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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.