Friday, 2 December 2016

2016: The Year of the Shoe!

all images Catherine Balet

Ok, so we all know that 2016 was the Year of the Shoe?

In some ways, the Shoe took over from the twig, the rock, and the reaching hand as photography's favourite trope.  And we all know that literally hundreds of photobooks were made on the subject.

From Spain we had From Sock to Shoe ('Del calcetín para el Zapato' is the original title, a great allegory on the current economic crisis and,  the globalisation of the shoe industry), from Italy we had Le Scarpe Odore (The Shoes Smell), an allegory of self-loathing linked to the decline of the Roman Empire as manifested in the impending financial crash, from the USA we had Left Shoe Right Shoe (an allegory on the ways in which arbitrary labels are imposed on our personal, political and economic worlds realised through a journey across the MidWest that is explored through the semiotics of the American road.

all images Catherine Balet except the one by me

Last but not least, from France we had Catherine Balet's Looking for the Master in Ricardo's Golden Shoes, Which is a re-staging of famous photographers using Ricardo Martinez Paz. The book, says the blurb, '..questions the dematerialisation of the photograph as well as the nature of authorship in the process of re-creation.'

Mmm, maybe, but that tone of voice leaves me reaching for the razors. Can we rephrase it please because I get the feeling the book is a lot more dynamic than that. It's a celebration of photography, of life, and of Golden Shoes.

Viva Ricardo! Viva Catherine. Viva los zapatos de oro!

Buy the book here

Er, why not Truman Capote!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Best Book you Can't Buy Anywhere and Never Could

Whats the arbitrary category of the day again? Ah, yes, it's not the best book you can't buy, because that would be too easy and too big a category in the heady world of photobooks. Instead it's the best book you can't buy anywhere and never could. That's how special this book is.

And the winner? Oh, that's easy, and it's a book that also fits into the Best Photobook inspired by Modern Art and Building Sites.

 It's 3725 and it's by Alberto Castro. It only came in an edition of 60 and I don't think he's even promoting those, but the book is really nice and ties in with planning and modern art.

I saw the Abstract Expressionists in London the other week and all the Rothkos and the Pollocks and the Newmans and the Clyfford Stills (hadn't seen those before or even heard of him) and they  made me think of this book.

The nice thing is abstract expressionism looks awful in book or postcard form. Size matters. All these tributes look great in book for.

But I'm not sure if it's for sale or anything.

2015 - Courtyard B Block- Ground Floor
'Cuts on Concrete', 30cmx30cm. Author: Laborer
Tribute to Lucio FONTANA (see below)

2013 - D Block - Second Floor
'Black Hole', flexible air duct, 20cmx20cm. Author: Unknown
Tribute to Eva Hesse (see below)

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Best Russian Self-Published Photobook Stable of the Year (and Best Photobook Video)

image of Lookbook

I never quite know what to make of the books that come out of the Russian Independent Self-Published Photobooks Stable but they always have a  bit of a different feel, I always enjoy them, I always end up smiling, and I always look at them again to see what the hell is going on and wondering how I can elevate myself to the higher plane of existence that the inhabitants of RISP inhabit.

image of Alla Mirokskaya's book

That's true of three of the titles that I saw this year. Anastasia Bogomolova's Lookbook Alla Mirovskaya's Old Family Photographs and Deep Space Objects and Julia Borissova's Dimitry, and Olga Bushkova's Google Wife.

And sorry if I've missed a few out because there are more I know.

Fabulous Stuff.

image from Dimitry

Buy their books by following the links above or here. And Olga Bushkova's Google Wife also came with my favourite photobook video of the year in How I tried to Convince my Husband to have Children. The title's misleading because she didn't (not in the video) or did she?

And did she really pin pictures of babies up around the wall to convince him? Is she really as obsessive as that. And is her husband as much of a jerk as he's made out to be?

Is it true or is it all just a fictional lie? And if it is who cares.

You'll have to watch the video to find out.

Here it is:

Olga Bushkova "How I tried to convince my husband to have children..." ver. 1 from Misha Bushkov on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Best Book that's an Exhibition that's a book that's an exhibition....

Next up in the best book, pre-list categories is the best book that's an exhibition, or is it a book.

The first one is Eamonn Doyle's mad book, End. It's the last in his trilogy of Dublin street books and it's a kind of sketchbook for the show that wowed Arles this year and was made in collaboration with graphic designer Niall Sweeney and composer/sound artist David Donohoe.

It's something else, and like all of his work (except the backs - I love the backs) I can't decide how much substance it really has, but it's certainly an eye-catcher with it's mass of pull-outs, use of different materials and integration of graphics and cellophane into the mix.

But at Arles, Doyle went beyond eye-catching and proved he knows how to show the work, he knows how to use sound and music and walls and scale to bring the work up to a different level, how to affect people with his mixing of sound and space and image. And by doing that he gives it a whole bunch of substance. And because END was made in conjunction with the show, indeed was a kind of sketchbook of the show, that adds substance to the book. The one feeds forward and the other feedback and you're in a kind of feedback loop. Which is exactly what happens at the show (not that I was there mind).

A lot of Doyle's creativity comes directly from his career in music, a world where Doyle used to organise club nights where creative mixing were "what you do on a club night so we thought we'd give it a go in Arles" (I'm quoting from memory there). So in a very direct way, the show that made such an impression on Arles came from an intermingling of the bodily fluids of the worlds of music and photography. Above all else, it showed what a great curator Eamonn Doyle is.I'd love to see what he'd do with Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand - or both actually. So long may that intermingling continue, and long may there be more such interminglings. It makes us all culturally richer and stronger!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Best Books 2016: Best Cheap Book

The Best Photobook Lists for 2016 are coming in thick and fast (this is my favourite one to date). With the surge in self-publishing, small editions and expensive artist's books, they are more fragmented than ever - which is a good thing, why not.

I'll be posting mine up on the blog before Christmas, but before then, I've got some extra categories.

First up is the Best Cheap Book/Best Book for Christmas. It's Useful Advice for Photographers, it costs 12 of your euros, it's by Ivars Gravlejs and it's a great gift of anyone looking to learn photography.

(and the original title, Useful Advices for Photographers is much better. It's more fitting).

This is from the intro to the book.

A lot of people think that for a good picture it is enough to buy an expensive camera and then success will be guaranteed.
But ­without careful studying and many years of practice a good picture is ­possible to make only by accident.
Once you decide to photograph, think carefully about what you want to ­picture, do not forget about the composition and lighting, do not get upset, relax and concentrate on the subject.

How do you photograph a sausage for example? Do you know? Well, Gravlejs will tell you through a series of pairs of images - one right and one wrong.

And once you've mastered the basics, you can flip the rights and wrongs about and move onto your mastery of more conceptual photography. Or, if you've been making some of these mistakes already (in the archive, with your infra-red film, with your layering, with your vernacular) and don't quite realise it, then Gravlejs is letting you know where you've been going wrong.

Or you can play a game and match all those artists who are definitely getting it wrong to one or more of the 80 categories that Gravlejs has come up with.

The book comes in a handy plastic pouch with a lanyard so you can hang it round your neck. A great gift for everybody who likes photography, or doesn't like it even.

Buy the book here. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

75 Psychics and they're all Wrong!

Out of the Blue by Virginie Rebetez is the latest book that focusses on a crime scene (the massively influential Red Headed Peckerwood, Watabe Yutichi's visually brilliant A Criminal Investigation and Jack Latham's excellent Sugar Paper Theories are three more. There are some really bad ones as well).

The book tells the story of Suzanne Lyall, who disappeared (Out of the Blue) in New York in 1998. It consists of a series of images from police and personal archives, mixed in with contemporary portraits of the area. There are personal recollections, psychic reports and police sketches to add to the mix (and you can read an interview from the artist's perspective here).

Out of the Blue opens with helicopter surveillance images of the highway where the initial police search began. It sets the scene of a narrative that never quites settles, in keeping perhaps with the lack of ease which we feel with the still-disappeared nature of Suzanne Lyall.

That lack of ease is compounded by the writing we see on the back of a photograph of Suzanne. 'Well, this is me! What do you think ugly or what?' it begins. We don't get to see the front of the photograph. We never get to see the front of the photograph, or any other image of Suzanne, not in full. She is partial, she's been partial ever since she went missing on March 2nd 1998.

The present kicks in after that through pictures of Upstate New York and then snippets from the Lyall family album. Here we see the empty frames of a set of passport pictures, the face of Suzanne snipped out, we see a page from a family album, the face of what we think to be Suzanne half covered by a scrap of paper (provided by the photographer I'm sure. So it's an interventionist obscuring).

There's her bedroom, her belongings (shrink-wrapped), a corsage made for her sister's Sandy's wedding (post-missing I am guessing) and more images where Suzanne appears, not quite fully there in some way.

A photocopy of her hand adds to the spectral half-presence, which is really a full presence but one reflected through the hard anchorage of the present day portraits of her mother, her house, the handmade t-shirts that have been framed in a memory that is as much in the present as it is in the past.

There's a clue about one of the hearts of the story, the psychic element as a fragment of a report in full capitalled Courier tells of an elderly female's dream about the 'missing'.

More landscapes appear, more sketches of psychic dreaming, more pictures of Suzanne's parents, Mary and Doug. But now the landscapes are less benign. The waters have a malign potential behind them, the pick up trucks and the diners exude a certain menace. And all the while there's a tension between these pieces of the past and the calm exteriors of Mary and Doug and their attempts to preserve their daughter's life through the collected ephemera of what was her everyday life.

And then we're into the 'Correspondence, since 1998' section. This consists of

'Reprints from the Lyall's family archive. Over the years the family was contacted by over 75 psychics. The 48 pink pages are a selection of documents from the correspondence between psychics, the Lyall family and Police investigators. These documents include fax, letters, emails, maps, drawings and reports.'

It's heartbreaking to read these psychic, spiritual and astrological meditations on Suzanne's fate, the brutal descriptiveness of them adding the idea that they are rooted in a very physical reality, a reality that involves violence, rape, strangling, murder. They read like they are real, they are written in such a way as to be believed. And yet they are all completely and utterly fabricated. It's a cruel trick to play on parents clinging to hope - a cruel trick that was played by over 75 people, all of whom (if they gave their report) had completely different endings. And each of those endings would have been played and replayed in the minds of Mary and Doug Lyall, with every variation

That might not be what was intended I don't know. But that's what happens with the reader far above and beyond the mysteries of siting and place and abstract ideas of multiple narratives. The reality of reading the book is the grounding of those multiple realities in the fate of Suzanne and her family.

There's a poster of  a retouched photograph of Suzanne enclosed in the book so we get to see who she is, sort of (it's one of 3 images that Rebetez commissioned a forensic artist to make that shows how old Suzanne would look at different ages). Everything is sort of. The whole tone of the book is wrapped in this miasma of a half-person who is neither here nor there, neither dead nor alive, who is kept alive through her parents' anguish and the slim chance that she is alive (which would probably lead to even more anguish), all topped off with this parasitic community of cruel psychics who feed off people's grief. And they are cruel.

The mix of materials, the partial picture, the unresolved grief, the parental view are all reminiscent of Laia Abril's brilliant The Epilogue. And like The Epilogue, Out of the Blue is not the easiest book to get into. Its text heavy, the images are fragmented, the story is not clean and simple, and in some ways the design reflects that. At the same time, it is entirely accessible and the fragmentation serves a purpose; it's not clinical, it's not cold. It's moving, a truly sad book that lays its tragedy down on the page, there for the reader to pick up. It's a really good book I think. Really good.

Buy Out of the Blue here. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Empathy in Photography

I'm looking forward to giving a talk on my work together with Olivia Arthur of Magnum Photos and Jess Crombie of Save the Children in London on December 8th.

The talk will focus on the idea of empathy (it's running in connection with a retrospective of David Chim Seymour's most beautiful, sad and joyful work on children in post-war Europe at the Magnum Print Room in London. It really is tragic work and fitting that Chim was the first photographer for the nascent Unicer). I'll be talking about my work and then be in conversation with Olivia Arthur (who made the wonderful Stranger ) and Jess Crombie of Save the Children.

There is a lot of talk at present of what photography is for, who it's for and how can it expand it's community.

Empathy is at the heart of that dialogue but I can't help but feeling that in photography it needs to extend beyond the idea of empathy that we have; the empathy we have with the subject.

We also need an empathetic audience, and to reach that audience and make them empathetic, we need empathetic forms of communication. Instead of expecting audiences to lap up our documentary ideas,  or our lame concepts using the detached language of theory, we need to engage them and reach out.

Story-telling is a kind of empathy, simultaneously the purest and least pure form. How can you change the world if they stories that you tell are uninteresting and indeed painful to listen to, if the voice they are told in is painful to listen to. Or, as is often the case in photography or anything really, boring to listen to as well as to look at. That's the killer mix.

So I wonder if empathy in photography can't learn something from film, from fiction, from illustration, from advertising even. Advertising has no ethics, no morals, no values beneath what momentarily fits. But it does a job and it does it really well. It sells us stuff. It sells us ideas, most of which are really bad.

But then there is fiction and film and theatre and dance. There's music, the plastic arts, there's light and sound and there's pleasure. Pleasure's important. And emotion. Pleasure and emotion should be at the heart of most photography and using all those other elements mentioned above to hook us into that combine of pleasure, emotion (even the most tragic of emotions) and photography is something I really appreciate.

Maybe we need to be a bit more selective in what we say and how we say it, what we show and how we show it, and if we need to recognise that pleasure and entertainment has a part to play in our communication of images and the ideas behind them then so be it. Otherwise we're left with a world where everybody talks like they're in a meeting and that doesn't really do it for me on any level. Or for too many other people - except for those who like meetings.

If we can do that, then maybe we can communicate some ideas that are better than the ones that people are buying into right now and see how empathy can attach to advocacy and action. Because that's what we need right now; empathy, advocacy and action.Anyway, there's not too much advocacy or action in the pictures I make so what do I know?

Nevertheless in London, I'll be talking about the elements of empathy in my own work. With my Sofa Portraits, I'll talk about generational and spatial empathy, of remembering what it was to be a certain age in a certain space.

With All Quiet on the Home Front, I'll talk about what it means to be a father, when you don't want to be a father. How do you create empathy in a role that you have no empathy for. How do you create your own empathy if you like.

Here are the details of the talk. I'll love to see you there!

Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Centre
8 December 2016

What compels photographers to record historic events? Why do they choose to engage in dangerous, difficult work? How do they stay emotionally involved, and what is their legacy today? 

Join Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur, Director of Creative Content at Save the Children Jess Crombie, and writer and photographer Colin Pantall, as they reflect on the role of photography in relation to empathy. In association with an exhibition of David Seymour's work in the Magnum Print Room, speakers will explore the emotions at the heart of documentary photography.

Magnum co-founder David Seymour (1911-1956) was known for his empathetic relationship to photography, which led him to engage deeply with the consequences of WW2 in Europe. In particular he became well-known for his work with the war orphans he photographed for UNICEF. He said of his work:

“We are only trying to tell a story. Let the 17th-century painters worry about the effects. We've got to tell it now, let the news in, show the hungry face, the broken land, anything so that those who are comfortable may be moved a little.”

This event is part of the Magnum Photos Now talks programme at the Barbican Centre. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican Centre here.

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