Monday, 6 January 2014

Top books of 2013 and Klaus Pichler's One Third

Happy New Year. Out with the old, in with the old. Here's my best book list from 2013 as it appeared in Photo Eye. 

Douglas Stockdale says that because he doesn't get to see everything that is around, his list isn't so much a best book list as a list of interesting books. I'd go along with that for my list which has some of the familiar big hitters mixed in with some more esoteric publications. There are some I would have had in but hadn't seen at the time and some that I thought were published in 2012 but that other people have in there (Max Pinckers' Fourth Wall).

Right in there is Klaus Pichler's One Third which is the book of one of my very favourite projects, one that resonates with people and will stand the test of a few year's of time.

Have a look inside the book here. 

Buy the book here.

I didn't really like One Third the first time I saw it because of the black but it has grown on me over the last year - a bit like the fungus that grows on the rotten food that features in Pichler's photographs. Decay is a common theme in photography - flowers, food, animals, people - but Pichler does it beautifully and with humour too.

The book is small but perfectly formed with a little receipt tagged onto it. It's quite subdued in a way which is makes the pictures stand out even more than if it was a full gloss coffee table number. One Third wasn't an easy project to make; it was very smelly over a long period of time and caused countless technical problems. And because the pictures are so spectacular, it's easy to forget that a lot of additional research went into the project; research that makes One Third about food waste and food miles rather than simply about the aesthetics of decaying food.

So it was a difficult project to make. Which makes me wonder if any photography worth its chemical salt was ever easy. Any suggestions? I thought of Krass Clement's Drum which was shot over a night in a pub on few rolls of film with a few pints of guiness to make the camera's click easier - but then I look at the pictures and wonder at the pictures in all their perfection and think that no it's not easy. Not everybody could have done that.

So there's a question. Can good photography ever be easy?

I interviewed Klaus about One Third for the BJP's Still Life edition back in May, 2013, so here's the text to provide some background to Pichler's project.

Unfresh Fruit and Rotting Vegetables

In Middle Class Utopia, Klaus Pichler showed how the people of Vienna transformed their allotments into private, protected areas. In is follow-up project, One Third, he takes a sideways look at how we treat our food and what we allow to happen to it, in particular that one third of food that goes to waste every year.
“It was a spontaneous decision to do One Third,” says Pichler. “It started after I read a newspaper article that showed the food waste in all the first, second and third world countries and I was shocked to read the results. They found that one third of all food was going to waste. I expected that in 1st world countries, but that was true no matter what the economic status of the country. In the third world it was going to waste because of failures of harvesting and distribution and in the first world it was going to waste because of consumption and food waste.”

“I was really shocked and almost immediately decided to do a project on in. I stopped all my other projects and spent the next 2 months preparing to start the project. Then in April 2011, I started to experiment.” Central to this experimentation was the idea of showing food going to waste and for Pichler that meant he had to photograph rotten food. “At first I tried to experiment with Hipstamatic pictures because so many people photograph food with their cameras, but that didn’t work because a good blueberry muffin photographed with Hipstamatic looks very much like a rotten blueberry muffin photographed with Hipstamatic.”

“I didn’t want to do the traditional vanitas still life because too many people had done that already. Sam Taylor-Wood had made a time-lapse video of rotting food which was lit like Dutch old masters. It was wonderful but I needed something else that wasn’t so much vanitas but more showed food as a luxury item. So I decided to use a black backdrop to suggest this luxury.”

Once Pichler had settled on the black background, the project became more intense as his flat  became a veritable garden of vinegary, acrid and cloying aromas.  “I decided to coexist with this rotting food, to turn my flat into a rotting station. I put 12 plastic containers full of rotting food in the bathroom and than I made an improvised studio on the living room desk. But I was rarely happy with the shoot and had to rot the food again and again; sometimes it didn’t rot nicely or it changed its shape in a way I didn’t expect or changed its colour.” 

Pichler visualised the rotting food before shooting it on digital ( shooting on film was ruled out due to budgetary constraints). “Before it rotted I had a picture in my mind and as the project went on I knew how things would rot depending on the sugar or fibre content or whether it was a fruit or meat or dairy product. But sometimes things would happen that were entirely unexpected. One Friday I left this pile of Greek noodles and when I came back on the Sunday they had exploded into this overgrown mass of white mould.”

Pichler also added to the pictures through composition and the supporting crockery. “In the pictures I tried to put in links from the food based cultural industry – because food is so strongly linked to culture. That is why particular plates and forms of display are used. I also wanted to add humour which is why there is the Elvis plate and the Harold Edgerton reference in the shot of the apple. “

“I worked with masks and sprays when I was photographing. This helped me keep my concentration. The difficult period was the waiting period; in the case of the chicken and the octopus it was awful. The smell of the rotting chicken used to wake me up in the middle of the night it was so bad. So with the chicken I decided to shoot it on the Friday rather than wait till the Saturday.”

As well as the physical discomfort of the project, the research into where the food was grown or made and how the food was transported proved difficult, but grounds the picture in the over-riding message of sustainability and corporate and consumer responsibility.

One Third was widely publicised on the internet, but things really began happening for Pichler when he got a call from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, who had originally publicised the report that had inspired One Third. “The FAO called me and I thought, oh no, they are going to sue me but instead they said how happy they were that the pictures visualised the report so perfectly. They financed the show and now it’s touring around the world.”

This skewed perspective on something we take for granted is also apparent in Pichler’s earlier project, Dust. Quite simply it’s pictures of dust sweepings taken from a variety of sources, surprisingly colourful dust with accumulations of thread, bugs and plastic depending on the source.

“It’s real dust,” says Pichler. “If you go down on the floor and there is good light you will see all the different colours. But I chose the best places for it, places that gave an idea of the functions of society; places of education, factories and entertainment. I went to places that would have good dust; a coal distribution centre, a kindergarten, an army shop, a night club.”

“It was quite funny because I didn’t call them. I just turned up and asked for their dust, then took it home and photographed it. When I begin to think about a project I try to make myself as dumb and naïve as possible so I have to start from scratch. In the end it became more complex and I developed a system of the different kinds of dust and how these connected to the different functions of society. It was dustology. On one level it doesn’t have much meaning, but on another level it does; it is about what a room holds and how it is used. It is a kind of archaeology. But at the same time it is not.”

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