The PhotoBook

November 5, 2011

Sophie Calle – True Stories

Copyright Sophie Calle 2010 courtesy of Steidl and Hasselblad Awards 2010

Sophie Calle is an interesting and unusual photojournalist. In many situations she does not operate a camera to capture her photographic images and may not be the actual writer of the associated text. Yet Calle was awarded the Hasselblad Award in 2010 for just that. As a further contradiction, she states in her Introduction to her book True Stores, “In my work it is the text that has counted most.”  As a journalist, her favorite subject is depicting herself. Her entire formal photographic education occurred on the first day of her first photographic class, when she realized that photography was about pointing a camera in the direction she intended, but equally important was her vision of what she wanted to capture. No need for her to spend a second day.

Neither the mechanics of the camera or the nuances of the photographic process holds very much interest for her.Paramountis the concept that a photograph in juxtaposition with text could establish a powerful contextual relationship. She does have opinions about the subject’s content and how it is framed within the photographic borders. It is her desire to capture and illustration of an object, typically in a non-dramatic style or in numerous cases, her self-portraits. As such she is a photographic director, similar to Gregory Crewdson and Edward Ruscha , who does not necessarily feel the need to press a shutter release or even determine the exposure for her photograph to validate that she is a photographer. She does feel an ultimate responsibility to the ensuing photographic image. She knows what she desires the photographic to entail.

Calle’s methodology of coupling photographs with text was inspired by the combination of photographs and text by Duane Michals that were in her father’s collection and displayed in his home. As she shares, the use of this combination was initially chosen to seek her father’s attention; then she subsequently realized the potential of these combinations and it became a trademark of her oeuvre.

For the Hasselblad Award exhibition and photobook, she selected images and text from an ongoing project, True Stories (aka The Autobiographies/Les Autobiographies).  Calle categorizes as a story where she juxtapositions text and photograph, paired across the book’s spread. She has included her earlier work The Husband; 10 Stories. This narrative spans one relationship, with the titles of The Resolution, The Hostage, The Argument, Amnesia, The Erection, The Rival, The Fake Marriage, The Break-up, The Divorce, and concludes with The Other. The photograph/text run from the Freudian of Amnesia, where she states she never remembers the color of a man’s eyes or the shape and size of his sex, and the paired photograph is a frontal posed man, prone, headless with his genitals concealed, as if she castrates her anonymous lovers.  I found her Fake Marriage humorous; the paired photograph appearing what might appear as a typical group wedding photograph, but Calle reveals that this was staged after her Las Vegas wedding, yet providing the truest story of my life.

The Afterword was provided by Gunilla Knape, with the text in English, who summarizes Calle’s oeuvre very nicely, “…her photographs rarely stand alone, but interact with text, in accordance with the post-structuralist idea that all languages are of equal value. She challenges us to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of photography”.

The book object, which is hardcover, linen wrap, with an overlaid photographic image, wonderfully printed and bound in Germany.  The images and text are floating within traditional and ample white margins. The varnished interior photographic plates are a combination of color and black & white images. The vast majority of the photographs are paired with Calle’s accompanying text.


November 3, 2011

Louie Palu – Cage Call

Copyright Louie Palu 2007 published by Photolucida

At the conclusion of the Photolucida Critical Mass event in 2006, three photographers were awarded monographs, Hiroshi Watanabe, Sage Sohier and Louie Palu, for his photo-project Gage Call: Life and Death in the Hard Rock Mining Belt. For Palu, along with Charlie Angus who conducted the interviews, their project was a personal odyssey conducted between 1991 and 2003.

Palu’s creative and moving narrative brings us on a journey from the distant and abstract qualities of working deep in a mine to the up-close and personal lives of the miners and their families. The project was photographed in a documentary style, utilizing black and white film, a medium that creates a resonance with the inky blackness of the mining shafts that are deep and hiding far from the sun, where artificial light is similar to the sun, intense relative to the darkness.

Interestingly, in Palu’s interview published in LensWork #73 (Nov-Dec 2007) just after his project was awarded the Photolucida Critical Mass award, he states “It was not until I met photographer Ken Light and legendary photo editor John G. Morris in 2004, that I was schooled in the art of photo editing, and the importance of sequencing images. After insights from them, I spent more than a year re-editing the Cage Call body of work.”

The viewer initially witnesses the act of mining deep in the earth. The miners are captured in silhouette or in mass; the workers are faceless and impersonal men, representing hard-working “mankind”.  The workers and their equipment seem to lurk in the edges of the looming and forbidding darkness. Palu documents the working conditions that make it easy for me to perceive that this is not an easy career that the work is hard and the working conditions are harsh. Similarly, the landscape terrain around the area of the mining operations is a mass of nondescript buildings with a mine tower hovering in the background, a constant reminder of the dark catacombs waiting below.

Palu then gradually introduces us to the miners, providing them with a face and then their personal activities to allow us to become familiar with them, to think of them as individuals and to speculate about their personalities. But in doing so, he also introduces the personal dangers of this particular profession, perhaps one of the most dangerous of jobs. Without drama, he documents men who had been vibrant and whole one moment and permanently maimed the next. He leaves it to the viewer to image the ensuing terror that occurred.

The book concludes with an essay by Charlie Angus, an interesting combination of text and interviews. Angus and Palu worked together during periods of this project, each with a desire to add another dimension to their collective story.

As a book object, the book has stiff covers, offset printed in China with a sewn binding. The black and white photographs in the interior plates have a full, rich tonal range.

October 27, 2011

Streetwise: Masters of 60s Photography

Copyright of the photographers 2010 & courtesy of Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA), published by Modernbook Editions

The museum of Photographic Arts had a thematic exhibition in 2010, which resulted in the catalog book published by Modernbook Editions, Streetwise, Masters of 60s Photography. The curators have selected eight photographers whose photographic intent might have been influenced by Robert Frank in 1950’s and who worked through the 1960s to define the genre of photographer flaneur, a.k.a. street photographer.

The book is not meant to provide an inclusive examination of each of the nine photographers included in the exhibition and subsequently the book, but highlight well know photographs made by each during the turbulent 1960’s period in the United States and perhaps illustrate how they might have been mutually influential during this period.

The photographers selected include Robert Frank (b.1924), Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971), Ruth-Marion Baruch (1922 – 1997), Jerry Berndt (b.1943), Bruce Davidson (b.1933), Lee Friedlander (b 1934), Danny Lyon, (b.1942), Gary Winogrand (1928 – 1984), and Ernest Withers (1922 – 2007). All of the photographic work is drawn from the 1960’s, with the exception of Robert Frank, whose photographs were made in the late 1950’s and produced in his seminal photobook “The Americans”.

Nicely stated by Deborah Klochko, “Streewise builds on what Robert Frank began with his new “snapshot esthetic”, and the capturing of an alternative view of society (as compared to the 1955 Family of Man exhibition at MoMA) with photographs depicting the “outlaw culture” of bikers and chain gangs by Lyon, to Brendt’s images of the Combat Zone taken in the red-light district of Boston; and the darker subcultures photographed by Arbus. These photographers spent time with their subjects, presenting a challenging view of Americaundergoing radical change”.

I would expect that some of these photographers are better known that others, with Arbus and Frank nearing cult status, while Withers, Baruch and Berndt are not as well-known today. Thus the curators should be lauded in their broad selection of photographers in maintaining a balanced representation of the genre and period.

I believe that Andy Grundberg in his essay describes this collective body of work very eloquently “In sum, these image makers produced a distinctly engaged and personalized version of what had come to be known as social-documentary photography, a new and sophisticated postwar approach embodied in the fresh term “street photography.”

The introduction is provided by Deborah Klochko, Director,Museum of Photographic Arts and an essay by Andy Grundberg, Chair of the Photography Department at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Following the Plates section for each of the nine photographers, there are Notes and Biographies for each of the photographers and authors. The pages are numbered and a caption for each photograph is provided in the Notes section.

The book object: Hardcover with translucent printed dust cover, with a horizontal design well suited to illustrate the black and white photographs created with 35mm film, the now classic street photographer’s camera from this period. The horizontal photographs have a generous white margin, while the horizontal photographs are a bleed off the top and bottom of the page to maximize the print size. A clean book design and beautifully printed and bound.

October 17, 2011

Kathleen Laraia & H. Woods McLaughlin – The Color of Hay

Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin & H. Woods McLaughlin copyright 2010 self-published

The Color of Hay; The Peasants of Maramures is a self-published book and a collaborative project between a photographer and writer, who are also a wife and husband team. The resulting thick book is a blending of photographs and words to narrate their story about a rural region located in the Northernmost region of Transylvania, Romania. For the McLaughlin team, the decision was made to place the book’s primary emphasis on the photographs, with the writing to help establish an external context.

The book is sub-divided into many sections that attempt to describe the people of this region, such as the cultural adaptation to the seasons (The Four Corners of Life by Their own Hands); Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. There are also sections that attempt to carve out the phases of the social lifestyle (The Trappings of Life); Market, Clothes, Animals, and Food, (The Ceremonies of Life); God and Community, Weddings, Pilgrimage, and Death, and finally the phase over a lifespan (The Meaning of Life, When Life has no Meaning); Youth, Adulthood, and Old Age. It almost appears that when faced with concept options on how to frame a story, they chose an option to attempt to illustrate them all.

Their project was completed over a ten-year span and originated with a one year immersion into the region by taking up residence with a rural family. It was an attempt for an outsider to become accepted an insider, to gain access to the community’s inner social structure. There is evidence in this documentary style project that the McLaughlin’s had mixed success, with an interesting mix of stilted formal portraits in conjunction with very casual, candid and warm observations.

Although their project is focused on the investigation of a specific geographic area, the underlying story is an investigation into a closed and relatively poor ex-communist community teetering on the brink of immense cultural changes brought on byRomania’s entry into the European Common Union. The “old ways” are in the beginning stages of what may be a rapid transition into the present world economics, or at least it maybe a “rapid change” by comparison to their existing standards. The implication is the culture traditions that McLaughlin’s have documented will soon evaporate and become a fading memory.

McLaughlin’s photographs and writings capture what appears to be an established tradition which they pair these with hints of the pending contemporary lifestyle. As an example, below, a wedding reception framed within a small, traditional house while the bride demurely sneaking a peek at a cell phone. Sometimes the photographs on facing pages are a blatant “before and after” or a study of a culture in collision with itself, but in a way consistent with the explanatory writing style, providing a National Geographic flavor to this book.

Their book has incorporated some interesting and contemporary photographic layout designs; a mixing of photographs farmed with classic margins, full bleeds, two page spreads, mixing and mashing these designs, in conjunction with a blend of two photographic mediums, utilizing both color and black & white photographs. The mixing of the color with the black & white photographs infers a mix of the lyrical representational with the objective viewpoints, and although contemporary, can make the book more daunting task to pull together as a cohesive whole. The result of this edgy design is that the continuous changing formats imbue a subtle tension and energy to the flow of images, although it is not always apparent to me as to why some photographs were color while others were black & white.

The book object: Hardcover with image wrap cover beautifully printed with both the color and black & white photographs fully detailed and the black and white images have a full range of tonal contrast. Book pages are numbered with an end section that provides a descriptive caption for each photograph.

October 7, 2011

Alec Soth – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Alec Soth 2011 copyright – published by Edizioni Punctum

What do you have when you mix a Midwestern American Photographer, a Nineteenth Century English Poet, a prominent Italian city and a French titled poem = Alec Soth’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (a.k.a. LBDSM)

Earlier this year Soth resided in Rome to complete a commission for the tenth FotoGrafia Festival Internazionle di Roma and the resulting photographic project was exhibited at FotoGrafia di Roma in late September 2011 in conjunction with the publication of the hardcover book by Edizioni Punctum. As a frame of reference, the FotoGrafia di Roma commission is an opportunity to portray the city of Rome with total freedom of interpretation.

As a Prolog to writing the commentary on this book, I had the opportunity to join Soth at his presentation at FotoGrafia di Roma earlier in September at the MACRO Testaccio. Soth stated that he was becoming more interested in how to construct books as a narrative and questioning the order and sequencing of the photographs in a book. As an example, could he throw all of the photographs up in the air and depending on how they fell, might that result in the image sequence? (Although to me, LBDSM does appear to have a subtle order to the sequence, but that may in fact maybe due to my ability to construct a possible sequential narrative). Soth also stated that introducing something out of context (which for me is the pineapple in LBDSM) might create some cohesion, reminding me of Ed Ruscha’s phtotobooks, most famously “Varous Small Fires {and Milk}”), for which Ruscha has stated, “Milk seemed to make the book more interesting and gave it some cohesion”.

Rather than directly investigating the city of Rome as been Soth’s prior photographic style, he opted to instead focus on one of Rome’s more interesting literates, abet similarly short-lived, the Englishman John Keats (1979 – 1821) and Keats poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. Although Keats lived in Rome for only the last four months of his life, he seems to be inexplicably tied to this city, perhaps as this is where he is buried and from where he penned his last romantic missives to his most well-known love, Fanny Brawn. Although Soth has utilized Rome to set the stage for his narrative, the poem was penned while Keats still resided in London.

La Belle Dame sans Merci is translated into English as “The Beautiful Lady without Pity”, representing the Fatal Woman, or as alluded to in the original French poem, the woman as a mysterious witch. Keat’s poem, much like Soth’s photographs is loaded with enigmas. I enjoy one description of Keat’s poem in Wikipedia, that again like Soth’s photographs, “it avoids simplicity of interpretation despite simplicity of structure.”

I find one of the more interesting photographs early one is the contemporary homage to the similar Roman photograph by Ruth Orkin photograph. This may become a Soth trademark, as in Soth’s earlier book “Broken Manual”, he recreated a Robert Frank photograph (window, Butte Montana) in homage to Frank’s photobook, “The Americans

This photograph is a great re-creation of a classic Fatal Woman in Rome, but the inclusion of the man holding the pineapple on the left side of the frame creates a lot of tension. The reason for the pineapple is not apparent to me in this photograph, but Soth ties it in later.  Nevertheless, I will admit the inclusion changes up the Orkin inspired photograph and creates a subtle tension that seems confirmed with the photograph of the smashed pineapple sequenced later.. For me, this is an homage to Ed Ruscha on how a pineapple might provide “cohesion” for a book.

In the middle of the book, Soth provides a non-photographic image, a page with the plate number XV in white text on an orange field with the identifying caption “During my time in Rome, I wanted to make a beautiful picture of the city. But I found it impossible. The city was too beautiful to photograph”. Interesting, I first felt that this was meant to passively satisfy the Fotografia commission, as in the past, the resulting bodies of work have been a documentary style treatise of some aspect of the built landscape of Rome.  A second way to evaluate this plate is to consider the work of Susan Evans’s “The Story” (2001) as narrated by Nathalie Herschdorder; “In the absence of images and presence of words, (Soth) tells a story already known to everyone, questioning the omnipresence of (Rome) pictures in our society as well as their use in the media.”

The last photograph I would like to call attention to is the portrait of a mysterious woman (plate X, Georgia) with her mouth open and forming a distinctive heart shape with the smoke; symbolic of a woman who is in the process of casting her spell on the unsuspecting “pale kings and princes”.

The book object: The large, thin, hardcover book was printed in four-color lithography and bound in Rome Italy, with numbered plates and captions provided in the Titles & Notes section. The book was curated by Marco Delogu, with essays provided by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Francesco Zanot, with the text provided in English.

Best regards

October 3, 2011

Chris Crites – Mug Shots

copyright Chris Crites 2011 courtesy Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books

I have noted recently that of the many types of ephemera that seem to be cherished are the police mug shots, which either intentionality or intentionality, capture the subjects at their worst. Chris Crites has accumulated a wonderful collection of vintage mug shots, transferred the image to ordinary kraft bags, and then painted the images with acrylic paint. Crites series of painted mug shots was recently published by Portland, OR based Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books and the book was aptly titled Mug Shots.

The photographic paintings are usually captioned with a title and in conjunction with his application of color, selection of subject and appearance provides us what seems to be portraits that are entirely suit our stereotypes of the criminal act. The photo paintings are on what appears as sections of ordinary grocery bags, with their creases and folds still evident. These grocery bags are themselves intended to be ephemera, to be used for just the one day to assist with carrying home the recent purchases. Similar to the mug shots, Crites has glorified these brownish kraft bags and extended their life much beyond their original intent.

The murder is a rough appearing guy having what appears to be a broken nose, implying that trouble may not have ever been far away from him. A weathered appearing man in red jacket identified in his mug shot as a criminal for “cocaine/morphine” appears to look very similar to a couple of known modern rock & roll guitarist. Two individuals, the woman for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” and the other for “indecency” (a man or a woman?), are painted blue, symbolic of the early Blue laws that were enacted to protect and safeguard our morals.

The man accused of “racketeering”, his shirt collar standing up with his head slightly cocked, with the eyebrow shadows looming darkly over his eyes, does make me feel that he appears a bit dangerous. A woman, apparently sitting, has her head slightly bowed and her hands appearing to be neatly folded in her lap, already appears to have her story of repentance ready for any and all who might be interested in hearing her sad tale. Nevertheless, there still appears to be something in the way Crites paints her face and eyes that brings out a slightly contradictory visual story about this woman.

The man, pictured in denim work overalls, accused of “crime against nature” I find very intriguing as to what crime this could possibly be about. The heavily bandaged man, whose mug shot is about his crime of “distributing communist literature”, could have in prior times sustained some of those injuries in the squad car on the way to booking station.

Who these people were, what relevancy would their “crimes” have today, were they in fact guilty of their accusations, what has happen to them in the ensuring years is speculation and exactly where Crites would like to take us with his visual narratives as he states, “each one of these images has a story”.

The book object: Stiff covers with a glued binding. One of my issues with the glued perfect bound bindings is the potential loss of content on the printed pages, as it seems more of the page is lost in the gutter than was anticipated in the book design. As a result, an image can become truncated, as in the last photograph below. The loss of the some of an image does creates it’s own mystery, but one that was probably unanticipated by the publisher and author. My second peeve with glued prefect bound books is that they do not lay open easily, besides being difficult to photograph for my commentary; they do not stay open while lying on my desk to be studied.


October 2, 2011

John Ryan Brubaker – Strange Cities

Copyright John Ryan Brukaker 2011 courtesy Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

Strange Cities, the recent photobook collaboration between the every wandering John Ryan Brubaker and Ampersand Galley and Fine Books (Portland,OR) is a recasting of the “stranger in a strange land” genre, set in Vietnam. We experience the journey of a photographer-flaneur, who, utilizing a documentary style, investigates in black & white the urban landscape of an unfamiliar place.

Brubaker captures a glimpse of the din raised by of a sea of scooters, the tangled chaos of the electrical and communications infrastructure, aging and detoriating built landscape that many call home, and a sense of the tenacity of the people to adapt and survive. He provides vignettes of his subjects, an indirect portrait of the social fabric granting us the freedom to add to his narrative.

The book provides a contrast of horizontal photographs printed across a two page spread with two vertical photographs on facing pages, the later creating jarring juxtapositions as the full-page bleed photographs butte into each other. The visual rationale for the pairings is not readily apparent, thus challenge you to dig a little deeper. One read I obtain from these mash-ups is the potential disorientation and unease that a strange environment can create.

As a photographer, I found the image of the table top camera repair vendor intriguing, the contrast of working hands diligent working on an old twin lens reflex, while near the photographic border are a perhaps the waiting hands. On the work top is a sea of camera parts, assembled much like an abstract collage, with a relatively new digital camera body adjacent to what appears to a very aging and dilapidated 35mm camera body.

For photographic-flaneur photobooks, I am particularly partial to an ending photograph that is symbolic of the potential journey that still lies ahead, bottom photograph, where this is a strong graphic element, in this case the silvery train tracks, that leads your eye out into the hazy distance. This photograph creates a nice narrative almost of itself and implies that although you are at the end of this book, the journey, symbolic of the narrative, really continues.

The book object; a small stiff cover book and hand sewn binding, which makes for a very enjoyable read, as the pages open nicely to provide a nice lay flat design. The photographs are printed full bleed on a slightly warm stock, without page numbering, captions or an accompanying essay. Printed in an edition size of 100.

September 30, 2011

Tiane Doan Na Champassak – The King of Photography

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 1:58 am

Photographs copyright of Tiane Doan Na Champassak 2011

The self published book by Tiane Doan Na Champassak incorporates a title that is an interesting play on words. Usually someone who is known as The King of Photography amongst photographers might be considered as one of the contemporary greats, or someone boasting about their photographic abilities. But in this case, it happens that this book is a compilation of photographs of a King who is the ruler ofThailand (Bhumidol Adulyadej) who appears to obsess with photography, or at least as represented by Champassak, obsessed with using a camera.

Champassak’s concept was to extract found photographs of the King of Thailand while he is holding or using a camera. This photobook is not a regal presentation and absolutely not an authorized biography, as the low quality resolution and printing of the book in conjunction with the very simple saddle stitch binding is not the least bit flattering and a stinging social criticism of this monarch.

Although the King is not portrayed as a stalker or paparazzi, this book does connect with many of the negative attitudes afforded the paparazzi and press photographers. In a real sense the monarch actually keeps a camera between himself and his subjects, that his is monolithic, similar to the lens of his camera, which he views his subjects from a distance and like the film his subjects are captured on, his people become only representative of real people.

We see this ruler photographing, but without any signs of his photographic output which implies a shallowness, of someone who appears to be enraptured with the act of photographing, perhaps as symbolic of someone who is caught up with the act of ruling, but not really a ruler in the full meaning of the word.

The book object: The book is printed using Risograph quadtone printing, with a stiff cover, saddle stitch binding, interior photographs are full bleed, without any accompanying text or page numbering. The interesting print quality of this book is an attribute of the Risograph process, a high-speed digital printing system designed mainly for high-volume photocopying and printing. This process involves printing with real ink like an offset printing, providing an interesting tactile feel to the paper, although the process does not provide a very high quality image resolution, with all manner of artifacts within the printed page.

September 24, 2011

Douglas Stockdale – Ciociaria

Photographs copyright 2011 Douglas Stockdale & published by Edizioni Punctum (Punctum Press)

Okay, this is not an official book review per se, as I really do need to defer to other reviewers to provide commentaries about my book. That said, I have been very fortunate to have a few others post about Ciociaria, including  Aline Smithson (Lenscratch), Andrew Phelps (Buffet) and Harvey Benge (Photograhy+art+ideas), as well as various shout-outs by Pierre Bessard, Elizabeth Avedon and a host of others.

Update: Very nice reviews by Karen Jenkins in photo-eye Magazine and Tomás de Teresa on Libros de Fotografia (Spanish), who also posted a video review of Ciociaria, set to Spanish guitar, on YouTube.

Publisher’s synopsis;

Douglas Stockdale’s Ciociaria builds an “organized” flanerie that goes beyond the topography/street photography dichotomy; he erases the direct human aspect and the need of a nearly scientific witness at the same time, enhancing the concept of how every single human being can become acquainted with a place in varied unpredictable ways and times, as well as readapting the landscape to one’s visions and needs.

Stockdale personalizes Ciociaria, a loosely defined rocky and hilly region with memories of ancient Latin yet without a known history, putting aside all stereotypes and re-launching a sort of “personal anonymity”, very typical to areas that developed due to the middle class explosion. Houses, banners, woods, monuments, cars and the outskirts of little towns, nothing is magnificent and luckily nothing is picturesque. The truly great difference lies here: Stockdale does not overdramatically criticize the Italian landscape per se, perceived as an embarrassing overlap of architectural abuse and ignorance, but then again his flanerie is nothing more than an actualization of the grand tour.

His photographs hint of a street photographer’s reportage yet lacks an obvious narrative, providing many hints of a complex and multi-layered culture, creating an indirect portrait of Ciociaria, while leaving most questions tantalizingly unanswered.  The photographs capture a paradox of strangeness mixed with familiarity, mystery mixed with beauty, within a context of color, space, and texture. 

This book is an investigation into complexities of ambiguity intertwined with feelings of belonging while yet still not fitting in. Stockdale crosses Ciociaria and looks for answers, adhering to that landscape and photographing it in such a way as to illustrate what it personally conveys to him. It is about being a stranger in a vaguely familiar land.

As a photobook object, it is a hardcover book with dust jacket, includes 50 color photographs and four-color lithographic printing, 96 pages without captions or page numbering. There is an essay by Marco Delogu and an afterword by me, both texts are provided in Italian and English.

Best regards, Doug

September 5, 2011

Afterwards – Curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer

Photographs 2011 copyright of the various photographers

Most of the photobooks that I review on this blog are usually authored by a single photographer who investigates a concept in relative depth. Other than featuring a photographic magazine that I feel warrants attention, I tend to avoid photobooks that attempt to investigate a thematic subject explored by a large group of photographers.

So I am making an exception for this socially engaging photobook edited by Nathalie Herschdorfer, Afterwards, Contemporary Photographs Confronting the Past, as I have for the Aftermath photobooks. I believe this subject does warrant a broader dialog.

Afterwards is a very broad thematic survey adapted from an earlier exhibit, Stigmata at the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva, which was curated by Herschdorfer. The original exhibition included the photographs by six photographers who interpret the social aftermath of historical events. In this photobook, Herschdorfer expands the scope and range of to include the projects of thirty photographers, who examine the fate of people in the midst of horrible events or long-term upheaval, such as refugees, political prisoners, or survivors of natural disasters.. Herschdorfer’s curatorial question: is it still possible for contemporary photography to question events, to connect us emotionally with our fellow humans, and to provide an opportunity to understand and find answers?

Although I find this to be a very noble question and a worthwhile quest, I am not sure that she answers her own question adequately with this book. I found the weakness lies with the inability to really create an emotional connection by the few photographs of each project that she provides. I liken this to the jam spread thin on a piece of bread; you do get a taste of the jam, but usually that one piece of bread is not enough to satisfy your appetite. I will confess that for a few of the projects, the limited number of photographs provided did create an emotional connection with me, thus warranting this review.

Herschdorfer draws from a broad range of conceptual projects, which does provide a wide diversity of food for thought. The conceptual subjects range from NYC’s 9/11 (3 projects), 20th Century Battlefields, Rwanda, WWII Holocaust (2 projects), WWII Hiroshima, Stasi Jail, Soldiers (4 projects), Gaza (2 projects), Argentina detentions (2 projects), Bosnian war (3 projects), KGB in Lithuania, Siberia, Iraqi prison, Iraq war, false imprisonment, Angola war, Hurricane Katrina, migrant shelters, Iran in turmoil, domestic slavery, sex trafficking, and military training (2 projects). The photographers include Robert Polidori, Suzanne Opton, Raphaël Dallaporta, Taryn Simon, Guy Tillim, Simon Norfolk and Pieter Hugo.

Likewise, the photographic projects range from an almost direct reportage, such as the tattered clothing from individuals who were interned in mass graves to projects that are so ephemeral that without any text, most of these projects, if not all, would be incomprehensible. That in turn may be one of the underlying strengths of this photobook that the extensive diversity of the projects provide a broad intellectual menu to choose from, to look at, dissect and subsequently debate about the underlying social issues. Regretfully, because of this same diversity, there will not be any easy answers.

Hershdorfer’s stated desire was to draw photographs from projects other than the “news photography” genre that is someone who attempts to immediately enter the fray of news worthy events in order to capture the essence of that event while it is in progress. I could argue that Frank Schwere’s photograph of the still smoking NYC ruins following 9/11 seem very news worthy.

Perhaps due to the broad diversity and the few photographs per project, usually three to four, ranging upwards to nine on one occasion, I found the thinness of each photographer’s concept unfulfilling. I consider this book a teaser, that if intrigued by a specific project or concept, then further exploration is merited.

The book layout for each photographer’s project has an introductory statement prepared by Herschdorfer, which is facing one the photographs, then usually followed by two, and on occasion four, pages of supporting photographs from their project.

The photobook object has a large trim size, but not monstrous, sufficient to adequately view the interior photographs, the largest of which are 8” x 10”. Both the printing and binding are very nice, and the book includes a dust jacket. The interior photographs are displayed in a classic design with at least a half-inch of white margin around each photograph. Nathalie Herschdorfer, formerly on the staff of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne,Switzerland, is a photography historian and curator. The are eight commissioned essays by members of the Swiss Center for Affected Sciences (University of Geneva) that address this same subject and provide additional insights into the underlying issues presented.

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