Photobook Reviews (Week 42/2013)

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Process has been making a tremendous comeback in photography. After photographers spent years trying to eliminate all the imperfections processes can entail, rejecting chance, and fighting a loss of control, the arrival of digital photography appears to have made it clear to many practitioners what you lose when you can have it all (technically speaking). Imperfections, embracing chance, living with limited amounts of control – they have a lot to offer for those willing to work with them. It would seem that the medium’s soul doesn’t translate so well into only zeros and ones.

Bryan Graf is one of the many photographers that have been making process an integral part of their work. Take Wildlife Analysis, which relies on considerable darkroom trickery to achieve its effect. The eponymous book containing the work embraces the elements of chance: “Each book, individually printed and assembled at the Conveyor studio, mirrors the meandering tone of the series in its construction. Each image […] has been scanned and, using variable algorithms, arranged into unique sequences.” (quoted from the publisher’s description) This, we are told, “suggests new interpretations in each edition and allows the intimate and unpredictable nature of the series and its subject matter to glisten in its new form.”

I don’t know whether I buy that 100%. But the publisher’s PR aside, the presentation of this often semi-abstract, if not outright abstract photography in Wildlife Analysis works very well. The key to heavily process-based work for me is always whether the work presents something other than the process. It does. The book offers an immerse experience, where it’s not quite clear what is going on. Many of the photographs appear to dissolve on the pages, right in front of one’s eyes; and the variation of whatever is done in the darkroom is wide enough to make the pictures the center of the work, not the process.

Grey Matters by Schilt Publishing is a new series of books, actually booklets. Each booklet features the work of a young photographer, with the final result selling for $20 (or the equivalent in Euros). Life After Zog and other stories by Chiara Tocci presents the photographer’s project, done in Albania from which in the early 1990s refuges had set out to look for a better home in Italy.

You might imagine (especially if you’re a photobook snob) that presenting work in booklet form – “a grey carton cahier cover with banderole” – would not do the pictures any justice. But you’d be wrong. The booklet works very well, and it forces the viewer’s attention onto the pictures, not the production of the object in hand. In a day and age when the photobook fetishism really is out of control, bringing photobooks back to what matters (the pictures) and, at the same time, making the work of young photographers more widely available are two worthwhile goals. Life After Zog and other stories provides a good example of how this can be done.

Lastly, edited by Melissa Catanese & Ed Panar, Notes from the Foundry contains work by photographers Gregory Halpern, Darin Mickey, Corine Vermuelen, Andrew Borowiec, David La Spina, Suzanna Zak, Daniel Shea, Susan Lipper, Andrew Moore, John Lehr, Nicholas Gottlund, Jacob Koestler, Ross Mantle, Zoe Strauss, Sean Stewart, and Todd Hido. Catanese and Panar did an excellent job bringing photographs from so many different artists, to create something that does not feel like a collection of disparate elements.

Instead, a portrait of the American heartland emerges, a region hit, where not ravaged, by economic uncertainties and deindustralization, yet not giving up, going on with life. Notes from the Foundry, initially somewhat unassuming because of its size and production, quickly emerges as a little treasure; and it shows what is to be gained from bringing different voice together that are telling similar stories, albeit in different ways.