25 March 2012

my home is where you are

Cover detail, courtesy my iPad
Last week, I received an e-mail from a nice young man called Filipe Cacasa, a Portugese photographer who has recently published his own photobook (well done, Filipe), titled a minha casa é onde estás ('my home is where you are'). This collection of 15 black-and-white photographs, selected from a larger body of work made over 3 years, have Cacasa's wife Teresa as a subject and explore intimacy, domesticity and a strange kind of theatricality that emerges when the photographer takes his camera into a private space. The book is available, in a limited edition of 300 copies, from a bookstore near you (stockists, I am told, include Photo-eye, Santa Fe; Dashwood Books, New York; Tate Modern bookshop, London; Flotsambooks, Tokyo; Tennis Club Bookshop, Amsterdam; and Ivory Press, Spain). However, Filipe very kindly offered to send me a comp copy of the book and to answer a few questions I had about him and the work – so, you can see our mini Q&A and my review of the book below!

As you can see from some of my (poor) photos, 'my home' is a pretty serious production, reflecting an apparent desire for this book and the work within to be absorbed quietly and thoughtfully. In terms of production, this desire translates into a straight-forward, even sombre, black cloth case-binding (no tricksy 'Blurb' design for this Lisboan), and the choice of weighty, classy materials within (200gsm Gardapat paper, seeing as you're asking). There is a little too much of this studied quietness for me – the severe design of the book, for example, doesn't necessarily reflect the wittier images in the series, such as a photograph in which the photographer's feet are held to Teresa's breasts, creating an atmosphere at once tender and surreal and a figure at once humorous and humanised.

c. Filipe Cacasa
There are also niggling issues with the production; a slightly lighter paper stock, for instance, might have made the book a more natural, flexible object without harming the dignity of the photographs. However, these are fairly minor qualms and, as much as I like a jaunty book design, I've also got a lot of time for the way in which Cacasa's more reserved choices (and no doubt those of designer Ana Fatia) reference his photographic concerns; what is hidden and what can be shown, what is in shadow and what in light, and what can be known about another person from their physical presence. This is a recurring theme in the photo series presented here – a combination of images that plays with the conventions of recognition and identity. Some of the photographs are pure, formal explorations of the body's appearance in space, the shapes it takes. These shots work individually as elegantly formal investigations of light and dark, and physical gesture.

c. Filipe Cacasa
However, taken in series, these (often faceless) physical portraits also strike up a conversation with both more intimate, 'close-up', facial studies, snapshot-style photographs of props including shoes and lingerie, and apparently staged images, in which the model theatrically veils or otherwise obscures her face. The series works well as an illustration of the ways in which we see those closest too us. Most of these photographs are taken from a domestic, 'colloquial' viewpoint, with the photographer's model and the camera moving in relation to one another with apparent independence. While the choice of black-and-white photography, the high contrast printing (which leaves areas of extreme, obscuring shadow) and simple 'set-up' and props of most of these images imply a kind of universality or impersonality, this never translates into a cold or exploitative aesthetic. Rather the overwhelming impression is of warmth, playfulness and, somehow, conversation.

c. Filipe Cacasa
I would like to see more of Cacasa's work, particularly his work from Asia, in book form. There were moments in a minha casa é onde estás - the simple, formal studies of discarded shoes and hanging lingerie, for example – that are well-made and evocative in series, but don't necessarily leave me hungry for second and third viewings (though I'm aware my taste always runs to more complex, 'messy' imagery as a general bias)! Nevertheless, Cacasa clearly has an eye for mood and an ability to work intelligently with space and sensitively with the human figure, and I would love to see more of his well thought-out books. He is clearly investing in the way he tells his photo-stories and I'm left with a desire to invest the time in reading them.

It's not often I get to quiz the photographer behind the work on this blog, but Filipe has very generously answered some of my questions about his work below. Enjoy!

Your training and exhibition history are pretty international - China, Japan, Portugal – what drew you to these different countries to take photographs or was it all pure chance?

It was not by chance. For a long time I have had a strong interest in Chinese and Japanese culture. I feel drowned by the relation between it's past, it's history and that influence in the present day, despite  a great influx of foreign cultures through the years. The assimilation of foreign cultures by the ancient cultures created new identities. I like the way people think in Japan, the way they organize space, whether interiors or urban areas. And photography! Japanese photography is a big influence on me; their unique way of seeing and showing something personal associated with the subject of their work. I know that I have a strong need to know and understand Japan. Portugal is where I live and, strange as it may sound, it is much more difficult to work here, maybe because I have a few pre-conceived ideas about my environment that come across in my photos. But this is something I am working on.

I think 'my home is where you are' is quite an intimate, personal series. Is it representative of your work, or is this project different from your previous work?

It is very representative of my work. Speaks a little about me, about my private space and mostly about my wife. When I started to photograph, my subject was my friends, their spaces and sculptures. This series started after I meet Teresa and developed in our home. I think this series is like a performance. But it is my performance. The (photographs) are of Teresa as performed by my mind’s eye, which is different from anyone else’s. It is very difficult to photograph someone you know. The fact that I know her doesn’t make it easier. It actually makes it much more difficult. There is a tendency to bring our opinions of somebody to bear on the photographs we take of them, projecting on them that image we’ve created, which doesn’t always correspond with their own self-image. That’s what’s most interesting: showing her an image that she hasn’t seen before. And that’s what these images are about, about the way her body is, the movements she might not even be aware of.

Why present this series as a book? Did you always intend for it to take book form, or is that a decision that came about later?

When I photograph I normally think of editing in series, of a body of work and not independent images. I think in book form. It is essential that people see these photos with time, step by step, to get into the feeling. You have to see it photo by photo, page by page, to understand that all these photos are one photo. Another strong reason to present this work as a book was because I see it as a gift from me to my wife. With this book she can understand better how I see her through the years.

Are there any photobooks in particular that influenced you? Which other photobooks do you admire? (Love Filipe's answer here by the way, I have to look some of these up!)

The books that influenced me: Rinko Kawauchi - 'Cui Cui'; Nobuyoshi Araki – 'Sentimental Journey'; Jin Ohashi – IMA; and the work of Dirk Braeckman.

And I also admire: Miguel Rio Branco – 'Silent Book'; Daido Moriyama – 'Farewell Photography' and 'Memories of a Dog'; Antonio Julio Duarte – 'Peepshow' and 'White Noise'; Larry Clark – 'Teenage lust'; Andre Cepeda – 'Ontem'; William Eggleston – 'Los Alamos'; José Pedro Cortes - 'Things here and Things still to come'; Shomei Stumato – 'Hiroshima–Nagasaki Document 1961'; Paulo Nozolino – 'Para Sempre'; Nan Goldin – 'The Other Side'; Kohei Yoshiyuki - 'The Park'.

Do you any advice for young/ new photographers about to make their own book. Do you have any words of wisdom?

I don´t know if I have “words of wisdom”…my advice to young photographers is work hard. Not all of what we do will be perceived as 'good' or as a 'master piece'. Some work is a personal improvement of our way of seeing, of thinking and feeling, and this only comes with persistence and dedication. A book is the best investment a photographer can make. We can learn a lot in that process of thinking, and this will open new paths in our work method.

9 March 2012

Fancypants photobooks..

.. and their affordable cousins. Whilst rummaging through the bookshelves at work recently, I came across two stapled, pamphlet-type publications that caught my eye. I can't say why particularly, except that they appeared to concern photography exclusively (which only a small proportion of our books usually do) and the cover designs (one of which you can see above) are really lovely – very simple and slightly old-fashioned, but lovely. the Art that threatened Art, in particular, has this strange arrangement of archaeological 'finds' on the cover, photographed in such a way that, as the back cover copy remarks, they communicate 'a curious animation' - this complex, inexplicable and slightly surreal image had me hooked.

Anyway, it turns out that these two, modest books are something of a find and, without wanting to sound like a one-woman Hayward Publishing marketing team, I'd recommend seeking them out (I found one here for the princely sum of £1.51..) Published in 1988, the pamphlets were originally released to accompany two small touring shows in the UK, curated by critic, photographer and picture editor Bruce Bernard. These shows, in turn, were inspired by the publication, in 1985, of Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (White Oak Press), by all accounts the mother of all photobooks. Authored by Pierre Praxine (curator of said collection) and with plates by fine printer Richard Benson, the book could be had for $2,500. Yep, you heard me, $2,500 dollars.

This monster photo-tome contains 199 plates by over 100 photographers. It was produced in a limited edition of 1,200 copies and is set apart for collectors and book nerds by the absurdly good quality of printing, with many of the reproductions reportedly coming close in effect to the original works themselves. The Gilman Paper Company bought an offset printing press specially and had it installed in Richard Benson's HOUSE for the printing process, which he describes in technical detail both in the book itself and in the pamphlets above-mentioned. The black-and-white prints were made in up to six colours, each of which was mixed individually. Some of the images, each of which was printed individually, went through the press eight times, in an exhaustive effort to reproduce the tonal variations and surface textures of the original prints, and the whole things was printed on two different stocks.
And I complain when we have to do two rounds of image proofs for a book..

So, to cut a long story short, Bruce Bernard saw the book and recognized the possibility of touring Richard Benson's prints. South Bank Centre (as it was then) organised the show and produced two little wee publications to go with it. These are illustrated with, ahem, more reserve than the original Photographs, with just 8 images in the Art that threatened Art. However, these images alone are beautiful, a tantalising insight into the Gilman Collection itself, and are accompanied by fantastic descriptive captions by Bernard. He has a real gift for condensing, into just a few words, how the formal qualities of a photograph both communicate to us the original conditions of its making, and transform into aesthetic experience for the viewer.  His description of Carlton E. Watkins' Sugar Loaf Islands, Farallons (c. 1868-69), with its 'preoccupation with mass' and 'squirming seals' poetically evokes how this borderline weird image transcends its commercial and documentary origins.

So, the Art that threatens Art documents some of the early, mostly nineteenth-century, works in the Gilman Collection and the second leaflet, a Leap in the Light, focusses on the twentieth century. There is a far more complete account of the collection in the Met's survey title The Waking Dream, which was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name in 1993 – it's also worth mentioning that the Met now own the entire Gilman collection – but these books are a good taster and appendix to the bigger volume. Bernard is good on debunking clichés and generalisations about nineteenth-century photography, commenting on the 'variety of hue' in works we dismiss as monochrome. While you might not agree with his every assertion and judgement, he is a powerful defender of photography as an expressive artform ('it is even... an expression of temperament to take great pains over photographing an eclipse of the sun'), and of good photo-reportage, free of 'picturesque banality'. In a Leap, Bernard also gives a potted history of twentieth-century photographic feuds and antagonisms, focussing on the competing demands of 'worldly' commercial photographic enterprises and the lone artisans plying their trade (Atget being a prime example).

These are tiny 'books' with short texts. They don't cover anything much beyond the 1960s and they are not even large enough to qualify as introductions to the Gilman collection. They're beautiful though and, for the price, worth looking out as a bit of exhibition/ photo-history!