The PhotoBook Journal

October 25, 2014

Roger Ballen – Asylum Of The Birds

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 10:04 pm

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Copyright Roger Ballen 2014 published by Thames & Hudson

This photobook is another introspective project from Roger Ballen, the American (b. 1950 New York) photographer who relocated from New York City to Johannesburg South Africa in the 1970’s. This is the fourth photobook continuing the evolution of the investigation of an unknown place in South Africa;  Boarding House (2009), Shadow Chamber (2005), and Outland (2001).

Similar to his three previous photobooks, Ballen uses intricate and darkly designed sets that are constructed narratives. As he continues his investigation, there appears to be less emphasis on the inclusion of individuals within the frame. As a result, the photographs read more as still lives than the documentary interaction of his subjects as an aspect of theater. The sets include more of sculptural objects. The lines, marks and shapes have grittiness to them, that anticipating that these sets will be photographed in black & white, were probably created with graphite and chalk. The abstract animals and living organisms that inhabit the walls and furniture have a similar appearance to those creatures who inhabit the Lyrical Expression paintings of Arshile Gorky, who Andre Breton call a Surrealist, another aspect of which Ballen’s compositions. Ballen’s use of line is almost delicate in comparison to the heaviness of the Franz Kline, an Abstract Expressionist.

Ballen has stated that “Black and White is essentially an abstract way to interpret and transform what one might refer to as reality. My purpose in taking photographs over the past forty years has ultimately been about defining myself. It has been fundamentally a psychological and existential journey.”

His black and white photographs continue the a similar gritty and graphic appearance that are with the background marks and shapes, lines, graphics, symbols, Less emphasis on the inclusion of individuals within the frame, their presence now inferred by the marks and graphics on the background, sculptural, works of art, animals, predominately birds, objects, depicts an unknown and ambiguous place.

His photographs are ambiguous, abstract, read as singular images and need to be considered within the context of the entire book. These are wonderful photographs to read and contemplate, emotionally charged, tension filled and on occasion, delightfully absurd and humorous. No wonder I am such a big fan of Ballen.

This is a hardcover book with an illustrated dust jacket and paginated. Each photograph is framed with a classic white margin and each has a caption. The introduction was written by Didi Bozzini.

Recommended: Interview of Ballen by Manik Katyal, Editor EMAHO magazine: here.

Previous Roger Ballen title reviewed on The PhotoBook: Boarding House

Cheers

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October 17, 2014

Laia Abril – The Epilogue

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Copyright Laia Abril 2014 Published by Dewi Lewis

Laia Abril (b. 1986 Barcelona, Spain, currently resides in NYC and Barcelona) continues to develop narratives that probe identity issues for women. In The Epilogue, she expands on her earlier photographic project Thinspiration, a self-published zine investigating a pro-anorexia community, essentially women and girls, with obsessive eating disorders who are wasting away. In The Epilogue, unlike her subjects who are anonymous, aloof and distant as they are in Thinspriation, we are fully immersed into the initiate details of one extended American family who is still dealing with a daughter/sister/nice and her tragic binging and purging disorder and ultimately their grief, frustration and loss.

Abril provides a complex and multi-layered voice in conjunction with an interesting mashup of old family photographs, interviews, medical documents, letters and her own photographs. She creates a documentary approach for the own landscapes and portraits of the individuals who have been affected by the principal subject of this story, Cammy (Mary Cameron Robinson, American). Abril’s narrative jumps into the middle of the current family’s situation many years after Cammy’s passing. In the book’s captions Abril uses informal nick-names for her subjects that create a sense of intimacy; while Cammy’s full identity is provided later as this unsettling narrative progresses and then as a newspaper obituary, one of many documents that are inserted into the book’s interior.

In the historical family photographs of Cammy, it is not empirically evident that she had an eating disorder, as she appears to look rather normal, unlike the thin and emaciated appearance of those suffering from Anorexia (Anorexia Nervosa). In many ways, Cammy’s outward appearance is similar to a photograph, as surface appearances cannot tell an entire story, but only provides the vaguest of hints.

This sad tale is similar to a mystery novel in Abril’s attempt to discover an unknown person; she interviews the indirect victims of Cammy’s demise: her mother, father, brother, roommate, boyfriend, aunt, cousin, and doctor. In the end we are provided some evidence of Cammy’s life, that she suffered a traumatic life and ending, while leaving an open ended question of how to deal with someone who has a eating disorder. Equally important it calls into question the media’s fascination with the ultra-thin body-image of models, creating the associated cultural peer pressure as to what constitutes “beauty” and “attractiveness” resulting in self-esteem issues and in this case an unhealthy eating disorder.

This unsettling book is a call to action, but can only point to the pending consequences and the potential frustrations experienced by those who are caught up as events unfold. Eating disorders are now global, predominantly (85%) experienced by teen girls and young women but perhaps more prevalent in Western Countries, especially the United States, where this narrative takes place. Thus Cammy, her family and support structure in America is the untended role model to place a face on eating disorders.

I had earlier wrote about how she and her book designer/collaborator Ramon Pez have carefully designed and created what they are calling tri-fold pages into this book object. The revealed panel extends the narrative as well as symbolically “breaking the book” as each of the four tri-fold-pages correspond to a photograph when the subject of the book, Cammy, has experienced a severe break down in her life’s journey. This is yet another testimony that a book design can further reinforce, and in this case, literally extend a narrative. Let’s see if you can do that with your e-pad!

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My one niggle is the black printing on the dark blue page stock at the very conclusion of the book and the tip-in on the book’s front cover which borders almost on being illegible (darn hard to read!). I am guessing that Abril and Pez have a symbolic meaning for this design aspect; it did not come quickly to me.

The book design was complete by Abril in conjunction with Ramon Pez and beautifully color printed by Grafiche Antiga (Italy). The book cover has a tipped in image and the interior also includes gate-folds, inserted letters, documents, and a newspaper obituary.

This photobook review was co-published on EMAHO magazine; here.

Other books by Laia Abril reviewed on The PhotoBook: Thinspiration

Cheers!

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October 11, 2014

America Latina Photographs 1960 – 2013

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Published by Fondation Cartier pour l’art contermporain  with Museo Amparo, copyright the artist, 2013 & distributed by Thames & Hudson

Last year an exhibition catalog, America Latina Photographs – 1960 – 2013, was published jointly by the two exhibiting museums, one in Paris and the other in Mexico for the exhibitions subsequently occurring in 2014.

This is an expansive survey of America Latina photography that includes almost every country in South America, Central America and the nations of the Caribbean Sea. The list of photographers that are included is impressive, with many photographs relatively unknown beyond their own borders. The partial list of photographers includes Elias Adasme (Chile), Carlos Altamirano (Chile), Francis Alys (Mexico), Claudia Andujar (Brazil), Ever Astudillo (Colombia), Artur Barrio (Brazil) Luz Maria Bedoya (Peru), Oscar Bony (Argentina), Barbara Brandli (Venezuela), Marcelo Brodsky (Argentina), Miguel Calderon (Mexico), Johanna Calle (Colombia), Luis Camnitzer (Uruguay), Bill Caro (Peru) Guillermo Deisler (Chile), Felipe Ehrenberg (Mexico), Juan Manuel Echavarria (Colombia), Roberto Fantozzi (Peru), Jose A. Figueroa (Cuba), Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba), Anna Bella Geiger (Brazil), Daniel Gonzalez (Venezuela), Graciela Iturbide (Mexico), Claudia Joskowicz (Bolivia), Adriana Lestido (Argentina), Marcos Lopez (Argentina), Rosario Lopez (Colombia), Pablo Lopez Luz (Mexico), Teresa Margolles (Mexico), Marcelo Montecino (Chile), Damian Ortega (Mexico), Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (Mexico), Leticia Parente (Brazil), Luis Pazos (Argentina), Rosangela Renno (Brazil), Miguel Rio Branco (Brazil), Lotty Rosenfeld (Chile), Eduardo Ruben (Cuba), Graciela Sacco (Argentina), Gegina Silveira (Brazil), Susana Torres (Peru), Jorge Vall (Venezuela), Eduardo Villanes (Peru) and Facundo De Zuviria (Argentina).

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The photographers are segmented by four broad themes; Territory, The City, Informing/Resisting, and Memory and Identity. The central theme to the book is the on-going political and economic instability of this region and the resulting personal chaos that results as described in the introductory text The Violence of Modernity, Latin America Since the Late 1950’s by Oliver Campagnon.

This is a book that is a bit like a delightful jelly sandwich, as the content is very tasty, but spread very thin. Each photographer is represented by only a few photographs, thus providing only the briefest glimpse of those whose careers may span 10, 20 or 30 years. What this exhibition catalog does help provide is a little more insight into the diverse photographic work occurring in a region that has had limited exposure to the Western press. I will have to admit that this book sat on my reading stand for an extended duration as many of the photographers and their work were unknown to me and I needed time to absorb their stories. This is a recommended book that should pique a reader’s interest on the photographic work taking place in America Latina.

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The hard cover book has an exposed taped binding (Swiss Binding) thus the large text block is hanging by the endpapers on the back cover, which seems pretty substantial, yet makes for an interesting photobook design. Another text was provided by Luis Camnitzer, and there is an illustrated Biography section for each photographer that attempts to provide additional information, a selected Bibliography on Latin American Art and a Timeline of Latin American Histories to provide additional context. The engaging graphic design was by Olivier Andreotti (Paris) and the book was beautifully printed by Artegrafica (Verona, Italy).

Graciela Iturbide’s photobooks have been featured previously on The PhotoBook; El Bano de Frida and El Bano de Frida Kahlo

Cheers

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October 2, 2014

Andrew Phelps – Haboob

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Copyright Andrew Phelps 2013 published by Kehrer Verlag

Andrew Phelps (b. 1967, Mesa, AZ & residing in Austria since 1991) returns infrequently to the place of his birth, the arid and desert communities surrounding the regions of Mesa and Phoenix in the American Southwest. His childhood home is resplendent with past memories and with a family visit an expectation to resume old roles with family and friends entertaining with children playing in backyard pools at night.

In my first reading I sense an uncomfortable undercurrent and edge in Phelps photographs, as though everything is not right. Andrews is now having lived in Austria for the past 24 years and on his return he is a now bit of a stranger in a slightly familiar land, perhaps not unlike his feelings of being disconnected during his two weeks in Niigata Japan some years before which was documented in his book Not Niigata.

Daily evolving changes are usually hardly perceptible, such as when one vainly attempts to watch grass grow. When events such as a visiting a distant location after a long absence, the perceived changes can be startling. I liken it to seeing a young cousin after a year’s lapse, in which you observe that the lad has grown at least a foot, while those who live with him have hardly noticed his change in growing stature.

I will have to first admit that I read Phelps recent book Haboob with mixed emotions, having lived for a short period in Phoenix and then later in Yuma an even more desolate, dry, and if possible, hotter location in the Southern Arizona desert. Likewise I have visited Austria a number of times, the place where Phelps now lives, and I can appreciate the vast cultural and physical differences between these two regions. There is an enormous cultural and physical departure from the desert and the verdant lushness of his current home in Austria. He may well have stepped off onto the moon. His eyes have become conditioned to the European culture and landscape, thus this America landscape and ensuing cultural rites are oddly, if perhaps alarmingly, foreign.

The desert communities are surrounded by flat, arid landscapes with barren mountains looming in the background, with small sparse bushes or cactus populating the land. The air is so dry that even in 100˚F degree (plus) heat that permeates this place most of the year it is even difficult for a person to perspire. (yes, I have tried and it takes an enormous amount of energy to break into a sweat) The air is mostly sparkling clear under a cloudless blue sky unless a wind stirs the sand dispersing some fine particles into the air. On occasion, a strong wind whips up a Haboob, a threatening desert storm, which appears on the far horizon as a towering wall of sand advancing from the desert to obviate any vision in the darkness that soon envelops. While living in Yuma, we lived through an enormous Haboob, an experience that I can still vividly recall. Phelps does not capture an huge Haboob, but investigates an autobiographical metaphor of change (and threat) that it represents.

Phelps reminds me in his photographs of the playing children that youth are resilient. They appear in their innocence to accommodate even these harsh arid conditions and still have fun. Thus in reading Haboob, I sense another undercurrent, that of hope.

As a book object the printing and binding are excellent as you would expect from a Kehrer publication. The layout of the photographs is classical with ample white margins and a nice cadence in the flow of photographs. The front cover has a lacquer coating that depending on how the book is held, will reveal to the reader the silhouette of what appears as two running horses. This a subtle hint at the wild animals which had at one time roamed what is now trim and proper suburban neighborhoods. An interesting layering, as this lacquer coating is situated on the subject of the cover photograph; paint strips used to select colors for decorating homes, which appear to be discarded on the desert floor.

Phelps previous book Not Niigata reviewed on The PhotoBook; here.

Cheers

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