Paris Photo Book Buys Pt1 Dec 2015

I haven’t written anything about photo books for quite a while, around about a year in fact, but I was prompted by my friend Amelia to overview recent purchases from Paris Photo. Tis the season to write ‘top 10 photo-books of 2015’ lists but I think there are enough of those to sate any book lover without me adding to the surplus. Instead, and, as usual, I will mention only books that I have bought myself with my own hard earned. Sometimes the books are bought on impulse and are therefore a little dependant on my mood at any given time but a few were books that I had been looking out for beforehand. As it happens I did go a bit crazy and purchased rather a lot of books so instead of the more detailed and in depth reviews that I have attempted in the past, I thought I would just write a few paragraphs about what attracted me to the book in the first place and any additional, relevant thoughts.

Okay, lets get into it with a high energy blast to get things moving…………..

adrenamix by Ryuichi Ishikawa

My friend Niklas pointed this tiny little book out to me and he was spot on, I love this hi-octane, unrelenting, rush of a book. It just doesn’t let up from start to end. Its a subversive road trip that just assails you, lasso’s your ankles and drags you along in its slipstream. 

One of the things that I really like about the book is how it engages, part graphic novel, part diary, fiction or truth? it doesn’t seem to matter, I think there are few of us who can’t recognise this anarchic free flowing energy.

Could it be called a night if with no end?

Is a door that never opens still a door?

The darkness lightened, and yet the darkness it is

A heart fell and torn,

a cry of life gushes out,

and still the silence it is

Indeed……………wonderful, but not for the faint hearted or Hyundai driver :)

transmontanus by Salvi Danes

This is a book that I had actually bought at Polycopies last year but wanted to take the opportunity to get myself a signed copy safe in the knowledge that I had a buyer lined up for the other one, thanks Sanja.

This was another friend recommendation, this time from Brindusa, amazing, if a little scary how well my friends seem to know my mind. transmontanus as it turns out has many, many of the attributes that I look for in a photo-book; its small and unpretentious, simple but classy in its presentation, is not a ‘project’ or ‘fascinating look’ at some triksy concept. More its an immersion in Salvi’s world, a look at his ideas and perceptions in a very nicely edited, sequenced and printed package.

When I think about it I am always struck by how easily I relate to books like this, hence the attraction. The interplay between people and landscape, the lack of certainty or ability to locate these photographs in an exact time place or even dimension has a never ending appeal and fascination for me.

There is always a bit of a struggle going on in this book and it would be easy to criticise the choice of centring what are already quite powerful shots. Somehow I find that this adds a very powerful tension for me and I find myself forced to try to delve deeper into the physical book itself to unravel what is going on. Not a mechanism to be overused but I think it works here.

In conclusion then, a lovely little book that is fresh but somehow familiar. Also check out Salvi’s more recent Blackcelona which is one of my favourite buys for a while.

ATLAS by Israel Arino

There has been a lot of attention on Spanish photography and photo-books over the last year or two and I have to say that the ones being promoted and that seem to be getting most attention have little or no appeal to me personally. I find them contrived and drowning in the concept whirlpool that seems to drag too many photographers in. I am at a loss as to why this kind of quiet, deeper photography does not seem to get the same amount of airtime. Its the same with Salvi’s work, these photographers deserve to be seen on a wider stage.

As a shy and introverted person its always a big challenge for me when I actually meet an artist whose work I like and admire and I ran into this when I met Israel and Salvi at a book signing event at Galerie Vu. There are so many things that I want to talk to them about but I always struggle to formulate my thoughts coherently enough. Luckily Israel was very kind and took some time to explain some of the ideas behind the book and it stuck in my head that he had said that the book was bound so that the covers could be viewed simultaneously when laid flat as in the intro shot here. This is indicative of the attention to detail in general in this dreamy, slow flowing book.

As with Salvi’s book, there is a timeless feel to it that I find beguiling. Of course this is a book of photographs but I don’t get the feeling of a camera here, the book is lyrical and I think I can sum this up best through the very nice dedication that Israel wrote for me after our short chat:

Have a good trip to this strange but beautiful world.

Cosmos by Berangere Fromont

Man, this is one gorgeous little book. I was so lucky to come across this at the ill fated Paris Photo exhibition and immediately fell in love with its cover. Nor was I disappointed when I opened it up to see the lovely little print that came with this 51st edition of 300 and a quick glance through its pages confirmed that my initial attraction was justified. Everything about this book sings to me, the size, the sequencing and pacing and the number of pages - perfect.

I am sure I read somewhere that this was shot in one spring night on a walk in Arles. Normally I wouldn’t believe that you could create enough content for a coherent photo-book in one evening but ironically I think this is one of the strengths of the book. The continuity, spontaneity and rhythm is perfect and the photographers and editor have very wisely kept the content thin but relevant giving me a poignant feeling of something that was fleeting but is now gone. Marvellous stuff, I find myself looking at this daily.

Stay by Nicolas Wormull

Another impulse buy, I picked Stay up at a very nice little bookshop near Gare du Nord station but unfortunately I can’t remember its name. Anyway, I was running out of energy a bit after a day spent galavanting around Paris so it took something a little bit special to capture my attention, but I was smitten when I picked the book up and started browsing it. Sometimes I despair at the attempts of photographers to hide vacant photographic ideas in design concepts and this book is for me the perfect antidote to that. Its a good, honest nicely thought through book of photographs that engage and force you to think a bit. A novelty nowadays :)

Not having any familiarity with Nicolas’ work I had a quick look on Google and it seems he is a Chilean by birth but whose photography was shaped in Sweden. I cannot for the life of me understand why Sweden produces so many fantastic photographers, this has to be more than coincidence. Anyway, it seems that Stay was an attempt by Nicolas to capture just the present moment and avoid the twin traps of mind created past and future. I think thats a bit too simple an explanation for me as I find this a surprisingly complex read and thats one of the reasons that it appeals to me, its seems as if it creates a different feeling each time I look at it and I invariably notice something I hadn’t seen in a previous viewing.

The book has a nice energy that comes from a good blend of colour, B&W and formats, as I said, an engaging and honest book from a very talented photographer.

Well Amelia and anyone else who is interested, I hope this has whetted your own appetite to go and have a look at some of these books and hopefully turn up some others in your search. I will try to follow up at the weekend with Part 2 as I did buy rather a large number of books as you can probably guess by now.

Colin Steel, Singapore, 7th December 2015

Sunday Review 21st Dec Carolyn Drake

Its been a while since I had the desire to write anything new on the site, I think mainly due to a massive overdose of photo books, prints and all things photography at Paris Photo week last month. What a mixed bag that was, met some great friends again, came across some really interesting work but found the main event in Grand Palais to be a bloated and largely uninteresting affair where I would have to say that I had a strong dislike of about 80% of what I saw. Highlights were the quirky PolyCopy independent photo-books event on a boat on the Seine, the William Eggleston exhibition and my fave of all, a low key Dirk Braekman exhibition at LeBal where I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of his tremendous monograph that I might review at some point if I can get my head around the words and language required to describe this very unique approach and style. Anyway, more than anything, what prompted me to write this week was the arrival of Carolyn Drake’s gorgeous ‘Wild Pigeon’ and I felt utterly compelled to share it here.

I could kick myself for missing out on Carolyn’s previous work ‘Two Rivers’ which is now extremely hard to find and commanding very high prices so as soon as I saw this released I bought it unseen straight away and boy, do I feel good about that decision. The book itself is a dreamy affair and based on the time (7 years off and on) that Carolyn spent with the Uyghur people in their remote homeland. The book itself is elaborate and constructed into five parts that are threaded together by the Wild Pigeon allegorical story written by a local Uyghur, Nurmuhemment Yasin who landed ten years in the clink by the Chinese authorities for his efforts, accused of ‘inciting separatism’ apparently. I might lose some readers at this point but here goes anyway, personally the story is the single most important thing in this book for me and I would ask anyone who gets to read the book to have a think about how the metaphor works on a much grander scale, and I for one can certainly associate myself with its themes, but in a very different way I suspect from the original intention.

“Soul? What’s a soul, grandfather?” a young pigeon beside me asks, I am stunned that he doesn’t know this word, doesn’t know what a soul is. What are these pigeons teaching their children? To live without a soul, without understanding what a soul is, is pointless. Do they not see this? To have a soul, to have freedom - these things cannot be bought or given as gifts; they are not to be had just through praying, either.

Freedom of the soul, I feel, is crucial for these pitiful pigeons. Without it, life is meaningless, and yet they seem never even to have heard of the word.

Maybe now you can get a sense of what a dangerous man Yasin is. I can’t for the life of me but see my own life and society in his writings and I believe the simple story to be far more universal than he imagined. Given that the story and its vehicles and metaphors are the vital link that binds the photographical and artistic sequences together, I think this elevates the book way beyond some commentary on the plight of these poor people and the loss and strangulation of their freedoms, customs and culture. The difference for me in my society and culture is that the suffocation and blinding is much more insidious and subtle.

At the end of the day this is a photo-book review but I would again say that, for me, I consider this to tackle a much broader theme than Carolyn may have thought when she was making it.

Getting back to the photographic content that supports her ideas and themes, there are some really gorgeous, and in a way, understated photographs in here that don’t shout and scream at you for attention but instead build with each other in a dreamy state of suspension and non-reality. The photos have a somehow aged and yet colourful feel to them and the dusty browns and lovely reds create a very atmospheric tone and mood of a contradictory present/past. while every so often hinting at the traps and deprivation of free action and thought, nowhere more so for me than in the following lovely pairing.

Or how about this one:

Thoughtful, purposeful and beautifully inspired photography.

I mentioned the book is in five different sections and this is where it really starts to get interesting. Following a clamp down and increased persecution levels, Carolyn apparently found it extremely difficult to find anyone to engage with her as they were justifiably afraid of retribution so she hit on the idea of letting the people express themselves through her photographs and she gave them the photos, scissors and crayons and left them to it - I think the results are simply wonderful.

I don’t feel any need to say anything about how beautiful these are and how the whole thing now takes on a new dimension and artistic expression.

The book then moves onto the third phase that begins to show more ordinary workaday situations with the overtone of the government driven introduction of Han people into the Uyghur communities and the resulting change in the living environment. Again this is wonderfully shot and at this point I will apologise for my poor photos of the book, I just couldn’t get rid of glare so I decided not to bother trying and just left the shadows from my windows on the shots. Unfortunately the glare and shadows completely ruined a couple of the key images that I wanted to show but here is a selection anyway.

and this incredibly powerful pairing:

Hopefully by now you are beginning to get a feel for the very high standard of photography, editing and sequencing that has gone into this book.

Moving into the fourth section of the book and in some ways this is my least favourite, despite the fact that it starts with a really nice double page shot with some delightful background texture and detail that is probably not so obvious in my clumsy photo of it.

In keeping with the book structure where the photos in each section have been getting progressively bigger, this section has very dark but high impact, full bleed, double spread images that strongly suggest that people are afraid and in hiding.

Unlike the other sections, people are mainly absent but somehow Carolyn still manages a very atmospheric passage with the dark building and fences punctuated with sharp lighting as if the inhabitants are under curfew (hmm, maybe they are)

We then have the final photographic phase which follows a translated reproduction of the Wild Pigeon story and, even if you don’t buy the photo-book, I would strongly urge that you track down a copy of this text, read it and see if you see any parallels in your own life and environment. The last section is in the form of a small pasted-in booklet that is based on found photographs and their poignency is very striking through the artificial reproduction of these idealistic and escapist, imagined realities.

Phew, its an understatement to say that there is a lot to this book and therein lies one of its very great strengths, this is a book that you can return to again and again. It can be as simple or complex as you want, you can dip in or spend a long time studying and reading through its images and texts.

If I am honest, when I first opened it I thought ‘oh no, a concept book’ where I imagined that the concept and physical structures would be more important than the content but this, as I hope you can clearly see, is very definitely not the case. This is a concept that is as confined or grand scale as you are prepared to allow it be.

I have had some time to look at this book now and to ask myself what it is that so captivates me about its themes and metaphors. Well, on the first level you can clearly see the plight of these poor people and their entrapment, loss of culture, ideals, values and ultimately their freedom to speak, move, behave or interact in a way that they wish. If you want to take this further, have a think about your own life and apparent freedom, do you have a sense that your becoming detached from your culture and that you have lost the freedom of vision to see and understand your purpose in being?

I think the Wild Pigeon story resonates with me in so many ways and that is a tribute to how Carolyn has thought this through and put it together. Its that very unique combination of being both a visual treat and also a very sincere and genuinely thought provoking look at what happens in life when we loose our way and our ability to do the right things as human beings - maybe through our blindness to true nature or soul.

Colin Steel, Sunday 21st December 2014, Singapore

Sunday Review 2nd November Duarte

This is a book that has been sitting about in the clutter of my lounge for a few weeks now and I have picked it up and flicked through it quite a number of times in an attempt to come to terms with what it has to offer. Antonio Julio Duarte’s Japan Drug has been about for a while but went out of stock at Martin Amis’ Photobookstore uk where I buy most of my books and I guess that’s a sign of success if ever there was one. However, my signed copy eventually arrived from Martin, and somewhat unfortunately for Duarte, it came along with Mayumi Hosokura’s Crystal Love Starlight which eclipsed it with its simple but beautiful concept and presentation. I think I will review it in the coming weeks as it illustrates what I think is an important point about photo books in general and makes for a very interesting contrast with Duarte’s Tokyo. Anyway, lets get into the subject of this weeks review, Japan Drug.

When the book arrived, and prior to me having taken a considered look at it, I did wonder about the title and what I could infer from the rather neat sounding, ‘Japan Drug’. As you might expect I wondered if Duarte was trying to weave some narcotic, trippy spell or was he attempting to show what an addiction the Tokyo experience had become for him? (as it becomes for many of us) As it turns out, I found it to be neither of these but I can certainly sense what Duarte was doing here and the book has some really superb little sequences and in particular some standout pairings of his ideas. In order to show this best, and because the physical structure of the book made it difficult to photograph, I have decided to shoot the book just as it looked to me, held up in front of me with the window light behind. In this way I hope to give a better sense of when and why it works, and also what doesn’t quite hit home with this book.

First up, I am a big fan of the simplicity of this book. The whole book is page by page square format shots paired, sometimes very convincingly across the pages from each other. Simple yes, but with this comes the extraordinary challenge of maintaining energy throughout the book in the absence of any of the more conventional or unconventional mechanisms that photographers normally employ to create flow, emphasise, break, or sometimes even disrupt the sequencing of their shots in book structure. These of course are the grammar and syntax mechanisms of the photographer in this context and its almost an art in its own right, I am sure their are many great photographers who have very little idea of how to edit and sequence their shots into book form. Duarte I think is to be applauded in this respect, he has had the courage to present his work in a simple, sequential manner. His only problem I believe is that he just didn’t have enough compelling material to sustain the energy of a book made in this way.

The book itself, as explained in a note at the back, was shot on Duarte’s first visit to Tokyo in 1997 and its not clear how long he stayed for but, given my previous comment, I don’t think he stayed long enough. Having said that, what we do have is a nice snapshot of pre-millenia Tokyo and a document of how Duarte saw it, what interested and perhaps surprised him. The book does have a kind of ‘street photography’ feel about it and occasionally Duarte strays dreadfully close to the tricky juxtapositions and boring humour that often accompanies photographic work in that style. Luckily, the vast majority of the time he does stay above it and there are some really nice pairings that create a stimulating insight into the Tokyo of that time (and indeed the current day).

Its easy as a first time foreign visitor to Tokyo to feel the isolation, strangeness and weird polite protocols that exist but its quite a different challenge to represent that photographically and I personally think that is Duarte’s biggest success with this book, somehow he has been able to translate his Tokyo experience into a coherent set of ideas. I mentioned the pairings and some of them, like the previous example, work very well to show that isolation and strangeness in a very powerful way.

Here is another one, and I think this emphasises what I said about Duarte elevating his work and avoiding the cliche traps. This is where his pairings are so important, its the beautiful second photo that takes this out of the predictable and obvious with its complementary form and flowing, poetic accompaniment to the all to standard Girlie sign shot. I think if you look at these photographs separately for a moment and cover up one and then the other, you quickly see that neither photo works in isolation, and that is for me one of the artistic challenges, and ultimately, triumphs of the photo book when it works properly.

As I said at the start, the only problem that I have with this book is that Duarte does not have enough quality in his overall work to sustain these ideas, in this format. That leads to gaps where the energy simply drains away because of a ‘filler’ sequence. I think anyone who has been to Tokyo and has any appreciation of how it has been represented photographically will quickly tire of shots like these.

And this pairing, which for some reason he uses to close the book.

Like I said, I am no fan at all of the smart interplay between people and posters or signs that are the hallmark of much of this type of photography and Duarte does wander in there a few times however, most of the time his observations work and, the pairings make his point.

This is about as close to the border as I think you can get, but it works ok here and thankfully it doesn’t get repeated too often. Again, neither of these is particularly interesting in isolation but the combo works and I think the cropping of the right hand shot just brings it home. Personally I prefer when his interplays create more tension, and I quite like the following set.

Here’s another nice example of where the pairings work with each other to create something beyond what each of the photos was capable of on their own.

Okay, I think you should have a pretty good feel for the book by now. Duarte has created an impression of Tokyo based on the interplay of signs, iconic triggers and people. For the most part this is an interesting, if superficial viewpoint but maybe that is to be expected and indeed could not be anything else for a visitor. Occasionally however, he falls into the visitor trap of shooting things that might appear initially interesting however, are real cliches and have been shot this way (and better) by many, many Japanese photographers who have a better and deeper feel for the city. That said, I think this is an honest and interesting book with some truly original and thought provoking moments and at the end of the day I am glad I waited for it as an addition to the library. I think from a readers point of view, your judgement and appreciation of this book may depend on how much you know and like Tokyo and indeed Japanese photography. If you are a fan of Japanese photography then I think this book will be slightly disappointing to you, if not, its an interesting and I think enjoyable book that, while it does not break into any new territory, has just enough on offer to make it worthwhile.

Free Art (well S$10 entry to be totally truthful)

Just a couple of shots this week and they are my favourites from the ‘An Ocean of Possibilities’ show that just opened at the Singapore Art & Science centre at MBS. Not quite free as the title mentions, but although I was pretty disappointed overall, still worth ten bucks of any photographers money and there is plenty on show.

First, here are two shots from a really nice set by Polish photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski. This is a real standout in the exhibition in my opinion and these were the pick of his shots, fittingly highlighted as such by a shaft of light from the overhead windows.

Then, I think this wonderful piece of art is by Nermine Hammam from Egypt and its very obvious where the influences came from. I spent quite a while at these and found them to be beautifully thought out and creatively delivered.

Fave Photo, Bertien van Manen

Its kinda tough to pick a single photo from a Bertien van Manen book, they don’t lend themselves to that. The photo I picked this week though has intrigued me for a while even although its not immediately an out and out eye catcher. It comes from her Mack published ‘Moonshine’ which is based on her travels amongst the people of the Appalachian mountain region of the US. One of the things that is immediately striking about her book is the down to earth reality of it all. These are poor, hard living and hard drinking people as the book title suggests and somehow Bertien was accepted by them and its very clear that she enjoyed and benefited from a high degree of trust that came with that acceptance. These people were often the descendants of poor Scottish and Irish immigrants that had been as good as white slaves in the Carolinas (thats a story for another day) and having either escaped or been released from the plantations they were drawn to the forests and mountains and still have a very understandable mistrust of strangers. It would be oh so easy to poke fun or belittle these people, as indeed was the fate of their ancestors and their reclusiveness becomes entirely understandable when you look at the way they are normally perceived and presented in the media. I think it is the rawness and heartbreaking honesty of this photograph that attracts me to it so much. Sure, the trashiness and squalor is there, the symbolism, the cars and trucks, the baby on the ground, the caps and open shirts, the one eyed leer, the potential for caricature and cliche is there in overabundance, but somehow thats not the feeling that I get from the photo. I find that I read this shot like a piece of theatre, I don’t find the people in it at all threatening, in fact I feel as if I know them and they are acting out a universal story only they are dressed in the costume and surrounded by the props of their particular circumstance. Think about it for a moment, this is the absolute normality of life portrayed through a different perspective. The parents?, the young couple kissing, the baby, who amongst us doesn’t have experience of this? I guess if you want you can take this photo many different ways, political comment?, urban decay? societal decline?, threatening?, I don’t know, the choice is yours, but I know how it looks to me, I see this as a piece of tapestry composed of the most simple and basic elements of our life experience, only its observed in a way that may challenge your sensibilities.

Thanks for lasting the course this week if you re now reading this. Not sure about the next two Sundays for reviews as I am off to Paris photo week and have an absolutely jammed week ahead. To all of my friends who are going I very much look forward to seeing you all again.

Colin Steel, Sunday 2nd November Singapore

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