The PhotoBook

July 24, 2009

Dan Nelken – Till the Cows Come Home

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Copyright Dan Nelken, 2008, courtesy Kehrer Verlag

Dan Nelken’s Till the Cows Come Home, is a culmination of nine years photographing county fairs in the rural NorthEast region of the United States. His project evolved into creating moving portraits of the farming participants, especially the youth and the animals that they raised.

Not shown are the multitude of games, rides, amusements, food booths and the people who are visiting the fair. Which are the things that I can call most from when I visited our local MidWest county fair with my parents. We were the outsiders, visitors from the suburbs, while Nelken has provided us with a behind the scenes look at the insiders, those who raised the animals behind the gates, pens and stalls.

He provides a warm glimpse of the rural human element that drives one of the basic needs for the county fair.  A place for the coming of age of those who are destined to take their place on the farms. For those on a farm, the county fair is a rite of passage, that marks the end of childhood and prepares one for adulthood. But just like puberty, this is also an awkward time for these young people, one foot still lingering in their childhood, while the other stepping forward to adult size responsibilities.

We see these youth in the context of the animals they raise and have brought to be judged, and they bring a large menagerie. There are goats, sheep, rams, piglets, hogs, horses, calves, cows, ducks, chickens, rosters, hens and chicks, ducks, rabbits, and even fish. There are some wildlife, but usually brought to the fair “stuffed”, to show a competency in the art of taxidermy.

One background element in many of the photographs are the awards, an essential component to the participation at the fair.  The ribbons and trophies are festooned with gold embossed letters, big flowery bows, either in bold colors of red, blue and purple. These awards declare the holder to be Excellent or the most highly desired, Best in Show. The young recipients are proud, smiling and joyful in their recent achievements. The parents and adults appear more focused, almost intense, as if knowing that some of these ribbons could translate to higher prices for the livestock. It is not easy for them to ignore the hard reality of farm economics, animals are bred to be consumed or a source of a steady cash flow

Nelken has caught these young people lost in thought, and although difficult to know about what, it is probably not much different than their young counterparts in the suburbs or the city. And he found them sleeping, perhaps exhausted from the necessary work, as the livestock still need to be fed and cared for.  The young owners are also involved in the extra effort to groom their animals for the judges; washing, shaving, combing and other preparations for the judging. Then a needed pause to catch 40 winks. Any napping place will do, in a chair, a temporary hammock strung up in the stable, on a bale of hay or perhaps just use their animal as a temporary bed, like as if it might be a big, warm, bean-bag.

The youth are seen enjoying the company of their animals they have raised, they are comfortable being around them and show a sense of closeness. They are in that in between stage, evident in the affectionate gestures of touching, foundling, holding, creasing their animals. Some use their larger animals as pillows to sleep against or as a stool to sit on. We can guess that they may have become emotionally attached to these animals who have recently consumed so much of their attention, even thought these young adults know the eventual fate.

I enjoy Nelken’s light hearted composition of a young man posing with his cow. The cow’s hind quarters falling out of the frame to the left, but magically, as if by slight of hand, reappears again on the right edge of the backdrop. The young man stands before a crude backdrop that is representational of a farming field, while to his right, the hind quarters of the cow is standing in a real landscape setting. An interesting juxtaposition of the real and surreal.

The country fair queen in her long flowing gown, crowned with the silver teaera and a string of pearls.  She is not standing on a stage, but by a barn, with the hem of her gown bunched up and lying on the grass. She is not holding a beautiful flora arrangement fitting a new crowned queen, but cuddling the head of a freshly shorn sheep. Meanwhile a man gamely tries to place the sheep’s legs into place, probably for what he feels should be the formal group photograph. She appears to be well aware of this humorous situation. A queen in her rural court.

The exuberance of a young woman, holding on to her award winning rooster, with the two hands thrusting in from the edges offering her awards. From Nelken’s caption, apparently these awards that have been a long time coming. She is laughing and enjoying this obviously set-up, both about her good fortune as well as sophisticated enough to realize how amusing this might appear.

Almost mid-way through the book, Nelken provides an interlude, much like an intermission at a play. Momentarily stepping away from the human play, to view the displays for judging the cakes, vegetables, and flowers. The displays are very basic, with no fan-fare, no frills. The vegetables for judging lay on white, paper plates, and those are sitting on plastic floor tiles stapled to the wooden table tops, symbolic of the utilitarian farm life.

I enjoy the direct eye contact that the Nelken has captured. His subjects appear at easy, open, momentarily with their guard let down, perhaps reveling a little more about themselves. I sense that these young people are enjoying the events that are swirling about them. I see the effects of daily grind of the farm evident in the eyes and faces of many of the adults, meanwhile the young participants still have that sparkle of youth, hope, innocence and enthusiasm for what might lay ahead. This is also an indirect portrait of Nelken, reflecting the trust that he establishes.

The photographs are nicely printed, single photograph to a page with small white margins framing the images. The color photographs are printed clean and crisp, appear well defined, much like most of Nelken’s subjects. The book’s introduction is nicely written by Roy Flukinger, who provides the apt quote from Roy Stryker during his days in the 1930’s with the FSA;

“Documentary is an approach, not a technic [sic]; an afformation, not a negation…the question is not what to picture or what camera to use. Every phase of our time and our surroundings has vital significance and any camera in good repair is an adequate instrument. The job is to know enough about the subject matter to find its significance in itself, and in relation to its surroundings, its time and its function.”

While many contemporary books are being printed quite large, although making the photographs a pleasure to enjoy, the books become very unwieldy to hold. This book is refreshingly sized at 9” x 9”, with a sound binding that allows it to lay open comfortably in my hands. A design and style I find in sync with the utilitarianism of the rural life that Nelken has documented here.

 

Nelken_Grants   Nelken_Finally

Nelken_Winner   Nelken_Dairy_Winner

Nelken_pond   Nelken_Cuddeling

by Douglas Stockdale

May 26, 2009

William Henry Fox Talbot

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Photographs copyright of the Estate of William Henry Fox Talbot, courtesy Phaidon Press

This retrospective book edited by Geoffrey Batchen about William Henry Fox Talbot (b. 1800, d. 1877) is very nicely written, well printed and does a wonderful job of keeping William Henry Fox Talbot’s extensive early photographic work in perspective.

There are his early technical photographic achievements and insights, such the contact negative print, known as the (salt-paper) Calotype, and his insight that if you used the negative print to contact print another photograph, it would be a positive. And along the way, figured out the basic formula to “fix” an image, with a suggestion from John Herschel, such that the image did not fade away. Subsequently in 1852 he worked out the photogravure printing process, making it possible to have high quality images in books. He may be the first person to use flash photography in 1851.

Talbot also made some nice photographic images including both urban and natural landscapes, botany details (salt-paper Calotypes), family photographs and documentary of upper class life on the estate. For me, I find that the book includes a number of wonderful images, such as the natural landscape photograph of the Oak Tree in Winter, between 1842-43 that is tipped into the book cover and included within the book, above.

I was captivated by plate 31, High Street, Oxford, 1843, third image below. For me, this photograph has similar qualities to the photographic work of Eugene Atget.  Due to the long exposure, the people of the street almost disappear, with slight traces of their presence, with the exception of the horse and carriage far up the street. The photograph has the foreground slightly out of focus, providing depth to the image, while the domed building far down the street is starting to fade into the sky. The image has a nice flow to it and the light reflecting off the near windows on the left provides a nice balance.

Talbot had used contact prints of plants while investigating his photographic discover, first photograph below.  Later he returned in 1853 to further explore the possibilities of his salt-paper Calotypes by contact printing more of his botany specimens, such as Seeds, second photography below. An interesting process still being utilized by artist today.

This book is a nice starting point for those who are interested in the history and development of the photographic and printing processes. It is well thought out and provides wonderful information about the man who started the art of photography as we know it today. I found that although I was familiar with Talbot’s technical achievements, that I was not as aware of his photographic body of work.

The 8 3/4″ x 10 7/8″ hardcover book with a tipped-in image on the front cover was printed in China in 2008. There are 55 plates, each plate has a facing caption, proximal dating and a brief background article about the accompaning photograph. The book is paged in the introductory text, but the remaining pages are not stated, with 124 pages per my count, plus end-papers. There is also a Biography for Talbot at the end of the book.

 

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pl-51_Seeds-photobook

pl-31_High_Street_Oxford-photobook

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by Douglas Stockdale

April 30, 2009

The Best of Helmut Newton

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 Photographs copyright of the Helmut Newton Estate courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

Schirmer/Mosel, the late Helmut Newton’s long term publishing partner has just re-issued a softback version their Best of Helmut Newton, edited by Zdenek Felix with the art direction by June Newton, Helmut’s wife. The first edition hardbound book was initially published by Schirmer/Mosel in 1991.

This book provides a broad sampling of Newton’s body of work, including both his fashion work, portraits, assignments as well as his personal nude projects, such as Big Nudes. The black and white photographs have a wonderful tonality and contrast. The color photographs in this book appear over saturated, perhaps many were made using Kodachrome, a rather notorious high contrast color positive film. 

Newton’s long term theme was sexuality, ranging from subtle sensuality to overt eroticism, usually utilizing one of his many fetishs that he had became famous for. Most of the European publications did not have the same editorial limitations for the use of nudity and Newton used the nude models extensively. What is interesting to me is that many of his famous nudes were created in collaboration with his wife, June Newton (who’s photographic pseudonym was Alice Springs, a name taken from her native Australia).

A rather interesting photograph on the book’s back cover is a dual-self portrait of the couple with one of their athletic nude models photographed in Europe. Helmut is taking the photograph while wearing a trenchcoat, hunched over his twin lens reflex camera, not unlike the cartoon charter of the “dirty old man” who opens his trench coat on the occasion to fully reveal himself. Meanwhile June sits to the side intently watching the two, but who really has her rapt gaze, her husband or the nude model? This juxtaposition creates a sexual tension beyond photographing a nude woman, a hint at a three way relationship? Alternatively,  is June there to protect her husband from the temptations of the flesh, or is she there to protect the model from her “dirty old man”?

The model being photographed appears strong and very comfortable with her nudity. She has an air of nobility about her posture and appears very confident about her lean and young body. The standing model is also looking in the direction of the sitting June, for her approval or is it a mutual interest? But in so looking at the model, you become aware of another pair of nude legs just beyond. Who is she and why is this other person there?

The setting is also interesting as we have been provided a larger view of not only of the photographer himself, the model and his wife, but also beyond. Behind June is the exit (sortie) to the studio, with the door open and we can see cars either parked or driving by. It is very possible that those outside the studio can see in and view the posing nude model.  We can make out a silhouette of someone in a car which has paused at the entrance of the open studio door, introducing another element, that of voyeurism, creating additional sexual tension.

Newton imbues this sexual tension in his fashion photographs, with one of my favoite photographs included below, of the woman seated on the couch intently observing the shirtless man. As needed for a fashion photograph, her details of the dress are evident. There is the overtly suggestive sexual element of how that this same dress can be effectively used to communicate her interest in a relationship, such as the untied and open neck line. Like wise the models pose is very suggestive, with her legs spread wide apart, playing with a strand of her hair. She is wearing slippers, not high heels and since the man is shirtless, is this moment a flirtation or post-glory?

Not every photograph by Newton is so layered with meaning, but many are, and his photographs warrant a revisit. 

The 8 5/8″ x 10 5/8″ softcover book has 156 pages, with 105 color and duotone plates, and nicely printed in Verona Italy. The two insightful essays, translated from German in the English version, are by Noemi Smolik and Urs Stahel.

170big-dressed

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By Douglas Stockdale

September 21, 2008

Jonathan Brown interview – Leadapron

Filed under: Photo Book Stores — Doug Stockdale @ 11:39 pm

 Leadapron, bookstore & gallery

Interview with Jonathan Brown, owner Leadapron, (Spring, 2008) (Orignally published on The Photo Exchange, subseqently on The Photo Exhibit)

While we were at the Palm Springs Photo Festival in March, I had the opportunity to meet Jonathan Brown, the owner of Leadapron, a fine art bookstore and gallery located on Robertson Ave in Los Angeles.

Subsequently, I had a brief phone interview with Jonathan about Leadapron. This is a brief paraphrase of our resulting conversation;

(more…)

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