Thursday, December 26, 2013

Five inexpensive and overlooked books that made me laugh or smile

Thomas Van Den Driessche. How to be a .... photographer in four lessons.

Price: 19.50 Euros
An absolute masterpiece. Biting satire at its best.

Gustavo Aleman. (No) Soy de Aqui.

Price: 20 euros.
A book of slightly incongruous photographs that perfectly captures the love/hate sense of attraction and rejection so many of us feel about the places we live. 

Sergey Novikov. Belgian Beer. 

Price: 30 dollars.
Documenting Vasya Bykov's trip through the Belgian beer circuit and his reaction, in words and images, to each beer he tried. Cheers!

Belgian beer from Sergey Novikov on Vimeo.


Koji Kitagawa. Kyoiku.

Price: 1000 yen
Cute cartoon characters, bright colors and bold graphic design. What's not to like?

Marco van Duyvendijk and Xiaxiao Xu. Love Doll Factory. 

Price: 17 euros.
Parts of this come across as a plastic version of Bellmer's surrealist classic Die Puppe. In early 2012 photographers Marco van Duyvendijk and Xiaoxiao Xu visited the Ya Mei Plastic Factory; a small factory in Zhejiang province China that produces love dolls. Meant as a tribute to the factory and its workers, Love Doll Factory is a delightful little book, made in loveable pink colours and with a highly enjoyable soft touch cover. 

And for those of you who think The Pigs should be on the list, a book with that much press coverage is not "overlooked."

Monday, December 9, 2013

Best Overlooked Photobooks of 2013

It's the end the year and the best of / favorite photobook lists have started to proliferate. This year's offerings are particularly strong with lots of books that, I think, will stand the test of time. There also seems to be a lot of interesting end-of-year publications, perhaps in an attempt to take advantage of the seasonal buzz. The result? A number of books which deserve more attention than they have gotten. So, in no particular order, here are ten books that I think deserve best of year consideration but have not shown up on any of the lists that I've seen to this point.

Two European Seas, Two stunning Photobooks

Produced in a small run of 350, Sarello's look at the Baltic Sea is arguably the best book of the year. An exceptional combination of strong individual images which are substantially enhanced by the way they are sequenced. Add to this the clever structure of the book, literally broken into two parts, which isn't a gimmick but, literally, embodies the break in Sarello's work that accompanied the loss of his girlfriend. A truly poetic book which transcends John Szarkowski's famous characterization of photography as mirrors (inward looking) or windows (outward looking). Sarello is constantly looking outward at the Baltic, but what he finds are images that mirror his soul.

Mateusz Sarello - Swell from Matej Sitar on Vimeo.

Given the amount of attention Milach received for his earlier works (7 Rooms and In the Car with R), it's surprising that the book hasn't made any 'best-of' lists. Yes, it is only available in a limited edition with print and at 190 euros (shipping to North America included) it's pricey. But the edit is strong and the individual images are stunning.

Black Sea of concrete from x on Vimeo.

Two Fascinating Remixes

Broomberg and Chanarin's Holy Bible has received lots of attention and is, in my opinion, overrated. The concept is clever and some of the archival images are interesting, but I found the link between the highlighted text and the images largely uninspired.  By contrast, Scarti, is visually stunning. The title comes from Scarti di avviamento, the technical term for the paper that is fed through the printing press to clean the drums of ink between print runs. The book is, in reality, a collection of accidental mash-ups of overlapping images that first appeared 10 years ago (as single images) in the brilliant, anarchic photobook, Ghetto. Video link here.
Charlie Engman's remix of Self Publish, Be Happy's COMPILATION TOKYO is both more affordable and more cohesive than the original.

Compilation Toyko: Remix from Aperture Foundation on Vimeo.

Two Well Established Photographers Explore Two Social Institutions

Church interiors are both beautiful and fascinating.  Clever design both in concept and execution, linking the offering box with the interior, turns this work into social commentary.
MASS from Mark Power on Vimeo.

Images taken immediately after the completion of surgery and the removal of the patient from the operating theatre, but before the room was cleaned up. The juxtaposition of the images with short bits of text selected from an interesting mix of sources is designed to turn the book into a "room of thought."

So, your operation didn't turn out as you hoped and you find yourself in the cemetery?

Pictures of the porcelain portraits found on tombstones in Hong Kong. Over time the portraits are exposed to rain, sun, extreme temperatures and humidity. The portraits become abstracts. Stunning visuals that comment on the process of death and decay.

Wow. Haunting images of ancient pagan rituals captured with a Holga camera. Never has lo-fi looked so good.

Video here.

Another pricey but gorgeous offering, entirely handmade in an edition of 100. Fascinating pairings of images culled from an archive spanning several decades.


And, to conclude, this year's Canadian Content Award goes to .....

Jonah Samson, Another Happy Day: Found Photographs from the Collection of Jonah Samson

A must for anyone who loves vernacular photography.  While the sequencing isn't as strong as last years vernacular favorite, Dive Dark Dream Slow, the individual images are a true joy to behold.

And, bringing up the rear, two others that I initially forgot, but felt needed to be included:

Fascinating design and choice of materials.


Think Stephen Gill's Coexistence on acid in leporello form. See the video here.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Best Photobooks of 2012: Niche Awards

Award for the Best PhotoBook Overlooked by the Photo-Eye Lists

Photoeye has 29 lists, listing 160+ photobooks and nobody noticed this stunning book! Paula McCartney, As If Everything You Imagined Were True. Arguably the best book I saw all year. Full review here.  I only came across it because I visited Paula's website for another reason. A true testament to both the depth of the 2012 photobooks and how easy it is for works of the highest quality to get overlook in the flood of quality product.

Biggest Buzz Award

The conventional selection would be Cristina De Middel. The Afronauts topped more year end lists than any other photobook and it was already out of print by the time most people discovered it.  Praise + scarcity are the requisite nutrients for growing buzz.

However, it is hard to ignore Rafal Milach and the sheer volume of high quality work he has produced in little more than a year: 7 Rooms, In the Car with R, and the forthcoming Black Sea of Concrete.

Favorite Emerging Publishers

As the photobook ecosystem proliferates, we need to recognize publishers that put out innovative, high quality products at a reasonable price. Cudos to two publishers who have found my sweet spot -- high production values, innovative design, and fascinating content published at a price that doesn't break the bank.
  • Burn Magazine / Books
  • Editions Bessard -- ok, I admit the 3000 Euro version of History of Monuments with its bronze cover doesn't really meet my affordability criteria, but the regular edition is reasonably priced and still stunning  :+)

 Best Special Edition Award

Will Steacy,  Down these Mean Streets: The Election Edition (Special edition photos and information here, edition itself no longer available)

Most limited edition / special edition photobooks consist of some mix of the following: a) the book (sometimes in a different cover), b) the photographer's signature, c) an edition number, d) a slipcover, box or other container and/or e) an original photograph. All these extras come at a substantially higher price.

My problem isn't with the higher price itself, but with the formulaic application of a marketing orientation designed to turn the book into a sacred, status object that makes it's owner feel special. Why not do something unique and distinctive that builds on the project itself and provides the consumer with a more fulsome experience of the work?

That's what Will Steacy did. Down These Mean Streets, for those unfamiliar with the book, is a series of photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings and notes that combine to represent a collage-like journal depicting the current political state in America. Approaching themes of a changing political landscape, Steacy questions the current political system and idea of the American Dream. Down These Mean Streets presents a stark reality of a country deeply divided in cultural ideologies.

The Election Financing Edition was available for the symbolic price of $99.01 up until the 270th electoral vote was counted. So, the structure of the edition itself had an aspect of performance art about it. Content-wise, the edition put the book inside a Vintage Bank Deposit Bag tied shut with a Noose (how symbolic is that!). Inside the bag were a variety of objects symbolically tied to the current US economy: an antique Wrench, an Application For Unemployment Benefits, a Scratch-Off Lotto Ticket, an Original Buffalo Nickel & an American Flag. Moreover, each version was unique— the size of wrench, date of Buffalo nickel, winning or loosing lotto ticket, size and name of bank printed on deposit bag varied. The bag I got -- from the US Mint and designed to hold a $1000 worth of quarters -- also included a quarter (sadly only one, and not $1000 worth!). That little fact gives a sense of the individualized and personal attention that went into each one. Cudos to Will!

Best Reprint

A strong category with lots of worthy contenders. I'm flipping the coin, but no matter what happens the winner is Steidl.  Heads is their facsimile reprint of Jakob Tuggener's Fabrik, A Photo Epos of Technology, tails is their facsimile of Keizo Kitajima's Photo Express: Tokyo.

In the category of reprints that aren't really reprints, the Books on Books series just keeps getting better. The selected books are more adventurous, the supplementary material is getting better, and the books are more closely approximating the number of pages in the original, meaning there are fewer pages with multiple page spreads reproduced on a single page.

Best Edit / Sequencing

Melissa Catanese, Dive Dark, Dream Slow

Sequenced in a manner reminiscent of Robert Frank's seminal The Americans -- with a recurring, non-linear set of themes and counter-themes embedded in an overarching linear progression -- Dive Dark, Dream Slow brings the narrative techniques of modern photobook design to vernacular photography.

Best Cover Photograph

Marc Asnin, Uncle Charlie

As the lawyers say, "res ipsa loquitur" -- the thing speaks for itself. Nuf said.

The Considerate Publisher Award for Book Design that accomodates photobook collectors and their peculiar needs and desires

Sebastian Girard

Beginning with 2009's Nothing but Home and every year since, Sebastian Girard has produced a self-published book. The thing I like about these books? 1) They are all the same size. 2) The 'trilogy' have similar but different covers. 3) This year's book, Strip-o-Gram, which goes off in an entirely different direction, has a cover that distinguishes the project from the earlier trilogy of books, but still looks integrated when placed next to them on the shelf.

Yes, I appreciate the artistic desire to treat each project as unique and select the size, cover and design appropriate to the particular work. I also realize the ironic inconsistency between my praise for the unique in the Special Edition award and the embrace of standardization I'm recognizing here. But, as someone with lots of books and limited shelf space, I organize them by size rather than by photographer. So, it's nice when they naturally all end up together. One thing you'll never hear me say: "Where the fuck is that book by Sebastian Girard!?" because they are all together in one nice little unit.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Show of Hands

A Show of Hands: Photographs from the Collection of Henry Buhl

Rarely does an auction catalog have anything near the thematic coherence of photobook. This one, based on Buhl's legendary collection of images of the human hand, does. 

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.