presented with photographs of a variety of people we might construct a portrait of a human. Thus after considering the cleaving, wasting away and eventual dissolution of these snowy structures, I sense an alternative symbolic narrative about a mid-life crisis, old age, impermanence and eventual passing.

These are outward looking Seascapes, with a mass of snow and ice rising just above horizon and filling much of the sky. The ocean usually appears tranquil, while the skies are dark, overcast and clouded and provide a moody and melancholy feeling to the photographs. One result of the flat lighting is to compresses these structures into abstract surfaces. These structures are frequently ambiguous as to their relative size and volume; without a fathomable reference point, I can not be sure how large these masses are. Harsent sublime compositions early in the book hint at a massive size, such that they can not be retained within the boundaries of the pictorial space. Later in the book, when the icebergs have become more diminutive, they sit easily within the frame.

Harsent serially presents photographs of the phases of an iceberg, a progression that begins as large looming structures and that over time become reduced in size to be reshaped by the sea, wind and sun. The structures appear to be in a slow kinetic morphing, assuming random changes in appearance, depending on the weather conditions encountered in their slow plodding transition to the iceberg graveyard. The chiseled and angular sides of the iceberg initially reveal the results of the cleaving, exposing the structures ancient inner core. The resulting wind, sun, melting and sublimation subsequent re-contour the surface lines, creating aesthetic windswept and flowing icy sea-sculptures.

The beautiful horizontal color photographs are complemented by a classic layout in this large, oversize horizontal hardcover book.

By Douglas Stockdale

November 9, 2010

Erik van der Weijde – Der Baum

Copyright Erik van der Weijde 2010 courtesy 4478ZINE and the artist

In Germany in the 1910’s and into the early 1930’s a series of books were published by Karl Robert Langewiesche by his publishing house Verlag Langewiesche Nachfolger. In the late 1920’s Langewiesche came up with the idea of creating inexpensive books to bring culture and self-improvement to the working class and created a separate publishing group to facilitate his idea, called Verlag Der Eiserne Hammer (The Iron Hammer). On each of these books was the Langewiesche motto Arbeiten und nicht verzweifeln (Work and Not Despair), although also some carried another motto, Das Gute fur Alle (The Good for All). If Erik van der Weijde has successfully incorporated the spirit of these early books into his concept for De Baum (The Tree), then these early German books must be a forerunner of the popular “Dummy” series. Which in this case, De Baum could be the “Decorating with a Tree for Dummies”.

The repetitive design, layout, photographic style and framing of the subject, a tree or a couple of trees, begins to numb your senses by the conclusion of the book. The trees are photographed in a pedestrian documentation style as well as from the advantage point of a pedestrian. Each tree is photographed from a middle distance, providing the viewer with the ability to see their overall structure of each tree, but not close enough to see the details and nuances that might make each tree truly distinct or unique.

The photographs of the trees are presented one per page, two per spread with a uniform white margin. The vertical design of the book complements the vertical nature and framing of his subject. If the tree is wide, van der Weijde just photographs from a distant vantage point. There is one exception that is laid-out in the book perpendicular to the page to maximize the tree’s size, and to provide a photograph of a tree consistent in relative size with the other documented trees.

This concept photobook is an encyclopedic catalog of places where you can decorate an urban space with a tree to show others, as in the spirit of the Der Eiserne Hammer , that you now have self-improved yourself and to make it evident that someone has acquired more “culture”. It does beg the question of how much does this book really vary from the current billion dollar “self-help” publishing culture, where the fore mentioned Dummies books generates millions of dollars in revenue each year? This is at the heart of the subtle caustic humor that I find underlying the photographs and the entire book as an object.

Another subtly is the printing and binding of Der Baum and the Der Eiserne Hammer books, because Langewiesche printed in such large volumes, numbering over 10,000 copies per printing, he could have a very nice book produced at inexpensively prices. Likewise van der Weijde has a nice quality paper with a sewn binding and a dust cover over the stiff covers, befitting a nice photobook. In contrast his black and white photographs and print quality is are not of equal quality to the actual book and remind me of police line-up mug shots; usually photographed in flat lighting, a full tonal range, but the tree shadow’s are blocked and an overall grayness of most images. Thus Der Baum is an aesthetic contradiction, similar in concept of looking down on society as Der Eiserne Hammer.

The late 1920’s and early 1930’s was not a benevolent time in Germany history, with the Nazi party gaining traction and the increasing adoration of Hitler. Thus the tongue in cheek inclusion by van der Weijde of two tree sites that are related to Hitler’s life, which in 1931, might have provided further validation of the appropriateness of where the use of a tree for urban decoration. From what I understand of the social-politics of Nazi regime, there was appropriateness in almost every facet of German life, what was consider acceptable and what was not. At that time, you had an uncertain future if what you did was not considered acceptable, thus the strong social conditioning for almost rigid conformance. And perhaps there might have been a need for a photobook such as Der Baum to help understand what tree was permissible to place where.

Stiff cover with a dust cover, the printed paper is semi-gloss (luster), with a sewn binding.

by Douglas Stockdale

November 7, 2010

Mona Kuhn – Photographs

Copyright Mona Kuhn 2004 published by Steidl

In 2004, Mona Kuhn published her first photobook, Photographs, with the German publisher Steidl. Subsequently Steidl has published two additional Kuhn titles, Evidence and most recently Native. Photographs is a body of work developed over a period of over six years and draws from two of her then current portfolios, Black and White 1998 – 2002 and France 2002 – 2004.

The book begins with a large selection from her Black and White portfolio, then sequences into the France portfolio and ends with photographs from the Black and White portfolio. As quickly deducted from the title of the portfolios, the Black and White is indeed all black and white photographs, while she introduces color into the France portfolio. The two portfolios also differ in her interpretation and subsequent narrative of her naturalist subjects. The two portfolios are complementary and her sequencing moves easily between the two bodies of work.

My first impression upon viewing the introductory black and white photographs was a strong association between Kuhn and the earlier work of Ralph Gibson and his photobook’s The Somnambulist, Déjà-Vu, and Days at Sea, especially the Kuhn photograph Sombra, first image below. Gibson’s photographs have been described as “often incorporating fragments with erotic and mysterious undertones, building narrative meaning through contextualization and surreal juxtaposition”.  Sombra has almost all the visual and physiological nuances of Gibson’s best work, with a truncated body, part of the face that includes the bottom of the jaw, mouth and small amount of her hair, the open and expressive hand gesture, with the distant and out of focus landscape. Kuhn in turn has made this her own, with a shallow depth of field that reveals the details of the woman’s nude back and almost all of the hand with her head slightly out of focus, but the blonde wisp of hair on the nape of her neck is tantalizing sharp and delineated. The sharpness and contrast of the wisp of hair at the top edge of the pictorial frame in conjunction with the prominent location and gesture of her hand provides a necessary amount of visual tension to this surreal photograph.

I think it would be suffice to say that the Black and White portfolio is about symbolic gestures. Kuhn employs a shallow depth of field and tight framing to extract the bare essence of individuals as well as the contact between and amongst individuals that is cryptic, poetic, and sensual. Kuhn usually focuses on the subject’s hands for a symbolic expression in this body of work. By photographing her subjects’ nude, she simplifies and distills her narrative as would a minimalist, to maintain the focus on the gesture itself.  A woman’s hands are extended out and Kuhn has placed a sharp focus only the very tips of the fingers, while her nude body recedes into the background, out of focus and barely discernible. In another photograph, a muscular hand holds a metal sphere, with only the bare forearm visible. In another, there are two bare arms and hands hanging down into the frame, appearing loose and in close proximity, but not in contact, while she only reveals the respective hips of the two individuals. There is a subtle sensual tension to these photographs that is further enhanced by the long tonal range of the photographs.

In another photograph, extended our towards the lens are the intertwining bare arms of a nude woman. Again the hands are in sharp focus, while the woman’s head and body is out of focus, but I am still able to notice that her eyes are shut and head is titled to one side, as though she momentarily exists in a dreamlike world. What is disconcerting and mysterious about this photograph is the dirt that resides on her fingers, under her fingernails and on her hands. This foreign element takes this high key photograph and introduces a darker narrative, that this nude person, perhaps symbolizing a perfect and naturalist world also has these dirty hands, indicating that the world while seeking perfection, has been contaminated and has flaws. The underlying message is that perfection is not attainable.

The book images are usually sequence one photograph per page, one page per spread. When two photographs are paired, they are complementary and echo each other’s narrative, such as the diptych of George and Jacques, second image below. To make a further connection between the two images, both have a similar darkening and fading away of the light towards the edges of the frame, correspondingly making their faces lighter and appear to be glowing. This photographic lightening technique is an attempt to guide your eyes towards the lightest region within the photograph, in this case their respective faces.

The youthful naiveté of the boy and the contemplative pose of the older man when paired up and with the emphasis on the faces really borders on cliché, but it is nevertheless an interesting narrative about time, future potentials and past memories. Again it seems that Kuhn has selected an unusual photograph of the young boy to potential save this pair of images, with the boys eyes shut and arms held out-stretched, with a string tied to his index finger and this string is then lightly held against his forehead is a very intriguing image. For me, these two photographs taken together are symbolizing hope.

It appears that in 2002 her work makes a tangential change and shift to working with groups of nudes and introduces her use of color. Kuhn’s transition to a color palate appears to be complete by 2003. Although unstated in the text, it has been subsequently revealed that the France portfolio of this book was made in Montalivet, the Western coast of France. This is also the same naturist location that Jock Sturges photographs and since Kuhn has photographed Sturges photographing on the beach, we can assume that they know each other, and may they have been mutual influences on each other’s body of work.

Whereas in Kuhn’s Black and White portfolio focuses on the detail and gesture, with the transition in the France portfolio she moves to interactions between groups of individual. Her subjects are more interactive and the subsequent narrative is increasingly more layered and richer. A case in point, although still a black and white photograph, the fourth image down, Luzia, made in 2002 is a very interesting triangulation of the nude woman in the foreground, and two nude males flanking either side of her in the background. She is close to the lens, in sharp focus, her breasts are just within the frame which accentuates both her nudity and her vulnerability. She has her heard slightly titled down, her chin is resting in the palm of her hand and she has her eyes closed. She appears to be contemplating something and with the weight seemingly heavy on her hand, it appears to be also a heavy thought.

In the background, slightly out of focus are the two nude men. One has his hand on his chest, just below his heart and he appears to be intently looking directly at the young woman. It is as though he is signaling to the young woman that she is very important to him and his heart. The nude man on her other side has his head cocked to one side and appears to be looking out the edges of his eyes also at the young woman. Just by the position of his head, he appears to me to be more hard, demanding or judgmental stance. Both men appear to be waiting in anticipation of something that the woman is contemplating, but of what, that is the irony of the photograph and thus this narrative, we don’t know. And this is only my narrative, one of many, and yours perhaps will be different, but it points to the broad diversity of narratives that Kuhn has tapped into with this more recent work.

In her later color work, Kuhn has pulled the camera back, the framing is not as tight, which creates more space within the pictorial frame. She continues to use a shallow dept of field to place a focus on someone in particular with the frame, as they become the center point and key subject of the resulting narrative. Her subjects are also appear more neutral and objective, frequently within the group only one person appears to be making looking at the lens and making visual contact and a visceral connection, or on occasion there is no eye contact. Kuhn’s subjects appear to be more introspective and contemplative amongst each other, and as a result, the narratives become more indistinct, open-ended and contemplative.

This photobook is cloth bound with a dust jacket, beautifully printed in Germany on a semi-luster stock.

by Douglas Stockdale

November 6, 2010

Jock Sturges – The Last Day of Summer

Copyright Jock Sturges 1991 published by Aperture

This review of Jock Sturges’s first photobook, The Last Day of Summer, published by Aperture in 1991, is an introduction to his many photobooks. This photobook, his first, is now nearing twenty years in print.

As part of the background story, one social element that Sturges shares with Sally Mann and David Hamilton is his subject matter; nude children, specifically young girls who are just at or recently past puberty and the subsequent legal actions by groups of citizens and court officials to prosecute these photographers for child pornography in the United States and United Kingdom. The legal actions against the three occurred during the period from 1971 to 1991 (and I guess later), and with Hamilton in the United Kingdom, into the 21st century. These moralist legal actions against photographers has a long history in both the US and UK.

How each of these three photographers photographed their subjects varies widely, with Hamilton on one side with his soft focus and dreamy interpretations and Mann on the other end, in a very documentary, straight style of her young children, with Sturges in a similar straight photographic style to Mann’s photographs, but closer to a style of classic environmental portraiture. I am using the word “style” in describing these photographer’s processes in the broadest sense. Interestingly, while working on the research of Sturges’s photobooks, I still find that some booksellers still categorize Sturges’s photobooks as “erotic”, although this is probably a sales tactic, but still underlies the continuing issues within the US as to the acceptance of frontal nude photographs of young girls who are moving through the late stages of puberty.

In this first photobook, the location of Sturges’s portraits varies widely, from Northern California, American Atlantic coast and the coastal beaches of Southern France. As apparent in the title, the time of year at which the photographs are made appears to be in the late summer, and all of them out-of-doors, and most appear to be made either early or later in the day. This is a series of environmental portraits of his friends and their families, mostly inclusive of their children of whom most are practicing naturalist, in which clothing is optional.

As I stated earlier, I consider Sturges an environmental portrait photographer. His primary focus and framing is the individual or groups of individuals before him with the environmental landscape secondary. Most of the time the inclusion of any trace of “place” provides only a hint of an external context to the actual setting and for the most part is immaterial to his photograph. His subject is usually centered and inclusive within the frame and occasionally when photographing large groups, they will extend out of the frame. His subjects usually have direct eye contact with his lens, but occasionally they have closed their eyes in a peaceful and meditative pose.

In discussing his methodology in an interview with John Paul Caponigro (July/August 1998 issue of View Camera magazine), Sturges states: “But what happens over time is that a lot of the people whom I enjoy photographing a lot, that I’ve been shooting for years, come to understand that there’s a certain kind of almost balletic elegance that I have a great tendency to like in photographs and they start doing this stuff on purpose. They sort of figure out what it takes to push my button. And so I turn around and they’re doing this long, stretched- out, elongated beautiful thing, and of course I make the photograph. They’ve, in a funny way, made me take that picture. They know that that’s what Jock likes. So that can go too far, sometimes. That can get to be a little bit too self conscious, on occasion. But very often it is actually quite beautiful, how people present themselves.”

Most of his subjects are not smiling or attempting to project an outward happy persona, but appear to be contemplative of where they are at the moment. I feel that their neutral facial appearance may result from the long duration that it takes for Sturges to set-up the large camera and his subjects may not realize that the moment of the exposure is occurring. Unlike being photographed by a photographer with an SLR camera, that as soon as the camera is brought to eye level, the photographic exposure probably occurs. The ambiguity of time coupled with the longer set up duration is a photographic process tool that Sturges takes full advantage of to maintain a sense of candidness.

It could also be argued that for a naturalist, there are few outward pretenses as to who they are, because it is plainly self-evident.

Due to the size, speed to set-up and ancillary lighting required for the use of his 8 x 10” view camera, his subject are fully aware of the photographers presence and the looming camera before them.  They are equally participating in the photographic event.  In 1991, and the few years before, it was the age of the 35mm autofocus point and shot camera, thus Sturges large camera may have lent a bit of mystery and magical presence.

I think that his photographs may indeed be possible due to his extended personal relationships that he has established over the many years with the extensive amount of time he is photographing his subjects with this equipment. I suspect that his subjects would come to expect to see Sturges with his bulky and awkward photographic equipment as it would be to see him au natural. It is part and parcel to his persona and I believe his subjects also come to expect that he will ask to photograph them in between the time they are enjoying the beach.

The photographs of the young Misty Dawn as she dresses up as a princess or a winged fairy I find delightful. She is caught momentarily in the childlike world of fantasy and wonder.  When costumed as a fairy, perched on a pile of split wood, the backlit sunlight illuminating her fairy wings and costume, she looks directly at the camera. With her mouth just slightly open, it is difficult to know if she is about to say something, trying to maintain her concentration and balance or perhaps another alternative that we may never know.

Likewise when young Dawn is among her family and friends, they interact amongst themselves and occasional appear to be performing for the camera. Sturges has allowed Dawn to set the stage and amid the surrounding environment to help establish the narrative. Dawn in turn is very aware of the photographer and camera as she posses, looking directly into the lens. There is an immediacy and direct contact established between photographer, subject and viewer.

The photograph of Flore and Frederique on the beach in Montalivet France is another interaction between Sturges and his subjects that draws in the viewer. Both the young girl and whom we now know is her mother are both standing on a beach entirely within the pictorial frame, and Sturges is creating a subtle balance by positioning them on either side of the center of the photograph. Both subjects hold their arms and hands away from their sides in almost identical positions, with their weight placed on one hip such that it appears that two of them are extending their bodies toward each other in a non-verbal connection. Flore in the foreground is in sharp focus, while her mother Frederique is further away and slightly out of focus, symbolic of where Flore is both from and yet also moving towards. Flore is entirely focused on the photographer, while Frederique appears to intent upon watching her daughter, approving of the situation, but nevertheless watchful and diligent. The two of them represent the ongoing mother and daughter relationship, the daughter in the foreground, coming of age, the center of attention and the mother in the background, slightly out of focus, her presence known and every diligent and protective.

In another small group on the beach in France, Sturges has provided his most expansive landscape of the un-ending beach as a backdrop to the five young girls lounging on the sand in the foreground. The girls are loosely grouped and their bodies are placed such that form a ring among themselves. They are not making eye contact with the lens nor each other, appearing to be lost in thought. Their bodies do not touch each other except for the extending shadows which lightly makes contact, which is a symbolic connection between themselves. The combination of light and shadow almost abstracts the shape of their bodies on the beach and provides visual clues that this is probably towards the end of the day. Each of the girls has reclined on the sand with a slightly different position but the overall aesthetic effect is one of very balanced masses and weights within the pictorial frame.

His photographs do not seem to betray or take advantage of his subjects but reflects his interest in and attempts to understand them as friends and extension of his family. That they are occasionally nude while taking advantage of the good weather is immaterial. The parents enjoy the naturalist lifestyle and have instilled the same appreciation into their children, that spending time on a warm beach without clothes is just a natural and expected thing to do, without any fuss or other emotional baggage.

Children are also all about change, with growth occurring in body and mind, as it appears that they quickly evolve from young child to young adult. Who they are today is very fleeting. Their exterior body changes are more evident and symbolize more readily the persistent and relentless passage of time. As adults, the passage of time is not as readily evident within a short duration, from year to year, we are relatively unchanged.

About change, Sturges states in his Afterword; “Anytime I photograph a person, there is loss implicit in the image, because the next time I photograph them, they will have changed. A picture that succeeds in transfixing what is past somehow serves to imply and promise the future.”

As a viewer, we are also a voyeur in his naturalist landscape. Would we allow ourselves to go out into a public area entirely unclothed? To be seen for whom we are, to allow others to see the naked truth?

Sturges’s naturalist photograph’s has a forward connection to the photographic work of Mona Kuhn, who has photographed extensively at the same French coastal region concurrently as Stuges’s later work. In turn, Kuhn works with slightly older nude models to construct her pensive narratives. Although she started photographing with black and white like Sturges, she subsequently has moved to photographing with the color medium. Kuhn’s photographic methodologies and style also exhibit a greater fluidity than Sturges, who photographs almost exclusively with his 8 x 10” view camera.

Sturges has a keen sense of timing and the ability to entice his subjects, especially the children, to act out their fantasies, reveal themselves and to make photographic notes that capture their innocent and childlike interactions.

Sturges exposes his black and white negatives and subsequent develops the photographs with a modernistic tonality, with open and revealing shadows and the texture held in the highlights. The full tonal range of his photographs is further complemented by the nice Italian printing of the book.

The Last Day of Summer is the first of the nine Jock Sturges photobooks currently published, with four of his photobooks published by Aperture. This photobook is available in two versions, a large (11 ½” x 9 ½”) cloth bound with dust cover and a stiff-bound, with the first edition in 1991. The stiff cover edition of The Last Day of Summer has at least 10 printings over the period of 1991, 1992 and 1993 and the larger cloth cover edition had at least four printings. This quantity of printings is an indication of the popularity of Sturges photobooks, which has created a very financially and successful series of photobooks for Aperture and the other publishers. Sturges popularity is interestingly similar to the successful publications of David Hamilton’s soft focused photographs of nude young women earlier in 1971.

By Douglas Stockdale

November 2, 2010

Kerim Aytac – To See Here

Copyright Kerim Aytac  To See Here 2010 Straightline Press, courtesy of the artist.

I have found Kerim Aytac’s recent photobook, To see Here, as ambiguous and minimal as his background story; “street photography that questions the value of the subject”. The book is an adaption of his project Nothing to See Here, which is about looking and what you might or might not subsequently “see”. This title alludes to the differences between looking and seeing, where as the seeing also implies comprehension, looking implies an input/output without interpretation or assessment.

The ambiguity of most of Aytac’s black and white photographs is such that it is even difficult to read into them that these photographs are street photographs, perhaps with the exception of the characteristic hallway probably leading to an underground train. Even this photograph requires some knowledge of these passageways to decipher what the subject is, and how it might have been photographed.

All but one photographs are an abstraction of the subject, framed such that each photograph has a minimum of contextual clues to identify the subject matter. The one exception, which also varies by presentation and layout, is a ghostly and imprecise representation of part of a person. In more than one way, Aytac’s photobook reminds me of the work and photobooks of Ed Ruscha. I will come back to this image and thought in a moment.

Aytac has also sequenced this book such that there are similar and complementary abstract photographs on each spread. In fact, I found myself paying homage to the related abstract expressionist artists whose work could be related to these photographs; Jackson Pollack, Barnett Newman, Hans Hofman, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn and Roy Lichtenstein. The basic characterization of abstract expressionism is  “the view that art is nonrepresentational and chiefly improvisational.. (with an) implied expression of ideas concerning the spiritual, the unconscious and the mind.”

I note that the pair of patterned facing photograph has similarities shared with Pollack’s action painting, that the rigid appearing pictorial structure has features that I find in Hofman’s painting, the same for the abstract color (abet black, white and gray) similar in the geometric style of Diebenkorn and another with the cartoon-like hard-edges speak to Lichtenstein’s work. That all of the photographs are in Black and White relates to the abstract painting style of Kline, who was also a friend and influence to Aaron Siskind, another street photographer who abstracted the reality in black and white around him.

The design and layout of all of the photographs within this book are consistently the same, save one, the photograph of the truncated individual. All of the photographs are placed in the upper section of the page, one photograph per page, with amply white margins. The lone photograph of an individual is a two page spread, with full-page bleeds. Which reminds me of Ed Ruscha’s photobooks, that Ruscha would introduce into his photobooks, e.g. “Various Small Fires”, a photograph that would be not consistent or related with the remaining body of work, as Ruscha states “seemed to make the book more interesting and gave it some cohesion.” Interesting, yes, cohesion, not necessarily, but that is the type of non-rational contradictions that Ruscha enjoys introducing, which is a similar element that Aytac is introducing with this photograph.

An alternate read is that the photograph of this individual represents the photographer or maybe the reader who is indistinct, not sharply delineated and slightly out of focus. That this person is also not fully focused on what is before them, looking but perhaps not seeing. This person is just passing mindlessly through life, a passing figment, perhaps missing opportunities if they might just pause a little longer in their rush to live life.

The last thought on this photobook is that the quality of printing suffers from the combination of the matte paper and printing process, the results are rather mushy with the shadows blocked up. This book printing further lends to the abstract quality of the photographs, maybe by design, but when the corresponding photographs are viewed on Aytac’s website, they have a longer tonality and better delineation of the subject’s content and details.

This photobook has tiff covers, without text or pageation, in an edition of 300 copies.

By Douglas Stockdale

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