Monday, 8 February 2016

Kolkata 2224: Photographing the Surface to get beneath the Surface


At the beginning of December, on the Sunday, I finished rewatching the Apu Trilogy again. The last film was Aparajito, the one set in Calcutta (as it was then), the heartbreaking one where Apu finds a love that is traced through a series of glimpses and gestures that, despite their simplicity and their limited, are unsurpassed in movie history. And then he loses love, and the simplicity and violence of that loss is equally moving.


The same week, on the Wednesday, I finished reading a Sea of Poppies, the first in Amitav Ghosh's powerful and driving series on the opium trade. It traces the colonial history of India and the opium trade through the developing characters of the novel; their struggles, their hearts, their minds and their loves. And it's set in the Calcutta of the early 19th century, a company city where the East India Company rules.


The next day Kolkata 2224 by Pierre Defaix arrived in the post. It was interesting to see how a photobook by an outsider made in a relatively short time compared to the film and the novel.

Well, truth be told it doesn't compare. How can one expect it to? It's a book by an outsider that presents a surface view of the city. But it's a very good book for all that and the surface it presents is surface pure and simple. It's a book about the surface, but also the depths that the surface can reveal.

It comes with no text (I don't even know what the 2224 refers to) - is it something rhythmic, something musical because that might be a pattern the pictures are trying to create.

The book has a nice blue cover with 2224 written across it in gold (is the number something to do with gold. Or is it part of the Indian Criminal Code like Shri 420 ) and then you're into the book. It's all full-bleed dyptichs with the occasional landscape image processed to 50% opaqueness strung across two pages. These images are wider images of street life; the traffic, a petrol station, a pavement outside a mosque.

So there's the broader context.

The single images focus on the surfaces of the city. There are painted nails and painted walls, there's smoke and laundry strung on a wire. It's all very sensory. The roots of an urban banyan tree reach into the concrete ground, garbage is strewn across temple floors and flood-riddled gutters; flower petals merge with plasticbags, clay shards with broken twigs and rotting leaves.

It's a city that has lived a life then, and the life is visible on the skin of its streets. Wet hair, wet backs, wet hands. Water, oil, blood and slime. Defaix is trying to take us into the sensory overload of Kolkata and he succeeds. We see chickens and goats and fish, all dead, all dripping their life fluids away.

The elements are there; earth, air, water and fire, with wisps of smoke creating a pattern throughout the book. Hands are another trope and so is the rubbish of the city, the waste on which it is built, on which it was founded, on which it lives and dies. And that's how the book ends. With a picture of a licked hand paired with a gutter full of trash. Kolkata 2224.

Buy the Book Here

Friday, 5 February 2016

Photography, Dance and an Expression of Space

Concrete #5

If you're looking for photobooks on dance, you start with Ballet by Alexey Brodovitch, and then you're onto Irving Penn or Richard Avedon and ABECDA by Vitezslav Nezval, and there are many others, but you begin moving into the realm of coffee table books with a different aesthetic, 

There are performance based narratives like Kamitichi by Eikoh Hosoe. I think Zona by Nuno Moreira falls into this category too. Or body-based work that combine dance with contortion - Isabelle Wenzelle springs to mind - or there are works that fall outside the photobook category into art, and the book is not really the expression; instead you go into the wonderful worlds of action and performance based works where photography was just the medium of record.. 

So there aren't as many photobooks on dance as you might think (though I'm sure there are far more than I mention here). This is quite surprising in some ways; modern dance in particular goes out of its way to engage with diverse means of artistic expression. Last year I saw Rambert Dance Company perform their Three Dancers and Frames pieces. 

The Three Dancers translates Picasso's painting into a dance piece, interweaving themes of desire and desperation with sharp angles and cubist imagery (it's not a cubist painting but so it goes).

Frames went even further and recreated a Fordist production line on stage, in a dance mix that was powered by staging and lighting that was expressionist-constructivist in tone. It was fabulous. 

With that in mind, it was good to see Zoë Croggon's Arc in print. ( Arc was the winning project in the first Asia-Pacific Photobook Prize). In Arc, Croggon takes tight crops of dance performances and then collages them with images of architectural spaces as well as pictures from newspapers and the everyday. 


It's a choreographed book of how we merge with our surroundings and it is really quite fascinating. Perhaps not all the images work as well as others; there's a variety of resolutions with the crops sometimes interfering or not quite matching as consistently as others - and a flatter paper might have helped add a consistency to a book where a a range of projects have been put into the one book.


There is dance mixed with abstract spaces, so we  see a leg extended into a blue space, a hand into a pink space, and hands and feet mix with an art-centre stairwell. It's all very de Chirico and this is where the collages work best. Other work including close crops of sporting movement; a pixelated hand with a diagonal line, a diver, a basketball player, a runner mixed with a variety of shapes and forms. In places, the book is very geometrical (it reminds me in places of Siegfried Hansen's Hold the Line), in places it turns more towards the body. It's an meditation on the merging of body, space and architecture.  

Both Flesh and Not #2

It is an ambitious book, with work that goes beyond the photographic and work that makes you think and link between different areas. Croggon is not content just to make pretty dance pictures (as so many people do, hence the snotty comments about coffee table books!) but looks to extend our understanding of how we move and how that can fit into the world around us.

 Zoë  Croggon's Arc will be launched in the UK at the Photographers' Gallery, London tomorrow, 6th February at 2pm

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Zona: You have to make the effort!

Nuno Moreira is a Portuguese photographer and Zona is his book of meditations on 'the realms of the psyche.'

In the blur, we see that the narrative of the book 'follows a live performance and is somewhat similar to a dream experience,' an experience that comes complete with 'mystery and ambiguity.'

The book comes with words by José Luís Peixoto that help us navigate through the story Moreira tells through his pictues. It's very much a joint effort.

It's a gentle story, but not the most transparent of stories, it's not a come-and-sit-by-the-fire-and-I'll-tell-you-a-story story, or a bedtime story, or a page turner, spine-tingler or tear-jerker of a story. Instead it's a story that you take on the photographer's terms. You have to adjust to his way of seeing, their way of thinking to understand what is happening, and this takes time and effort.

If you make the effort, the book is well worthwhile. It is a lovely paperback size with a hardback charcoal cover, and papers that make an Everton-Mint pattern.

The first picture is of a pair of hands rather awkwardly holding a key. Open the door, and we're in!

Toes are followed by feet are followed by a hand over a shoulder, then two hands of a woman on her own back, then fists steeped in a pan of milk.

It's all quite esoteric, but then the first text comes; a meditation on the need for a secret place, a place free of words, a place of silence because 'If you knew my eyes, you would know that everything I could not silence hurt me time and again.'

But this silence is not enough, life consists of more than just silence. Soon there is a clamour for somebody else, hands reaching against a wall, panics when the narration momentarily thinks they are alone, that the spirit and texture of whoever it is they love has left them. And they have left too, seeking solace in that silence.

And that is the final part, dead flowers on the table, the acceptance that one doesn't own life, or the spaces we inhabit, and nor are those spaces personal and owned individually. Rather they are communal spaces that we all inhabit, that we must co-exist in, and we must reach out of our individual silences to flourish.

So it's a lovely book if you make the effort. The pictures are black and white, high contrast images of what looks like modern dance. They are fine and but it's the words that give these pictures structure and meaning. And though it's a lovely meaning, I do wish it actually attached to some real love, that the metaphysical somehow became concrete and there was a tearjerker that I could emote to. But that's just me being simple and not making an effort. You do have to make an effort!

Buy the Book here

Read Christer Ek's review. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

Requiem: From the Cradle to the Flames

Requiem by Goran Bertok is a beautifully packaged affair. It consists of two books called Postmortem and Visitors, both covered in charcoal card, Japanese stab-bound with black thread, the titles cut into the covers.

There's a gatefold sleeve with two little boxes or pouches for the books to go into and it opens and closes quite delightfully.

Open up the books though, and it's not all delightful. Postmortem is a series of images from a post-mortem. They're more focussed on the face and its details; the layering of white mould on the eyes and the skin, the transformation of living skin into something dead and waxy, then something live and consumptive.

The other book is of a cremation. Again, the images are small on the page, very modest and low key as they show the flames of the cremation, at first as a full-bleed flames only image, before breaking into smaller images that show the burning skull as it becomes ever-more skull like and then gradually disintegrates into a ghostly union with the flames. There are intimations of horror and the spiritual here, it's death as a spectacle, and as such I wonder if these pictures, which are quite sinister couldn't be bigger, or if this would be too much of a shock to the system considering all the supernatural and hellfire images that spring to mind.

There's nothing new in the pictures. It's post-mortem work (think Serrano), decay (Sally Mann) and cremation (Sue Fox) , but that doesn't really matter. It's a strong book that has been beautifully made.

Buy Requiem here. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Photographing the Holocaust, Photographing the Real

I've always wondered about the idea that photographs are not real. I would rather not take the line that photographs lie. They don't. People lie.

Photographs are very real, though beneath those little pixels or grains of the image are contained the realities of how they were made, modified and distributed (the indexicality of the photograph points in multiple directions).

There may very often be some dishonesty involved in all of that making, modification and distribution, but that is all part of the photographic story. It's not just the image that matters. The picture might be staged, or manipulated, or captioned with an untruth, but that dishonesty is still real and it's part of life. It's all real.

Anyway. I don't think there is anything more real than what the pictures on this post show, the way they were made, and the history they are part of. And I think that the story of how these pictures were made, and how other pictures were made during the Second World War, by people on all sides, are brutally revealing of the multiple functions of photography in all its forms - as accusation and evidence and defiance (in these pictures), but as much, much more besides; pseudo-science, identification, propaganda, as a mark of humanity, of inhumanity, as a trophy, a souvenir, and ultimately, and most brutally, as a marker of life or death.

These pictures are some of the secretly taken pictures of bodies being burnt at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 (the crematoria were so busy burning bodies that day that additional pyres were set up outside the ovens), and of women running towards the gas chambers.

The people who took the pictures were sonderkommando, prisoners detailed to work around the crematoria. This is an extract from Janina Struk's Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence.

Somewhere about midway through 1944, we decided to take pictures secretly to record our work… From the very beginning, several prisoners from our Sonderkommando were in on my secret: Szlomo Dragon, his brother Josek Dragon, and Alex, a Greek Jew whose surname I do not remember… Some of us were to guard the person taking the pictures. In other words, we were to keep a careful watch for the approach of anyone who did not know the secret, and above all for any SS men moving about in the area… 

We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas-chamber of Crematorium V… Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter… Another picture was taken from the other side of the building, where women and men were undressing among the trees. They were from a transport that was to be murdered in the gas-chamber of Crematorium V.

Read more here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Deadline: A Story of newspapers filled with nostalgia, love and sorrow

Deadline Newspaper

This is what Will Steacy has to say about his book Deadline, a book (?) that is about the death of a newspaper, the death of the newspaper industry, the death of the family business.

 'It has been a long gut-wrenching journey, but sometimes the hardest pictures to take end up being the most important pictures.'

It's a quote that recognises that, Austin Powers mojo-monkeys beside, great photography is never that simple; it involves difficult choices, hard work, dedication, and a mind that goes directly for the story has some kind of meaning. In the case of Deadline, it's a meaning that connects to family, to work, to a way of life that is dying. So it's very personal.

Deadline Newspaper

'When we lose reporters, editors, newsbeats and sections of papers, we lose coverage, information, and  a connection to our cities and our society, and, in the end, we lose ourselves. Without the human investment to provide news content it becomes a zero sum game on the information highway to nowhere. The fibers of the paper and pixels in the screeen are worthless unless the words they are presented on have value.

The newspaper is much more than a business, it is a civic trust.'

Those words are in the lead story of Will Steacy's Deadline, a lament to  'America's fastest shrinking industry', the newspaper business, and is told through the shrinking circulations and lay-offs at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper that had risen from nowhere to become one of North America's most influential publications.

Will Steacy's father, Tom, worked at the newspaper and for 4 years, from 2009 until the newspaper's closure in 2012 through to 2013, His grandfather was there before him and Steacy photographed both for the newspaper and, as the end loomed near, for this project; the newsrooms, the printrooms,the furniture, the meetings, the announcements, the redundancies, the end!

Deadline is published as a newspaper. It's laid out like a newspaper, and it's filled with type as a newspaper should be. And it's a big newspaper, like a weekend edition that comes in five sections; there's the main section which gives an overview, the Golden Age section (the 1970s - the 'Pulitzer years'), the Family Business section (which features archive material from 3 generations of Steacy involvement with the newspaper), the That's the Press section (how the newspaper is actually printed and made), and the Farewell, Tower of Truth section (the architecture of the ending).

It's full of text by former Inquirer staff. So there are stories on former editors, on turning points in the newspaper industry, of key stories in the paper's history, on how the newspaper is made, how advertising is sold, and how and why the Philadelphia Inquirer ultimately ceased to be.

Interspersed in there are pages of Steacy's pictures; a series on an editor's desk space shows the newsroom around him getting emptier and emptier until finally the newspaper is closed and all we can see is a dead office space denuded of sound, life, inquiry.

Another series shows the production process; the paper, ink and rollers of the printing presses. There are images from the newspaper archives to go with this, along with personal recollections of the days when the paper was printed on site in 'The Tower of Truth', side by side with the newsroom, the production and printing of news co-existing side by side.

The Family Business section is an archive of family photos and documents. It could have been a book in itself It's personal and links Will Steacy to the traditions his family (his family have worked in newspapers for over a century) passed down to him. 'When I began this series in 2009, I never expected to watch my father get laid off,' he writes, 'I never expected the staff and budget cuts to continue as mercilessly as they did... and I never expected my father's career to end when it did.'

I was a bit doubtful when I got Deadline. I love newspapers. I buy them everyday (except Sunday) and have done all my life. Internet news, or social media do not compare. You do not read them the same, and there is something ephemeral about words that appear on the screen that is not the same as those printed on paper. We read them differently and we understand them differently.

Initially I thought the problem with Deadline would be that it's like a Weekend Edition. There are five different sections. And when I think of weekend editions, I think of the initial process of sifting that I go through before I even start to read. It generally goes something like this. Chuck the motoring, the property, and the business (in the UK, but not in other countries) Start with sport, next comes the main, then the mag, and finally the family section and review. Cookery sections are for flicking through and drooling and scoffing at in equal measure.

So I expected there to be a lot of detritus. But there's not. It's all eminently readable. It's a combination of a paean to a great newspaper (old headlines, stories and headlines are reprinted), but also a history of the industry, and a meditation of what the future might look like.

There are many very good photographic works like The Pigs by Carlos Spottorno that mirror some elements of the design of magazines (The Economist in Spottorno's case), but Deadline goes much, much further. He has made something that is text-led but with pictures that serve a purpose too. They blend in with the newspaper format throughout and link the present to the past in a way that is both nostalgic yet contemporary, and with a personal angle. It all makes sense in a way that goes beyond the pragmatic and is filled with nostalgia, love and a deep, deep sorrow.

It's not a photobook in the usual sense (or the sense talked about in this post). There's no point in buying it just for the pictures. That's not what it's about. You have to read it. And you should read it because the stories that are told are fascinating, written with a more personal touch than your usual journalese (though the dramatic overtones do occasionally come through), but dripping with different layers of history; the personal, the political, economic, and family. Deadline has a point to it. It tells a story that is happening now, and it tells it brilliantly!

Buy Deadline here.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Very few photobooks would be missed if they weren't made.

     image by Tony Gentile and the War: A Sicilian Story - the most visually coherent photobook of 2015

So at the same time as doing this blog I am also guest-editing the Photobook Bristol Blog.

This is a post from earlier in the week about the design-thoughts of Ania Nałęcka, one of the speakers at Photobook Bristol 2016.

The bold is what Ania said, so clearly and delightfully, at a lecture I saw her give. The not-bold is a less polite version based on some of the photobooks I've seen over the last year, and some of the frustrations we all sometimes have with photobooks. But it's still polite.

Why Make a Photobook? It's not always the right thing!

Less politely, the vast majority of photobooks should not be made. People make them for all sorts of reasons - but the main one nowadays seems to be to finish a body of work. And just make a book. 

But really? Does it have to be made? Almost certainly not. Very few photobooks would be missed if they weren't made. 

The Relationship between form and content - and getting that right.

Mariela Sancari's Moises is not the best book of 2016, but it does get the form, the content and the way of viewing right. It's just so right to handle.

Similarly, Thomas Sauvin's cigarette book, Till Death do Us Part, is not that great a  book really, is it? 

It's a gift shop book, a novelty book. But I love gift shops, especially when they have great gifts in, and Till Death do Us Part is a great gift. It gets it right and hits all those tactile spots in a way that ties in to the book's theme. Above all a book is something to handle, and if you can handle it nicely, that's better than a book that doesn't, especially if the handling ties so neatly into the idea of what the book is about.

The Importance of People understanding what you are trying to say in your photobook. You have to make them understand. It doesn't happen by accident!

It is the job of the bookmaker, designer, writer, photographer to tell a story. I shouldn't rely on the genius of my pictures to tell the story. Pictures don't tell stories on their own. I shouldn't pretend they do. 

The Book is something that you Construct! It's not an accident of pages that fall together. You have to make it happen.

Cover, binding, paper, smell, touch, editing, sequencing, text, interaction, plot, origami, tone... Basically everything that goes into the construction of a film, a novel, a children's book, can go into a photobook.

So if I'm going to make a photobook, I should be lazy touting my dummy pictures up on Instagram, but I should really think about the possibilities open to me. And then probably reject them all anyway, because I shouldn't be making a photobook in the first place.

How you can work with a Limited Budget. Being Poor forces you to be creative! Maybe?

Expensively printed books can be brilliant, but there might be a better way. And it might be cheaper. With fewer copies. Even if you do have the budget.

The Problem of Repeating yourself. Visually, verbally, in every possible way. Don't do it.

Just because I'm stroking my chin and being philosophical 
doesn't mean I'm not repeating myself. 

Just because I have use massively complex process doesn't mean I'm not repeating myself. 

Just because my pictures are old doesn't mean I'm not repeating myself.

Repetition comes in many forms. 

The Problem of Being Enigmatic. Clarity and simplicity make for ease of communication. Unless you don't want people to understand you.

There have been alot of metaphysical examinations of the world around us in recent years, and some of them are very good. 

But perhaps the time has come to draw a line under photographic rock, paper, scissors, clouds. 

And the hands holding them. 

Just because it's obscure doesn't make it poetry.

The Problem of Avoiding the Obvious. Communication is about directness and making yourself understood; avoiding the obvious does not help that. At worst it might make you enigmatic or (the close cousin of enigma) incoherent.

Sequencing is not the same as narrative. Sequencing doesn't tell a story. All that happens when picture A has a bird in it and so does picture B, is you have two pictures with birds in. A story is not necessarily told. The best books from last year had clear visual and narrative content. They were about something in other words. They had a narrative in the real sense of telling a story.  Tell a story. An interesting ones.

The Danger of 'Design'. 

Don't get carried away. Don't do the pop-ups unless the pop-ups are required.

Photography Always Comes First! That's why it's a Photobook!

It's not an essay, or a dissertation, or a paper. It's a photobook. It's visual. It's pictures. Because pictures are easy. It shouldn't be a struggle. 

The pictures comes first. 

Except for the times when people decide otherwise. There's always room for the arbitrary. Like I said, it's not that serious.