Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Three short reviews

I hadn't heard much from Ryan Brubaker since he left Portland for Belgium a few years back. His last project was a gem, and honestly pretty nutty. What would the guy come up with next? 

So when I heard about Maps For Getting Lost I was intrigued. I love maps. I love photography. I enjoy losing myself. This book was for me. But I couldn't figure it out at first. Wait, he's applying street maps to the wrong cities, and creating random paths trying to get lost on the way and...Huh? 

But after paging through the whole thing on the iPad the project makes much more sense. Each book chapter documents a unique strategy to navigate a European city, mostly Brussels but also some others. The rules are simple. In one chapter he turns left at every corner. In others he follows certain people or aims for the tallest building. There are twelve in all, each one unique. Brubaker takes b/w photos on his walks which not only document his path but his method. The groupings are subtle and it takes some thought to decode them. I think most readers will find themselves playing mystery-guess, looking at the photos first before sneaking a peek at the navigation tool. I pulled a humbling O-fer at guessing but still enjoyed the journey. Order here.

I didn't get a chance to see Aaron McElroy's show last month at Ampersand. Bummer. And now that I've gotten a peek at his book the sense of regret is stronger. Ampersand has been publishing small editions for a few years now, slowly working out the production kinks and gradually refining the process (Ryan Brubaker's Strange Cities was one of their first). I think McElroy's After Wake is their best effort yet. The binding is, um, perfect. The tones are nicely muted, some on the verge of bleaching, and the gilt foil stamped cover (the only identifying mark) adds a touch of class. 

And let's not forget the photos. I suppose they could be generally classed by category: Female body parts, vegetation, interior closeups, a fascination with flash and scattered croppings. What they all add up to is anyone's guess, and I think that's part of the fun. "A half-alert morning recollection of disjointed dreams," Ampersand calls it. The editing is loose and breezy enough to offer multiple interpretations. It will probably be a different book for each reader, and maybe a different project for the same viewer over multiple readings. 

For the actual exhibit McElroy chose the type of informal presentation I love, covering the walls with more than 150 loose leaf 5 x 7s. Sounds experimental. Sounds chaotic. Bummed I missed it. If you did too, there's always the book.

Alas, there are too many shows I haven't seen. Add Keizo Kitajima's USSR 1991 to the list. The good news is that unlike the McElroy show, this one still up through the end of the month at Little Big Man Gallery in San Francisco. After hosting the gallery in his living room for its first months, Nick Haymes recently made the move to official digs. If you live in the Bay Area, this should be on your monthly rounds.

Unfortunately, Little Big Man is about 10 hours outside my weekend driving range. I won't see this show. But the USSR 1991 book is the next best thing. Haymes doesn't pull any punches when it comes to publishing. The aim is straight for the high-end collectible market. USSR 1991 comes with  Japanese stitched introductory essay, foam insulated padding, and beautiful embossed pink cover, all enclosed in an elaborately unfolding protective jewelbox.

The Kodachrome photographs read as travelogue and timepiece. Kitajima's visit coincided with Glasnost and Perestroika. There are the requisite dreary industrial scenes and official poses, but also a faint sense of thawing. Some subjects manage a smile as they anticipate the changes ahead. 

Haymes' production is playful and full of unusual risks. The photos come in a variety of sizes on pages of grey, pink or white. Some photos repeat themselves in different croppings within gatefolds. Captions come at intervals, on ricepaper, in Japanese and English. This might be your father's Russia but this book is anything but familiar. Brace your wallet for impact, then order here.

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