Thursday, December 8, 2016

Recently Received

Selected photobooks acquired in 2016, in no particular order:

Boris Mikhailov, Diary (Walther König, 2015)

Mikhailov lets his freak flag fly in this dense visual memoir. What starts out as a loose photo-documentary study of post-Soviet Russia gradually degenerates into an insane clusterfuck of imagination, and a narrow window into Mikhailov's inner Id. Photos are crayoned, ripped, taped, weathered, and tossed on the page, or not. The subject matter ranges from sexually charged snapshots to animals to pure collage to pedophilia. Religious iconography, violence, political rallies, panoramics, peeing...somehow it all coalesces into a beautifully conceived ton-of-bricks shitstorm. No other book like it.


Dr. Melvyn Willin, Paranormal: Caught On Film (David and Charles, 2008)

When is a film lightleak a harmless accident of chemical reaction? And when is it..Your Dead Grandfather Channeling A Hot Stock Tip?!! When it's in a book of paranormal photos, that's when. Dr. Melvyn Willin combines naiveté, basic ignorance of photographic process, and overly wishful spiritual assumptions to create one of the most entertaining photobooks I saw this year. Provocative visual tricks spiced with short investigative essays...Hm, some of these images make you stop and wonder for a moment —No, not really.  As with The National Enquirer, it's hard to know if the authors truly believe what they're writing, or if it's just cynical manure. In any case the extreme liberties taken with truth and cherry-picked visual subjects have special resonance on the heels of the recent political season.


Curran Hattleberg, Lost Coast (TBW, 2016)

Viewing the place you grew up through the eyes of another photographer is an unsettling experience slightly akin to hearing your own voice played back on a recorder. On one level you know it's reality. But it feels like a parallel universe. Hattleberg stayed a year teaching at CR and exploring my old stomping grounds photographically.  I spent the first 18 years of my life here but the place is mostly unrecognizable in this book. Not only has he weeded out identifying landmarks, the general approach aims at the vulnerable underbelly. I suppose coming from Yale the Lost Coast's poverty might leap out at a visitor. Richard Rothman's fell under the same spell with Redwood Saw. What can I say? There's more to the place than white trash, but you knew that. It's a photographer's prerogative to slice and dice reality, to opinionate, and Hattleberg —one of the best young shooters out there— has done just that. Just keep in mind while reading, the map is not the territory.


Warren Hutchinson and Nick Foster, This Is Not An Atlas (Mark Batty, 2004)

Speaking of maps and territories, this odd little book spans the globe to present a tautological world-view of shop signs. There's nothing too fancy here. It's your basic typological photo project, in this case focusing on storefronts branded with the word "World". But the quirky presentation style, self-deprecating introduction, and flood of strange images mark this as a labor of love. Hutchinson and Foster are as obsessive as trainspotters. Available used on Amazon for 99 cents, this book kicks the shit out of most precious year-end bookmania favs.


Matt Stuart, All That Life Can Afford (Plague Press, 2016)

This is Magnum Matt's magnum opus on his hometown London, featuring a selection of his best street work from the past decade. I saw this book at various points in its development. It passed through many iterations, and a few publishers before Matt finally put the thing out himself. I'm pleased to say all the tinkering, reshuffling and steady shooting paid off in the end with a handsome book, tightly edited. Most serious street photographers probably own a copy already. I think the appeal might expand to anyone generally interested in urban photography and/or with a sense of humor. The title seems a comment on the universal accessibility of such images, available to anyone with a camera regardless of means.


Chris Shaw, My Life As A Night Porter (Twin Palms, 2005)

This one didn't resonate with me when I first saw it many years ago. But after looking through last year's Horizon Icons, I was inspired to give it a fresh look. This time it went down better and I wound up buying a nice used copy. Shaw dreams big. Like Horizon Icons, My Life As A Night Porter is literally a gigantic sloppy mess, sprawling across the pages like a drunk on a couch, and inviting all his obnoxious photos over too. Usually that would be a negative, but in the case of both Shaw's books, it kind of works. I love the mix of weird notes and typewriting and felt-tip handwritten captions. The images? Meh, honestly there are some here I could take or leave. But the whole thing is so raw, intimate and heartfelt, it's an affirmation of photobooks' transformative powers. Chalk one up for honest rule-breaking.


Don Imus and Fred Imus, Two Guys, Four Corners (Villard, 1997) 

I stumbled on this book at random in a coffee shop in Moab, Utah last Spring. When I got back home I couldn't wait to order my own copy. Not for the photography, which is mediocre by the authors' own admission. It's the biting commentary which is solid gold. Don Imus is a well known radio host. I think his brother Fred may actually be an amateur photographer, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. Together they know just enough about the high-brow art world to skewer it better than any photo book since Duane Michaels' FotoFolliesReading Two Guys, Four Corners is like attending a comedy roast in which photography itself is the target. Why aren't there more books like this?


Dan Boardman and Aspen Mays, Where We've Been, Where We're Going, Why? (Conveyor Editions, 2016)

Conveyor has a well earned reputation for pushing the envelope, and with this title they've outdone themselves. This platypus of a photobook is the only one I've seen with two separate wirebound spines opening from either side, connected by end pages. Why did they choose that particular design? Fuck if I know. But I respect wackiness and I've gotta give props when I see it. Each photographer takes one half the book. The photographs jump all over the place, mostly in personal snapshot territory and often re-appropriated from public archives, before joining in the middle around the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Why? Ask Jeremy Haik.


An-My Le, Small Wars (Aperture, 2005)

I bumped into a used copy of this last summer which made me wonder why I'd never looked more closely at this wonderful book. Enough has been written about Small Wars by now that I probably can't add much of substance. An-My Le's trilogy combining personal Vietnam photos with war re-enactors and then real military drills is profound and disturbing. Although my favorite section is the first, there are brilliant photos throughout. In an Orwellian world of shifting alliances and indefinite warfare —eleven years after this book the U.S. is still entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan—  Small Wars traces the course back to Vietnam...and then as far into history as the reader wants to take it.


Maude Schuyler Clay, Mississippi History (Steidl, 2015)

This one was published on my birthday last year, too late to make my 2015 year-end list. Before seeing this my main exposure to Clay was through her wonderful portraits of her cousin Bill Eggleston. Now I realize they were just the tip of an impressive iceberg. Clay's been making photos of local friends, family, and strangers for decades. Collected in one book for the first time, the best of them show a rare sensitivity for southern light, mood, and interior revelation. The printing is large and perfect, just what you'd expect from Steidl. 


Christophe Agou, Les Faits Secondaires (Self Published, 2013)

After Christophe sadly passed away last fall, I sought out this title, his second book and the only one of his three that I didn't yet own. I think it might be my favorite. It's certainly his loosest work, a monochrome blend of blurred focus, long exposures, and hyper-contrasty blowouts reminiscent of Antoine D'Agata or Michael Ackerman. The images burn with a ghostly glow which seems at once out of character and portentous. Knowing where he was headed it's had not to assign them a revelatory, spiritual component. 


Adam Ekberg, The Life of Small Things (Waltz Books, 2015)

A strange little book, this material reminds me a bit of Tjorborn Rodland without the fashion/nudity angle. I'm usually not a big fan of carefully staged narratives, but these photographs are weird enough to intrigue. Ekberg has a thing for flames, balloons, and, as the title implies, small things, usually shot at distance in centered compositions. What it all adds up to is anyone's guess, and I think that's the point. Mysterious project bla bla bla. Plus it comes in a plain cardboard box which should count for something.


Nick Turpin, On The Night Bus (Hoxton Mini Press, 2016)

Turpin adds to the tradition of frosted-glass portraiture with a study of night bus riders in London. Folks on a bus are sitting ducks in a way, and Turpin's photos treat them as such. Using a zoom lens he crops extraneous detail to penetrate the headspace of strangers, a dreamland of inner revery, muted colors, and condensation. It's a kinder, gentler world than, say, Tokyo Compression. The best of these images take on a painterly feel which leave the evening commute of packed smelly buses far behind.


James Allen, Ed., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms, 2000)

Photographs of Southern lynchings collected by Allen over decades. Holy fuck! This isn't the sort of book you'd keep on your coffee table. It's probably not a book that you'll ever want to reread. One stomach churning turn is sufficient. The pictures of wretched corpses would be grisly enough on their own, but what pushes them into monstrous territory are the observers caught by the camera. Some look proud, some are smiling, all were entertained. The combination of bloodlust, violence, and mass hysteria is bone chilling, and a reminder of photography's unique potential. The book is prefaced by an unforgettable introduction by Hilton Als, a bitter screed calling out racist society, his own experiences as a black man in white culture, and questioning the publisher's commission of Als. Best take a seat before cracking this open.


Chuck Forsman, Western Rider (Center for American Places, 2003)

This one hits pretty close for me, since I've been taking photographs through my own car windshield for decades. I know, I know, it's a well worn cliché. But my camera is right there in the cup holder below the gearshift and sometimes I just can't help it. Forsman's dashboard photos are as good as they come. Better than Friedlander, Bradford, Wallace, or most others I can think of. Maybe it helps that he isn't even a photographer — he's a painter— so he's unburdened with photo history or silly shoulds and shouldn'ts. The photographs —roughly dating from the tail end of the film era— are printed fullframe, sometimes with sloppy negative carrier marks. All of which adds up to one charming little book.


Alexandra Crockett, Metal Cats (Powerhouse, 2014)

Heavy metal rockers holding cats? WTF? In the hands of a lesser photographer this might quickly veer into ironic territory. OK, there is an element of that. But Crockett threads the creative needle to create a project much closer to homage than mockery. Taken mostly in home environments, her portraits of heavy metal musicians with their pets are a window into an unknown world. The home decor, long hair, tats, piercings and dark symbolism you'd expect are here. But the subject matter is strangely tamed and transformed by the simple placement of soft furry kitties. Where do these silent killers go when the volume is cranked to 11? Who knows. But the overall effect of the book is humanizing and inclusive.

Roger Eberhard, Wilted Country (Scheidegger and Spiess, 2010)

It's unusual for me to respond to a book based only on color palette. But the washed out tonality in these photographs is simply entrancing. It conveys the feeling of naked void better than any subject matter could. I'm guessing the photos are Polaroids, but they've been stripped of their normal borders and reduced to bleak rectangles. Most are at least 2 stops over-exposed, and more closely resemble an Ed Ruscha screenprint than a photograph. Rarely have abandoned old barns and heartland gas stations appeared so iconified. 


Karl Baden, The Americans By Car (Self Published, 2016)

Karl Baden's prankster streak continues with this quiet homage to Robert Frank. The book contains 83 photographs sequenced shot-for-shot to correspond with the photographs of The Americans. All were shot by Baden from car interiors. Some of the connections are more obvious than others, but taken as a whole the effect is quite entertaining. The scope of the project becomes even more impressive when one realizes that many of these photos weren't made as part of the project, but only later edited into shape. The Americans has spawned countless reference points and projects over the years. This is the best one I saw in 2016.



Michael Schmelling, My Blank Pages (The Ice Plant, 2015)

This one came out at the tail end of last year, just in time to make a few year-end lists (although not mine) and pique my curiosity. What a great little book! The images, pulled from Schmelling's archive of machine prints, are reproduced at 4 x 6 and with just the proper amount of sheen to feel like a sheaf of drugstore photos. The material is mostly haphazard snapshots from Schmelling's life. They might describe a very loose narrative, or perhaps there is no pattern. It's hard to tell. That angle is overshadowed by the kicker, and the thing which pushes this into a special category: Schmelling's handwritten notes are scrawled in pencil across most pages in the book. Holy smokes! It must've taken him days to annotate the entire print run! Penciled captions! Better than any signature. Better than any essay. A solid dose of the tangible.


Wendy Ewald, Secret Games (Scalo, 2000)

I stumbled on this book at random in a used bookstore in Ashland, amidst an absolute wreckage of a photo section. Secret Games collects photos made by kids under the tutelage of various Ewald collaborations over a thirty year period. As with any multi-authored material the results are hit or miss. But mostly hit. They're done old school with b/w film. Some have weird markings. Some show borders from the neg carrier. All have a directness, lack of pretention, and sheer original variety which is sometimes grasped by pros but is more commonly the domain of amateurs. The fact that these wonderful photographs were made by young people with very little training drives home one of the central paradoxes of photography: its democratic accessibility somehow remains a source of surprise.


Scot Sothern, Street Walkers (Powerhouse, 2015)

Sothern recounts various escapades luring prostitutes into his Camaro for early-morning photo shoots in the grittiest parts of L.A. and Tijuana. Each foul-language anecdote is accompanied by one or two raunchy photos. It's a strange microcosm of drug-addled women, she/males, and trans workers hustling for a few dollars. Sothern manages to find a respectful stance while gratifying his own photographic —and sometimes other— urges. The combination of text and photo is notoriously difficult, but Sothern strikes a good balance with each media pulling equal weight. The writing is filthy, direct, and rather wonderful. Same words apply to the photos. Unfortunately the reproductions are terrible, but they get the point across. This is quite possibly the dirtiest book I own. 


Christine Osinski, Summer Days Staten Island (Damiani, 2016)

A blend of portraits and social landscapes which encapsulate the suburban seventies better than anything since Dazed and Confused. If Osinski's portrait subjects ham it up slightly, any awkward feelings are superseded by a vibe of untucked innocence. The Gen X crowd will recall their childhoods of tube socks, chain link, feathered hair, and post-sixties nonchalance. Other generations will probably just see a foreign planet. The photographs are nicely capped by a (too-short) interview with Osinski about the project.


Gary Briechle, Photographs (Twin Palms, 2012)

Alt-process enthusiasts sometimes have a tendency to get so caught up in analog minutiae that they forget the most important thing, the subject matter. Not so with Briechle. Although he shoots wet collodion on glass plates, his material is closer to fleeting hand-held imagery: dark, unsettling, and downright odd. Paging the book one wonders, where does he find this stuff? A: Somewhere in upstate Maine amid family and friends. The photos display a deft touch with view camera on par with Nicolas Nixon or Sally Mann, combined with strange blurs and marrings characteristic of the process. As with all Twin Palms books the production is top-notch, glossy images dominating black matte paper.


Kenneth Graves, The Home Front (Mack, 2015)

Kenneth Graves made these photos in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 70s, but until now they'd never received much circulation or recognition. Their general consistency, cleverness, and occasional brilliance puts them in the upper echelons of old fashioned street photography. They're a joy to view, and Mack did the street photo community a real service by resuscitating this work. Unfortunately their design team didn't get the memo. The mangled production effort hampers the overall impact. Cardboard cover, full bleed excess, matte paper. I'm not sure what Mack was thinking. Their design is usually excellent, but not in this case. Still worth a look for anyone seriously into street work.


Amanda Tetrault, Phil And Me (Trolley, 2004)

Tetrault's long term photo study of her schizophrenic father hits the perfect balance between personal diary and bedraggled documentary. The books combines a range of material from 35 mm b/w shots to photobooth reels to color snaps, mixed with poems and snippets by written by Amanda's father Phil. Readers may be reminded of 2013's Hesitating Beauty. But whereas Joshua Lutz photographed his ill mother with controlled discretion, Phil And Me is a wild, disruptive, and ultimately liberating take on mental illness. Found by chance at Powell's.



Lee Friedlander, Street and Western Landscapes (Yale University Press, 2016)

The Friedlander juggernaut keeps rolling along, with multiple books published by Yale Press in recent years. You'd think by now we'd all have a good grasp of his style, strengths, and weaknesses, and we do. For those needing a reminder, the point is hammered home by this year's efforts. Pulling from photographs shot throughout his career, Street confirms that busy urban settings have never been Friedlander's true forte. The book's handful of successful images will already be familiar, since they're reproduced from previous books. The less successful ones will pass by without impact, like pedestrians on a busy sidewalk. The end product is a letdown which might be fun for those just now learning about him, true completists, or hard core street freaks. Most others should pass and save their money for Western Landscapes, Friedlander's best book of the young millennium. Like the sweeping territory it documents, this tome is huge, dense, and rather awe inspiring. Friedlander has always been a master of layering, with a unique ability to cluster and compose disparate material across the frame. In recent years he's dragged his flash-equipped Hassy through the barren brambles to see just how far he can push this technique. The results are pretty damned impressive. The best photographs here grab disorienting swaths of vegetation with no obvious point of interest beyond blissful visual excess. The photos come two to a spread with no let up for two hundred pages. Did I mention the printing is large and virtually exhibition quality? For those who can't afford a sheaf of 200 Friedlander prints, which is most of us, Western Landscapes is the next best thing.


Eros, Spring 1962, Volume 1, Issue 1

The initial issue of Ralph Ginzburg's short-lived periodical Eros is mildly amusing from a contemporary pornographic perspective. It's a ray of light into a past world when porn was rarely discussed or shown in public. Compared to 2016 —when any sexual permutation conceivable is just a mouseclick away— the imagery is tame. But tucked in the back of this journal is an early photo essay by none other than young Garry Winogrand. He was 24 at the time, still wet behind the ears, and not yet a very good photographer. But even in the spring of life his voyeur instincts were evident. Love In The Subway is a candid study of underground lovers in New York, an 8-page teaser of the impending flood he would soon unleash. To my knowledge none of these photos have been published elsewhere. Found by chance in a used bookshop on a recent trip to Arcata. 


Stephen Waddell, Hunt and Gather (Steidl, 2011)

A nicely seen collection of subtle color street photography in the vein of Ricardo Cases or Huger Foote, shot by Waddell over the course of roughly a decade. The best images here are the ones without people, when Waddell can get out of his own way and display his rare sensitivity for collaged palette and found material. However, the peopled shots are fairly, well, pedestrian. None of the images are helped by the hamfisted captions or the art-speak afterward by Michael Fried. Even so there are enough good photos spiced throughout to make it worthwhile.


Chrissy Piper, Where The Day Takes You (J & L Books, 2014)

A sequence of odd little moments from Piper's archives, this felt at first like a misfit for J & L. But after a few repeated readings I realize that's probably exactly why it's in their catalog. A collection of random black and white snapshots? Just what you wouldn't expect. In other words, perfect. Piper wanders with handheld camera in the street photography tradition yet somewhat askance from it, grabbing small moments, concerts, pets, kids, and daily ephemera. Like Eggleston's Guide the layout undergoes subtle vertical shifts from page to page depending on the material's perspective. There are few knockout punches here but the quietly observational tone might build to TKO.


Ivars Gravlejs, Useful Advice For Photographers (Dienacht Publishing, 2016)

Old timers may remember these rules from a few years back when they had a brief viral moment online. Now they are available for the first time in pamphlet form. Gravlejs' eighty basic rules of photography would be less biting if they weren't so darned normal. Most appear pulled directly from conventional textbooks. But the clear, clever way in which they're presented, with absurd examples, highlights the hazard of doctrinaire approach. The booklet is printed pocketsized with clear plastic sheath (signed, in true prankster form) and lanyard. Fits easily around the neck or in any gear bag. The pitch perfect follow up to Early Works, my photobook of the year in 2015.


Michael Ormerod, States of America (Cornerhouse Publications, 1993)

The only photobook by British photographer Ormerod, who died in a roadside accident while photographing in Arizona almost a quarter century ago. States of America is a rough survey of his American photo trips. They display an outsider's sharp attention to the overlooked vernacular combined with a well-honed eye for visual discontinuity.  Although there are no captions I'm guessing most were shot in the American West in the 1980s. Even the ones shot back east have a western roadside feel of openness and possibility. These are opinionated photos made with a voice, with a vibe similar to David Graham, Henry Wessel, Bernard Plossu, or Joe Deal. I prowl a lot of used stacks and haven't encountered this book often. Bookhounds should buy it on the spot at any reasonable price.


Olivo Barbieri, Site Specific (Aperture, 2013)

Barbieri is probably best known as a pioneer of the tilt-shift craze which hit photography several years ago. But as this 10-year compilation shows, he's made a broader range of human landscapes exploring other styles, often from an aerial perspective. Along the way he's become an art-world darling, showing at Venice Biennale among other places. But despite that fact, his photography is quite impressive. Real worlds blend seamlessly with computer-morphed landscapes to create bizarre scenes. What psychedelics was he on when he made these? What was in front of the camera? Does it matter any more? What planet am I on? A good book to lose yourself in momentarily as you forget why these questions ever seemed important.

Gregory Halpern, Zzyzx (Mack, 2016)

The photobook lists each December tend to cluster around one or two titles of universal praise. For a variety of reasons 2016 will be the year of Zzyzx. Halpern's beautifully printed SoCal travelogue contains some dazzling images, with just the right blend of offbeat portraiture, desert cantos, and broken social landscape. Add the fact his last book sold out, the hippest publisher, perfect title, and a hint of inscrutable narrative, and you've got a formula for success. I can't say I don't like it. It's OK. But I'm not totally on board. The whole effort seems just a bit too calculated for my taste, a star vehicle as carefully tailored for acclaim as any Hollywood Oscar bait. That might just be my kneejerk reaction to popularity talking. Maybe if the exact same book was made in obscurity by an unknown I might love it. Hard to say. In any case photobook collectors should snatch up copies now and sit on them a few years, large returns guaranteed. I'm not saying that for personal gain. I don't own it and have nothing at stake.


Isabella Rozendaal, On Loving Animals (Veenman Publishers, 2007)

You might expect a book called "On Loving Animals" to have a sentimental SPCA vibe, and there is an element of that here. What saves this pet snapshot stash from the syrup-pile is Rozendaal's sharp nose for the bizarre. In exploring the tenuous human/animal relationship, she seems to relish the boundaries and off-moments. The horses spitting blood, shaved dogs, and tongue-extracted cats, in other words. But it's not all about objectification. Somehow Rozendaal's extreme candids convey a heartfelt passion, a feeling and sensitivity for animal companions. Trust me, the last thing the photo world needs is yet another god damned book with a social message. But this one bucks the odds to assume a role of excellent, frivolous entertainment.


John Maclean, Hometowns (Self Published, 2016)

The material is as advertised in the title. Maclean photographed the hometowns of two dozen international art idols, with interesting results. A mix of straight and altered images keeps the reader off-balance, while the innovative double gatefold design seems at once whimsical and integral. Maybe an artist's hometown has a strong effect on their creativity. Maybe not. In any case the search has left an imprint on Maclean, who has managed to create his own interesting photos while simultaneously channeling the vision of others. Fun to read with or without captions.

Brigid Berlin, Polaroids (Reel Art Press, 2015)

Brigid Berlin was an integral member of Warhol's Factory scene and perhaps its most prolific daily documentarian. Her collection of Polaroid Portraits, selected from an archive of thousands, is not only a Who's-Who of art celebrities circa 1970 but an homage to the Polaroid era. The images are printed actual size and with magnificent sheen. Only by touching the page can readers reassure themselves these aren't the real thing. A amphetamine-fueled freewheeling spirit carries the day —these artists look genuinely buzzed and happy!— but doesn't truly come into its own until the book's final quarter, a mind-bending sequence of double exposures which hits like a Serra sculpture to the cranium.


Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954-1974 (Yale University Press, 2016)

I'm fond of this not necessarily for the photographs, which are the sort of mid-century modernist muddle that every camera club engages in: barns, shadows, morning dew, multiple exposures, etc. They're OK, I guess. But the broader inspiration for me is the idea that weird creative shit can happen anywhere. If it can happen in post-war central Kentucky, as this book shows, it jogs my outlook and puts a spring in my step. The Lexington art sleeper cell went beyond photography to include free thinking stalwarts Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton. Together with activist-type rabblerousers Traub, Coke, Meatyard, Davenport, and Greene, the setting was ripe for horrific unconventional photo ideas to fester, and fester they did. Fortunately for the establishment, they were quashed and forgotten until this book put them at safe enough remove for reconsideration. I'm not sure what's happening in Kentucky now. Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, whiskey, horse racing...? 


Alex Kayser, Artists' Portraits (Harry Abrams, 1981)

Featuring a selection of artist portraits from the 1970s, this small flipbook could be considered a companion volume to Brigid Berlin's Polaroids. All the bigwigs are here, shown in fine style. But, unlike Berlin's frenetic Aim-&-Blast process, these portraits are nicely composed, probably the results of traditional portrait sessions. The master touch, and the thing which separates it from a slew of other poorly printed 1970s 35 mm books, is the fact that the photos are hand colored. This is a practice which has largely faded from prominence in the digital era. So it's fun to be reminded of it, and see it done well. The peculiar mix of oil paints over silver gelatin casts strange pastel tones which create a world in and of itself.


Longer reviews of recently published photobooks written for Photo-Eye:

Jack London, The Paths Men Take (Contrasto, 2016)
William Eggleston, Portraits (Yale Press, 2016)
Kenneth Josephson, The Light of Coincidence (University of Texas Press, 2016)
Diane Arbus, In The Beginning (Yale Press, 2016)
Philip Perkis, In a Box Upon the Sea (Amnoc Press, 2016)
Joel Meyerowitz, Seeing Things (Aperture, 2016)
Rosalind Fox Solomon, Got To Go (Mack, 2016)
Gregory Crewdson, Cathedral Of The Pines (Aperture, 2016)
Kevin Bubriski, Look Into My Eyes (Museum of New Mexico, 2016)
Bertien Van Manen, Beyond Maps and Atlases (Mack, 2016)
Colin Delfosse, Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet (Editions 77, 2015)
Noritaka Minami, 1972 (Kerher Verlag, 2015)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Q & A with John Maclean

John Maclean is a photographer based in London, and the author of the recent book Hometowns.


BA: How did you decide which artists to include in Hometowns?

JM: I sat down and made a list of twenty artists who I consider to be my… mentors-by-proxy —that is, artists whose work I go back to again and again when I feel stuck or I am looking for inspiration. I haven’t necessarily met these artists in person, but I feel that I know them (somehow) through their work. And their work has influenced mine.

How did you go about photographing the hometowns? Did it require a lot of exploration or did you have a certain place or theme in mind? What was the process?

Initially, the process involved researching as much biographical information on each artist as possible, whilst refreshing my memory of the artworks which had prompted me to travel to their hometowns. Before setting off, I explored each neighbourhood using Google StreetView —to scout for locations. I was looking for places which might provide clues to the development of the young artist —although what I am constructing here is a kind of ‘fantasy documentary’. I’m not suggesting that, for example, the stack of car tires I eventually photographed in Robert Rauschenberg’s hometown played a direct part in his artistic development. 

Hometown of Robert Rauschenberg, Port Arthur, Texas

I spent three to five days in each location trying to make what is essentially a photo-homage but at the same time, trying to make images that had my own personal, photographic imprint on them too. So even though time-consuming research was undertaken, I wanted to allow myself room to react to both chance occurrences and the uniqueness of each place too.

Where's your own hometown?

I think of my hometown as Montreal—it's where I spent my formative years... but my parents took my sister and I out of school for almost a year during that period to drive around the US. I think that trip shaped me a great deal.

What years did you spend in Montreal? Have you gone back to photograph there?

Ages six to ten. I was there in 1976—the year of the Olympics. But this was before I began taking photographs and I haven't been back since.

Do you think Montreal had any effect?

I remember that as kids growing up in Montreal we weren't allowed to wander off our block, so that's where we created our little world. We tried to have as many adventures as possible within that limited geographical area. Creating frozen 'lakes' in the backyard during winter, that sort of thing: using what we had at hand to create new games and avoid being bored. So perhaps what Montreal winters gave me, and it’s something I take pride in as a photographer, is being able to make something interesting from limited material.

If you were going to treat Yourself/Montreal as a subject in the book, how would you photograph it? What would you look for and how would you photograph it to express your 'fantasy documentary'?

I think the best approach would be to go back and see what memories were triggered. That would be much more interesting than to try and preplan anything. See what falls into place and just react.

One premise that I draw from your book is that the childhood hometown of an artist can shape that person's later creative development. Do you think that's an accurate assessment? Or is the book more about you and your contemporary experience in those places?

I think it can have a huge effect, but of course, the childhood experiences within that environment are important too. At that age we are absorbing and processing everything around us and it shapes who we become in later life. But I'm not suggesting that these particular places were the reason their inhabitants became artists… just that the places (perhaps) influenced the art they made in later life. In my fantasy-documentary I'm imagining how these lives and personalities might have taken shape. And yes, my direct experience of each place influenced the images I made too; I wanted a layer of my own responses to be in the mix.

Was there anything you noticed as you traveled to these 24 places which they shared in common or which would tend to foster creative development? Or are they just random locations?

The places didn't have anything in common, but every artist I feature in my project wanted to escape their hometown. I gleaned that from reading their biographies.


That's strange. You picked 24 international artists and they all just happened to abandon their hometowns? Is that something artists do as a matter of course? Do any artists stay in they place they grew up? Maybe part of the leap to becoming an artist is shedding your past?

I imagine it's probably quite common for artists to feel ‘out of place’ in their hometowns. Perhaps artists feel a bit ‘out of place’ wherever they are. One question I am asking is: what makes us feel connected with some artists and not others? Could it be that these great artists are able to put something of themselves into their work? Are they able to translate their experiences into images? Is it more than just a coincidence that the artists I chose to feature in my project are linked biographically in certain ways?

There's only one person in the book whose hometown is close to my mine and he's one of my photo idols —Lee Friedlander from Aberdeen. I tend to shoot like him. It's hard to say if that's because we grew up in similar places, or if I've just looked at too many of his pictures. But I've always had a pet theory that his photographic style was molded by the place he was raised. Western Washington is densely forested to the point of claustrophobia, and Friedlander's photographs embody that feeling. They're chock-full with vegetative layers. I wonder if living in a place so thickly forested, he just had to learn to see through stuff. If he'd grown up in Arizona, for example, maybe he'd never shoot that way? Your photos from Aberdeen are nicely Friedlanderish, by the way.



Hometown of Lee Friedlander, Aberdeen, Washington

I like that: ‘learning to see through stuff’. I know that he left his hometown primarily because he loved jazz and that passion for music took him to the big US cities. So I imagined this Friedlander kid, growing up on a farm in a logging town, listening to jazz and longing to be somewhere more vibrant and less predictable. The music he listened to might have brought images to his mind. One of the photographs I took in Aberdeen is of this young guy, lying on the bonnet of his car—he is surrounded by trees but behind a fence; he is looking up at the sky.

I always think of Friedlander as ‘a photographer’s photographer’. What I mean by that is he makes photographs which are able to stand on their own two feet—they don’t require supporting concepts. I highlighted this in my research. In an interview Friedlander describes an early childhood memory—when he asked his father how to fix a lawnmower his father replied: 'just look at it until you understand it.' Later in life, when he was asked to 'explain' his photographs he would use exactly the same response.

Good anecdote. It makes sense. Maybe the next book project should be "Parental portraits of artists"?

I think if anyone makes a list of their artistic heroes and starts digging around in the early parts of their biographies... the overlaps in childhood experiences jump out. I think my Dad would have said something very similar to me, so perhaps that’s why I picked up on that.

OK, so what overlaps did you notice as you visited these places?

I haven't really thought about what the places have in common —my preoccupation has been with what the artists have in common and why I might have chosen them for my list. But looking at the list of places now they do all seem to be backwaters... not hives of creative activity...

That goes back to artists needing to leave their hometown. It raises the question, what about those artists born in New York or Paris or some art hotbed? Are they any? Is that mobility and leaving behind an integral part of becoming an artist? Just wondering out loud...

We spend all our lives exploring, but really we are just trying to get 'home' again.

(insert Thomas Wolfe title here)

Yes!

I’m sure there are just as many artists who grew up in big cities; I think Strand, Klein, Arbus, Shore and Sternfeld are all New Yorkers. I don’t think they were desperate to escape their hometown so perhaps there is something in the work of artists who come from small towns (and who wanted to escape them) that I relate to in particular. Is that a long shot? Perhaps it is, but it’s interesting to speculate.

When I first learned of your book my initial thought was in relation to museum shows. One of the primary pieces of information with any artist on the wall is their year of birth/death, and their hometown (or, to be more accurate, birthplace). So there's apparently something vital in that information. Why do you think museums include hometown as an integral part of captions?

Perhaps because any biographical information adds another layer of interest to the work. Artists try and express something about who they are, how they see the world, and where they have come from —all in an image sometimes. When I watch people wandering around museums I see people not just looking at images but thinking about the artists who made them too.


Wouldn't "current city" be a more relevant piece of information?

Not for me. I am more interested in where they grew up. Robert Rauschenberg's childhood home still exists in Port Arthur, Texas. I sat on the front steps and just let my imagination go back eighty years, wondering what factors might have shaped such a huge body of work.

In understanding an artist, how relevant do you think birth/death years are? I mean not the specific year but general lifespan dates.

 The artists featured in my project do share very similar lifespan dates. If you ask someone to list the artists they feel most connected to, or have a great understanding of—they frequently choose artists who lived in their own lifetime. I think this comes down to a recognition of shared feelings and experiences which is evident in the work.

Aside from Friedlander there are several other artists whose hometowns you depict in a style which is fairly representative. Ruscha, Turrell, Baldessari, and Baltz are a few that jumped out at me. 


Hometown of Ed Ruscha, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

I think of my photographs as being made through the 'afterimage' of each artist's work. Because I can't deny that every new image I make is an accumulation of other images I have seen. 

It was a fun exercise for me to browse the book while ignoring the artist info, to see if I could guess which artist you were channeling. I think the book's design helps foster this method because you include that info as a side note in the gatefold.

Yes, the information is there if you need it, but it can also be ignored. 

The book's overall design is quite original. What was the design process? 



The first thing to say here is that I worked with a great designer: Wayne Daly. 

The book’s hardback cover is gatefolded so that an index of the artists’ names and hometown locations can be referred to by the viewer (if they feel it’s necessary) as they turn the pages of the book. In the book dummies we made, the index was either at the front or back of the book—which meant the viewer had to go back and forth to access the information. I took the dummy to portfolio reviews to test these early designs and found they didn’t work well—the suspense or anticipation I sought was just replaced by frustration. So testing the book dummy with an audience was essential to the design process.

The paired letters on the cover of the book are the initials of the artists whose hometowns I photographed. But they are printed with a transparent spot varnish—so they appear and disappear as you tilt the book. This is a self-published book, so both Wayne Daly and I were trying to incorporate design elements which a mainstream publisher might think too… risky because they were too subtle? We both wanted a book which would reveal itself to the viewer over time, and the design plays a key part in that. 

Some of the most interesting photos in the book are those with post-exposure manipulation which make the viewer question what's happening. I think they're very effective in a context of unmanipulated photos. How did you decide which photos to alter and how to manipulate them?

I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t use a blanket approach to photograph each hometown: I wanted to photograph each place in a way that would reflect something unique in the artist’s life or work.


Hometown of Robert Cumming, Mattapan, Massachusetts

One of the photographers featured in my series is Robert Cumming; your phrase to ‘make the viewer question what's happening’ immediately brings his work to mind because (broadly) his photography addresses the mechanics of human perception. Both photographs I made in his hometown have post-exposure manipulations because I wanted to reference the ironic and absurd ‘reversals of expectations’ that are present in Robert’s work. Even though Cumming was working in the 1970s I think his work looks very contemporary today: it was made before Photoshop existed so the effects he achieves are the result of cutting negatives then drawing and painting on them—I felt his spirit of adventure gave me license to do anything… to try something new.

John Gossage’s photographs are, above all, those I have struggled most to find my way past (artistically). I imitated them for a long period during my time as a student. So I photographed his hometown using corrupted flash cards and then further erased each scene using post-production; I’m acknowledging Gossage’s artistic influence on myself whilst erasing it, in the way that Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning drawing. But I’m also reacting to circumstance: I arrived on Staten Island the day before a polar vortex blew through—when I woke up on the first day to shoot, the place seemed almost erased by snow-whiteness anyway.


Hometown of John Gossage, Staten Island, New York

I'm curious about your use of corrupted flash cards. I know you used this in an earlier project too, and it's an interesting area for me. I think the idea of failure and mistakes is pretty integral to art, but tough to harness. What are your thoughts about mistakes/failure? Are they important in your photography? Is it a common thread among your art heroes?

I can see how rapidly my own photography has progressed since I started shooting digitally—for exactly that reason—I was able to make more mistakes... thousands of them…


But when I was a student of photography (back in the day) our tutors gave us only ten sheets of film to use each week (that was the discipline)… so we could only take ten shots. That didn't work for me. Mistakes are integral to human evolution and I don’t see why artistic evolution is any different. 

Not all of the photographers featured in my project are well known. You may not be familiar with the British photographer Raymond Moore’s work—it’s not really talked about today and his books are out of print. But he embraced the accidental in his photographs by using double exposures, and he was fascinated by the unpredictable layering effect of shooting through reflections in windows. So I’ve used a digital means of image-layering because I want to reflect my interest in working in that serendipitous spirit too. 

Which photo class was that? Back in the film era?

I studied photography in Derby (UK). I graduated in 1990. Firmly in the film era. 

Did you begin using 35 mm film too?

Yes, I used to buy those big, round cans that contained 100 feet of film—and cut it into 36 exposure strips myself. I loved my darkroom.


I shoot 35 still partly because it's liberating exposure-wise. I would have a hard time limiting myself to 10 photos per week. But maybe I should try.

I traced some of your books back through your website, and the early ones seem a bit looser project-wise. 48 Recent Photographs, for example. Or 21 Recent Photographs. How do you view those projects now? Does your photography feel more structured?

It definitely feels more structured now. But sometimes I wonder why photography has become so structured and project based, is it some kind of insecurity? Is taking interesting but unconnected photographs now seen as being too easy? 

Do you still make time for unstructured photography outings?

Not any more. The concept is now the engine that drives the work, but I still welcome mistakes that take me in new directions, and allow myself to wander off track. It's a balance. I don't want to be tied down by an idea—so the idea has to be flexible. 

The hometown project strikes a nice balance. You've pinned it to a place and concept, but within that you're pretty open to shoot however you want. I had a similar project a few years back photographing Portland and Eugene systematically in small chunks of map, one per month. It was fun, just the right balance of structure and freedom.

Every artist I feature in my project has produced structured work, but I think the best kind of structure is when the work is just recognizably their own—so that’s the underlying structure. I’m thinking particularly of Eggleston here—he doesn’t have to work within narrow projects or label his work with concepts—his photographs knit together because they are just… obviously his. That's an incredible achievement, I think.



Hometown of Bridget Riley, Padstow, Cornwall

Yes, but also a natural progression. I think anyone that shoots for a years tends to develop a recognizable style. It's like handwriting or a speaking voice. You can't escape it.

I’m not sure I agree. I think there are many photographers who never achieve a style or voice.


If I draw a picture with pencil and paper, it will always look like mine. I think photography may be similar.

Really? But we could take exactly the same picture. The camera’s mechanism is exact and the lens is tyrannical. But if you can bend the camera-machine to your will... you have won! Photography fascinates me in this respect: that we all use the same impersonal tool but the goal is to find ways to personalise it.

I've gone out with friends to photograph together. We walk in the same place at almost the same time. And looking at the resulting photos later, my friends' photos are almost unrecognizable. Where the heck was that thing? Where were you? What made you shoot it that way?

Well, that's great.

This idea gets back to mistakes/failure. On the surface they would seem to defy style, because by definition they are unplanned and uncontrollable. But what you've shown in the book is that they can be harnessed, and maybe that's where some of the real artistic breakthroughs can occur. 

I think artists are good at reframing mistakes so they become opportunities. Mistakes give the artist images that they couldn’t create using their intellect only. William Klein was great at this, I think. His technique of no taboos—use whatever happens—throw away preconceived hierarchies of what is good and bad.

That raises a good question for someone who has just finished a book channeling the style of others. Is there something in this book that's still inherently your style?

I find it difficult to pin down what my style is. But I know it has evolved by looking at work made by others and thinking: that's incredible! How did they do that? And why? Then I try and reverse engineer what they have done, take it apart, change some bits and then put it back together in my own way. I’m interested in trying to get ideas into my photographs but I’m also interested in aesthetics and visual pleasure. Achieving both is where the challenge lies.

I think you do have a recognizable style even if it isn't obvious to you. Part of the fun in the book is seeing your style blend with the styles of your heroes, and try to see whose influences are evident in which photos.

Thank-you, then it works. That’s a relief. Working on this project always felt as though I was walking a tight rope.


After you visited all these hometowns, which one did you enjoy most? Were there any which you'd feel comfortable settling in? Which hometown did you least enjoy?

I tend to photograph in a state of frenzied panic which isn't a fair way to experience any place. But I'd been to Mexico City before and I love it. The people are amazing and it's a city that would confound anyone's expectations. It wouldn’t be a 'comfortable' place to live, but I'd be kept on my toes and I'd value that. 

Which hometown did you least enjoy?

I didn’t enjoy Port Arthur, Texas. At least, I didn’t enjoy photographing it: it seemed that every homeowner had a ferocious dog that would launch itself at me as I walked past (thankfully there was a fence in-between us).

Wait, what? Frenzied panic?

Yes, a constant feeling of 'I can't see anything to photograph here!’ or 'this isn't working and never will!’. Panic! Isn't that normal?


I don't know what normal is. I sometimes take a little while to adjust to my setting and start seeing well. But I wouldn't describe my feeling as frenzied panic. But maybe when you know you have a limited amount of time in a new city there is a certain amount of performance anxiety?

Yes, there is that. But I thrive on that too. The panic creates adrenaline which leads to a heightened sense of awareness.

We could probably trace that feeling back to Montreal :-)

Perhaps we could. It’s fascinating trying to untangle what makes us who we are.

I was born in Berkeley but I consider Briceland my hometown. Any psychologist who knows me and that place could probably create an interesting analysis.

Briceland. I'll have a look on Streetview.