Saturday, May 10, 2014

Eight Short Reviews

Thomas Frederick Arndt
Men In America

I think Thomas Arndt is one of those photographers dependent on packaging. If you grab the wrong book of his, say Home: Tom Arndt's Minnesota, he'll be indistinguishable from a lot of other 20th century documentarians. Pictures of flags and cowboys and fairgrounds, all designed to tug just so on your humanist heartstrings. Nice stuff, if only it didn't seem so familiar. 

Fortunately for me, I stumbled on his other book first, Men In America (part of a very good Smithsonian Series published in the 90s, but that's another story). OK, the title is pretty lame, and the premise itself is a bit artificial. As far as I can tell this wasn't any grand project, just a bunch of photos by Arndt which happened to show men. 

But don't worry too much about that. Because Thomas Arndt can shoot. The book has 50+ photos and I don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. It's traditional old school b/w film pushed to graininess, then printed full frame. It's not innovative or flashy, but it's damn solid. Dare I say exceptional? Packaged as photojournalist Arndt fades into crowd. But packaged as a master street shooter he elevates his game. If you're into traditional street photography, this is the best $3 book out there.

Maciej Pestka
The Life of Psy

The Life of Psy follows a simple concept: photographs of fans going crazy at a celebrity sighting. Arms lifted, ecstatic expressions, young women smiling, various nightclub settings. Since I have no personal experience of that world, I'll have to trust the photos to bring it to me. And sure enough it looks about like one would expect: meh

The twist here is that the celebrity is not real, but merely someone who looks like the singer Psy. He happened to be in the right place, right time. So he played it up and had a good time, and Maciej Pestka was on the scene documenting. The resulting book has several nice features which lift it above the milling rabble. Stitched pamphlet binding, an elegant cover, and some of the most finely rendered text I've seen in any photobook. From the imitation title to the slickly branded site, it's clear a lot of care went into The Life of Psy

The reader is left wondering to what extent personal identity matters at all in the world of glamour and facade. If it's all fluff, does that mean anything goes? Elvis impersonators gotta live too, right? But what about the original? In this case, no harm no foul. Psy was happy. The fans were happy. The photos are nice. The book is nice. The only thing spoiling the mood is a legal disclaimer letter reprinted at the end: "Cease and Desist, Bla Bla Legal Bla..." Now that's a real Hollywood ending. 

Gintautas Trimakas
Miestas kitaip

What's the most accidental photo you can imagine? Well, a pinhole image is pretty open to chance. There's no viewfinder, lens or timing mechanism. Even in the hands of an experienced pinhole shooter nothing is certain or perfect. Now take the pinhole and stick under a bike seat facing the sky. When the bike stops, the camera takes a photo. Is that accidental enough? That's Gintautas Trimakas' method. His book Miestas kitaip (City. A Different Angle) collects photos made in European cities over the past decade or so using the technique above. 

The resulting photos are probably an acquired taste. I'm not going to claim they're well composed or thought out or tell much about the scenes depicted. They are much closer to abstractions. They're shot on large format black and white film and printed full frame, with bits of building and line and sky mingling with film manufacturing info in odd compositions, along with the ever present bike seat. 

This is a very unusual book in just about every way. It's plenty weird. But you know what? The photos are kind of beautiful. By discarding any premise of control and still coming away with entertaining photos, Trimakas gets to the heart of the matter. What does good photography require? Maybe not as much as supposed. He may be rooted in 19th century technique but his work anticipates the 21st century wave of Google Street View, Surveillance imagery, and re-authored found photos. 

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger
The Photobook - A History Part III

This is the one book lovers been waiting for, and it doesn't disappoint. Parr/Badger III seems to be more of a mishmash than the two previous editions. The chapters mop up a lot of territory but don't have much in common. I suppose one could quibble with the name. The Photobook - A History is too grand a claim. A more accurate title would be Personal Favorites From the Libraries of Parr and Badger. If the choices are subjective, and sometimes mysteriously so, that's just the nature of the beast. The photobook world has grown too large to summarize, so any such book lends itself to second guessing. Fortunately Parr and Badger generally have good taste. I found many personal favorites listed here, and was also turned on to plenty of unfamiliar works.   

Parr/Badger is dense with minutiae. It's more of a chocolate fudge book than a bowl of popcorn book. After several pages my head is full and I've got to take a break. And it's 300+ pages of smallish print. So it's been on my bedstand for 2 weeks and I'm still only halfway through. Which is sort of frustrating, but gratifying too, because not many books have that staying power. I keep a pen and paper with the book to jot down book titles that look interesting. The bummer is that most books in Parr/Badger are inaccessible or expensive as a result of being listed. Tail wags dog. Oh well. 

19th and Kern

The corner of 19th and Kern downtown has featured a rotating cast of eateries in recent years. Although this is a prominent location in the South End, for some reason —high rent, the ugly awning along the North wall, bad juju, or maybe some combination of factors—  no restaurant has managed to hang on there for long. 

Darla's, owned by regional restaurateurs the Easton Brothers, is the most recent enterprise to take a stab. Since its soft opening in November the restaurant —a sort of upscale diner— has steadily picked up traffic, mostly by word of mouth. Despite the promising beginning, a recent visit leads this reviewer to believe the success may be fleeting. 

Arriving at 6:30 pm to a sparsely attended dining hall, our dining party was inexplicably forced to wait 15 minutes before being seated. After the first table proved inappropriate —a young family in the next booth spraying food and noise over a five foot radius— it then took another 10 minutes to change tables. Flustered, we ordered quickly . However it was another 35 minutes before the first course was served, an asparagus and turnip hors d'oeuvre which was too spicy to do more than sample. It was a palate cleanser of sorts, yet with nothing yet in our stomachs it only created waves of salivation.

Once the burgers came we were finally sated —in part. The meat was excellent, suckled in a nest of baby dandelion blossoms with a sprinkle of kükendorf, yet the portions were so small that all felt unsatisfied. A side of local organic onion rings and kale slaw barely staunched the hunger. The impending sense of defeat was only confirmed when the bill came listing ambience fee, table cloth tax, and onion unearthing surcharge. This reviewer will not be returning, at least not until another business is established there. Judging by recent experience that may not be long.

Lee Friedlander
Family in the Picture 1958-2013

The Friedlander juggernaut rolls on with yet another photobook of old favorites. How many has he published in the past decade? I've lost track. His publication history is like a game of Battleship. There've been some hits, some misses, and a few large tankers plunging to the bottom. Family In The Picture may be a tanker of a book, but it's got the goods. This is the best Friedlander book since the Galassi retrospective (was that merely 6 or 7 books ago?).

Basically FITP is a chronological record of family photos by (and sometimes of) Lee Friedlander and his family. He's never been one to hide personal moments. For such a private photographer (he rarely gives interviews) he has been very open with family shots. They've been published before in various places, but never in such volume and in one all-encompassing book. Friedlander die hards will find some familiar photos here. But I'd guess at least half the material is previously unpublished.  

We see Lee's history through his eyes, from very early photos of Maria, through parenthood, weddings, deaths, grandkids, and other major (and sometimes minor) life events. There are pictures of Erik and Anna from childhood to the present, and various photo luminaries like Thomas Roma, Garry Winogrand, John Szarkowski make regular appearances. Just another day in the life of Friedlander. Actually it's just another day in the life of anyone. You'd find similar material in any old family scrapbook, but not executed with such skill and wit. 

Charlie Rubin
Strange Paradise

Conveyor Editions continues to innovate with the book form. Coming on the heels of last year's Wildlife Analysis, which had no definitive page sequence, Charlie Rubin's Strange Paradise explores more raw territory. A melting titled cloth cover opens onto end pages embossed with what looks like a Colonial tin ceiling. Then come the party favors in an old drug-store envelope. And a blue poem. The sheer physicality is touching. By the time several photos have come along, the reader's head is spinning. Wha...? 

Unfortunately the material doesn't keep pace with the design. The photos are weird, sure. But are they more? Roe Ethridge, are you out there? Maybe you know? Appropriated material mixes seamlessly with Rubin's photos, off-color scanning accidents, and other visual flotsam. A shopping bag? A torn stub? The variety of size, layout, and cropping is dazzling, but ultimately feckless. I for one can't tell what the fuck this books is about. But maybe that's the point. To be fair I haven't yet browsed it stoned or on shrooms. I suspect with those aids the content could clarify. Maybe at that point strange can be paradise. But from where I'm sitting now it's not.

Agustin V. Casasola
(Photo Poche Monograph)

Why oh why did the Photo Poche series have to end?* Published in the 1980s and 90s by the Centre National De La Photographie in France, they remain some of the best guides to historically important photographers. The editing and photo reproductions were excellent. They were small and could tuck into a jacket poche at a boring party. Why, you could fit an entire photo library of conveniently numbered Photo Poches into a small closet. Who cared if the text was in some foreign language. French or something? When it comes to paroles mystérieuses, a picture is worth 100,000. These books were gems, which is why they still command very high prices on the used market.

If it weren't for Photo Poche I'd never have discovered the Mexican press photographer Agustin Victor Casasola. As far as I can tell Photo Poche 52 is the only book about him. That's a huge oversight, because this guy was dynamite. I'd put him in the same class as Weegee in terms of both skill and style. He was basically a photojournalist and on location portraitist, but with an uncanny eye for odd details, off moments, and vice. I'm guessing Enrique Metinides must've known and been influenced by Casasola's work, but until recently I had no clue. But that's part of what makes book browsing fun. You kick a hundred dirt piles and you never know when a little gold dust will surface.

*See Comments


China Plate said...

Photo Poche didn't end. They have just published one on BRUCE GILDEN! I have the Tom Arndt book too and I love it.

Blake Andrews said...

Good news. I hadn't seen any new ones in a long while but I guess it's just my local bookstores being lame. Or maybe it's that I'm in America and you're in Europe closer to the source.

JG said...

I paid $5 for my used copy of Men in America, not $3, but I agree with your comments about it word for word. It's a wonderful book!