The PhotoBook

March 17, 2012

Rafal Milach – 7 Rooms

photographs copyright Rafal Milach 2011 courtesy of Kehrer Books

The seven short stories attempt to provide a collective insight into his subject’s existence in this region of the Soviet Union, with a heavy dose of reality clashing with hope. Accompanying each narrative are quotes by his subject to broaden the visual context.

I found the pathos to be unrelenting and that it darkly resonates throughout this beautiful book.

March 12, 2012

Larry Sultan – Katherine Avenue

Copyright the Estate of Larry Sultan 2010 courtesy Steidl

This book draws from the major photographic themes that preoccupied Larry Sultan over his life span.  By many accounts he was a photographer whose teaching and personal project has directly influenced a generation of photographers. His last project, a fictional narrative about migrant workers in Northern California, is infused with a wonderful mix of an air of reality with a subtle undercurrent of melancholy. It would have been very interesting to see how Sultan’s next major theme might have developed.

March 10, 2012

Max Pam – Ramadan in Yemen

Copyright Max Pam 2011 courtesy of Editions Bessard

This book has all of the appearances of photograph based diary complied by Max Pam during his journeys through the region of Yemen in 1993. Pam’s album is resplendent with a mash-up of photographs, marks, stamps and an interesting hand written travelogue.

The square black and white photographs appear to be from a much earlier period, but this was modern Yemen in 1993 and I suspect that probably little has changed in the subsequent twenty years. For the landscape subjects that beckon for a wide horizontal capture, Pam composed two adjoining photographs to create a panoramic viewpoint.  When these two photographs are laid adjacent across the interior book spread, the misalignment of the pair of photographs is slightly disorienting and creates a slight amount of tension to a static landscape image.

The photographs are in a documentary style that purports to capture the ebb and flow of the Yemen social fabric. As an outside foreigner, we realize that Pam is just bouncing off the surface of the public veneer. Pam does not look like a local, cannot speak the language and has only a crude semblance of the cultural rhythm.  As an outsider, he does bring the more objective and global perspective that is unique to this body of work and provides a Western perspective to this region.

Pam also utilizes an interesting focusing technique, with what might appear as being the subject in the forefront out of focus, and while in the edges around are actually where he has focused his lens. I initially thought that this was the interesting results of a “grab shot” of Pam coming across a rapidly evolving tableau of social theater, but he employs the same focusing methodology with a static landscape. The outcome creates an interesting visual push-pull effect as the viewer is not sure as to where to place their attention.

Frequently the subjects are aware of Pam’s presence and professional camera equipment, facing the camera and providing a prerequisite smile to be recorded.  This exotic region probably attracts many tourist, thus the social order is familiar with the “smile please” requests. We are not aware of the photographers demeanor, perhaps through his assistant asking them to face the camera or possibility indicating that he is about to take their image. Likewise, we do not know if his antics of photographing his subjects is thought to be humorous, thus the resultant smiles. That is part of the ambiguity and fiction of photography; we do not know what is really occurring outside the captured image for this one brief moment of time and space.

Pam’s handwritten journal is interestingly disjointed. He employs to format his text into a squared design, thus creating a visual textual block. As he hand writes his travelogue and extends his thoughts across the width of the page, at the end of a line he will arbitrarily break-up the words creating an arbitrary wrap-around of the letters as he sees fit to maintain his graphic structure. As a result of this stylistic writing, the punctuation in his sentence does not mesh with any rules of the traditional rules grammar. The results can be at times challenging to read and comprehend, but I found as I progress through the book, this weird manner of writing becomes familiar as I learn to read his broken word structure, perhaps a lesson in adaptions.

As a book object, the hardcover book is nestled within a beautiful clamshell and the book is wonderfully printed (the second time, for the first attempt at printing the book was a disaster and a story for another time) book and resplendent with a silk page-marker.

Comment by Max: Yemen attracts few tourists, even fewer in 93 and then even less in ramadan. Its a very old school orthodox Arab culture where kidnapping and ransoming tourists by some of the wilder bedouin tribes is a light industry, this activity alone reduced tourism to a trickle yrs ago. So the response of the Yemenis is one of curiosity, they are drawn to my otherness as much as I was to theirs. The smile thing is a default position of most Arabs who will give a camera wielding infidel the time of day , its my default pozzy as well, anywhere, so its a serve and return thing, a silent agreement. You can do that with a 66, the waistlevel viewfinder is a thing of beauty, you are never hiding behind some offensive apparatus held in front of you face. I don’t do a winogrand performance, but I do take a bit of time over the process, I genuinely admire my subjects, want to connect with them. An assistant, in 40 years in the field I’ve never had an assistant

March 9, 2012

Pogo Books – Sampler

Copyright 2010 the photographers courtesy Pogo Books

Sometimes with minimalist photobooks, it may be best that they speak for themselves. Here is a small sampler of photobooks published by Pogo Books (Berlin, Germany) with Jeff Luker, Hasis Park, Ting Cheng and Mark Peckmezian.

The books all share a similar diminutive size, stiff covers with saddle stick binding, and minimalistic in that they are without captions, text, or pagination. Otherwise, these are very diverse in content and layout.

#009 Jeff Luker’s Not Many Kingdoms Left








#005 Ting Cheng’s one and two and up and down


#002 Hasisi Park‘s Photographs


#001 Mark Peckmezian’s Photographs & Pictures

March 7, 2012

Roberto Schena – SP 67

Photographs copyright 2012 Roberto Schena courtesy Edizioni Punctum

Road Trip is what immediately comes to mind when reading Roberto Schena’s recent photobook SP 67. In the U.S., the words Road Trip creates a vision of traveling on the famous US roadway Route 66 that stretches across the United States, starting in Chicago, Illinois and ending at the ocean front of Santa Monica, California. While those idealistic images were forever tainted with Robert Franks’ dark travelogue of The Americans, Roberto Schena now takes the viewer on an even mysterious journey.

The one digit difference between these two roadways is significant, as SP67 is a diminutive 13 kilometers in length, known as La Strada Della Tramontana Scura (The Road of the Dark Wind). SP 67 snakes through the upper reaches of a mountain and has a nasty reputation for some unpleasant weather conditions, creating an opportunity for Schena to investigate a dark and troubled narrative.

The subject of Schena’s lens is the atmospheric conditions found when the dark wind blows through this region, when low clouds obscures much of the landscape in a dense shroud of fog. To increase the ambiguity and increase the moodiness of this place, Schena frequently returns at dusk that in turn, recedes into a pitch black night. He follows this short road on a metaphysical journey, in which the landscape oscillates between the moody and the lyrical with brief glimpses of mysterious creatures that appear to dart in and out.

As an allegory for life’s journey, this narrative explores when life’s events do not go as planned. The road way is obscured in most instances, thus a difficult journey in which one needs to literally feel their way forward, unsure if they are making progress or losing ground. In such conditions it can be difficult to discern landmarks and signposts, which leave the viewer with few clues and very disoriented. What remains of the visible terrain is not well-defined and appears eerie and spooky, as if the woods are haunted by wild beasts, which in fact are roaming just beyond the edge of reason. 

The photograph of a car wreck is a not so subtle allegory for a damaged and wrecked relationship, an experience that became a personal tragedy or has gone very wrong and awry. The abandoned carnage of this wreck is now beside the road, overgrown, the metal rusting and deteriorating with time. The road (way) as representing the future is not certain, which is lost in the shadows (troubles) & midst (angst).

I will give Schena his due to journey out into to these nasty conditions to create this moody narrative. As of late I am personally becoming less of a fan of foggy driving conditions, least those entailing a curvy and dangerous venture up into the mountains.

This hardbound book as an object is interesting, while the printing is really gorgeous; the binding is a little perplexing. The book binding is tight such that the full bleed photographs that span the two spread become a bit disjointed as the photographic content seems to become lost inside the gutter. Interestingly, this adds an interesting aspect to this mysterious book; the slightly disjointed images create an almost physical tension and seem to work with this project. What is not as apparent is that this visual effect was created by design, nevertheless like all works of art; serendipity, when viewed properly, can sometimes work to advantage.

January 25, 2012

Ron Jude – Other Nature

Copyright Ron Jude 2008 published by The Ice Plant

Ron Jude’s ubiquitous title “Other Nature” for his photobook published by Ice Plant leaves plenty of space to create a wide range of contexts for his photographs. The book’s title and a quote from Frank Kafka’s On Parables provide the only text (and descriptive context), as Jude defers to the minimalist informational school of art. Thus all of the clues in the hopes of making sense of this photobook are the photographs and their sequencing, and perhaps one clue is what is missing, there are no pairs of photographs creating mini-dialogs as they face each other.

It does become quickly apparent; there appear to be two different kinds of photographic subjects and compositions. The subject of the first photographs is a middle view-point version of the “natural” landscape with the marks and debris evidence of the lurking presence of man-kind. Then the jarring change of subjects to tightly framed and cropped interior details that might be found in an apartment, rental housing or motel. An obvious mash-up of two distinct bodies of work, with the beguiling question posed by Jude of how do these two relate (or not) to each other and what about them is the “Other Nature”?

In the rural landscapes, Jude has used a documentary style to capture large masses of what could be construed as “Nature”. In all of the nature landscape photographs, there are subtle hints and small clues that these are locations and places that are intermingled with the latent effects of people. We do not have to see an individual to know that the place has been effected by individuals who were previously present; cut trees, rusting cans and other debris, chopped up wood, cut grass, arranged rocks and sometimes the edges of a man-made structure.

 His statement is that there is no more natural Nature available any more; we have used it up long ago. Nature is now is restricted to Nature museums call National Parks in which you walk a trail to see the “wild” Nature, as if strolling through the zoo to see a “wild” lion. Nature is now just a human dumping ground for their used waste, a huge open landfill.

As to the interior details, which have an industrial functionality, the subject is of objects that are made from materials of construction which are not natural. A beat-up and aging aluminum kick plate protects a real wood door, plastic light switch fixtures glowing and powered by a steady and endless trickle of electricity, synthetic carpets, blanket and chair coverings, glass windows in an aluminum frame, Styrofoam cup, plastic tongs, Plexiglas enclosure, plastic phone and cord and concrete simulate flooring tiles. Even the objects that have an appearance of wood, down to the grain, are not really wood, but are molded plastic or a synthetic veneer. The depicted items are all made of the other “natural” material; synthetic.

One concept that I could reach by examining each of the two bodies’ of work separately and then searching for a commonality is a criticism of man-kinds callousness treatment of our natural environment. Jude does not beat you over the head with his subtle message but nevertheless the message does become progressively voluminous with each reading.

This photobook as an object; the hardcover book has a tipped in photograph on the front cover, nicely bound. The four-color photographic plates have a nice top varnish that allows the images to read really well. Each plate is bounded with a nice, classic white border that enables the photograph to be clearly seen, thus a delightful book to hold and enjoy. In addition to the quote from Franz Kafka there is an index of the plates regarding the city and state in which the photograph was made.

January 19, 2012

Tod Papageorge – Opera Citta

Copyright Tod Papageorge 2010 courtesy Edizioni Punctum

Tod Papageorge received the annual commission from the FotoGrafia Festival Internazionale di Roma in 2010 to interpret the city of Rome. Papageorge is a photographer-flanuer, better known for his early black and white urban photographs and now the director of Yale’s photography program. As in the previous Rome commissions, he explores the city of Rome, and perhaps as a result of the influence of his students, he has chosen to explore in color.

Papageorge’s subject is the individuals who make-up the heavily populated surge of humanity that descends on the city of Rome during the high tourist season.  It is apparent that he enjoys being in the midst of the action, capturing the ebb and flow of both high and little dramas that unfold about him. Occasional he isolates an individual, place or event to provide a lyrical pause to his poetic narrative. The first image is a down low perspective of a young boy walking into the frame to introduce us to this walk-about, implying a child like investigation of this vast and complex city.

We are introduced to the normal and ordinary events of a city, probably any city, capturing city workers, a congregation of business men doing their industry and commerce thing, and the urban dwellers dutifully attempting to move from one place to another. Papageorge then introduces another element into the milieu, the transitory tourists who are drawn to the summer heat and evangelical light of this dual city. Papageorge notices the individuals pouring out of the double Decker tourist buses, from the train stations who in turn flood the streets and those who seem to be caught up by the spectacular sights to pause in midst of their revelations.

Looking at the continuum of the Rome Commission over the past three years, there seems to be an evolutionary link between Guy Tillim, who had received the commission the previous year in 2009 and the subsequent influence of Tillim and Papageorge on Alec Soth who received the commission the following year in 2011. All three utilize a documentary style, with Tillim exploring space with the few indidividuals out in the edges, where as Soth constructed his documentary tableaux with models and directed those who were willing to participate. Interestingly, Soth appears to fall back on some of the earlier photographs by Papageorge to provide a sense of authenticity to his commission photobook.

A young woman sits on the concrete adjacent to some looming pillars, seen below, as Papagorge implies by the framing of his composition, her world is temporarily tilted and out of balance. Although appearing caught up in an emotional state, the viewer is only provided few clues to sort out her emotional response. For those who are familiar with Rome, they might recognize that she is sitting just outside the plaza of St Peter’s cathedral in the Vatican City, which might provide a new set of reasons for her emotional state. In the following year, Soth creates a similar image of a woman with red hair sitting on the ground adjacent to a building, but with far less raw and emotional impact.

In another set of referential photographs, Papageorge photographed a small verdant hill populated by a few blooming flowers. The photograph provides a lyrical interlude in the sequencing of his narrative. It appears that Soth re-photographed this same verdant hillside the following year, this time he included a nude model with her bare ass protruding lewdly toward the lens, which could be construed as a rude criticism of Papageorge.

In one aspect, this book really shines with regard to being a photobook object, as this hardcover and image-wrap design book incorporates the concertina binding of the entire interior contents. Although the book is vertical in design, each two page spread folds out to one continuous full bleed horizontal image, without any potential image loss in the gutter. There is a word of caution, that with frequent reading, the folding and unfolding of the concertina pages will slowly add some wear along the fold lines. 

I need to declare a potential bias for my review of this book as the publisher, Edizioni Punctum, is also the publisher of my recently published book Ciociaria.

January 16, 2012

PhotoBooks at PhotoLA

Filed under: Photo Book NEWS, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 7:29 pm

Kirk Pedersen copyright 209, 2010 courtesy Zero+ Publishing

I had an opportunity to drop into Santa Monica on Saturday and partake a brief visit of PhotoLA, making some connections with publishers, galleriest and meet up with some photobook photographers, including Raymond Meeks, Susan Burnstine, Hiroshi Watanabe and an opportunity to meet Stu Levy as well as Kirk Pedersen who was also representing his new publishing house, Zero+ Publishing, located here in Southern California.

I did notice that Markus Schaden and his Koln bookshop was missing this year, a sad lose to this event, as he usually provides a broad international photobook flair.

January 10, 2012

Mona Kuhn – Bordeaux Series

Copyright Mona Kuhn 2011 published by Steidl

I think that Mona Kuhn’s new photobook, Bordeaux Series, and her fourth with the publisher Steidl, may be her best to date. Each book has the nude as one as one her principal subjects, but in this book she intertwines the nude portraits of individuals with another theme to raise unanswerable and beguiling questions.

In her previous books, she explored a narrative that investigates time, although the duration appeared to be one day, it deviled into questions about change and permanence. In the current book, the subtext seems to be constructed around the meaning of a location. Although the photographs appear to be created at a specific location, the ensuing lack of specificity allows the viewer to create places of our making.

In this book Kuhn again mixes landscape with her portraits as she did in Native, but this time the landscapes are at a mid-distance and rendered in black and white, while the nude portraits are intimate with tight framing in color. An interesting intersection of two different bodies of work that perhaps at first glance seem dissimilar. Black and white photographs that lend to the more abstract and subjective narratives mixed with the objective and photo-realism of color. Landscape is also a more abstract reality that mankind constructs and which does not really exist without the viewers intervention, while an individual appears to exists entirely on their own merits. She seems to ask why is this and how do these two variations on reality mesh?

The very first photography in the book, a black and white landscape which crosses the two page spread, is a little blurry and suggests motion, that we are moving toward something and that we maybe in transit. It sets the tone for the book, creating a little unease and off-balance, hinting at a bit of kinetic energy that counter-balances the calm and still portraits.

The portraits are of her fellow naturalist who are again tanned, sensual and contemplative. The ages of her subjects appear to vary a little more in this book, but her emphasis is still upon young adults.  Unlike much of her earlier work, she does not seem to direct or create faux situations, but only to ask for an individual to confront her lens, thus through the photographer to contemplate the viewer. I think that these are her best portraits to date, direct and unassuming.

 As might be hoped, the pairing of photographs in the book creates interesting narratives, as individuals appear to be gazing at each other across the facing spread. One example, illustrated below, is of an older woman who warmly gazes out of the frame toward the opposite page, which is a portrait of two men. Why this pairing, who is she and why would Kuhn have this arrangement, could the two men be her son with his son? As Kuhn continues to draw on her family and friends as subjects, these three individuals are her subjects in her earlier books, thus creating a dimension of passing time, similar to Nicholas Nixon’s evolving photographs of his wife and her sisters.

 Likewise, there is a pair of facing photographs of a young woman made at two different time points. On one page she stands facing the viewer, her gaze direct and unflinching, her face framed by some unruly and damp hair. On the facing page, she is younger and in the encircling grasp of an older woman, a wonderful image that recalls a Madonna and child. Perhaps they are mother and daughter, as this photograph brings to mind thoughts of maternal love, in which a mothers arms encircle the child, who is now in the other’s protective grasp.

 Lastly, there are numerous pairs of facing photographs in which there is a black and white landscape on one side facing a color portrait on the other. I think that this is where Kuhn is directly introducing the possibility of equivalence. How do these two different photographs relate to each and how might a viewer read this? I find these combinations the most thought-provoking as well as where my gaze lingers and places I usually return to.

 The photobook as an object, the hardcover is an image wrap that is beautifully printed and bound in Germany. The large size of the book provides wonderful interior images, but in conjunction with the thin contents does permit the entire book to flex a little more than I would care for. However, the book’s binding does allow this large book to lay flat, a very nice feature. Kuhn’s Afterword is provided in both English and French, the book is paginated. Although there is a list of plates, I am not sure why the inclusion as it provides minimal information other than perhaps as a reference for her collectors to order prints.

 Many of the black and white photographs are printed full bleed across two page spreads, while all of the color portraits are on a single page with a classic white surrounding border.

January 5, 2012

James Clancy – Border Country

Copyright James Clancy 2011 Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin

My first impression is that Clancy’s narrative is a darker version of John Gossage’s early photobook The Pond. Similar to Gossage, Clancy is taking us on an imaginary journey, although somewhat grounded in the (non) reality of the photographs, using found landscapes rendered in black and white as metaphors for Clancy’s “emotional state”.

Clancy states in his Introduction, “that Border Country, both as a phrase and as a title for this series of photographs, is my name for an uneasy condition of heart and mind that periodically comes to possess me.” Perhaps an understatement, as this photobook is all about a melancholy moodiness that is pervasive throughout.

As an American, the term “Border Country” does not evoke the same uneasiness that might be associated by someone with knowledge of the border region between Scotland and England and all the historical turmoil that existed between the two countries in this region. Nevertheless, a border implies that there is something that meets and what is on one side might be different from the other. In the case of a border country, that meeting place can be relatively broad and it is in this wide place that Clancy takes us on a wandering journey.

Much like Gossage, Clancy introduces us to the concept of a journey with a number of photographs of a pathway that proceeds away from the viewer. On Clancy’s narrative journey, the pathway is indistinct and blocked with debris and fallen tree limbs, implying a difficult meandering. Instead of a pond as the mid-point destination, we are carried forth to an abandoned and decaying structure, with all past inhabitants long gone and only the barest traces and hints of their memories still lurking in the shadows.

Amidst the forlorn structure, Clancy has isolated decaying artifacts, an empty bottle, an electrical connection, a single shoe, bits and parts of a chair leg, part of a pitch fork and a tea-pot. We are in the midst of forgotteness, where even memory has abandoned all hope. Then the viewer is led to a half-opened door, a way out of this misery and the daylight of hope is visible once more. Eventually we pass by less and less of the debris of mankind and enter back into a pleasant wooded area, unlike the nasty thicket that was initially encountered.

The photobook as an object; a image-wrap Hardcover book, printed and bound in Germany, and the binding allows an almost lay-flat presentation, thus making the interior photographic plates very accessible. The book is a thin and what I would term a nice European size, just right for holding and reading. The Introduction text by Clancy is provided in both English and German and the book is without pagination or captions.

Award Note: James Clancy’s Border Country is a selected title of the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis award 2012.

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