Monday, December 28, 2009

The Nude as Art Work

I love getting photography books as gifts. This year was no different. The one that I received worth a comment is "Nude Visions" from the German art book publishers Kehrer Verlag. Most of the photographs are part of the vast photography collection at the Münchner Stadtmuseum. This book is a catalog of over 200 nude photographs spanning the history of photography and including many great photographers.

At first glance, I was excited to see a collection of photographs that explore the human figure as so many artist have over the millennia. My anticipation was that this volume would take a look at photographs that treated the human form as a beautiful object to be admired and rendered with light and shadow that celebrates the figure. Yes and no.

The book is just what it intends to be; a catalog of nude photographs. Yes, there are many pictures from artists that reproduce images modeled from the great master painters, and many that explore the human form in modern ways (Edward Weston, Willy Zielke, Lucien Clergue). My disappointment comes from the many photographs that are without aesthetics, that are clinical in their presentation of the nude. Photographs taken where the figure might as well be a piece of furniture instead of a beautiful sculptural object. These are the ones I skipped over in search of the unique vision. And, they do exist throughout the book.

The photographs that are true works of art are indeed magnificent. Many are worth spending time studying and enjoying both the art of the image and the form of the figure. There are many photographers that I was not familiar with that had stunning images; Rudolf Lehnert & Ernst Landrock and Franz Grainer from the 1920's, or Marianne J. Leissl from the 1930's. And there were wonderful discoveries; Josef Breitenbach, Ed van der Elsken, and Gerhard Vormwald.

On balance, I rate the book a B. I am glad to have it in my library.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Photo Story and Food

What is the most important thing in your life? For me it is looking at interesting photography and collecting photo books. For my wife it's food. When you combine the two together we have food photography and sometimes cook books with great photography. Recently we found a great book in a used book store that had both, "Memories with Food at Gipsy House" by Felicity & Roald Dahl with photographs by Jan Baldwin (Viking 1991).

This book had both fascinating photography and recipes along with interesting stories about the authors' family life. The photographs were not the typical commercial food shots, but wonderfully arranged foods in settings that made for attractive imagery while at the same time helping to illustrate the stories and recipes. A complete aesthetic experience.

On the other hand, there is "serious food photography!" These are photographs of food as objects or models. Sort of like fashion photography. These photos are designed to make you hungry. You sit there drooling over this amazing photograph of mouth watering food and wonder if it tastes as good as it looks. Now I know from past experience, photographing food is both an art and a craft while at the same time a complete fake.

What I mean, is that there is great skill in preparing the food to be photographed, staged, styled, and lit. The fake part comes from the fact that the food is prepared just to be photographed and not eaten. As a matter of fact, you do not even want to nibble on it unless you want a mouthful of chemicals used to make it all look good. Check out this interesting food photo video.

My preference for food photography is the type used to illustrate the Dahl book. I will be keeping my eye out for more of these books.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stealth photography

Stealth - I have been thinking about all my photographs that have not been seen by anyone. Or my wife's photographs that have not been seen by anyone but me. What happens when your photography is not seen by anyone but yourself? Is this like that old question: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?" If you do not show your photography to anyone, does it really exist or have value?

Ok, so now we are thinking about why make photography or art to begin with? The obvious answer; we can not help ourselves. We have this urge to create that picture. We feel that if we don't create that image, something will be terribly missing from our lives. It becomes more important to create than to share it with anyone. Those of us who spend our waking hours (and much of our sleep) thinking about that next creation are walking the fine line between genius and egotist. (More about this later, perhaps.)

Not to mention the aesthetics of that all important creation. We do make critical choices in that process of creating the picture that brings all our experience and talent to bear. Then the decision of selection and editing. Which picture to champion and hold out as the "best" of the series.

Then, why do some of us never display these images? Or more accurately, do we hold back until we have the confidence to bear our souls to the public?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Photobooks worth keeping

How do you know what photobooks to keep and which ones to take down to your local used book shop? I have been thinking about this as my bookshelves have lost space to add anymore. I know, many of you are thinking, just add more bookshelves. Yes, that is doable, and most likely I will do that. But it did start me thinking.

It is not easy to pull a book off the shelf and decide that there is no value anymore (to me). Why did I buy it in the first place? It must of meant something at the time. Someone put time and energy into creating the book. I have always been a believer in the passion that is behind every work of art, including photobooks. At the time that I acquired the book, there where very good reasons for making this decision. This train of thought has lead me to the inevitable list, "top 10 reason to buy or keep a photobook."

The top ten reasons to buy (or keep) a book:

10. It was a good buy or its a first edition.
9. It will increase in value over time.
8. It is rare and not many copies are left in circulation.
7. It appears on some list of top 100 important photography books.
6. It is included in The Book of 101 Books edited by Andrew Roth.
5. It is included in either volumes I or II of The Photobook: A History by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger.
4. It is a perfect specimen of a photobook and comprises all that is key to a great book; wonderful photos, sequenced with intelligence, and is beautifully printed.
3. You learn something new or gain new insights about life and art every time you look it.
2. You are the author/creator of the book.
1. You truly love this book.

Feel free to create your own top ten reasons for keeping a book.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Digital or Not Digital

Recently I heard about the concept of a 10,000 year photography gallery. This idea has been put forth by photographer Edward Burtynsky in a presentation to the Long Now Foundation back in July 2008. The concept of the 10,000 year gallery is to archive images of our times that represent the culture of human kind today for future generations to see. Think cave drawings viewed today from our ancestors.

Part of Burtynsky's presentation was about the medium of display. His argument was that
photographic prints, especially color prints, degrade badly over time (digital imagery may not be practical because the machinery used today to create the images most likely will not survive in 10,000 years for the most fundamental reasons of environmental forces, etc.). Of course during every century, the images could be transferred to the technology of the day, but this solution may become cumbersome and requires a level of maintenance that is not practical. So instead, Burtynsky proposes the use of “carbon transfer prints.” This technology was invented back in the 1800's and there are a few, exactly three practitioners of this process. One happens to be in Seattle, Art & Soul. The carbon process transfers the image to just about any surface; water color paper, ceramic, steel, etc. The concept being that carbon wont degrade, the material wont deteriorate, and the imagery will last for millennia in the 10,000 year gallery.

Great, right? Not so fast. The problem is that the practitioners of this process are very few and there may not be new generations of people who know how to do this process. What happens when the few folks with the skill to create carbon prints turn into carbon themselves? We have all this great imagery of human kind turning into dust. As a culture, we are so quick to race towards a digital world and leave the analog (carbon) world behind, we lost tack of the value older technologies has to offer. Digital is great for today, but what about the archival prints? Sure, we can make a print that lasts maybe 80 or 100 years. Then what?

Students of photography, think about learning this craft. It may be ancient, but it will last millenia.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Photobook of the Future

While thinking about the long view of the photobook, I began to wonder what the next generation of imaging may be. For some of us, we have seen the rapid decline of celluloid and the rise of digital imaging. The history of photography has had a long transition to digital with the most rapid change occurring during the last decade.

So what will be the the next format? Will the photobook of the future be more akin to a digital paper that displays images captured with a floating lens? Or maybe something virtual that appears with a heads-up display. Will the technology make the photobook of the future obsolete?

I think now we should be thinking about how a single image will have relevance. I am wondering if we will simply have an ongoing stream of pictures constantly being captured with some type of video camera that tracks where the eye is looking. A single frame can be extracted from the stream of images and displayed as an isolated picture for analyses and aesthetic contemplation. A series of these pictures can be sequenced to compose a digital photobook for viewing on digital paper.

Something to contemplate. Have you stopped long enough to wonder about the future of the photobook?

See the blog from The Long Now at the right.

To be continued.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chapter 3 - Photobook Collecting

There are several great reference books that can be used as a guide if you are interested in collecting seminal photography books. Each of these reference books provides great context for each of the books represented.

One the best books recently published
into one volume for the collector, is Andrew Roth's "The Book of 101 Books" (2001, Distributed Art Publishers).

"The history of the photographic book goes back well more than a century; the medium of photography and the book format were understood very early on to relate to each other on both technical and aesth
etic levels. The examples of truly great combinations of photographic image and text, great design and typography bound together as books are numerous and make up an impressive artistic, social and documentary statement of the 20th century. Writer and rare book expert Andrew Roth has selected for this volume a group of 101 of the best photography books ever published."- the publisher.

More recent reference book on the art of the photographic book is a two volume set from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History Vol 1 & II (2004 and 2006, Phaidon Press).

"The book is divided into a series of thematic and broadly chronological chapters, each featuring a general introductory text providing background information and highlighting the dominant political and artistic influences on the photobook in the period, followed by more detailed discussion of the individual photobooks. The chapter texts are followed by spreads and images from over 200 books, which provide the central means of telling the history of the photobook. Chosen by Parr and Badger, these illustrations show around 200 of the most artistically and culturally important photobooks in three dimensions, with the cover or jacket and a selection of spreads from the book shown. Volume One also features an illuminating and provocative introduction, ‘The Photobook: Between the Film and the Novel’ by Badger, which is accompanied by a preface written by Parr." - the publisher

Then there is just the basic approach and most likely the best. Buy books that you like and that you feel will add to your deep understanding and appreciation of the aesthetics of the photobook. For those that are serious about creating photobooks, there many online services that are enablers for the self publishing approach.

To be continued...

Chapter 2 - Photobookworks

The idea of the photography book as “photobookworks.” This term has been introduced by photography historian Alex Sweetman in his article for the book Artist’s Books: A Critical Anthology and Source Book

edited by Joan Lyons (1985). In this article Sweetman states:

“Photobookworks are a function of the inter-relation between two factors: the power of the single photograph and the effect of serial arrangements in book form. Such arrangements may be viewed as worlds which the individual photographs inhabit and, therefore, as their context. Individual pictures may act as expressive images and/or as information; combinations of these can produce series sequences, juxtapositions, rhythms, and recurring themes.”

To consider the context of the photographs in the photobook is to acknowledge that the photographer/editor has a story to tell and a message to convey. For us, the readers, we look for this “story” not just in the individual photograph, but also in the relationship of the one that precedes and follows each photograph. Transcending the individual photographs into sequences becomes a richer experience and provides an alternative means to view the photographer’s work. Thus, we have the photobookworks as a structure to build a photographic aesthetic.

The experiences that we gain from identifying the sequence of images enables the photobookworks to become something greater than the individual photographs themselves. Recognizing this is the responsibility first of the photographer/editor to see beyond the individual photograph when creating the photobookworks. And second, the reader to seek out and decode the message that is within the photobookworks. Sweetman states:

“In a photobookworks, the relations between images may be either systematic or suggestive of system. They may be literal, poetic, public, personal, concrete, abstract, idiosyncratic, obscure, or transparent. I have no doubt that the types of relations formed by linking disparate photographs into singular and complex array in book form, or as any other time-based art, is one of the most distinctive functions and features of the photographic medium. Spatially, the relationship of image to image on a page is important because the positioning of elements within a display is potentially a linguistic operation in which position becomes a signifier. The complementary aspect of temporality is of even greater importance in relation to the phenomenon of the photobookworks and the historical development of vision.”

Has the photobookworks taken hold today as a methodology for presenting a photographer’s work? In the plethora of publications in the photographic market, have we seen this vision of visual art? Has the rush to publish lost sight of this aesthetic for presenting photographic work? Are the photography books appearing in the bookstalls giving us the opportunity to expand the photographer’s message or challenging us to find the deeper meaning of their work? Are the photobooks themselves becoming more than just a container for holding individual photographs? We must look beyond the images to the context. We should ask ourselves if the photographs have increased in meaning because of this presentation in the photobookworks. The photobook, in my view, must be more than the some of its parts.

See: Wikipedia on Artist's book

To be continued …

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chapter 1 - Catalogue or Literature?

I have been a collector of photography and artist's books for close to thirty years. During this time I have come to the opinion that there are two basic types of photography books. I will write about the issue of artist’s book in a future psoting. One type of photography book is a collection or catalogue of photographs, another type of book is that of visual literature. What is the difference between these two and what is meant by visual literature?

The catalogue includes those books that are assembled by genre or subject matter, chronological by some date-sensitive sequences, thematic, or some invented concept by the editor(s) to assemble the images. Simply put, these are images collected together to form a book that presents no specific narrative. These types of books are no less interesting; they serve a necessary and valuable purpose. Photography books that I categorize, as catalogues require a great deal of thought and editorial supervision to provide the photographer a fair representation and the “reader” a satisfying experience. The photographic catalogue book is also a very useful means of presenting photographs that are historical in nature, the total oeuvre of a photographer, or providing a convenient means of viewing a broad sampling of work. These types of photography books include the majority of books found on the market.

The books that I refer to as visual literature are first and foremost narratives. The images in these types of books are arranged in such a manner as to 'tell a story'. There is an intentional theme or an idea that the photographer/author wants to put forth. Keep in mind that these types of visual stories are not similar in nature or design to the stories one reads in a novel or finds in a newspaper. These visual stories require the “reader” to use their imagination to discern the narration or plot line. Usually these books are also divided into chapters to assist the “reader” with the narration.

The obvious form of photography book as narrative is one that uses the images to tell a story similar to a motion picture without sound. Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test (1967) and Crackers (1969) are both examples of this type of book. Here the reader is presented with sequences of photographs that unfold with the traditional beginning, middle and end. A more challenging form of photography book as narrative might be the books of Ralph Eugene Meatyard; The Family Album of Lucybell Crater and Other Figurative Photographs (1974). In Meatyrad’s books, the sequences of images are less literal to the linear story yet the reader can still follow the narrative if they apply themselves.

Visual literacy may also take a less linear form and provide a “story” that is told as an emotional and/or aesthetic whole. These are books that let the story unfold as the “reader” pages through the book, piece by piece, until at the end the “reader” is engulfed by the story the author is telling. Sebastiao Salgado’s books are very good examples of this type of narrative; Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age (1993), An Uncertain Grace (1995), or Migrations: Humanity in Transition (2000). The photographs in these books are emotionally charged with the suffering of humanity, yet each image has it’s own story, collecting them together into a book the reader is presented with a story with depth that goes beyond the scope of any one individual picture.

Photography books have often strived to achieve a level of visual literacy by sequencing the images in the book in such a manner that the reader has no choice but to read into the pictures individual stories that when collected together create a more complete narrative. Robert Frank’s seminal work The Americans (1959) is a perfect example of this type of book. Frank shows the reader images, that when taken together, form a documentary of the people of America. The book goes beyond journalism and approaches literature, because it is Frank’s story, his perception, his truth.

It is my hope that more photographers will strive for this type of visual literacy in the books that they create. True, each photograph is in and of itself a story. However by assembling images together into book form, aren’t we as readers anticipating more narrative? It certainly makes for more interesting “reading.”

To be continued …


About time, I say. I have been wondering why there isn't anything out there about the art of the photobook. Not photography books. Yes there is a fair amount on that subject. The art of the photobook is creating a book that is designed to be the art in and of itself. That is, intentionally using the format of the book to collect photographic images into a collection. This collection of images is more than a catalogue of images. The collection is assembled to communicate a narrative, a concept, an idea, an emotion, a intentional work of art.

So this blog is to begin the process of analyzing the art of the photobook past, present and future. My feeling is that we are at an interesting juncture in the history of the medium (that is the photobook) with the advent of a wide array of self publishing tools available at minimum cost or free.

You will find at intermittent moments musings about this exciting medium on this blog
. You are invited to participate in this discussion.