Photobook Reviews (W20/2015)

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After four weeks of Germany, three of which spent teaching (with one day off), I’m back home, trying to re-adjust to a more normal life. Traveling from Europe to the US on a plane is easier as far as jet lag is concerned than going in the opposite direction. But it’s still a bit rough. Just today, I was able to start writing again (some thoughts on, again, money and art appeared here).

The articles I published here over the past four weeks had all been written in advance. There was one spot that I just didn’t have the time to fill, this week’s – the one that was supposed to appear this Monday. I thought I might have it in me to write it right after coming back. Didn’t happen. So these following book reviews will fill in for this week, and I’m hoping to be back with my regular schedule next week.

In Berlin, I discovered Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer‘s Passengers in a discount book shop, albeit at what I think was full price. I think I had been aware of the body of work. I certainly was a bit apprehensive even looking at the book, because, after all, how many more photography series about people on a bus or subway do we need? None of the ones I had seen so far appealed to me. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of the topic, especially if you’re after something that’s not essentially a collection of simple and easy photographic one liners (which, of course, makes for photobooks that are just that as well, simple and easy – and forgettable).

But Passengers is anything but just simple and easy. Maybe it’s simple, given the idea. But the execution of both the photography and the book clearly lift this one out of the field, by a mile. For a start, there is a lot of what looks like gloom and doom, the kind you’ll find if you take a bus pretty much anywhere at a time of day when most people snuggle up on their couches, doing whatever it is you do when you’re on your couch. So there’s an atmosphere, and it’s cold, and lonely.

There also is considerable abstraction, in that the people photographed through the buses’ windows aren’t turned into specimen to be gawked at and laughed at because of their physical and/or mental discomfort. They’re observed, to the extent that that was possible. There are reflections, there is ice on the windows, or maybe there’s water. Some people are looking back at the camera. Others are caught in what might be mid-thought (or in what you often get on a bus, that absence of all thought that we associate with waiting). Still others do not want to be seen. Added to those portraits are photographs of the bus station’s environs.

These photographs are combined in the book to great effect, which is no mean feat, given that essentially it’s a book filled with photographs that are quite similar, photographs that maybe only hit a couple of notes, possibly with a third one added. It’s really a wonderful book, albeit a somber, maybe even depressing one. But it sustains the viewer’s interest over its 166 pages. It’s a meditation of sort, one that begins right somewhere in the middle and that ends there as well.

Passengers; photographs by Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer; 166 pages; Spector Books; 2013

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.6

I’ll admit some of the photography I enjoy the most is the one that has me most bewildered. If you think about it, photography really is a dumb medium. It can only show surfaces, yet we all want it to show so much more. And so much effort goes into showing more, or rather into implicitly showing more even though explicitly there isn’t more. Contrast that with Paul Kooiker‘s Nude Animal Cigar, which shows exactly what it says on the cover (you can also order it using the publisher’s site). To be precise, there 63 photographs each of a nude, an animal, and a cigar, in exactly that order: nude, animal, cigar, nude, animal, cigar, nude, animal, cigar, etc.

Now who wants to look at that? How can that possibly be interesting? More precisely, how can you make a book that has a grand total of 189 photographs covering exactly three subjects and get away with it? Well, you can if you’re Paul Kooiker. Once I got the book in the mail, I dared myself to look at as much as I possibly could, thinking – foolishly, as it turns out – that there would be no way I’d be able to go through a book like this in one sitting. Turns out it not only was quite simple actually, it was even a delight.

I’ve seen Kooiker being referred to as a conceptual photographer, which he might indeed be, if by “conceptual photographer” you mean someone whose visual focus is so singular and outright strange that there just has to be some concept behind it. Given I’m a writer I know how this game works. Vague things can often be most easily written about by sticking labels to them that pretend to hide the author’s inability to couch them in more precise terms. OK then, Paul Kooiker is a conceptual photographer.

But, you know, to think of Nude Animal Cigar as a book of conceptual photographs really leads you nowhere. It’s not that at all. Instead, it’s a book filled with photographs of nudes, animals, and cigars, each of them a toned black-and-white. Not more, not less. As a viewer, it’s probably best to take the book for exactly what it is.

In an obvious sense, nobody will look at photographs of nudes, animals, and cigars in exactly the same way, and this is part of how this book operates. These photographs are presented  on an equal level, and if we accept that they are in fact the same (which, in reality, of course they are, since much like all photography, they’re really just pictures), then we might be presented with the best chance to truly enjoy the book.

The reality is that I’ve been tying myself into this knot with my writing mostly because I’ve been trying to write about the book in my jet-lagged state of mind (let me just entertain the foolish idea that this all is just the jet lag writing). Thing is I have been enjoying the book a great deal merely looking at it, taking in the photographs, many of which are actually quite amazing.

So maybe some photography really is just conceptual because it asks us to do the one thing we really ought to be doing a bit more: looking at photographs as, well, pictures. Not more, not less.

Nude Animal Cigar; photographs by Pal Kooiker; 384 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2015

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.1

(ratings explained here)