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Alexey Brodovitch Ballet Cover

 

 

Ballet
Alexey Brodovitch
Reissued by errata editions, 2011
$39.95

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

 

 

Tragedy can befall books just as it does people.

In 1956 a fire destroyed source material, negatives, prints, layouts and virtually everything that had gone into making Alexey Brodovitch’s first book of photography Ballet. With a perverse tenacity a second fire consumed the few remaining copies of the book in Brodovitch’s possession some years later.

What was lost to the flames was a completely individual work that stood well outside of the photographic tradition of the times. Or, as expressed by Christopher Phillips, Brodovitch’s photographs, “spat in the face of technique and pointed out a new way in which photographers could work.

Ballet was shot between 1935 and 1937. The first two years of the famous Farm Security Administration’s documentary photography project. The FSA employed the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to create what are now some of the most well known images in the history of photography.

But while Evans, Lange, and their colleagues were outside in the bright sun with professional equipment and the clear purpose of documenting the lives of the American dispossessed, Brodovitch was working in the gloomy backstage lighting of theatre halls with newly invented 35-mm film and a Contax camera. He had no lights other than stage lighting and he had slow film. He could barely hope to get a clear image. But, as it turns out, Brodovitch could do more with these shadows and luminous ghosts than most could do with their razor sharp imagery.

Alexey Brodovitch is best known as a masterful innovator and luminary of publication design. For 25 years he was the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, a position he used to rethink the relationship of image to text within the setting of the two-page spread. It could be argued that it was Brodovitch that gave us the magazine as we recognize it today. In 1933 he founded the legendary Design Laboratory, a nexus that, over the years, brought together such notables as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Lisette Model and, of course, Richard Avedon.

If one is familiar with Avedon’s work, Ballet provides the missing link between his hallmark portraits and his blurred, street work done in Italy during the 1940s, at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in other environments where he abandoned his studio technique. Avedon’s work makes sense as someone working in a “Brodovitch” style. But when Brodovitch make his photos he was attempting something entirely new. As Edwin Denby states in his introduction to Ballet.

When you first glance at them Alexey Brodovitch’s photographs look strangely unconventional. Brodovitch, who knows as well as any of us the standardized Fifth Avenue kind of flawless prints, offers us as his own some that are blurred, distorted, too black and spectral, or too light and faded looking, and he has even intensified these qualities in the darkroom. [… ] What he took, what he watched for, it seems, were the unemphatic moments, the ones the audience does not applaud but establish the spell of the evening.

The Errata re-publication of Ballet is a very welcome book. It reproduces the pages of the original, yet it cannot really be considered a facsimile edition. In fact, the layout is somewhat awkward as the standardized size of Errata’s books is at odds with the dimensions of Ballet. One wonders what Brodovitch himself would have made of the new housing for his work. It is a minor complaint, however, as the text of the original has been re-set and included at the back. Also included are some of the only surviving contact sheets of Brodovitch’s 35mm negatives. The Errata eddition clearly communicates the genius of Brodovitch’s design and image manipulation.

It is worth noting that Errata editions were “… inspired by the frustration of not being able to access the content of many of the important photobooks the medium has produced. We find it distressing that these bookworks are no longer available to students or new generations of photographers.” Errata are dedicated to bringing out those volumes that will never be reissued in their original form.

Ballet was first published in 1945 by J. J. Augustin of New York. There were 104 photographs produced in the gravure style. The edition was 500. Additional information on the history of this influential book, including the quotes mentioned in this review, can be found in the Phaidon publication Alexey Brodovitch by Kerry William Purcell.

 

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Disclosure: A copy of this book was purchased online.

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.

Pierre Gonnord

 

Pierre Gonnord
PHotoBolsillo
5.25 x 7, 112 pages, softcover
La Fabrica, 2012
$20.00

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

I have this funny thing which is that I’m never afraid when I’m looking in the ground glass. This person could be approaching with a gun or something like that and I’d have my eyes glued to the finder and it wasn’t like I was really vulnerable.

Diane Arbus

If Rembrandt were a photographer instead of a painter, and if he were drawn to the margins of society rather than to himself (and his other subjects) he might have produced works very much like those of Pierre Gonnord.

With their dark backgrounds and characteristic lighting, these images are sculpted with an exacting attention to detail. They are, in fact, so painterly that they invite the viewer closer, encouraging a careful examination of the shadows and highlights in an attempt to perceive their true nature. In the book the images are the size of a postcard and so it is easy to mistake them for paintings. In his exhibitions, Gonnord displays the images much larger than life – sometimes four feet high, and so I expect, the effect is quite different.

The subjects and the images are timeless. The clothing gives nothing away: an overcoat, perhaps a scarf; sometimes there is no clothing, only a naked shoulder.

The portrayed are European punks, transients from Eastern Europe, Venetian Jews, Spanish and Portuguese peasants, Japanese geisha and yakuza, the Gypsies of Seville … There is beauty and there is a brutality – often combined in the same face.

I choose my contemporaries in the anonymity of the big cities because their faces, under the skin, narrate unique, remarkable stories about our era. Sometimes hostile or distant, almost always fragile behind the opacity of their masks, they represent specific social realities and another concept of beauty. I also try to approach the unclassifiable, timeless individual, to suggest things that have been repeated over and over since time began.

Born in France in 1963, Gonnord moved to Spain in his twenties and taught himself photography. He has been widely exhibited in Europe and in 2012 the French Consulate in Atlanta invited him to complete a residency and a series of photographs, using local American southerners as his subjects.

In the essay, “A New Perception of the Real” by Lorena Martinez de Corral (which accompanies the volume) Gonnord states:

The camera has been like a lifejacket for me, an opportunity to go towards the rest, to approach the Other, to overcome the limits of my shyness, of my loneliness, of my condition and also my taboos.

This sentiment is the echo of Diane Arbus’s relationship to her subjects, but where Arbus was uninterested in technical finesse, Gonnord has clearly perfected not only the art of photography but the painterly use of lighting to convey a specific conception of portraiture.

PHotoBolsillo publishes a series of monographs on “the most important Spanish photographers” in an “instructive yet readable format.” The books are similar to the popular Photo Poche series started by the Centre National de la Photographie in 1982 (and brought into the English-speaking world in 1989 by Thames and Hudson under the title Photofile).

Despite the PHotoBolsillo motto, the English translation of Lorena Martinez de Corral’s essay is not very readable, it is, in fact, awkward and a little painful. A minor complaint, and the only one I could make in the light of the pristine nature of the rest of this book.

The tiny volume on Pierre Gonnord is an excellent introduction to a masterful and provocative photographer.

 

Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review
Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review

Disclosure: A copy of Pierre Gonnord was purchased online.

Patrick Faigenbaum
Vancouver Art Gallery
March 9 – June 2, 2013
Co-curated by director Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Famille Frescobaldi, Florence, 1984—2010
silver chlorobromide print

On a rainy evening half-way through May, I walked to the Vancouver Art Gallery and took in the exhibition of Parisian photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. As I entered the gallery, there was a portrait visible from the main floor rotunda of the gallery. I am unable to resist an exhibition that works with the human face, and portraits comprise a major portion of Faigenbaum’s photographic practice. He is perhaps best known for a series of black and white group photos of the Italian aristocracy. Some are nothing but shades of dark grey, as if the light of the modern world could not penetrate the dusk of generations of family affluence.

The exhibit is co-curated by Jeff Wall, most famous of the “Vancouver School” photographers. But Wall also has an academic background in the arts – as assistant professor (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), and associate professor (Simon Fraser University). His writing and teaching helped define the “Vancouver School” and positioned a number of his peers (Vikky Alexander, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham) within it.

The works of Faigenbaum comprise the fourth exhibition in this series intended to introduce internationally acclaimed artists to a North American audience. The curatorial text positioned at the entrance to the exhibition said as much, and I would repeatedly encounter the term “international acclaim” in relation to these portraits of Italian bluebloods. What I would not encounter was the explanation of the acclaim. Was it just the difficulty in gaining access to them? What made these different from any other family portrait? The wealth that adorned the end tables? I found that the pictures had begun to be treated like the idea of aristocracy itself. It was all in the adjective: one should feel a certain privilege simply to be in their presence. However, many of these family group sittings have a casual, almost careless composition and I found neither narrative nor poignancy in them. Which is odd given the months of planning necessary to set up the shoots. It is also peculiar given the prominence of this series in Faigenbaum’s oeuvre.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Citrons, Santulussurgiu [Lemons, Santulussurgiu], 2006
silver chromogenic print

Faigenbaum’s still life photographs recall his early ambitions as a painter. Curators and critics have also been quick to point out a painterly approach in his portraiture: “Faigenbaum’s use of chiaroscuro—strongly contrasting passages of light and dark—places him in a line of “old masters”, from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour to Rembrandt van Rijn.” (Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight). As with a sitting in front of an artist working in traditional media, Faigenbaum likes to take an extended period of time in order to let a feeling of quiet and calm develop. This feeling is evident in his strongest works.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print Collection of Marin Karmitz, Paris

Patrick Faigenbaum, Dr. Karel Černý, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

It is also the feeling that is conspicuously absent in Faigenbaum’s street scenes. The shift from portraiture is not just a shift in content, it is a disconcerting change in approach and style leaving one feeling that one has missed something. Indeed, we have missed something, the shift from the aesthetic-based portraits to the “conceptual art” basis of his other works. Yet this transition goes unannounced, despite the fact that co-curator Jeff Wall is arguably the best person to make such an announcement.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994 silver chlorobromide print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Avenue Vinohradská, Prague, 1994
silver chlorobromide print

In the world of contemporary photography some images are so distinctive that only one person could have made them. The majority of Faigenbaum’s work seems almost unauthored, as if it could have been made by anyone. There is no signature lighting, no angle, no mood, no vision or subject matter to identify his genius.

I stood in an exhibition of photographs that were part quotidian street scenes and part formal sittings. I faced a large wall that held only one image. It depicted two people sitting at a restaurant table, their faces blackened by deep shadows, the table held general daily clutter, it could have been there, it could have not been there: a carton of cigarettes and a lighter; detritus. With the faces obscured and the visible content mundane, I asked myself why this image was hanging here.

The gallery copy tells me that “Patrick Faigenbaum creates a compelling ambience that isolates a moment outside the incessant flow of time, prompting the viewer to acknowledge the impossibility of fully understanding the complex narratives that extend beyond each image.” Yes, but what of the narrative within the image?

In a review by Shawn Connor of the Vancouver Sun, Faigenbaum mentions being drawn to photograph in Prague, citing an affinity for one of his favourite authors, Franz Kafka. “It’s this strangeness,” Faigenbaum said. “I always think about this when I look at my work: why is this going on?”

I could not reconcile the often beautifully still portraits with the other images in the exhibit. I could not answer “why is this going on?” And so I left the exhibit moved by the stillness of his portraits, and joyous before his lemons, but ultimately disappointed: with an inexplicable feeling that the artist’s best work (or some information vital to the understanding of his imagery) had been held back.

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999 silver chromogenic print

Patrick Faigenbaum, Hanane Ksouri, Saint-Raphaël, 1999
silver chromogenic print

References:

An Interview with Jeff Wall on Patrick Faigenbaum
by Here and Elsewhere
March 5th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum brings the flavours of Europe to the Vancouver Art Gallery: Painter-turned-photographer captures stately portraits of aristocrats, lively street scenes
by Shawn Connor, The Vancouver Sun
March 8th, 2013

Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs place him in line with “old masters”
by Robin Laurence, The Georgia Straight
March 12, 2013

Fazal Sheikh

 

Portraits
Fazal Sheikh
6.75 x 8.25, 304 pages, hardcover
Steidl, 2011
$65.00

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

A portrait almost always carries the weight of a story behind it. That is, I think, what separates the successful portrait from the others. It might even be what separates a portrait from a mere image (if we are talking about photography) or a portrait from a mere likeness (if we are speaking about painting or illustration). A successful portrait has a story and a voice that speaks through the image, wanting to tell it.

The story behind the portraits of Fazal Sheikh is one of displacement and dispossession. It is not a pleasant story, for human nature is often unrelenting in its violence. Conflict can destroy the very landscape, and where there is no habitation the local population will become refugees. Once driven from their homeland the migrants will loose what little entitlement they may have had.

But this is not really the story behind the portraits, rather it is the circumstance under which the portraits have been made. The story, that weight of narrative that rests behind the image, is much more personal. It is, we suspect, much more profound, terrifying, and tragic than could be expressed in words. Yet despite the circumstance of the portraits and the stories behind them, these are humane pictures. There is a kindness in them, almost a tenderness, and a sense that even in the face of hopelessness there is a fundamental human dignity. There is respect and, evidently, a collaboration between the subject and photographer to tell a story. Some of the photographs are quite beautiful. Many convey a disconcerting intimacy.

Each of the portraits is accompanied by a short text. Sometimes it is just a name and location and sometimes it is a more complete story— the result of interviews conducted by Sheikh.

The book follows Sheikhs work over almost twenty years. He first visited a series of Kenyan refugee camps in 1992. The camps were set up to accommodate those fleeing wars in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. There were additional camps in Malawi due to the war in Mozambique and after the genocide in Rwanda large refugee camps were set up in Tanzania. The text in Sheikh’s early book A Sense of Common Ground (Scalo 1996) explains the origins of his method of working:

Fazal Sheikh worked among these refugee communities and began to learn about their experiences. It was here that he first witnessed the lightning visits of international photojournalists, who grabbed their stories and left in less than 24 hours. ‘I remembered watching them working and feeling a sense of unease, an inability to follow along and make the expected photographs,’ he said later. He decided to remain in the camps for extended periods, asking the elders for permission to invite their people to sit for a portrait. The portraits he made in those first months in Kenya established a way of working that has remained fundamentally the same ever since: a simple, direct, respectful rendering of one person, or a group, in front of the camera.

In addition to Sheikh’s photographs, Portraits also contains the essay “Trees, Hands, Stars, and Veils: The Portrait in Ruins” by the eminent Princeton scholar Eduardo Cadava. An Associate Member of the Department of Comparative Literature and a teacher in Princeton’s English Department, Cadava is also the author of Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History and the editor of Cities Without Citizens. He is on familiar territory with Sheikh’s photographs and at the outset he sets up the fundamental crisis in human rights that underpins the book:

The crisis within human rights arises from the fact that, with the appearance of the refugee, the presumably sacred and inalienable rights of man are shown to be entirely alienable, to lack any protection or reality at the very moment in which they can no longer be understood as rights belonging to citizens of a state, or to members of a particular political community. In other words, it is precisely when the non-citizen appears, when the human is divorced from citizenship (even if it citizenship itself that often defines the human) or forced to move from the place that grants him or her citizenship, that rights are lost.

Cadava also provides an introduction to Sheikhs work, giving the scope and location of his various projects over time. Yet the rest of Cadava’s essay seems uneven. His contemplation and reading of the photographs, presented in the style of an academic essay, is at odds with the direct simplicity of the photos themselves. I welcome the political and historic context, but I cannot help but imagine that the subjects would have little use for such erudite prose with its emphasis on (for example) the postmodern tussle between “the multiplication and proliferation of the archival traces which simultaneously constitute and deconstitute her face …”

One passage in particular troubled me, even after repeated readings:

What is at stake in the encounter with Sheikh’s photographs is not simply the possibility of seeing and understanding what cannot be seen directly within them but also the necessity of bearing witness to what history has silenced or sought to conceal (which nevertheless has left its traces on their surfaces), to what, arising from the days and nights of memory that are inscribed within them, haunts us, and encourages us to think about the loss and dispossession for which we remain, still today, responsible.

It seems to me that what is at stake with Sheikh’s photographs is not the amorphous agency of history, nor a tenuous culpability that can be attributed to the reader, but rather a notion of dignity and perseverance. What is at stake is this: in spite of the inventiveness of human cruelty and the caprice of fate, the dispossessed do have an identity. They have a name, and a face, and through these portraits they have a story.

 

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Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Portraits by Fazal Sheikh

Disclosure: A copy of Portraits was purchased in a bookstore.

 

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.

 

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

The Photobook: A History Vol 1- Parr and Badger

 

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.