Richard Throssel was not only a contemporary of Curtis he was also a native: Cree to be exact, adopted by the Crow. His photograph of Bull Over the Hill’s home, titled “The Old and the New” which shows a log house with a tipi in the background, and his 1910 photograph “Interior of the best Indian Kitchen on the Crow Reservation” which shows an Indian family dressed in traditional clothing, sitting at an elegantly set table, in their very contemporary house, having tea, suggests that native people could negotiate the past and the present with relative ease. His untitled camp scene that juxtaposes traditional tipis with contemporary buggies and a family of pigs – rather than the unshod ponies and prerequisite herd of buffalo, suggests, at least to my contemporary sensibilities, that Throssel has a penchant for satiric play. But I’m probably imagining the humour, Throssel was, after all, a serious photographer trying to capture a moment, perhaps not realizing that tripping the shutter captures nothing; that everything on the ground glass changes before the light hits the film plane. What the camera allows you to do – is invent. To create. That’s really what photographs are: not records of moments, but rather, imaginative acts.

Thomas King
The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative (the 2003 Massey Lectures)

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.

From its beginnings, photography has lived in persistent conflict with the nature of its being and those elements which can define it. This conflict arises over whether it is the representation of truth or a mechanism for metaphors. Photography is the most painful reiteration of what we are and what we don’t want to be. It is the truth constructed with pieces of truth and pieces of lies. It is what anyone wants it to be … With photography, there is always a mystery, a veil which does not allow us to have the clarity we desire.

Jorge Gutiérrez. Director 1990 to 1994 Museo de Artes Visuales Alejandro Otero, Cararas.
Image and Memory: Photography from Latin America.

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.

If the history of creative photography is considered as a whole, the publishing and dissemination of photographer’s work in book form has been more crucial and far-reaching than the showing of photographs in galleries.

The Photobook: A History, Volume I,
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger

dive_cover

Dive Dark Dream Slow
by Melissa Catanese
7.5 x 9.25 in., 88 pages, hardcover
The Ice Plant, 2012
$29.95

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

The found photo is a strange beast.

It is a photo with one foot in the grave; redeemed (if that is the right word) through someone’s interest in it. Such a photo has been salvaged from the cardboard box at the flea market, from the album about to be discarded, or from the vast stacks of ephemera for sale in emporia both on and off-line. It is a photo that exists in two worlds at once: its original world, the world in which it was created by a photographer with intention (which may or may not explain the photo’s content) and its new world, in which it shall have new meaning, new context, and (depending on providence) another life entirely.

DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW is a second life for a number of photographs acquired by New York photography collector Peter J. Cohen. They have been curated and assembled by Melissa Catanese, who is both a photographer and a bookseller (She is the founder of Spaces Corners, an artist-run bookshop and project space located in Pittsburgh, PA.). Ms. Catanese has had long-term, hands-on access to the collection as she has been helping to edit and organize Cohen’s massive collection of more than twenty-thousand prints.

The volume is slim and elegant with a clean, minimalist layout. There is no text until the final page where, in addition to the copyright information, we encounter a paragraph by Albert Camus.­

The book has gained traction since it’s release. It has been shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards in 2012, and despite Jonathan Blaustein’s rather peculiar review in APhotoEditor (which seemed more about his mid-life crisis than the book), it appears to be doing well – making a number of shortlists for best photobook of the year, and generally sparking interest.

The reason DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW is doing well could be that a book of this type has been expected for some time. A collection of found images organized, not by type – as are Martin Parr’s collection of boring postcards – but by letting the photographs resonate and interact with each other in the hopes of obtaining a lyric or poetic outcome. You can almost imagine the giddy delight at being let into Cohen’s collection of images with the idea of making a book of found photos.

And yet, as an organizational structure, the play of association between photos is a tall order. And I can’t entirely agree with the promotional prose found on the publisher’s web site that “the book cycles through overlapping themes and counter-themes—moon/ocean; violence/tenderness; innocence/experience; masks/nakedness—that sparkle with psychic longing and apocalyptic comedy.” Often (as with the mask) a single photo does not make a theme.

I also have two book-designer complaints. First, the image of a penciled caption from the back of a photo does not deserve a two-page spread. Moreover the gutter of the book makes reading the caption awkward. This gutter gets in the way with another two-page spread toward the front of the book where a man,  who is supposed to be diving into an inner-tube, seems to be diving into the gutter instead. Certainly one can crack the spine and eliminate these problems. But a book lover would rather drown in rabbit hide glue than break the spine of a book.

Does the book work? If the reader is prepared to spend some time to interpret the harmonic interference of the images, I think it does. The interplay is subtle. After all, it’s not like there is a correct way to interpret these things. It is an easy book to dismiss out of hand, lacking both an auteur (who’s force of genius must certainly hold the work together) and a type (ahh they are all photographs of swimmers – now I understand). The book itself shares the same qualities as found photographs.

Commenting on a bequest by Mr. Cohen to the MoMA in 2010, a gift that included more than 250 individual photographs and several albums, Tasha Lutek, Cataloguer, Department of Photography said; “while these snapshots were selected by a curator’s eye, they are not unlike the ones we have at home stored in boxes and albums, or displayed on our office desks. Mostly portraits, the collection of posed and unposed photographs document sitters we do not know, but whose faces and personalities still seem familiar.”

Indeed, Dive Dark Dream Slow could have been culled from the collective photographic subconscious of western culture.

DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese DIVE DARK DREAM SLOW by Melissa Catanese

Dive Dark Dream Slow was purchased online.