The PhotoBook Journal

May 31, 2013

Lise Sarfati – She

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Copyright 2012 Lise Sarfati published by Twin Palms Publishers

A few years ago while in Paris I made a visit to one of my favorite used photobook stores on the rue de L’anceinne Comedie and while talking with the owner, Clement, I asked his recommendations for French photobooks which might be under the radar. One of the photobooks I left with was a French first edition of Lisa Sarati’s first photobook Acta Est, her poetic narrative of Russia. I became enchanted.

Fast forward.  Sarfati’s latest book, She, published by Twin Palms is no less poetic, while becoming even more intriguing. Her earlier mostly devoid urban landscapes are now heavily populated by a cast of feminine actresses, who play a variety of roles, made all the more complex as the four are related:  sisters, mother, and aunt.

I feel as though I have been dropped into a set of a cinema to witness a variety of stills and takes. The book does not pretend to be sequenced in a serial manner for the reader to follow her narrative, as the photographic sequence is really mashed up, moving the reader quickly from set to set. On occasion, the sequences of two or three photographs appear related; the same actress, maybe similar clothing, nevertheless, even of that I am not really sure. The camera comes in tight, then pulls back to provide more context, but still leaving the reader ambiguous as to what might have just occurred, or might be happening at this given moment.

The photographs provide a dozen, or more accurately a dozen dozen’s mysterious short stories about feminine identity. Thus I could not help but construct my own short story played out below. I find this to be a curator’s and reviewer’s prerogative, but I rarely divulge my intent as I have here. It just seems right.

The book is large, but not monstrously so, with linen wrapped boards and an illustrated dusk jacket, wonderfully printed and nicely bound. What I might call a classic Twin Palms photobook. The color plates are numbered, printed one per page spread and framed with a generous amount of white space. The afterword is provided by Quentin Bajac about The Anti-Family Album, which is a very nice reflection on Sarfati’s body of work. The book design is by Jack Woody, Lise Sarfati and Francois Adragna.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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May 30, 2013

Manca Juvan – Unordinary Lives – Afghanistan

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Copyright 2012 the photographer, Manca Juvan published by Sanje Publishing

In the United States, the nation of Afghanistan has come to symbolize a weary drawn out war with nightly TV combat clips of the destruction and an endless roll call of the latest military casualties. I think we have become emotionally deaden to the human suffering of what it means to live in conditions of continuous combat and danger.

As a counter-balance to the ongoing images of the Afghan war, Manca Juvan provides the reader with an emotional alternative, perhaps at times only a little less dark.  Her documentary photographic project of this ravaged region spans six years, from 2003 to 2009. Juvan’s investigation is segmented into the following sections: Forgotten, Threat, Privileged, Supporting, Living, Home and Unveiled.

Her natural light photographs are intimate  and captured from a tight and close perspective. She is not photographing her subjects from a far, but rather in their midst. Close and personal. It appears that Juvan has first created trusting relationships with her subjects, who then allow their private lives to be investigated and revealed. As I think about the making of the photographs for this photobook, I suspect that this is a difficult region for a women photographer to work, with the prejudice against women I hear so often about. Thus this body of work that Juvan has compiled is amazing.

The last photographic page spread below is one of those that continues to stay with me. This photobook is comprised mostly of color photographs and as I paged through the book during my first reading, I fully expected that this documentary would be entirely in color. Then the surprise of finding one small section of Black & White images that were toward the end of the book. These photographs have a slightly different read, a little more abstract and graphic. This particular portrait of a woman, below, is minimalistic, a hand, a gesture, and a small part of face reflected in the mirror, while yet telling about her past in the counting down of the days. I find it stunning.

While reading this book, I am reminded of the equally sensitive documentary photographic work of Rania Matar’s “Ordinary Lives”. Both photographers focus mostly on the women and children who appear to be trying to survive in a state of turmoil. They have a shared and unique feminine perspective. Perhaps a common and shared thread between these two women photographers is their ability to symbolize our humanity in the face of adversity and our relentless sense of hope, where perhaps there should not be any.

The book object is an elegant embossed hardcover book within a printed slipcase. The color photographic plates are numbered and captioned and the facing pages interspersed with quotes from the subjects as well as from Afghanistan writers and poets. The Afterwords’ are written by Clare Lockhart and Karim Merchant and the photobook design is by Bostjan Pavletic.

Note: for the embossed cover, above, there are some interesting & ever slight blue artifacts in my cover photograph which are not present on the book boards, so please disregard them. The book cover is in fact a solid dark brown.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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May 9, 2013

Brian Griffin – Business as Usual

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Copyright 2013 Brian Griffin published by Editions Bessard

 

At first, the cover image was vexing; why an individual might be photographed with his head “cut-off”? Then serendipity in the timing of my recent review of the Tall Poppy Syndrome by Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar. This individual represents a successful business leader, thus he is a tall poppy that needs to be taken down to size. Brilliant!

As Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison later developed the character of “everyman” in their epic photobook “The Architect’s Brother”, likewise Griffin develops a metaphoric collective portrait of “everybusinessman”. His subjects play various parts and roles in the theather of business life; a business man who would rather be out playing golf, a behind the back attack of a business associate, the overlapping time constraints of a hectic meeting schedule, the endless juggling of tasks, or an anonymous corporate talking head. Although this project was created in the 1970’s, the life of a everybusinessman has not changed much in the ensuing years.

This stiffcover book is the sixth edition of the Editions Bessard ZINE Collection. It is nicely assembled with a European saddle stich (with exterior loops), although the black and white plates have a low contrast, with the darks not really becoming a rich black. There is also a limited edition color print with this edition, glued into an inside page. Initially reading this color photograph (below) did not prepare me for the ensuing black and white project. This color photograph creates an odd but yet very interesting juxtaposition.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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May 8, 2013

Amy Stein & Stacy Arezou Mehrfar – Tall Poppy Syndrome

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Copyright 2012 Stein & Mehrfar, published by DECODE

The photobook Tall Poppy Syndrome by Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar utilizes metaphors to narrate their joint investigation of a subtle cultural trait in Australia. In Australia, as in some of the other regions of British cultural influence, the Tall Poppy Syndrome is a term to describe a social phenomenon in which successful people (the “tall poppies”) get “cut down to size”. A collaborative and indirect story about social conformity and maybe what it might feel like to not to fit-in or conform.

Their photographs frequently have a humorous undertone, sometimes subtle, sometimes bordering on cliché. They explore the visual metaphors for what it may feel like to be ostracized by a lager or peer group; a single cow in a meadow, a singular tree in a field, a women dressed in black (an interesting version of who might be the “black sheep”) who appears to be ignored by all of those who surround her as she appears to vainly stare into the camera lens. An interesting layering of the narrative is the double-page spread of the athlete group portraits, which opens to a double gate-fold of the four cut and topped trees.

They investigate an informal social policy that perhaps beckons back to the Australian founding fathers, as this region was established as a British penal colony, a group of individuals who probably did not have great social aspirations. Nevertheless, who has not encountered some aspects of social criticism at one time or another? As a society, there is usually a strong desire for individuals to belong to a group.

Yet in reflection, as an American I should not be throwing stones, as we can be cruel in our treatment of those who excel. Who has not heard the comment of someone having a “swelled head” or “bit too big for their britches”.  Stein and Mehrfar raise questions about a cultural fascination with dwelling on the troubles of those who have achieved fame and fortune. Have we not heard of children in school, perhaps more so in the middle and high schools, about becoming ostracized for being “too smart”? When their peers perceive them as the “know it all”, that they are then at the risk of not being popular (or in my day “cool”). Thus to stay popular is to be seen as to not to excel, thus some children learn at an early age as to how to down-play their achievements and success. There are social consequences if one proudly gloats about their success, perhaps becoming labeled as being obnoxious.

An investigative story constructed from a social fabric and perhaps a resonating lesson for us all.

The case bound book includes a translucent belly band that is permanently attached to the inside of the covers, creating yet another interesting metaphor. The plates have a slight luster and read very well, with the page stock a slightly creamy color that works well with the overall book presentation. The color plates are numbered with the captions are summarized in a table at the end of the book. The accompanying text is minimal, only to provide a high level summary of their concept for this project. The book has two double-gate folds which creates a nice layering to their narrative, with one of the two gate folds provided below. The use of a gatefold is a layout design that appeals to me, as it is similar to peeling an onion to dive deeper into the narrative as a potential layered reading of the photographs.

Another photobook by Amy Stein reviewed on The PhotoBook: Domesticated

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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May 1, 2013

Torbjorn Rodland – Vanilla Partner

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Copyright Torbjorn Rodland 2012 published by MACK

This is the fifth book published by Torbjorn Rodland and previously I have only the opportunity to quickly browse his books, thus this is my first time to spend an extended duration with one. I can state that my first conclusion supports those earlier quick reads, this books is a quirky, complex and an odd mashup of absurd, if not at times silly, collection of photographs that Rodland has created.

The individual photographs included in this volume were created over the past ten years. This re-packaging of photographs reads like a Dadaism manifesto, which rejects rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. Rodland stages ambiguous photographs that are purposefully difficult to read and then combines these with others to create a non-documentary and abstract narrative.

In a 2008 interview with Shane Lavalette (Lay Flat), Rodland stated his interest in photographs that have mythical potential, and that he is bored with thematic photography books, which place too much focus on motifs. That the logic of his books should be perforated and therefore erotic. (an Ed Ruscha style statement, of whom Rodland has acknowledged) And yes, there are a number of photographs that have a sexual, if not erotic, undertone.

Rodland draws upon a number of his photographic series that are interwoven through the book, which creates a complex visual layering. The disjointed sequencing is similar to a drive in which something seen reminds us of an earlier and somewhat related observation. As such, Rodland appears to investigate the non sequitur qualities of daily life.

The book has cloth boards with a printed embossed cover and spine. It is beautifully printed and bound; the paper has a nice feel and the photograph plates are not varnished and read very well. All of the photographs are framed with adequate white margins and includes one gate fold. The book is not paginated or provided an accompanying text and does have a summary of the captions provided at the conclusion of the plates.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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