Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Best Photobooks of 2012: Value Edition

As a kid, the end of the year meant my attention turned to Santa. As a photobook nerd, I now wait for another annual ritual, the appearance of the year's 'Best of' lists and an associated event, the emptying of my wallet.

Well, in the spirit of getting two kicks at the can, here is an early 'value edition' list. All books on the list sell for 25 $/Euros or less. Get one or two as stocking stuffers and you'll still have something left over for the end of year splurge. But, as photobook prices skyrocket, don't confuse price with quality. Many of these would fit comfortably on any year's best list.

Best Value Photobook of the Year

Thinspiration (Must not Eat) by Laia Abril
                                                                                    Put together by the same core group responsible for this year's cult photobook hit, Christina de Middel's The Afronauts, (albeit in different roles) I'm surprised this book hasn't gotten more press.  Fascinating topic, exquisite execution, and every bit as smart and evocative as The Afronauts. Where The Afronauts optimistically reaches for the moon, Thinspiration is a hard hitting punch to the gut.

Here is Laia's description of the project:
"The Pro-ana community has turned anorexia (Ana) into its dogma. They venerate the illness giving meaning to their totalitarian “lifestyle”. It’s a virtual reality where they state commandments, share motivating tricks and exchange hundreds of images of thin models via their blogs. They have created Thinspiration, a visual new language - obsessively consumed to keep on wrestling with the scales day after day. Now, they evolved interacting with their cameras portraying their bony clavicles or flat bellies; or consuming extreme anorexic images, the Pro-ana  have made Thinspiration evolve.

"I re-take their self-portraits, photographing and reinterpreting their images from the screen, resulting the visual response to the bond between obsession and self-destruction; the disappearance of one’s own identity. The project is a personal and introspective journey across the nature of obsessive desire and the limits of auto-destruction, denouncing disease’s new risk factors: social networks and photography."

To order.

Honourable Mention

A small run (80 numbered copies) Argentinian artist book virtually unknown outside that country. What it lacks in size (5.5 x 8 inches), the volume makes up for in emotional punch. Highly personal, this is a family photo album made by a brother documenting the memory of his sister, who was disappeared by the Argentinian government. The text is Spanish, but the emotional power of the story and images transcends language.

View the book here. Order here.

Before Tomorrow by Yannik Welling

Better known than the other two.

Winner of the Berlin Photobook Slam, this large, beautifully designed newspaper format book explores the rapid rise in Sri Lanka’s tourism over the past three years.

Self published, 300 copies, signed and numbered. 

Order here.

The Best of the Rest (alphabetically arranged)
  • Mathieu Asselin, The 99%, Newsprint Edition    A series of portraits of Occupy Wall Street protestors and supporters of the movement at Zuccotti Park, NYC. Self-published newsprint, limited edition of 100, numbered and signed by the photographer.
  • Alex Bocchetto & Valentina Abenavoli, You Win! Olympics reportage gone wild, an action-packed race of unscrupulous competitors and dirty tricks. And masked gunmen too. If you live with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek, this is the book for you. Comic humour at its worst. Biff! Pow!! All pictures taken during London 2012 summer Olympics. Numbered edition of 100.
  • Jason Eskenazi, The Americans List: By the Glow of the Juke Box.  Technically, not a photobook. But incredibly enlightening. While working as a guard at the MET museum in New York, Eskenazi asked  photographers he saw visiting the Looking In exhibition about Robert Frank's The Americans, their favorite image and why. The book summarizes the answers from 276 photographers, including many of the world's most famous.
  • Carl Gunhouse, American Desire. Carl Gunhouse traveled across the United States for the past five years creating a portrait of American desire and the dire consequences these yearnings have wrought: a struggling economy, half-finished commercial construction projects, abandoned suburban cineplexes, and foreclosed homes in never-completed subdivisions. Signed and numbered edition of 100.
  • Thaddius Holownia, Ova Aves. For the contemplative, 13 poems matched up with 13 color photos of specimen bird eggs.
  • Haruna Sato, Ichi No Hi (Volumes 1-3) The potentialities of the future unfold in small thematic books made from photos taken on the first day of the month. At about $6 each, get all three! Volume 1 here, 2 here, 3 here. Editions of 250 or 200.
  • Alec Soth and Brad Zellar, Ohio  Not a particularly obscure choice, but quality none the less. 15 x 17 inch heavy newsprint, 2000 copies.
  • Kim Thue, Dead Traffic Stunning (and frequently haunting) black and white images from the fringes of Freetown, Sierra Leone. To buy.
  • Patrick Tsai, Modern Times What happens when a Japanese photographer with the sensibility of Martin Parr goes to China in advance of the 2008 Olympics? Bold color photos, tightly edited with lots of humor. Signed.
  • Tobias Zielony, Manitoba   A smart edit, strong text and a powerful theme; aboriginal teens living on the fringe of society.  To buy.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

In Every Picture #7 by Eric Kessel

One of the most interesting projects around is Eric Kessel's books of found photographs. In Every Picture #7 tells the story of a Dutch woman whose life is seen from the perspective of a fairground shooting gallery. The series begins in 1936 when a 16 year old girl picks up a gun and shoots at the target in a shooting gallery. Every time she hits the target, it triggers the shutter of a camera and a portrait of the girl in shooting pose is taken and given to her as a prize. The series documents virtually every year in the girl's lifelong romance with the shooting gallery -- with a notable gap from 1939 to 1945.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Concresco by David Galjaard

A series of previous posts reviewed the books nominated for the Paris Photo / Aperture First Book Award. Well, Paris Photo is now in the past and David Galjaard's Concresco (available here for 45 euros plus shipping) was chosen as the best of the bunch. It's a decision I heartily endorse. The book is a fascinating portrait of post-Soviet Albania seen through the lens of a peculiar phenomena -- the 700,000 concrete bunkers built over 26 years following Albania's break with the Soviets and designed to provide shelter for every Albanian against whatever foreign invader may appear.
Self-published in an edition of 750, the book has exceptional production values and an exacting attention to detail. Take, for example, the cover. 
A simple, bold design in red and black pays obvious homage to both Albania (these are the colors of their flag) and the Soviet connection. A closer look displays a series of dots distributed across the cover in the shape of Albania. Holding the book, you realize these aren't dots, but rather bumps in the shape of the bunkers that protrude from the cover in the same way the bunkers protrude from the landscape. Thus, in tactile form, the cover embodies the book's central motif, the thousands of bunkers spread all across the country. 

Inside, the book consists of beautifully printed, full bleed, double page spreads. Though in a couple of cases it is a bit like Where's Waldo, virtually all the photos have one or more of the bunkers somewhere. The exceptions? A few images of worker's clothing and tools, several shots of items on the ground (including a turtle who's shell serves as a metaphor for the bunkers), and the last image in the book -- a photo of various souvenir items, among them ceramic models of the pillboxes. Sequentially, the early photos emphasize the worker's clothing and tools and shots of the ground. Then follow the bulk of the images, landscapes with bunkers and the concluding image of the souvenir bunkers. Thus, the sequencing creates a movement, from construction, to experience, to memory; a movement that is reinforced in the accompanying texts.

The most interesting of the textual material consists of a variety of small inserts that are spread throughout the book. These inserts document, in their own words, the experiences, memories and associations of individual Albanians with the bunkers. The spectrum of individuals ranges from workers who helped build the bunkers to journalists and academics reflecting on Albanian history and the the ongoing meaning of the bunkers. Take, for example, Ilir Mati: "Eventually we found out that these bunkers had nothing to do with war. They were related to something else: to power. People in power make those they rule do useless jobs so they can hold onto power. One of our famous writers Ismail Kadare has compared it to the construction of the pyramids. ... They had to work all their lives in order for the emperor to maintain his power. Similarly, over here, we were doing useless jobs to secure power for the regime, a power that seemed to be saying: 'I am useful to you. I saved you from war. I saved you from Nazis and Fascists.' This went on for a while, until one day the Berlin Wall fell -- and the bunkers fell too."

In short, a beautifully produced book that brings attention to a strange and perversely whimsical phenomena with deep and profound historical significance which continues to occupy the daily experience and the thoughts of Albania's citizens. As Galjaard puts it:
In this documentary, the bunkers are used as a visual metaphor in the telling of a larger social story. They help to paint a picture of developments in a country that was the last in Europe to renounce communism and has set out on a demanding quest to become part of the capitalist West.
In addition to the regular edition, there is a 150 euro Special Edition consisting of a signed book, wrapped in a handmade screen printed cover and a limited print (3x26 prints, size 24x30 cm) of one of three photographs from the series. Both the cover and the photo are numbered. Here are the three special edition prints (note: the center image has sold out and is no longer available).

Very highly recommended.
Video flip thru to be added shortly.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Paul Kooiker's Sunday meets Bill Brandt's Perspective of Nudes

Joerg Coberg's review of Paul Kooiker's Sunday, which he accurately describes as "photographs of a nude woman, balancing precariously on a wooden table in a rather unattractive backyard of sorts," makes a number of interesting points:
  1.  "I’m not the biggest fan of dragging out obligatory and thus tiresome references, but there is a big echo of Hans Bellmer and his photographs of self-assembled and rather strange looking dolls. ... That’s the problem with references, they don’t necessarily always teach you quite as much as you think. Which is why I’m going to throw in yet another, very different one: Irving Penn’s Nudes."
  2. "The book of course needs to be seen against the background of photography over the past, let’s say 100 years, with elements of the photographic nude, images of the human body, imaging the human body (in photography almost inevitably men taking photographs of naked women), sexuality, voyeurism thrown into the mix. It’s not obvious where Sunday fits in there. If it was obvious, the book would merely be illustrating a concept (maybe it is, and I am now embellishing?). So I’m not entirely sure what to make of the book, which is good: I’ll have to come back to it."

(Snarky editorial comment: Don't leaf through my photobooks while holding a cigar, like the guy responsible for the video of Kooiker's book did for the first 30 seconds!)

On viewing Sunday, I reacted very much like Coberg. I had a strong and immediate sense of Kooiker's work as part of the ongoing and interconnected stream of photographers who have trained their cameras on nude females. Unlike Coberg, however, my association was neither with Bellmer nor Penn. Rather, Bill Brandt's classic Perspective of Nudes came to my mind. Like Brandt, the bodies in Kooiker's nudes are overexposed, whited out and typically distorted in form. Unlike Brandt's, however, they are in color. My point in raising yet another link is not to argue that one association is better than the other, but to reinforce Coberg's basic point: this is a work firmly embedded in the rich history of photography. There are lots 'echos' here and, as a result, as Coberg so elequently says ... "I’m not entirely sure what to make of the book, which is good: I’ll have to come back to it." As my shelves groan with the weight of more and more photobooks, that's precisely my criteria .... does the book literally demand that you return to it. In this case, the answer is a full throated yes.

Highly recommended.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Paula McCartney: As If Everything You Imagined Were True

Paula McCartney's most recent artist book, As If Everything You Imagined Were True (page spreads for the entire book here, order here), is a lush visual experience that blends high quality materials, exquisite printing, and a wonderfully sequenced set of images. Produced on a small scale (100 copies), the casebound book consists of 40 pages of inkjet printed images on heavy stock.

The images themselves fall into three sets, examples of each shown below: color prints of blue sky and clouds, highly detailed black and white prints that emphasize mid-grey tones of birds in lush tropical displays, and high contrast prints of birds flying shown in patterns against an all white sky. Particularly notable is the lyrical and poetic sequencing of the images which alternates groupings of the clouds and flying birds (which, when you rapidly flip the pages, give a sense of freedom and movement) with the visually dense images of roosting birds which call out for slow, intense observation. Thus, the natural movement through the book mirrors the movement of the birds themselves -- rapid bursts of activity broken up by periods of relatively motionless calm. Another conceptual layer, captured by the books title, comes into play when one looks closely at the photos from the bird aviaries at the Bronx Zoo. Combining living foliage and birds with painted backgrounds, it is often hard to distinguish what is real from what is constructed. Couple all this with unmatched print quality and you have one of the year's best books.

Very highly recommended.