The PhotoBook Journal

September 9, 2018

Julia Borissova – Let Me Fall Again

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Let Me Fall Again, Julia Borissova, Copyright 2018

Artist: Julia Borissova (born Talinn, Estonia, resides St. Petersburg, RU)

Self-Published: St Petersburg, Russia

Essay, Julia Borissova

Text: Russian, English

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Stiffcover book, handsewn binding, stitching, inserts, gate-folds, First edition of 239, hand-made in Russia

Photobook designer: Julia Borissova

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Notes: It was not until I had a chance to spend time with Julia Borissova’s latest photobook, Let Me Fall Again, did I reflect on the act of what constitutes “failure” for an artist, versus the perspective of the corporate/business person. For a business venture failure is the worst possible event. I will have to admit as a person who has been involved in the development of countless pharmaceutical drugs that researchers are probably more in alignment with artist in that a “failure” can considered to be on a path to success.

She states in her artist statement, which is complexly folded and partially hidden within the book, …this word (failure) means something else in the art world. The gap between the initial intention and realization of artwork can be seen as an artistic failure. However, if unsuccessful attempts are not regarded as the final result, it encourages artist to work more and gives them opportunities to grow.

The subject of her book is Charles Leroux who was an early (1890’s) adapter in the act of parachuting, which eventually led to his early demise in Estonia (Russia). The book is complex and lots of parts are mashed together, a continuous series of small and large gatefolds that reveal text, posters, images and illustrations. I will have to say, I wonder if all of these page folds are a bit overdone, but I sense the reason behind the complexity and sculptural qualities; an attempt to create an interaction by the reader for more engagement with the contents.

Second regarding her layered narrative; on the surface it would appear to be about her subject, but lurking below the surface, I sense it’s about the lives of creative persons. Granted most artist do not jump out of high-flying balloons on makeshift ropes, but figuratively most artist are constantly taking chances with their creative endeavors while they put at great risk a chance at making a sustaining livelihood.

In an interview with Julia, she states Regarding the collages in my book, I used the wire to create three-dimensional objects, I have been inspired by the works of Miró and Calder. These works do not illustrate the history of the balloonist, I just wanted to visualize a sense of lightness & fragility – I tried to draw in the air.

As a book artist, I find Borissova’s book to be very inspirational for my creativity; especially if after working for a year on a new book for it to be greeted with a luke-warm response. Thus, like Borissova, every time I feel I might fail in my work, I now think about Charles, who not being able to fall would have meant great failure.

Btw, I will not divulge the little hidden secret found at the end of each book concealed in a very complex folded insert glued into the ending pages. Perhaps an Icarus metaphor. And to say I am a big fan of Borissova’s artistic work is an understatement. Very inspirational!

Other artist books by Julia Borissova on TPBJ; J. B. About Men Floating in the AirDimitryDOM, address, Running to the Edge

Cheers,

Douglas

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August 28, 2018

Todd Weaver – 36

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Books, Photographers — Tags: , , — Gerhard Clausing @ 5:56 pm

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Photographer:  Todd Weaver (born in Kansas City, Missouri; lives in Los Angeles, California)

Publisher:  Self-published; © 2018

Essays:  Devendra Banhart; Rodrigo Amarante

Text:  English

Hardcover book, sewn, cloth-bound, debossed cover with tipped-in illustration; 212 paginated pages; 9 ¼ x 11 ¾ inches; printed in the USA by Dual Graphics

Photobook designer:  Todd Weaver

 

Notes: 

What would happen if people portrayed by photographers were given more freedom and control over the process than is usually the case? Who would really be in control?

The title of this innovative book refers to the 36 persons who appeared in a specific space, to be photographed by Todd Weaver as THEY might like, moving at will for three minutes for a total of 36 exposures, taken every 5 seconds, while the camera location remained the same. If ever there was true collaboration between photographer and person portrayed, this is it – unprecedented and most intriguing! This project reminded me a bit of the work of Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs, who photographed individuals from various angles to arrive at a more complete depiction of each person, but Weaver’s approach goes even further.

Here the individuals photographed externalized and structured their appearance and movements and bared their insides as well. We can see a most eclectic series of self-portrayals, produced in collaboration with the photographer as uber-visualizer. The fact that the 36 individuals are artists helps a bit, I think, since their self-concepts and their understanding of self-presentation may be somewhat more developed than in others. This also presented major challenges to the photographer to capture the appearances authentically and with technical dexterity in the short amount of time and with physical restrictions. We see a gamut of emotions and degrees of physicality – some made use of objects that are meaningful to them, some appearing with clothes and some without or fewer than usual. The photographic techniques employed by Weaver also encompass the range of possibilities – from close-ups to full-body renderings, from sharply defined specifics to somewhat longer exposures that are able to trace movement or quick gestures that the eye might not register sharply either.

The volume is a pleasure to view and peruse; the design is attractive and varied, full of surprises. It is as if you are sitting in a theater and 36 characters that will appear in the play briefly introduce themselves to the audience, both as actors and also in the roles they are playing. The volume constitutes a refreshingly different visual record of thirty-six creative individuals captured by their innovative artistic photographer. The process of baring their souls is well described in the impressions written by Rodrigo Amarante. The volume concludes with notes on the 36 artists who participated in this project. A most impressive and creative work!

Gerhard Clausing

 

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August 10, 2018

Judy Dater – Only Human

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , — Gerhard Clausing @ 2:34 pm

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Photographer:  Judy Dater (born in Hollywood, CA; lives in Berkeley, CA)

Publisher:  Marymount Institute Press and TSEHAI Publishers, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA; © 2018

Essays:  Teresa de Vroom (Foreword); Judy Dater (“Only Human”); Marilyn Symmes (“The Portrait Within”); Gloria Williams Sander (“The Archaeology of a Photograph”); Donna Stein (“Looking Back”)

Text:  English

Linen-bound sewn hardback with illustrated dust cover; 9 ¾ x 12 ¼ inches; 200 pages, paginated; 100 monochrome images printed in the Sepiana process by Inner Workings/Artron Art, China

Photobook Designer: Chuck Byrne, Chuck Byrne Design

 

Notes:

The iconic portrait work of Judy Dater is marked by a tremendous depth as well as an indescribable mystery; these images represent a lifetime of astute perception and observation. Her work is  also marked by a courageous spirit and a multi-layered assertiveness and meaning that translates from the photographer to the subject and back to the viewer. Her image of Imogen Cunningham with Twinka is famous, and, yes, it is included in this book (see below). This volume is, in fact, a retrospective companion to the exhibition ONLY HUMAN, shown at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, whose store also sells this book; the show closes on September 16, 2018.

The work shown here includes 100 significant images, mostly individual portraits of humans (in accordance with the title), and also some groupings of two or more, as well as five self-portraits of the photographer, a genre for which Judy Dater is deservedly admired. Her view of people is in itself very human, in that we are given glimpses of inner strength through their outer appearance as depicted in the images. The time period covered is 1964 to 2016; some of those portrayed were early colleagues and/or mentors or hers, such as Ansel Adams, depicted with a slightly dreamy blur – he who always wanted his own images to be razor-sharp! – while others who are not in the public limelight present interesting aspects of themselves as well.

We find an approximately equal number of women and men in the volume, both clothed and not, some displayed more boldly than others. We were pleased to note that the honesty that exudes from these images originates with Judy Dater herself; she was a delight to meet this spring in connection with the Classic Photographs exhibition at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Here is a photo taken by Doug Stockdale where Judy has this book open to one of her favorite photographs:

 

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Judy Dater, Classic Photographs Exhibition, Santa Monica, February 2018 / © Douglas Stockdale

 

Judy Dater’s depiction of humans is refreshing; she shows each of them as individuals in an honest fashion without pretense or fakery. The essays and the select bibliography give us further insights into the intentions and practices of the photographer, as well as the reception history as well as other perspectives of curators and art historians regarding Judy Dater’s work.

We salute Judy Dater for her long career of forthrightly interpreting the minds and souls of so many individuals and sharing them with us, and also thank the team that created this fascinating volume, a treasure to own.

Gerhard Clausing

 

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All black and white images © Judy Dater

 

June 27, 2018

Yehlin Lee – Raw Soul

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , , , — Gerhard Clausing @ 9:40 pm

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Photographer:  Yehlin Lee (born and lives in Taipei, Taiwan)

Publisher:  Akaaka Art Publishing, Kyoto, Japan; © 2017

Afterword:  Yehlin Lee

Text:  Japanese, Chinese, English

Hardback, sewn, with debossed illustrated cover; 118 unpaginated pages with 76 color photographs; 26 x 26 cm (10 ¼ x 10 ¼ inches); printed and bound in Japan by Live Art Books

Photobook Designers:  Yehlin Lee, Kimi Himeno, Hisaki Matsumoto

 

Notes:

Haven’t we all tried to make sense of our environment many times over? Lucky are those of us who can use our photography to help us provide access to how the rhythms of our environment flow. Those who also have a connection with and a touch for more than the visual mode, such as sound, music, film, to guide their instincts, have the good fortune to be inspired in more ways than one.

Yehlin Lee from Taipei is one of these lucky people who are guided by more than one modality. Having an artistic connection with sound, with a career as a sound artist (check out some soundscapes on his website), he is guided toward special moments where sounds give him cues for locating and interpreting the visual moments that he chooses to share with us. As he states in his latest artist statement, “My way of looking is deeply influenced by my past experience in listening – unconditional acceptance. Like a submarine, I try to feel without bearing any intention and dive into the collective consciousness of Taiwanese as well as mine. When sound is heard from within, I click the shutter.” Lee’s goal is, as he states, to capture “a certain suppressed force of life, a spiritual intensity …”

And indeed, the photographer has produced a very special and sensitive journey into the heart and soul of a very complex metropolitan region. Raw Soul reminded me a bit of the film Into the Night (1985), in which the character played by Jeff Goldblum searches the night for meanings and encounters various cultural layers. Taiwan, with many customs and belief systems that have a history going back many centuries, is a multifaceted conglomeration of cultures and backgrounds. To capture its spirit and flow in a mere 76 images is quite a feat.

We see many hidden places and mysterious juxtapositions of nature and man, such as a sharp plant leaf and a culturally interesting knife. We get glimpses of ancient remnants and current practices and combinations of these; we see a variety of age groups, old and young, and some interaction. Many of the folks shown are not readily identifiable or are shown as a small portion of a larger universe; thus we are able to project ourselves into this world in which the photographer immerses us. Mysterious figures behind glass, young folks in various roles, subject to influences of old and new, East and West, spiritual and mundane … a respectful look by an artist that understands the layers and the sublayers as well. Yehlin Lee also makes excellent use of selective focusing and unfocusing and blurring/longer exposures to add mystery. The layout and sequencing keep us in suspense from beginning to end. We, the observers, share in the artist’s resonating moments that let us in on a very special metropolitan area.

A complex work, attractively presented – highly recommended!

Gerhard Clausing

 

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May 5, 2018

Nuno Moreira – She Looks Into Me

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , , — Gerhard Clausing @ 4:56 pm

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Photographer:  Nuno Moreira (born and lives in Lisbon, Portugal)

Texts:  Poem by Paul Éluard; prose by Adolfo Luxúria Canibal; foreword by M. F. Sullivan; afterword by Jesse Freeman

Languages:  English and Portuguese

Self-published softcover with flaps; naked-bound and glued to the rear board; 22×28 cm (8.7×11 inches); 84 unnumbered pages with 42 black-and-white photographs; first limited edition of 200 copies, printed in Portugal by Guide; © 2018

Photobook designer:  NM Design

 

Notes:

This photographic project by Nuno Moreira, as presented in this volume, creates a very puzzling and potentially moving experience for the viewer. Relationships and all that they engender – genesis, growth, possibly also decline, and the specter of cessation – are ever-present themes in this book, which provides both visual depth and tactile pleasure. This is a volume that can have a strong effect on the viewer: it is a journey to the interior via the exterior.

The images are presented in three sections:  I. Being; II. Becoming; III. Unbecoming. This choice of headings suggests a process, and, indeed, the sections show a progression of  dreamlike appearances of figures oscillating and interacting between light and shadow. This is definitely the work of a photographer’s photographer. Canibal in the prose piece writes: “She knows that time swallows life and drains the light away, leaving the faces with the infinite sadness of primordial grief.” And: “The whispering figures represent the fleeting expression of this unspeakable disturbance that consumes her.” We get impressions of bodies and souls interacting and parting, the carousel of life, dancing in a circle, as it goes round and round to its beginnings, over and over. Thus you can traverse the book from front to end and back again. The double meaning of the word unbecoming also supports the idea that loss is always harder to take, not only personally, but also in a social context.

The individuals shown are of different ages and genders, in a variety of combinations, with females constituting the central figure “She.” We can surmise the possibilities or the existence of one or a variety of relationships, to be projected into the pictures by each viewer, depending on his or her life experiences and preferences. We see individuals touching each other or not, partly clothed or not, tastefully presented. There are also moments of being alone. The ambiguity of who belongs to whom, for what purpose, and for how long (if at all!) is where the mystery of the book comes into play. There is also a large bone-like structure in some of the images, perhaps a tusk or other part that seems to have once belonged to a large animal. In the shape of a boomerang, it perhaps reminds us about the mutuality and universality of interactions and of the circularity of life itself. Perhaps it is a reminder of loss, or of death as the ultimate loss; wilted flowers are also shown at the end of the book. Ambiguity consistently drives the visuals, and the untangling of the interplay between fantasy and reality becomes the viewer’s personal task.

The literary pieces and the essays – poem, foreword, afterword, prose (the latter presented in a separate, attractive bilingual booklet) – are also interesting, as they support the wholistic approach of Nuno Moreira, and also shed light on his previous work. I am also very pleased that the author chose naked stitched binding as a tool for the pages of the volume, as it allows the double-page spreads to lie flat, giving the viewer a closer viewing experience, as if glancing at an album, rather than a more tightly bound conventional book.

An important work of fine art photography that engages the viewer/reader in a variety of ways – visually, textually, and viscerally.

Gerhard Clausing

 

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January 25, 2018

Louie Palu – Front Towards Enemy

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Photographer: Louie Palu (born Toronto, Canada & resides Washington DC)

Published by Yoffy Press: Atlanta, GA (USA) copyright 2017

Essay by Rebecca Senf and Louie Palu

Text: English

Stiff cover Zine with metal saddle stitch binding, Cards, Leporello (Accordion), soft cover Newspaper, folded without binding, exhibition insert, housed in printed chip-board folder with cover flap, four-color lithography, printed in Turkey

Photobook designer: Jordan Swartz

Notes: War. I don’t understand it and fortunately I have not had to experience it, although I live on an old WW2 bombing range, that’s another story. Louie Palu in his new multi-media publication (can we really call this a photobook?) Front Towards Enemy provides a version of a photo-documentary that resulted from a self-assignment investigation of the war conflict in Afghanistan. This is a very complex region; socially, economically, politically and environmentally that Palu has tried to emulate with an equally complex and layered print concept.

His multi-media conceptual photobook immediately reminded me of Alejandro Cartagena’s 2015 self-published Before the War, which in retrospect, I have found so complex at the time as to be visually overwhelming. There are similar aspects about Palu’s publication as well.

Palu’s photobook has four major components and then each of these break down or expand from there. Part newspaper, The Void of War, part zine, The Fighting Season, part leporello, part a pack of picture cards and finally an insert that suggests how to assemble of this into a exhibition. Wow.

Rebecca Senf in her assay discusses the parallels between Palu and W. Eugene Smith as to how Smith after his tiff with Life magazine about his Albert Schweitzer photo essay left the magazine and went independent. As Palu was self-assigned for his Afghanistan project, likewise he did not have to conform to the norms of a picture editor, but completed his project on his own aesthetic terms. We do not always see his subject but are provided indirect evidence of his subject’s presence; a cast shadow, an out of focus form, heads bowed, truncated feet, legs and arms. A photo-documentary that attempts to connect with the heart.

Newspaper; The Void of War; interior pages with images that are an impressive 8-1/2” h x 21-1/2” w; the ultrawide format of the camera lens creates a distorted visualization that echos the frequently un-nerving human situations that are in a state of progress. The photographic quality of the newsprint has low contrast with muddled blacks, typical of an area of newspapers and harken back to newspaper coverage of the Vietnam War era.

Zine; The Fighting Season, saddle stitch binding, with the essays by Rebecca Senf and Louie Palu and includes the book’s colophon. A mix of the trauma of warfare with the background of the human element, the children and adults with their animals who try to survive in the region amidst the war.

Leporello (Accordion); 14 continuous panels, printed full bleed that when unfolded extends 13 feet, with the photographs on one side and the caption printed on the reverse. The physical manipulation of the leporello to look at the images and then read the corresponding caption is awkward and not meant to be an easy act. The last image (or depending on how you fold the leporello, the first image) of a seriously wounded Afghan solider in a Medevac helicopter’s blue light is incredibly haunting.

Cards, individual prints, which are printed full bleed, 11”h x 7-1/2”w, on heavy card stock. Captions are provided on the reverse side. These are tightly cropped portraits of his subjects who are soldiers that are engaged in the war in Afghanistan.  I find their eyes and gaze visually riveting.

Single page insert: Instructions and suggestions on how to create one version of an exhibition with this publication.

As one moves from one part of the publication to another, there is a feeling of messiness, an interesting feeling, perhaps a simulation of the awkward and strained social and environmental conditions that Palu is encountering. Another dimension of this body of work.

Palu has stated that although he has experienced some aspect of war, his photographs cannot provide the reader with the full experience of what this is. Similarly, this review is an attempt to describe a complex publication, but cannot provide the reader with the full experience. Highly recommended you obtain your own copy.

Other books published by Louie Palu that have been reviewed on TPBJ: Cage Call

Cheers!

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January 15, 2018

Roger Ballen – Ballenesque: a retrospective

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Artist: Roger Ballen (born New York City & resides Johannesburg, South Africa)

Thames & Hudson, copyright 2017

Introduction: Robert J. C. Young; Essays: Roger Ballen

Text: English

Hard cover with printed dust cover, sewn binding, four-color lithography, index, bibliography, collections, picture credits, printed & bound by Artron, China

Photobook designer: Sarah Praill

Notes: This massive book is indeed an extensive collection of Roger Ballen’s unique oeuvre that he has created over the past forty plus years. What may not be as well known is that this book should be considered equal amounts autobiography for the essays Ballen has written to explain his background and artistic development. Ballen’s work became better known primarily through the publication of his photobooks, thus the four chapters of this retrospective follow that linear sequence of these publications; Boyhood (1979), Drops (1986), Platteland (1994), Outland (2001), Shadow Chambers (2005), Boarding House (2009), Asylum of the Birds (2014), and The Theatre of Apparitions (2016) to name a few.

It is fascinating to observe the artistic progression of Ballen’s work, specifically the inclusion of his drawings that are best defined by discussing his attributes of line, flow, shape and mass in conjunction with his “primitive” sculptures. We can follow the transition of found-art that created a background to construct the social environmental context to eventually becoming the primary expression as the process of photography appears to become more a means of facilitation.

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Ballen philosophically expands on the reasons for his creations which might explain his dark, ambiguous, layered, complex and multi-media oriented photographs, much better than I. In his later works since his Boarding House project, I find that each photograph is so complex and layered that I can spend entire day absorbed in a single image and perhaps the reason for my delay in writing this review. I eventually had to put this book down and write.

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One aspect that I really enjoy about this book is the inclusion of so many of the photographs from each of Ballen’s book projects presented in a way that is similar to reading the referenced book. Although this book is not meant to replace his various books, this retrospective is a very inclusive experience and a great edition to a Ballen collection.

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Roger Ballen’s Ballenesque was selected as one of the editors Interesting Photo Books of 2017 and reviews of the following Ballen books are available on TPBJ; Boarding House, Asylum of the Birds, and The Theatre of Apparitions.

Cheers!

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January 11, 2018

Gerard Boyer – Ser de La Cala

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Photographer:  Gerard Boyer (born in L’Ametlla de Mar, Spain; lives in Tarragona, Spain)

Publisher:  Fuego Books, Murcia, Spain; © 2011-2016 by Gerard Boyer

Texts:  Quotes in Catalan, Spanish, and English

Zine-style, naked-bound and glued, with stiff printed wrap; 22.6 x 32 cm; 64 pages; edition of 500; printed in Spain by CeGe

Photobook Design and Art Direction:  Gerard Boyer, Ignasi López, Román Yñán

Notes: Our memories are very tricky things – they are partial, emotional, full of gaps and uncertainties, and prone to embellishment. Good ones, bad ones, and everything in between. What was, might have been, could have been, should have been? And what is our role in what we have made prominent in all of this, or shoved aside as faded bits and pieces?

Gerard Boyer is from Catalonia, an area politically part of Spain, but with its own language and proud identity. Along the eastern coast there is a certain rugged landscape by the sea and an independent spirit to go with it. This had its impact on this volume of recollections: a view of childhood and its contexts in the “La Cala” (The Cove). The book, professionally designed to make an impression of incidentally “found” detail, illustrates these feelings very well, in that it approximates how detail swerves in and out of our consciousness. The format is that of a large-size glossy magazine; the binding is “naked” (check out our discussion “Naked Bound”), and we get the impression of a past that is full of distinct yet partial memories. Some text portions with quotes are bound to the front and also internally, to evoke further associations in the viewer. There is also a map of the area, with a small window, perhaps suggesting the distant access for an outside viewer. The volume is contained in an intriguing folded, cover-like wrap-around, with an abstract design suggesting land and sea.

The images are an appropriate mix of subjects, showing childhood portraits, family members, area landscapes and other local markers, and some of the folks from the family and the community. Some of the images show a certain ruggedness and imperfection, such as large out-of-focus areas, light-struck film exposures, and faded color to parallel fading memories and thought intrusions.  Themes such as the rugged camaraderie and sensory strength among anglers and the major role of motherhood emerge. As we view this multilayered sequence of images that are presented effectively to approximate the workings of the mind as it comes up with its recollections, we are confronted with doing our own memory work, remembering things from our own childhood as well. And isn’t that precisely what an effective photobook will do, to make us also get in touch with ourselves. An innovative treatment, well done!

Gerhard Clausing

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December 24, 2017

Martin Parr – Autoportrait: 1996-2015

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions — Tags: , — Gerhard Clausing @ 11:39 am

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Photographer:  Martin Parr (born in Epsom, UK; lives in Bristol, UK)

Publisher:  Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, UK; © 2015/2016

Hardbound sewn book with plastic labyrinth puzzle inlaid in cover; 144 pages with 89 full-color photographs; 11.8x16cm; printed in China by Toppan Leefung

Photobook Designer:  Ėditions Xavier Barral

Notes: Martin Parr, prominent Magnum photographer and photobook collector, as well as prolific author, editor, and curator, is an astute observer and critic of popular culture, and he has an appealing sense or humor that gives his work a bit of a lighter touch as well. It takes a top member of our photographic profession to present himself in photographic self-observation, as Parr has done here, in a playful yet rigorous way to make fun of formal and informal (self-)portraiture, somewhat analogous to Cindy Sherman presenting her skewed selfies in recent Instagram posts and in other self-created roles in the past.

A popular view is that such types of self-representation are self-deprecating. Far from it, if I may add my opinion, also on behalf of my own self-portraits. Parr presents  himself in a variety of portrait roles that popular culture “calls for” – the macho hero, the seemingly relaxed luxury vacationer, the wannabe space traveler, the know-it all explorer of exotic lands, and many other such photographic clichés. By doing so, he holds up a mirror to his viewers, some of whom may have seen or may have wished to see themselves in such roles as well. He is presenting himself in these photographic “autoportraits” or self-portrayals in the manner of an actor-photographer, and we are not seeing the photographer as himself, but rather the figure of the photographer acting out specific roles. This is an important distinction: the photographer-actor is not endorsing what he is portraying, but merely slipping into a role for each image and out of the role right afterwards.

This volume is the second edition of the successful original publication with the same title from the year 2000, increased in size by many additional pictures. They are all in color, and an amusing set to view for all ages. There are many amusing discoveries and cultural icons to connect to as one studies his survey of portraits with cultural and other icons, from wax museums and posters, and political figures are also included, of course. The thing that makes this collection all the more amusing is the similarly serious, dutiful expression we see on his face in virtually all the images. Very proper indeed, the stiff upper lip in the presence of all these impinging cultural expectations and assorted stereotypes and figures such as 007 and Putin, part of the mimicry. We can see all of the things good portraits should NOT be – flattering over-retouching, cheesy studio sets, awful fake compositions (such as merging his head with a muscle-man body). Questions of identity and self-image, wishful thinking in projecting one’s self through images, and cultural stereotypes as perpetuated by tourists are just three of the discussion topics raised by these images.

Even after this season of gift-giving, this volume would be a nice little present. Not only can you study lots of wacky and idiosyncratic portraits (imitation not necessarily recommended!), but you can also try the puzzle embedded in the cover that lets you jiggle two small balls toward the center portrait of the author himself … good luck!

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Gerhard Clausing

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December 17, 2017

Matthew James O’Brien – No dar papaya

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Photographer:  Matthew James O’Brien (born in San Mateo, California; resides in San Francisco, California)

Publishers:  Icono Editorial, Bogota, Colombia and Placer Press, San Francisco, California; © 2014; introduced in the United States in 2016

Essays:  Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez; Matthew James O’Brien

Text:  English and Spanish

Hard cover, sewn binding, four-color printing; 129 numbered pages; 190 photographs with time and location identification and map; 9.5×12 inches; printed and bound in Spain by Artes Gráficas Palermo, Madrid

Notes:  The Spanish phrase “No dar papaya” has a special meaning in Colombia, something like “Don’t be an easy target.” In a country that has seen much strife and turmoil and has only slowly come to a more reasonable overall existence, this is good advice, as the photographer Matthew O’Brien describes in his essay “Expect the Unexpected,” based on his own experiences in that country. As the gallery owner Juan Alberto Gaviria Vélez states in the introduction, the people of Colombia have a collective desire to live in peace one day. O’Brien’s overall approach focuses on the positive; this volume can be considered a love affair with Colombia’s people, who in general seem very welcoming and approachable.

O’Brien visited Colombia a number of times, as a student, photographer, and as a teacher of photography, during the years 2003-2013. He decided that the softer, somewhat dreamy look of vintage color Polaroid was the ideal vehicle for presenting a more optimistic view of a people striving for a better future. At one time, when there still was a more plentiful and affordable supply of these materials (manufacture of this specific Polaroid material ceased in 2008), he could also take a second shot and give it to his subjects on location as a memento. In any case, this medium requires a more considered approach.

The book presents many contrasts: country and desert scenes and seashore settings, cityscapes and many activities observed in all these varied locations, as the country itself is full of variety and contrasts – cities vs. countryside, jungles and deserts, agriculture and fishing, religion, the sensuous vs. the intellectual, the varieties of ethnic groups. The generously laid out and juxtaposed images are not always obvious as to their meaning; our interpretations can be given free reign, and perhaps that is a good thing, up to a point. On the other hand, I found O’Brien’s stories and anecdotes also very enlightening, especially regarding his personal experiences with the individuals depicted and referenced, and I would have liked even more of those personal and cultural notes to go with the images presented. The author is an excellent storyteller, both visually and verbally, and should not shy away from expanding the verbal explanations in a second edition or in future projects; it would be nice to have such further cultural enrichment to go with his images. The appendix contains a map of Colombia, as well as a complete list of the location and year each image was taken. One is reminded of the work of August Sander; this is a kind of “Colombians of the 21st Century” project, with the people portrayed facing the camera without pretense. The shots are well composed and pleasant to survey. The chronological presentation of images gives the book the feel of a family album, and perhaps that was the intent for this supportive portrayal of the people O’Brien encountered.

This volume is a refreshing and positive new view of a country about which we have received many decades of bad reports, and it allows us glimpses of all the good people who live there and are longing for a better future.

Gerhard Clausing

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