30 December 2012

Good Reads - 2012

Out of the box. Chelbin, Casaca, Gaudiani, Briechle, Aftermath, Moukhin, Johansson, Ventura, Steacy, Asnin
In my role as a book reviewer and self-directed photography observer I increasingly gravitate toward publications that don't just please, amuse, or reinforce my preconceptions of what constitutes a good photography book. I don't feel qualified to make up a top ten list; to do so would be to suggest that I've glimpsed a large-enough percentage of the year's releases to judge which are the most accomplished or outstanding compared to the rest of the year's field. I'm not sure how anyone even finds the time to open enough packages to do that these days; how many new titles has the image-publishing world brought to our attention this year? I feel like I saw scarcely enough 2012 releases to retain "browser" status, let alone serve as a year-in-review, photo-bibliophile arbiter.

I think Alec Soth probably has a decent handle on the market, given all the books people send him. I found confirmation, befuddlement (so much I'd not heard of, let alone read), and even inspiration (Juergen Teller, what a hoot!) from his recently released list. I have cavils and quibbles with some of the titles on his list that I have looked through; in the case of Anthony Hernandez' Rodeo Drive, 1984 my feeling was one of disappointment that it wasn't better. I'd carried a fascination with that work since first seeing it in Aperture, circa 1985, and wanted to have a better re-encounter with it.

I'm enthusiastically with Alec in his admiration for Ron Jude's Lick Creek Line and J Carrier's Elementary Calculus; they accrue meaning and implication with every reading. And I do mean reading, or whatever one calls the closest attention one can give to photography's non-linear narratives--glancing through these books (especially from back to front) scarcely scratches their accomplishment.

What I want to do in re:photographica, year-round, is draw attention to books (images, themes, exhibitions, photo-phenomena, etc.) that move me. New slants on the medium that have shown me something either in or within photographs I wasn't sure I needed, or would ever be likely, to see. Images and texts that get under my skin, that won't leave me alone, that claim or alter an enduring chunk of my visual memory. Like Hernandez' views of over-processed, narcissists in the Rodeo Drive consumer ecosystem, with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. And always minding the caveat that great photographs don't necessarily make great books.

Photographs Not Taken  Edited by Will Steacy (Daylight)
Photocritic International A. D. Coleman (Web log)
The absence of realized images in the former and the dominance of considered ethics/politics in the latter characterize these good reads. Although most photographers do better writing with light than with words, there must be something about the "ones that got away" or were decided against that prompt eloquence. Coleman, for anyone who doesn't know, is one of photography's great agonistes. For over forty years he has served as a critic, in the truest sense of that word, on behalf of photography's better angels. His observations will always stir feelings in me, whether my head is nodding in agreement or shaking in opposition.

Deutschland Gerry Johansson (MACK)
A brilliant idea, executed with straightforward precision. An alphabetical list of German cities, each represented by name and one image. Illustrations tipped on to front and back covers. No dustjacket. Gorgeous, clean, and conceptually hefty, Deutschland makes me eager to seek out this Swedish photographer's previous books.

Blue Mud Swamp Filipe Casaca (Self-published)
As lush as the Johansson is austere; jacket-less hard cover with dark blue felt and perspective-bending view of tracked mud glued to the front. Comparable in its muteness, Casaca's book beguiles with surreal, faintly apocalyptic impressions of a modern China. The analogy, and an implied question of accuracy, beckons--Germany : Swedish eyes :: China : Portuguese

War is Only Half the Story, Vol. 5 (The Aftermath Project)
I have reviewed two earlier volumes of this sad chronicle of man's eternal inhumanity to man. I can't sufficiently stress its importance, but I will continue to cite it until its reason for being fades. WIIGF? You know the answer. 

Between Destinations Candace Plummer Gaudiani (Kehrer)
Over several years I have seen Gaudiani's work evolve and expand in four series related to views from moving trains. I was never sure, though, how it could possibly become a book. Guadiani found just the right team in San Francisco; Martin Venezky's Appetite Engineers performed the miracle of replicating the flickering transience of these images while still respecting the case they make for the transformation of American landscape. Brava, Candace.
The Automaton Paolo Ventura (Dewi Lewis)
I wrote about this for photo-eye online earlier this year. And I still find it moving, both wondrous and unsettling. It lasts.

My Moscow Igor Moukhin (Schilt)
A sprawling and alluring mess of a book, veering from sublime to repulsive, but rife with the energy of an insider both recording and experiencing the uneasy maturation of a formerly repressive society. There is skill here, though it takes a back seat to testimony and exuberance. To edit this more strictly would be to dilute its compulsive thrust.

Uncle Charlie Marc Asnin (Contrasto)
Like Moukhin, Asnin is emotionally enmeshed with his subject. And like Moukhin's book, Asnin's teems with an overabundance of descriptive wealth, from the 30 years of photographs to the edited and insinuatingly typeset conversations between the photographer and his tough-guy uncle. A remarkable hybrid view into the life of a troubled soul.

Gary Briechle Photographs Gary Briechle (Twin Palms)
From out of the blue this sequence of reproductions of poured emulsions opened on my table; I was unprepared for the impressions they made on me. And continue to make. This is one of those great photo-books that allows you to experience individual images as well as appreciate Twin Palms' typically outstanding editorial work that fashions a page-by-page evolution, one image segueing into the next to create an acutely detailed yet ultimately inconclusive narrative. You couldn't tell a story like this without photographs, and you couldn't tell the story these photographs tell with words.

Sailboats and Swans Michal Chelbin (Twin Palms)
Chelbin showed her work at the PRC in Boston shortly after I arrived there. I had heard about the work in prisons that we weren't able to show. I think that work, which shows up in this new volume, probes into dark areas of juvenile dysfunction that we aren't meant to experience in everyday life. Not to sound paranoid, but I find these imprisoned youth extremely unsettling, and have a hard time grasping what it must have been like to make these unusually tender portraits in such harsh circumstances. Chelbin has a singular purpose, and photographing may make her invincible.

I have two good reads to cover in separate posts. But I needed to get this one done first; all that pressure, time running out, etc etc. Stay tuned for Peckerwood revisited and two books by Lewis Koch.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Link to A. D. Coleman's Photocritic International

Links to photography book lists:

06 November 2012

WIIGF? Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

On Veterans Day 2012, the MFAH debuts an unprecedented exhibition exploring the experience of war through the eyes of photographers. The exhibition gathers together nearly 500 objects, including photographs, books, magazines, albums, and photographic equipment.
Images recorded by more than 280 photographers, from 28 nations, span 6 continents and more than 165 years, from the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s to present-day conflicts. Iconic photographs as well as previously unknown images are featured, taken by military photographers, commercial photographers (portrait and photojournalist), amateurs, and artists.
The exhibition examines the relationship between war and photography, exploring the types of photographs created during wartime, as well as by whom and for whom. Rather than being organized chronologically, or as a survey of 'greatest hits,' the images are arranged to show the progression of war: from the acts that instigate armed conflict to 'the fight,' to victory and defeat, and photos that memorialize a war, its combatants, and its victims. Portraits of servicemen, military and political leaders, and civilians are a consistent presence.
Accompanying the show is a 600-page illustrated catalogue featuring interviews and essays by curators, scholars, and military historians. After the Houston premiere, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY travels to the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; and the Brooklyn Museum.
[From the MFAH web site]

The exhibition, assembled by the MFAH photography team--Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, Will Michels, photographer and Glassell School of Art instructor, and Natalie Zelt, curatorial assistant for photography--opens November 11 and runs until February 3.

I was alerted to this exhibition by an electronic news release from FotoFest which points out that MFAH has both the major show and two auxiliary shows, and there's a fourth at Houston Center for Photography (Soldier, At Ease, featuring Louie Palu, Erin Trieb, and the late Tim Hetherington; link to HCP web site). 

Plus, the museum is hosting a massive signing event in conjunction with the opening and the exhibition catalogue; some two dozen photographers, curators, and writers will be at MFAH on Saturday 11/10 to sign both the museum tome and their own publications.

Humans have an appetite for war that photography feeds. At best, collecting images in this omnibus fashion should incite protest and heighten our awareness of enduring injustice in the constant default to violence implied by war. What is war photography good for, if not this, if not to serve as a mnemonic compendium of our most abject failing as humans? Don't the most conscientious war photographers wish themselves out of a job? 

21 October 2012

A blogger's license

License to blog
I like using the blog for something purposeful. Sometimes I envision this space as a bulletin board, where I tack up postcards or random items of interest whose only connection is my scattered mentality. Sometimes the blog serves as a spotlight or magnifying glass, to highlight a topic or an individual artist.

But what if the blog could function as a curatorial space? I don't have walls on an on-going basis, or a budget to import, frame, hang, and publicize (or publish, in the quasi-gallery of ink on paper), but I can use the virtual display space to draw images together and present them to the public. I know, I know, this is all so old-hat, you correctly remind me that I needn't bother dwelling on metastructural issues like this. Just bear with me as I  rationalize a new venture. New at least for me.

In my posts tagged "WIIGF" I highlight projects and artists providing an answer to the unanswerable question about war, which is...What Is It Good For? As answered by Edwin Starr in 1970, in lyrics by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong: "Absolutely nothin'." But I'm not so sure that absolutely nothing of value emerges in the wake of war. (Side note: I quoted this emphatic song in a recent photo-eye review of The Aftermath Project's fourth volume of War is Only Half the Story, further tribute to the fact that there are meaningful, albeit at times mournful and anguishing, products of conflict.)

I don't know that the work I point to was specifically intended to answer this question, or that the responsible image-makers even imagine a positive end-product to war. For me, the work is that war-generated entity. Because of war, this work exists. We are blessed by its insightful presence, even though we would prefer to live in a world which does not inspire such work. (Just like war photographers, Jim Nachtwey et al., would prefer to have to do different work.)

GREENER is a similar conceit, though more positivist in its program. What I will do under this banner is present work that celebrates a world recovering its more natural, greener, organic self. Over the years I've been increasingly drawn to work that pushes, nudges, subtly advances an agenda; the agenda I favor is one that has all of us thinking about things we do that can help sustain the planet rather than exploit it.

I will start my GREENER program in the next few days. Take a look, and let me know if there are projects I should know about.

p.s. I know that my Prius is still a car, but as a hybrid it's greener--and stingier with gas--than most. Hence the vanity plate.

04 April 2012

FotoFest 2012 | Chapter VIII: Tuesday Afternoon

Leah Sobsey, Rhyolite, NV, from the series Nothing Is As It Seems link

Seeing through barriers

Inside or outside? A question that is spatial, cultural, intellectual, and emotional. Finished up my stint with some intriguing social observers and formalists.
  • Jane Paradise - a photographer I curated on the PRC web site (Not Quite Strangers on NEO, October 2010) - wanted to get my help in reconsidering that edit of her work, whether she could refocus those images on human experiences of museum spaces 
  • Frederic Weber - sick, couldn't make it to Houston, but sent his wife with his startling, and startlingly simple, color prints that concentrate on children's art and visions  link
  • Sylwia Kowalczyk - a Pole living in Edinborough - portraits that address ethnicity in its fine details - in doing the portraits Sylwia creates a firmer footing for herself in this very different place  link
  • Lori Pond - Lori showed the only phone camera photos I saw, which was something of a surprise - when I asked if she used Instagram, she made it clear, from a list of apps and software I've never heard of, that her goal is prints, not dissemination via the Internet as so many of us are - and the prints were quite fascinating, part of an attractive portfolio that addressed a variety of landscape issues  link
  • Don Glentzer - one of the most challenging portfolios I reviewed, because its insistence on the flattest of materials, like ink on glass, made the optics of his project Point of Chance as thin as a membrane  link

FotoFest 2012 | Chapter VII: Tuesday Morning

Johanna Evans-Colley, Legs, Miami, 2011  link

 Blending visions

Joined by student observer Tom Turner (pursuing his MFA at Texas Tech University) on the last day of the 2012 Meeting Place reviews. He behaved himself very well, though he did abandon me for one session after lunch to go and photograph room 2016 after I packed and checked out; apparently his current project involves just such post-guest, pre-housekeeping rooms. Keep your eyes open for a photo of shoes in a bathroom wastebasket.
  • Christopher Schneberger – the only portfolio I saw that included 3-D imagery, employed to give extra credibility to a contrived story about Frances Naylor, a legless girl who learns to levitate – a keen sense of historic syntax helps Chris fashion credible narratives, including a contemporary tale of a domestic ghost, a young girl from the early 20th century visible only in reflections  link
  • Vivian Keulards – a Dutch view of America, limited in time to about 3 years and set in area code 80439 (Denver vicinity) – what she records are memories she doesn’t trust her mind to recollect – largely interactions with people whose ties to place are both remarkable and mundane but somehow distinctive  link
  • K.K. (Kim) DePaul – a stunning story of family secrets and the impact on the individual, told in fragments of archival materials, self-portraits, collage, and writing  link to video about project

FotoFest 2012 | Chapter VI: Monday Afternoon