The PhotoBook Journal

March 8, 2014

Andrew G. Smith – Steel Soul

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Copyright Andrew G. Smith 2013 self-published with Smith’s imprint bymyi

Andrew G. Smith’s industrial subject, the industrial infrastructure and operations of an active steel mill, is not the usual genre to attract a photographer. Nevertheless the intricate complexity of these industrial landscapes has earlier attracted the like of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and recent contemporaries as the team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Pierre Bessard and Mitch Epstein.

Due to the fading manufacturing industry in the Western World, industrial sites are much more prone to be subjects of ruin-porn with gutted facilities surrounded by environmental decay. This is the subject material in the recent photographic essays of Christoph Lingg’s Shut Down or Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit.

Perhaps why so few active industrial sites are investigated is probably that these are not very accessible to photographers or the public at large. These are dangerous places for those who are unaware of the safety precautions that are in place, not realizing that there specific places to be in order to stay out of harm’s way. The industrial landscape is usually the domain of the annual report photographers who compose carefully orchestrated images to position the company in the best light.

Smith by comparison has been provided access to a very active Steel Mill located in the Yorkshire region of Great Briton. This is an industrial area long associated with various steel works dating back to the 1700’s. This particular site is one of the few working mills still remaining in this region.

It can be relatively easy to capture the façade of a working industrial site, although the exterior usually only hints at the complex activities occurring within. To facilitate this project, Smith segmented his book into four basic chapters aligned with the flow of steel, following it from the furnace to final products; Melt, Foundry, Forge, and Machine.

Smith is drawn the abstract attributes of this industrial landscape, distilling it to line, mass, tone, shape, texture while working with the available light. At times, that light glows from within, created by the massive hot steel as it flows from the furnace to the foundry. Even though this place is a man-driven operation, perhaps like Bern and Hilla Becher, Smith has minimized his inclusions of the workers, instead focusing mainly on the infrastructure and workings.

I can relate to these photographs, as my background includes countless trips through similar environments as a part of my technical day-job. For me it is easy to imagine the accompanying din and racket that engulfs you, such that ear plugs are necessary to prevent one from going temporarily deaf. It makes communication difficult, thus a person needs to pay close attention to where they walk or stand. Similar, I can also imagine the smells of such an operation, ranging from sharply acidic to a sweet machine oil fragrance. As to the feel and texture, the soles of your steel toed work books are embedded with debris which you can sense with each step and there may be a fine layer of soot covering your clothes, hopefully given the benefit of a smock. Although I may be wearing a safety helmet, my hair feels course and dirty while you can feel like the soot is still embedded in the pores of your face after, even after many washings late at home that night.

Smith can only provide a glimpse into the workings of this huge industrial space. I know that I relate to this body of work much differently than will most readers. It connects with me and I sense that his objective investigation is true.

The book is printed in luminous black and white with a stiff cover binding. The wide horizontal format of the book is ideally suited to a full frame 35mm or digital camera. An Introduction essay is provided by Smith; the plates are identified and at the conclusion of the book an index of captions is provided for the photographic plates. The photographic plates are surrounded by a nice white margin that makes reading this book enjoyable.

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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Book interior with matching photographic print

March 2, 2014

W. Eugene Smith – The Big Book

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Photographs copyright the estate of W. Eugene Smith 2013 co-published by University of Texas Press, Austin & Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

W. Eugene Smith’s The Big Book is a very interesting and unusual three volume set that includes a two volume facsimile of the maquette (book dummy)  developed by Smith in 1960 and a third volume with supporting essays, reference photographs and information about the maquette.

The Big Book maquette spans the majority of the late W. Eugene Smith’s oeuvre, an American photojournalist (b. 1918 – d. 1978 ) who developed the concept for the photo-essay. Smith was a perfectionist with a thorny personality, who set the standard for the photo-essay high for future generations of photographers.

The Center for Creative Photography (CfCP) at the University of Arizona has possession of the W. Eugene Smith archive. It is the location of the original The Big Book maquette and the photographic source for most of the content of this three volume set. The CfCP collaborated with the University of Texas Press to publish this extensive body of work. Smith had created this maquette between 1960 and 1961 to visually illustrate his concept for the various book publishers but regretfully The Big Book was not completed or published in Smith’s lifetime.

In the Notes of Volume 3 the materials of the two volume maquette are described as follows; the pages are heavyweight machine made paper, cream in color, with the images attached by means of a glossy yellow rubber-based adhesive. The images in the maquette appear to be made by means of the Afga Copyrapid reproductive process, essentially a very early office copy machine (photocopying). The fluctuations in the color, ranging from yellow to brown tints, of the maquette images reflect the instability of this photocopying process over time. Due to the deterioration of the images within the original maquette, the muddled and blocked images are difficult at places to clearly read, complicating an already messy state of affairs for this maquette.

As stated by William S. Johnson in his introduction to this set, “The book, like many of Smith’s endeavors, was impractical in is scope, unconventional it its format and uncompromising it its demands on the reader. Occasionally incomprehensible, often lyrical, always passionate, the book challenged traditional ideas about layout and design, and attempted to establish a new form or expression for the photographic essay.”

I agree with Johnson, the maquette is a real mash-up of images and it is difficult to view this as an elegant photo-essay that Smith had so frequently advocated during his life time. Stepping back, I find myself viewing this body of work as being more in sync with the current contemporary concepts of creating a visceral experience. In this context, Smith is well before his time, similar to the ground breaking photographic work of Eugene Atget, Robert Frank and Walker Evans.

There is an absence of text, captions and pagination within the two volume maquette as these details would probably have been included at the final publication stage of the ensuing photobook. What the reader will find included are Smith’s hand written notes that accompany specific photographs, as an example a note to check on the cropping of a specific image. Essentially a maquette was not created to be a permanent record, but temporal to communicate the essence of a book concept, as a visual aid to the publisher. Nevertheless, Smith’s maquette has become a semi-permanent record of one photographer’s endeavors, now taking a life of its own and being shared with a much wider audience.

As to the layout design of the maquette, it is said that Smith drew heavy inspiration from the Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition and subsequent book Family of Man, for which Smith has contributed five images, including the closing photograph titled The Walk to Paradise Garden. Smith chose this same photograph to open as well as close The Big Book.

As a book object, the three volume set is an embodiment of a time and place. Part historical, preserving the deteriorating remainders of a work of art in progress and a raw creative endeavor of a gifted photographer and artist, while providing a glimpse into the makings of what might have been a wonderful photobook. We are to remember that this maquette was not meant to be polished and luminous final object, more akin to a sketch pad for the photographer to privately share with a publisher, never meant to see the light of day. I think that reading the two volume maquette is similar in experience for a visit to Florence and viewing one of Michelangelo’s partially complete sculptures, a raw and incomplete work, gaining a glimpse into the working of a very creative mind.

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook   This review was co-published in Emaho magazine.

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