The PhotoBook Journal

May 25, 2011

Renate Aller – Oceanscapes

Copyright Renate Aller 2010 courtesy photo-eye, Oceanscapes co-published by Radius Books & Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg

Renate Aller began to photograph and investigate the ocean landscape near her adopted American home, perhaps wistfully looking out towards her native home across the Atlantic Ocean. In the ensuring ten years, her studies developed into this titled work, Oceanscapes. Her spirit is similar to Edward Steichen, when he photographed the small section of hisConnecticut backyard, intrinsically being drawn to the same place, photographing as a cathartic act.

Her photographs are minimalistic and embody three simple elements, the ocean, the sky and a horizontal line between them. As to where she actually photographed her subject remains ambiguous. She states that the photographs were made from the same advantage point, but there are no artifacts in her landscape that might verify this fact, such that these photographs appear that they might be made anywhere along the Eastern coast where there is an unobstructed viewpoint.

Over ten years she has captured a wide range of the atmospheric conditions that embody a full range of moods played out in a diverse palette of hues and tonalities. She has diligently maintains a practiced eye for the atmospheric conditions that occurs both over the span of a day as well as seasonally. Her sensitivity to the moods emanating from the atmospheric light, which are played out and reflected back by the conditions of the ocean, has allowed her to orchestrate the sky and ocean into an elegant dance around the horizontal boundary. The sky and ocean has provided her with a seemingly endless palette for a minimal subject.

The ocean is real and tangible, endlessly stretching out to meet the horizon, while the sky has a minimal tactical essence and extends out to infinity, but the horizontal line is an artifact, an optical allusion, a boundary which does not occur in nature. The ocean and the sky are two relatively limitless entities. Contemplated for centuries, water is a source of physical nourishment, while the sky extends to the heavens, a source of spiritual nourishment. The horizon is where these two entities meet, a place where the physical encounters the spiritual.

Aller’s photographs are meant to extend beyond literal interpretations, as were Alfred Stieglitz’s famous “equivalent” photographs of clouds over his summer home onLake George. To attempt to focus on either the season or time of day that the photograph was created is to miss the subtle narrative about time and memory. Aller avoided the cliché of long photographic exposures to investigate the concept of time but rather utilizes the sequencing of the photographs in her book to create this narrative.  Contemplating these photographs, I also find that the solitude and emptiness elicits a darker sense of melancholy, an undercurrent in contradiction to the more apparent light and open space that is portrayed.

Aller’s Oceanscapes are sharply delineated with saturated colors, which are beautiful rendered by the fine printing of this book.

by Douglas Stockdale

May 22, 2011

Michael O’Brien – Hard Ground

Copyright Michael O’Brien 2011 courtesy of University of Texas Press

Over a period from 2006 until 209, Michael O’Brien embarked on a different journey for a photographic project, picking up from an earlier self-assignment that harkened back to 1978 soon after starting his photojournalism career. Over this three years on Tuesday evenings, he photographed the faces of the homeless at the Mission Possible Community Center located  East Austin Texas.

O’Brien states “I was again finding my place with the disenfranchised, using the camera to document, and relate. The more I photographed, the more I felt the need to connect with the human beings before my camera. These gentle, worn and vulnerable souls sat quietly across from me and looked directly into the lens. Whatever energy was going out was coming back in kind. These urban wanders were giving me a reason and purpose for my work

The process of photographing his subjects with a combination of a view camera and Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film, a black and white photographic medium, creates many possibilities for O’Brien. Using a view camera is a slow and deliberate process and provides opportunities to initiate a dialog with his subjects. The positive/negative film provides immediacy in the feedback of the photographic process to both the photographer and more importantly, to his subjects. The positive layer creates a delicate black and white print that O’Brien provides to his subjects, holding back the negative layer for subsequent printing. O’Brien’s portrait project finally came to a conclusion when the Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film he was using ceased to be available.

O’Brien subjects are photographed in front of neutral mid-gray seamless background, temporarily suspended from their current conditions. Unlike his photojournalism photographs, we do not see his subject’s surrounding environment, unless his subject desires to introduce these elements; Bobby and William in their wheelchairs, Ronnie and Robert standing with might be the entirety of their worldly possessions. The consistency of this gray background also symbolizes that all of his subjects are now in a similar place, regardless of their journey on the road that brought them to this place. O’Brien also appears to flex his portrait framing in collaboration with his subjects, varying from a very tight facial framing, to a middle viewpoint that allows inclusion of couples with their children and occasional a full standing portrait to reveal his subject in their entirety.

His lighting provides a mix of soft highlights balanced with open and revealing shadows, in conjunction with a medium contrast range with the shadows falling away into a mysterious darkness. I sense this lighting is symbolic of his subject’s lives on the street, open but not concealing everything, warily holding back a little while continuing to assess each situation. To read their stories, many of his subjects have suffered too many ill consequences while homeless to entirely let their guard down.

O’Brien also chooses a photographic methodology that creates a narrow slice of sharpness, focusing on their eyes, the allegoric pathway to their souls, allowing the remaining details of the person to fall softly away. He allows his subjects to determine how they wish to be seen, many looking into the lens with a prolonged gaze. By focusing on the subjects eyes in combination with the catch light from his lighting creates portraits that are riveting, perhaps similar to Martin Schoeller’s Female Bodybuilders and Marco Delogu’s The Thirty Assassins.

There are also present on the edges of the photograph images the latent marks that are indicative of the Type 55 P/N film. These marks create a consistent framing mechanism, allowing the photographs to be frequently printed full bleed in the book, while allowing the principal portrait content to remain within the pages. Another subliminal message from using this framing technique is to inform the reader that you now see exactly what he witnessed. These uncropped documents are a direct capture and a testimony to his creative pre-visualization. Regardless of aesthetics’, I find the use of this framing technique to create a subtle rawness that is complementary and in this case, it works.

 In viewing these portraits, I really have difficulty understanding where they are coming from and I do not know where they are going next. They stand before his lens as a mute witness to the fact that they have survived to this moment in time. These are beautiful photographs of people who for whatever reason have now found themselves homeless or otherwise in need.

In conclusion, O’Brien states; “I felt a kinship with the people I was photographing. True, I have a home, a wife and three children. I wasn’t close to living on the street. But I was uprooted by the (photojournalism) industry’s changes; I, too, was unsettled, floundering, often unemployed, trying to find a way to regain my balance and place. This project, and these subjects, gave me back my anchor.”

The hardcover book is accompanied by a dust cover, printed and bound in China. The introduction is provided by O’Brien and the project is complemented by the poetry of Tom Waits. In the Notes contained in the Afterword, many of the subjects provide a voice to their current situation, mostly unimagined while viewing their portraits.

by Douglas Stockdale

May 16, 2011

Mariken Wessels – Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut off


Copyright Mariken Wessels 2010 courtesy Alauda Publications

Mariken Wessels has again created another interesting and complex narrative based on found photographs in conjunction with borrowed memories for her photobook Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut off. Wessels’s earlier book, which was re-published by Alauda Publications, Elisabeth – I want to eat, was an investigation into the dichotomy between a normal external appearance and internal downward spiral and chaos. In Queen Ann, the discourse has been reversed, where the subject of this narrative is in denial with her external reality as to who she has become.

Wessels, who orchestrates this semi-fictional story about Anne, (Dutch name is Anika), combines found photographs to mesh with those appropriated from Anne. It is implied that Anne is responsible for defacing, decorating or otherwise attempting to alter the obvious reality of who she is at the moment. Wessels investigates how a person will choose denial; avoiding accountability and dealing with the consequences of personal choices.

As with her earlier book Elisabeth, this story unfolds sequentially, focusing on the attractiveness of her mother when she was younger. The earlier portrait of her mother has subsequently been marked over with dark lines and scribbles as marks of rejection. The there is a transition to Anne when she was young, a pudgy young girl standing next to her attractive mother, but who now is decorated to resemble a clown, while Anne has an additional hand-colored garment, what Anne describes as a sailor suite, but effectively to conceal her size even at that age.

When Anne becomes older, there appears to be a dark episode, perhaps a dream or even a nightmare, narrated by a set of blurry black and white images. The borders have thick black edges, almost engulfing the image, adding an ominous and mysterious element. Anne is running nude with her mouth gaping open, perhaps mid-scream? It is a traumatic event, perhaps even life altering, an event that is so traumatic as to be suppressed, and has subsequently emotionally scared her for life. In one frame, Anne appears to a willing participant in this sexual event, that this might have been an extra-marital fling, and now her hidden scarlet letter? Wessels opens a question about repressed and unspoken events that have lasting consequences but are difficult to deal with when concealed, dark secrets that can not be mentioned, to anyone.

It is after this dark event, that we witness the rapidly increasing size of Anne, who appears to have little or no control over her situation. Now in these subsequent photographs, Anne has been hand-coloring hats, scarves or altering her make-up to clownish proportions as well as attempting to conceal her overweight girth. The act of altering these photographs introduces an underlying tension and friction between Anne and the viewer, as the viewer becomes engulfed with the obvious subterfuge.

Wessels increases the complexity of this book with the inclusion of a sealed glassine envelope, which the translucency is sufficient to be able to discern that there are five individual photographs enclosed. The question; is it necessary to open the envelope and examine the additional photographs? And what consequence would that act have in providing clues and understanding to this narrative? The alternative is keep the envelope sealed; only to examine the photographs through the glassine envelope to attempt to gain further information?

Metaphorically, the photographs in the glassine envelope are similar to photographs that are not in a glassine envelope, only that with the photographs in the glassine envelope; there is a realization that only part of the information can be obtained. When looking at an unencumbered photograph, we suppose that all of the information is readily available, which in reality it is not. The photographs in the glassine envelope provides the same limited information as one that is out of the glassine envelop, we just are not aware of that condition, much as we are not aware of what Anne is concealing and not fully divulging.

As Wessels narrative evolves towards the conclusion, she includes another decorated photograph by Anna (Anika), who pens within the margins a very rhetorical question; Ben ik nog te redden? (Is there any hope for me?) As with any rhetorical question, this and the questions raised by this book proceed unanswered.

Identical in size to Alauda Publications edition of Wessels’s Elisabeth – I want to eat, the book has stiff covers with perfect binding, with all of Anne’s handwritten notes translated from Dutch into English, accompanied by a sealed glassine envelope containing what appears to be five photographs.

by Douglas Stockdale

May 14, 2011

Mona Kuhn – Native

Copyright Mona Kuhn 2009 courtesy Steidl

It has taken me a little longer to review Native, the third of the Kuhn titles published by Steidl (Photographs, 2004, and Evidence, 2007) as I am intrigued by her photographic books. I very interested in acquiring and reviewing her earlier work to place this book into a broader context. I sense that her vision has matured and see evidence of the subtle but wonderful changes reflected in each subsequent photobook.

Native is in essence a landscape book in the broadest sense, perhaps better described as an intimate, maybe even private, landscape. There is a wonderful mix of natural habitants which explore inner emotions and feeling combined with interior landscapes that frame an inner place, again both physically and emotionally. The explorations of the terrain are poetic descriptions of dense eco-system; tightly framed and composed in lush saturated greens with sparkling dewy highlights, resulting in an abstraction, without really defining an actual location and place.

What might be best described as interior landscapes are bare walls, translucent windows and an interior space. In and amongst these places are her nude subjects, who provide an introspective chemistry to this body of work. In contemplating these intimate landscapes, it becomes all the more private as Kuhn indirectly reveals herself.

Consistent with her earlier practice, Kuhn’s photographic style embraces her use of a mix of sharply focused with narrow or out of focused images, which are not sharply defined and in fact abstract, as though she is providing the opportunity to participate in a shared but softly defined memory.

One key aspect of a book versus an exhibition, or even a group of individual photographs, is the sequencing and order of the photographs. I will admit, while initially scanning a new book, I don’t always proceed from the beginning of the book and sequence to the back, nevertheless, a book is planned for that eventuality.  Native shares with Kuhn’s prior book, Evidence, in sequencing from a sun drenched daytime to a final eerie and inky black night-scape, creating a sense of passing time. The duration of time is an unanswered, but intriguing question. Since this is Kahn’s second consecutive book providing a subtle narrative alluding to the passing of time, the passing of time is an important concept for her, but the details of which are both vague and alluring. She creates sufficient space to insert our individual stories about the meaning of the passing of time.

The very first photograph in the book is an interior photograph; the viewpoint includes curtains in disarray bordering a window, beyond which appears an early morning light. It is the start of a new day as well as the beginning of her narrative for the place of her birth. The subsequent photographs of the terrain, interiors and her models, progress from open light to cast shadow, ending with the mysteriously darken jungle.

In this book, Kuhn’s subjects evoke a sense of intimacy that they are comfortable in their skin and situation, without the feeling of being forced into unnatural positions and static interactions. In her first Steidl book, Photographs, the models in the Black and White series appear to be friends and acquaintances. On the contrary, the arrangement of her models in Evidence feels pushed, creating an unrequited tension that runs counter to the potentially relaxed situations. It feels that with the transition to the photographs for Evidence, Kuhn has to provide more direction without the opportunity to develop the same sense of personal connection, trust and intimacy.

The men and women who inhabit Kuhn’s Native are allowed to directly connect with the viewer. I am not sure of the reason for the changes in her working methods for this current book, but for me it is noticeable and appears to me that she has created a very interesting body of work as a result.

Kuhn has captured a sense of calm and a strong feeling of introspection. I also note that in this book, her subjects are native to the environment and have shared backgrounds and potential relationships. There appears to be a desire to avoid complex multi-subject arrangements and by simplifying the compositions, has created more intriguing narratives. Through the book, her portraits are occasionally pared up with photographs of the natural terrain, creating another complex layer of questions about relationships, equivalence and connections, and I find no easy answers.

In traditional Steidl style, this photobook is beautifully printed and hard bound, with splendid essays by Shelley Rice and Wayne Vesti Anderson, both provided in English. This is Kuhn’s best book to date and recommended.

by Douglas Stockdale

May 8, 2011

Swann Galleries photobook auction – May 19, 2011

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS, Photo Books — Tags: , , — Doug Stockdale @ 8:39 pm

Swann Galleries Important Photobooks and Photographs catalog – May 19, 2011

For photobook collectors, the annual Swann Galleries PhotoBook auction in NYC is quickly approaching. Their illustrated catalog in and of itself is a wonderful collection of trivia, information and a pulse on the relative value of the photobooks that you are sitting in your library. The catalog is inclusive of both the photobooks and photographs in the auction, thus a great two for one value at $35.00 US.

by Douglas Stockdale

May 6, 2011

Stefan Vanthuyne – From Here Into Oblivion

Copyright Stefan Vanthuyne 2010 published by Art Paper Editions courtesy of the artist

I must admit, the first photobook by the Belgium photographer Stefan Vanthuyne is very cryptic, with only a quotation from Oscar Wilde to provide any hint of guidance. His color photographs depict a combination of medium distance landscapes intermingled amongst portraits of people.

The landscapes are all devoid of people and predominately located in urban places. The photographs investigate in a documentary style that attempts to objectively describe what is before the lens. In many of these landscape photographs, there is an object that seems to stand out and which is centered within the pictorial frame, as though this is a portrait of that natural object. The photograph of a singular and sunlit exposed tree root amongst the wooded forest is very similar to the photograph on the preceding page of the young child standing in a grassy clearing before a wooded lot. The photograph of a small dead pine tree centered on the book’s end page is the portrait of a small dead pine tree.

All of the people photographed are intimate and close, looking at something other than the camera lens, save one. Vanthuyne also professes to be interested in exploring the concepts of identity and self, thus the casual and personal relationship between subject and camera implies that the individuals photographed are probably friends, family and acquaintances of Vanthuyne. It is not evident from the photographs that this is necessarily a true statement, but seems to be implied.

The occasional pairing within the book of a landscape and portrait photograph hints at a relationship and potential evidence about the identity of the individual. One pair of photographs that I found very intriguing, second below, is a road with a pile of household trash on the edge of the woods and on the facing page is a photograph of a young woman sitting on a couch inside a room of a house. For me, this pair of photographs raises many questions; why are these two photographs paired up, as this is not an accidental pairing, is there a correlation between this pair of subjects, and is this statement about the trash heap as it may relate to the young woman or about the woman as she relates to the trash heap? Is this about equivalence or a contradiction of differences? Does the mangled heap of trash relate to the disarray of the clothing and messy spread that is under and surrounding the girl as she sits on the couch? Unanswerable questions abound.

I feel similar to the Oscar Wilde quote that Vanthuyne has provided, in which I am unmoved by this photobook. But that may be a key point of this photobook;

The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal. Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grown in the same meadows as the poppies of oblivion – Oscar Wilde

I have too many questions and not enough answers. Yet I have now carried this slim book with me on numerous trips over the past four months; looking, reading, wondering and questioning. To say that the book is subtle is an understatement, perhaps to the point that it may not have enough structure. The book leaves me off-balance, which in the end, is not a bad thing.

The book has a soft cover with the pages creased, folded and assembled, without any binding. The afterword, in English text, is a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde.

By Douglas Stockdale

May 3, 2011

Mariken Wessels – Elisabeth – I want to eat

Copyright Mariken Wessels 2010 courtesy Alauda Publications

In 2008 Mariken Wessels self-published her small print edition photobook Elisabeth – I want to eat. This book then went on to win the Silver Medal For Books at the 2009 FotoFrafia, The Festival Internazionale di Roma. Last year, Esther Krop and Alauda Publications re-issued Elisabeth – I want to eat, which is the book that I am discussing here. I have not seen Wessels original book, so I will not attempt to provide a comparison of the two editions.

Firstly I can state, this is an interesting artists book. Wessels is transparent about the fact that she is an accumulator, collector, director and creative spirit behind this book of found photographs, postcards, and other assorted written narratives. The orignal found text is written in Dutch and Wessels has gone on to translate and layer English translations on semi transparent pages that are laid in loose, not bound, within the related book spreads. The loose translation pages provides this book with a nice artistic touch, perhaps keeping in line and spirit with her earlier hand crafted self-published edition.

Second, I found the book to have a quirky cadence and sequencing of the photographs and textual narrative. I have found this semi-fictious story to be very strange and vague, which allows numerous alternative readings. The photographs, cards and letters are possible objects that occurred from real events, but the resulting mash-up that Wessels is creating to frame this narrative is all fiction.

Using found photographs, Wessels does not take any actions to clean up these black and white photographs, e.g. change the contrast, improve the sharpness or clean the negatives of lint and debris. I belive that the poor and grimy condition of the photographs builds on and further supports the underlying sense of darkness and despair that afflicts Elisabeth, the main character of this story.

This book appears to be the diary of Elisabeth, the subject of this story. To read into these photographs and construct one possible narrative, I found Elisabeth’s up-bringing indistinct and marginal. Her childhood is dark and gloomy with small glimpses of happiness, but then key family members disappear (literally cut out). Her mother was a saint, but her father, who has separated from the family, was stern and disciplinary, perhaps abusive. There was a brief time where Elisabeth found happiness, as the theater photographs are perhaps the most clear and best rendered. What follows appears to be some really mixed emotional baggage with the mash-up of photographs of Elisabeth in the mix of topless and dressed portraits. While appearing to smile and appear happily animated, the photographic quality of the images is poor; dark, low contrast (low self-esteem?), dirty and gritty, implying an underlying dislike of the apparent conditions. In one photograph, she stands topless facing the camera, coly smiling with her hands apparently on her hips, but the features of a clown face have been awkwardly added, creating an awkward tension and seemingly contradictory narrative.

Then there is a shift to a more formal series of portraits with the third photograph of the short series in which her face is concealed. The letters and post-cards from well-meaning Aunt Hans are attempting to be uplifting and supportive to Elisabeth, but with an odd structure and rambling narrative, perhaps old Aunt Hans is more of an issue than her well-meaning letters portray? Finally a close, with a strange things seemingly suspended in a darkly closed in space, perhaps a back yard. In Jeffery Ladd’s review of this book, his take away is that Wessels ending implies a suicide and the passing of Elisabeth or her spirit.

All in all, this book is ripe for multiple interpretations, with more questions than answers. The book has stiff covers with a glued in binding. The text is Dutch, with English translations loosely laid in.

by Douglas Stockdale

Update: This book will be available for purchase at the Amsterdam Art – Book Fair.

Blog at