Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Best of 2015

 It's the end of the year and this is my last post for now. The lists are going up and I'll be having a best of list up on Photo Eye sometime soon. But it's not really best of, it's favourites and is really pretty arbitrary in some ways. There are plenty of other books that could be in there too.

So to end the blogging year, here's a few of my other favourites from 2015!

I'll be having a Happy Birthday, Christmas and New Year. And a Happy Whatever you Celebrate to everybody wherever you are!

Best Workshop Venue: Gazebook Sicily 

Best Dogs: Klaus Pichler

Best More than just a Surveillance Project: Lina Hashim

Best Postcard Project: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Best artistic depiction of a prison cell: Ai Wei Wei 

Best book that shows something that doesn't exist: Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson

Best  idea that will get reused again and again: 'Thin Places' - as quoted by Thom and Beth Atkinson. Thin Places are where the physical and the spiritual worlds come close.

Other Best Book that shows something that doesn't exist: YU by Dragana Jurisic

“Where do you come from?
From Yugoslavia.
Is there any such country?
No, but that’s still where I come from.”

Best Black and White book on the Basque Country: Ama Lur by Jon Casenave

Best Black and White book from Brazil: Hart by Laura Del Rey and Alziro Barbosa

Best Ukrainian Book: Chronicle

Best Himalayan Project The Himalayan Project

Best Mad Internet Project: A Work on Jealousy

 Best theme-park based exhibition: Dismaland


Best promotion for a photobook festival and Best Golden Shoes: Gazebook and Ricardo Martinez Paz!

Best Cut the crap already: Thank you for standing up and making words count, Aritry Das. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

"It's very Thames and Hudson"

Yang Yi: A Sunken Homeland

I went into my fantastic local bookshop, Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights a few months back and Ed who deals with the art and photography section upstairs was telling me how Martin Parr had come in the weekend before. "He looked at the shelves and said to me, "it's very Thames and Hudson, isn't it". Which I wouldn't have minded except that Martin Parr's had books published by Thames and Hudson and he's not complaining then."

This blog is very not Thames and Hudson, painfully so at times. It clings to the margins of the photobook world. What am I saying? The photobook world is the margins. There's nothing inside the margins so of course I cling to the margins. We all do, otherwise we'd fall away and drown in the nothingness of a life without endless discussions on the democracy of the photobook, the machinations of Amazon, the intricacies of editing by colour and shape, and the evils of small editions and artist book pricing. My god, it would be a life barely worth living.

Anyway, if you haven't noticed, this blog is full of self-critical Italian projects, obscure Spanish books and family albums from Prague that have been ripped out off somebody's desktop folders. It's either that or it's all black and white where you can't see what's happening, archive pictures dressed up in an obscurantist present, flooded Edgelands, or weird family projects all put into a book where one page folds into the other and you really don't have a clue what is going on whatsoever. And that's the good stuff and it is!

So to end the blogging year, I thought I'd leave the obscure stuff behind and get a little Thames and Hudson. And what better way to do it than a couple of short reviews of books published by Thames and Hudson.

The first one is An Era Without Memories. This is written by Jiang Jiehong and is about urban transformation in China as seen by Chinese photographers.

I've had a couple of posts on Jane Tormey's book, Cities and Photography here and on eccentric Chinese developments here, but An Era Without Memories adds something to the idea of urban photography.

First and foremost it connects the ideas of destruction and development; something that is very familiar to anyone involved even remotely in heritage, but perhaps more novel in photography. And it connects contemporary development/destruction to that which occurred in earlier times, particularly during the Mao era. And if you didn't know it, the greatest destruction of domestic housing ever occurred during Mao's rule, when, according to Frank Dikotter, one third of all housing was apparently destroyed to make low-grade fertiliser or low grade fuel to make low-grade iron.

In the book, property development in China is connected to both the European examples of urbanisation in the 19th century, but also to Chinese concepts of modernity in architecture which is then exemplified through the photography of Wang Qingsong, Hu Jieming and Miao Xiaochun.

Wang Qingsong: One Hundred Chai

Destruction, development and alienation are the key themes. In the third chapter of the book, An Alienated Home, we see Wang Qingsong's One Hundred Chai - this is a hundred pictures of the Chai sign painted on the walls of Beijing residences. Chai means to demolish, so the alienation message is coming across clear and true.

Rong Rong cranks the alienation up another level by actually photographing his home being damaged after returning from a residency in Australia. 'In the taxi, all the way from Beijing airport back home, the landscape was crumbling away, with many houses and streets disappearing, as if they had experienced an air raid. The minute we saw this had happened to our own home, our hearts sank and we collapsed too.'

Rong Rong

The really enjoyable thing about the book is that the photographic works are given a more personal edge than is customary. In that sense it's also about the connection between modernity, the urban and personal experience. That adds a poignancy to the images that in other places, without the heartbreak or anxiety of contemporary Chinese life being revealed, can seem over-produced. So in the fourth and final chapter, Memories Invented: Reimagining realities lost through environmental transformation, we get Hu Jieming reliving his childhood memories of viewing Shanghai from rooftops - by photographing his son perched on the same rooftops.

The second book is The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Photography. Photography is no longer a single subject, I don't know if it ever was. What's interesting about photography is when it touches on the outside world, when it gets wrapped up in film, literature, politics, when it tells a story that reaches out from a two-dimensional print or page or screen. And then there's the technical side, the processes, the cameras, the printing that helped aid the spread of the photographic image.

The aim of this Dictionary is to bring all these disparate elements together and present a truly global view. This is impossible of course but it does a pretty good job. Entries reach across photographic genres and take in curators, critics, editors and publishers. If you're looking for botanists, there's a section for those two (Anna Atkins and Karl Blossfeldt only I'm afraid),while there is a healthy list for techniques and processes.

welethu Mthethwa: Interiors (one of which is in the Dictionary of Photography)

It's a step up from other dictionaries in terms of detail and the ease of accessing and reading information (not something one should take for granted) and I found myself flicking through it and discovering things that I really didn't know and should know - and will quite soon forget until I flick through the book and learn it again.

It's not as international as it could be (the project was started in 1998, shelved, and then started again in 2010 - with many, many contributors) and some of the entries use odd phrasing (Rineke Dijkstra's Bathers?). But it's a book that you can flick through at leisure that will give you the information you're after far quicker and more pleasurably than a search on the internet.

Yasumasa Morimura: Self-Portrait (Actress)/After Elizabeth Taylor 2, 1996

And it will lead you on to other ideas, genres and artists. It's a fact checking, initial search of a book, but it does draw you in and will tell almost everyone about photographers, places and organisations of which they previously had no idea.

The last detail; it comes with not one but three ribbon page markers. That's a lovely detail. More people should do that. And why stop at three. Have twenty!

The History of British Violence

The Last Stand of the 44th at Gundamuck, by William Barnes Wollen (1842)

When my daughter was little I used to get up early with her every other morning to 'play'. The playing often revolved around the Playmobile people she had. She had millions of them and they all had names, so we'd invent these elaborate stories and play them out as the sun rose in the back window over the scenic Avon Valley Countryside. 

But it was early, so sometimes I'd lose track of the stories, and then I'd get asked to repeat old stories which would melt my brain and leave me in a state of existential crisis. So instead I started playing out the plots of films (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Shining and the like). The best one to play out was the Exorcist because Playmobil People's heads really do go round. 

The other thing I did was play out scenes from history - the rise of Hitler, the rise of Mao, Soviet history, slightly biased British history and so on. It got to be quite global in its scope. 

So she loved history from an early age and then she went to school. And it kind of got stuck on the first and second world wars with a bit of Egypt, Romans and Henry VIII thrown in. It was rubbish. There is nothing like a bad history teacher for taking the interest out of a subject that is manifestly fascinating. 

And that is what struck me first in this article by William Dalrymple from September. He talks about the censoring of British history (and censorship makes everything uninteresting) and the reason why we don't understand our own history. And the importance of understanding the dark side of what we did and what we do and who we support and where we support them. 

'Yet much of the story of the empire is still absent from our history curriculum. My children learned the Tudors and the Nazis over and over again in history class but never came across a whiff of Indian or Caribbean history. This means that they, like most people who go through the British education system, are wholly ill equipped to judge either the good or the bad in what we did to the rest of the world.
Yet if the British remain largely ignorant of the blackest side of the imperial experience, and are still taught in their schools that it was only our German enemies who turned racism into an ideology that sought to justify mass murder, then we also remain largely unaware of some of the more positive, and perhaps surprising, moments of our imperial experience.'
And then In this article from the weekend, Dalrymple talks about the artistic legacy of the empire, in particular that which connects to the brutalities of British rule.
'Paul Gilroy rightly puts it in the excellent accompanying catalogue, Britain’s “inability to come to terms with the disputed legacies of empire has been corrosive. Locally, it has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance. Knowledge of the empire’s actual history is unevenly distributed across the globe. Descendants of the victims of past injustice are often more familiar with the bloody annals of colonial government than British subjects, safely insulated at home from any exposure to the violent details of conquest and expropriation.” That was certainly the case with The Last Stand of the 44th: in 2000, soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment – the lineal successors of the 44th – reported that coloured postcards of the image were selling well in Afghan markets, as if in celebration of a recent rather than a distant British defeat.
When I was researching my book on the 1857 Great Uprising – still anachronistically known in the UK as “the Indian Mutiny” – I was horrified to discover the scale of the war crimes our ancestors committed while supressing the rebellion: tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were slaughtered in British reprisals; in one mohalla (neighbourhood) of Delhi alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded a young officer, Edward Vibart.
It was literally murder … I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful … Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference.
By 1858, Delhi, a sophisticated city of half a million people, was left an empty ruin, as were Kanpur (“Cawnpore”) and Lucknow. Similar excesses were inflicted on many other cities from Kandahar and Kabul –both laid waste by the British “Army of Retribution” in 1842 – to Mandalay and Rangoon, burned down a few years later. Yet most people in the UK remain completely unaware of these aspects of their imperial history, and many leave school without touching upon it at any point in their formal education. In our school textbooks, it is only the Germans who imagine racial hierarchies and commit racially inspired genocides.'
Dalrymple's talking about British history because it is something which is rarely addressed. But the same applies to any nation which wields or has wielded political, economic, ideological or religious power over others. 
Which means just about everybody. Rather than always pointing the fingers at others and wallowing in blame and victimhood, we should all look at the cruel side of our history, our ideologies and the consequencs of our actions. And if we think our country doesn't have a cruel side, then we should think again.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Jack Latham: How the United States got Big!

When I lived in Canada, I used to go to my wife's lectures in Anthropology, African and American History at the University of Toronto. They were far more engaging than the lectures I'd been given in the UK, and they gave me a grounding in history that I still remember to this day. It was like doing another degree course (I did all the reading as well).

Some of the things that stuck with me from American history were the expansion of the United States of America. We didn't learn about that in British school - we learned about the pyramids, the First World War, the Empire and how bad the Nazis were. It's still the same now.

But going to these lectures I suddenly learnt that the United States had started off so relatively small, that 200 years ago it was a place that was part of the people who had lived there for the previous millenia, that the whole of the USA was formed on lies and deceit and arbitrary power grabs that are mind-boggling in their venality. So it wasn't too different from the British Empire then (or any empire or expansion of power).

     all photographs Jack Latham

The idea that struck me most was the Louisiana Purchase. This was when the United States doubled in size by buying a bunch of land from the French. Not that the French had ever done anything with this land or even occupied any part of it for any length of time,or even 'owned' it in any sense of the word. It was wholey imaginary ownership based wholely in the mind and the statement of ownership. But if you stick a pen to a map, draw a line across it and give the space a name, it somehow looks real. And then you have something you can sell, as long as you can find someone who believes in your maps. That's how colonialism works.

So in 1803 on behalf of the United States, Thomas Jefferson bought a massive chunk of land from Napoleon Bonaparte for $15 million. Trouble was nobody knew anything about this land other than the people who lived there already. And they were Native Americans so didn't count.

So an exhibition had to be mounted to 'discover the land' to find routes from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean, to map the mountains, to survey the lands, to see what was fit for farming and navigation and eventual exploitation.

The people who did this expedition were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and Lewis. From 1804 to 1806, they walked across territory uncharted by Europeans, from Missouri to Oregon. It was an epic expedition, one that established an US presence on the Pacific coast and helped aid the eventual expansion of the country to what it is today.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is the foundation for Jack Latham's book, Pink Flamingo. It's a nicely laid book of large-format images that follows the route taken by Lewis and Clark over 200 years ago.

And in a strange way, it echoes the original intent of the expedition, with quiet images of roadways and houses showing how the route is navigated now, how the route has been settled. And is still being settled, because there's a sense of austerity in there, the idea that what we have now is no kind of end game.

What were the results of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Pink Flamingo doesn't give any answers to that question. I like that.  It's still too soon to tell, it's still being settled, it's still empty, and it's still for sale, but now to a different kind of buyer.

Buy the book here.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Dear Japanese: A genuine struggle with the past

J. M’s mother was never willing to tell her who her father was. She only knows the name of her Japanese father, who worked at a petro company in Java.

I like Dear Japanese by Miyuki Okuyama for several reasons, Most of all I like it for its earnestness, for its desire to do good, for its attempt to understand the impact Japanese imperialism had on the people of Southeast Asia.

If you don't know it, in East and Southeast Asia, the Japanese have the kind of reputation the Nazis have in Europe. The difference is that Germany has addressed (if not quite coped with) its past, Japan has barely recognised what it did in the name of the emperor.

J. S. as an infant, lived in Japan with her parents. The life together did not last, since her mother could not adopt to the life in Japan.

This attempt to understand one's own national atrocities and failures doesn't happen much in photography (very few British people are willing to address or challenge their own deeply held certainties for example), especially where Japan is concerned. It doesn't happen even when other nationalities are dealing with Japanese photography. In the West at least (and correct me if I'm wrong), there is one Japanese photo-narrative and it goes unchallenged; it runs along the lines of atomic bombs, American bombs, Japanese suffering, American suffering. Which is all true, but (atomic bombs aside), it's even more true of Germany. The traditional photo-narrative misses a few things out.

A massive bugbear of mine this year was the Time, Conflict exhibition at Tate Modern. There were four works (off the top of my head) concerning the aftermath and horrific suffeing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet there was nothing concerning the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army in 'The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'.

I found this astounding, especially considering 1) Japan has never truly recognised its disgraceful war record and 2) there is great work out there that addresses Japanese rule in Asia, and this work has been shown in Japan; Reminders Stronghold, the documentary hotbed in Tokyo, showed Jan Banning's Comfort Women earlier this year for example.

Okuyama is trying to address this imbalance in other words, and in so doing she has produced a really nice book with the Eriskay Connection. And it's not easy, you can feel how difficult it is for her.

It starts with a sincere introduction in which she describes who she is photographing. These are the descendants of Dutch-Indonesian and Japanese parents, people who returned to the Netherlands after the Japanese occupation ended and Indonesia gained independence. Despite the Japaneseness of the features Okuyama found in the people she photographed, many grew up not realising their Japanese backgrounds. So for Okuyama, the act of photography is a form of personal understanding of her own past (as manifested in the Japanese occupation of Indonesia/The Dutch East Indies) and a reconnection of her subjects to the Japanese culture that she believes in so passionately.

Claudine has been searching for her father since the early 70’s.

The pictures are quite straightforward and they are uncaptioned (go to her website to see the captions - I like the captions. I am not sure why they are not in the book. This is not a poetic story, this is a concrete story. And the captions help fix that.).

Max M. was born in Bandung. He is one of a few fortunate cases to have good contact with his Japanese family.

The pictures are a mix of darkly printed portraits of these descendants, mixed with landscapes from the Dutch countryside. There is a sliding scale of Japaneseness in the portraits. Some look more Japanese, some less so, as though they are gradually becoming part of a new landscape. In addition to these elements there are a few interiors and a page from a map of Indonesia (of the island of Sumba curiously, a very particular place).

In 2007, Max confronted his mother for the truth. For the first time, she confirmed that he has a Japanese father.

But that landscape doesn't look quite as Dutch as you would expect.There are skies, and flowers and snow-covered forest floors. There seems to be something very Japanese about these places, as though the legacy may become diluted in genetic terms, but it stays in other ways, especially through the photographic filter that Okuyama overlays onto the Netherlands.

The book is printed on thin, almost translucent paper. It feels good to handle, and the darkness of the images is accentuated by the mass of blank pages. There is a lot of white in there to temper the blacks and the greys, but also to bring them out. It's a dark history and you get the feeling there are stories beneath the surface that Okuyama is not telling. There's an understated side to it, but the book gives us a feeling of these stories for us. Everything is suggested in a book that was a lot more difficult than it appears on the surface. There is a struggle in here, and that makes a huge difference.

Buy the book here.

And see more of the project here with captions. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Versus: Black and White. Where does one end and what does it mean?

There are two books in David Jimenez's Versus; a black book and a white book.

The black book is made up of images where glistens of water, trees, fish, doorways, leaves, clouds, cats, lighting, hands and walls shine though. There's not much shining though. It's all pretty black and difficult to see what is going on.

The white book is made up of images of mud, cloud, sand, grass, doorways, flesh, sky and sea. It's not really clear what is going on. It might even be that the images in the black book are the same as the one's in the white book but inverted (they're not but they could be. Maybe there are duplicates).

So I'll say it again; It's difficult to see what's happening. And that's the point of the book? It's about how we see images when they fall apart, how we put together the tiny fractions of image that still remain and form something from them.

It's a black-white philosophical enquiry then, with the fractions forming a narrative that is 'halfway belong the real and the imaginary... The images explore the limits of visual perception and transport us to an uncertain region in which we only have our intuition to guide us' as it says in the blurb.

It's a puzzle of a book then, one where you have to work to find meaning and the meaning is never conclusive or pinned down. It is about the edges of our perception but provides no answers or framework to consider how those edges work.

But it does take us to those edges and that's where it gets interesting, when you can't easily see what's going on, or when one thing becomes another and for a fraction of a second you're in a no-man's land of seeing; switching between the gears of different parts of the brain. And it is a lovely little package of a book, coming in those two volumes in a kind of slipcase.

Buy the book here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

James Barnor: Ever Young

Ever Young  is a collection of pictures from the archive of Ghanaian-born photographer James Barnor that creates a kind of timeline of the move of photographer from the studio into news, fashion and reportage. It's a kind of social history through photography if you like.

It's really a catalogue of Barnor's career, going from his days shooting for Drum Magazine, his time in charge of the Forever Young studio in Accra, and his subsequent move to London just in time for the 1960s.

There are pictures of Barnor with Ghana's first prime-minister, we see a spread on Roy Akrah (the Black Flash), a boxing champion Barnor shot for Drum Magazine, and pictures taken at the Drum Party on Chorkor Beach in Accra.

The late 1950s sees the opening of the Ever Young Studios and a series of studio portraits in which the aspirational modernity of post-colonial Ghana is shown. There are priests, nurses, street performers and a professor of yoga. It's a great section that ties in well, but is so very different, to the other great studio photography of the era. I don't know enough about Ghana but you can feel a Ghanaian identity coming through in places.

London in the 1960s shows black Britain, especially 'Drum Cover Girls' - in Trafalgar Square, feeding pigeons, and posing by the underground. There's eating grapes by a swimming pool in Kent, and portraits of Mohammed Ali before and after his fight with Brian London.

It's back to Africa and here we get Accra in colour, including some magnificent pictures from the colour processing shop that Barnor now managed.

Ever Young is an eclectic mix of studio portraits, press images, fashion and street photography and a broad introduction to how photography was used and expanded in Ghana and beyond. The pictures are great but it's not (as far as I understand) Barnor's complete archive so you get the feeling there is more to come. But it is an introduction to the work of a photographer who has been mostly overlooked until now and the pictures are fabulous.

Buy Ever Young here.