Tharoul is a small village in Belgium, in the province of Condroz. It's deep Belgium, a rural area full of wheat, swedes and cows. There are not too many big towns in Condroz, but lots of small hamlets and villages filled with cottages, farmhouses, churches and chateaus that, at their oldest, date back to Norman and pre-millenium times.
I went there for three days last week. I was part of a project called Three Days in Tharoul (watch the video here). It's a creative project masterminded by Fabrice Wagner that takes place in a beautiful 18th century farmhouse owned by Philippe Malcorps. It's a beautiful farmhouse in which the minimal, austere 18th century features have been given an overlay of 21st century comfort.
For Three Days in Tharoul, Fabrice invites a photographer, a writer, a bookmaker and others to the house. Last year the photographer was Pino Musi and the writer was Remi Coignet. This year I was the writer, the photographer was Paul Gaffney, the bookmaker was Pierre Liebaert, and the delightful Jacky Lecouturier did the printing.
The central idea is that you have three days to make a book, that you collaborate together on, you produce one book that will become part of the house, that will add to the layers of history upon which it is built and create different perspectives of the house, the people, the land. It's a kind of architecture in which the spirit of creativity revitalises a place, gives it energy and life. It's a beautiful idea. It's not really about the book at all. It's about the spirit of togetherness, about creation. It's a pagan ideal. You felt it there.
And it fits perfectly because when you visit Philippe's house in Tharoul that pagan sense of place is ever present. Paul Gaffney was the perfect photographer for the project this year because nobody has that sense of being and place quite like he does. He is unique. I followed him around the fields and the forests around the farm, talked to him about philosophy, photography and life as he shot and felt the instincts taking shape.
It was a challenging situation to work in; Three Days in Tharoul for Paul really meant One Day in Tharoul. He did a couple of shoots, started an edit, did a couple more, did another edit and then did a final one and continued to edit as Fabrice put together the book for printing. The book evolved.
As Paul shot, I wrote. As I wrote, Philippe spoke to Paul and created a signature stamp (made in his forge - a beautiful touch) that would form a central motif to mark on the book. And as Philippe made his stamp, Pierre and Fabrice spoke to Paul and they planned out the mechanics of the book; the paper, the cover, the design. We all chipped in and an energy came to life, a story emerged.
And in between, the flames roared in the incredible fire place, the finest wines available to humanity were brought out of the cellar, there was Belgian beer and an endless supply of meat with an accompaniment of deep classical music both recorded and live via Philippe's incredible hurdy-gurdy (no, I didn't know either) performances. In the kitchen he played for me for 15 minutes. He could have played for 2 hours. I was transported.
It was hard work and challenging with troubles along the way, but somehow all came out good in the end. We made a book. Just one book, a precious beautifully-made book that we all watched Pierre painstakingly create. It was a remarkable fetish. We opened the book at the end of the three days, on the Saturday night before we left Tharoul.
The book stays in Tharoul and becomes part of a place. It was made in a location and it stays in that location. It adds to the embryonic library that was started the previous year, a collection that will build up year on year. It's a mix of slow photography, fast photography and creative dynamism merged with a specific idea of place and very special people; people who were gentle, generous, thoughtful, sensitive and creative. I think the book might be a bit precious in some ways, but I'm happy that it was precious, that there was a huge sense of occasion to its creation.
Last year's book (left) and this year's book (right) from Three Days in Tharoul
It was precious but really the book is only a very small part of that. The book crystallizes all that came before; it was the creation that mattered, the Three Days in Tharoul that enriched and enlivened everyone who was there. Three Days that I will never forget as long as I live.
There were loads of great photobooks from Ireland last year. Here are my top three Irish books. Eamonn Doyle's i isn't in my top 10 because it looked even better on a wall at Paris Photo. But it's a great book with great, simple pictures that work so well together. Maybe it should be on my list, maybe I made a mistake? I wrote a review of it here.
picture by Ken Grant
I'm not sure why Ken Grant's book No Pain Whatsoever isn't on my list either and I know, he's not Irish, but he works in Ireland so that counts for the purposes of this post only. No Pain Whatsoever is defining portraiture of a city that hasn't been photographed as much as it should have. Grant's pictures are made from the heart, both his own and that of the communities where he made the pictures and that he lived in and it shows in pictures that have roots that go down into the Liverpool soil. Here's my review of it.
And finally a rather neglected book from the year, Kevin Griffin's Omey: Last Man Standing, the story of a former stuntman who is the last remaining resident of Omey Island. I really should have had this on my list too but didn't. I'm not sure why. It's a gorgeous book which is warm and personal with a huge sense of place. Read more here.
And Photo Eye, will have its list up later this month. I love lists but gosh, they do get obscurer by the year. There are small editions, handmade books, random books, gimmick books, books with words, books without words...
It's hard to keep track of it all at times. There are so many great looking books that most people never get to see, so for reviewers the listing becomes a very personal issue that connects to whether they favour poetic, emotional, intellectual, narrative or visual approaches. Or all of them.
Strangely enough there aren't that many books that get on the list that meet the visual impact criteria, that have a visual feast of images that reaches out and goes beyond photography to find a wider audience. You know these books when you show them to a non-photographic audience and they still have their noses in it thirty minutes later and they've pulled in a bunch of other people who are all struggling to have a look. There's one that really hits that spot this year that'll be on my Photoeye list. It's quite amazing that you can show it to people who are not 'interested' in photography and five minutes later they will have their heads up close searching right into the detail of every picture.
Emotion draws people in too, as does the ability to tell a story or make a point directly, to create empathy with the viewer, to make them go deeper into the world beyond the image to the people and places whose ghostly representations inhabit the photobook world.
Ultimately thought, there is something arbitrary about the choices we make. They go with our particular mood at a time, they are shaped by what we have seen recently - publish a book in March and you kind of get forgotten. This year there were so many great books that packed a punch in one way or another. So as the blog is coming to the end of it's winter run, I thought I could include these in my final year round up, a best of list. Another one. Why not?
So first up is Best Souvenir Shopping of 2014. I just took part in the wonderful Three Days in Tharoul workshop in Belgium (more of which later). If you're foreign like me (I'm a Hidden Migrant) and you come to England you might go home with a Big Ben statue, a Beatles t-shirt and a box of shortbread. Which is pretty good by anyone's reckoning.
Go to Belgium and what do you get? Beer, chocolate and Tintin. So the Best Stereotypical Gift Award of 2014 goes to Belgium!
I saw the 1927 silent classic, The Wind at the weekend. It was showing as part of the Bath Film Festival and came with a wonderful live accompaniment by Lola Perrin. It was tremendously intense, the piano carrying us through the screen into the faces of the characters; the troubed Letty, the heartbroken Lige and the predatory Wirt. There was such momentum in the playing that it made it a real journey into the desperate heart of Letty who was played by Lillian Gish.
In Bath, we don't often get the chance to see silent classics on the big screen (maybe the Bath Film Festival is the only time), so this was a real treat, especially with the fantastic score. What was also noticeable was how strong the female character was. Or maybe strong isn't the right word. She had a personality, let's put it that way.
The film essentially tells the story of Letty's departure from Virginia to forge a new life, to find love and fulfilment in the windswept badlands of the prairies. But instead of love, she comes up against hardship, jealousy and cruelty, with the maddening howl of the prairie wind the only accompaniment.
So Letty is going mad with the wind and she's going mad in her love life. The man she thinks she loves, Wirt, proves to be a scoundrel who is married. She is hearbroken and disappointed. When she is forced out of the home she is living in, she marries another man, Lige, out of desperation. Lige is truly in love with her. But she is not in love with him, as he finds out on their wedding night. When his love is unquenched, he is disappointed but honourable. He pledges that he will save her,that her happiness is his only wish.
And so he goes off to earn her ticket home. Letty is left to her own devices, and feels herself going mad with the howl of the wind. She is alone, but then the rapacious Wirt finds and violates her. In the morning she kills him and buries her body in the shifting sands of the prairies.
I won't give away the ending. At the Bath Film Festival, the projector broke just before the climax. But instead of seeing the Hollywood ending, Lola Perrin the pianist explained told us the ending that Lillan Gish had campaigned for - the one that belonged to the original novel, the ending where Letty walks out of the house into the howling wind, ending her life on her own terms, beholden to no man, able to be herself at last to confront her own mortality.
It was the right ending, the one that doesn't pull any punches, in which the woman determines her own destiny. Sadly, Gish was over-ruled by some Hollywood no-nothings and we got a different ending. Still great but Letty comes over as very much less independent.
Funnily enough, I saw another film about a woman lost in a wilderness at the weekend. Yes, it's Gravity. But here, the protagonist Ryan is a lily-livered soul who owes her life to Matt (played by George Clooney). Oh, what a sad apology of a character Ryan is. Her personality revolves around the MacGuffin of her dead daughter (continuing in the Bambi tradition: a dead male would have been too heartbreaking) and she is limited in all kinds of ways, including the spiritual. There is even a line where she moans that she can't pray, because she was never taught to pray, as if God had anything to do with it. This is from my wife's scathing review:
Gravity is an inherently conservative, conventional Hollywood film dressed up as cutting edge. Personally, I feel insulted by that. It's like being promised Beef Wellington, then being given a sausage roll instead. The effects may be spectacular, but character and story-wise it feels like we've gone back in time. Ryan is no Ripley: she is a rather dull heroine who never seems to move beyond an emotional monotone: fear and lack of confidence. She is a vehicle for the plot, a body in a spacesuit. Personally, I didn't really care whether she made it or not.
So there we have it: female characterisation 1927 v female characterisation 2013. Lillian Gish monsters Sandra Bullock and George Clooney should just be embarrassed the dimensions he's plunging too.
So I was wondering about women in photobooks and it brought me back to Anne de Gelas. Rob Hornstra does a thing on photobooks, the madness of the end-of-year lists (I love them!) and how to get on them. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek but alot of it looks like good advice to me. I'm not sure it's entirely meant to be.
picture by Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi
One of the things he talks about is the most neglected photobook.
Anne de Gelas's L'Amoureuse is my most neglected photobook. It's a story of grief where the message is never diluted, where the determination of a grief-stricken destiny is the absolute core of the boom. Very often, photography is used to dilute a message.People remove the story in the name of mystery, ethics or a skewed sense of balance. l'Amoureuse doesn't do this. It has the courage of its convictions.
The basic message sets the tone:
'There is a never a right way to tell a child about the death of his father.'
This is from the book:
T., my lover and father of my son, died on April 5, 2010 of a brain stroke. He fell beside us on a beach at the North Sea. The violence of his death put me in front of a big void…a silence that echoed in my head only equal to the brightness of the blue sky which no planes crossed because of the ashes of a volcano in anger, my anger. To face that loss, I plunged myself into the work that I had started more than 10 years ago consisting in writing a personal diary, now focussing on telling about my suffering but also about that surplus energy that burst within me.
It's a story about family, childhood and being a woman who is suddenly plunged into a morass of solitude. How does that feel for you, for your family, for your future. What are the little things that will be missed, the little things that make a father and lover irreplaceable in a family's life. It is also about physical and emotional love, and what it means to have that ripped away from you. What it means as a woman. There's a confrontation with both the immediacy of that loneliness, but also the wider void that threatens. L'Amoureuse doesn't have a happy ending, because there's no happy ending to be had, but there is a resolution in the sense that life shifts, love changes and new beings are born out of tragedy.
So it's a book with a real character with a real life and all-too real problems. But then I wonder. It might not be that the book is neglected. I don't think it is. It's simply the fact that it is only in French and it's not that neglected in French-speaking land. I wonder how it would be 'neglected' if it were in English as well.
Maybe I should ask, why don't you do an English version.
Two of the books go with quick-fire projects, at least one of which is essentially photographic slapstick, and they carry those projects forward into different territory through ideas borrowed from the artist's book world (in the craft sense)
But the gimmick works with longer projects as well, tying the short term to the long term and visualing that connection as in everything will be ok.
The great thing is all the gimmicks work completely with the concept of the book. Does that stop them being gimmicks? Heck no!
But just because something is a gimmick doesn't mean it's a bad thing. It would be a joyless world if that were the case.
But then if those designs go with the content and retain a freshness about them, why not. Despite everything there is still room for some instant, smart-alec mischief making that works in the short-term. It doesn't all have to be anguish and agony!