Thursday, November 6, 2014

Blue Sky Books

When I first heard about the new Blue Sky Books program it seemed almost too good to be true. Not only were there dozens of titles by some great photographers, but the books were very reasonably priced. Every title is an open edition printed on demand by Magcloud. If you enjoy racing to buy limited first editions before other collectors, these ain't for you. These are cheap and indefinitely accessible. The thinnest books are $10 while some of the larger ones, running 90+ images, fetch maybe $25. If you've purchased photobooks lately you know that's a relative bargain. 

But the biggest draw is the photographers. I was familiar with many from past Blue Sky shows, and some were new to me. And I liked just about all of them, but of the whole lot (37 photographers) I owned just two books. That's because until now few of these photographers had published monographs, and even fewer were still in print. The Blue Sky shows went up, they came down, and a few months later my memory began to fade. That's where books can help.

Well, here they were in permanent ink. It seemed like a good opportunity, so late one October night in a moment of weakness I wound up ordering seven. They came last week and I'm pleasantly surprised. The Magcloud print quality is pretty darned good. It's not up to Steidl or Mack standards, mind you, but it's comparable to National Geographic or The New Yorker

Maybe I should back up a minute to say that Blue Sky Books aren't exactly books. They more closely resemble a sturdy photo journal like Aperture or Blindspot. The cover is stiff and would probably repel a light spill, but it's not a true book binding. The interior pages are thin and glossy. There are no visual fireworks, not even a spine caption. So the word "books" is perhaps a misnomer. But Blue Sky Books sounds better than Blue Sky Magazines, so I understand the marketing strategy.

The other way they're not books is in the production and editing. The word "photobook" nowadays has come to mean so much more than just a collection of images bound in a book. Emphasis is placed on the design, sequencing, materials, references to tradition and to other books, combination of forms, the works. Many photobooks are collectible art pieces in their own right. The cart pulls the horse, and the actual photographs —the process of going out into the world to record what's there– almost seem like an afterthought. 

Not so with Blue Sky Books. No, these titles are quite plain. Most follow the same formula, with one photo after another printed at uniform size, captioned along the bottom. If the sequences feel a bit like walking along a gallery wall, it's because each of these books are taken directly from Blue Sky exhibitions. The Blue Sky books don't exactly replace the gallery experience, but they're the next best thing if you didn't make the original show, or if you want a nice souvenir to remember it by. Souvenir. Does that word sound tacky? Does it sound a million miles away from fine art publishing? Well, maybe at least once in a while, it's nice to see a book like this with no pretention beyond the simple goal of showing kick-ass photos. No collectibility, no year-end list, just pictures for the sake of pictures.

Here's the 8 I have so far (7 bought plus a freebie). There's not a bad one in the bunch. My purchasing bias here is pretty evident. I tend to like photographers who pull directly from reality without too much preconceptual or postproduction influence. That's generally also true of Blue Sky, but not always. So we're a good match. Maybe you are too? If so, take the plunge and buy a few.

I got Julie Mihaly's The View From Here mostly out of curiosity, because I'm a recovering Diana addict and I don't see a lot of Diana work in print. The Instagram revolution seems to have swept it aside, and Holga before that, leaving us with Rexroth, Blakemore, a Friends of Photography compilation, and that's about it. But at one point in the 1970s Diana was the plastic art camera of choice. Begun during the Diana heyday, this series showed at Blue Sky in 1982, then continued until 2006. The work here is inconsistent, with a few clunkers to go along with many nicely seen pix. A tighter edit would've helped. But if you've got the Diana jones —One word: Plastics— this book is a must.

Ken Graves and Eva Lipman's Proms approaches the bewitching high school ritual with a sly street sensibility. The photos use direct flash to catch kids in odd juxtapositions and expressions, with the harsh glare of monochrome mixing layers to add confusion. Fans of Public Relations or Billy Monk will dig this. I have no idea how the couple got access. The series was exhibited in 1993 and probably shot during the 1980s when people were less squeamish about kids and cameras. I think it would be very difficult for an outsider to shoot this style of voyeuristic candid photography during proms now.

Bill McCullough's Technicolor Life is well named. This project has a very unusual color palette which falls somewhere between 1960s TV and recent hypersaturated digital. I'm not sure what's going on but the moments are great. McCullough shot them all during private event assignments but they appear to be out-takes with no practical application. Combining a street photographer's sense of timing and chopped framing with a commercial photographer's mastery of lighting and intimate access, McCullough creates Mise-en-scènes so perfectly quirky they look montaged. Who knows how he made them. I'm not going to pry too deeply. I'll take him at his word. Good stuff.

For someone with big accomplishments under her belt, Mary Frey continues to fly under the radar. Domestic Rituals is the only book I've seen by her and that's a shame. These photos are wonderful. Bang-Bang-Bang perfect moments which take their cue from the 1970s street scene. Imagine Henry Wessel combined with Michael Jang, twisted by an offbeat sense of humor. It's the full package. 

I've been a fan of Karl Baden's for a while. Contact Sheet 106 is amazing, as is his Covering Photography site. Both show evidence of a playful iconoclast at work. Sex, Death, and the History of Photography, which bounced around on Facebook last year, does the same. Now it appears in print form, collected in Work from Two Bodies. But the real hit here is the second body in question, Cliche-Verre and Shadow Pictures. This odd series doesn't look like much at first, until you realize the level of precise detail involved in the process. Painting on negatives! Who does that? It's an homage to photo history, an exploration of Pre-Photoshop possibilities, and visual pranks which recall Magritte. I'm a sucker for photographer interviews, and this issue comes with a nice long Q & A discussing Baden's process.

Mary Berridge's On The Eve may be my favorite book in the series. Her photographs of Post-Soviet Russia on the brink of Putin's hammer show a country adrift, free, and full of photographic potential. It's Hornstra meets Keizo, but more finely tuned than either, with Martin Kollar's sense of precision. Photographically Mary Berridge nails it, and the sequencing is also fine. Of all the Blue Sky books I've seen this one is probably most similar to the contemporary book spirit. The editing is loose and dreamy, narrative without being predictable. By the end you feel you've visited 1990s Russia.

Ford Gilbreath is another old favorite. He self-published one monograph in the early 1980s combining street photos, hand painting, infrared, panoramics, and just about everything else you're not supposed to do nowadays. It was one of the first photobooks I ever bought and I was an immediate fan. 1997-2012 collects some of his more recent experiments, including nighttime marsh scenes shot from an aquarium tank, outdoor flatscans, stereoscopic views (with no viewer, sadly), and vertical slit composites with a homemade 8 x 10. In lesser hands these might feel gimmicky. But Gilbreath instead gives the sense of a free spirit following his muse, with complete disregard for convention or outside opinion.

Full disclosure: I can't report impartially on M. Bruce Hall's Promised Land. Not only is Bruce a friend but I wrote the afterword. So there's that. But even if I'd stumbled on this book out of the blue it would win me over. If your mental image of Los Angeles is movie stars, liposuction, and sports cars, these photos will bust your myth. Bruce's B/W photos of 1980s downtown L.A. build a dark, gritty world of deferred promise. He spent 10 years shooting photos, then showed them to very few people before they were first exhibited at Blue Sky in 2007. Then they were lost to history for a while more —Bruce has no website and he may have moved to Mexico by now— before this publication rescued them for posterity. If you like classic street photography, buying this is a no brainer. 


Anonymous said...

This is why your blog is one of only 2 photography blogs that I visit daily; it's a portal into little corners of the world I would otherwise have never known about. I'm picking up at least 3 of these for myself and am pretty sure "On The Eve" will be my favorite. I also wanted to thank you for introducing me to Missy Prince. I have a little stack of her work prints now and have at least one of her large prints on my short list to buy.

Keep up the great work on the blog. I'm not sure why you don't have 100 comments on each of your posts, except that there must be many readers like me who lurk and never post. It's too bad that reader reactions don't automatically get transmitted through the ether to your end of things...


Hernan Zenteno said...

I am shocked specially by the proms book of Ken Graves and Eva Lipman, the colourful moments of Bill Mc Collough and the work of Mary Frey. Many thanks for share this discoveries.

Stan B. said...

Damn good books for damn cheap- gonna get me some!!!

Anonymous said...

Very persuasive of you, Sir! I bought three. "Proms" is great. (In the comparisons, you could have mentioned Larry Fink as well.) I like the two others as well but I haven't yet made up my mind about them. I didn't get "The View from Here" so can't comment on that; but as a Diana fan, you might enjoy Eric Lindbloom's "Angels at the Arno" (Godine, 1994). It's not "street" at all, but it does well what it sets out to do. Cheap used copies are easy to find.

Anonymous said...

Very persuasive of you, Sir! I bought three. "Proms" is great. (In the comparisons, you could have mentioned Larry Fink as well.) I like the two others as well but I haven't yet made up my mind about them. I didn't get "The View from Here" so can't comment on that; but as a Diana fan, you might enjoy Eric Lindbloom's "Angels at the Arno" (Godine, 1994). It's not "street" at all, but it does well what it sets out to do. Cheap used copies are easy to find.