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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

In the 19th century, the portrait resembled a small, private stage play. The subject of the portrait got ready, dressed appropriately, and set off the photographer’s. Once there, he entered the studio — which, with its plethora of props and necessary items such as chairs, armchairs, drapes, pictures and statuettes was reminiscent of a small stage — and was fitted into this grid of accessories. The background and furnishings were chosen, the pose and attitude rehearsed — “Wouldn’t you like to be holding a book in your hands?” — and finally the lighting was set up.

Urs Stahel
Afterwards: “After the climax” as a focal element in Rineke Dijkstra’a portrait photography

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.

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.

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.