10×10 Japanese Photobooks

Posted: September 29th, 2012 | Filed under: books, Japan, photography | No Comments »

If I lived in NYC I’d definitely be going to 10×10 Japanese Photobook Reading Room at ICP. Ten experts will each select 10 Japanese photobooks for this three day pop-up from Sept. 28 to Sept. 30. Imagine that, 100 Japanese photobooks in one place. Sadly, I’m nearly three thousand miles away.

On the bright side, there’s also an online version with 10 different people selecting. Of course, looking at books online isn’t quite the same, but it’s an interesting exercise to see what people end up picking. It also got me thinking about what books I would choose given the same assignment. After a quick look through my rather meager library I found that coming up with 10 Japanese photobooks was harder than I thought. The first rule I had to do away with was not repeating books on other people’s lists. Even then, if I don’t include different books by the same photographer then getting to 10 means including some weaker books. I also didn’t limit myself solely to books published in Japan, but rather works by Japanese photographers. So without further ado, here are my 5 Japanese photobooks.

For me, any discussion of Japanese photobooks has to Solitude of Ravens (烏)  by Masahisa Fukase. There are several different versions of this book including the beautiful 2008 Rat Hole Gallery edition. I have the 1991 Bedford Arts edition which isn’t anything special when considering the book as an art object, but the body of work is incredibly powerful and will stick with you long after you have closed the book.

Solitude of Raven Cover

Solitude of Ravens

Solitude of Ravens

Next I’d choose Rinko Kawauchi’s Utatane (うたたね). Since I’m only including one book from each photographer, it came down to a choice between Utatane and Illuminance. Illuminance is a more beautiful physical object, but Utatane was my introduction to Kawauchi so it gets the sentimental edge. Really you can’t go wrong with any of her work. Each book is a Master’s class in sequencing.

Utatane by Rinko Kawauchi

Utatane by Rinko Kawauchi

Utatane by Rinko Kawauchi

Book three is Takuno by Daido Moriyama. Moriyama is probably best known for his grainy gritty urban shots that often appear in books full bleed. Takuno, conversely, is a journey through a more rural area and has only one image per spread with generous amounts of white around each image. It also reminds me of an area of Japan where I used to live.

Takuno by Daido Moriyama

Takuno by Daido Moriyama

Takuno by Daido Moriyama

Continuing with the generous negative space theme, my next choice is é by Masao Yamamoto. Here is a case, unlike Solitude of Ravens, where the book’s appeal comes more from the book as an art object than the photography alone. If these images were printed in a different way I don’t think I’d feel the same way about them, but this is where the book as an object rather than just a container really works.

e by Masao Yamamoto

e by Masao Yamamoto

My final choice is hi mi tsu ki chi by Daisuke Nishimiya. A delightful book about the physical spaces in which children create imaginary worlds. The book includes tiny hand drawn maps of the areas as well.

Himitsukichi by Daisuke Nishimiya

Himitsukichi by Daisuke Nishimiya

Himitsukichi by Daisuke Nishimiya

 

 

 


Indie Photobooks Recap

Posted: September 16th, 2012 | Filed under: books, photography, San Francisco | No Comments »

After a day listening to people talk about photography and making photobooks, I’m convinced I should be taking photographs and making books. If for no other reason than to document things I’m seeing or thinking about. I love photography, books and photography books so why shouldn’t I make one? Even if the book sucks, it’s so easy to physically make a book these days that there really isn’t a compelling reason not to make one.

That was the overwhelming feeling I had after spending the day at Carte Blanche on Valencia yesterday. CB  owner Gwen Lafage hosted an event built around a show of photobooks from the Indie Photobook Library curated by iPL founder Larissa Leclair and Dairius Himes, Assistant Director, Fraenkel Gallery and Co-Founder, Radius Books. The day began with a Photobook Meetup where a number of people whose work was in the show or had produced books talked about the book making process. Their was a wide range of experience from Noah Beil (Gone Quickly) who produces his own books (printing the photos, hand setting and printing the type, and sewing his own binding) to Lydia Panas, who had her book The Mark of Abel published by Kehrer Verlag. Whatever the experience, there seemed to be agreement that producing a photobook was never going to make you rich, but that it was important to the process of making and thinking about images, and a useful tool that opened up other opportunities.

The afternoon consisted of three panels discussions, The Art of the Artists Book, Publishing a Photobook, and Documentary Photographic Styles in the Early 21st Century.

Michael Light talks about his book

Books are Containers of Thinking
Kicking off the first panel Lauren Henkin talked about her various book projects and how she really saw them as a chance to collaborate with other artists, be they binders, printers, or poets. John DeMerritt talked about bookbinding and how, though much of his work is still based on 18th and 19th century craft, he’s incorporating things like laser matte cutting as well. I was happy to see that he had worked with Bay Area artist Nigel Poor on a case for her Washed Books project. Though he didn’t say it in so many words, I got the impression that he subscribed to the bookbinding equivalent of the Crystal Goblet theory, that the binding should only be a vessel for the content or ideas of the artist. The final speaker, Michael Light talked a bit about some of his trade books, but the show stopper was a giant thirty-six inch tall book of aerial shots, GREAT RIFT/SNAKE RIVER/SHOSHONE FALLS, in a beautiful case built by DeMerritt (seen above). It was Light who crystallized the theme of the session by calling books “containers of thinking.”

The Period at the End of the Sentence
All three of the panelists for the second panel, focusing on DIY and small press publishing, talked about how they ended up making books almost by accident. Patrick Aguilar talked about starting up Owl and Tiger Books right out of school producing books for people he knew. John Steck, Jr., of Make Book Blog, took a class on photobooks where they just talked about books and had to figure out for themselves how to actually make a book for the final project, and Daniel Milnor (Smogranch), Blurb Photographer at Large, started out making books as promotional pieces for his photography and found that it fed his need to document.  Though they are both working with the book as a form, Steck and Milnor differ in how they use it. Milnor doesn’t claim to be a book designer. He uses the book-making process as a way to work through ideas, making a book for every idea that comes to him. Steck sees the book as the “period at the end of the sentence.” The idea given final form as an almost sculptural object. However they use the book, each speaker from this panel has produced at least one book that is in the Indie Photobook Library and it’s great to see how a community, that was really made possible by the Internet, can move beyond the virtual and result in a bunch of people sitting in the same room looking at and talking about books.

“Photography is a profound corner that sits in between literature and film”
The final panel of the day, ostensibly titled Documentary Photographic Styles in the Early 21st Century, included Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin’s ethnographic work in Romania from The Color of Hay, Eric W. Carroll’s giant diazo prints of a walk in the woods (Blue Line of Woods), and Todd Hido’s fictional narratives created from real parts for a book that will come out Spring 2013. As you can tell, the term “documentary” was applied fairly loosely, though I tend to agree with Carroll’s point of view that all photography is a document of some kind in that it is a record of the interaction of light with some chemical or electrical process. The “profound corner” quote, sited by Hido and attributed to Lewis Baltz, came towards the end of the panel. It was a fitting closing thought because human beings are hard wired to create stories and anytime you have a group of images arranged in a sequence (as in a book) the mind is going to start creating narratives.

On the whole, a great event on photobooks and a reminder of how strong both photography and the book arts are in the Bay Area. Something I should take advantage of more often.


Black Apple

Posted: March 4th, 2012 | Filed under: books, photography | No Comments »

Black Apple by Thatcher Hullerman Cook

Of all the films I saw last year the one that had the most lasting impact on me was Bela Tarr’s Turin Horse. I’m not saying that it was the film that I most enjoyed, but it’s definitely the one that has stuck with me the longest. The visuals are so powerful and so bleak that they still come to mind months later. Thatcher Hullerman Cook’s Black Apple strikes me as being a visual relative of that film. Granted the setting is different and the cast of characters is larger in Black Apple, but I feel like there is the same sense of struggle in an inhospitable landscape.

Black Apple by Thatcher Hullerman Cook

In a relatively brief 33 black and white plates Black Apple shows Kyrgyzstan as a place where lives are lived in a way that can only be described as hardscrabble. Landscapes are vast, empty, often ruined places where people are mostly tiny and alone. Interiors, though much closer and more crowded, lack warmth causing people to frequently huddled together. And everywhere there is coal and snow. It’s a landscaped leeched of color. In addition to striking individual images I think the sequencing and use of white space is quite strong.

Black Apple by Thatcher Hullerman Cook

I also like the notes at the end of the book where Cook writes a few sentences, sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, about various images. For one image he writes, “After the fresh fallen snow, the sticky mud would cling to feet and hooves. After a deep freeze the ground became slippery, making travel, even for the familiar, seem alien. The village boys were left to negotiate this battle between mud and mule.” It’s this struggle and the poetry with which Cook captures it that will keep these images stuck in my brain like a mule in the mud.

To see all the images from Black Apple click here.

I got my copy at Carte Blanche a new gallery/bookstore in San Francisco whose aim is to make experiencing and buying photography more accessible. Check them out.

Finally, if you’ve gotten this far, I’ve started tweeting this year. Follow my shorter more frequent randomness @mpsilva


Book Browsing: Ueda Yoshihiko

Posted: July 3rd, 2010 | Filed under: books, collecting, Japan, museums, New York City, photography | No Comments »

On the final day of a trip to New York City last week I stopped in at Dashwood Books to peruse their excellent selection of photo books from Japan. I picked up a copy of hi mi tsu ki chi by Nishimiya Daisaku which I first heard about here on Little Brown Mushrooms. I also saw a couple of interesting volumes from University of Tokyo Press. What caught my attention about these two books was the design of the covers, full bleed images of items floating on black backgrounds with areas cut out creating a lower level for type. I later found that art direction for these books was provided by Hara Kenya, a well know designer and design philosopher (White, Designing Design) with photography by Ueda Yoshihiko. The subject of each book is museum specimens, one of birds from the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology and one of stone implements from the University of Tokyo Museum.

BIOSOPHIA of BIRDS, the larger of the two volumes 168 A4 (28 x 20.4 cm) pages, contains specimens of birds in various stages of unpacking. Some of the birds are on stands as if ready to be displayed, but most look like they have just been taken from storage, some bound and tagged, some still in their boxes. All are photographed on the same black background.

Biosophia of Birds
BIOSOPHIA of BIRDS

Biosophia of Birds
spreads from BIOSOPHIA of BIRDS

ONE HUNDRED STONEWARES, closer to square in format (24.2 x 23.4 cm) and a bit thicker at 186 pages, is a collection of stone tools photographed in a similar manner.

One Hundred Stonewares
ONE HUNDRED STONEWARES

One Hundred Stonewares
spreads from ONE HUNDRED STONEWARES

Both books were published in 2008 and in trying to find out more about them I came across what seems to be the first in the series, CHAMBER of CURIOSITIES, published two years earlier. Sadly I haven’t seen this one in person because it looks the most interesting. Rather than a typology of a single subject (birds or stone tools) it’s a collection of oddities from bones to butterflies.

Chamber of Curiosities
CHAMBER of CURIOSITIES

Chamber of Curiosities
Ueda Yoshihiko from CHAMBER of CURIOSITIES

The books I saw at Dashwood are beautifully produced and priced to match, but if you’re fond of museum collections or typologies they’re worth taking a look at given the chance. Also, to see more images from Ueda Yoshihiko’s other work, go here and here (text in Japanese).


War is Surreal

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Filed under: galleries, photography, San Francisco | 1 Comment »

The more that war or combat is portrayed in various media the less I feel like I will ever really be able to understand what the experience is like. If that is true, is it possible to truly prepare our service men and women for what they will face? They may be prepared with the best physical and technical training, but how can we prepare them psychologically for something that can’t really be simulated? And, if we can’t prepare them psychologically, how will we deal with the inevitable post traumatic stress some may encounter on their return home. These are all questions that came up as I view two well-paired bodies of work currently hanging at SFCamerawork dealing with different aspects of the prosecution of war.

Christopher Sims, Theater of War
Mother with Babies, Fort Polk, Louisiana from Theater of War
© Christopher Sims

The first, Theater of War by 2010 Baum Award Winner Christopher Sims, is a combination of portraiture and environmental images that shows us an aspect of soldiers preparation before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Sims shows us a glimpse of the fake villages the military creates and populates with “actors” to provide a stage upon which various scenarios are acted out. Despite the fact that, as Sims’ artist statement sates, “The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature,” the absurdity of a woman sitting in a folding chair spinning wool next to a RPG only makes me think there is no way to properly prepare soldiers for what they will encounter. It also highlights the near impossible task regular armed forces face when they’re up against irregular forces, especially in a populated area. Even if you take the military aspect out of it the images are representation of a simulation. They are one person’s edited view of an interpretation of a foreign place and people which calls into question, more so than usual, the veracity of photography.

Jennifer Karady, Soldiers'  Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan
Captain Elizabeth A. Condon, New York Army National Guard, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with daughter, Kate, and mother, Elizabeth, Troy, NY, June 2008 from Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan
© Jennifer Karady

In contrast to the careful preparation prior to deployment, the second body of work shows us the aftermath of deployment, the psychological damage, and the sometimes faulty support system that soldiers face on their return to the US. Jennifer Karady‘s Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan show soldiers reenacting  traumatic situations from their deployment, but in their home setting, often with friends or family members in the scene as well. Though perhaps not as intricately staged as Gregory Crewdson’s work, I feel that Karady’s work is more immediate. By that I mean that though both artists construct staged narratives replete with psychological drama, I think of Crewdson’s work as being more removed and clinical, lacking the emotional weight of Karady’s work. A lot of that may have to do with being able to read the soldiers’ recounted descriptions of what they were feeling or the situations they were reenacting. Yet even before I read the accounts, I looked at the images and wanted to learn more about the people pictured. Not something I often feel with Crewdson’s work.

Gregory Crewdson, Twilight
from Twilight
© Gregory Crewdson

All in all, a really smart paring of two thought provoking bodies of work. Both are up through the first week in August, so if you’re in San Francisco this summer, check out the show.


Travelogue(s)

Posted: January 7th, 2010 | Filed under: books, movies, photography | 1 Comment »

Telling a story is both easier and more difficult than it has ever been before. Easier because there are any number of ways to get your story out in front of a large audience. More difficult because the number of stories out there is so great that it’s easy for yours to get lost. So whether you’re telling a tale of illegally crossing the border into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan or taking a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate your 40th birthday it has to be well told.

In 1986 the photographer Didier Lefèvre went into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan for the first time while covering a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mission. Of the four thousand frames he exposed only six images were initially published. Thirteen years later his friend Emmanuel Guibert suggested they collaborate on publishing the story of Lefèvre’s journey and, with the help of Frédéric Lemercier, Le Photographe was published in France in three volumes between 2003 and 2006. In 2009 the English version, The Photographer, was published in one large volume by First Second.

The Photographer
The Photographer, p. 74

Being based on actual events I don’t know if you would call it a graphic novel, but the illustration drives the bulk of the narrative with Lefèvre’s photographs working as accents. It’s similar to, though not quite as powerful as, the film Waltz with Bashir and its shift from animation to photographic images. In the film’s case, the change takes place at the end to maximize impact while in The Photographer Lefèvre’s images are sprinkled throughout allowing the viewer places to rest and contemplate. I also enjoyed how, in many places, we’re given the equivalent of a contact sheet where we can see a sequence of shots and the one that has been selected (or discarded). Seeing the contact sheets sometimes gives you a better idea of what the photographer is looking for. Another example that comes to mind is the Diane Arbus shot of the boy with the toy hand grenade in Central Park. Looking at the contact sheet the boy looks fairly normal in most of the shots, but the in the image she chose the boy looks mentally unbalanced. I don’t pretend to know why Arbus chose that particular shot, but, for me, seeing the shots she didn’t choose make that image all the more interesting.

Diane Arbus contact sheet
Diane Arbus contact sheet

To be perfectly honest, I doubt I’d like The Photographer as much if it were just Lefèvre’s photographs. There is something about the combination of photos and illustration, and even the size and heft of the book (11.7 by 9.4 in., an inch thick, and over 2 lbs.), that makes it appealing. Though the line work is heavier and looser, the drawing style strikes me as Tintinesque. There’s a similar use of color and sense of adventure. Add to this Afghanistan being in the news a lot lately and I found myself devouring it in large chunks.

Finally, the use of the black and white reportage reminded me of something from Salman Rushdie’s novel Fury. He (or his character) found it curious that black and white photography, “the most unreal of processes,” now stood for “realism, integrity and art”. That may have been true when Rushdie originally wrote those words, or when Lefèvre shot the photos, but I wonder if today the ubiquity of color photography hasn’t left black and white photography seeming dated or, at the very least, self-consciously arty.

On a lighter note, Alec Soth’s slideshow of a trip to Las Vegas for his 40th birthday is another example of the flexibility of story telling media. People are more willing to experiment with ways of telling a story. In this case Soth, normally a still photographer, is experimenting with an A/V presentation.

One of the great things about Soth’s slideshow (other than the actual images) is how self-contained and almost circular the narrative is. It begins with him wanting to buy a limited edition of Bukowski poetry. He can’t afford the book, so being in Vegas, he tries gambling to raise the money. You can probably guess how that turns out. But don’t despair, he turns the experience into a piece of art that references both Vegas and a bit of poetry from the unattainable volume which he then sells for the price of said volume. Genius.


More Dollar Signs

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Filed under: art, collecting, photography, San Francisco | No Comments »

I went to last Saturday’s SFCamerawork auction expecting to see a lot of photos being sold below the low estimate which is pretty much what happened. Of the 151 lots, 114 sold for below the low estimate, 33 sold within the range in the catalog, and only 4 exceeded the high estimate. As I said, this is what I expected given the state of the economy. What I didn’t expect was, when I went back and looked at my notes from the last auction I attended, that those numbers were roughly the same distribution as in 2006.

Though there were more lots in 2006, 180  to Saturday’s 151,  the percentage of pieces that sold for below the low estimate was actually greater 78% to 75%. There were more sold above the high estimate in 2006, 7% to 3%, but there were also fewer sold within the estimate range, 15% to 22%. It makes me wonder how they come up with their estimates. Does Camerawork come up with the estimates or are they provided by the person who donates the work? In Camerawork’s case it’s probably in their best interest to have the estimate high so that the buyer will feel more inclined to bid if they think they are getting a piece for within or below an estimate. With the donors, especially if it is a gallery representing the artist or the artist themselves, then it gets a bit trickier. You want the work to go for as much as possible, but you don’t want it to go for under the estimate and possibly effect future prices. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure that this auction has that much influence on prices.

The four pieces that sold for above the catalog’s high estimate were Richard Gilles’ Clement Ave. & Oak Street, Ann Hamilton’s book weight (human carriage), Dinh Q. Le’s Untitled, and Hank Willis Thomas’ Who Can Say No To A Beautiful Brunette?. The Dinh Q. Le actually went for $12,000 on an estimate of $5000/$8000 establishing a new record (according to the auctioneer) for a piece sold at a Camerawork auction.

Dinh Q. Le, Untitled, 2004
Dinh Q. Le, Untitled, 2004

I’m missing data from 2007 and 2008, but Le’s work seems to be on the rise in terms of popularity. In 2003 a piece estimated at $850/$1000 sold for $1100. In 2004, on the same estimate a piece sold for $2600. In 2005, for a work the same size as 2004, the estimate moved up to $4500/$5500 and the work sold for $3200. Though it didn’t meet the estimate there was still an increase in the price reached compared to the previous year. The work on offer this year was the same size as both 2004 and 2005 and again the estimate had moved up and was exceeded. The bidding can down to two particular bidders. The winning bidder also bought lots from John Collier, Flor Garduno, Todd Hido, Pirkle Jones, Marion Post Walcott and Edward Weston. I don’t know if the winning buyer was a dealer or collector, but the underbidder was a dealer, who could have been bidding for a client, his gallery, or himself.

In general the lots are quite affordable. Whether it was a boom year like 2005 or a bust year like this year a majority of the lots went for $500 or less (roughly 60% in 2006 and just over 50% in 2009). So, if you are looking for affordable art or just want to watch the show, the SFCamerawork auction is a good place to start.

I also mentioned Sarah Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World in my last post and wanted to follow up with a mention of the special report on the art market that she co-wrote with Fiammetta Rocco in the Nov. 28th–Dec 4th of the Economist. The report considers the art market in light of the current economic conditions and addresses issues like primary vs. secondary markets, Andy Warhol as a “bellwether”, and the flow of Chinese art back to China. It’s worth checking out as either an addition to the book that deals with more current events or as an introduction to the topic.


Free-range

Posted: December 3rd, 2008 | Filed under: books, magazines, photography | No Comments »

As with many residents of the United States last week my thoughts turned to food. The most obvious reason being Thanksgiving, but there was also the audio version of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma on the long drive to and from our meal in Southern California. In hindsight it may not have been the best choice as it had me calculating the corn content of the Thanksgiving dinner between bites. For those who haven’t read or listened to the book, Pollan traces four meals from their origin to his table and in the first section (the one we listened to on the drive) the path he takes is through the industrial food system which centers around corn, a path that ends at the pinnacle (or nadir depending on your point of view) of the industrial food system, the fast food meal.

Tessa Bunney: Chickens
Tessa Bunney from Hand to Mouth

It’s seems like more than a coincidence that the latest issue of Daylight Magazine, which I picked up before the trip, also focuses on agriculture. In it Peter Menzel’s images of feed lots and turkeys in California are compelling and related perfectly to the season, the location (driving through huge monocultures), and themes in Pollan’s book, but it was Tessa Bunney‘s work in the Romanian Carpathian mountains that I keep coming back to. I think they play into the same pastoral ideal that Pollan discusses that, even though I grew up on a small farm, I can’t help being seduced by. The idea of an idyllic life of simplicity lived in harmony with nature that conveniently leaves out all the work that’s involved and the nearly impossible situations the small farmer faces in the modern consumer culture.

Tessa Bunney: Haymaking
Tessa Bunney from Hand to Mouth

Tessa Bunney: Sheepfold
Tessa Bunney from Hand to Mouth


Books, Libraries, and Photography

Posted: March 28th, 2008 | Filed under: books, photography | No Comments »

The following post was started quite some time ago, but sat waiting to be finished as life intervened and my focus shifted from talking about and making art to paying my rent. Now that I’ve regained a semblance of normalcy, it’s time to return to my much neglected blog.

A while back a writer friend of mine suggested I should read Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, a book about the experiences in reading and, by extension books. It had come up as part of a discussion of our mutual, if slightly differing, love of books. To use Fadiman’s terms my friend’s love of books tends towards the carnal, consuming both their soul (the words and ideas) and their body (annotating pages, breaking spines) while mine tends toward a courtly love where, in addition to appreciating the words, the book as an object is something to be venerated. As with most things, the middle ground is more populous than either extreme and though I may choose to copy passages of interest into a notebook rather than marking the original text I’m sure Ms. Fadiman would be pleased to know that a copy of her book lies spine up, pages splayed on my desk, paused in the reading, rather than stopped.

Candida Höfer: Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Lengua Madrid
Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Lengua Madrid, Candida Höfer

The point I am gradually coming to is that there is something about the book as an object that appeals to me. So much so that I have tried to capture, with limited success, this fascination on film (see group 04 in the photography section of the main website). Many of the photos were shot at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, a place created in defense of the activity of browsing. For those interested, an article on the library appeared in the May 2007 issue of Harper’s and was accompanied by images by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin. If you appreciate a good library, you should also check out the series of library photographs by Candida Höfer (though her images tend to be more about the spaces than the books).

Abelardo Morell: Thought Book, 2001
Thought Book, 2001, Abelardo Morell

When considering books as a subject for photography many people reference Abelardo Morell. I have to admit I also associated Morell with his Book of Books (which I finally picked up at Green Apple Books recently) and his camera obscura work. I also thought of him as working exclusively in black and white. In January, however, I saw him speak and was surprised to see a range of work from early street photography to his most recent experiments with making camera-less images and even shooting in color.

Thomas M. Allen: Upshot, 2003
Upshot, 2003, Thomas M. Allen

One of the reasons people probably photograph books is that they are so convenient, they’re everywhere. It was probably a rainy day and Thomas M. Allen first started cutting up and photographing the pulp novels that ended up in his book Uncovered. There is also something romantic about books, the accumulation of knowledge they symbolizes or the possible worlds and stories they hold between their covers. Their influence reaches beyond their pages, shaping the way people see the world. Interacting with books from an early age can leave a lasting impression as I imagine it did with Marc Joseph. His series New and Used, a series of used book and record shops, shows a love for these objects, the search for and collection of them, and the life they lead when their original owners have given them up.

Something caused all these artists to consider either the book itself or the life of books. So, though many have proclaimed the death of print, books still seem to hold some cultural resonance. Will there ever be a time when people will look at these varied portrayals and not recognize books? It seems more likely that images of books will become quaint, like pictures of rotary phones, but I doubt they will ever be unreadable.


Still Life with Dead Animal

Posted: November 14th, 2007 | Filed under: books, galleries, museums, New York City, photography | 1 Comment »

On a recent trip to NYC I went to the Met to see the show of Dutch paintings from “The Age of Rembrandt”. First of all, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Met and I’d forgotten how huge the place is. It also now includes a new gallery for modern (since 1960) photography, but I was really there to see the paintings.

Jan Weenix: Falconer's Bag
Falconer’s Bag, 1695, Jan Weenix from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last spring I saw Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and it knocked me out. I know, I know, Vermeer is one of those artists whose work is so well known that it’s easy to feel blasé about the whole thing, but seeing that particular painting in person (even more so than the Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in the Hague) was a memorable experience. So I was looking forward to seeing the five Vermeers that the Met has as well as any still life that might be there. On the whole the show was quite good, though I was disappointed that there were only a limited number of still lifes among the many portraits and landscapes and the Vermeers weren’t quite up to the Kitchen Maid. Maybe my expectations were too high. Anyway, that sets the context for the work of another artist I saw later that day.

While thumbing through a copy of Photograph at a gallery in Chelsea I came across a photograph that reminded me of the Dutch still lifes, but instead of the usual rabbit or game bird this image contained a wallaby. Needless to say I was intrigued, so I made a point of seeing the images in person.

Drew: Wallaby with Tarpaulin
Wallaby with Tarpaulin, 2006, Marian Drew

The artist’s name is Marian Drew and she finds these subjects by the side of the road in her native Australia. The gallery notes say that, opposed to the bounty portrayed in traditional still lifes, her images are a commentary on human wastefulness and disregard for wild animals. I don’t know that I get the wasteful aspect of it because the images themselves are generally quite minimal, seldom is the table overflowing. I do however see roadkill a comment on the intersection of the wild and the developed, the often disastrous consequences of that intersection, habitat loss, etc. Despite the somewhat gruesome subject matter there are some wonderful images.

Drew: Wombat with Watermelon
Wombat with Watermelon, 2005, Marian Drew

That said, seeing the images in person there was something I hadn’t noticed in the smaller image in the gallery guide. In many of the images there was a halo around the objects on the table. A kind of spotlight effect that I found distracting. I feel her best images are the ones where this effect isn’t as strongly evident. Later I learned from the gallerist that the effect was due to the fact that Drew photographs these images in complete darkness and illuminates the objects with a “torch”. She doesn’t know herself exactly how the lighting is going to turn out until she sees the image. Personally, I would rather have the images lit with a more natural light. I don’t know that her method adds anything to her intended meaning. It would be interesting to know the reasoning behind shooting the images in this way.

The intersection of man and animal (and being in NYC) got me thinking about Alessandra Sanguinetti’s from On the Sixth Day. I saw some of those images at the ICP show Ecotopia last year and finally got around to buying her book at Dashwood Books (an excellent shop with a very strong section of Japanese photography) the same day I went to see the Drew show. One of the images from the series is also a still life, though much more naturalistic than either Drew’s work or the Dutch paintings.

Alessandra Sanguinetti: Still Life
Still Life from On the Sixth Day, Alessandra Sanguinetti

Beyond the visual difference there is also a considerable difference in the image’s meaning. Rather than the wastefulness and disregard for the natural world portrayed in Drew’s images Sanguinetti was photographing subsistence farmers in Argentina who are intimately linked with their surroundings.

For anyone who hasn’t seen On the Sixth Day, I highly recommend it. It is a visual tour de force and will definitely make you think about the origin of the piece of meat on your plate.