Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eight short reviews and a personal discovery

My last few weeks have been particularly dense with photos books. Here are some favorites that I've either purchased or borrowed from U of O library, and one that I didn't.

I never thought a book of barn animal photos would grab me the way Alessandra Sanguinetti's On the Sixth Day has. This book is gorgeous, from the production/design by Nazraeli to the photos themselves. Shooting 6x6 usually with limited depth of field, Sangunetti finds small life-cycle dioramas all across the farm. Her timing and framing betray her Magnum/street influence, and the colors seem richer than you'd find on a gallery wall.

Richard Billingham's Ray's A Laugh might seem at first to be rather cruel. The photos document Billingham's parents. His father is a drunk and his mother is not typically photogenic. Many photos show them having arguments or hungover, not the sort of photo you'd normally broadcast to the world. But the more I look at this book the more I like it. Not only is it like reading a deeply personal memoir but the photos integrate well to complete a detailed story. Each one gives a little nugget of insight into a strangely compelling life. The intimacy of these photos is on a par with Nan Goldin, if she substituted a bottle in place of libido.

Robb Kendrick's Still is a massive project. Kendrick spent years roaming the west making tintypes of cowboys, the best of which are compiled in this book. Many of these portraits are stunning. Kendrick has a gift for capturing honest expression, and in keeping with that the tintypes are honestly reproduced with all their scratches, stains, and emulsion foibles. Between every several photos is a cowboy monologue describing life on the range. What comes through most strongly in the photos and monologues is how deeply satisified these cowboys are. Unlike probably 80% of society, they've found their calling living a 19th century life in the 21st century. They're downright happy. Oh yeah, and they never go outside hatless.

Probably the most famous book published this century, Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi needs no introduction. Unfortunately this title has been in and out of print the past few years making it very difficult to pin down, so when the third edition came along I figured I'd take advantage and buy it. Soth seems to have spawned a whole cottage industry of social landscapes interspersed with intimate portraits that seems to be the rage now in some circles. Unfortunately the combination of such disparate subject matter can be jarring in the wrong hands. Which makes Soth's work that much more powerful. Somehow Soth makes it work quite well. Something in the editing and sequencing is deeply evocative. I'm still trying to figure out what it is, and perhaps the best thing about it is that its power is mysterious and dreamy, helped along by photo after photo of beds and reclining figures.

Ken Ohara's With is one of those titles I stumbled on by accident at Powell's. We started out as strangers, but wound up going home together. Ohara exposes one-hour portraits using an 8 x 10 camera. Since no one can sit still for that long the effect is of blurred and soggy people set in front of sharp backgrounds. This sounds gimmicky, but it actually works. Not only does each photo seem to capture the ghostly essence of the person involved, but the portraits are remarkably varied with different backgrounds, perspectives, and photographic ideas. For me the most arresting part of a portrait is usually the eyes. Some of the eyes in these photos are completely melted away, leaving the viewer to guess at the person based on body shape and surroundings. Many show white light trails where the eyes have moved during the hour, an effect which seems halfway between living and dead. And in fact that's the overall effect of these portraits. They seem to skip over the material world going straight for the aura.

Martin Parr's Small World is another title that was difficult to find before its recent rerelease. This book seems to be the link which joins Parr's early figures-in-the-right-spot street style and his later in-your-face ringflash style of Mexico. As someone who much prefers the earlier style, this book has enough of it to satisfy. It's cynical. It makes fun of innocents. But hey, that's Parr for the course (sorry, couldn't resist). Now if only some publisher would reprint Bad Weather!

Taking its name from the land of Faulkner, Alain Desvergnes' Yoknapatawpha is a beautiful book of black and white images of southern culture. The reproductions are small, barely larger than the 6x6 negatives. They feel intimate, like a scrapbook. Desvergnes has a great eye, whether capturing the industrial vernacular or barber shops and beauty pageants. Yeah, it's subject matter we've seen a thousand times, but this time with a soft enough touch to stand out.

Lastly, Peter Fraser's Nazraeli monograph is a book I pondered over for a long while before finally deciding not to buy it. Some of that was the price (discounted, but still $45) and condition (big stain across the cover) but in the end I just couldn't embrace Fraser's photography the way it needed me to. Fraser's thing is the everyday and close-at-hand. A glass on the floor. A dirt pile amidst some weeds. The stuff we walk by every day Fraser gets down to peer and flash. He's got a great eye and a wonderful way of sequencing. Browsing the book is like a gymnastic workout for the brain, bouncing here and there without any idea what's next. But in the end I just couldn't summon the enthusiasm for such ephemeral detritus. What was my connection to any of it, and what was Fraser's? It seemed just photographs for the sake of photographs. Normally this is right up my alley. But..., perhaps my tastes are shifting and this book showed me how...

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