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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Happy Christmas and New Year

Happy Christmas and New Year to everybody and have a great holiday wherever you are.

I'll end with my favourite picture of the year, by Billy Monk, from the book of the same name. You can dress everything up, but ultimately it's all about the picture and this is the one that did it for me in 2012.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Christmas Present Idea #2: The Mushroom Picker

 Concealed by ferns sat PENNY BUN,
by day protected from the sun.
On most clear nights she'd gaze with love
upon the shimmering stars above.

Tonight she didn't dare in case
the Picker spied her golden face.

 Rising up without a sound
from fungi networks underground,
her friend the Gypsy formed a cluster
with Scarlet Cup and Rosy Earthstar.

 Through the wild green thickets
in the distance
stalked the Picker with persistence.

He crept along with quiet purpose,
boots swift across the moonlit surface.

He clenched a stick,
sharp and slim,
and a basket to put the mushrooms in.

He should be
not to pick
a mushroom that
could make him

The Mushroom Picker by David Robinson is a story book with pictures of mushrooms in it. And what pictures?

They're made in the darkroom using analogue equipment and the mushrooms that Robinson started selling when he became disenchanted with advertising photography ( half the photographers in London have worked for him - so if you see someone selling mushrooms, chances are...).

It is something very different and a little bit special turning mushrooms into characters with personalities all of their own, kind of reminscent of the 2D renderings of child's play by the likes of Jan von Holleben,
but rather more original.

The Mushroom Picker tells the story of Penny Bun's attempts to escape the clutches of the evil Mushroom Picker in full-Gothic mushroomorama. It really is something else. 

They're part of a growing trend in photography books for children (I think there's an upcoming feature in the BJP on this), though I doubt there are many that are as scary as Robinson's mushrooms. 

Buy the book here. 

This is from an interview in Another Mag:

Robinson has a background in advertising photography, which he conducted successfully alongside a printing and production business for other photographers, based in a darkroom in east london. But he found the commercial world somewhat disenchanting, and in 2005 set up Sporeboys and produced Wonderland, a series of landscapes documenting international destinations and theme parks, in search of a change of direction. The same year, however, he became a father and, with a desire to remain in one place, turned back to the darkroom once more: "I wanted to be creative without having to leave London and in my darkroom I had a huge fridge full of mushrooms and all this amazing analog equipment that wasn’t being used as much as it should have been and suddenly my interest in mushrooms and all the facilities that I had available just melded together."

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas Present #1

Let's just say that Live Through This is a fabulous portrait project. It takes the junkie genre and reinvents it with a collaborative twist that has an almost happy ending.

Pictures come with notes, letters, prescriptions and transcripts of Stephanie's own words. It's beautifully printed and is a fascinating take on both addiction and the personal involvement of the photographer. More on this in the new year.

Buy the book here.

Read more about the project here.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Enduring Srebenica Past and Present

When I go to bed at night, all the memories and fears come back - and then I can get no peace.

Mejra Dogaz - 21 Nov 2010

The quote begins Claudia Heinermann's book, Enduring Srebenica, a book that maps of the aftershocks of the Srebenica massacre of .., and in so doing creates a narrative with multiple narrative, one that goes beyond the simple oppositions of one side against another or the simple attribution of blame with all the hypocrisy and self-deceit that inevitably involves.

In that sense, Enduring Srebenica, has a connection to Heinermann's earlier work Spuren/Traces, which details the excavation of the bodies of German soldiers from mass graves in Russia.

The visual language of mass graves is also there - the stacked coffins, the sheets of plastic, the bones laid out for forensic examination, the staring skulls, the layers of fabric, and the photographs and family traces that the dead/murdered have left behind.

There are interviews with the Dutch soldiers who were part of the mission that was ordered to withdraw - resulting in the men of Srebenica to be murdered:

....I still sleep badly and still have nightmares  and sometimes I have panic attacks and have to go outside... I hardly say that I have had a tough time: the people of Bosnia, they have had a really dreadful time.

Henry van den Belt - 9 May 2010

And of course interviews with the people whose family were killed in the massacre, with people who are experiencing the economic hardship of living in such a depressed environment.

We have 170 euros each month. When we have paid for everything, we have 25 euros left to buy food for seven children and two adults. If somebody gets ill and we have to buy medicine, then we will have a big problem.

Suhra Mustafic - 25 November 2010

I can't describe my feelings, as the words do not exist to do so. I can't sleep at night. I can't stop thinking and remembering. 

Habiba Masic - 14 April 2010

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Joerg Colberg's Grandfather

 Joerg Colberg has a great post over at Conscientious on the search for his grandather, who died on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. 

It touches on documentary, the family album and how to break through the toxicity of the second world war. Joerg is trying to find out who his grandfather was, but is having little luck. He gets hold of some old family photographs...

After I received the photographs I looked at them for a long time. Here was, after all, visual proof of small parts of the life of a man I had never met, a man who was one of my grandfathers. I had not known my grandfathers (they had both died before I was born), so the concept - a father figure once removed - itself seemed strange to me. All these photographs, I figured, would surely tell me something about my grandfather, wouldn’t they? How can 25 photographs not say anything?


Every photograph tells a story, the old adage goes. It’s a wonderful cliché, it’s a horrible cliché, and it’s most certainly not true. What stories do these photographs of my grandfather tell me? Having looked at them for so long now (a few years) I’m still not an inch closer to knowing anything about the man. He loved music, I wrote. How would I know that? All I can really know from the photographs is that he knew how to competently hold an instrument and, possibly, play it. Everything else I added on top. Maybe he didn’t love music, maybe he just ended up playing music on the side because it’s something he had learned doing, and he had somehow never abandoned it. Who can know for sure?

At the end of the day, I came to realize that I was bringing more to the photographs of Josef Nowak than they were bringing to me. They brought me precious little. So when I saw Heinermann’s photograph of the little coffins with the blue plastic bags, my thought was that one of them could have contained the remains of a man whose DNA was passed down to me, a man I still know nothing about, the presence of those 25 photographs notwithstanding.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Best Books of 2012

It's Best books of 2012 Listorama in both the BJP and Photo Eye. I have a bit of a hate love thing with lists, but this year the love won ( aka I was asked) and so I have a list in there. Some seriously good books in there with ( based on a true story) top of the pile just for being so cool. But Billy Monk has the best pictures and The Present is best of a series, Less Americains has the best art history roots (and is the most provocative), Sasha wins the teenage narrative prize, Lebensmittel has the best pairings, A Possible Life and The Altogether the best page turning/cutting design, Live Through This explodes through the intensity ratings, A Girl and Her Room is the best in the world of interiors.
And just in case you missed it, here is Blake Andrews' Best Books list from last year. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Claudia Heinermann's Traces

The pictures above are from Claudia Heinermann's Spuren/Traces, a book in which Heinermann documents the identification of the remains of some of the 400,000 German soldiers buried in mass graves in the former Soviet Union.

It's an interesting book (despitre a few unfortunate translations ), absolutely fascinating in the conflicting visual associations its images of both mass graves and traces of Nazi iconography provide. There is no resolution here, yet somehow Heinermann provides one. It's a kind of humanisation of German casualties, a reconciliation of those who served under a monstrous ideology. I think even attempting that is quite an achievement; succeeding in that is something more.

Enduring Srebenica emerged from this work with a similar undercurrent flowing through it. More on that later.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Belarus, Herta Muller and Come and See

These images are from an album that is not a family album, but Franz Krieger's War Album, with pictures from various locations including Belarus. It's interesting to see the images and then to question how you can have compassion for German soldiers (as with the shell-shocked soldiers featured in the top image) who were operating in Belarus, where some of the most  horrific atrocities of the Second World War took place - horrific both in terms of scale and cruelty.

Can we divide the German perpetrators into Nazis and non-Nazis, into monsters and humans. Is this useful? How exactly does it work? And how about when we measure the contemporary aftershocks of the War - how do we measure and judge and forgive? Do we forgive? Do we remember? Do we forget?

While we can all recognise Naziism as an almost unique murder machine, where does that leave our judgement of our own behaviour both during and after the war? What of British war crimes and torture, of sending home eastern European refugees to certain deaths in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia.What of the firebombing of German cities such as Dresden or the post-war justice meted out to civilians and soldiers from the defeated sides..

It's not on the same scale as the Nazis ( or Stalin, or Mao or whoever ) but does that matter.In Cruel Britannia, Ian Cobain links the justification of torture in Afghanistan to that in the Second World War

During and just after the second world war, we hated and feared Germans, so we tortured them. Interrogators were told that "mental pressure but not physical torture is officially allowed." While murder was forbidden, interrogators were told they "were permitted to threaten to kill prisoners' wives and children", techniques that were deemed "quite proper". The interrogators read between the official lines, just as their counterparts did later in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. They employed stress positions (standing up for eight days on end), strappado (hanging from the wrists, originally devised by the Spanish inquisition) and denial of food, combined with the "standard sleep deprivation and isolation regime". In a precise parallel with Bagram air base, two prisoners died in the custody of one Captain John Smith.

What did this systematic abuse of Germans achieve? These "interrogations … proved, beyond doubt, that Hitler was dead." When the political mandarins were faced with the horror of what had been done to the prisoners, the truth was too embarrassing to bear, so the British authorities made sure there were no public prosecutions where inconvenient truths might seep out. One witness was advised to "escape" (by walking out of the open gate) after being told that if he testified against the British officers he would be the one spending the rest of his life in prison.

The narrative of the Second World War gets simplified into an after-the-fact Good versus Evil, black and white affair - which isn't surprising really when you consider just how crazy bad the Nazis were. 

However,  the story is a bit more complex thatn that, especially for the people who were multiple victims and were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, something that could be said of Herta Muller, the Nobel Prize winning novelist from Romania.

This is from a Herta Muller interview in last weekend's Guardian

In January 1945, after the Nazi-supporting regime of Ion Antonescu had surrendered to the Red Army, all Romania's ethnic Germans aged 17-45 were deported to forced labour camps to rebuild the shattered Soviet economy. Those who survived spent five years shovelling coal and hefting bricks in a corner of the gulag.Müller's mother was among the shaven-headed deportees, who returned home three years before she was born: "As a child I perceived my mother as an old woman." All the villagers "knew of everyone who had been deported, but nobody was allowed to speak about it."

 Her father, a field labourer and alcoholic, was among many local volunteers for Hitler's Waffen-SS. "It was terrible to find my father on the murderers' side. He was a simple man, and obstinate. When I spoke about the Nazis' crimes, he always said, 'Well, look at what the Russians did.' When he spat on his shoes to shine them, I'd say, 'Ah, that's what a Nazi does.' I didn't make life easy for him." Her father was in the same tank division as Günter Grass. When Grass's teenage SS membership came to light in 2006, Müller berated him for keeping quiet about it. "If I charge my father with this, I must charge Grass, an intellectual, too" she says. "He took the moral high ground for decades. His silence was a lie."

Oh, and back to Belarus in the Second World War is the setting for Come and See, perhaps the most traumatising and relentless war movie ever.

Here's the Come and See trailer.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Marc Asnin's Uncle Charlie

More family album work here in the form of Marc Asnin's Uncle Charlie. This is a very complex book that details the life and decline of Asnin's Uncle Charlie. Brutal and affectionate at the same time, Asnin's pictures are accompanied by Charlie's convoluted text; stories of his childhood, his intelligence, his wives, children and mental illness. It's not a clear cut story with no clear black-and-white narrative. Nor is it really about a Journey into Hell. But never mind, it's great work that is the kind of mega-project that Eugene Smith would have made if he'd photographed his family instead of going off to Pittsburgh.

The middle image is of Charlie after his son died of AIDS.

The text below is from an article in the Independent with that as a title.

Henschke has said he'll meet Asnin "in hell"… Is he really that angry about his portrayal? "On any given day he could have a different feeling towards me. The underlying thing though, I think, is that for 30 years he was interested because he shared those stories and, for whatever reason, it just happened to be that I was the guy he shared that with.

"I've been asked: did you ever hate your uncle? And I've said, 'Yeah, sure, all the time – but there were many days I loved him a lot'. I tried to tell his story. I tried over the years to be a good godson to him."

Read about it in the Independent here. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Family Album: Stalingrad

So then. The last from the Family Albums. This is my late Uncle Detmar. He was in the Wehrmacht in the Second World War and got sent to the Eastern Front for his troubles. He was at Stalingrad, but caught measles and was on one of the last planes out.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

More Family Album: Duelling Scars

These are my grandparents from Germany. Note the duelling scars and the fine dress sense of my grandfather (who I never met). This is from the 1920s.

My grandfather didn't fight in the second world war, but he was in Berlin at the end of the war, one of those "places you don't want to be" which make one realise how lucky one is to be born in a certain place at a certain time, but also how things can change so quickly. Berlin or Warsaw or Leningrad in 1945 is Mogadishu in 2012, only 10 times worse.

A couple of years ago, my daughter Isabel had a class at school where the homework was to find out what family and friends had done during the Second World War. We extended it a bit and, without too much effort, found a man who had been on the bombing raids over Dresden (he was never happy about it), a neighbour whose father-in-law had been in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp ( he never got over it - he killed himself twenty years later), a classmate's German grandmother who had been in Danzig/Gdansk at the end of the Second World War (she never talked about it), a grandfather who had fought at Monte Cassino and been imprisoned in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp and a Jewish friend who as a child had been hidden from Nazis in Warsaw for the entirety of the war. Isabel's own grandmother had been a refugee in a British-run refugee camp and seen 3 of her brothers sent back to Yugoslavia to be shot.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Family Album von Deutschland

A little bit of re-photography from the German side of my family - 7 years apart, the first days of school for two great aunts from 1894 and 1901.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Family Album Passport Pictures

This one is a passport picture of Pete gurning for his friends - from around 1972 I'm guessing. This summer just gone, we had the best day out in Toronto with an old friend Eric. We found an old photo-booth in the Steam Whistle Brewery. They gave us a free beer and we introduced Isabel to the photo-booth thing. I look at this and wonder at how everything really doesn't change that much.

What at would Broomberg and Chanarin do in a photo-booth?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Family Album, ooh I've lost count...

Yes, it's 1970, Pete has grown his hair long and is about to get expelled for the trouble. Why should I? Fuck you! The Economist has some random story about Vietnam, but the Sun on the right has a headline about Muriel McKay

"..the wife of Rupert Murdoch's deputy, Alick McKay, was kidnapped and killed. In a bungled extortion attempt Arthur and Nizamodeen Hosein thought they had taken Mr Murdoch's then wife Anna.

Mrs McKay's body was never discovered, but it was suspected she was fed to pigs on a Hertfordshire farm owned by the brothers."

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Family Album 4

This one from the Family Album speaks for itself, it's 1968 and Pete is just about to grow his hair long. Peace, Love, war and the Beatles.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Family Album 3

 More from Pete's family album, this one of Keith being a goalie in Enfield, North London. It reminds me of that picture in Volume 1 of the Photobook History where the stretching keeper is spread across two pages, with a nice white gutter in the middle.

It also reminds me of the philosophical nature of goalkeepers, mainly because Keith is now teaches philosophy in Georgia, the US one. He's also a Spurs fan, Tottenham not San Antonio.

Here's a picture of Keith falling out of a tree. Trees are one of my favourite places to photograph people - well my daughter really, but she's not a philospher so she doesn't fall out of them.

More to the point, there is a connection between the move to colour (and this is very early colour for a snapshot camera - early sixties) and the demise of the family album. It's visible in virtually all family albums, where the sharpness and the composition falls off as people try to catch colours rather than create 'memorable' moments.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Family Photographs 2: Grandma Dorothy

When I heard the news of my mother-in-law's death, I was staying in Kent with Pete, a kind of brother-in-law/uncle. I found his old pictures and started looking through them.

Here he is with his mum and dad and his Grandma Dorothy in the late 1950s. Aunt Dorothy is the one in the wheelchair with the broken arm in a sling. There's a nurse in the background looking all nursey and stern, striding purposefully towards someone or something, possibly the photographer who has thrown everything off-kilter and half-framed the nurse into the spotlight.

It turns out that Grandma Dorothy had a stroke and was put in a hospital. For six years. But she was single-minded and she fought against the doctors who told her that hospital was the only place for her, and eventually returned home. After six years in hospital. 

She lived at home for 6 more years, and then she died. And that is what the picture is all about, the story that goes with it.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Family Photographs

Sometimes photography seems abstract, but then something happens that makes it concrete. In the last couple of weeks I have been looking at family album pictures from different groups of relatives.

The one family album I haven't looked at is those of my wife, Katherine's family. Perhaps there's a reason for that. Katherine's parents originally came from Yugoslavia. They moved to Canada in 1947 after spending two years in a refugee camp run by the British in Austria - they met and got married there, in a dress made of scraps of cloth donated by other refugees. It was a camp where the rations amounted to only 600 calories, where the impetus was for the refugees to return to Yugoslavia. One of my wife's uncles did return, but was never heard of again. He was shot.

Katherine's parents, Elizabeth and Ivan, eventually got a patch of land on Leighland Road in Burlington, Ontario. They built a garage and that was their home for a couple of years before Ivan had finished building the adjoining house. They lived on that street with other refugees from eastern Europe. They had children, six in total, and the house soon got too small. But still they lived there. Ivan worked as a janitor, Elizabeth as a housewife (and occasionally as a cleaner).

Initially, the house was bordered by orchards and farmland, but gradually highways, stripmalls and car-lots became the surrounding environment. It was the wrong side of the railway tracks that run a little to the north. Elizabeth always wanted a bigger house with a fancy kitchen and modern decor, but she never got it. Instead she continued to live in the house after her husband died. Then she had a fall and had to be moved into a home where she lived, increasingly dependent on others, until she died last Saturday night.

I think it was a relief in some ways that she died, because she wasn't independent and it wasn't the way she wanted to live, but at the same time it was a massive shock. Not because of the death, but because of the passing of an era, the end of a living history. You can keep history alive in various ways , but when the person who witnessed it goes, it does spell the end of a chapter. It doesn't mean we should forget it, but there is still some part of a time that has gone. Things have moved on.

But things are also preserved and the family album does this admirably. It's a shorthand of memory, of history, of an edited and at times idealised past, where certain things are hidden and certain things taken away - sometimes in retrospect. Even so, we still look at it quite objectively as something quite factual.

But Elizabeth didn't have those old photos, so I wonder how she will be remembered. Just as words are sometimes better than photographs, so is food. I remember her Slovenian cooking, her gingerbread, her puddings, her cakes and so does my wife.

So rather than going through old photographs, I think there will a little bit of baking going on in Burlington, of strudel, potica and things that I cannot even begin to spell ( how do you spell kifudgka). And with the baking, a lot of memories will be raised and a life will be replayed and tears be shed. But at the end of it all, amidst all the sorrow, there will also be some joy, that around her at the visitation and the funeral will be her children, six of the kindest, loveliest and most generous people I have ever had the pleasure to have known. And there will be their children and their children's children - and they are all lovely.And I think that when she was surrounded by her family this summer, at the 90th birthday party that was held for her in her oldest daughter's garden, at the lunches and meals she was wheeled out of the home for, and I think of the relish with which she polished off the store-bought potica ('not as good as mine') or anything sweet, I think Elizabeth knew that for all the trauma and disappointment of parts of her life, the legacy that she left behind was really something special.

In other words, who needs the photographs? Food, family and the smell of potica are what matter.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Writers might be better than photographers sometimes...

Ben Krewinkel's A Possible life is one of my favourite books on the uncertain migrant experience . The Mass of documentation overlaid with the personal is very familiar to anyore who has had any contact with less well-off migrants.

This is especially the case with asylum seekers; there is a constant stream of dealings with officialdom, a sea of letters, photocopies and correspondence with official agencies of all sorts; the kind of thing that Krewinkel lays out so intelligently in his book - or rather that the designer Annette Kouwenhoven lays out so intelligently and elegantly in her book.

Add to that the incredible stress and uncertainty of not having any definitive status and you can understand why Krewinkel's book is so very, very strong. It's multi-faceted and busy, but with an underlying and constant narrative that provides a backbone that is neither patronising nor rosey-eyed. Gualbert has made a choice and he is stuck with it, but it's a choice that he made without the trauma and duress of conflict, violence or loss. He's an economic refugee.

It's much more modest in scope, but I rate Krewinkel's book right up there with Jim Goldberg's Open See or Wendy Ewald's Towards a Promised Land project - the project isn't really about the book, but it does  capture the disorientation and displacement the young refugee experiences.

The problem is why aren't there any photographic projects by refugees/asylum seekers that capture the tone of their experiences in quite such an expert way. Of course there are the PhotoVoice kind of projects, which have that engagement aspect and provide a visual outlet for young refugees, but these lack the sophistication of books such as Krewinkel's.

And even if there are people who have a sophisticated visual language, the sheer poverty, drudgery and stress of daily life preclude the possibility of producing a incisive and coherent body of work. If you're worrying about the Border Agency coming to take you away at 4am every morning because you've just turned 18 and that's the way the cookie crumbles in the UK, the likelihood of being intrigued by how to fold your book pages are minimal.

In the same way, I wonder why I couldn't think of more top-notch, innovative Nigerian photographers when I was doing the Innovative (not the best..) photographers thing a few weeks back.

I've mentioned several Nigerian novelists on this blog, I've touched on vernacular Nigerian photography, I've looked at a white South African photographing in Nigerian, but innovative Nigerian photographers - I'm not quite there.

I don't know - given the economics of both photography and Nigeria, I get the feeling that there might be some barriers to innovation in the country. I have often quoted How to write about Africa on this blog; as a lesson in How not to Write about Africa. But at the same time I do sometimes feel that the essay could also be titled How to Write About Africa.

I recently read a book called I do not come you by chance, by Adaobi  Tricia Nwaubani. It was about a man who got sucked into selling 419 scams around the world. How stereotypical can you get? Yet it had a vibrancy, urgency and ambivalence to it. It reminded me of when I shared a house with a Nigerian man (He was from a wealthy family - "In my country you'd be washing my dishes" ) who was constantly fielding calls from relatives trying to get him to middle-man their latest sugar deal, something he did, but hated. His ambivalence and the way he was torn between two worlds and twelve moralities was quite something to behold.

 Similarly with the rest of the world. I touch on film from India, China and Africa, I've mentioned novelists with a Somalian, Dominican and Pakistani heritage, but not necessarily as much photography by domestic photographers as I would like. But from what I know about Somalia, I am making a guess that being innovative, inquisitive and celebrating the kind of liberal visual values that I am interested in, are going to be very difficult avenues to pursue in Somalia. Even if someone were to have the interest and passion in pursuing those kind of values in the photographic sphere.

But when it comes to writing, that's a different matter. Writing ties in with both written, oral and folk traidions. Which I suppose is why there are so many great writers who describe the immigrant experience in novels. And I feature them on this blog because they are there and I read their books and they are great. And they interest me much more than insipid books about the English middle classes and their tiresome neuroses. They have more vitality and energy and ideas.

But how about photography...

Well, how about photography? Sometimes one needs to take a broader approach that expands to wider cultural areas. Diversity is not an even playing field.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Cutting Open Ben Krewinkel's Possible Life

I finally cut open Ben Krewinkel's A Possible Life: Conversations with Gualbert, a book in which the pages are folded over so one side of the story is visible (the documenation of Gualbert's life) and the other is invisible - unless you cut the pages open . I did it in a seminar at Newport with a bunch of lovely documentary photography students. First I cut, and I butchered a couple of pages, then another student took over, and he butchered the book as well. Then someone suggested I use a decent letter-opener rather than a Stanley knife. So I took the book home and butchered it some more with a letter opener.

Even without opening the book, the general opinion was "I want one of those" with one dissenting "Anyone can do that."

So I took the book home and finished the job there. As with David Alan Harvey's Based on a True Story, there is a truly interactive element to Krewinkel's work, an element of theatre, of investigating and probing into something that lies hidden. The pictures don't matter in some ways. But as you cut, you see them, slowly revealing a different world to the life of Gualbert, the man depicted in the book. It's not an especially cheery world; it's rather lonely and isolated. Gualbert seems out of sorts in the picture, neither here nor there, a depressed character caught in a nightmare where people think he's something he's not. His family think he's something he's not, the Dutch government think he's something he's not, the people around him think he's something he's not.

Anyway, the book, which I think is wonderful, got me thinking about stories and books about refugees and migration, more of which later.

Read my review of the book for Photo-Eye here. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

Just Cut the Damn Thing Open: A Possible Life by Ben Krewinkel

I'm currently reviewing A Possible Life by Ben Krewinkel.

It's a book about an illegal migrant to the Netherlands. Part fiction, part reality, it is massively annoying, but also rather wonderful and very intelligent. .

The most annoying thing about it (after the part fiction/part reality thing) is the fact that to view the book properly, you have to cut it open. You have to destroy it in other words. I'm strangely reluctant to do this. But because it is such a smart book, I'm wondering if I should buy myself another copy so I have my mint collector's item. I probably will but I feel a bit odd about that, fetishising the mint condition work.

Oh well, I think I'll get the knife out tomorrow. Meanwhile you can read about the project here:  Conversations with Gualbert.

And it's reviewed by Joerg Colberg here. Joerg doesn't say if he cut the book open or not. I'm guessing no. But I might be wrong.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Arthur Rostein and American refugees

I stumbled on these pictures by Arthur Rostein the other day. They were taken for the FSA and are of a what is essentially a refugee camp in California for migrants from the dustbowls of Arkansas and Oklahoma. The pictures remind me of Robert Adams and Bill Owens in a roundabout sort of way.

This is what he thought of California at the time. 

"I like it the least of the western states. My impression is that everything is commercialized, the police & city officials are corrupt grafters, there is little of that gracious western hospitality & most of the people are of that reactionary, super-patriotic, fascist-minded type."

There is more on Rostein here and the readings of the self-government of the camp are fascinating as are the reactions of local businesses to the camp. The camps and resettlement of migrants were opposed by big farmers who worried about their pool of cheap labour disappearing. Local shopkeepers opposed the camps because they were worried about the camp cooperative shop selling things at cheaper prices.

California's growers and a significant portion of the state's business establishment viewed with suspicion any activity on behalf of migrant workers, including the creation of migrant camps. The growers would benefit from an oversupply of homeless, dependent workers. There had been strikes in California since the start of the Depression, and the growers feared unionization and continued labor unrest.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

(based on a true story) - Interview with Eva Kunz

David Alan Harvey's (based on a true story) is my no-brainer book of the year (see my Photo-eye review here). I was fascinated to know how it was made so I emailed a few questions over to Eva Kunz, who (along with David Alan Harvey and Bryan Harvey, produced the book.

What is your job with Burn?

I'm very much focused on BurnBooks. At the moment, I’m working with David Alan Harvey and his son Bryan on the upcoming newspaper version of (based on a true story). It will be distributed for free in Rio's favelas to the people who are such an important part of the story.

How did you get involved with David Alan Harvey?

It was this spirit of "pay back, pay forward" that made me get in touch with David. We live geographically very far apart, but are connected on an intellectual level. Meeting online was the first step.

His Road Trips blog had evolved into Burn Magazine, a venue for emerging photographers, where those with a voice but no name could get a space and the possibility to show their work.

As a mentor and teacher he is always on the look out for new work, always sharing his knowledge and connections. My kind of guy in a mostly self-centered world.

When did the idea of the book first arise?

David is always thinking books. He has a very extensive body of work about South America in general, and Rio de Janeiro in particular.

He was in love with the city and its people, the atmosphere, the mood, the duality of the place, which reflects very much in his own being.

After two years of shooting, the traditional documentary photography part was done, the backdrop set, and he went back one more time to Rio, without constrictions, free from assignments, to take "backstage" every day pictures to complete the book.

This last shoot has become very central to the book, and is completely different from his earlier "Divided Soul", which was also shot partially in Brazil.

What was the first idea for the book?

Rio is too vibrant to be fit into a normal mainstream book, too many emotions, the society too interwoven… one picture on one page, the next on the other, it just did not feel like the right thing to do. So the first idea was that a trade book was just not it.

Rio, as lived and felt by David, was much more like a novela, a dream, a Shakespeare stage… full of passion, sound, emotion, a puzzle to be figured out... Living on the edge was the mantra, to be translated into book form.

How did the physical elements of the book (the beads, the looseleaves, the cord) take shape?

We spoke a lot about how it felt like to be in Rio, much more than what it looked like. Having a connection with Brazilian culture helped me understand.

I had his words in my mind all the time, along with his pictures, the way he composes, uses the space and colours on multiple layers, and his idea of a loose tabloid… prints more than book pages… all of this was in my head like a puzzle.

It all came together with two pictures: a couple sitting on a sofa and a girl lying in the sea, both with legs spread over to the other side of the picture... half and half becoming a whole again. I saw a way to fit the pieces together.

David perfectly knew what he did not want and what he wanted, but did not know how it could be done. I could SEE it, the duality of it, so very well reflected in his photographs.
I made a very small mock up, and from there he and his son Bryan, who is a film maker, did a superb job of taking the whole idea on a completely different level, not just looking for complementary pictures, but creating a movie within the still images. Bryan's deep knowledge of his dad and his work combined with his film editing skills allowed to create a sort of Rubik's cube, a mystery that could be read not only front to back, but also backwards and/or cross wise.

Being this an interactive book, we needed to find a way to hold the lose spreads together. Finding paper that could hold the fold, without breaking on the spine, but without giving up the look and feel we needed, has been a tale all by itself. We ended up using the brand which is very close to the one money is printed on. 

Up to the very last moment Bryan and I played with rubber bands, eyelets, hooks.. and the string.. the beads to tighten and loosen it was our solution to keep all together without binding. Everything fell into place, pieces of the puzzle completed, in a perfect collaboration.

How did you decide on the 'looseness' of the leaves?

This looseness completely reflects who David is. How he lives, how he works. Rock solid at the essence, but floating in the expression of it. This really is not a book about Rio de Janeiro, but a book about David's vision of it. Or more specifically his use of the traditional tale with a muse/muses.Rio is just the backdrop. That is why the word RIO is never written in the book. You must figure out where this is, you must figure out many things.

"A Shakespeare stage set in Rio" as he calls it. More than a decision, the loosenesss was a natural evolution. The pleasure to look and touch a fairly good sized print, the interactivity of this puzzle, the idea that every one could take it apart and build their own story.

To have the possibility of one story become many many stories… all of this played into the looseness of the whole idea.

How did the edit progress? What was the process and how long did it take?

While still shooting in Rio, one hour photo lab prints were made and put up on the wall of the apartment, and were moved around constantly. During his final month long shoot, the audience of Burn, or better, of theriobook.com, could have an in depth look at the whole process, kind of a live online workshop.

Later, Bryan, Candy Pilar Godoy (his digital assistant in Rio), David and I worked on the edit once back in NYC, digging into the archives, looking for the best pictures that would tell THIS story.

This was not just an edit for strong pictures, but also a pairing edit, where two pictures had to work together and fit the mood and flow of the whole story. By the end of February the script was set.

What was the rational for the half-reveal of the landscape pictures?

Like music, photography has a rhythm, high notes and low ones.. calmness preceding a crescendo, dissonances resolving... the same we find here, the rhythm, the beat..

What is the purpose of the contact sheets?

The contacts are totally part of the novella development. A way to introduce the six key "characters" of the drama. It also suggests: a film, a movie, a sequential development.

Who's the girl on the cover?

That's Candy Pilar Godoy. This is one of those serendipity moments that rule David's life. His former assistant had to cancel the trip one day before leaving for Rio, so he had to look for a new one right away. His fixer and friend Roberta Tavares, one of the muses and characters of the book connected him with Candy, who then became the central muse. 

She was later an editor and now is his assistant in New York.

Spending a whole month with the women all interacting throughout the book has led to an intimate and intricate story.

What was the reason for the postcard clues?

Since there is no text in the book, nothing explaining how it works, we felt that a few words were needed to introduce the mystery and give a heads up that this is more a game and a puzzle than a book.

Was the book tested on people outside the production team?

Yes. We handed the dummy to colleagues, family and friends who would drop by at the loft in New York, with no explanation and waited for their reaction. The response was great.

One of the first people to dive into the dummy was James Nachtwey, whose words were “David, this is literature”. Exactly what we intended it to be. We could go from "there's only the three of us crazy" to "we have something". Great feeling!

How important was the video to the marketing of the book?

Since we're mostly offering this limited edition online and there is no text, it is very important. Piques one's curiosity and explains how it can be looked at, played with.

Were any other books an inspiration for Based on a True Story?

No.. David says his influences were movies like Sophia Coppola's “Lost in Translation” and Nan Goldin's approach of photographing her most immediate surroundings and life than anything else.

How has it sold? What has the reaction to it been?

The reaction has been great, people really "get it". It is amazing. It’s not an inexpensive book - due to the material, the first class printing, and there is so much work involved, from assembling it by hand, to putting on the beads and strings one by one, checking the spreads etc.

The book is selling well in an ascending price curve. It is now in its fourth price upward evolution. The last 100 will be sold at $192, which is $100 more than the first 100, but actually exactly what it was worth in the first place. We expect it  to double in price in the collector market as soon as the last copy is sold. We are getting close.
We're also offering a very limited edition and completely handmade tile box, laid out with unique double-run print sheets, work done by Bryan. Each collector box is different from the other, including a signed print and book.

And, as mentioned above, the newspaper version is being printed, because we are convinced that the work should be seen and shared and enjoyed. This is the most important part.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Based on a True Story

It's lovely to get excited by a book. That's what happened when David Alan Harvey's book, ( based on a true story) arrived in the post.

I had seen the video of the book (see above) and was already impressed, if a bit doubtful - it is just a bit too slick.

Then the book came and I was blown away. There are few words in the book. Most of them are found on a postcard which gives you clues how to use it. And they are great clues, succinct and to the point. The design is incredibly well-thought out. Nothing has been left to chance here.

It's a book that tells its own story, but then invites you to rearrange it. It makes you rearrange it. It cuts pictures in half and makes you put them together again.

Normally when a book lets you make the story, it's because of laziness, because the photographer can't really be bothered to go to the final effort of actually laying things on the line (and I like to have things laid on the line - as long as I can still have the freedom to interpret, question or relay that line) and creating a solid narrative. Think of it as the curse of the stream of consciousness - the kind of stream that spurts out of your ass after you've eaten the chicken that spent those days too long in the fridge.

(based on a true story) isn't like that. The narrative is there, in big bold (cliched perhaps, but what the heck) David Alan Harvey Colours. And then you are invited to reinvent things.

It's bold, fun and just the best book that I have seen for a long, long time. And it's not earnest, boring or dull! Bonus times in photobook world.

Not sure about the brackets in the title though.

Read my Photo-Eye review here.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

It takes a lot of work to make something new

So with the Brave New World of Photography all sorted out, there are a couple of conclusions we can make.

First of all, the people who are doing new things with the taking, making and distribution of images are incredibly hard-working. There are no short-cuts and nobody but nobody is in it for the money.

I'm guessing nearly if nearly all the people mentioned had settled on a job at MacDonalds or Tim Hortons or Sainsburys a few years back, they could have worked themselves up into a nice managerial position and be earning a whole bunch more than they are earning now.

Secondly, there is a lot of agonising thought on offer. People are considering all the choices, going backwards and forwards and not settling for anything that is not to the fullest of their satisfaction. There are pragmatic choices to be made, but there is no compromise. If something could be better, the people make it better.

And finally (and in different ways), people are getting out there and engaging with the world. Nobody is navel-gazing in wonder at the amazement of their tiny, little, domestic sphere. People are engaging with people in their work, with the history of the medium and with other people in their field. It's very social in other words. They are also extremely eloquent and assertive in talking about their work and promoting their work. Nobody is too shy in coming forward.

All in all, that means; it takes a lot of work to make something new.