The PhotoBook Journal

October 24, 2018

Kranzler – Phelps – The Drake Equation

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Paul Kranzler & Andrew PhelpsThe Drake Equation, 2018 (book miss-printed 2017)

Photographers: Paul Kranzler, (born Austria, resides Linz,Austria and Leipzig, Germany) & Andrew Phelps (born Mesa, Arizona, resides in Salzburg, Austria)

Publisher: Fountain Books (Verlag), Berlin

Essay: Alard Von Kittlitz

Text: English

Without pagination or captions

Hardcover book, bronze embossed linen over boards, tipped-in image on back cover, sewn binding, bronzed page edges, one double gate-fold, four-color lithography, printed by Optimal Media, GmbH (Germany)

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Book Designer: Isabel Latza

Notes: The rural region of Green Bank, West Virginia is a modern paradox; a mash-up of ultra-high technology in the midst of an almost non-tech community, confounded by the fact that this situation is by careful design. Green Bank is the home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory built in the 1950’s. This high technology site with the astrophysicist who work there, is a series of highly sensitive radio telescopes that are searching the edges of the universe looking for signs of life. Operating this highly sensitive equipment requires the surrounding area is not disturbed by any form of radio activity, such as Wi-Fi, radio stations, cell towers and all forms of electro-magnetic energy, a region classified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a “radio-free” zone. This has become a region that uses dial-up land line phones, correspondence by letters and requires individuals to actually talk to each other.

Photographers Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps co-photographed this project, working together in such a manner that the identity of who actually activated the shutter for a specific image is inconsequential. Both photographers hail from Austria, while Phelps was born in Arizona and has resided in Austria since the early 1990’s and as I have noted in Phelps other photobook looking at the Arizona landscape that over time it appears he has acquired an outsider’s view point. The photographs capture a mash-up of high technology nestled within a community of non-technology, capturing both sides of the Drake Equation. The giant domes are observed facing outward looking into the furthest edges of existence while Kranzler and Phelps photograph those individuals who choose the simple basics of a lifestyle that might be considered the near side of existence.

The visual attributes of the high technology are stunning; the huge organic sculptural shapes of the radio telescopes situated in the sparse rural landscape; massive contradictions of size, shape and mass. These round shapes appear similar to what we think of what alien spacecraft should look like, lurking eerily in this desolate landscape.

In contrast are the intimate studies of those individuals who make this region their home; although there are hard to miss hints, such as the young woman with an off-the-chart iridescent blue hair, that their collective understanding extends beyond this rural community. Nevertheless they create a portrait of a white rural community; a young person cradling a chicken, another young man firing his rifle at something, ball caps, pizza, big belt buckles, camouflage fashion-wear and taxidermy trophies lining the walls.

The writer Alard von Kittlitz’s essay delves into this photographic study of a small region of America as a surrogate for the greater whole. So might Green Bank be a micro-cosmos, a representation of the greater America as postulated by von Kittlitz; I think not. I speculate that Green Bank might have more in common with a David Lynch story that is an odd mix of the surreal with the common, thus it appears like a very mysterious place. Perhaps an interesting place that I would really like to visit if given the opportunity.

Other photobooks by Andrew Phelps previously featured on TPBJ; Not Niigata, and Haboob.

Cheers, Doug

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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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May 31, 2010

Andrew Phelps – Not Niigata

Copyright Andrew Phelps, 2009 courtesy Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg

For my liking, Andrew Phelps’s introduction, printed on the inside book cover, places this entire photobook into an insightful context, “ But what does it mean to photograph with the pretense of documentation? I find it is easy to get caught up in chasing an illusion of what I think a place should look like: preconceptions are powerful and the quest to understand a place often leads to a greater misunderstanding. The best I can do is tell the story of my three weeks of traveling and responding visually to a place I don’t necessarily understand. It is the story of not understanding Niigata.”

As I have the opportunity to travel extensively to international locales, this photobook, and Phelps understanding of the limitations of someone who just drops in, resonances with me. Actually, I have similar feelings when I am traveling within Southern California through the Mexican, Vietnamese and other diverse micro cultural neighborhoods that populate our region. Cultural heritage, language and customs become more pronounced when traveling through Europe and for me, even more so to Asia, where I am unable to read their graphic language. I can recall being very disoriented on my first trip into China, where I was truly a stranger in a strange land.

Although the subject of Phelps’s photobook, Not Niigata, is about the Japanese city of Niigata, it is more about Phelps, the stranger who is in a strange land. Phelps is not Japanese, was not raised in Japan (born in the US) and currently resides with his family in Austria. Thus Phelps experiences and views Niigata unlike a person who was raised in Niigata, and who would call this home. The resulting color documentary style photographs are not Japanese in nature or spirit, but about a city seen by someone who is non-Japanese and is reacting to situations that are interesting unique to him.

To see what Phelps has framed and extracted from Niigata is interesting, odd, strange, different, mysterious, and also with familiar nuances. Stay in a similar philosophical introspection suggested by Phelps, mine are also observations by a non-resident of Niigata who is reading this photobook in Southern California. From this body of work, his narrative introduces us to a place that is in proximity to a sea-coast and mountain range, with an urban infrastructure and adjacent rural places.

One Phelps portrait is of a young boy, wearing sneakers, longish blue coat and what appears as a ball cap, holding a blue baseball mitt. A photograph that could be have been made in almost any city within the United States, but the background of buildings and urban setting, places this somewhere in Asia. The portrait has a slight presence of fill-in flash that creates further separation of the boy from the darker and slightly out-of-focus location background. The photograph investigates some unspoken connection and understanding between photographer and subject in a mutual interest of baseball, a popular sport in both Japan and the United States. It also alludes to an attempt at trying to understand Niigata by finding common ground.

A group photograph, below, is very mysterious and strange. It begs the questions, who are these three individuals, why are they wearing the masks and these particular colors and what are they doing in this place? It seems apparent that they know that they are being watched and photographed and appear passive about the situation, not threatening or aggressive for being masked persons. The background environmental which frames this group portrait is also mysterious, with the appearance of the sea in the far back, and the group is surrounded with an odd assortment of wires, poles, buildings and small boats.

Phelps portrait of an older man who is sitting in water, appears beautiful and yet familiar with yet a hint of mystery. It immediately brings to mind the portraits of Mona Kuhn; the tonal range of the colors, the mysterious abstract reflective colors and shapes. The foreground and background are soft and out of focus, with a contemplative and passive person sandwiched between. The eyes of the older man are averted and the photograph appears serene and peaceful.

Another aspect of Phelps narrative is the homogenization of global societies. The differences between a city in Austria, US and Japan have become less and less pronounced. The uniqueness of a city like Niigata is dwindling. The clothing and dress of the individuals in Phelps portraits seems familiar. Global brand logos, such as Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds and Burger King, have become ubiquitousness and are found everywhere.

Phelps also indirectly raises a question, which photographs can capture the essence of a place, that can render a social and cultural group on a two-dimensional page? We see the organization infrastructure, interior spaces, the topological constructs of faces, objects that are collected and utilized. Does the photograph explain why, how and for what purpose these objects and places exist and are utilized? The photograph can only testify that for a brief moment in time that these objects were in a place, and then the story is now ours to frame and ponder and if Phelps is correct, still not understand.

The artist statement is in English on the front cover liner, and Japanese on the back cover liner, the color photographs are unvarnished on a nice luster paper.

by Douglas Stockdale

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