The PhotoBook

September 14, 2012

Christian Patterson – Redheaded Peckerwood

Copyright Christian Patterson 2011 published by MACK

This photobook is Christian Patterson’s retelling of the murder spree of a psychopath, Charles Starkweather, and his young girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, that occurred in late 1958 and early 1959. As elegantly described by Luc Sante “(Patterson) followed Starkweather and Fugate’s trail, visiting all the places where they stopped, rooting through civic archives and newspaper morgues, seeking out material survivals of their lives and actions. Some of the photographs are of actual settings, some of actual artifacts, some of symbolic landscapes, and some of metonymic objects; there are also archival photos and reproductions of pertinent documents.”

In other words, a real complicated mash-up of fact and fiction, Patterson’s photographs co-mingled with found photographs and documents that create an extremely interesting novella.

Patterson created a faux detective’s dossier to solve a mystery, in this case a series of murders. Just as odd and random clues are acquired during an investigation, the documents, some real, some red-herrings, are stuck in a random order inside the dossier. In this case, the murders do not require solving, but the mystery and retelling continues unabated.

Karen Irvine assists with my conclusion as she writes “Patterson demonstrates that photographs are highly subjective interpretations of reality, and makes us aware of the seductive power of aesthetic effect even as we succumb to it.”

The text wrap hardcover book is bound with other printed pages interspersed within the book. The essays are by Karen Irvine and Luc Sante is printed and bound in a separate booklet that is included with the book. Similar to the main book’s dossier theme, the essay booklet is designed to look like a pocket notepad, the text using an old typewriter font, including typewritten “mistakes” that I easily recognize from my early (mis)use of this equipment.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

Michal Chelbin – The Black Eye

Copyright Michal Chelbin 2010 published by Twin Palms Publishers

Wrestling is a sport requiring intense exertion with direct and intimate contact between two opponents. This is not the wrestling entertainment common to late night television, but an athletic sport that harkens back to the first Olympic Games conducted in Greece. Two individuals grapple together, each attempting to gain some advantage over the other, slipping in and out of holds, or attempting to maintain a take-down in an effort to pin the other to the mat.

Michal Chelbin focuses her lens on the young and adolescent boys and girl wrestlers who are learning the necessary skills to compete. The place of these portraits is kept neutral with an attempt to stay relatively nondescript, nevertheless the location conveys as someplace with economic limitations and in Eastern Europe. The equipment and facilities appears Spartan, crude and very basic.

When confronted by portraits the viewer is drawn to the eyes, the posture and what is present, as well as to ponder what is not. Chelbin’s subjects’ objectively stare into the photographer’s lens, establishing direct contact with the photographer as well as with the viewer. The posturing may appear as neutral with most of her subjects directed to provide a forward facing stance, frequently in front of a colorful wall, perhaps similar to a mug shot. Unlike a studio portrait, the background wall is close and the painted surface’s condition is in focus and becomes an intricate component of these portraits. The use of a contemporary pose allows latitude for the viewer to construct their own narrative

For me these portraits recall memories of my high school wrestling team which I trained and competed with for three consecutive years. Thus I notice that the eyes in these portraits are not entirely expressionless as I sense fatigue by their tired and vacant stares. There is the presence of band-aids (known as plasters by my European friends), sweat, disheveled hair and wrestling attire, indicating that these individuals were plucked mid-stream from intense exertion during training. The personal combat is not seen, sometimes staged, but certainly felt.

Are we being in the presence of future Olympians? Chelbin teases us with these portraits and we are left to wonder what is the hope and aspirations of these individuals?

As a book object, this large hardcover with dust jacket is printed and bound in China. The captions are captured in an ending index with an Afterword story by Etgar Keret.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

September 11, 2012

Pieter Hugo – Permanent Error

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

Copyright Pieter Hugo 2011 published by Prestel Verlag

Pieter Hugo observes and photographs workers toiling in debris fields for the recycling of technology trash. I read this as an elegant ecological criticism of the one of many underlying issues that surrounds technology; the dizzying pace of obsolensces. The toxic nature of the technology discards has created “disposal outsourcing” to low-income countries, which regretfully welcome this opportunity because it has few viable economic alternatives. The “civilized” countries do have waste dumps for regular trash and by-products of their consumerism, but these are not suitable for the toxic nature of the technology waste.

What I see in Hugo’s photographs is repugnant, although for his subjects it appears they are accepting this salvage work as a working opportunity. It appears that the worker’s perspective is very limited and uniformed with little understanding of the ecological terror that they creating and working amongst.

His subject is usually centered within the square frame of the picture and the focus is shallow, the backgrounds fading away. Perhaps due to the environment conditions, the colors are neither vibrant nor uplifting. The compositional treatment renders the subject as a static object, almost beautiful, attempting to render these individuals and animals with banal objectivity. I am reminded of Nathalie Herschdorfer’s narrative of Lea Eouzan’s Auschwitz photographs; “(She) has no desire to arouse emotions or crate a spectacle, yet the viewer feels a certain tension when confronted with these images of a place that represents the unbearable.”

In the edges of the photographs I can see open and clear fields and upon closer examination, I detect that this particular third world technology waste treatment center is not very expansive. Hugo is investigating a small area that is representative of similar technology recycling sites located world-wide. These photographs are hauntingly symbolic of the inherent issues in the design and manufacture of high technology goods that industrialized countries are addicted.

The snowy white keys of a computer keyboard protruding up through the dirt and debris, symbolic of the death of modern technology found in a killing field. Workers are observed patiently waiting while the fire and flames do the work, while the ironic text on a man’s shirt proclaims “sun city”.

I am not surprised to find photographs of a pissing cow or a pissing man, paused mid-stride, in this strong social criticism. The man and animal do not care where they urinate; it is immaterial as they are already in the midst of a dump. It is relatively easy to read into this that man and animal, as well as the photographer, are pissed off about this current state of affairs.

In another incongruous photograph there is the juxtaposition of young girl in white lace dress with pink bow in midst of the hellish landscape and dismal conditions.

As a photobook object, it is a case-bound hardcover book, with two essays provided by Federica Angelucci and Jim Puckett. Photographic plates do not have the accompanying captions, which are provided in a separate section at the ending of the book, as well as a listing of Recycling Abbreviations provided after the Foreword by Angelucci. After a couple of readings of Pieter Hugo’s photobook, I think that the opening photograph that I selected best summarizes his subject; a small Hell on earth.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

September 7, 2012

Kendall Messick – The Projectionist

copyright Kendall Messick 2010 published by Princeton Architectual Press

Over a period of years Kendall Messick employed a documentary style to photograph the life of a retired movie projectionist; Gordon Brinckle (1915 – 2007). This is also an investigation into personal identity, when one becomes so consumed with their profession work, that they re-create a similar workplace at home. In this case Brinckle has built in fastidious detail a grand mini-movie palace (theater) in the basement of his home. Oddly it was a home-theater of which very few were aware of or visited, as Brinckle was a social recluse.

In his project Messick has incorporated a wonderful cinematic metaphor to narrate this, which when it finally dawned on my, I found to be absolutely delightful. Messick has mashed up Black & White with Color photographs to reveal the two aspects of Brinckle’s life while paying homage to the classic film, The Wizard of Oz.

Just as Dorothy was revealed in Black & White living in her Kansas home before the tornado struck, Gordon Brinckle and his wife Dot are documented in Black & White while living upstairs in their very ordinary appearing lifestyle. Messick switches to a vibrant Technicolor to document Brinckle in his basement fantasy theater, same as this movie transformed from Black & White to Color film when shifting to Dorothy’s dreamlike fantasy episode.

The black and white world of the Brinckle’s reality appears plain, simple and very middle gray if not bordering on sad. Their modest home is symbolic of the retired working class, one that appears to be very ordinary if not stuck in a time-warp. Similar to “Dorothy” at home, the Brinckles deal with all the normal tasks needed to survive, where things are not perfect or ideal, may be difficult or not very exciting, a variable monotone, day-to-day existence, and the antithesis of the dreamlike Oz awaiting downstairs. The relatively flat photographs seems to add an external context that the Brinckles are not that joyful or living a life of one’s dreams.

Where as Dorothy ran away from the awful Miss Almira Gulch, Gordon Brinckle descends down the basement stairs to find his santuary.  We do not know if Brinckle is attempting to escape from his wife Dot or the plain world of his upstairs existence to a place of colorful place of fantasy. Like Dorothy, Gordon takes his shelter in his home, and specifically in this case, his home basement, an even better environment to avoid the destruction of a tornado.

As there was a sudden transformation for Dorothy when she found herself in Oz, there appears to be equally fascinating transformation of Brinckle. It as though what also lurks in the basement is Brinckle’s Alter Ego, the Great and Powerful Oz. He is now the amazing, sparkling and colorfully costumed man behind the walls and curtains, projecting the images of his choosing, pulling the various curtains back to reveal what images he wishes to. He is now in total command of all that is before him, a truly Great and Powerful Oz. Which similar to the movie is also a sham and a fantasy, but of Brinckle’s careful and deliberate choosing.

I find that this is a poignant narrative, bittersweet as the final ending is revealed for Gordon Brinckle. But like Toto before him, Messick opens a metaphoric curtain, revealing his subject to be an ordinary man.

The book is hardcover with dust jack, and the essays are by Brooke Davis Anderson and Mark Sloan with a biography of Gordon Brinckle by Kendall Messick. The photographs are captioned and the book contains numerous drawings, layout and theater artwork created by Gordon Brinckle.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

September 6, 2012

Andy Freeberg – Guardians

Copyright Andy Freeberg 2009 published by photolucida

This is an investigation about women who are docents and guardians of artworks, whose job is to provide mute testimony as to the importance of the adjacent art works. There is universality to this project in which the actual location, even thought these art museums are located the Soviet Union, is not really relevant. The docents work is to sit amongst art and be present. They are placed in specific locations to both observe as well as be observed, to scold, admonish, explain or be a deterrent.

Freeberg is likewise observing those whose work is to be observed, although the docents reside in the edges and boundaries, while the art itself is centered in the photographs. The multi-layered composition reflects a relationship that would be a common experience to his subjects; guests of the museums photographing the art objects while they patiently wait to the side.

In viewing these photographs, it appears that there are very few other museum guests, that the docents are the only inhabitants of these vast facilities. Occasionally, even the docents appear to be missing from their posts. I sense isolation and silence in the lack of personal interaction within the museum, which is counterbalanced by the ironic and humerous compositions by Freeberg. Perhaps his subjects stoic stances are per protocol and when the museum visitors vanish, who knows what then transpires?

Freeberg appears to be patient, playful and have a keen power observation for his subject’s positions, postures and poses. His photographs are not unlike street photography and in this case the pace is much slower and allows for methodical observation and framing.

His underlying sense of dry humor is revealed in the various juxtapositions of docent and the adjacent art. There appears to be an unspoken dialog between his subjects and the art they appear to guard, observed by the photographer and subsequently shared with the viewer. Perhaps over time, the docents create bonds to the art that they have been assigned to oversee, either becoming one with that art or ironically in complete contrast. Freeberg photographs one woman who is fully concealed to the point of wearing additional layers which are zipped up for maximum personal security while the adjacent painting is of a semi-nude woman whose revealing herself. In another a docent begins to wear clothing of the same hue and pattern of the statuary she oversees to the point of blending in and becoming indistinguishable with the art itself. As a result, I sense that Freeberg’s investigation is probing his subject’s identity.

The hardcover book is published in horizontal format that was becoming a standard for Photolucida, subsequently a standard no longer held to, but in this case is well suited to Freeberg’s body of work.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

September 5, 2012

Nina Poppe – ama

Copyright Nina Poppe 2011 published by Kehrer Verlag

Nina Poppe spent time on the coast of Japan investigating the commercial work of Japanese women who “free dive” in the pursuit of abalone, a type of sea-snail. These abalone hunters, known as “ama-san”, the majority of which are women, typify an aging Japanese profession. They dive and work in a traditional manner that is without any tanks or other contemporary diving gear.

Her narrative is broader than a focus on the work, as she investigates a lifestyle which appears to be fading as there are few young women who are taking up this profession. She mashes portraits of the aging women divers with those of young girls who are preoccupied with almost everything but diving. Fashionable dressed adolescent girls are placed into context with the functional clothing and attire worn by the divers. There appears to be little glamour or appeal for the lifestyle of the abalone divers.

Poppe reveals the companionship amongst the women away from the ocean, while the work itself appears difficult, lonely and isolated. The diver’s residences and work-shops appear to be located in places that are near or adjacent to the sea. The exterior of simple homes is adorned with the diving clothes hanging to dry in preparation of the next day’s labor. Her book speaks to an investigation into a cottage industry lifestyle as well as womanhood and identity.

At the end of the book, there is a photograph of two older girls at the waters edge, one is sitting and appears to be contemplating the water before her, while the second girl barely stands in the water with a ripple left from where she placed her other foot. Perhaps they testing the water out? What might they be thinking? Are these the next generation, tentative in their response to this possible career?

The book is a hardbound cover with an exposed spine, revealing the sewn and glued binding of this book. The limited text is provided in English and Japanese and is published without any essays, pagination or captions.

The exposed spine is a wonderful metaphor that the interior photographs (contents) reveal an investigation into the workings of something.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

August 27, 2012

Lina Pallotta – Piedras Negras

Copyright Lina Pallotta 1999 self-published

Piedras Negras (Black Stone) is a Mexican border town situated adjacent to Texas and Southwest of San Antonio. Similar to other border towns, Piedras Negras has an economic zone called a maquiladoras, where manufacturing operations are performed for U.S. companies. The Maquiladoras exist to take advantage of the lower wages paid to Mexican workers for labor intensive work.

Pallotta explains in her brief statement, “My first impulse was to explore the life of women as workers. Yet, when I saw the pictures, I realized that social concerns were not enough to explain the feelings of the images. They resonated inside me as a mirror of my own memories. The maquiladoras project enabled me to see the connections between my world, Southern Italy, and Mexico based on the struggles of women and their strong bonds with each other.”

There is only a brief passing photograph of a woman working within a maquiladoras and does not provide much context as to what working inside one of these vast factories may entail. Instead, Pallotta focuses on the cultural aspects of the women outside the factory, at home, in transit, or socially interacting amongst themselves. She portrays a mash-up of moods and a range of emotions expressed by her subjects. In viewing her photographs, we can compare and contrast with our own experiences and perhaps detect that Pallotta might be exploring a broader universal theme of woman-hood.

The stiffcover book has a layout design to maximize each photograph, with each image spread across a double page, providing impressive 19” x 13” photographs. The saddle stitch binding and precise printing allows none of the image content to be lost in the gutter. The only issue I have with this thin photobook is the low contrast printing, lacking rich blacks and white specula highlights, giving a dull and grayed down feeling to this body of work.

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

Marco Delogu – I Trenta Assassini – The Thirty Assassins

Copyright Marco Delogu 2000 published by Punctum Press

The subject of Marco Delogu’s photobook The Thirty Assassins are the jockeys who have participated in of the bi-annual horse race in Sienna, called the Palio. The introduction provides the back story that this horse race, ridden bare back, is a throwback contest to an earlier age as well an event intertwined with ancient treachery and sinister intrigue. How else can a jockey who finishes 8th end up with more cash than the winner?

We know not of the danger and intensity of this particular race, in which the rider does not need to be mounted on the horse at the end of the race to become the winner. Instead Delogu tightly crops and frames these portraits and narrowly focuses his lens on their eyes at the exclusion of almost all else. It is about the gaze of the subject and the direct connection with the photographer, and ultimately with us, the viewer.

I feel a tension and observe an intensity in these eyes before me, dark orbs with glints of light, frequently lurking beneath darkly hooded eyelids. I perceive defiance, challenging me with their gaze, a stare-down I recall from my own youth that these jockeys might level at their opponents as their horses are about to bound from the ropes and plummet down the narrow corridors within the city.

These photographs are stark, almost graphic in these high contrast Black & White renditions. I am slightly un-nerved by the intensity of their stares bridging the span between me and the pages of this photobook

Some of these riders are well past their prime, while others are still seeking glory. Nevertheless, I have been convinced by Delogu that these are indeed the assassins of Sienna and the Palio.

This is a stiffcover book, printed and bound in Italy; the interior photographs have an excellent range of black and whites. This is a review of the third Edition in which the size has been increased with an additional six portraits. The essays by Massimo Reale, Alessandro Falassi and Adriano Sofri as well as accompanying captions and quotes are in Italian and English. A glossary has been included that provides more insight into the mechanics of the Palio.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

Other photobooks by Marco Delogu reviewed on The Photobook: Noir et Blanc

August 23, 2012

Rania Matar – A Girl in Her Room

Copyright Rania Matar 2012 published by Umbrage Editions

What began as a personal investigation by Rania Matar to understand her own daughter by serendipity became a broader investigation of a young girl’s transition through adolescence to womanhood. This transitional period is marked by discovery and introspection, effort and work that her subjects undertake in an attempt to define their own identity.

Matar has chosen to work collaboratively with her subjects, photographing them in a unique space, the girl’s bedrooms. Her color documentary style is a wonderful fit to narrate the complexity of her subjects in these places, unlike her earlier book photographed in Black & White which distilled her narrative into a strong graphical statement. Her subject’s bedrooms are a personal sanctuary that can be afforded to each of them by their families. These rooms make a private and indirect statement about their individual identity, as compared to the external and public statement created by their attire and make-up.

The collaborative portraits are a dance between the subject and a new acquaintance, who is both an older woman and a photographer. The girls are being requested to help create an environmental style portrait that will eventually reveal private emotions and places. In looking at these photographs, I sense a complex mix of vulnerability and openness, with yet a tinge of weariness that may stem from the knowledge that they are revealing some very private thoughts and will potentially be exposed to judgment.

To further broaden the scope of her narrative, Matar mashes together two different cultural areas, the Northeastern section of the United States with the Middle East region of Lebanon. As such, this invites comparisons of the similarities and the contrasts of the adolescent girls of these two regions. Both geographies have a range of economic conditions, with perhaps a greater range in these conditions in the Lebanon body of work. Likewise, I note how religion seems to be an ever-present subtext to her subjects in Lebanon as expressed in their personal statements.

This book is a talisman to remind me of my daughter’s passage through these turbulent times and now I watch as my granddaughter begins to establish her individuality in her room.

The book is a hardcover with dust jacket in a horizontal design, which suits the vast majority of Matar’s photographs. Frequently with the photograph’s title, there are quotes made by her subjects that were obtained during their collaborative event. There are essays by Susan Minot and Anne Tucker and a statement by Matar.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

Other photobooks by Rania Matar reviewed on The Photobook: Ordinary Lives

August 12, 2012

Pierre Bessard – Behind China’s Growth

Photographs copyright Pierre Bessard 2007 published by TimeZone 8

China’s spectacular industrial growth has also created a massive need for industrial infrastructure; a key consumable commodity is their electrical power grid. Pierre Bessard was invited to photograph the industrial workers who toil away at producing some of the largest hydro-eclectic equipment in the world that are being installed in the new massive dams being build in China. The portraits are of those who constitute the factory’s shop floor; mechanics, machinist, engineers and supervisor foremen.

The actual work that these individuals perform is indirectly implied by the large equipment looming in the background, the hand-tools in their grasp and the type and condition of the garments they wear.

Bessard’s subjects intently gaze directly into the photographer’s lens, creating a connection with the photographer and subsequently with us, the viewer. They are aware of the photographers presence and that their likeness is being captured, probably requested to stop for their portrait in the middle of their work day. It appears that the work that his subjects perform is hard and dirty, perhaps even with some element of danger if not performed with skill. Studying their stance and expression, they appear determined. This is a mini cultural portrait study in black & white, a theme and documentary style which has it heritage harkening back to the photographic work of August Sander.

These industrial portraits are interwoven with close-up details of the industrial components that are the by-product of the work performed by the subjects. The machine parts photographs are tightly framed and are abstract in their lines and masses of grays.

As an object, this book is a pleasure to hold and read, from the linen covered hardbound book with the tipped-in front cover image with a matching linen slipcase cover, to some of the heaviest pages that I have held in some time. There is no bleed through or ghosting of the images from opposites sides of these pages. The text is in French, Chinese and English, with the interview essays of the subjects by Eric Meyer.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

Other photobooks by Pierre Bessard reviewed on The PhotoBook: Wuhan Boiler Comany Workers

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