Berenice Abbott – Paris Portraits 1925-1930

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Berenice Abbott – Paris Portraits 1925-1930 is a hefty object. With a size of 9.6 x 1.5 x 12.1 inches (24.6 x 3.8 x 30.6 cm), weighing 5.2 pounds, it’s the kind of book you could drop on someone else’s table for effect. What makes it truly imposing, though, are not its physical properties. It is the photography presented inside, including the way it is presented.

As the book’s title indicates, it presents this photographer’s portrait work. Berenice Abbott might not be widely known for that. Instead, most people will probably be familiar with either her part of bringing Eugène Atget to a wider audience after his death or for her photographs of New York City. These portraits are early work. Having moved to Paris, in 1923 she started working for Man Ray who taught her how to operate a camera. A couple of years later, she started taking “occasional portraits” (to quote from testimony provided in the book). Soon enough, she followed her employer’s lead, taking people’s portraits for a small fee. That went well only for so long, and she left Man Ray’s business to start her own.

Over the next few years, Abbott photographed friends and clients, producing the pictures presented in Paris Portraits 1925-1930. Using plates, the portraits were set up to make best use of available light, and the photographer later cropped them down to the versions she kept or sold. The cropping eliminated the often messy bits around the portraits, both problems with the emulsions and elements of the room/studio itself that simply were not supposed to be seen, such as the edges of backdrops that were too small etc.

For each of the sitters, the book includes all existing portraits — 83 subjects. Presented in alphabetical order, it first shows the cropped version(s) on one spread and then the uncropped ones on the next, at their original size. Given there are between one and four photographs per person, the book’s size is determined by the need to be able to show four plates on a single page. Two spreads per sitter (plus an essay and some extra material at the end) thus results in 386 pages. I’m explicitly mentioning how the book works because I have been critical of larger productions before. Here, it makes perfect sense, even though it will probably initially confuse the casual viewer who might be confused about spreads with one fairly small picture and some text on the other page.

Of course, the book could have been produced using a smaller selection of sitters, and the inclusion of the uncropped plates might lead to some complaints as well. I don’t think the book would have gained anything from attempting to trim it down. On the contrary, it would have lost a lot. If anything, for me it’s the uncropped plates that turn Berenice Abbott – Paris Portraits 1925-1930 into the treasure it is, one of the finest photobooks I have come across this year. The cropped portraits produced by the photographer often feel too tight, boxing in those portrayed. Needless to say, commercial considerations might have been responsible for this: what sitter would want to pay money for seeing a cracked emulsion or the end of a backdrop?

It is precisely those uncropped photographs that for me make this book. I have been thinking about why that is for a while now, and I don’t have a good answer. Often, the uncropped versions just feel so much more filled with life. At times, the differences are small. But often they’re drastic. For example, there are four photographs of Lucia Joyce, writer James Joyce’s daughter. The cropped versions are good. We see a young woman posing, as if frozen in a dance, against a simple blank background. In the uncropped versions, the pictures fully come to life, though: the young woman’s body becomes impossible fragile in an environment that almost looks like is out of scale. At the same time, the environment adds an element of eccentricity that appears to darkly foreshadow her eventual long and sad descent into schizophrenia. The uncropped photographs are truly haunting in this somewhat Barthesian sense.

Berenice Abbott – Paris Portraits 1925-1930 asks to be revisited frequently. Its photographs do not offer themselves up lightly. Inevitably, there is a sense of nostalgia; and the location and time add another element of romanticism: Paris at that time — how much better can it get? But I believe that to approach the work that way takes away from the photographer’s achievement. The photographs in this book are not good just because they were taken at a great place at what in retrospect looks like a great time. They are good because an incredibly gifted artist trained her camera at those willing (or paying) to pose for her.

Very highly recommended. Essential for any serious photobook collection.

Berenice Abbott – Paris Portraits 1925-1930; photographs by Berenice Abbot; essay by Hank O’Neal; 386 pages; Steidl; 2016

(not rated)

Reminder: Conscientious Portfolio Competition 2016

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The deadline for this year’s Conscientious Portfolio Competition is approaching rapidly. If you have thought about submitting work, yet have not done so, now is the time!

The Conscientious Portfolio Competition is free to enter. There are no costs involved for you other than the time it takes to decide about and send in your work. There are two guest judges joining me to determine the winners, Emma Bowkett and Felix Hoffmann.

The competition happens in two stages. The first stage – where we are now – is the submission stage. Photographers are asked to send in their application via email in the following form:

email address
website URL (a proper website: no Flickr, no blogs/Tumblrs)
name of the portfolio/body of work (please do not forget this part – surprisingly often, photographers forget to mention which project they’re submitting)

Send your email to review at (you’ll have to replace the “at” with @ and remove the spaces for this to work, of course), subject line “CPC 2016”. One submission per photographer. Please do not submit images or pdfs directly by appending them to the email.

The deadline in 31 October 2016, 11:59pm ET.

From the pool of submissions, 25 candidates will be picked for the second round. The photographers in this pool will receive an email, and they will have to send in ten jpeg images, in a uniform format (size etc.).

This is where Emma and Felix will come in. They will each pick their personal favourite from the pool of 25. I will pick one, too. Here’s the twist: There will be three or two winners, or maybe just one, if a photographer is picked more than once.

Having a second round is based on the idea of making everything as equal as possible. With uniform file sizes, fancy websites won’t be able to beat out simple ones. With a special naming convention for the jpegs (which will hide the full names), the winner will be solely chosen based on the quality of the work.

The winner(s) of the competition will have their work featured on this website, in the form of an extended conversation.

Good luck!

Andreas Trogisch – Vineta

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“LAßT EUCH NICHT BRDigen,” a piece of graffiti says in one of the pictures in Andreas Trogisch‘s Vineta 1985/1990. In another: “Wir sind ein blödes Volk.” “Don’t let them bury you,” with the initials of what was then West Germany, officially Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany) or BRD (which in German you’d pronounce “Be Er De”), serving as the beginning of “beerdigen,” “to bury.” And: “We are a dumb people,” the “dumb” adjective added to what had been the rallying cry of East German’s peaceful revolution, “Wir sind das Volk” — “We are the people,” claiming the kind of power expressed in the United States’ Constitution’s Preamble (“We the people…”).

There had been ideas and ideals, there had been revolutionary pathos, and much of all of that got discarded, as inevitably it would in any revolution, once East Germany formally joined West Germany, adopting the former rival’s system whole sale. Well, they kept the cute little figures in pedestrian traffic lights in Berlin. Everything else appears to have gone, even though when they had elections a little while ago, you could still see different mind sets in what used to be West and East Berlin. West Berliners more or less voted along what used to be West German lines, while East Berliners used theirs.

When you’re a foreigner and you go to Berlin, it’s not that straightforward to tell any longer whether you’re in what used to be West or East Berlin, unless you know. Berlin’s core has been gentrified heavily, transforming vast parts of the city into the kind of shopping centers that we now associate with modern cities. Prenzlauer Berg, a section of formerly East Berlin, has become completely insufferable, overrun as it is with yuppies who each year appear to have discovered some new lifestyle fad. For example two years ago, or maybe three, it was fashionable to get lattes only with “lactose free milk” — as if the whole latte cult wasn’t annoying enough already (as someone who actually is lactose intolerant this particular fad really irritated me even more than any of the other ones).

This is not to say that what has been replaced was so great, quite on the contrary. Prenzlauer Berg used to look like it was straight out of a Tartovsky film, a zone of disregard and disrepair. But then maybe one type of disregard (for things) has now been replaced with another one (for people — however different the context might be, this brings to mind a few lines from A Tribe Called Red‘s ALie Nation: “Nothing is related / All the things of the earth and in the sky have energy to be exploited / Even themselves, mining their spirits into souls, sold”). And now, larger parts of especially the Eastern German population are voting for either the successor party of the Communists or for the ultra-right wing AfD, with the mainstream collectively wringing their hands: how is this possible? Of course, it’s a development you see everywhere now.

Vineta 1985/1990 contains photographs taken at times that bookended the moment when change became possible. The two years are represented with two different types of pictures. The portraits in the book date from 1985. The cityscapes were taken in 1990. The portraits, in other words, were taken during one of the final years of the East German dictatorship, when things had congealed into a rotten stasis. The country effectively wasn’t functioning any longer, barely propelling itself forward as the days dragged on and on and on.

Then, the wall came down, and it all fell apart. Or rather, there wasn’t even much that could fall apart, because physically and mentally, things had already fallen apart. It really wasn’t too hard for the West to scoop things up and to start patching things over. The cityscapes show that “right after” moment, where the first patches started to appear. In these pictures, people are absent, which only heightens the power of the photographs taken five year before.

There were a multitude of possibilities for what these young people and old, mostly derelict places could have become, and there is how things turned out — so far. Maybe it’s really still too early to come to any form of judgment about all of this. Maybe more time has to go by. Unless we get a chance to speak to them, we have no way of knowing what became of those portrayed in the book. We can attempt to revisit the locations and see how they were transformed.

But we also might want to realize that in 1985, it didn’t look or feel much like a point in time where a momentous change was just around the corner in Germany. We just have no real way of knowing what might be. What we might know, though, is what we aspire to, what we dream of, what we think could be. Maybe our current state of affairs is so sad and disheartening to so many people not because of the way money has invaded each and every aspect of our lives. Maybe it’s because if we look at Garry Winogrand’s words of our “cheap and petty” “aspirations and successes,” things haven’t really changed that much.

There was that moment in time when a part of the world was given the chance not to go down that route. Vineta 1985/1990 shows us this moment. When we look around us, we can see the results of that moment, after an opportunity was squandered. Maybe we’ll do better next time.

Vineta 1985/1990; photographs by Andreas Trogisch; essay by Anja Maiaer; Peperoni Books; 2016

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.0

Understanding Photobooks

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Roughly two years ago, Focal Press approached me to inquire whether I was interested in writing a book. I was. Given the fact that I had been spending a lot of time dealing with photobooks, here was a topic I wanted to dive into more deeply. As frequent visitors of this site know, I have been reviewing photobooks for some time now (here is a list of all rated book reviews). As part of my teaching responsibilities, I have also had to work with photographers making books.

Contrary to what is widely believed, photobooks are very complex objects. It is true, you can make a photobook by dropping your pictures into some Blurb or InDesign template, and sending the files off to some printer you have never met (or possibly don’t even know), to then get something that looks like a photobook in the mail. But that’s a bit like buying a cake mix in the supermarket: unless you really screw up, you end up with an OK cake.

There are many books about photobooks available now, which, thankfully, allows those interested in the medium to get an idea of its history and of various of the past or present trends. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger have provided the photography community with an invaluable service by publishing their series on the history of the photobook. And there are many other such books, usually focusing on one particular region and then listing all the books you just need to know. These books are great for collectors and for photographers. As a photographer, you can get inspired by those that came before you.

But there is a lot less information available about how to actually do this, how to make a photobook — beyond the aforementioned “on-demand” or quick template-based approaches. Consequently, a lot of photographers trying to make a book realize that they’re fighting what often feels like a pretty tough uphill battle. It’s not only that having to edit and sequence one’s photographs is very hard. There’s just so much more to a book than that.

If you decide to do it all yourself — self-publishing has become a widely accepted way of making photobooks, you have to solve all those problems you had no idea they existed in the first place. Usually, those problems come one after the other. You’ve solved one, and two new ones pop up. Turns out every self-publisher is facing the very same problems. Yet despite the popularity of self-publishing there are few in-depth resources available about how to actually do things.

If you decide to approach a publisher, you’ll face a series of similar challenges, which actually do not stop once someone decides they will add you to their roster of artists to publish. Suddenly, there are all those people who want to have a say concerning your book. Wasn’t this supposed to be your book?

Given the preceding, I decided I was going to write a book about how all of that actually worked. What do you have to think of as a photographer when you publish your photobook, regardless of whether it’s self-published or going through a commercial publisher? From my teaching experience and from having talked to a lot of people in the business I know that many photographers are unaware of many aspects of photobook publishing. And how would you know if nobody ever tells you what do to?

The idea for my book was to tackle each and every aspect around photobook publishing in a way that would be most beneficial for photographers (and, consequently, for viewers or collectors who would rather look at well-made books). This resulted in what is now available as Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book. In a nutshell, it’s a “how to” or “what do you do” book.

More specifically, the book educates photographers about what it is they have to do when facing the task of publishing a book. It covers every aspect of book publishing in some form, ranging from the business of publishing to thinking about the concept of the book to editing/sequencing to design to production. Given that is a lot to consider, photographers need not worry they will have to become experts concerning each and every aspect, though. For example, while the role of design is explored and discussed, every photographer who is not a trained graphic designer should work with a professional.

So the focus of the book is to help photographers gain a lot better understanding of the tasks that are specifically theirs (in particular thinking about the concept of their book and editing/sequencing) and to provide them with enough insight into all the other aspects that they know who else to talk to and what about.

I know quite a bit about photobooks, but much like most photographers, I’m no in-depth expert on many of the issues discussed in the book. I’m not a graphic designer, I’m not a producer etc. It is for this reason that I have consulted with a large number and variety of photobook experts, to use their input for the book. These experts include photographers themselves, publishers, designers, editors, critics, and book sellers.

As one could imagine, there isn’t necessarily agreement between, say, designers about what good photobook design actually is. There will be an overall agreement concerning what it does and what main aspects have to work, but the details might differ considerably. So Understanding Photobooks approaches many of the aspects of photobooks on an “as needed” basis. In other words, it’s not so much about providing another cake mix — “these are all the details for how to go about this” — as an overall plan how to approach book making: “you will have to consider these aspects, and based on your book’s specific needs, come to an understanding how this works in this particular case.”

The book discusses many examples of how to think about editing and sequencing. But it also tackles less commonly discussed aspects such as what different bindings actually do. A series of books are discussed in separate, isolated sections, with input from different experts on how they actually work. I’m not after discussing “is this a good book?” Instead, I want to dive into “how does this actually work, and why does this make it a good book?”

As can be expected, the editing/sequencing chapter is the longest, the one whose writing produced the largest number of grey hairs for me. Editing and sequencing photographs is a very tough job, and I am very content with the almost fifty pages that discuss how to go about it.

I’m hoping that Understanding Photobooks: The Form and Content of the Photographic Book will help make photographers’ lives easier once they want to make a book. At the same time, the book was not written merely for photographers or those active in the world of photobooks. Even if you don’t want to make a photobook but want to understand the medium better, my hope is this book will help you get there.

Photography and Exploration

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These days, it’s common to come across press releases or statements by photographers in which the photographs are described as either an exploration or an investigation. “These photographs explore…” or “These photographs investigate…” This gets me every time. There are a lot of people in this world that can call themselves explorers or investigators. But photographers (or artists in general) are not in that position.

Photographs don’t explore. They don’t investigate. They don’t even ask questions. Instead, photographs are statements. They state facts (or at least look like they do). Given the way the medium works, given all the choices and decisions that go into the making of each and every image, photographs are first and foremost opinions. So when you look at a set of photographs, whether in a book, on a wall, or on some website, you’re not looking at an exploration or investigation. That’s bullshit. You’re looking at a clearly stated opinion.

Another way to approach a set of photographs is to think of them as a proposition — assuming you’re uncomfortable with the idea of opinion. These pictures here, whatever they might be, propose the following about the world, however clear or possibly vague that proposition might be. These pictures here challenge you, the viewer, to question what you believe in, to give you a chance to learn something, or to see the world in a way you have never considered before.

Please note that in the previous paragraph I’m making an assumption, namely that the photographs actually do that: to challenge their viewers. The reality is that many photographers decide not to do that, to instead produce photographs that confirm expectations. Such work has very little, if any, artistic merit. Here, I’m really only interested in discussing photography that aims a little higher.

Now, there is an aspect of investigation or exploration that is part of all photography. When you, as a photographer, work on a project, in all likelihood, you will have to explore or investigate something. To arrive at that final set of pictures you will have to go through a process of discovery, a process of forcefully challenging yourself. If you don’t do that, your resulting pictures are unlikely to trigger a similar reaction in your viewers.

So the photographs aren’t an exploration or investigation. They are the results of an exploration or investigation.

You might wonder whether this isn’t just a game of semantics. But it is not. I firmly believe that however tough the process of making the photographs might have been, as its end result they ought to be treated as something firm, as something that will as forcefully challenge their viewers as possible.

Calling photographs an exploration or an investigation doesn’t do that. Calling your photographs an exploration or investigation really is just an attempt to weasel yourself out of any possible adverse reactions. That can’t be art. For art to truly work, it will have to be willing to fight for what it is, however uncomfortable this might be both for its makers and its viewers.

Of course, the way large parts of the world of art and photography work, that requires some guts. Let’s say you graduate with your MFA, and then you’re reading here that it’s your job to antagonize the very people that might throw some crumbs at you (if you’re lucky)? Well, that’s easy for this writer to demand, isn’t it?

First of all, though, being forceful with one’s work isn’t the same at all as antagonizing people. Being forceful with one’s work means being true to it. If some people indeed feel antagonized by your work and by how they’re challenged — are those the people you want to work with? Are those people your audience?

Second, and this is slightly off-topic, if you’re just out of school, having got so much input concerning how to be that well-formed artist that works uniquely with your own very personal set of ideas and skills and motivations, do you really want to ditch all that the moment you’re out of school?

Given there now is so much photography that’s so wishy washy, so superficial, so, yes, lame, given there’s so much hustling for those few opportunities, is there anything wrong with going back to what the medium really does best?

Photography, however much lipstick you can put on that exploration pig, deals with opinions, with asserting personal visions, with making people uncomfortable, with getting people to come to conclusions they might not like, with all these things that are just so much more forceful and interesting than, well, explorations or investigations.

A different way to look at this would be to say that an exploration or investigation is a process. Photographs themselves aren’t a process, however you present them. Assuming everything is done well, they will trigger the same — or ideally even a different — process in their viewers. They’re achievements of having gone through a process, and as such they are opinions. That’s vastly more than being merely process.

You, the maker, have arrived at this set of photographs, at the end of a possibly lengthy and painful process, so give them the relevance they deserve. Accept that they’re your opinions, that they might challenge people. Don’t sell your achievement short by describing them as “an investigation” or “an exploration”.

(French: Photographie et exploration)