Sunday, September 27, 2015

Summer Reading

Alejandro Cartagena, Before The War (Self Published, 2015)

Alejandro Cartagena continues to push into experimental territory while keeping one foot firmly planted south of the border. Before The War features monochrome images of the Mexican drug war and its aftermath. The photos are mildly interesting but the real adventure is in the presentation, a series of newsprint leaflets stapled, stacked, and folded like Matryoshka dolls into a rough approximation of a zine. Warning: Don't throw out the cardboard mailer. It's not only integral. It includes the only explanatory text.

David Solomons, Up West (Bump Books, 2015)

Up West collects more than a decade's work by David Solomons prowling the streets of West London. Solomons has a strong eye for odd detail, private moments, and the open possibilities of public interactions. He's developed a quieter, more deliberate style since Happenstance and Underground, but it's the production quality which has made the big leap forward. Solomons had the book printed in Italy last June under his own Bump Books label, and pulled out all the stops with hardback linen cover, nice paper, and strong design.  Many of the photos have a slightly muted colorcast which roots them in the film era before hyper-saturation became the norm. 

Anonymous, Dear Martin (Ampersand, 2015)

Combining selfie, anonymity, and everyday exhibitionism, Dear Martin sits at the nexus of several current trends. That this particular typology is archaic and has no clear purpose makes even more buzzworthy. Then again, they could be just a flea market accident. Why these photos were made or who made them is never clearly explained. Somehow they wound up in the collection of Jason Brinkerhoff, who published this selection in conjunction with Myles Hasselorst and Ampersand Books. The photos don't vary much. They're chronologically sequenced, with date stamps. Each one shows a thickset man on a rooftop in skintight briefs, preening his package for the camera. Were they for a friend? A lover? An assignment? Who knows. 

Humble Arts Foundation, The Collector's Guide To Emerging Art Photography (HAF, 2008)

In my book, any art curation organized as a "Collector's Guide" is open to mockery —as for "Emerging", let's not even go there— and indeed I made fun of this when it first came out. But seven years later it's aged into an increasingly interesting artifact.  Just as for anyone, the particular fate of any individual photographer is as random as a leaf in the wind, and fascinating to track. Some of the featured photographers went on to stardom. Some fell off the map entirely. Any book that attempts to capture the zeitgeist (Mossless United States 2003-2013, anyone?) will show age wrinkles eventually, and potentially foresight. Both aspects intrigue in this case to create a dandy reference guide. The solid glossy production and clean wide pages are a nice bonus. I suppose it was inevitable that copies would surface eventually in the used stacks alongside the various car buying and baseball card guides of yesteryear. I found one cheap at Powell's a few weeks back and took the plunge. 

Siegfried Hansen, Hold The Line (Verlag Kettler, 2015)

If you like your street photography bold and geometric, Siegried Hansen is your man. His formal Germanic style and nose for graphic juxtapositions has been carefully honed for Hold The Line, his first monograph and a brief retrospective of sorts. The few people in his oeuvre have been mostly weeded out, leaving color fields, lines, and shadow. The book's layout enhances the graphic nature of Hansen's photos, occasionally interspersing them with blank pages of construction paper color carefully chosen to balance the photos. The panchromatic images hit all parts of the spectrum, but manage to leave a monochrome residue in the mind.

Sally Mann, Hold Still (Little, Brown, and Co., 2015)

After reading Mann's New York Times excerpt last spring I was really looking forward to this memoir. Unfortunately I could get through it. Didn't even make it to the photo stories. Oh well. Mann writes like a Nineteenth Century Victorian, very stiff, regal, and removed. After only a few chapters I dropped it for the Philip Glass bio. I guess I prefer my aw-shucks art star humility couched in Buddhist wandering rather than landed gentry. That's not necessarily an indictment of Mann. But it recast her photos for me in a new light. Whereas before they seemed playful and full of unbridled energy, afterward I noticed their formal qualities: 8 x 10, carefully framed and lit, and always on-message.

Andrew Phelps, cubic feet/sec. (Fotohof, 2015)

In a world dense with impersonal concept projects, Andrew Phelps hits paydirt with this small book of childhood memories edited from nine Grand Canyon trips over a four decade span. The photos —casual travel snaps— were shot by Andrew and his father, then filtered through shoeboxes and slideshows before recently being shoehorned by Phelps into book form. The layout, cropping, and subjects flow here and there, sometimes eddying out, sometimes barreling forward down whichever chute fits. The journey is the destination. Rarely has the Colorado looked so inviting. 

John Turner and Deborah Klochko, Create And Be Recognized (Chronicle Books, 2004)

Outsider art is an accepted niche in music and painting, but in photography the field is relatively undeveloped. This is the most comprehensive survey I've seen. The book has its limitations —it's more of a coffee table flip-through than a serious study— but I'll take what I can get, because it's basically the only thing out there. It contains several nice essays and 16 case studies of  brilliant whacko photographers with no chance or interest in connecting to the art scene. This book is a good gentle reminder that critical attention and creative strength sometimes exist on parallel paths. Brush up on Euclidian geometry to see what usually happens.

Sol Neelman, Weird Sports (Kehrer Verlag, 2011)

This book had me at the word "Weird". Plus I've got a soft spot for anyone who describes himself as a "failed pro wrestler turned sports photographer." And if the project combines eccentric endeavors with sharp candid shooting, I'm powerless to resist. But aside from all preconditions this book is impressive. In the hands of a lesser photographer it could've fallen flat, a soft collection of magazine wannabe-edginess. Instead the photos are damned good. Neelman has a nose for bizarre scenes, and the ability to weed to the core. The sequel Weird Sports 2 is now out but I haven't yet seen it.

Various, TIS 101, (TIS Books, 2015)

One of the perks of creating a publisher is you can put your own photos in a book if you want. Then you get to see for yourself how the sausage is made. That's the path of TIS. Their first four minititles feature photos from the founders, with one each from Carl Wooley, J. Carrier, Tim Carpenter, and Nelson Chan. Each one takes a unique approach photographically but the design is uniform —small blue chapbooks— and they work well as a set, so I'm going to lump them together. These were printed digitally, and presumably publishing kinks worked out, before the Steven B. Smith monograph Waiting Out The Latter Days hit the shelves shortly after. That book is much better production wise. These are earlier efforts, but interesting on their own terms.

Sara J. Winston, Homesick; Jenny Riffle, Scavenger (Zatara Press, 2015)

Two recent titles by upstart publisher Zatara Press. Homesick shows domestic scenes. Scavenger follows a seeker on his gleaning rounds. I'm probably not the target audience for these books but I'll comment anyway. They both left me a little cold. I'm not sure what it is. The projects are well conceived. The photographs are competent, maybe even good. They're certainly popular (Scavenger was exhibited recently at Newspace in Portland). But there's a product design element to both efforts which I can't quite penetrate. They seem like photo-review-appeal vehicles. If they were music they'd be Arcade Fire or Animal Collective or something hip and slightly offputting. Oh well. I'm not the target audience for those bands either. 

Jake Shivery, Contact (One Twelve Publishing, 2015)

A collection of portraits from the several hundred which Shivery has made in and around Portland over the past decade. Jake is a local character, and so are the folks in his photos. The quirks tend to dominate the everyday aspect, although there are elements of both throughout. This book is somewhat unusual in that it features a few rambling essays by Jake about his photography and working process. They're a little on the long side, but still I wish more monographs included material like this. My only gripe is that the printing is very flat. The blacks are not black —not even close. But it's the first effort from One Twelve, so a few unresolved issues might be allowed.