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Periodical Photographs
Dan Winters
Aperture, 2009
156 pages, Hardcover, 9.5 x 11.5″

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 

 
 
It came as some surprise to find that my copy of Periodical Photographs, if I wanted to buy it new again, would set me back over four-hundred and fifty dollars. The book, published in 2009, has become an instant classic.

Which is understandable, as the book shares many of the qualities of Dan Winter’s photography: considered, balanced, richly detailed and with an edge of the odd and strange. The primary attraction for me, when I first encountered Winters, was his portraiture. His signature look consists of a saturated background that contrasts with the muted, slightly washed-out colours of the face. His subtle, carefully sculpted lighting enhances the effect. The style been highly emulated by photographers seeking to capture the power of his photographs.

The distinctive look of a Winters photograph is the result of his approach to colour. Winters, who has an eclectic background including photojournalist for Thousand Oaks News Chronicle was forced to shoot colour and to come to terms with it. In Lynn Hirschberg’s introduction to Periodical Photographs, Winters is quoted as saying:

The front page was colour, and I hated it. We all hated it. But I had to make my peace with color. I came to see it as my mission to give color photography the same power as black and white.

Portraiture for Winters involves consideration of the subject and the frame, high key lighting, and a wide depth of focus. In colour work the depth of focus is a mechanism to control the colour palette. In his 2009 interview with Ibarionex Perello1, Winters explains his approach:

Out of focus backgrounds work great in black and white but unless you’re very careful they can fail miserably in colour because you start to get that out-of-focus colour and you’re not really sure what the palette is, but if you’re sharp you can really discern what you’re looking at.

In response to the influence of his style, Winters has emphasized that: “Its more important to develop a sensibility, rather than a style.” He claims that style is the set-up, such that if you reproduced the set-up you would have the style. While sensibility is a far more abstract notion.

Sensibility for me would be: you formulate an opinion. You form an opinion about your surroundings and the way you respond to your surroundings and it starts to transcend the tools you use.

I think a lot of my portraits are really odd sometimes, you know, in kind of a good way. But I also feel like they’re reverent. I try to be flattering and, at the same time, make something that’s genuine and sensitive and reverent. I like the word reverent for portraits. I think its … I think we need more of that reverence for people and for their own experience, their own path and the way that they’re represented.

A sensibility, an opinion, opens up the possibility of a conversation. Photographs are always about more that what they show. And for Winters one of the things that he attempts to make his photos about is a person’s character. Speaking about digitally retouching photographs to be more pleasing, or to conform to an industry ideal of beauty, winters claims: “I’m not interested in that kind of digital enhancement. I find it diminishes character, and character is why we are fascinated by these people in the first place.”

That Winters can maintain his artistic sensibility when shooting celebrities is remarkable – especially given the number of personalities who have a stake in how the image reads: editors, publicists, agents, stylists, managers, marketers, etc. The stakes are high and something as ephemeral as a photographer’s sensibility does not always carry the day.

The portraits dominate Periodical Photographs so strongly that it is possible to overlook the fact that of the 86 images in the book 34 are not people. Instead they are buildings, abandoned cars or a variety of movie props including the hand of Kong (the stop-motion animation armature from RKO’s original 1933 production of King Kong), the prop from Rocketship X-M, and the alien’s head from This Island Earth.

In comparison to the portraiture the objects and landscapes are documents: Neat and clean but lacking the force of the portraits. Instead they are windows into the personality of Winters himself, they are portals into his interests and fascinations — his collector and archival tendencies – and his inquisitive, scientific mind. Some are practically illustrations and it comes as no surprise to learn that Winters is also a professional illustrator.

Periodical Photographs is the first Winter’s monograph. Subsequent books include Dan Winters’ America: Icons and Ingenuity and Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis. As of the writing of this review Dan Winters has a new book available to pre-order Road to Seeing. Ibarionex Perello is listed as a co-author.

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1. The Candid Frame Podcast #85 – Dan Winters by Ibarionex Perello. Blog summary available here: http://thecandidframe.blogspot.ca/2009/11/candid-frame-85-dan-winters.html

I was first led to Winters by a mention in David Hobby’s Strobist Blog – yet another good reason to follow Mr. Hobby.

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Richard Avedon - In the American West Cover

 

 

In the American West
Richard Avedon
Harry N. Abrams, 1985
174 pages, Hardcover 11″ x 14″

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

 

Considered by many to be Avedon’s magnum opus, the work was controversial when it was published for depicting marginalized subjects. To a public used to a romantic notion of the west, Avedon’s work was thought distopic. It was also felt that Avedon, firmly established in New York City, was voicing a critical opinion of the American West. The book retains its provocative qualities to this day.

It is difficult to separate the publication from the project of making the photos and from the exhibition of the completed work at the Amon Carter Museum in 1985. Fortunately, photographer Laura Wilson, who worked as an assistant to Avedon and wrote the “Background” essay in the book, has also given additional valuable information about this project in her own book Avedon at Work: In the American West.

The book itself follows the model of previous Avedon books. Large format, 14 x 11 inches, with 103 plates and a three-page gatefold. In contrast to the groundbreaking design of Observations (the work of Alexey Brodovitch) In the American West is all about the photos. The typeography is pristine and understated. But, as elegant as the presentation is, it gives no indication as to the far-reaching scope of the project or the resources that went into it. Avedon worked for six years, from 1979 to 1984, visiting 17 states and 189 towns to do 752 sittings. He was working with a Deardorf 8 x 10 view camera. At today’s prices the cost of film alone would have been close to $70,000 for the 17,000 sheets he exposed. All but 123 of the negatives were intentionally destroyed when the project was completed. The 123 remaining negatives are in the collection of the Amon Carter museum, with the photographer’s directive that they never be printed from again.

The portraits are remarkable. As with much of Avedon’s work it is difficult to state exactly what the qualities are that make these images so arresting. Each day, as we go through the world, we encounter individuals. Most of us are naturally curious about them. But it is impossible to stop a stranger in the streets and say to them, “Hold on just a moment, please. There is something about you that is striking to me. Can you just stand here for a bit while I try to get a sense of you … while I attempt to discover who you are?” Of course it is a voyeuristic enterprise, but it is also an entirely photographic one—executed by a master.

At the heart of the book’s controversial reception are two ideas. The first is the most complex: by focusing on oil-rig drillers, abattoir-men, drifters, ranchers, and carnie-workers is Avedon exploiting his subjects or complementing them? Thirty years after the photos were taken, both answers are equally valid.

Established as perhaps the most famous fashion and celebrity photographer, many saw Avedon’s work as placing the working class and marginalized on a stage usually reserved for the talented and beautiful. In the context of the mid-1980s, when television was controlled by networks and conglomerates dictated the content of most mass media, Avedon elevated the subjects and showed that they were also worthy of interest and attention.

Some critics, on the other hand, clearly saw the subjects as victims. As Max Kozloff stated:

The blank, seamless background thrusts the figures forward as islands of textures of flesh, certainly, but also of cloth. Nothing competes with the presentation of their poor threads, nothing of the personal environment, nothing that might situate, inform, and support a person in the real world, or even in a photograph. At the same time, the viewer is left in no doubt about the miserableness and tawdriness of their lives- for their dispiriting jobs or various forms of unemployed existence are duly noted. An ugly comparison is invited between all these havenots and Avedon’s previous and much better defended “haves.” It is one thing to portray high-status and resourceful celebrities as picture fodder: it is quite another to mete out the same punishment to waitresses, ex-prizefighters, and day laborers.1

It is clear that Avedon understands the role of art. And, no matter how much he would control the shoots, the negatives, the retouching, and the final presentation, he does not attempt to control our interpretation of the subjects. We are free to think them heroic individuals or hapless victims. Kosloff is correct in this much: Avedon will not provide a setting that explains the portraits. We look into the face of another individual and we must provide our own interpretation. It is this facet, more than anything else, that makes the work uncomfortable, but also invaluable.

Avedon’s relationship with the subjects is not a simple one. At times he maintains that his subjects are to him what clay is to a sculptor. Ten years after the book was published, Avedon returned to connect with some of the subjects. Sandra Bennett was twelve when her portrait was taken. Six years later she was eighteen and on the cover of the book. When they reconnected Bennett maintained that the photo was not who she really was. Avedon is lucid in his response:

You can’t say you weren’t in the picture—that’s what’s so confusing about photography. You can’t say you weren’t there. But you have to accept that you are there and the control is with the photographer. I have the control in the end. But I can’t do it alone. You have a lot to say, and by that I mean, the way you look, the way you confront the camera or the experience, whether you’re trusting or not trusting. In the end I can tear the pictures up, I can choose the smiling one … or the serious one … or I can exaggerate something through the printing. It’s lending yourself to artists.2

This tension is familiar ground for Avadon. Anticipating some of the criticism to come, the book contains what is today his most famous quote. It is worthwhile giving the entire short paragraph:

A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in photographs. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.3

The second objection to In the American West when it was issued is more easily dealt with. The book is not representational of the West. Fair enough. It’s  not representational. Shoots done with U.S. Olympian Sis Wigglesworth, were not included and Wilson states that “Dick never used her portrait—he felt her privileged world set her apart from the other people he’d photographed for his project.”4

Avedon was clear that the project was not journalism or reportage. It was his opinion and it was no more an objective truth about the west than John Wayne might be.

It is worth considering for a moment Avedon’s approach to “exaggerating something through the printing.” The prints produced for the exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum were produced by traditional photochemical means. It would be another five years before photoshop 1.0 was released and many additional years before digital processing could handle the scale that Avedon needed. It would have been common practice to lighten, darken, (dodge and burn) areas of the photo and to increase or decrease contrast through the selection of film and paper stocks. Today’s digital photographers are sometimes under the misapprehension that film shooters did not alter images, but in fact almost nothing would have left Avedon’s studio without detailed manipulation.

Richard Avedon Evidence

We are fortunate that Avedon himself published some of the printing notes in his book Evidence.5 The image above does not represent a set of instructions from Avedon to the darkroom. Rather it is a dodge and burn map made by Ruedi Hoffman, as he laboured with David Liittschwager to produce the effects Avedon requested.  According to Wilson:

Ruedi and David started with a set of 16-by-20-inch prints. Dick rejected them all. He felt that the tone was heavy; they were too black and had too much contrast. In reprinting Dick’s directions were rarely technical. He would say simply, “Make the person more gentle,” or “Give the face more tension.” This unconventional advice forced Ruedi and David to try to understand the emotional content that Dick sought in each portrait.

Once you have seen the dodge and burn map and looked at the finished portrait, the manipulations are visible. The face of Billy Mudd for example, acquires a strange mask-like quality which seems to be the result of intentional lightening. It is a peculiar flaw in an otherwise immaculate body of work.

Billy Mudd

The final prints are huge. Most were printed at a size of almost 4 x 5 feet. With ten printed even larger at 5 x 7 feet. The effect of the size and the detail of the 8 x 10 view camera combine to make a formidable image. “But really, I feel that these people are so powerful. When you look, really look, they say such varied things with their faces and their bodies. Its almost as if there was no photographer. I’m out of it. I feel the work now belongs to the people themselves. It’s between them and you.”

1. “Richard Avedon’s In the American West” by Max Kozloff. Originally published in Art in America (January I987). Accessed at: http://www.zonezero.com/magazine/articles/kosloff/pagina1Avedon.html

2. American Masters Series (video). Richard Avedon: Darkenss and Light. 1995.

3. In the American West Richard Avedon. Harry N. Abrams. 1985.

4. Avedon at Work: In the American West Laura Wilson. University Of Texas Press. 2003

5. Evidence Richard Avedon. Whitney Museum of American Art Exhibition Catalogue. 1994

 
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Worlds in a Small Room
By Irving Penn as an ambulant studio photographer
Grossman Publishers 1974
Out of Print

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

To this day, one of the most influential photobooks ever made is Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room. It is noted for the photographs, which show Penn’s immaculate, premeditated style, his concern for geometry, and the balance of light and dark elements. But it is equally monumental for the profound way in which the photographer attempts to engage the world.

The elements of this engagement are present in Penn’s first project. Wrapping up a 1948 photo shoot for Vogue magazine in Lima, Peru, Penn chose to continue on to Cuzco while the rest of the crew flew home for Christmas. After three days in bed with altitude sickness, Penn woke on the forth day with renewed energy. Walking the streets in the centre of town he encountered a photographer’s studio with sheet glass for a roof and open on the north side, a daylight studio. Penn paid off the owner and rented the studio for three days. In an important reversal, Penn photographed the studio’s clientele, but rather than take money from the subjects, he paid them to let him take their photographs. The results are a powerful, evocative engagement with an unfamiliar culture. Edward Steichen has said the photos “richly render the timelessness and human dignity of a people.”

The advantages of a studio are isolation and control. What you can exclude, all the distractions of walls, trees, shadows, and clutter; and what you can introduce; controlled lighting, a sense of stability and intimacy. But there are other things that take place within a studio that are subtle, and they have everything to do with the relationship between photographer and subject.

The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds.

In his early trips Penn would locate daylight studios such as those he found in Paris, New York, and London for his series “Small Trades.” During a 1964 trip to Spain, while working with a band of Gypsies, he tried to improvise such a studio in a barn:

I rented a barn from a nearby farmer and set up a daylight portrait studio; when the farmer found out who the subjects were to be, he was not at all delighted with the project, On the day planned for the photographs, I noticed that all the domestic animals had disappeared from sight—the farmer had locked the goats, the chickens, and even the cow in the house.

The gypsies’ response to my invitation was predictable. They whined and wheedled and made it seem that coming to the studio a mile away was a strenuous journey. We finally agreed on an exorbitant price, and a small steam of family groups presented themselves to be photographed.

As I had hoped there was a remarkable transformation in the relationship between us, which had been so tense and unpleasant during our negotiations at their encampment. I this makeshift studio, strange to both of us, I noticed for the first time in my experience with gypsies that I was treated by them as a person somewhat like themselves. The qualities of their own family relationships began to be visible for the first time. I was surprised at their consideration even tenderness, for each other, but most surprising to me was that some of this softness was allowed to go out to me. It was a revelation that fulfilled my hopes more than my expectations.

Over the years, Penn continued to take his ethnographic work further and further afield. His trips were commissioned by Vogue and took place in the golden years of magazine photography. He finally perfected a portable outdoor natural light studio with a custom built tent. This structure was 11 feet high and had a 10 x 18 foot floor. He augmented the set-up with an 8 x 12 reflective screen. Made of aluminum poles and nylon it was reasonably portable, could be set up quickly by a team of assistants, and could fit on the top of a jeep. On his photographic expeditions, Penn took five Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras and a compliment of close-up lenses.

It is this set up that leads Penn to call himself an “ambulant studio photographer.” He used the tent to make what are perhaps his most famous photographs, the Makehuku men from the village of Mandow, known generally as the mud men of Asaro, New Guinea.

Photographs, it seems, never appear without a notion of truth attached to them. In the essay on Penn in Time-Life’s volume on “The Studio”, the writer indicates that when the subjects entered the studio, the became their true selves “On its neutral ground they emerged as their real selves, human beings possessed on innate dignity.” Although Penn repeated emphasizes the transformative qualities of the studio, he is careful not to claim that the studio is any more “real” or “true” than the space outside. The difference is in the change in environment and a formality and seriousness the studio creates. Interestingly, it was the space outside the studio that was “real” for other photographers. Walker Evans, when he embarked on the New York subway with a hidden camera, claimed: “The guard is down and the mask is off … People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.”

Much time has passed since these portraits were taken. Irving Penn died in 2009 at the age of 92. Worlds in a Small Room contains travels to meet people from distant places and photograph them under ideal conditions. For Penn, the ideal conditions required the natural light of the north facing sky. It is a light with “sweetness and constancy” a light “of such penetrating clarity that even a simple object lying by chance in such light takes on an inner glow, almost a voluptuousness.” Penn’s vision for his project (a vision imagined in his New York studio almost seventy years ago) has come true:

These remarkable strangers would come to me and place themselves in front of my camera, and in this clear north sky light I would make records of their physical presence. The pictures would survive us both and at least to that extent something of their already dissolving cultures would be preserved forever.

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Charles Jones

 

Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones
The Outsider Genius Saved from Obscurity by Chance Discovery
Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson
Preface by Alice Waters
Thames and Hudson, 1998
$40.00

Reviewed by Alan Sirulnikoff

 
 

Charles Jones is so much an “outsider” that it is safe to say that virtually no one was aware of his passionate photographic pursuit until a chance discovery by Sean Sexton (a photographic historian and collector) who found a trunk of Jones’ prints at an English market in 1981. Through Sexton’s luck, we now have this eloquent record.

The images in the book are detailed with a warm hue — reproduced from the original gold-toned gelatin silver prints. None of the original glass-plate negatives are known to have survived. In fact, his grandchildren reported that near the end of his life, Jones used his glass-plate negatives in the garden to protect young plants.

Charles Jones, the son of a master butcher, was born in England in 1866. He trained as a gardener and took various positions on private estates in England. It is thought that a number of the prints featured in the book were probably made between 1895-1905.

Though not much is known about Jones or his formal photographic training (if any), he clearly had a ‘good eye’ and a thorough understanding of the technical side of photography. Sadly, there are no notes, diaries or writings to reveal his inner thoughts or what inspired him to produce such a superb portfolio of the plant world. This beautifully produced book, put together by Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson, is one that I gladly return to frequently.

Interestingly, Jones chose to pose most of his subjects against a variety of neutral backgrounds rather than within nature. Vegetables and fruits are lovingly displayed with great attention given to lighting and composition. For this very private man, these creations were a display of passion through the medium of photography.

Was Jones influenced by other photographers of the day? One of his contemporaries was Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt’s hugely popular book Urformen der Kunst was published in 1928. However, where Blossfeldt believed that “the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure” Jones’ relationship appears to have been more intimate and personal.

Though I knew of Blossfeldt’s work, my own “chance discovery” of Charles Jones occurred in the renowned Portland bookstore, Powells, 14 years after the book was first published. Upon entering the art books section, “Plant Kingdoms” was one of the first books to catch my eye. I quickly became immersed in the images, the story, and the coincidence of finding this book at the same time as I was working on my own Still Life series.

Recently I attended an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery by the contemporary photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. Naturally I was drawn to the still life images that were on display. An accompanying gallery description noted:

He observes the objects with deliberate slowness, treating figs, eggplants and lemons as he would people in his portraits, allowing them to gradually “reveal” themselves to him – a mere inanimate thing – a “nature morte” – becomes a “still life.

This description could equally apply to Charles Jones.

Jones’ images are often poetic; sensitive; and very finely composed. “Bean Runner” (pp. 26, 27) are two of many examples that exhibit a life beyond their simple title. Looking at Sugar Pea (p. 33), I can almost feel the leathery texture of the pods and the smooth pearl-like peas.

A memorable image will transport me or evoke lateral thinking. “Celery Standard Bearer” (p. 40) is one such example. A lone stock stands bound in front of a simple white background, creating the vision of a condemned man about to be executed. The adjacent photograph “Celery Wright’s White” (p. 41) — starkly lit against a dark background — exudes a tension and mood that extends far beyond its simple caption.

“Radish White Icicle” (p. 75) is a further example. Standing, seemingly balanced on their ‘toes’, the radishes huddle tightly together as if discussing an important secret. Are they discussing what an unusual and exceptional man is this Charles Jones?

Today we have endless and immediate options for inundating ourselves (and others) in a flood of often banal imagery. Jones clearly revered and contemplated his subjects and most surely loved the medium of photography.

Yet, so little is known about this man whose prints – since Sexton’s discovery of them – have been added to private and public collections and enjoyed a measure of fame: exhibited at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musée de Elysée, Lausanne.

There is a joy in the mystery around Jones, especially in a time when we have become so used to having everything revealed with a simple click. Charles Jones died in Lincolnshire on November 15, 1959 at the age of 92. And though he may have taken most of his inner-most thoughts with him, he did leave a beautiful and poignant legacy for us to ponder.

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Alan Sirulnikoff is a photographer living in Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada. See his Still Life photographs here.

The Photobook: A History Vol 1

The Photobook: A History – Volume I
Edited by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
10.125 x 11.75, 320 pages, hardcover
Phaidon Press, 2004
$99.95

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

The classic age of the ivory tower has passed. It’s no longer the case that you can publish a book with a title like “The Oxford English Book of … something” and have it be the definitive collection of voices on a subject. In academe, such a definitive collection is known as “The Canon.” The term’s etymology, appropriately enough, harkens back to a collection of books (or texts) that are recognized, and thus included, to form the biblical canon – or a canon of scripture.

A collection of books.

That is exactly what makes up The Photobook: A History: a collection of books that have defined the history of photography. The Photobook is a pivotal work for it defines explicitly something understood but never stated: there are photographs conceived for a gallery space, and there are photographs which have their natural expression in the pages of a book. Obviously the same photograph can be hung in a gallery and published in a book, this is not a rigid and exclusive categorization, rather it is a new interpretive framework that redefines where photography has been, and where it is going.

The story told here […] has hardly been considered by historians. It is, as the photo-historian Shelley Rice has described it, ‘a secret history embedded in the well-known chronologies of photographic history’, ignored and somewhat disregarded in the past, perhaps because it was so obvious – right there under our noses, taken for granted. This is the history of photography that is found in the photographic book, or as it had recently come to be termed: the ‘photobook’.

By reinterpreting the history of photography through photobooks, Parr and Badger have created a new canon. Two hefty, large-format volumes with a combined page count of just over 650 (a third volume is on the way). The danger with defining a canon, as any English major knows, is you can never provide the kind of representation that will satisfy everyone. Before the book is even published you find yourself in a turf-war. Exclusivity is the hallmark of the canon. It is not a bookstore that tries to stock everything. It is not a google search for “photography book.” Those who accept its authority look to the canon for an organizational principle: comprehensive, yet highly selective.

Given the pros and cons of bringing a new canon into the world – are Parr and Badger successful? Yes, definitively so. Against the charge of omission, the best to be done is to acknowledge the limitations and state the criteria for inclusion:

A photobook is a book – with or without text – where the work’s primary message is carried by photographs. It is a book authored by a photographer or by someone editing or sequencing the work of a photographer, or even a number of photographers. It has a specific character, distinct from the photographic print, be it the simply functional ‘work’ print, or the fine-art ‘exhibition’ print.

Next, given all the photobooks available, there must be a further cull: not a photographer’s monograph (with a few exceptions), not simply a photographer’s ‘greatest hits,’ but rather a book with ‘intent’ and an investment in the format, design, aesthetic, and mechanism of ‘the book’.

This is all laid out in the excellent and very readable introduction. In fact, the unexpected pleasure of this collection is the writing. The prose is informative and scholarly without being tedious or pedantic. Given the scope of these two volumes, considerable background information needs to be delivered. The vehicle for delivery has been fine-tuned to the point where the essays that introduce individual sections, and the entries themselves, are clean, precise, and highly polished.

The printing, as one would expect from Phaidon, is excellent, and the clarity of the images makes up for their relatively small size. The pages are matte with a spot varnish on the images, an effect which really makes the images ‘pop’.

The range of the selection means that, unless you have been looking through Martin Parr’s personal collection of photobooks, you will find material in these volumes that is new to you.

It’s worth noting that just two years before the publication of The Photobook, (on January 7, 2002), probably while Parr and Badger were engaged in preliminary writing and design of the manuscript, Apple lauched its iPhoto software. The first version contained the ability to produce hardcover books from a collection of photographs, thus moving the world of vernacular photography into the nascent world of print-on-demand.

It was a sea change. The term “photobook” which never really existed before Parr and Badger (most dictionaries still do not recognize it), would, within a few years, come to identify a growing industry which, through its promotion of boilerplate templates and standardized editing capabilities, was really the antithesis of the photobook in the sense that P&B were attempting to establish. In 2011 The Aperture Foundation started the Photobook Review (with Gerry Badger contributing), but if you keyed “Photobook Review” into a search engine you were just as likely to stumble upon evaluations of vendors as the Aperture title.

An optimistic view might hold that if the print-on-demand editing platforms became sufficiently powerful and responsive, motivated individuals could have the capability of producing works worthy of inclusion in the brave new canon of the photobook. Perhaps. Given the nature of vernacular photography we will have to keep our eyes on second-hand shops, ebay, or wait for future volumes of The Photobook to find out.

 

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The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

 

Disclosure: A copy of The Photobook: A History Vol 1 was purchased online.

The Journey is the Destination

The Journey Is the Destination
The Journals of Dan Eldon
edited by Kathy Eldon
8.25 x 10.75, 224 pages, hardcover
Chronicle Books, 1997

reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

Editor’s Note: This review appeared in 1997 when The Journey is the Destination was first published. Since that time, Eldon’s journals have proved influential for photographers, artists, and graphic designers. For those who admire its graphic sensibilities, this book would seem to encourage time spent with the computer unplugged, working directly with materials.  The Journey is the Destination makes as much impact today as when it first appeared.

 

The danger, if any, I expounded was from our proximity to
a great human passion let loose. — Heart of Darkness

The journals of Dan Eldon were never intended to be published. They were a private affair between a young photographer growing up in Africa and his graphic impulses. Eldon was very young when he set to work, and the earliest pages show him as an adolescent lounging against the side of a Land-Rover. He spilled paint on the photos, wove the fabric of snake-skin, ink, and blood into the paper, juxtaposed a tarot deck with calling cards from prostitutes. Some of the images are layered with thought balloons and handguns in order to form the high-tension scenes of a comic book. Others pages toy with the ironic, fabricating a mythic safari company and then changing the name from Deziree Safaris to Deziree Sex Safaris as Eldon and his friends staged camp photos. Under a blurred shot of his sister he has penned the caption “Amy is attacked by a zebra who finds her flares distasteful.”

It is difficult not to see these books as formative, as leading up to a major work. They are the storyboard for a film that was playing inside Eldon’s mind, a safari across dangerous land with beautiful women.

In their subject matter and in the richness of texture the books are similar to those of the American photographer Peter Beard. Beard, who lived in Kenya, constructed his books from animal, vegetable, and photographic matter. But whereas Beard’s books show the decimation of the big game populations he was working to save — starved elephants, fields of zebra hide, slaughtered rhinos — Eldon’s are centred on people: his sister, his travelling companions, a strange man in Morocco, Masai children and villagers. Eldon was interested in people, and the journeys he made usually had humanitarian ends.

It is interesting that the two men chose to create such elaborate journals. Beard, born in 1938 and educated at Yale, came to Africa and witnessed the end of Ernest Hemingway’s dream, that idea of Africa as an exotic playground. The days of big men, big guns, and big game were over. Eldon, born in England in 1970, came to a very different Africa when he moved with his family to Nairobi when he was seven. Both these photographers found collage the only way to get the rich textures of their lives into a book. Both show an obsession with forms of female beauty, and both made exotic photo shoots with Somali and Ethiopian women. Both have layered their books with quotes, newspaper clippings, and text. Cumbersome objects play a key role in these books. (Beard was horrified when one of his books fell out of a boat, but afterwards, once the pages had dried, he found that the crumpled effect was exactly what he was seeking.)

Dan Eldon’s work is beautiful. The pages are filled with graphic wonders, and the book can hardly contain the exuberance of the early journeys. But later in the journals’ progression are also black pages of disenchantment and heartbreak, loneliness and confusion. The last pages show Eldon’s efforts as a war correspondent. These are stark, merely photos on paper. And after these few pages the last journal ends, abruptly.

In an article entitled “Photography in Danger Zones”, published in Executive Magazine, Eldon had written: “The hardest situation to deal with is a frenzied mob because they cannot be reasoned with. I try to appeal to one or two of the most sympathetic and restrained-looking people with the most effective-looking assault rifles, but I have realized that no photograph is worth my life.” It was an ironic statement, for in July of 1993 an angry mob turned on Eldon and two other journalists who were photographing the site of a UN bombing in Somalia and beat them to death.

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon - cover

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon (back cover)

Disclosure: A review copy of The Journey is the Destination book was provided by Duthie Books.