The PhotoBook Journal

December 29, 2011

Hiroshi Watanabe – Ideology in Paradise

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , — Doug Stockdale @ 11:18 pm

Copyright Hiroshi Watanabe 2008 published by Mado-sha Co. Ltd

With the recent the passing of Kim Jong II and the changes to the family leadership in North Korea I am motivated by an opportunity to review an earlier photobook by Hiroshi Watanabe who was allowed “access” to travel and photograph within North Korea in 2007.

Hiroshi states, “What I heard about North Korea were all terrible stories – stories of people starving and dying on the streets, stories of people being abused and brutalized by the police and stories of the ignorance of the North Korean people resulting from the strict government media control….and I felt uncomfortable and unsettled about our views and perceptions of North Korea. I was puzzled and intrigued, and I wanted to take a personal journey and see the country and the lives of the North Korean people with my own eyes.”

Thus Watanabe seems set out to investigate the North Korean culture as a reality versus the political propaganda that is promulgated by many interested parties; North Korea, South Korea, Japan as well as U.S. depictions. In retrospect I do not sense that we are provided any “information” that defines North Korea as much as this place provides a foil for Watanabe’s photographic interest and vision.

I found his photographic project to have similarities in composition and framing to his other projects but dissimilar in that this was photographed in color and not in his signature black & white medium. The addition of color does little to improve the overall drabness of the built locations of North Korea.

Many of the photographs contain a sense of dullness, lacking a feeling of sparkle or shine which might equally be a result of environmental conditions of the time of year that this project was photographed. The light seems to have a pervasive overcast feeling seemingly to add to an undercurrent of gloom. The photographs which contain bare trees convey a supporting narrative of empty space and a lack of content. Even with the inclusion of blooming trees that should provide a sense of life and hope there still is sense of flatness to the surrounding surfaces.

Watanabe has previously expressed his interest in collaborative photobooks where there is an editorial and design team to play off of. As I understand Watanabe still maintains a veto vote thus I think the first book spread below is characteristic of his humor and subtle dialog. We see a photograph of a smiling young man who is caught in mid-salute while looking to the facing page and the photograph of painting of the Kim Jong II among is smiling constitutes as though this is a little smirk and a node as to might be really true versus fiction. With most of Watanabe’s paired photographs those that face each other do so for a reason in which one plus one creates a multitude. Nevertheless, and probably unsurprising I also observe similarities in the layering of the subject’s content which appear to be color versions of the photographs featured in his subsequent photobook Findings.

His portraits are also very similar in style to his later work usually framed tight and varying between three-quarters to an isolation of just the head and shoulders. Watanabe utilizes a longer lens at maximum aperture to further isolate and draw the viewer’s attention to the facial features of his subjects. The shallow depth of field paired with his careful compositions provides soft pastel backgrounds that seem to engulf his subjects and provides a series of wonderful and sensitive portraits. It appears to me that Watanabe celebrates his subjects as real individuals who exist irrespective of the swirling political culture.

What we see is potential evidence of what life and society may be like in North Korea but also evident that this is mostly a result of an organized façade,as with any kind of overly supervised photography; the limitations to delve below the surface are substantial.

Lesley A. Martin summarizes this photobook very nicely; “The results, engaging, yet still mysterious, bring us one side of this closed-off place, introducing us to a vibrant, compelling set of individuals but still leave us to wonder.”

The book object; this is a hardcover book with dust jacket, with the square color photographs bordered by an ample white margin usually a single photographs per page is paired through the book. The book has pagination but lacks captions to provide any additional external contextual meaning.

A brief Afterword is provided by Watanabe with the text provided in English and Japanese. This photobook was recognized by Aperture and subsequently an introduction by Lesley A. Martin is provided on the inside of the illustrated dust jacket.

Cheers, Douglas Stockdale

Mitch Epstein – American Power

Mitch Epstein 2009 copyright courtesy Steidl

I think one of the better photographed and designed photobooks to shed light on the complexities and the enormity of the environmental, economic, political and social issues of the production and consumption of energy is Mitch Epstein’s American Power, published in 2009 by Steidl.

In reading Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, a photographic project that investigates the same subject, the landscape is photographed on a grand scale, frequently using an aerial perspective that literally provides the reader with an “overview”. The trade-off between the grand “Ansel Adams scale” and a mid-range framing for me is that the subject becomes impersonal and thus a little more difficult to directly relate to the issues. Burtynsky has also included fewer individuals in his project, also reducing the personalization and increasing the abstraction of the issues.

Interestingly both Burtynsky’s Oil (Steidl, 2009) and Epstein’ American Power are large, thick massive books, which would seem to consume large amounts of energy to print, bind and transport. Perhaps it was Gerhard Steidl’s intent to create these large books to capture the reader’s attention about a large, pressing and important issue.

Another photobook that was also released in 2009 on a similar subject was Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers (2009) using symbolic subjects and thus more abstract, such as looking at a scientific notation for water and being able to relate to a body of water or a glass of water. For me, it was Chris Jordan’s earlier photobook In Katrina’s Wake (2006) that in examining the after-effects of the hurricane Katrina, makes the environmental issues of the production and consumption of power more comprehensible and a wonderful predecessor to Epstein’s American Power. Unlike Epstein and Burtynsky, both of Jordan’s photobooks are of a more traditional (and reasonable) size and heft.

Epstein explores the production and consumption of energy and in a broad and expansive investigation similar to Burtynsky, but using a moderate scale, along with a little dark humor, that can connect with the reader. Similar to both Burtynsky and Jordan, Epstein effectively uses balanced compositions and saturated color to create some beautiful, although troubling, photographs to capture the viewer’s attention. This was a project that would span between 2003 to 2008 and take him and his photographic support team to almost half of the States in America, as well as dealing the political and legal issues of publicly photographing energy sites post 9/11. Epstein’s subjects included the production of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, fuel cell, wind and solar.

The book as an object; linen and embossed hardcover with dust jacket and the color photographic plates are beautifully printed and are slightly larger than the original 8 x 10” photographs, thus loaded with wonderful details. There is one color plate per page spread, with a neat white margin around each photograph and the plate numbers with a title (place and date of the photograph) are on the facing page. The Afterword is by Epstein to provide more of a personal context to his concept and the execution of this project.

Note: Mitch Epstein won the third annual Prix Pictet photography prize with the publication of American Power, an award which recognizes work on the subject of sustainability.

December 22, 2011

Best PhotoBooks for 2011 – another Wonderful Year

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS, Photo Books — Tags: , , — Doug Stockdale @ 6:04 am

First, if you by chance you happen across this post looking for another list of “Best PhotoBooks of 2011,” you might not recall reading my “Best of 2010” photobook post, which can be found here. Essentially after compiling a “Best of” list in 2009, as expected of someone who reviews photobooks, I was less than satisfied with my own results. Although I do intently read a lot of photobooks, I don’t think that I really have an opportunity to see the breath and scope of all of the photobooks that were published in 2011. And for the most part, I found something of interest in about every book I either looked at or reviewed, although there were a few I found challenging or really entertaining, but all for personal reasons.

So to save you some time following the link to “Best PhotoBooks for 2010 – Hopi Style“, let me briefly recap: in the Hopi Nation tradition of their annual race, everyone could enter and there are no limitations to age or sex. The wonderful part was that all who finished, regarding of when, were equal winners.

As to other published “Best of 2011” lists, I probably find them as interesting as most others, wondering which photobooks I missed and need to try to track down. Of particular interest was the recent post by Marc Feustel (author of the wonderful Eyecurious blog) who compiled a little analysis of a multitude of “Best of 2011” lists, so probably a better place to check out if you like these things. What I found of interest from his evaluation was of the 37 photobooks that had been referenced the most often, I knew the titles of only half, had a chance to thumb through perhaps 10 and actually have four in my possession of the forty photobooks I acquired this year. Not a large amount of photobooks, eh. If Marc is correct, counting all of the various photobooks that ended up on someone’s “Best of” list, the total came to 139 different photobooks. Yikes, you can almost through a dart at a photobook catalog and hit someone’s “Best of”.

There are some lists, such as the “PhotoBook Top Sellers” which are going to exclusionary to those photobook which have large production runs in the multiple thousands and access to some large bookstores or other popular distribution channels, or popularist titles such as one #1  Simply Beautiful Photographs (published by National Geographic).

So during this past year, I have not changed my mind; for a photographer to have traveled the extra mile(s) to have your photographic project published this year, either self-published or with an established publisher, you have accomplished an awesome task. And in some way continued the development and on-going evolution of what we call a photobook. Some were brilliant, some were very thoughtful and challenging to understand, some were beautiful, some had endearing messages, some thought-provoking narratives and some were a great first effort. 

Congratulations to you all! (and this year, it means a nice pat on my own back as well)

Best regards for 2012, which I expect will probably be another interesting year.

December 16, 2011

Harvey Benge – All of the Places I’ve Ever Known

Copyright Harvey Benge 2010 – courtesy Kehrer Publishing

My first impression of Harvey Benge’s  photobook All of the Places I’ve ever Known was that this book is meant to be autobiographical.  It is also a statement of the obvious: that you cannot take a photograph of a place unless you have been to that place. Cheeky.

Benge has self-published numerous photobooks and in his usually style he provides his readers with a minimum of textual information to help the reader relate to his photographs. He is a bit of the minimalist in terms of providing some potential insight. You can make of what you want from his titles which usually has a healthy amount of ambiguity. In this book, he provides an interesting quotation from Longchen Rabjampa (1308 – 1364); “Since everything is but an apparition, Perfect in being what it is, Having nothing to do with good or bad, Acceptance or rejection, You might as well burst out laughing!” My take-away from this and many of Benge’s proliferate photobooks is that his photographs are a joyful observation of what “is” as a result of the powers of seeing and observing random urban serendipity.

What primarily seems to catch Benge’s discerning eye is color, especially finding the interesting interplay of hues and tonalities that can be found as he walks through the urban environment. As such, this photobook is a kinetic pin-wheel of colors. Although color is the primary found subject of his photographs, he isolates and frames his subjects with the sensibilities of graphic design; taking into account and layering such elements of line, mass, and shape.

He isolates and frames his subjects such that he will establish a primary color object, then introduce a secondary color object, such as a blue pipe rising in the midst of a verdant field, below. The secondary color object(s) balance or complement the composition, sometimes creating a jarring dissonance, as the red on red with yet an adjacent red, below, other times appears to be a quiet and meditative harmony, as the cool blue-gray panel with the two blue rectangles centered at the base of his pictorial framing, also below.

Although attracted to color, he reframes from hyping the color up in his photographs by increasing saturation of the hues, rather attempting to allow the “natural” and found compositions speak for themselves; “Perfect in being what it is”. Nevertheless Benge’s photographs have an interesting energy that seems to be intensified as a collective whole with the design and layout of this book. For my tastes, the sequencing of the color photographs in this photobook creates more of a slightly psychotic experience.

Benge is about framing and isolating what he has found. He moves in close, usually providing a tight framing, so that he fills the picture with color. Benge has also stylistically created a niche for his vertical photographs, as this is his predominate choice in pictorial framing and on occasion a horizontal composition will make an interlude, perhaps to create a little tension or provide a slight change of pace. In this book, all of the photographs are presented as verticals, although one is a horizontal composition but due to the ambiguity of the subject, appears acceptable as a vertical layout. Nice.

The photographs are single image on the right page per spread, with a classic white margin bordering the photograph. On the facing page is a plate number and at the end of the book is an image index, providing the city location and year photographed for each plate. The book design and photographic presentation is very spare and minimalistic.

As a book object the dark red color of the spine extends over into the image wrap cover and is a complementary color to the cover photograph, echoing the contents within.  This hardcover book and contents is beautifully printed in Germany consistent with the high standards I have grown to expect from Kehrer Verlag Heidlberg.


December 12, 2011

Claxton Projects – update

Filed under: Photo Book Discussions, Photo Book NEWS — Doug Stockdale @ 12:50 am

Just a brief update on Claxton Projects, a photobook review site run by the clever Tom Claxton. He has moved his photobook commentaries to a new site after the wonderful attributes (slide shows) that was initially provided by Tumblr were discontinued and probably stated best by Tom:

My main attraction with the Tumblr format was the slide-show facility and when they stopped offering this earlier in the year, it undermined why I was doing the blog and (I think), its effectiveness. So I decided to get a new site built and then I also wouldn’t be at the mercy of a platform provider (like Tumblr). The idea behind the website was that it mirrored the experience of going to a shelf, browsing books and then looking inside them (as closely as online can). I looked at doing videos, but a number of websites have moved over to providing these and I feel photographs of a layout are more considered and a pleasanter way to experience a photography book. I’m also looking into other ways of promoting great photography books online (outside of the new website), because ultimately I’m doing this to share my passion for photo books and encourage others to collect and enjoy!

Also, it seems that Tom has also been bitten by the photobook publishing bug, so he is in the early stages of a potential photobook project that we should look for in 2012, which he describes as: Its going to be a collection of Swedish studio portraits from the 1890’s and will be edited by Michael Lesy (Wisconsin Death Trip), and hopefully a gallery will be exhibiting the work at some point either at the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013 (still to be finalised).

If all of that is not enough to mess with your head, he recently relocated to the US from London.

December 8, 2011

Eva Koleva Timothy – Lost in Learning

Copyright Eva Koleva Timothy 2010 courtesy of the photographer

What I often find when a book combines a large amount of text in conjunction with photographs, it seems that either the text or the photographs seems to dominate. In some cases there is delicate balance between the two, which I now have come to understand is much harder than it might first appear. With Eva Koleva Timothy’s self-published book, Lost in Learning, it appears to me that the beautiful black and white photographs support the written narrative.

The book was developed as a wife and husband partnership, with the photographs of Eva Koleva Timothy as the cornerstone of their narrative. The subject of the book is discovery and learning, drawing on inspiration from past creative giants; the composer Handel, the painter Michelangelo, the adventurer Christopher Columbus, the astronomer Galileo and the mathematician Isaac Newton. She draws inspiration of past explorers of the unknown frontier in an attempt to provide inspiration to future generations

Eva’s photographs play off, complement and enhance the text about the processes of learning and discovery. The photographs are very creatively composed, with seamless created collages, combining elements that create an interesting sub-plot. The photographs are conceptually well conceived and executed, creating interesting metaphors that complement the written narrative.

Timothy combines older text or devices associated with a person or period of discover in conjunction with a light focusing device; prism, glasses, magnifying glass. The devices isolate, refocus or illuminate one aspect of a document to bring forward a key aspect to complement the matching written narrative.

The use of various lens is an interesting motif in many of her photographs, that by means of a lens we built telescopes to explore far-away space that reaches out into the heavens, and microscopes to discover nearly invisible inner space to delve into the fabric of our lives. A glass prism is a type of lens that diffracts light into its many elemental hues.  Similarly, a lens is also a basic element of a camera lens, which today is very complex and composed of many shapes and sizes to construct a single camera lens

For me, it is the layout and the use of various type, especially the larger and silver overlay fonts commands my attention, thus the photographs, however clever and creative, take on a lesser role.

The foreword is by Ralph Windle, with an Introduction by Eva Timothy, and essays by Adam Timothy. The book design editor is Elizabeth Avedon.

This book has a cloth hardcover with Dust Jacket, and the black and white photographs are Duotone printing.

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