31 January 2013

Cultism! Ice! The New Yorker!

I normally try to refrain from this kind of post – e.g. look-at-this-cool-thing-I-like – but given the dearth of other kinds of posting recently, I probably ought not to be so snooty, eh?

I just came across the post below, and photo above, on The New Yorker's '
Photo Booth' blog (which I really enjoy anyway) and thought I would share it for anyone who's interested. I can't lie - the photos here are lovely, but this story mostly caught my eye due to its overlap with some of my bizarre niche interests e.g. remote religious communities and religious conversion (Thomas Merton's 'The Seven Storey Mountain', anyone?) and cold wildernesses..  Each to her own.


Anyway, enjoy -
Davide Monteleone is the photographer and this project documents a religious community, The Vissarionites, founded in 1990 by Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop and making their home now in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. The photos document daily life in the community, but 'daily life' seems too flat a description of a routine that involves, according to these photos, religious procession, communal ecstasy and children's ballet class. The photos are detailed and sensitive and, as you can see above, beautifully dream-like..

20 January 2013

The Bitter Years: Edward Steichen and the Farm Security Administration Photographs

Hi all - apologies for the delayed posting. I was hoping to put up a book review I wrote for Hotshoe magazine but realised that the print publication is still out, so wanted to wait until it's off the shelves before putting it up here for free. Obviously, the shock of this realisation put me out for a few days.. (I'm actually moving house - hope to be back up to whatever speed I have by February!)
Anyway, here instead is a recent review of The Bitter Years: Edward Steichen and the Farm Security Administration Photographs that I wrote for photo-eye. That website also has a '2012: The Best Books' feature up at the moment, which is definitely worth taking a look at. I just had a quick browse and saw two great-looking books – Cristina de Middel's The Afronauts (which has also been recommended to me by a trustworthy friend) and Ron Jude's Lick Creek Line – and reminded myself to check out Will Steacy's Down These Mean Streets. Mr Steacy was a contributor to Aperture Foundation's NYC Green Cart Commission while I was a humble intern there, and is a great photographer as well as an all-round nice guy, so definitely hoping to get a look at his book. Anyway, happy reading!

In a close wooden shack - strewn with clothing and bedding, door open to the elements - a small family are seated, the mother looking down at her barely clothed toddler, while her son leans, sullen, against the mattress that is packed between the walls. There is, perhaps, an atmosphere of resistance in this image, the large bed forming a barrier that cuts across the composition and highlights the photographer’s awkward presence in what is patently a cramped, private space. Both children turn their shoulders to the camera, as if rejecting the documentarian’s gaze. One might equally argue, however, that Carl Mydans photograph – which occurs early in The Bitter Years - has a tender, if not essentially hopeful, undertone. Light streams in between the boards of the walls, lending the gentle mother figure a quite literal aura of calm, her softly inclined head recalling the Madonna figures of religious painting.
Whichever way you read the image, it is clear that human affect is at its centre, thematically and formally. Whether you see resilience or resistance, human responses to hardship are central to this and, indeed, to the majority of the photographs in The Bitter Years, a book which will appeal to all those with an interest in the work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) – the photographic archive of which documents a vast swathe of North American life during the worst years of the Great Depression - and its star photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. It is worth stressing this humanistic, even sentimentalising, emphasis, however, as this book is emphatically ‘a’, rather than ‘the’, history of the FSA and its archive.

In particular, The Bitter Years is the story of MoMA’s seminal exhibition of the same title, curated by Edward Steichen and held in 1962, just after the photographer’s tenure as Director of Photography at this institution had come to an end. As a lengthy note to the reader explains, the editors of this publication have gone to great lengths to reproduce the experience of the exhibition as closely as possible in book form, from reproducing marks and damage as they appear in the actual prints exhibited, to replicating Steichen’s idiosyncratic, almost magazine-like, hang for the show. Steichen - as Arianne Pollet points out in one of the introductory essays to this book - was shaped as a curator by his experience in magazine publishing (he had been director of photography at both Vogue and Vanity Fair previous to joining MoMA) and his editorial training gave him a predilection for ‘monumental installations that exploited the reproducibility, the theatricality and the flexibility of the photographic image’. This treatment gives the book, at least, a variety and readability that might not inhere in a more sombre, ‘respectful’ treatment of these images.

However, as Pollet and several other of the writers featured here point out, Steichen’s ‘monumentalizing’ and emphatic vision works to the exclusion of many strands of the complete FSA archive (which comprises nearly 200,000 individual images, as opposed to the 208 shown here). He favoured portrait work to an overwhelming degree, excluding a great deal of landscape photography, for example, from 'The Bitter Years' exhibition. Nor was he afraid to manipulate his source material by reframing and cropping, as is illustrated by several, very interesting, ‘before-and-after’ shots included here.

Roy Stryker, another towering figure in the history of the FSA, had reservations about Steichen’s selection, arguing that it placed ‘too much emphasis on human suffering’, and you may find yourself occasionally questioning the relevance, and impact, of repeated portraits that take dignified, unquestioning economic and personal suffering as their implicit subject, however masterly they may be (Walker Evans’ ‘Alabama cotton tenant farmer wife’). However, one advantage of this book’s emphasis on exhibition historiography and context, is that it attunes the reader to the historical circumstances in which these emotionally weighted photographs have been used (in Steichen’s case, arguably as part of a near-propagandistic, institutional pro-war effort at the time of exhibition) and makes their reading a more carefully considered process.

It is also worth noting that the photographs collected here, whatever their bias, are beautiful; thoughtful and informative both.  The ‘Houses’ section is a fascinating glimpse, not only into regional architecture and building skills, but into the bare compositional, bones of the architectural photograph. Many individual photos in the ‘Sharecroppers’ section of the book, such as Dorothea Lange’s group shot of three female generations of a sharecropper family, provide startling psychological insight into family groups and transcend their strictly anthropological origins to communicate not only the character of families, but that of ‘family’ in straitened circumstances.

This publication marks the installation of ‘The Bitter Years’ as a permanent exhibit at Chateau d’Eau in Dudelange and is perhaps a tad reverential both of this event and its documentary origins. However, as an introduction to the work of the FSA and one of its greatest champions, it is an excellent and thought-provoking collection.

This review was originally published in photo-eye magazine, 27th December 2012, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from The Bitter Years. Published by D.A.P., 2012.

7 January 2013

As promised!

Happy New Year everyone! Three blog posts coming up this week - just some work that I did before Christmas, starting with the following review of Sophie Calle's The Address Book for photo-eye magazine. Then I PROMISE some new, original content is coming..

‘I found an address book on the Rue des Martyrs. I decided to photocopy the contents before sending it back anonymously to its owner, whose address is inscribed on the endpaper. I will contact the people whose names are noted down… Thus, I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances.’ Sophie Calle

It is not often that one can honestly describe a photobook as ‘a page-turner’, however beautiful or well-designed it might be. Yet I found myself taking this small, modest volume out on the tube - snatching the opportunity to read another entry - or picking it up in the middle of reading another book, to find out what might next be revealed about film-maker ‘Pierre D’, the unsuspecting subject of Calle’s controversial investigation.

The Address Book is structured in a particularly appealing way; the bite-sized, journalistic, yet periodically lyrical, texts here were originally published as a daily column in French newspaper Libération, appearing from 23 August – 4 September 1983, and retain their snappy, anecdotal appeal even in translation. These short, diaristic entries are digestible and fascinating in themselves, but it is their relationship with the images in the book that is the most engaging part of the work. For the most part, these are black-and-white photographs of street scenes, rooms, objects and, very occasionally, people – uncaptioned and unattributed. The single exception is a colour reproduction of Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1909), which, it is revealed on the following page, relates to a postcard sent by Pierre to a friend in Paris (‘What a masterpiece. See you soon, Pierre.’) Characteristically, the image and text are not placed in such emphatically close relation that you can shirk or avoid inspecting the image closely when it first appears.

This image is, however, exceptional in that it relates so directly and explicably to Calle’s text and her encounters with various of Pierre’s acquaintances. For the most part, images bear only fleeting thematic relevance to the text – an unanswered phone hangs next to two empty chairs in a neglected hallway, opposite text that documents Calle’s early, failed attempts to contact her sources - or their status is complicated, their authenticity and relevance made uncertain. Documents that Calle refers to in her account of Pierre D., such as a letter of resignation she has supposedly sourced, are not illustrated. Other, more fleeting moments – a woman relates how Pierre D. laughed as she fell and dropped a shoe - are (in this case, by a film-still-like close-up of a woman’s feet in white shoes). Such an image is a kind of ‘fictional’ counterpart to a remembered event and casts doubt, or at least a shadow of it, back into the written account as a result, so that ‘fictionality’ becomes part of the character of the text in a manner reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s use of photography in cultural memoirs such as Rings of Saturn.

This troubling, fictionalizing approach to a real individual and, at least from one point of view, a very real intrusion onto their privacy, contributes to a guilty sense that one should not, perhaps, be reading Calle’s book at all. Indeed, there is a reason that this book is only now appearing, 30 years after the work’s original, and infamous, appearance, in an English edition – once Pierre D. was aware of Calle’s column he threatened to sue Libération and relented only when the paper had published nude photographs of Calle as a kind of (questionable) counterpart to her own project. However, it is a game with which the artist is familiar – one of her best-known works, The Hotel (1981), consists of photographs taken of hotel rooms and their intimate contents whilst employed as a chambermaid – and in which she is adept. She encourages the reader’s curiosity, even invites you to enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of peeling back layer after layer of Pierre D.’s life. The intelligent design of The Address Book not only approximates its namesake and original – ‘a 12 x 15cm bound book… has a red cover with a black spine’ – but has the secondary function of enhancing your uncertainty, perhaps even your embarrassment, at reading such a personal exercise, by referencing the anonymity of erotic novels and magazines. The twist, of course, is that you learn very little of Pierre D. in the book, beyond (often conflicting) memories, fragmentary anecdotes and references to ‘character’ and appearance.

This is why, in the end, it makes sense to review The Address Book as a photobook specifically, instead of a conceptual artwork or simply an artist’s book. This is not a lavishly illustrated volume of technically accomplished photography, nor is it strictly a work of photo-documentary, constructing a narrative out of sequencing or clever compositional effect. Calle herself has been frank about her relationship to photography - she doesn’t always take her own photographs – and critics including Yves Alain-Bois have commented on the apparent inadequacy of the results, ‘you can expect no revelation’.  However, this book could not function without its photographic backbone – the mysterious, expressive images Calle uses and the interrogation of subjectivity and authenticity they make explicit.

This review was originally published in photo-eye magazine, 10th December 2012, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are by Sophie Calle from The Address Book. Published by Siglio, 2012.

7 November 2012

A taste of things to come..

Just a quick post, to celebrate the arrival at PLATE manors this week of some lovely photobooks!

In case you can't make these out (blame the shoddy iPad 2 camera, and me, in that order), they are, from top to bottom:

Sophie Calle, The Address Book (Siglio, 2012)

The Bitter Years: Edward Steichen and the Farm Security Administration Photographs (d.a.p., 2012)

Andrew Phelps, Haboob (Kehrer Verlag, 2012)

I'm going to be reviewing these for Photo-eye magazine over the coming months, so do keep an eye on their website if you're interested! All reviews end up on PLATE as well, but I don't like to post them here until quite a while after they've appeared on Photo-eye, so check there first..