Pure Country

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Chances are that what you, the reader, are viewing on your screen is going to look ever slightly so different than what is offered by mine: the colours will differ, given that in all likelihood none of the various screens involved will in any way be calibrated. On top of that, colours shift even further as colour spaces tend to often be squashed and ignored. Don’t believe me? How about this:

Some time in 2016, I went to Google Image Search, typed in “Eggleston Red Ceiling” as search terms and looked at the resulting grid of images. I took a screenshot, and I then proceeded to average out each individual version of the very same picture in Photoshop. The original photograph is mostly red, of course, but the presence of other colours shifts things a little bit towards Bordeaux red. The above shows you these 25 average colours of what in principle should be the same image. And it is the same image, yet it’s also not — some versions found online are redder than others (there are also slight variations of aspect ratios).

Would the proper version of Eggleston’s red-ceiling picture please make itself known?

Well, what exactly *is* the proper version, given in print it looks different than on the wall (different print processes), let alone, as we’ve just seen online?

A few years ago, Steidl released expanded versions of various Eggleston books. I own a set of Democratic Forest (see it reviewed here and here). I also own the original one-volume version that came out at the end of the 1980s. If you put them right next to each other, which I’ve done when teaching, the same image will look drastically different. The 1989 version will look like what you’d expect such an image to look like, given the printing techniques of the time and given what people back then thought a good colour photograph might look like. The 2016 version looks like what you’d imagine the world looks like when you’re on mind-altering drugs. What are we going to make of that?

Maybe it all comes down to the fact that there really isn’t such a thing as the world in colour. There’s just what you make it look like, plus there are basic facts such as women being able to see more colours than men.

In fact, what colours ought to look like isn’t so clear any longer in photography, or maybe I should say it never was. If there’s one agreement then it is that any resulting photograph should be more than monochromatic, but that’s about it. I mean compare Eggleston’s colours (pick any) with, let’s say, JH Engström’s, then look at Hellen van Meene’s, then at Alex Prager’s… It’s all colour, yet all of these four types of worlds look radically different in terms of how colour is rendered.

Bill Sullivan‘s Pure Country makes these considerations its center point. As a start-off point, Sullivan picked the early colour photographs produced by Russian artist Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii (which I’m sure you’ve seen, because roughly every five years, they become “rediscovered” by some larger photo or cultural website as clickbait). For these images, Prokudin-Gorskii produced a set of monochromatic base colour images, which, once combined, will yield a “full-colour” image. With early colour photography like this (there also are autochromes) the game usually revolves around doing the combinations as faithfully as possible, which is a neat idea but which of course for the various reasons listed above will only take you so far.

So Sullivan decided to unleash his own ideas of what can be done with these photographs, producing an assortment of images that throw away the idea of faithful colour, to, instead, focus on the artifice of human-made colour images. Throwing in a lot of completely unrelated imagery and visual art, the book then arrives at a visual smorgasbord that teaches the viewer about printed colour on the sly. At times, I was reminded of Fake Flowers in Full Colour by Hans Gremmen and Jaap Scheeren, which, however, started out from scratch — using white plastic flowers and C, M, Y, and K spray paints (plus some very basic Photoshopping).

If my description sounds at all as if these two books are pointless and tedious (like so much of the New Formalism craze that now thankfully is on its way out), then that’s really not the case. They’re fun, smart, and engaging. Pure Country comes with a multi-page index that discusses colour theories and the production of colour imagery in detail, and even that part is fun and engaging.

At the time of this writing, the publisher’s website says the book is “back ordered,” asking for interested viewers to check in for availability updates. For sure, I hope the book becomes available again.

Pure Country; images by Bill Sullivan, Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii, and others; text by Bill Sullivan; 296 pages; Sun; 2018

(not rated)

Book Reviews W15/2019

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With Spain having established itself as the newest powerhouse of photobook making, it might be Poland’s turn next. I’ve noticed how over the past few years there have been more and more books coming out of the Central European country, with cutting-edge book design having spread beyond the Sputnik Collective. This is a most welcome development and the richness of photobook publishing in these and other countries makes it an obvious statement to say that Europe is at the forefront of the medium — certainly as far as contemporary productions are concerned.

Łukasz Rusznica‘s Subterranean River reached me shortly after my first trip to Japan. With my impressions being so fresh, I was unable to approach it on its own terms for a while. For sure, I thought — and still think — that the photographer got enarmored with some of the very same things I noted there. I found Japanese cities to be thoroughly unphotographic at first: it’s almost as if they resist being photographed, which might just reflect some of their society’s underlying culture. But eventually, there will be an opening through which one can approach what is on view.

In Rusznica’s case, the opening was provided by the country’s folk legends, which tie in with many religious aspects, and which were indeed also the subject of Japanese photographers’ work (think Eiko Hosoe’s Kamaitachi or Daidō Moriyama’s Tales of Tono). I’m personally not opposed to appropriating a culture’s folks legends as an outsider, but obviously your mileage might vary.

Whether you’ve read any of Haruki Murakami’s novels that contain portals to a parallel world right in the middle of ours or simply watched any of the Yokai Monster movies, the basic idea might be pretty clear, and Subterranean River dives into it in part through its monochromatic blood-red middle section filled with a variety of staged portraits. (As an aside, I’d pick the movies, given I find the writer’s output way too calculated and pretend-cool. Again, your mileage might vary, but you might want to read this fantastic essay on the Murakami Effect.)

There are nods to other artists here and there, and maybe some of the visual effects are a little much — the inverted colour images are both conceptually and visually a bit too obvious. Still, it’s a thoroughly engaging book and a very beautiful production indeed.

Subterranean River; photographs by Łukasz Rusznica; text by Olga Drenda; 120 pages; Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych, Palm Studios; 2018

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.6

I suspect that if you looked at Lynn Alleva Lilley‘s Tender Mint you would figure out the rough location where it’s photographed somewhat easily. And maybe inevitably that location will set off all kinds of thoughts or ideas in your head — how could it not? Aren’t we conditioned to view what we call the Middle East in very specific, biased ways?

But this is a different Middle East. Almost exactly in the center of the book, halfway through, there’s a photograph that shows a monkey clinging tightly to her baby. The two are easy to miss, given they don’t take up much space in the frame. But once discovered the pair forms a magnetic focal point. Elsewhere, in a short piece of text next to a photograph, the narrator (who we must assume is the photographer) describes an encounter with a donkey. “There we were,” she writes, “in this imperfect sanctuary with only ourselves as witnesses to this unexpected communication.”

One might wonder how we, as humans, will ever treat ourselves with more dignity and compassion when our relationship to the living world at large is one of exploitation and murder, where animals are slaughtered willy-nilly so they can be eaten or simply just because some people are entitled pricks lacking an inner life. Tender Mint amplifies this question by blending portraits of people with those of zoo animals, adding quiet photographs of seemingly meaningless moments.

What are we doing to each other? How are we relating to each other? Could there be a different, better way? In and with this very meditative book, Lilley asks its viewers to discard the many preconceived ideas we tend to put on the world, to engage anew with it: differently. Otherwise, every day will just be another day along the lines of I read the news today, oh boy.

Tender Mint; photographs by Lynn Alleva Lilley; text by Lynn Alleva Lilley; poems by Samih al Qasim, Jane Hirshfield; 144 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2017

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.3

Terje Abusdal‘s Slash & Burn tells the story of a group of Scandinavians called Forest Finns, a recognized minority group in Norway. The book, the colophon informs the curious reader, was “developed in the 2016 photobook-masterclass by Yumi Goto, Sandra van der Doelen and Teun van der Heijden”.  I had an inkling while looking at it. I’ve seen quite a few books made there (whether in 2016 or at another time), and they somehow all resemble each other. Specifically, they mix up a wide variety of source materials to create what we might consider the current default of narrative-photobook making.

Where it works, it works very well. But I personally would caution against using the same formula for every book, because the risk is that the viewer will be looking more at the formula than at the actual work in question. And I found myself doing that here. There is what comes across as a randomness to some of the decisions the trio applied to the work, and some of the design decisions feel as if they were done merely to create unnecessary ornamentation. That’s too bad.

After all, the underlying body of work is very interesting. Abusdal has more than enough very good pictures that maybe ten years ago would have made a very good Hatje Cantz book (that’s before that publisher appears to have changed out their whole staff to arrive at whatever it is they’re doing now): something a lot more conventional. It’s not that I suddenly developed a craving for more conventional books. It’s just that I don’t want to look at what essentially come across as random design decisions. After all, the goal of any photobook maker should be to make the simplest possible book and not chase after the latest trends.

Slash & Burn; photographs by Terje Abusdal; texts by Aaron Schuman, Birger Nesholden, Terje Abusdal; 180 pages; Kehrer; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 1.0, Edit 2.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 2.5