The PhotoBook Journal

October 27, 2011

Streetwise: Masters of 60s Photography

Copyright of the photographers 2010 & courtesy of Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA), published by Modernbook Editions

The museum of Photographic Arts had a thematic exhibition in 2010, which resulted in the catalog book published by Modernbook Editions, Streetwise, Masters of 60s Photography. The curators have selected eight photographers whose photographic intent might have been influenced by Robert Frank in 1950’s and who worked through the 1960s to define the genre of photographer flaneur, a.k.a. street photographer.

The book is not meant to provide an inclusive examination of each of the nine photographers included in the exhibition and subsequently the book, but highlight well know photographs made by each during the turbulent 1960’s period in the United States and perhaps illustrate how they might have been mutually influential during this period.

The photographers selected include Robert Frank (b.1924), Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971), Ruth-Marion Baruch (1922 – 1997), Jerry Berndt (b.1943), Bruce Davidson (b.1933), Lee Friedlander (b 1934), Danny Lyon, (b.1942), Gary Winogrand (1928 – 1984), and Ernest Withers (1922 – 2007). All of the photographic work is drawn from the 1960’s, with the exception of Robert Frank, whose photographs were made in the late 1950’s and produced in his seminal photobook “The Americans”.

Nicely stated by Deborah Klochko, “Streewise builds on what Robert Frank began with his new “snapshot esthetic”, and the capturing of an alternative view of society (as compared to the 1955 Family of Man exhibition at MoMA) with photographs depicting the “outlaw culture” of bikers and chain gangs by Lyon, to Brendt’s images of the Combat Zone taken in the red-light district of Boston; and the darker subcultures photographed by Arbus. These photographers spent time with their subjects, presenting a challenging view of Americaundergoing radical change”.

I would expect that some of these photographers are better known that others, with Arbus and Frank nearing cult status, while Withers, Baruch and Berndt are not as well-known today. Thus the curators should be lauded in their broad selection of photographers in maintaining a balanced representation of the genre and period.

I believe that Andy Grundberg in his essay describes this collective body of work very eloquently “In sum, these image makers produced a distinctly engaged and personalized version of what had come to be known as social-documentary photography, a new and sophisticated postwar approach embodied in the fresh term “street photography.”

The introduction is provided by Deborah Klochko, Director,Museum of Photographic Arts and an essay by Andy Grundberg, Chair of the Photography Department at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Following the Plates section for each of the nine photographers, there are Notes and Biographies for each of the photographers and authors. The pages are numbered and a caption for each photograph is provided in the Notes section.

The book object: Hardcover with translucent printed dust cover, with a horizontal design well suited to illustrate the black and white photographs created with 35mm film, the now classic street photographer’s camera from this period. The horizontal photographs have a generous white margin, while the horizontal photographs are a bleed off the top and bottom of the page to maximize the print size. A clean book design and beautifully printed and bound.

October 17, 2011

Kathleen Laraia & H. Woods McLaughlin – The Color of Hay

Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin & H. Woods McLaughlin copyright 2010 self-published

The Color of Hay; The Peasants of Maramures is a self-published book and a collaborative project between a photographer and writer, who are also a wife and husband team. The resulting thick book is a blending of photographs and words to narrate their story about a rural region located in the Northernmost region of Transylvania, Romania. For the McLaughlin team, the decision was made to place the book’s primary emphasis on the photographs, with the writing to help establish an external context.

The book is sub-divided into many sections that attempt to describe the people of this region, such as the cultural adaptation to the seasons (The Four Corners of Life by Their own Hands); Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. There are also sections that attempt to carve out the phases of the social lifestyle (The Trappings of Life); Market, Clothes, Animals, and Food, (The Ceremonies of Life); God and Community, Weddings, Pilgrimage, and Death, and finally the phase over a lifespan (The Meaning of Life, When Life has no Meaning); Youth, Adulthood, and Old Age. It almost appears that when faced with concept options on how to frame a story, they chose an option to attempt to illustrate them all.

Their project was completed over a ten-year span and originated with a one year immersion into the region by taking up residence with a rural family. It was an attempt for an outsider to become accepted an insider, to gain access to the community’s inner social structure. There is evidence in this documentary style project that the McLaughlin’s had mixed success, with an interesting mix of stilted formal portraits in conjunction with very casual, candid and warm observations.

Although their project is focused on the investigation of a specific geographic area, the underlying story is an investigation into a closed and relatively poor ex-communist community teetering on the brink of immense cultural changes brought on byRomania’s entry into the European Common Union. The “old ways” are in the beginning stages of what may be a rapid transition into the present world economics, or at least it maybe a “rapid change” by comparison to their existing standards. The implication is the culture traditions that McLaughlin’s have documented will soon evaporate and become a fading memory.

McLaughlin’s photographs and writings capture what appears to be an established tradition which they pair these with hints of the pending contemporary lifestyle. As an example, below, a wedding reception framed within a small, traditional house while the bride demurely sneaking a peek at a cell phone. Sometimes the photographs on facing pages are a blatant “before and after” or a study of a culture in collision with itself, but in a way consistent with the explanatory writing style, providing a National Geographic flavor to this book.

Their book has incorporated some interesting and contemporary photographic layout designs; a mixing of photographs farmed with classic margins, full bleeds, two page spreads, mixing and mashing these designs, in conjunction with a blend of two photographic mediums, utilizing both color and black & white photographs. The mixing of the color with the black & white photographs infers a mix of the lyrical representational with the objective viewpoints, and although contemporary, can make the book more daunting task to pull together as a cohesive whole. The result of this edgy design is that the continuous changing formats imbue a subtle tension and energy to the flow of images, although it is not always apparent to me as to why some photographs were color while others were black & white.

The book object: Hardcover with image wrap cover beautifully printed with both the color and black & white photographs fully detailed and the black and white images have a full range of tonal contrast. Book pages are numbered with an end section that provides a descriptive caption for each photograph.

October 7, 2011

Alec Soth – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Alec Soth 2011 copyright – published by Edizioni Punctum

What do you have when you mix a Midwestern American Photographer, a Nineteenth Century English Poet, a prominent Italian city and a French titled poem = Alec Soth’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (a.k.a. LBDSM)

Earlier this year Soth resided in Rome to complete a commission for the tenth FotoGrafia Festival Internazionle di Roma and the resulting photographic project was exhibited at FotoGrafia di Roma in late September 2011 in conjunction with the publication of the hardcover book by Edizioni Punctum. As a frame of reference, the FotoGrafia di Roma commission is an opportunity to portray the city of Rome with total freedom of interpretation.

As a Prolog to writing the commentary on this book, I had the opportunity to join Soth at his presentation at FotoGrafia di Roma earlier in September at the MACRO Testaccio. Soth stated that he was becoming more interested in how to construct books as a narrative and questioning the order and sequencing of the photographs in a book. As an example, could he throw all of the photographs up in the air and depending on how they fell, might that result in the image sequence? (Although to me, LBDSM does appear to have a subtle order to the sequence, but that may in fact maybe due to my ability to construct a possible sequential narrative). Soth also stated that introducing something out of context (which for me is the pineapple in LBDSM) might create some cohesion, reminding me of Ed Ruscha’s phtotobooks, most famously “Varous Small Fires {and Milk}”), for which Ruscha has stated, “Milk seemed to make the book more interesting and gave it some cohesion”.

Rather than directly investigating the city of Rome as been Soth’s prior photographic style, he opted to instead focus on one of Rome’s more interesting literates, abet similarly short-lived, the Englishman John Keats (1979 – 1821) and Keats poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. Although Keats lived in Rome for only the last four months of his life, he seems to be inexplicably tied to this city, perhaps as this is where he is buried and from where he penned his last romantic missives to his most well-known love, Fanny Brawn. Although Soth has utilized Rome to set the stage for his narrative, the poem was penned while Keats still resided in London.

La Belle Dame sans Merci is translated into English as “The Beautiful Lady without Pity”, representing the Fatal Woman, or as alluded to in the original French poem, the woman as a mysterious witch. Keat’s poem, much like Soth’s photographs is loaded with enigmas. I enjoy one description of Keat’s poem in Wikipedia, that again like Soth’s photographs, “it avoids simplicity of interpretation despite simplicity of structure.”

I find one of the more interesting photographs early one is the contemporary homage to the similar Roman photograph by Ruth Orkin photograph. This may become a Soth trademark, as in Soth’s earlier book “Broken Manual”, he recreated a Robert Frank photograph (window, Butte Montana) in homage to Frank’s photobook, “The Americans

This photograph is a great re-creation of a classic Fatal Woman in Rome, but the inclusion of the man holding the pineapple on the left side of the frame creates a lot of tension. The reason for the pineapple is not apparent to me in this photograph, but Soth ties it in later.  Nevertheless, I will admit the inclusion changes up the Orkin inspired photograph and creates a subtle tension that seems confirmed with the photograph of the smashed pineapple sequenced later.. For me, this is an homage to Ed Ruscha on how a pineapple might provide “cohesion” for a book.

In the middle of the book, Soth provides a non-photographic image, a page with the plate number XV in white text on an orange field with the identifying caption “During my time in Rome, I wanted to make a beautiful picture of the city. But I found it impossible. The city was too beautiful to photograph”. Interesting, I first felt that this was meant to passively satisfy the Fotografia commission, as in the past, the resulting bodies of work have been a documentary style treatise of some aspect of the built landscape of Rome.  A second way to evaluate this plate is to consider the work of Susan Evans’s “The Story” (2001) as narrated by Nathalie Herschdorder; “In the absence of images and presence of words, (Soth) tells a story already known to everyone, questioning the omnipresence of (Rome) pictures in our society as well as their use in the media.”

The last photograph I would like to call attention to is the portrait of a mysterious woman (plate X, Georgia) with her mouth open and forming a distinctive heart shape with the smoke; symbolic of a woman who is in the process of casting her spell on the unsuspecting “pale kings and princes”.

The book object: The large, thin, hardcover book was printed in four-color lithography and bound in Rome Italy, with numbered plates and captions provided in the Titles & Notes section. The book was curated by Marco Delogu, with essays provided by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Francesco Zanot, with the text provided in English.

Best regards

October 3, 2011

Chris Crites – Mug Shots

copyright Chris Crites 2011 courtesy Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books

I have noted recently that of the many types of ephemera that seem to be cherished are the police mug shots, which either intentionality or intentionality, capture the subjects at their worst. Chris Crites has accumulated a wonderful collection of vintage mug shots, transferred the image to ordinary kraft bags, and then painted the images with acrylic paint. Crites series of painted mug shots was recently published by Portland, OR based Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books and the book was aptly titled Mug Shots.

The photographic paintings are usually captioned with a title and in conjunction with his application of color, selection of subject and appearance provides us what seems to be portraits that are entirely suit our stereotypes of the criminal act. The photo paintings are on what appears as sections of ordinary grocery bags, with their creases and folds still evident. These grocery bags are themselves intended to be ephemera, to be used for just the one day to assist with carrying home the recent purchases. Similar to the mug shots, Crites has glorified these brownish kraft bags and extended their life much beyond their original intent.

The murder is a rough appearing guy having what appears to be a broken nose, implying that trouble may not have ever been far away from him. A weathered appearing man in red jacket identified in his mug shot as a criminal for “cocaine/morphine” appears to look very similar to a couple of known modern rock & roll guitarist. Two individuals, the woman for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” and the other for “indecency” (a man or a woman?), are painted blue, symbolic of the early Blue laws that were enacted to protect and safeguard our morals.

The man accused of “racketeering”, his shirt collar standing up with his head slightly cocked, with the eyebrow shadows looming darkly over his eyes, does make me feel that he appears a bit dangerous. A woman, apparently sitting, has her head slightly bowed and her hands appearing to be neatly folded in her lap, already appears to have her story of repentance ready for any and all who might be interested in hearing her sad tale. Nevertheless, there still appears to be something in the way Crites paints her face and eyes that brings out a slightly contradictory visual story about this woman.

The man, pictured in denim work overalls, accused of “crime against nature” I find very intriguing as to what crime this could possibly be about. The heavily bandaged man, whose mug shot is about his crime of “distributing communist literature”, could have in prior times sustained some of those injuries in the squad car on the way to booking station.

Who these people were, what relevancy would their “crimes” have today, were they in fact guilty of their accusations, what has happen to them in the ensuring years is speculation and exactly where Crites would like to take us with his visual narratives as he states, “each one of these images has a story”.

The book object: Stiff covers with a glued binding. One of my issues with the glued perfect bound bindings is the potential loss of content on the printed pages, as it seems more of the page is lost in the gutter than was anticipated in the book design. As a result, an image can become truncated, as in the last photograph below. The loss of the some of an image does creates it’s own mystery, but one that was probably unanticipated by the publisher and author. My second peeve with glued prefect bound books is that they do not lay open easily, besides being difficult to photograph for my commentary; they do not stay open while lying on my desk to be studied.


October 2, 2011

John Ryan Brubaker – Strange Cities

Copyright John Ryan Brukaker 2011 courtesy Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

Strange Cities, the recent photobook collaboration between the every wandering John Ryan Brubaker and Ampersand Galley and Fine Books (Portland,OR) is a recasting of the “stranger in a strange land” genre, set in Vietnam. We experience the journey of a photographer-flaneur, who, utilizing a documentary style, investigates in black & white the urban landscape of an unfamiliar place.

Brubaker captures a glimpse of the din raised by of a sea of scooters, the tangled chaos of the electrical and communications infrastructure, aging and detoriating built landscape that many call home, and a sense of the tenacity of the people to adapt and survive. He provides vignettes of his subjects, an indirect portrait of the social fabric granting us the freedom to add to his narrative.

The book provides a contrast of horizontal photographs printed across a two page spread with two vertical photographs on facing pages, the later creating jarring juxtapositions as the full-page bleed photographs butte into each other. The visual rationale for the pairings is not readily apparent, thus challenge you to dig a little deeper. One read I obtain from these mash-ups is the potential disorientation and unease that a strange environment can create.

As a photographer, I found the image of the table top camera repair vendor intriguing, the contrast of working hands diligent working on an old twin lens reflex, while near the photographic border are a perhaps the waiting hands. On the work top is a sea of camera parts, assembled much like an abstract collage, with a relatively new digital camera body adjacent to what appears to a very aging and dilapidated 35mm camera body.

For photographic-flaneur photobooks, I am particularly partial to an ending photograph that is symbolic of the potential journey that still lies ahead, bottom photograph, where this is a strong graphic element, in this case the silvery train tracks, that leads your eye out into the hazy distance. This photograph creates a nice narrative almost of itself and implies that although you are at the end of this book, the journey, symbolic of the narrative, really continues.

The book object; a small stiff cover book and hand sewn binding, which makes for a very enjoyable read, as the pages open nicely to provide a nice lay flat design. The photographs are printed full bleed on a slightly warm stock, without page numbering, captions or an accompanying essay. Printed in an edition size of 100.

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