Category Archives: photobooks

Awoiska van der Molen: Sequester

In short, Sequester is one of the best Photobooks I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why…

Sequester the book

Awoiska van der Molen’s book Squester

…I use a 5-point scale when I’m deciding whether I like a cup of coffee (Yes, this is a photo blog not a coffee blog, but bear with me). Here’s how it goes:

  • Yuk, tip it down the sink
  • Nah, that was too much of an endurance test
  • Well, someone might like it but it’s not for me
  • Hmm, nice but rather 1-dimensional; something’s missing or dischordant
  • Yummy, I could drink that again!

Then I realised I use pretty much the same criteria when I’m reading a photobook or visiting an exhibition. I know others who are more analytical in their approach, and a lot of people who are less so. As a practitioner I know that there is a danger of over-analysing my own work, at least while I am creating it, but I think that at least some enquiring thought about my own and others’ work helps me learn and improve, so I shall try my coffee criteria on photography for a while and see whether it works out.

There aren’t many coffees photobooks that make it to the Yummy point of my scale but Sequester is one of them. The title comes from Awoiska van der Molen‘s desire to isolate herself on the Canary Islands with a camera and film for periods of introspection where she seems to be using landscape and the photographic process as a metaphor for her thoughts and a process for artistic development. She acts instinctively while taking the images and enjoys the delayed gratification of film processing but this also allows her mind to work on the memory, so post-visualisation is an important part of her work. All the images in this book are consistently melanistic (to use an appropriately organic term) but in this instance I don’t find the dark tones depressing but rather they inspire me to look more closely, to enquire more deeply into the hidden detail of the shadows and to appreciate the rare quality of the few highlights. Van der Molen describes her images as not so much representing a moment in time but more part of a continuum; evoking a mood is what she aims for.

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers' Gallery, London

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, recently

She photographs in short bursts of about 3 weeks at a time. The first week is spent exploring then by weeks 2 and 3 she is ready to be productive. For the images in Sequester she returned to the Canary Islands several times. It is hard to say why she responds to some landscapes and not others but Spain and The Canaries appeal whereas Italy, for example does not. It seems to be related to the impact that man has had: she prefers a light, understated influence rather than obvious layers of history.

Original photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Images alone don’t make a book – they have to work with the construction, layout, paper, printing and typography, and that’s what makes this book special. The designer, Hans Gremmen, has done a brilliant job on this within the constraints of commercial production. A master stroke was including every third section printed in white ink on black paper. My main criticism is for the way some images bleed across the gutter to the opposite page. This normally ruins the photograph’s carefully considered composition however van der Molen’s primary concern is not for conventional composition but for tones, light and shade, and mood. So in this instance I have to forgive what I normally consider bad practice in the interest of bleeding the image off the edge of the page, which is far more important here as it implies the image being a window into a bigger world.

Sequester is up there with the yummiest of photobooks but if photographs are inherently history then photobooks are even more so (Sequester took about 3 years to publish). Awoiska’s photography has evolved since these images were made and I look forward to following this artist’s journey through her personal landscapes in the future.

Matej Sitar’s page-turning video of Sequester is at https://vimeo.com/122460044

Awoiska van der Molen has images on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, as a nominee for 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize until 11 June.

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Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Thomas Mailaender’s Gone Fishing

Thomas Mailaender is one of my favorite photographers, although he is really better described as an artist. He has the ability to work on quite serious subjects in a humorous irreverent way. A fine example of this is his Gone Fishing project from 2010 that resulted in a book published in 2012. I didn’t review it at the time but a recent visit to Roman Road gallery, London, where the work is on show (until 15 April 2016), prompted me to buy a copy.

GoneFishingBookCover

Thomas Mailaender’s book Gone Fishing. soft cover. A4. 39pp. Numbered edition of 500, 1-299 in French, 300-500 in English.

The work is fictional but is rooted in Mailaender’s own impending fatherhood at the time and, as with much good fiction, has the ring of truth, or at least credibility, about it. The work contains a series of letters and photos from Thomas to his long-suffering partner, the pregnant Marion. Thomas has decided that he cannot face the responsibility of being a father and has taken off on an long fishing trip to various parts of the world; a kind of extended stag party for the dad-to-be.

Each letter home is short and accompanied by a postcard-sized image of Thomas and his latest exploit but done with a subtle tongue-in-cheek humour. For example, alongside a picture of Thomas with a dead shark are the words

Sorry, but I needed to think about all this far from you and the baby. Soon I’ll be a father… It keeps turning around in my head and this little escapade is doing me a lot of good (I even caught a shark) and I think that now I feel ready for us to have a little girl together. I’ll be as promised in Paris Thursday evening.

A few letters later and he still hasn’t returned. He says

…I caught this superb 2.5kg sea bream. I can tell you I had to fight like a devil to get it. The poor beast struggled for over three quarters of an hour and the whole time I thought of you.

And in another letter

I found this superb thistle (in the photo). I spent a long time observing its most minute details: its striking vegetal beauty, the intense purple of its flower and the fine down that covers the slender stems almost make you forget the threatening needles at the end of the leaves. Don’t take it badly, but this plant reminds me of you.

Thistle image from Thomas Mailaender's 'Gone Fishing'

Thistle image from Thomas Mailaender’s ‘Gone Fishing’. 2012.

The metaphor is obvious so it’s hardly surprising that he constantly complains he hasn’t had a reply from Marion! I bet she is purple – with rage.

The photographs all have a cheap snapshot aesthetic. Some of them look genuine while others have had Thomas’s face pasted in to what I assume is an image found on the Internet. This is all good – it adds to the humour and fiction of the work. Mailaender has taken the trouble to match the lighting on his face to the lighting of the found photograph so there is some skill behind the apparently artless snapshots.

The letters all have the theme of love for Marion and the intention of returning home very soon but expressed in such a way that the reader quickly gets the idea that there is a gulf between Thomas’s intent and the reality of his trip: he is enjoying himself way too much! This echos the conflict that many feel between the part of us that remains a child and the internal voice of the responsible adult that comes to dominate as we grow up. But the book doesn’t resolve this in Thomas’s case: we are left on a cliff-hanger as he wins a large sum of money which allows him to continue his escapist vacation. We wonder, will he be an absent father forever?

The exhibition and the book have the same content but the exhibition presents each letter alongside its accompanying photograph whereas in the book the letters and photos are printed single-sided, making them less of a pair. The letters are printed on a lighter weight paper and given the appearance of having been folded for the post. The photos are on a paper of similar weight to a high street photo processing machine with a gloss varnish over the image to enhance this impression. Printing the letters and images on separate sheets means that they cannot be viewed as a pair, which is an aspect of the exhibition that I liked. But this is a minor criticism and the book is still an entertaining, humorous and thought-provoking read.

 

Paul Graham: I turn a set of photos into its own world

Mack Books organises events in collaboration with Waterstones bookshop to promote some of their new photobooks. These are not simple “come and buy the book” events but have the format of conversations between a photographic critic, historian or curator with the photographer. This gives an insight into the photographer’s working practice and some back story to the book.

On 29 August 2015 Paul Graham (b. 1956) was in conversation with David Chandler to coincide with the publication of The Whiteness of the Whale. Paul is British but had been a frequent visitor to the United States before finally moving to New York. He felt it necessary to acclimatize to the US but needed to be an outsider looking in.

He describes his work as an unfolding thought process rather than a story or narrative. His process is to “edit the world into a set of photos then turn this set into its own world”. His work has to progress and change for his own interest to stay alive and grow. He keeps an eye on what’s being done, especially regarding photobooks, but does not copy or appropriate others’ work. His new book The Whiteness of the Whale evolved into a trilogy but was not planned this way – it emerged as the project progressed.

He does not see his books as documentary despite being labeled as such by some. Rather he sees photographic fact and fiction on a continuous scale with his books somewhere between the extremes.

He prefers working with multiple images and is positive about his perception that more people are seeing the book, the whole body of work, as the art form rather than the single picture on the wall. Nevertheless, he says that the book isn’t the artwork, it’s the container of the work but is sympathetic to the work.

The titles of Paul works often have literary connections (in the case of Whiteness of the Whale it’s Moby Dick) but come later in the project. They are not part of the picture-taking process but become part of the work at a late stage.

What a photofest weekend! Photo London and Offprint London

The bank-holiday weekend of 21-25 May 2015 saw a raft of photographic happenings in London. The two big ones were Photo London and Offprint London. I attended both. Was it worth it? You bet!

Somerset House

Somerset House, home of Photo London 2015.

Photo London was based at Somerset House, had 70 galleries from 20 countries participating, along with 10 publishers and 3 special exhibitors. For me this isn’t a huge draw as I find the gallery scene rather rarefied and certainly out of my price bracket, but it’s a good opportunity to take the pulse of the photography collectors’ market and to see which names and styles are in vogue at the moment. It is not a free show; the entrance fee is pitched high enough to keep away the casual viewer and other oiks like me who can’t afford gallery prices. Nevertheless, I took the plunge and spent 5 hours immersed in some wonderful images.

Somerset House made an excellent venue, with its characterful small but linked rooms with lots of wall space making it ideal for the various galleries to display. Being split over 5 floors meant getting plenty of exercise on the stairs, though less than ideal for those with mobility difficulties. There were a few galleries selling historic images but the majority were promoting contemporary photographers. For me this balance was about right. The V&A also had a well-curated display of images from its collection called Beneath the Surface that continues until 24 August 2015.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. cCopyright the artist.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. Copyright the artist.

There were, of course, a huge number of excellent images (as well as some I wouldn’t give wall space to). If I have to pick one stand-out artist it is Thomas Mailaender‘s cyanotypes on the Roman Road stand. Although all the images used the cyanotype process the images were not process-driven but displayed a repertoire of playfully diverse ideas executed in an original but not gratuitous way.

Offprint London

Offprint London in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall

Offprint London was my main interest because of my long-running enthusiasm for the photobook. Several people I spoke to said that it was very similar to Offprint Paris in size and scope, though I noticed that some of the more established publishers had decided to exhibit at Photo London instead of Offprint. It was great to see indie publishers from across Europe and even a few from across The Pond! Not all exhibitors showed photobooks but these I just ignored.

There has been a huge increase in the number of photobooks produced recently compared with only 10 years ago, and the number of exhibitors and the size of the crowds at Offprint only serves to reinforce this. Unfortunately there has also been a huge increase in the number of poor photobooks, and Offprint had its fair share of those too. It’s great that photographers want to make photobooks and we all have to start somewhere but some of the work here shouldn’t be inflicted on a wider world. There is too much ego-driven publication and not enough art or craft value in a lot of photobooks today. Having got that off my chest I should also say that there are a lot of good quality books for sale at Offprint. Many are commercially published, which is fine, but it was the artisan self-publishers that took my eye. In particular I liked the work of Jane & Jeremy and Highchair Editions. Their art-and-craft blended approach and interesting design ideas were eye-catching and went beyond what would be expected from commercially-produced books, which is exactly the sort of photobook work I hoped to find at a show like this. So well done to you, and congratulations to Simon Baker and Tate Modern for holding Offprint London – I will definitely attend if it runs again next year!

Speaking of which, Photo London has already announced next year’s dates as 19-22 May 2016. Fingers crossed that Offprint will also repeat.