Sunday Review 15th June 2014

Its been ages since I wrote anything about photo books and my collection has been growing at an all too rapid rate so I thought it might be fun to share some thoughts on my purchases whenever I have a quiete Sunday morning (nearly every week ………….)

Just to refresh on this, I am not a literary or book critic nor am I even a professional photographer, but I did actually spend my hard earned on these (unlike book critics etc.) so I feel that I am entitled to an opinion and that’s exactly what I want to share with everyone here. My hope is that the short reviews might inform, and where appropriate stimulate some interest as all of the books are not so mainstream and may be unknown to many of you. I think that going forward I will limit the reviews to one or two at a time, however, since I have collected so many since the last time I did this, there are a few more in here this week.

First up, a double header……….

Jeff Jacobson, The Last Roll and Rinko Kawauchi, Sheets

This first mini-review clearly begs the question; why these two together? I think that in many ways they are very different books, both in terms of ideas and execution, but they have one very powerful source of unification - poetry. Whenever I read and enjoy these two books I am left with the overriding feeling that I am looking at visual poems, in the case of Jeff, a long poignant piece and in Rinko’s short, punctuated, little stories and visual prose. One of the things I enjoy very much about both of these unpretentious little books is that they can be returned to again and again and they will reward you again and again, every time without fail. There seems to be a popular trend in photo books just now to have some offbeat or quirky project framework to the book and I personally find it very tiresome to look at the lost spacemen of Africa or the last tribe of one-eyed hawk hunters from Mongolia - for me the concept idea becomes much more important than the photography and the creation of emotion or stimulation of ideas. I think that is why I have grown to love these little books and particulalry Jeff’s longer phrasing and dreamy narrative. I find an honesty in these books that is very rare indeed and I value that very highly when I am considering a book for purchase.

The Last Roll

Jeff, as some of you may know, has been a long time colour photographer using the now departed Kodachrome film. Unfortunately, and very sadly, he has also been battling against terrible illness for the last ten years and at Christmas 2010 he exposed his last roll of his beloved film. I mention this only because he writes about it in the book itself, for me, in any book I buy the photography must stand alone. What I know outside of that will obviously influence my view in some way but I firmly believe that any good photo book will be enjoyed and understood without knowing anything about the photographer or even having any in-depth knowledge of the subject.

This book is nowhere as nearly popularised as Rinko’s but I have shown it to a few friends whose opinions I value highly and they were astounded by the beauty of the work. I have some personal thoughts as to why this is that may be relevant to us as aspiring photographers. Firstly, Jeff has enormous depth to his work in terms of quantity and that, along with extremely tight editing, creates the required quality to make a book like this work. Secondly, and its the same with Rinko, this is totally personal and internally driven photography, nothing here is contrived for effect or to impress or to support some novel project concept, it is simple truth as Jeff saw it and that is where the real beauty of this book lies.

One friend mentioned to me that he wondered about the choice of printing style for the book and I must say that I would love to see some of these as original prints to compare. Also, as a lover of deep, inky black :) I find the printing sometimes too light, however, I would also say that it does add somewhat to the dreaminess and works well as the consistency is maintained. We have to respect that this was Jeff’s choice to best represent his work and I would accept that maybe it wouldn’t work so coherently overall if presented any other way. Overall though, a gorgeous and hugely rewarding book.


I have always been a great admirer of Japanese photography, and in particular the strong black and white works that seem to epitomise the country and its cities for me. This book might initially appear totally at odds with this preference, however, when I rationalise the appeal of the Japanese work I like most, I also see a similar prose. I just think that Rinko personalises it in a very interesting and honest way. I don’t find this book ultimately as interesting, stimulating or rewarding as Jeff’s and I think that is down to his being on a grander scale. There are in Sheets though some beautiful little short, but intriguing tales to enjoy.

One of the things I like very much about this book is its physical structure and the visual presentation of each little vignette. Each little poem is developed as twelve shots across two pages and intermittently this is augmented for effect by a gatefold spread. Its difficult to show here but this is a popular book and it will be easy to find Vimeo or other video reviews that show this effect better.

Something that I think is very important with these two books in particular is the thought that sometimes the most interesting and enduring art works for you personally because its a framework that you can transpose your own experiences and ideas onto. As I said earlier, I think that this concept works much more effectively for me personally in Jeff’s book, but I am also sure that many other people will have a stronger relationship to Rinko’s work, thats the beauty of diversity in our world. The important point, and why I grouped these two together here is that they are in my opinion very fine examples of this idea of art and I do hope that others can enjoy them as much as I have for that reason.

Next up is something a bit different from Jeff and Rinko and perhaps a good choice of how something more subject orientated can work very nicely. The book is relatievly well known and found some popular acclaim in the ‘best of’ lists so beloved by critics. It’s Mila Teshaivea’s Promising Waters.

Promising Waters

On the surface of it, this lovely book is an insightful and thought provoking look at change in the emergent oil boom Caspian region in the former Soviet countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The development of the political and physical landscape in these countries has, as Mila shows so beautifully been complex, stupidly simple, ironically humorous and ultimately bewildering for its inhabitants. Beneath this layer however I personally think that there are some very, very beautifully concieved photographs that are universal to us all.

What I find so interesting about this book is that it contains so many incisive observations about society and ultimately humanity in general. What we value, how greed destroys things, the need to anchor to some icon or past history and what happens when that is lost, and beyond it all, in a way, the stupidity of it all presented in a very dark humour.

There is also something extremely important to learn about the way Mila has managed to pace this book and I find the editing and sequencing very well done and intelligently thought through. I think this an aspect of presenting photographic work that is often hugely undervalued and overlooked.

Just to conclude this short look at Promising Waters, something that I generally don’t particularly like in photo-books is sections of written accompaniment or even captioning. Strangely, Mila uses both here at times and I do find that in this case the text does support and compliment the work. I think the big test for Mila is where to go from here? Having said that, this book is a very fine accomplishment and one that I enjoyed and was pleased to have bought.

As a change of pace and out of a need to give some deserved recognition to a local Singaporean photographer that I know, I thought it would be interesting to look at a small, self-published book from a limited set of fifty by Aikbeng Chia called Here/Now.


Sometimes you meet people who just deserve to succeed in their chosen field. You know that intuitionaly from the obvious desire, energy and love that they have for what they are doing. They are fully committed and spend every spare minute working and developing themselves and their craft. As we all know in our lives, there are many twists, turns and blind alleys but you have to be involved and active to encounter these because only through these experiences do you get stronger and improve. For me ABC as he is know locally is one of these people.

ABC’s self-published and funded book uses the ideas of immediacy and observation to showcase his expertise with Instax film. The book included an original of your own choice on the cover and is full of ABC’s unique humour and insight in the extremely tricky to use, credit card sized Instax format. He has very wisely chosen to avoid the temptation to blow up the prints and remained faithful to the format and I think this is a very important ingredient in the personalisation of this book.

I think ABC would be the first to admit that not everything works completely in here but I do find it a very enjoyable read. There is a lightness of touch that is a bit at odds with the other books in this post and that is exactly why I included it. I just wonder how many other ABC’s are out there striving away and publishing their own very accomplished works? I am a huge admirer of artists with this kind of belief and determination to be heard and I sincerely hope ABC can bring his work to wider audiences.

Well, for those of you that have managed to sustain enough interest to reach this point, this is the final book and about to get very challenging for me and that is why I have saved this book to the last. It’s Margot Wallard’s My Brother Guillaume and Sonia.

My Brother Guillaume and Sonia

Before we go any further I will simply say that this book rips the heart out of me with its poignant story of Margot’s brother and girlfriend Sonia’s life and death from alcoholism. I was initially not sure about including such a raw but tender piece of realism in this post because I knew that it would be difficult to write about it without turning it into a cliched caricature and gushing about the pain and futility of watching loved ones effectively kill themselves. The reason I chose to include it though is because of the impact that the book has had on me and, as I mentioned in some of the previous short reviews, the personal and internally driven view that Margot brings to it, in a way leaving us free to place our own emotional values onto the work as we see fit.

I guess that its easy to ignore works like this as simply just to personal to have any broader meaning or appeal. I think that in this case thats far too simplistic a view and, although for sure this is extremely personal to Margot, surely there can be no stronger themes than Relationships, Love and Death? I only know that when I look at this book, although I didn’t know either of the people in it, I can recognise the sensibilities of their tragic relationship and these are universal emotions that Margot has captured in the certain nuances of a glance or glazed gaze. I have seen that searching look for love, meaning, sense or understanding before and it tears at you in a very powerful way.

We can only imagine the pain and loss that Margot suffered during the making of this book but there is also a hint at the healing and closure that creating and documenting this piece of life has brought to her personally. I think ultimately the universitality of the books themes and they way Margot has un-judgementaly dealt with them is where it succeeds.

I do hope that this has been of interest, at least in part to some of you who read this. It will be entirely obvious that I am not a practiced writer so please excuse the grammatical gaffs, I hope that the intent here overrides any mistakes of that nature. Speaking of intent, I did want to bring some less obvious or mainstream but interesting works to the fore here with my impartial views on what I thought of them as books that I have purchased so please take it in that spirit.

Colin Steel, Sunday 15th June 2014

Il Cuore Siciliano

I recently returned from my second visit to the amazing Easter celebrations in Sicily and I wanted to share some thoughts that have been forming in my head around photographing and making sense of the rituals and place itself. Firstly, Sicily is a very unique island and its cultural development is complex having been subject to a number of different and varied influences over the centuries. For this reason I think its extremely challenging for an outsider like me to get to grips with and to really understand the depth of what is going on. As a result of this most photographers, particularly first timers, get caught up in the cliches and more obvious shots that are more superficial in nature. I have done this myself, not only in Sicily but I well remember my first trips to places like Bali and Bagan in Myanmar where I thought I was taking the most incredible and vibrant images only to discover on reflection that, although well composed etc. they were very obvious and had been done many times before , and indeed, had been done much better by more accomplished photographers who knew the locations better. The reason I am saying this is that I now believe that you have to keep visiting places and themes that interest you again and again to get really deep into yourself and your emotional reaction to what you see and feel. Only then can you begin to sensibly translate your view and vision.

As I said, this is only my second visit so I consider myself to be at the very beginning of a long and hopefully fruitful relationship with Sicily and its people. I had a very difficult time this year with editing and sequencing my work as I believe my thinking and photography has changed and matured a great deal in the space of a year since my last visit but I have combined last year and this years work and with my friend Jay Komuda come up with a pretty tight edit that is I believe moving in the right direction.

City Diary - Roma

Where does photographic inspiration come from? Well for me it is usually triggered subconsciously through some innocent event or encounter that makes me think and see in a particular way. A good example of this is this City Diary set from the marvellous city of Rome which I visited recently for the second time. The trigger in this case was a visit to the excellent Pasolini exhibition that showcased his controversial life in Rome through letters, photos, video clips and stills from his movies. I didn’t realise this effect at a conscious level and it was only when I looked at the shots from the weekend that I began to see the influence that the show and Pasolini had had on me and the subjects and framings that I chose as a result. I think that it’s fair to say that this works best if you try not to rationalise too much and simply shoot what creates an emotional response or interest for you, no matter what the subject matter might be. I also find it best not to look at the photos as I shoot and often leave it for a day or two before I edit them afterwards. One thing that I do consider essential for this kind of fun shooting is a small, compact camera that is flexible and easy to use. I have been using a Ricoh GR a lot recently and it absolutely excels for this type of City shooting with its snap focus and close focusing macro capability that I find very easy to use and control. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it goes without saying that the more you use and know your camera then the more you can shoot ‘internally’ without the conscious thought required to fiddle with controls and focusing. Finally, the real beauty of this approach is that you don’t necissarily have to travel to exotic locations to practise it, although in all honestly that is a huge part of the fun and motivation for me.

© Copyright

Using Format