The PhotoBook Journal

February 27, 2010

Lewis Koch – Touchless Automatic Wonder

Copyright Lewis Koch 2009 courtesy Lewis Koch & Borderland Books

The subtitle to Lewis Koch’s Touchless Automatic Wonder is “Found text photographs from the real world”. There is no doubt that Koch is attuned to the abundant text that we swim through on a daily basis, to notice those juxtapositions that naturally occur, or with a little sleight of framing, creating poignant stories. Many times, like the photographs of David Carol, these are humorous, witty, and ironic.

Much like a classic newspaper story, Koch utilizes black and white photographs to tell his photographic stories, not allowing color to become a distraction to the viewer and perhaps verve off the intended track. Distilling his images down to black and white ensures that his textural messages have the necessary contrast and delineation for readability and potential comprehension.

Although most of the individual images work well, Koch is also very adept at editing and pairing photographs across the page spreads to provide a little more biting story. The combinations can be very subtle, such as the spread illustrated below. The photograph on the left includes a poster of a smiling Reagan and Bush shaking hands, while on the facing page is a full bleed (hope you note the implications) photograph of a gray statue containing two soldiers, arms crossed and appearing very grim and unapproving. The added external context found in the accompanying captions identifies that this statuary is part of a war memorial. It is probably not a random or chance event that the photograph of the Reagan and Bush poster reveals that the poster itself is faded, torn and deteriorating.

In this regard to Koch’s photographs, I find myself thinking of Terry Barrett’s description of the photographic work of Martin Parr as someone who “unites a political awareness with humor focused on the mundane.”

Upon first reading, many of his images seem humorous and ironic, but occasionally when referring to the accompanying index of captions provided at the conclusion of the book, the photographs take on a sad poignancy as you begin to comprehend the external contexts. Probably none more so than the photograph of the nude sunbathers in Germany enjoying a leisurable day soaking up a rare summer sun. The copy of Der Taggesspiegel being causally read does not fully divulge all of the critical events of the day, as it was this day “as the Chernobyl cloud passed invisibly overhead” (1986).

Meanwhile, the singular images read very well. A dour looking white-face clown stands facing the photographer with the ironic text We Ha Fun Yet written on his shirt. At an apparent sales lot, multiple OK signs are festooned on the abandoned and rundown property. A pair of doors on the side of a building, with a number 3 on both doors and a giant spray-painted 3 and arrow pointing to the same doors, belabors the obvious.

There is a Walker Evans element to a photograph of a billboard poster that has been composed to extract the paired text of Alive with Pleasure in juxtaposition with Cancer, Heart Disease & Emphysema. Subtlety located within the in the lower corner of the frame, a smiling face of a woman’s face is being reflected on the windshield of the car. So does this inclusive face provide approval or disapproval of the message, perhaps as though laughing at this new contextual combination? Upon closer examination, there is the realization that because of the orientation of the windshield, this smiling reflection appears horizontal, perhaps similar to a prone position of lying in a hospital bed. I will admit that this photograph is difficult for me, as I recall my dad lying with advance cancer in his hospital bed, joking about his “cancer sticks”. Regretfully this was not a humorous occasion.

There is the photograph of the heart-shaped clock, which is situated such that the heart provides the missing O for the surrounding word LOVE and adjacent to the Free Tibet sticker on the window. Another photograph includes three plumb paper covered figurines are hanging in the foreground, and then subtly in the background on the edge is a cartoon of a laughing chef who appears to be very amused by this sight. There is pair of facing photographs which if the text would continuously flow across the spread, reads Elmer, Randy and Harv (are) Lookin’ For Love.

The words within the title photograph when you string the text across the adjacent signage reads Touchless Automatic Wonder, but yet looming overhead is a suspended hand, with a giant index finger extended out, pointing straight down. The finger, as though in direct contradiction to the implied message, appears that it is about to touch something. One implied message is that regardless how ardently automatio is pursued; some human intervention always seems to be required.

The hardcover book has a text wrap cover and is a nice example of a photobook still printed and bound in the United States.

By Douglas Stockdale

Update: additional resource link for Koch is here.

February 26, 2010

David Carol – All My Lies Are True

Copyright David Carol 2009, courtesy of David Carol

Inside the window is a beautiful wedding dress, but this simple window is framed by a neutral toned cinderblock and wood wall with an exposed adjacent electrical box. The surrounding ground is a patchwork of grass and dirt, with a barren tree lurking on the edges of the fame. This bleak looking scene is not enhanced by the mirrored reflection of an oil well rig ringed by an overcast sky. The wedding dressed manikin is facing inward, with the reflected oil rig positioned such that it is just above the back shoulder out of the field of vision. This is a dark story about love and romance with a fairy tale wedding, but looming in the background is the reality of a rough and tumble working life out in the plains. This same mixture of humor and pathos seems to run though David Carol’s photobook All My Lies Are True.

The book’s title takes umbrage with the supposedly documentary aspect of photography that although a photograph appears to be factual and true, that the underlying essence of any photograph is that it exits as a unique fabrication by the photographer. All photographs are lies. Carol is stating that this is not the case with his photographs, he has in fact documented truth, or at least he would like us to believe as much. It is that contradictory thread running through this body of work which makes Carol’s humor and pathos that much more complex.

The coarse and grainy contrast of his black and white photographs provides a gritty undertone to these images and heightens for me a feeling of pathos. All of the photographs have a horizontal framing, outlined with a distinct black border to ensure separation from the nice white margins. This layout design seems to work well to maximize the size of the images within this horizontal book. Ironically, the black border was an early photographic technique to ensure that a photograph would be seen as a two-dimensional image and not be confused with reality.

In combination with the accompanying captions, it is obvious to me that Carol is a punster, humorous and witty, perhaps like Elliott Erwitt, seeing the absurd in the everyday, who mined the urban landscape with his series of flicks, snaps and photofictions. Perhaps not as dire as the work by Barbara Kruger, who Carol Squiers states, “Although Kruger’s work is always levered by and sometimes dependent on humor for its punch, it is usually humor of the blackly corrosive variety”.

I have found myself challenged by Carol’s photographs, attempting to find the comedy, satire, irony or humor before I advance the page, although not always successfully. I remember a quote about a comedian, regretfully whose name I do not recall, who stated that “humor is really hard work”.  Sometimes humor is witty and ironic, leaving you smiling, enjoying the delightful pun that has been discovered, but sometimes it leaves the comedian sweating. It seems that a small number of Carol’ photographs are highly dependent on the accompanying caption for their success.

Humor also depends on your cultural background, life-stories and past memories, thus some will have an easier time with some of Carol’s photographs than others. I recall when my wife and I were rolling with laughter at a Robyn Williams comedy in a Munich theater, unlike everyone else (later my wife said that those around me were only laughing after I began laughing). We understood the subtly of the puns and jokes because we grew up in the United States. The movie had a subtext and external context that was not easily understood without that cultural grounding.

Carol placed the sign of the sailing shipping floating on a far wall, made all that more humorous if noted that this was photographed in Mystic, CT. A wiry spelled out HAPPY sign is in fact falling over and neither appears very uplifting or in a very happy state. A Welcome sign obliterated by the growing shrub, implies that in fact you are not really welcome at all.

Carol finds humorous and absurd situations of the everyday, utilizing an amusing vernacular to highlight poignant ironies. At times overstating the obvious, other times with an undercurrent of satire and black humor, he captures mankind’s follies in comedic relief.  Regretfully, Comedies rarely get an Academy Award, but that does not make them any less popular, entertaining and enjoyable.

By Douglas Stockdale

February 22, 2010

Life Geos On – Per Englund

Copyright of Per Englund, 2009 courtesy of Per Englund and Dokument Press

Per Englund spent a couple of summers photographing Cape Town, South Africa and his photobook Life Geos On provides an investigation of the urban cultural landscape paired with a gritty introspection of the social scene. The book’s subtitle Snapshots from Cape Town, infers with the descriptive “Snapshots” text, an armature term that would indicate that this body of work is a non-professional collection of random photographs. It is anything but that.

From the book’s brief introduction;

(This)…is a diary from Cape Town, where Swedish photographer Per Englund spent several South African summers. It is a collection of his observations and memories and depicts the post-apartheid city from street level. Photographs of streets, urban landscapes, bars & hotel rooms, he takes us on a personal journey through Cape Town…

The format of the body of work is in a black and white documentary style. The photographs are all horizontal, while enhancing the “snapshot” esthetic, yet sophisticated with details lurking in the edges. The tilting vertical lines indicates his preference a wide-angle view-point, normally at close range, which imparts a greater sense of space within the framework of the image. Interestingly this photobook is a vertical format with his photographs printed one per page and one page per spread. The horizontal photographs are usually not full bleed and thus appear small on the page, with large amounts of white margin, providing a subtle feeling of looking at someone’s vacation scrap-book.

Opening the front cover of the photobook, you immediately confront an exposed book spine. The implications are that what follows will be raw, revealing, implying there will be no secrets, and an investigative look behind the scenes (seams).

Englund’s photobook is almost equally divided into to two sections, transitioned by a two page spread with a  full bleed, night-scape panorama of the city. In the first section depicting the day, an almost normal functioning city, but after nightfall in the second section, then the partying begins. The external contextual backdrop of Cape Town is that of a post-apartheid society in which all are supposedly equals.

His “snapshots” captures a subtle and wry humor, with caustic darkly lit undertones. It could be argued that this body of work is similar in nature to Martin Parr’s, who Terry Barrett describes as someone who “unites a political awareness with humor focused on the mundane”. Englund observes the oddly paired couple at the beach utilizing the open air shower, the pensive man leaning over a railing with a large business building looming behind him, and an unfinished highway overpass that seems to lead to nowhere in particular. The unfinished highway bridge points to a stark white high-rise building and avoids a series of smaller dark buildings. I read into this a social commentary that this incomplete highway, a fast lane that rises above the pre-apartheid landscape, provides a place of separation, sanctuary, and thus a physical segregation, has been painfully interrupted, an arrested development as a result of the menacing dark “others” looming now on the sidelines.

The titled photograph of  Life Geos On is a spray-painted text on a concrete column supporting an over-pass. Under the bridge on the left in the background is a person who seems to assembling all of their worldly belongings in a shopping cart. On the opposite side of the same column is a modern car, tidy, with the windows securely up, moving away from the person at the shopping cart. I sense a poignant observation commenting on the post-apartheid environment, as the person who seems to only have his shopping cart is not white, but although not knowing who is driving the nice car, we can guess probably is white. A political change may have occurred, but it seems that there is still a great racial divide between the haves and the have-nots. Nevertheless, Life Goes (Geos) On, here an ode for survival, to get through one day at a time.

At the half-way transition point of the book, we shift to a more personal and intimate viewpoint, that after night-fall, the “Party” Life Goes (Geos) On. The photographs delve more autobiographical into Englund personal memories, with the viewpoint becoming closer, the framing tighter and more intimate.

Englund appears not to use a documentary style to capture the night-life, as so much to snatch snapshots and vignettes of his partying experiences, now black and white memories. To capture, much like a tourist trophy, who he was with, what they were doing, where they hung out, the results of too much drinking, and eventually some are falling down drunk, and passing out where they lay.

It does appear that in when you party in Cape Town, it is very similar to anyplace else. The party photographs of drinking, singing, driving, clubbing, mingling, drunk and falling down, passing out, refuge in a bathtub, guys & gals in horny costumes, couples and individuals falling out of cars and who knows what after a night of partying & drinking, with the grass littered with smashed and flattened beer cans, clothes falling off, exposed breasts & nipple shots. Yes, the (Party) Life Goes On. These are private glimpses and now recorded memories of what occurs after nightfall in Cape Town, but it really could be anywhere. There is also a rawness in the photographs that reflects the rawness of the experience.

This is a stiff cover book, with the interior spine exposed, with English and Swedish translations of the brief introduction and afterword. The photographs are without captions and the pages are not numbered, very minimalist in design.  It should also be noted that Englund’s photobook was one of twenty-five books recognized for the 2009 Swedish Art Book Award.

by Douglas Stockdale

February 15, 2010

Hiroshi Watanabe – Love Point

Copyright Hiroshi Watanabe 2010, courtesy Hiroshi Watanabe and Toesisha Publishing

On first viewing of Hiroshi Watanabe’s Love Point I find his studio portraits to be beautiful and aesthetically wonderful with a mysterious charm. the underlying subject is a little more socially probing than I find in his earlier works.

Watanabe’s photographic studio portraits are somehow familiar. These black & white photographs are formal and similar to those previously published in the photobook Kabuki Players (actors in costume) and his photographic projects Noh Masks of Naito Clan (masks), Ena Bunraku (puppets) and Suo Sarumawashi (performing monkeys).

His pictorial framing is structured within a square format which in this case seems to lend itself to a meditative viewing. In his previous work the neutral and non-textured back grounds ran the full tonal gamut, but for this series the background is dark and featureless, mysterious and perhaps threatening.

Thematically this current body of work with the exception of the lead-in photograph of the exterior building is portraits of “women”. This portraits have Watanabe’s tight composition placement with the subject filling the frame usually from the waist up and either falling out of the sides of the frame or alternatively with a small amount of surrounding space. He effectively utilizes the composition, lighting, tonal range, subject matter balance, and occasional shallow depth of field to direct your attention to the salient points. Much as a director would influence what and where you need to focus your attention within the frame attempting to control the mood and feelings that are instilled by the photographic images.

In Watanabe’s earlier body of work the subject is the investigation of a fictional illusion, whether as a subtext to a story, play or performance. He uses actors, puppets, masks and performing animals to explore the idea of fiction, fantasy and role-playing as opposed to and in contrast with reality. He is investigating the question can we really differentiate between fiction and reality?

Watanabe’s previously photographed those things which represented the fictional performances or representations of mankind. In this new body of work the boundaries of fiction and reality become increasingly blurred and tangled. He has photographed both life-like Japanese sex-dolls and live Japanese models intermingling the real and fictional images within this photobook. To further blur reality and fiction the dolls are made-up, dressed and posed to appear like live women, while the live models are made-up, similarly dressed with wigs and posed to be appearing doll-like.

In this body of work his usual black and white photographs further abstract the portraits and eliminate additional clues as to which is the live model versus which is the life-like Japanese sex-dolls. It appears that he has taken license and careful consideration to make them indistinguishable. This continues his discourse on fact, fiction and fantasy.

What then is real, fictional, an illusion and maybe even a fantasy? When Jonathan Green was writing about Robert Cumming’s elaborate photographs to present the illusion of reality, he stated about this …”interventions into the observable world makes the viewer constantly question the relationship between fact and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, the camera as recorder of reality and the camera as the fabricator of new information.”

In Watanabe’s current project in additional to his continuing questions regarding fiction and reality there is an underlying social commentary about the role of women and sexuality fantasy. I also read into this body of photographs a social commentary about those who attempt to be someone other than who they are and the public actor/actress (fiction) and the real person (reality).

Watanabe’s portraits are usually seen frontal and sometimes a three-quarter or side view. He usually photographs his subjects from the waist up with tight framing of the shoulders and head. There are also three photographs in which the model is prone and laying down appearing almost submissive. The clothing of the model’s which is not entirely provocative is symbolic of servitude, e.g. a French Maid. A “French Maid” is also symbolic of a male sexual fantasy such as the “upstairs (bedroom) maid”, or the provocative “Lady in Waiting” the chamber maid as the one always prepared to fulfill your sexual dreams and wishes.

One of Watanabe’s models appearing to be in the process of un-dressing, stripping, and playing a fantasy role. Some of the other images have shallow depth of field with the eyes, mouth and nose in focus, and the hair and clothing slightly out of focus, soft, and sexually alluring. They all have similar expressions with the models eyes wide open, expectant, unblinking, with the mouth slightly closed, with the exception of the one model with the sucker protruding from the puckered lips, an innuendo of oral sex. All of these portraits seem to me to be suggestive, flirtatious, and seductive, conjuring an imaginary and fantasy world.

Similar to the photographs of dummies and dolls by Laurie Simmons, which Nicholas Jenkins has stated that “Simmons photographs are exploring sexual exploitation in that Simmons photographs suggest a perversely fascinating theater of humiliation and a sympathetic imagery of degradation and vulnerability… to a realm of suspended belief and the realm of fantasy and fiction.”

Similarly, when Anne Hoy was writing about Vikky Alexanders photographs, that “repetition reveals the stereotyping of expressions popularly considered sexually alluring and the isolation suggests the use of women as sex objects generically as …tools”.

In the past, a man calling a woman a “doll” was thought to be complementary but it is a degrading way to describe a woman to make her un-real, a fantasy. Indicating it is not necessary to get close and build a personal relationship with a person but a toy to be played with, a tool to be used and perhaps discarded if she becomes soiled and broken, no longer perfect. This series of photographs also conjures the idea of the Barbie Doll fantasy, with elongated legs, “perfect” waist, breasts, head, hair, etc; a fantasy woman that cannot be obtained. Someone who is not a real person but a fantasy that seems to aspire those going to the gym, working out, endless diets, breast & butte cheek implants, fat suctions and other acts of fictitious folly.

A photograph of a sexual fantasy doll is an unreal representation of an unreal person and is no more abstract than the photograph of the women who is pretending to be a sexual fantasy doll. That is if the live model is really a woman and not a man who is pretending to a woman who in turn is pretending to be a sexual fantasy doll. Do you know for sure, which is which is which? I know that I cannot always tell for certain and that disorientation creates intrigue, questions and mystery.

Photographs also get mistaken for reality and raise questions regarding photographic truth. Photographs are abstract representations of reality, two dimensional on a flat plane representations of a three dimension world, capturing a very brief moment in duration sucked out of the time continuum. Photographic framing leaves everything beyond the edges out and includes only a very small space in between. Shapes, tonality, mass, color and line that look like something we think is familiar, e.g. that is my house when I was growing up. Andy Grundberg made the following observation in 1989; (Photography)” is the most stylistically transparent of the visual arts, able to represent things in convincing perspective and seamless detail. Never mind that advertising has taught us that photographic images can be marvelous tricksters: what we see in a photograph is often mistaken for the real thing.”

In the case of the actor playing a role there is a real person who lurks just below a thin layer of make-up paint and costume. But at the moment the actor takes on a role and becomes the character and likewise with a good performance we do not perceive that this is an actor but the character being revealed. For me this brings in a personal question; do people see the real me, or a role that they perceive I play. Likewise, do you see people pretending to be someone other than themselves, a fictional role, and you wonder why don’t they just be themselves? So I wonder, do they know who they really are, or afraid of the truth and that people may not like them if they were their true selves? I think that Watanabe’s metaphors are insightful and that regardless of a (fictional) role we try to play that our real self lurks just below a thin layer that most can see through anyway.

The afterword is a fictional story by Richard “Bulldog” Curtis Hauschild. This hardcover book with dustcover was printed in Japan.

By Douglas Stockdale


February 3, 2010

Edizioni Punctum – A Maximum Gatefold

Filed under: Book Publications, Photo Books — Tags: , , — Doug Stockdale @ 9:44 pm

Edizioni Punctum – Guy Tillim’s Roma, Citta di Mezzo

While I was researching Guy Tillim’s 2009 Roma, Citta di Mezzo, published by Edizioni Punctum, I came across a really awesome image, above, that was posted on photo-eye that I feel elegantly illustrates the complexity of this Concertina folding (Note: At the time of this post I had erroneously thought to be a gate-fold). No mention of the photo credit who conceptualized this illustration, but I am guessing that it came out of the creative photographic studios of Marco Delogu in Rome.

Yes, if you follow the single white line, you should find that it is one very long, continuous and extensive concertina (also called a leporello), as I tried to vainly illustrate in this earlier post. Truly, a fold to the max.

For those with a roll feed on their inkjet printer, one long continuous gate-fold might not seem like such a big deal. But this photobook was printed on a commercial four-color (minimum) off-set, sheet feed printer and then the sheets (multiple pages per sheet, OR you could say that the book has only two pages, the front and the back of the single concertina fold) were bound seamlessly to create this book. A beautiful testimony to the craftsmanship of both the printer and bindery shops located in Italy (Verona, I believe, as I am traveling right now and will have to confirm when I return to my studio). Even when I knew where to look, it was almost impossible to detect the glue and splicing of this monster concertina fold. Then add in the numerous creasing steps that allow this concertina to provide the two-page spreads for each photograph and all of this in commercial quantity, e.g. over 300+ copies. A daunting task even for a hand made artist book of ten copies.

This photobook is already on my short list for innovative and creative photobooks for 2010. Even though it was printed and bound in 2009, I only recently became aware of it this year.

It remains to be seen how durable this concertina book will last, but it has held up very well so far in my globe trotting travels the last couple of weeks. Which is the same trip that I tore the belly band of my Hornstra 101 Billionaires, and slightly frayed the corner of Isturbide’s Le Banos de Frida, and the previous trip I ripped the corner of my outer wrap of Goldberg’s Open See. Yes, although I collect photobooks, I also use my photobooks and have few qualms about carrying them about with me.

So expect my book review of Tillim’s Roma, Citta di Mezzo (Rome, Media City) in the near future.

Best regards, Douglas

February 1, 2010

Graciela Iturbide – El Bano de Frida

Copyright Graciela Iturbide 2008, courtesy Edizioni Punctum

It is always interesting for me to compare how two photobook publishers manage the design and layout of the same photographer’s body of work. In this case, it is the publication of Garciela Iturbide’s bathroom of Frida Kahlo by ROSEGALLERY titled El Bano de Frida Kahlo and Edizioni Punctum title El Bano de Frida. In June of 2009 year I reviewed Itrurbide’s project published by the ROSEGALLERY and recently acquired the Edizioni Punctum publication while in Italy this month.

On the surface, Itubide is using a documentary style to reveal the private bathroom of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who also was the wife of Diego Rivera, also a renowned Mexican artist. How these two publishers curate their respective photobooks provides subtle differences in emphasis and how we might read Itrubide’s project as a whole.

As described in my ROSEGALLERY review, their book is actually two books in one, part literary, and part photography. From one side you encounter the photographs of Iturbide, and then you flip the book over for the short fictional novel by Mario Bellatin. There are 21 black and white photographs, which may be the entire project and provides a broader perspective of Kahlo’s bathroom environment.

The Edizioni Punctum photobook is entirely the photographs of Itrurbide without the literary story by Bellatin, with an introduction by Cristiana Perrella and afterword by Giovanna Calvenzi, both essays are in Italian and English. This book contains only 11 of her black and white images. For my taste, the 11 photographs selected are a tighter curatorial edit of the bathroom and the devices and articles that Kahlo depended on, both in her private sanctuary and for her public persona. There are few visual distractions in reading the intent of these medical devices, to see them as they are, to potentially understand what the function was and what it might mean to be the person who had to endure it.

As a result, I found that the Edizioni Punctum photobook provides a more succinct metaphor about how our outward appearances’ can contrast with our private conditions.  That we can construct elaborate masks for of our public person, yet we may be concealing inside a lot of pain and suffering. That underneath our façade, there are the back braces, the artificial legs, supportive railing, and the complicated enemas, but we manage to keep it cloaked and private, essentially the walking wounded.

Resolving one issue I had with the ROSEGALLERY edition, the Edizioni Punctum hardcover book is the same height, but 2 ¼” wider, allowing the interior square photographs to be displayed larger. The interior photographs of the Edizioni Punctum book are 5 ½” x 5 ½” versus the 4 1/8” x 1/8” in the previous book, which for me improves the readability of the photographs.

Also of note, the Edizioni Punctum hardcover is a glued sheet on thick boards, which creates a nice effect by increasing the books heft, but this is a delicate layering. The corners and edges can become easily damaged and frayed, thus requiring careful handling.

The Edizioni Punctum was curated & designed by the publisher, Marco Delogu.

by Douglas Stockdale

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