The PhotoBook Journal

October 31, 2010

Charles Grogg – After Ascension and Descent

Copyright Charles Grogg 2010 self-published and courtesy of the artist

Charles Grogg’s first self-published first photobook After Ascension and Decent  is a series of photographs that poses questions and subsequent elicits a narrative about connections. Frequently Grogg manipulates his Black and White photographs, where as digital photographs may have manipulated and altered the content, Grogg will actually alter the surface of the physical photographic print. What is most discernible in the photobook’s printing are the dark, white and red treads and strings that he has sewed onto the print’s surface.

When I initially viewed Grogg’s photographs, I immediately recalled the photographic work of Olivia Parker, especially her Four Pears (1979), probably one of the more intriguing photographs for me from her early work. There is a subtle sense of mystery within Parker’s compositions akin to what I similarly experience with Grogg’s photographs.

There are three motifs within this body of work, the multi-paneled prints of small potted trees, the simulation of the connections with natural and artificial objects, and the sewed prints with the visible threads. Of the three, the sewn prints provide a slight three dimensionality even when presented in this photobook. The threads appear to be laying on the surface of the print which relies on our memory of the print’s flat plane and the three dimensionality of the thread.

The thread’s emphasis appears on the prints to be slightly overstated but further strengths the intended questions and narrative. The tread is a strange disruption to the surface of the print, piercing and breaking through the medium, leaving also small holes and interrupts the traditional reading of a photograph. Likewise, the implied personal connections work in a similar way, depending on our culture and social norms, of interceding and interconnecting us with others, sometimes leaving small bruises and altering our way of perceiving reality.

In one pair of photographs, the unraveling and destruction of a baseball results when the threads holding the ball’s exterior surface together are broken. The resulting mayhem can be read as a metaphor for what happens to relationships when there is a breakdown in personal connections. When there is a breakdown in the relationship, things do seem to unravel and at the end, it can be a complete destruction. This pair of photographs is in direct contrast to the other photographs, where Grogg attempts to establish a symbolic connection, now expanding the narrative to be inclusive of negative consequences to maintaining personal connections.  Similar to Edward Weston’s green pepper, one photograph of the frayed and flayed open baseball has very overt sexual overtones, bordering on being graphic and sexually explicit. Intended or not.

The photograph of the arm with the taped on wire taped, which is connected to the older style phone laying at the bottom of the frame perhaps borders on a metaphoric cliché, it does ring true. What perhaps saves this photograph is the presence of the small plant sitting on a ledge on the edge of the frame, raising questions as to its relevance and reason for inclusion and possible meanings.

Grogg states this about the underlying context for this body of work; “Over time, I was surprised how nature seemed to copy my ideas (doesn’t naiveté have an important place in making art?), how wires, tethers, ropes, strings, conduits all appear whenever there is something important near; a house receiving its utilities, a sapling projected from the wind, cattle grazing at a fence. I knew I must be tethered too, as well as all the people I care about and even those I don’t know. We are engaged and prevented at the same moment, kept for and kept against, united and divided all at once.

Catherine Courturier in her introductory essay adds; “On closer inspection, I have come to believe that After Ascension and Descent is not so much of the pain of the ties that bind, but about the hope that we can be free, through our thoughts and through art, in spite of those tethers.

Grogg adds another dimension to this body of work by revealing the intricate weaving of the treads that are concealed on the back of the print. By revealing what is normally concealed behind the print on facing pages of the photobook’s spread, he suggests another layer of complexity to his creations. By revealing these concealed threads, he also implies that there are usually unseen connections that are occurring behind the scenes, difficult to observe and perhaps understand. That what is on the surface is only part of the equation about relationships and connections.

The abstract pattern of the lines on the reverse is an artifact of the consequence of the designed pattern on the print’s surface, thus a random pattern but as Grogg realizes, interesting in and of themselves, and harkens back to automatic drawing of the Dadaists. The abstract labyrinths of graphic lines created where the threads were stitched on the front are an indirect and random result due to the intended effects on the front of the print. Again, suggesting that what we may observe of the connections in life may seem well-defined and in control, but there may be actual chaos behind these orderly appearances.

This photobook is self published with stiff-covers by Charles Grogg, in a first edition of 100 copies, and the introductory essays are provided by Crista Ward Dix and Catherine Courturier, with an Afterword by Charles Grogg.

By Douglas Stockdale

October 30, 2010

Jasper Howard – Photo Books International

Filed under: Photo Book Stores — Doug Stockdale @ 6:54 pm


Jasper Howard Copyright 2010 Douglas Stockdale

Located near the heart of London is a quaint and almost quintessential London book seller, but with a wonderful focus that is exclusively on photobooks. This is a small, well organized and run book shoppe, just as I have imagined my distant relative John Stockdale, publisher and bookseller of Piccadilly in the late 1700’s in London. Photo Books International (BPI) is a 13 year joint venture between Jasper Howard (above) and Bill Herbert. I had the opportunity to drop into their tidy and very well stocked shoppe and was immediately lost among the potentialities. Their inventory is extensive and decently priced. And yes, very recommended!

Not evident are the three books I left with, the Roni Horn’s 2000 stiff-cover edition of PI, Mona Kuhn’s 2004 hard-cover edition of Mona Kuhn Photographs (completing my collection of her three published by Steidl and I will soon be reviewing the series) and Jock Struges 1991 stiff-cover edition of The Last Days of Summer. I was self-limited by what I could carry during the remainder of my current trip.

While discussing with Jasper about his shoppe and his observations about the state of photobooks, he did mention that they were still interested in purchasing photobooks. If you are interested in selling your photobooks, please first send him an email of what titles and condition before dropping in with the over-stuffed bag. Since his inventory is large, he is interested in filling in his missing spaces. And yes, it seems he knows where every title is lurking within the store.

This was my first visit to London and I will have to say, when I return again, PBI will be on my short list of places to revisit.

Best regards, Douglas

Update: Photo Books International is now closed. I had heard rumors of this, but as noted in one of the comments below, it is now a fact. I also realized that the portrait of Howard was really terrible regarding the color balance, so it needed a do-over and update, above. Now Howard is looking pretty good.

October 24, 2010

Harvey Benge – Birds

Copyright Harvey Benge  2010 courtesy of the photographer

Harvey Benge’s latest self published photobook (perhaps termed a zine) Birds is brief, elegant and subtly philosophical. Benge provides a brief background story for this slim narrative; that the photographs were made on one day from the deck of a ferry near Auckland Harbour and the photographs were made on the afternoon of a Thursday in April.

The five color photographs, each of the photographs spanning the two page spread, capture a flock of birds in flight. The identity of the specific bird species remains ambiguous, as the birds are flying far from the photographer who appears to be more interested in the broader perspective of this sky-scape. From the series, we can determine that they fly in a V-shaped pattern and these birds appear to have a profile similar to my memory of US game birds, that of a duck or goose.

Due to the brevity of this photobook, it reads more like a short poem, with a number of interpretative variations. One alternative reading is that this is a narrative about a group of family and friends who are on a “road trip”. They have the freedom to freely move about, living off the land, to literally see the world, soaring through the sky as they are. Wouldn’t it be really nice to have that type of freedom?

This is also a narrative about the social patterns we develop, the sense of culture that becomes instilled in a group of people, the memory of history that becomes ingrained and passed from generation to generation. The birds fly in this pattern for a reason that is probably only really known by them. If they are on a migratory route, it probably is so engrained from an ancient memory so that the need to make this journey is so hard-wired, they may have little to no cognitive choice. Suggesting that the cultural patterns of behavior we have are also being passed from generation to generation.

If indeed these are ducks or geese, we recognize that these birds are also considered game birds, pursued by not only other animals but by the most dangerous of hunters, mankind. Our knowledge of their potential plight provides a bittersweet tinge to this narrative, that these birds may be unknowingly flying towards imminent danger. The same migratory instinct will also take them repeatability near known hunting sites, where men will be lying in wait with shotguns and retriever dogs.B

By no means is the last reading about the abstract patterns that groups of birds and other social animals create, that evolve in real-time. From the infinitive number of variations that is occurring, Benge has selected these five. The dark flecks of birds providing an indistinct but slightly recognizable pattern framed on the background sea of blue, gray and white. The photographs start with a tight and recognizable V pattern, but slowly evolve in the five sequences into an almost straight line. We can recognize that this results as the visual perspective changes relative to the bird’s flight and the position of the ferry that Benge is photographing from. That patterns change, morph and what we may see at one point in time, may not be a good indication of all the possibilities of the design in space.

Birds is a self published photobook in a limited edition of 50, with stiff covers and bound with a saddle stitch.

by Douglas Stockdale

October 23, 2010

Samantha Casolari – Ode to Steet Hassle & Untitled, Nevada 2007

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 9:54 am

Samantha Casolari – photobook wrap > “ODE TO STREET HASSLE (THE BOYS ARE KEEPING SECRETS) / untitled, nevada 2007

When I received Samantha Casolari’s first published book just before my last departure to Europe, I was left in a quandary, the packaging of the book was so wonderful, I could not bear to open it. It is a beautiful object that deserves to be preserved and reminded me of one of the more interesting principles of quantum mechanics (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty  Principal);  the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be measured. Expressed in a more philosphical way, when you come to a fork in the road, you have to make a choice and proceed, and understand that you will not know very much about the path not taken. 

Which for me is that I can either admire the book’s wrapped presentation as an object or I can cut the twine binding so that I can admire the photobook and the interior photographs; I have to make a choice, as it is one or the other. One part of my attempt to understand why I have not opened this book wrap yet is perhaps best stated by Bertrand Russell; “The observer, when he seems to be observing as stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the tone upon himself“.

One aspect of the digital age is the opportunity to find alternative sources of information, and in this case, Casolari’s web site in which she features interior images from this book. So as a tease for the subsequent review when I resolve this quandary (a photobook reviewer does need to read the actual book) are some intriging and mysterious images, below, from the book’s untitled/Nevada 2007.

Best regards, Douglas

October 3, 2010

Claxton Projects – Tom Claxton

Filed under: Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 3:41 pm

I just received a nice email from Tom Claxton, a London based photographers agent, regarding a Tumblr site (see sidebar update or poke here) that he has established for photobook reviews, which is very nice.

Tom does have a wonderful feature imbedded that provides a mini-slide show for the photographs he has curated from each of the photobooks he features. If you initially see a black box, just wait a few minutes for it to finish loading, it is worth the wait. It probably takes me a little bit longer than most in as I am running on an old machine which is not very ripped and my web feed is an older DSL (which I hope to upgrade to high-speed cable sometime in the next couple of weeks!).

When I read photobook review blogs which have an elegant sentence or short paragraph, I again wonder about my own reviews, which tend to get a bit lengthy. The downside to my process is that I don’t react as quickly to what comes in the mail, so I always seem to be late to the latest news information game. I had an interesting discussion with Marc Feutsel about this when I met up with him in Paris at Laurence Vecten’s flat. We know that photographers (and especially publishers) like to get that initial buzzzz going for a new book, but there is also some value to a little more depth about a photobook that is published later which could put some more legs on a photobook-project. Some photobook projects take a little longer to allow the subtlities to become more apparent and subsequently take on a richer narrative, which I guess is what I am striving for.

What I understand can be frustrating for some, is that by the time they read about a photobook on this blog, a small edition PIY photobooks may no longer available. So I guess the trade-off is that I will continue to publish my reviews when I am ready and this blog will not necessarily be the site of choice for fast breaking photobook news, I will let a few others play the hottest photobook news game.

Meanwhile, please check out Claxton Projects, a very nice place to spend some time enjoying some photobooks and their interior images.

Best regards, Douglas

December 2012 update: Claxton Projects has moved to a new location and can be found here. Beware, the new site does not seem to as compatible with older versions of Internet Explorer.

October 1, 2010

Mark John Ostrowski – Amerikana

Copyright Mark John Ostrowski 2010 Macula de plata, courtesy of the photographer

Amerikanaconcerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture; broadly, this is typical of America. In a series of photographs, many of which are frequently paired, Mark John Ostrowski provides a series of photographs that places doubt on the ability of any one, or even a series of photographs, to broadly typify a culture. The background story is that Ostrowski was born in America, but moved to Spain many years ago, and has returned to America to investigate memories and a place that is no longer home.

Many of his paired photographs provide contrasting viewpoints to a similar subject and investigates the broad diversity and contradictions that can be found in any culture, least a country as expansive as America. His photographs show in a documentary style the upbeat with the despondent, the light and airy as opposed to the dark and moody situations.  

The first photograph, spanning the two page spread, is the book’s lead in and personally one of my favorites: Central within the frame is a smiling young girl, holding a flag, appearing to be waving with her opposite hand open and showing her palm that appears like a genuine and happy gesture. She is leaning out of the back window of an older model car, with her braided blond hair, decorated with a calico ribbon, which is like her, dangling out the window. She appears young and naive, but yet enthusiast and happy. She could be picture perfect but for the Band-Aid on her forehead, a subtle and hardly noticeable defect that indicates her youth and humanity to have bumped her head sometime recently. But she does not appear to be aware of that previous bruise at this time. She is very aware of the photographer’s camera and is looking unabashed directly into the lens, making full eye contact, as to be fully engaged.

The photograph’s caption states that this is the Memorial Day parade taking place in Lumberton New Jersey and the implication is that this is one of many cars, floats and participants in this celebration parade.

 It is the American flag in this photograph that I believe represents Ostowski viewpoint that his America is now fractured and perhaps a little upside down, as the flag is abstractly represented in two pieces and very much out of a normal context, with the stars in the lower left and the stripes in the upper right. The young girl is holding one flag that has extended out of the left side of the photograph, but the flag’s striped field has returned back into the picture frame. The second part of the flag is attached to a small hand that is extending out from somewhere inside the car, a very mysterious hand. The second part of the flag has only the field of starts visible, with the remaining section of the flag falling down out of the picture frame. Meanwhile, a man who appears to be driving the car is in a mid-smile appears to now glancing back and down at this second flag, or perhaps the photographer whom he just drove by and whom he might have noted was appearing to take photographs.

This photograph of the young girl and flag has a similar connotation to me as the Robert Frank (The Americans) photograph of the older woman who is proudly holding an American flag, but when the photograph is carefully examined, the flag is a bit worn and frayed on the edges. The slightly tattered flag is symbolic that everything is not perfect, nor as well as hoped and desired, that there are some issues and problems lurking on the edges of our culture. And probably any culture for that matter. Thus we are notified that this series of photographs by Ostrowski should be considered in the context of a social commentary.

Ostrowski book’s spreads include the photograph of the upbeat smiling cowgirls in western hats across from a photograph of a darkly lit saloon with what appears is a guy in a western style hat smoking a cigar and holding a bottle of beer, or a house decorated for Halloween opposite the photograph of the long, dark car waiting for the next funeral, or maybe a little bit of levity with the photograph of the tape deck found while digging around at a garage sale opposite the photograph of someone who is digging in their garden. Ostrowski also pairs up photographs of people sitting in benches or a pair of photographs of individuals with their heads bowed down for some unknown reason. He provides two points of view about similar subjects to further underline the diversity and alternative viewpoints that are available while evaluating a culture.

Ostowski’s photographs are but save on color photograph, black and white. The outside borders indicate that the photographs may have been made by either a view camera or medium format camera, but nevertheless of the type of camera, there is spontaneity within the photographs, and usually a direct contact between the photographer and his subject. Ostrowski is a street photographer with a practiced eye for both the humorous as well as the poignant situations and has created an interesting narrative about Amerikana.

The book has stiff covers, duotone printing, photographs are captioned; pages are not numbered, Introductory essay by Antonio Molinero Cardenal with the text provided only in Spanish.

By Douglas Stockdale

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