Review: The pictures included in this envelope by Andrea Ferrari

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Photography lends itself to being used to catalog things (or people). Using photographic catalogs of people’s possessions to try to say something about their owners has a solid tradition, including (but of course not limited to) examples such as Hans-Peter Feldmann‘s Alle Kleider einer Frau, Christian Boltanski‘s Inventaire des Objets Ayant Appartenu a une Femme de Bois-Colombes, or, more recently, Miyako Ishiuchi‘s Hiroshima, Nele Glück‘s Auf Ewig. In a nutshell, the photographs in any of these bodies of work are used to stand for what they depict. The sum of what they depict, in turn, is then used to stand for those who own(ed) the objects.

Photographically, such an approach provides a simple strategy. But I want to think it only gets interesting if you realize that first, a photograph is not the same as what it depicts. Furthermore, a photograph is not only not what it depicts, it also transforms what it depicts into something else. And even if you ignore all that, to what extent do the sum of a person’s possessions really reflect back to that person, describe that person, speak of her or his desires or dreams?

If I think about the various things in my apartment, they contain the things that I bought because I really wanted to own them, the things that I bought because I thought I would enjoy them (and I did), the things that I bought because I thought I would enjoy them (and I did not), the things that I bought because I thought I would use or need them (and I did), the things that I bought because I thought I would use or need them (and I did not), the things that I bought on impulse, the things that I bought that I know I should have thrown out already but haven’t, the things that I bought and use on a daily basis but that have no particular relevance to me (my toothbrush), the things that I bought and use on a daily basis and like even though in the grand scheme of things they have no particular relevance to me (Dr Bronner’s soap), the things that I bought and don’t use on a regular basis even though if I used them on a regular basis I might benefit from them (multivitamin supplements), the things that I bought even though if pressed I would pretend I have no idea how they came into my possession (those are none of your business obviously), the things that were given to me by someone else that I kept because I like them, the things that were given to me by someone else that I kept because I can use them for my job (even though I don’t necessarily like them), the things that were given to me by someone else that I kept because I feel bad about throwing them out even though I really don’t like them, the things that I found that intrigued me, the things that were given to me at some stage that still have utility, the things that were given to me at some stage that might or might not still have utility, the things that were given to me that don’t have any utility any longer even though I think they still do and that I’m thus refusing to throw out, the things that were given to me that don’t have any utility any longer and that I’m simply too lazy – or forgetful – to throw out, etc.

I briefly considered extending this list for another ten thousand words or so, describing all the things in my apartment, but I then realized that would be a bit besides the point here. The point being that if you looked at any of the things here, you wouldn’t know anything about them other than that they are present. You wouldn’t know why they are present. Whatever intent might have existed (or still exists) behind my decision not to throw them out would be inaccessible to you (in much the same fashion, the intent behind the making of a photograph, any photograph, is inaccessible for its viewers).

In all likelihood, I would object to you thinking of me as the person defined by my possessions, because as I started to elaborate above, you wouldn’t know the reasons for their existence.

What is more, I would also like to think that I am in part defined by the things that I would really like to possess but unfortunately don’t have the funds to acquire (a copy of Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe, say), or the things that I would like to possess (for whatever reason) that I simply haven’t bought yet (for whatever reason – a copy of William Eggleston’s Guide, say), etc. In addition, I would like to think that I can only be in part defined by the things that I own (or don’t own), given that what I believe in or not believe defines me as well, even though it might not be tied to any object in particular, etc.

I think you’re getting my point (well, I hope anyway).

Consequently, the game of photographing a set of possessions only becomes interesting provided you realize that while it’s a simple strategy, it’s also ultimately a useless one: by construction, you are going to be unable to achieve what you (pretend to) set out to achieve. To a varying extent, the artists mentioned earlier are not only aware of this conundrum, but make use of it.

Andrea Ferrari‘s The pictures included in this envelope, a recent addition to the growing list of books of photographic lists, deftly refuses to play along any of the rules laid out by its predecessors. To be more precise, it plays by the rules alright, presenting a set of photographs that as objectively as possible depict an object (or a group of objects) from a person’s possession. This person is identified as Giulia C., “an unknown Milanese chemist,” in the publisher’s description of the book. We have no way of knowing whether this is indeed correct, in other words if this person ever existed, or if this is all made up (frankly, that doesn’t even matter).

What we do know – or get to know – is the utter uselessness of the photographs in the book, because even though they do exactly what they’re supposed to do, they refuse to reveal much, if anything. Giulia C. remains an enigma. In part, this effect is achieved by the fact that many of the objects don’t reveal much per se. If you don’t believe anything I wrote above, if you do think that photographs of objects can tell us something about their owners, then good luck to you with this book! Needless to say, if you’re as wary of photography’s claims as I am, good luck to you as well, trying to figure out what’s going on here. And I mean this in the best possible way.

This book is an enigma that initially is irritatingly bland, with its pictures and pictures of things that are hard to make out. But it becomes more and more entertaining to experience the more the viewer is willing to let go of all those ingrained ideas about photography, and of the desire to understand.

Where no understanding is to be had, one just needs to make things up! And that’s where the real excitement begins.

The pictures included in this envelope; photographs by Andrea Ferrari; essays by Quentin Bajac and Laura Gasperini; 122 pages (plus 16 page booklet); Kehrer; 2013

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.8

Michael Schmidt 1945-2014

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Michael Schmidt, who just won the Prix Pictet photography prize for his epic Lebensmittel project, died on Saturday in Berlin. He was 68 years old.

Schmidt was born in Berlin, the year World War 2 ended and the city was divided into two parts. The city’s division was literally cemented in 1961 when the East German government erected the Berlin Wall. Legally, the government of West Germany had almost no power over the enclave. While on the one hand looking like most other West German city, in reality West Berlin was also “an occupied territory under the formal sovereignty of the allies” (source; the same was true for East Berlin, a fact not recognized by the East German and Soviet governments).

As a consequence, West Berlin became a very strange city. Large parts of the past were frozen in place. At the same time, the desire to join the Wirtschaftswunder had the same effect it had elsewhere. In addition, West Berlin would attract those unhappy with what was going on in West Germany (incl. those escaping the military draft), or those unhappy wherever they were, looking for something new (this includes artists like David Bowie). And then there were the Berliners themselves with their Berliner Schnauze.

Schmidt was a self-taught photographer who quit his job as a policeman when he decided that he wanted to be a photographer. He told me he had become an apprentice with the police because his parents insisted on him having a steady, safe job. Quitting it, however, was something he needed to do, even if it meant the kinds of hardships many photographers are only too familiar with – a shortage of money being most prominent. His photography centered on the city of West Berlin, its buildings and people, and, most crucially, its atmosphere. I want to think that while a lot of the work shows West Berlin (at least until the Wall came down), in reality it deals with what Germans call the city’s – and given the mastery with which Schmidt approached his work – the country’s Befindlichkeit (there is no good English word that includes the many different ideas this German word contains; if you combine the terms given by you might get an idea).

In Schmidt’s work, the move towards capturing the Befindlichkeit in pictures evolved from the photographer’s earlier works in, say, the districts of Kreuzberg or Wedding, to what came to be his break-through as an artist, a body of work entitled Waffenruhe. A selection of Waffenruhe (the German word for ceasefire) was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s fourth New Photography exhibition. An amazing body of work, unfortunately, the book is sold out, and copies are very hard to find.

In parallel to working as a photographer, in 1976 Schmidt founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography), which he also led for a while. Schmidt invited a number of American photographers to Berlin to work and teach there, including William Eggleston and John Gossage. His and the Werkstatt‘s influence on German photography have yet to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.

A year after Schmidt’s work was shown at MoMA, the Berlin Wall came down. As a result East and West Germany reunited: East Germany joined West Germany. One would imagine such a monumental event resulting in a major upheaval, an opportunity to deal with the country’s past. But none of that happened. Helmut Kohl, then the West German chancellor, had been quite unpopular up until the Wall came down. But he was re-elected handily in the first elections to include East and West Germans, given he was viewed as having masterminded reunification. Kohl preferred governing by not dealing with problems or challenges – he simply waited for them to go away or to sort themselves out on their own.

While before reunification West Germany felt as if it was stagnating, with too many unresolved things being kept frozen, after reunification East Germany experienced the exact same treatment: promises were made to win the election, and they weren’t kept. Problems wouldn’t be dealt with. In large parts of Eastern Germany, the far right started to rear its ugly head. Kohl had to be voted out of power for what one can think of as the new, truly reunited Germany to emerge. Ever perceptive to the country’s Befindlichkeit, between 1991 and 1994 Michael Schmidt produced Ein-Heit, a body of work dealing with all the things the newly reunited Germany at first wouldn’t deal with. In 1996, Ein-Heit – now given an English title, U-Ni-Ty – was shown at MoMA (find the original press release here).

Neither Waffenruhe nor Ein-Heit are easy to approach for the viewer. They both need to be felt more than seen. At the same time, I cannot think of any other contemporary German photographer who has dealt with the country he was born into as deeply as Schmidt. It is the depth and quality of both Waffenruhe and Ein-Heit that make Schmidt the most important German photographer of the late 20th Century (basing importance not on the square footage and/or prices of photographs, but on artistic merit).

In both books – just like in large parts of his oevre – Schmidt worked in what technically speaking would be black and white photography. Between the extremes of black and white, there is an infinity of grey tones, and it is these tones that he used for his work in ways that give it so much power. It would only be appropriate for Munich’s Haus der Kunst to give its major 2009 retrospective of Schmidt’s work the title Grey as Colour. Schmidt: “Grey is my colour. There are thousands of grey gradations. Black and white are always the darkest and the lightest grey”. (source)

Having produced the definitive photographic statements around the Germany of around the 1970s to the mid 1990s, Schmidt turned his attention somewhat away from Berlin (and the fertile ground the city provided), to produce Frauen (Women; 2000), Irgendwo (Somewhere; 2005), and Lebensmittel (Groceries; 2012), the latter of which would result in the Prix Pictet photography prize. It only seems appropriate that Schmidt’s contribution to contemporary photography would be recognized through one of its most prestigious prizes. Three days after being awarded the Prix Pictet, Schmidt died in Berlin.

Review: We Shall by Paul D’Amato

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When looking at Paul D’Amato‘s We Shall for the first time, you want to do yourself a favour and skip over all the text in the beginning. Go straight to the pictures. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the writers who contributed to the book. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the essays. They’re wonderful. Essays can help flesh out what is in the pictures and what is not. They can help guide the viewer, or they can set her or him on a specific path. But it’s a photobook, and photobooks are about photographs. It’s always better to look and see, and to feel what’s in the pictures, before being told what is or might be or should be or could be.

Having looked at the pictures, you could then go back and read the various essays. You might also want to read a long essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled The Case for Reparations. Having done that, there will be a lot more information swirling around in your head, which might or might not have an influence on how you see D’Amato’s work. It’s never that clear what words do to pictures. Words are very prescriptive. As a writer, you intend to string them together in such a way that your reader will come to certain conclusions. If that doesn’t happen, you’ve failed as a writer.

Photographs don’t necessarily work that way. They can, in which case they become easily tedious and one-dimensional (think editorial or commercial photography, or the worst examples of photojournalism). But when photographs are done well, they’re prescriptive in a much more subtle sense. They don’t tell you to do or think anything. Yet at the same time you just know you’re going to feel very bad if you pretend that they don’t tell you to do or think anything. It’s very strange. This is what makes photography so exciting. This is why so many of the practitioners of this most technical medium struggle mightily with it: here’s a hammer, now make me some poetry (I know, I know: cameras aren’t hammers, and photography certainly isn’t poetry).

We Shall essentially is a book of portraiture, the few non-portraits notwithstanding. Photobooks containing portraiture are very hard to put together. However good the photographs might be, most viewers will essentially be looking at pictures of strangers, and as a species we don’t seem to be too good at dealing with strangers. So the photographs have to be very good for the viewer to become interested in looking at those strangers. This is the portraitist’s challenge. People usually can’t agree on what it is that makes a great portrait (see this article and this one). But it seems fair to say that a great portrait creates the compulsion in us to spend a lot of time looking at a stranger, becoming interested in a stranger, caring about a stranger.

In addition to featuring some impressive portraits, the book also works with variants of pictures of the same sitter, either taken right after one another, or with some time in between. Often, these pictures are placed right next to each other. On top of that, there are gatefolds that are used to unfold other pictures, other variants. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought one could make a photobook showing variants of the same portrait right next to each other in a way that actually works, but it does. A lot of thinking must have gone into the way the book is constructed.

In his introduction, the photographer states “It is important to keep in mind that the photograph and the person in the photograph are not the same. My subjects move, talk, and respond to one another; their appearance is constantly changing. As a result, my images do not represent the West Side, or a particular class, race, or even time. All of that has an existence that is independent of the work and beyond the scope of photography.” I don’t know to what extent I buy that. He continues “In the end, the work is about establishing and playing with a sequence of relationships: between me and my subjects, between the formal elements in the pictures, between one image and another, and between the viewer and the photograph.” You know, if it were really just that, this would be an OK book, essentially merely a photographic exercise. But given this is a very good book, there is a lot more going on.

This is one of those other things about photographs: they often take on a life of their own, speaking forcefully of things you personally didn’t intend to put in the work.

But at the end of the day, good photographs have more in common with an invitation than with a command. They invite us to look and to engage, they invite us to care, but we don’t have to. It’s up to us. People often blame photography (or photographers) for doing or not doing certain things when the source of the problem really is that they don’t want to deal with what is in front of them. We Shall puts something in front of us that we can engage with or not. The same is true for Coates’ essay. Make no mistake, the book and the essay are very different in all kinds of ways. But at the same time there is a dialogue. One can inform the other. Crucially, one or the other – or both – can inform us, if, again, we want to be informed, if we want to care.

We Shall; photographs by Paul D’Amato; essays by Gregory J. Harris, Cleophus J. Lee, Paul D’Amato; 102 pages; DePaul Art Museum, 2013

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

Into the Light: Khalik Allah

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Khalik Allah

Photography is a cultural practice. It is what connects us with others. Capturing very brief moments in time, it leaves them to be looked at in the form of an image on a wall, in a book, on a computer screen. It is the significance of the capture, the act of trying to preserve something that cannot be preserved, along with the act of sharing it that gives the medium its almost magical power. This is why photography can never be and will never be dead or over – unless we decide to do away with our culture and society as a whole, to become isolated hermits.

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that we’re not isolated hermits. Go to New York City, for example, to meet what it looks and feels like when you’re embedded in a group of people who all pretend they don’t want anything to do with each other. The city’s unique atmosphere in part derives its energy from that, or rather from the fact that at the end of the day, we’re not hermits, that however hard you try you will not get away from having some connection with others. Given so much of photography was defined in New York City (through curators like John Szarkowski or writers like Susan Sontag), large parts of our thinking around the medium contain this push against and pull from others.

The push and pull might be most obvious, and most powerful, in portraiture. You look into another person’s face, and you know you’re not a hermit (and if you think you want to be a hermit, then maybe you just can’t stand the fact that without the pull, there’s no push). The history of photography might contain a lot of ways of dealing with the portrait, of using the portrait for all kinds of purposes; but it also is merely a short blip compared with the many thousands of years of humans looking at other humans. In other words, however much artifice you pile onto a picture of someone’s face, ultimately, we still view the image as that other person – and not just as a picture of her or him.

This means that in order to show us something about people, all you have to do is to take their portraits. It’s that easy. Even if we assume that all portraits are created equally – they aren’t, but that’s for later – they aren’t all equally good. Some move us much more than others. Some photographers manage to take much better portraits than the rest of us. How do they do it? When you look at portraits such as those taken by Khalik Allah, the most recent photographer whose work had me think long and hard about portraiture again, there is something very special present. What is that?

For a start, these portraits all very clearly remind us of what photography is, what photography needs: light. Without light, there is darkness. Without light, there are no photographs. The photographs are all taken in New York City, in Harlem, on Lexington Avenue, around 125th Street. They’re taken at night, without a flash, using a film camera. The tools never make a photographer, yet at the same time they do: if you want to photograph people at night, using film without a flash, you have to be able to use what little light might be available. You have to be able to photograph people in the light, get people to move into the light so you won’t just have darkness.

Khalik Allah describes his practice as Camera Ministry: it “is bringing light without a flash. Entering dark spaces of the mind and looking at them. That’s the only way a problem can be resolved: by looking at it. Not looking is how problems are preserved.”

This puts the finger right where it often hurts: to photograph means to look, it means making people look at things they might not want to look at, because it’s just easier to ignore inconvenient truths. This is why photography often is deemed to be exploitative or cruel. It’s not because there’s anything to the act of photographing that is inherently cruel, it is because it’s the existence of photographs of things we’d rather not look at that we’re reminded of the fact that, well, we’re trying to hide something from us. Photography can force us to face realities we’d rather avoid.

In portraiture, photography can make us look at other people we’d rather not look at. We might have all kinds of reasons why we don’t want to look at them, some benign, others not. But I want to think that we owe a lot to those photographers who make us look anyway, whether we want it or not. More precisely: photographers who give us the option to look, the option to learn a little something, the option to realize how the culture/society we’re embedded in contains a bit more than whatever little bubbles we prefer to surround us with. That is, after all, the sign of a healthy culture: it wants to expand, to include more, rather than less.

(Are we still living in a healthy culture?)

Khalik Allah’s Tumblr is filled to the brim with photography. The amount of work is staggering, and anyone familiar with the history of photography will be able to make some connections. Photography concerns aside, what really had me spend a lot of time with the site was the fact that there are so many good pictures, pictures that couldn’t have been made if the photographer didn’t care.

I don’t know whether it’s ever going to be possible to come up with a recipe for portraiture. But it seems obvious that you need one key ingredient: You need to care about the people you photograph. If you care about your subjects, you want other people, your viewers, to care as well; and this will show in the work, as it does here. Khalik Allah cares. We should as well.

For those interested in watching a video about the work, this one is a good start.

Photobook Reviews (Week 20/2014)

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Wherever you go these days, the general sentiment appears to be that there are “too many photobooks.” I don’t know whether I buy that. It’s true, there are lots of photobooks being produced, but for me the rule always is: the more, the merrier. But whenever something is popular and getting a lot of attention, the “too many” comments erupt. I remember a few years ago, there was the same kind of talk about photography blogs. After bloggers like yours truly had written about photography for a while, suddenly having a blog and/or reading them became a big craze, and then there were “too many blogs.” Now, a few years later, many blogs have disappeared, and quite a few new ones have entered the scene. Blogs are here to stay, and frankly, those debates about “too many blogs” in retrospect look, well, silly.

I suspect we’ll witness the same development as far as photobooks are concerned. We’re now living through the golden age of the photobook, which is caused by a confluence of various independent factors. For example, digital technologies have made self-publishing much easier and cheaper. The medium photobook itself has found much broader acceptance, its possibilities being explored much more deeply than before. Etc. Just like how a few years ago every photographer thought they needed a blog, now everybody thinks they need to make a photobook. This won’t last. And that’s fine, because once the hype is gone those truly dedicated to making high quality photobooks will continue to do so.

Another sentiment I often run into is that there are “too many bad photobooks.” Occasionally, someone will tell me that there seem to be so many more bad photobooks now than in the past. Of course, that’s true. But it’s really just a numbers game. We all have a good idea what we think is good or bad (even if many of us are reluctant to be honest about that in public). Let’s assume we like maybe 10% of all photobooks. If there are 10 books, we’ll like 1, leaving 9 bad ones. If there are 100 books, we’ll like 10, leaving 90 bad ones. If there are 1,000 books, we’ll like 100, leaving 900 bad ones. Now 900 bad photobooks looks like a lot. But at the same time, there are 100 good ones. So why complain about so many bad ones, when there are also so many good ones?

In many ways, self publishing reflects the overall developments in the photobook scene. I think the percentage of good photobooks that are self published is the same as the percentage produced by commercial publishers. Just like many other people, I appreciate the efforts that go into self publishing a photobook. At the same time, for me the fact that a book is self published does not elevate it beyond those books made by commercial publishers. The only thing I care about is whether a photobook is any good or not. I suppose that’s the one thing I could do without: the idea that somehow the fact that someone self publishes a book adds value to it. It doesn’t. Photobooks are not like cakes where a homemade cake will usually taste much better than one bought at a store.

Having said all that, here are three self published photobooks that I think deserve a wider audience.

Eamonn Doyle‘s i is already sold out. That’s good news for the photographer and bad news for anyone interested in buying a copy. I thought about simply not reviewing the book, but then I decided to feature it anyway. After all, books can have a second edition, and if enough people ask for it… Doyle produced 750 copies of the book, a nifty number to sell out, for sure. At the same time, there is no guarantee that a book will sell out, and what do you do with all those boxes of books? Stack them under your bed? To be honest, I have little patience for complaints about edition sizes that supposedly are too small, simply because the economics of making a photobook yourself are daunting. That’s the one aspect where self publishing is at a disadvantage: often, you really only have that one book. How many can you afford to print? If it doesn’t sell enough copies, where/how do you store the unsold ones? And, crucially, how do you offset your financial losses? (You usually don’t, because you can’t – unless you’re independently wealthy.)

i contains street photography, a genre I’m usually not particularly fond of. Let’s be honest, street photography appears to have run its course. But here, the specificity with which Doyle approaches his photographs elevates them beyond the genre’s awfully tired conventions. The compositions are very tight around individual people, most of them elderly (there are a few photos where the subject’s age cannot be inferred). They are photographed from what looks like a bit of a height, which makes them look even more weighed down than they already are by what old age does to the human body. Seen from behind or the side, these people seem oblivious of the fact that there is an observer (or maybe they just don’t care anyway). This approach turns the photographs into an oddly mesmerizing affair, where the viewer feels like they are in fact just a step behind that old man or woman bent over. Most people I know would never be this close to a stranger in the street, especially not an elderly one. Thus, there is a feeling of paranoia seeping in, and it’s the viewer who is feeling paranoid for these people: While essentially watching these people from a short distance, the viewer experiences the feeling of being watched this way. The effect is very unsettling; and I see the book as a very good commentary on both the genre of street photography and on what photography does in general. Ultimately, though, this is a book about life, about how inevitably we will all get old, our bodies will give out, and we’ll die. I really hope there will be a second edition so more people can enjoy this book.

There already is a second edition of Lena Grass‘ Nachtigall available. The first edition of 100 books sold out, so now there’s a second edition of 400 (the second edition comes with a poster). If you go to the photographer’s website you can see a list of bookshops where you can buy your copy; or you can simply email her.

Unlike Doyle’s i, Nachtigall is not an easy book to “get.” Viewed from pretty much any aspect, whether it’s the physical size or the way the photography operates, it’s almost the exact opposite of i. Where i exposes other people in the glaring sun, Nachtigall is a quiet meditation around night and the things that might (or might not) happen at night. Night is the time when you’re lost you really feel it, when the lack of light exposes things that broad daylight would never be able to show. With its simple, understated, yet smart design the book helps the photographs to evoke what they might evoke – no single picture appears to be of any particular importance, but the sum of them all adds up powerfully. This is the kind of book that’s easy to overlook on a table at some book fair (it’s even easier to do that when looking at pictures online), because it requires an engagement that can only be had in the solitude of one’s home.

Niels Blekemolen‘s Een Keer Per Week is part of the photographer’s final exam at an art school in Holland. Much has been written about photobook making there (incl. on this site), so there’s no need to add anything to that. Designed by -SYB-, the book is the kind of smart photobook one can almost expect from Holland, where the art of photobook making has set very high standards, standards that many non-Dutch photobook makers are often struggling to meet.

Een Keer Per Week looks into Dutch nursing homes and the lives of those living there. As a photobook, it’s a very good example of how the general concept, layout, and design can elevate a collection of photographs to something much more than that. The viewer is led into various nursing homes, with more and more details being shown – none of them per se are particularly noteworthy, but that’s exactly the idea. Most of the people living in these facilities only leave them once a week (hence the title, Dutch for “once a week”), so they spend a lot of time in an environment designed to be pleasant, yet struggling with a general lack of resources. It’s the kind of photography project that in principle would be “boring”: what can you take pictures of if there’s nothing exciting? But that’s really where you can find good pictures, because if people have to live in such environments, then the photographs should reflect that. And the book can then do the rest, which it does here.

i; photographs by Eamonn Doyle; 74 pages; self published; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.9

Nachtigall; photographs by Lena Grass; essay by Jasmin Seck; 64 pages; self published; 2012 (second edition 2013)

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.5

Een Keer Per Week; photographs by Niels Blekemolen; 140 pages; self published; 2013

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.5

Review: The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon

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“This book is a the record of my life.” writes Danny Lyon in The Seventh Dog. “I have decided to start at the end of my life, and proceed backwards […] Everything depicted here happened, usually to me or close enough for me to picture it. I do not lie about fishing, and I do not lie in my work. In my youth I was drawn to photojournalism, and it is in the nature of journalism to be truthful. More to the point, I do not have to lie or exaggerate.” OK, then. (all quotes in this article from the book)

I don’t think I buy some of that, for a variety of reasons. Life just doesn’t work that way. You don’t look back, closer to its end to its beginning, to present your own life unembellished and truthfully. Because you just can’t. It’s impossible. Even if you tried to look back truthfully to what you remember, to what you can infer from all the stuff you have accumulated, there’s still your own memory, which is more like a carefully curated collection of things that might or not be facts than a set of files in a disinterested drawer.

But given a photographer’s work is essentially the result of all of her or his idiosyncrasies, I’m going to accept Lyon’s premise. I’ll admit: I am more interested in his than the actual truth, whatever that actual truth might be. Lyon’s version of events contains life in a way that the files, if we were to imagine we could access them in some other dimension, do not. Lyon’s version of events – that’s a human voice, and only human voices can tell stories.

“My name is Daniel Joseph Lyon. I was born in Brooklyn, and raised in Queens, like the Ramones.”

So there’s that human voice in The Seventh Dog, and there are the pictures, many of them well-known, others not so much. But there are also all kinds of other materials on display, including photomontages and reproductions of letters or other print materials. It’s a very attractive package, the kind of packaging I wish more books about photographers would follow. I like seeing these materials, combined with that voice.

The book goes back in time rather quickly. Forty six pages in (out of its 228), you’re back to 1981-1980, first in New Mexico, then in New York. It’s the New York of the 1980s that today sounds like a place from another planet.

“There was a shooting and robbery in the building, a car exploded outside while I was talking to an editor of Polaroid (she wanted to leave), and baby Noah found a bag of white heroin beneath the rubber mats under the jungle gym in the park.”

Lyon’s well-known bodies of work are properly represented, with insight into how they were made. There’s the work from the Texas Department of Corrections in 1968, which would result in Conversations with the Dead (1971). And there’s The Bikeriders, of course, shot in 1964-66.

“This, my first book, was dumped on the market along with all of my early work, sold for nothing to open up space on the shelves in the warehouse.”

And it goes back and back in time, there’s a mirror “selfie” of a very young Danny, and finally there’s a picture of weeds reflected in a pond. It’s only appropriate to leave the final words to the photographer as well…

“All that time, all those pictures, so many roads traveled down, and looking for what? What was I looking for? A child camper’s heart still beats strong, at the croak of frogs, the stillness of the water, the mirror of the weeds, each bent, each double, like his life.”

The Seventh Dog; photographs and text by Danny Lyon; 228 pages; Phaidon; 2014

Review: Unfamiliar Streets by Katherine A. Bussard

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The term street photography is now widely understood to stand for, as Wikipedia explains, “art photography that features the human condition within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment.” In 1900, photographer Osborne Yellott described it as the “record of scene or incident which may possess sentiment or merely human interest” (in an article entitled “Street Photography,” published in Photo-Miniature: A Magazine of Photographic Information 2, no. 14, May 1900, pp48ff.; as quoted in Unfamiliar Streets by Katherine A. Bussard).

This is all fine, but one might wonder about all the other photography that happens to be done somewhere in the streets and that does not follow this photographic approach. Given that it is cities that appear to be driving large parts of what we could consider as our culture (sorry, country folks!), looking at photography that uses their streets as a backdrop, maybe even as an integral part of its approach, might tell us quite a bit, in fact possibly more than the genre of street photography itself, which, let’s face it, has become rather stale and exhausted.

This is precisely where Katherine A. Bussard Unfamiliar Streets enters. “I advocate for an analysis of street photographs firmly grounded in the locations of their making. Shifting the conversation to the depicted streets themselves, my analysis addresses the significance of the street as both site and subject.” Bussard writes in the introduction.

Why is this interesting? The names of the four photographers discussed in the book might give us a clue: Richard Avedon, Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. It would seem that these artists have very little in common, other than each being a photographer. But this is exactly why Bussard’s approach is interesting: It investigates what roles the streets, the urban surroundings, play in their work, and, crucially, how those roles relate to both the medium’s history and to larger cultural and/or societal trends, even trends in city planning.

Here is what this looks like in the case of Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Unfamiliar Streets focuses on two bodies of work, Streetwork and Heads. In obvious ways, Streetwork references the work by New York’s well-known street photographers, but it also deviates significantly, given its production, relying on elaborate lighting and pre-arranged camera settings. With its carefully elaborate set-up, the body of work uses the city’s landscape as a theater stage on which the actors would appear. The focus is both on the stage and on the actors. Heads takes the approach a step further, focusing solely on, well, the heads of passersby. It might seem as if Streetworks and Heads have very little in common, but Bussard’s discussion makes the connections clear.

In addition, Bussard discusses the relationship between diCorcia’s work and Walker Evans’ subway and Chicago photographs, as well as bodies of work by Harry Callahan, one, a proto-Heads of sorts, photographed in Chicago. Photographs almost inevitably reference other photographers, or they are in dialogue with them, and much can be gained from such a discussion.

But there is more. Given diCorcia photographed in New York, Bussard includes an in-depth discussion of Manhattan’s transformation with time, with a special focus on Times Square. Given the city does not merely serve as an irrelevant backdrop in doCorcia’s work, but instead is an integral part, Streetwork speaks of the city itself and of its transformation from a rough city to essentially a large strip mall and playground for the wealthy.

As a result of this discussion, the reader gains deeper insight both into diCorcia’s work and into how it relates to the larger context it is embedded in. The same is achieved by the discussions in the other three chapters.

Doing this work, Bussard has found and deftly attended to one of the most glaring gaps in discussions about photography today. I can’t help but think that all-too often, discussions about photography omit or ignore historical references, for whatever reason. But historical references, when established clearly and forcefully, serve to elevate photography, and they can help us see our own world with a different set of eyes.

What is more, discussions about photography all-too often pretend that there is no larger picture, beyond whatever often narrow view of the world is being served. Photography has become too atomized, too concerned with trifling matters. Take, for example, the brouhaha over “social media.” It’s fine if you want to go gaga over sharing your work with many people, but it really helps if you have something to say. And maybe there should be a focus on having something worthwhile to say first and then about sharing it – instead of the other way around.

With Unfamiliar Streets, Katherine Bussard demonstrates the immense promise contemporary photography has. That promise will only be fulfilled, however, if we’re willing to look more deeply, if we’re willing to make all the connections that might require a little work, but that ultimately offer such a deep engagement with the medium. I hope there will be more books like this one. We really need them.