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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Best of 2015

 It's the end of the year and this is my last post for now. The lists are going up and I'll be having a best of list up on Photo Eye sometime soon. But it's not really best of, it's favourites and is really pretty arbitrary in some ways. There are plenty of other books that could be in there too.

So to end the blogging year, here's a few of my other favourites from 2015!

I'll be having a Happy Birthday, Christmas and New Year. And a Happy Whatever you Celebrate to everybody wherever you are!

Best Workshop Venue: Gazebook Sicily 

Best Dogs: Klaus Pichler

Best More than just a Surveillance Project: Lina Hashim

Best Postcard Project: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Best artistic depiction of a prison cell: Ai Wei Wei 

Best book that shows something that doesn't exist: Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson

Best  idea that will get reused again and again: 'Thin Places' - as quoted by Thom and Beth Atkinson. Thin Places are where the physical and the spiritual worlds come close.

Other Best Book that shows something that doesn't exist: YU by Dragana Jurisic

“Where do you come from?
From Yugoslavia.
Is there any such country?
No, but that’s still where I come from.”

Best Black and White book on the Basque Country: Ama Lur by Jon Casenave

Best Black and White book from Brazil: Hart by Laura Del Rey and Alziro Barbosa

Best Ukrainian Book: Chronicle

Best Himalayan Project The Himalayan Project

Best Mad Internet Project: A Work on Jealousy

 Best theme-park based exhibition: Dismaland


Best promotion for a photobook festival and Best Golden Shoes: Gazebook and Ricardo Martinez Paz!

Best Cut the crap already: Thank you for standing up and making words count, Aritry Das. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

"It's very Thames and Hudson"

Yang Yi: A Sunken Homeland

I went into my fantastic local bookshop, Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights a few months back and Ed who deals with the art and photography section upstairs was telling me how Martin Parr had come in the weekend before. "He looked at the shelves and said to me, "it's very Thames and Hudson, isn't it". Which I wouldn't have minded except that Martin Parr's had books published by Thames and Hudson and he's not complaining then."

This blog is very not Thames and Hudson, painfully so at times. It clings to the margins of the photobook world. What am I saying? The photobook world is the margins. There's nothing inside the margins so of course I cling to the margins. We all do, otherwise we'd fall away and drown in the nothingness of a life without endless discussions on the democracy of the photobook, the machinations of Amazon, the intricacies of editing by colour and shape, and the evils of small editions and artist book pricing. My god, it would be a life barely worth living.

Anyway, if you haven't noticed, this blog is full of self-critical Italian projects, obscure Spanish books and family albums from Prague that have been ripped out off somebody's desktop folders. It's either that or it's all black and white where you can't see what's happening, archive pictures dressed up in an obscurantist present, flooded Edgelands, or weird family projects all put into a book where one page folds into the other and you really don't have a clue what is going on whatsoever. And that's the good stuff and it is!

So to end the blogging year, I thought I'd leave the obscure stuff behind and get a little Thames and Hudson. And what better way to do it than a couple of short reviews of books published by Thames and Hudson.

The first one is An Era Without Memories. This is written by Jiang Jiehong and is about urban transformation in China as seen by Chinese photographers.

I've had a couple of posts on Jane Tormey's book, Cities and Photography here and on eccentric Chinese developments here, but An Era Without Memories adds something to the idea of urban photography.

First and foremost it connects the ideas of destruction and development; something that is very familiar to anyone involved even remotely in heritage, but perhaps more novel in photography. And it connects contemporary development/destruction to that which occurred in earlier times, particularly during the Mao era. And if you didn't know it, the greatest destruction of domestic housing ever occurred during Mao's rule, when, according to Frank Dikotter, one third of all housing was apparently destroyed to make low-grade fertiliser or low grade fuel to make low-grade iron.

In the book, property development in China is connected to both the European examples of urbanisation in the 19th century, but also to Chinese concepts of modernity in architecture which is then exemplified through the photography of Wang Qingsong, Hu Jieming and Miao Xiaochun.

Wang Qingsong: One Hundred Chai

Destruction, development and alienation are the key themes. In the third chapter of the book, An Alienated Home, we see Wang Qingsong's One Hundred Chai - this is a hundred pictures of the Chai sign painted on the walls of Beijing residences. Chai means to demolish, so the alienation message is coming across clear and true.

Rong Rong cranks the alienation up another level by actually photographing his home being damaged after returning from a residency in Australia. 'In the taxi, all the way from Beijing airport back home, the landscape was crumbling away, with many houses and streets disappearing, as if they had experienced an air raid. The minute we saw this had happened to our own home, our hearts sank and we collapsed too.'

Rong Rong

The really enjoyable thing about the book is that the photographic works are given a more personal edge than is customary. In that sense it's also about the connection between modernity, the urban and personal experience. That adds a poignancy to the images that in other places, without the heartbreak or anxiety of contemporary Chinese life being revealed, can seem over-produced. So in the fourth and final chapter, Memories Invented: Reimagining realities lost through environmental transformation, we get Hu Jieming reliving his childhood memories of viewing Shanghai from rooftops - by photographing his son perched on the same rooftops.

The second book is The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Photography. Photography is no longer a single subject, I don't know if it ever was. What's interesting about photography is when it touches on the outside world, when it gets wrapped up in film, literature, politics, when it tells a story that reaches out from a two-dimensional print or page or screen. And then there's the technical side, the processes, the cameras, the printing that helped aid the spread of the photographic image.

The aim of this Dictionary is to bring all these disparate elements together and present a truly global view. This is impossible of course but it does a pretty good job. Entries reach across photographic genres and take in curators, critics, editors and publishers. If you're looking for botanists, there's a section for those two (Anna Atkins and Karl Blossfeldt only I'm afraid),while there is a healthy list for techniques and processes.

welethu Mthethwa: Interiors (one of which is in the Dictionary of Photography)

It's a step up from other dictionaries in terms of detail and the ease of accessing and reading information (not something one should take for granted) and I found myself flicking through it and discovering things that I really didn't know and should know - and will quite soon forget until I flick through the book and learn it again.

It's not as international as it could be (the project was started in 1998, shelved, and then started again in 2010 - with many, many contributors) and some of the entries use odd phrasing (Rineke Dijkstra's Bathers?). But it's a book that you can flick through at leisure that will give you the information you're after far quicker and more pleasurably than a search on the internet.

Yasumasa Morimura: Self-Portrait (Actress)/After Elizabeth Taylor 2, 1996

And it will lead you on to other ideas, genres and artists. It's a fact checking, initial search of a book, but it does draw you in and will tell almost everyone about photographers, places and organisations of which they previously had no idea.

The last detail; it comes with not one but three ribbon page markers. That's a lovely detail. More people should do that. And why stop at three. Have twenty!

The History of British Violence

The Last Stand of the 44th at Gundamuck, by William Barnes Wollen (1842)

When my daughter was little I used to get up early with her every other morning to 'play'. The playing often revolved around the Playmobile people she had. She had millions of them and they all had names, so we'd invent these elaborate stories and play them out as the sun rose in the back window over the scenic Avon Valley Countryside. 

But it was early, so sometimes I'd lose track of the stories, and then I'd get asked to repeat old stories which would melt my brain and leave me in a state of existential crisis. So instead I started playing out the plots of films (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Shining and the like). The best one to play out was the Exorcist because Playmobil People's heads really do go round. 

The other thing I did was play out scenes from history - the rise of Hitler, the rise of Mao, Soviet history, slightly biased British history and so on. It got to be quite global in its scope. 

So she loved history from an early age and then she went to school. And it kind of got stuck on the first and second world wars with a bit of Egypt, Romans and Henry VIII thrown in. It was rubbish. There is nothing like a bad history teacher for taking the interest out of a subject that is manifestly fascinating. 

And that is what struck me first in this article by William Dalrymple from September. He talks about the censoring of British history (and censorship makes everything uninteresting) and the reason why we don't understand our own history. And the importance of understanding the dark side of what we did and what we do and who we support and where we support them. 

'Yet much of the story of the empire is still absent from our history curriculum. My children learned the Tudors and the Nazis over and over again in history class but never came across a whiff of Indian or Caribbean history. This means that they, like most people who go through the British education system, are wholly ill equipped to judge either the good or the bad in what we did to the rest of the world.
Yet if the British remain largely ignorant of the blackest side of the imperial experience, and are still taught in their schools that it was only our German enemies who turned racism into an ideology that sought to justify mass murder, then we also remain largely unaware of some of the more positive, and perhaps surprising, moments of our imperial experience.'
And then In this article from the weekend, Dalrymple talks about the artistic legacy of the empire, in particular that which connects to the brutalities of British rule.
'Paul Gilroy rightly puts it in the excellent accompanying catalogue, Britain’s “inability to come to terms with the disputed legacies of empire has been corrosive. Locally, it has contributed to a deep and abiding ignorance. Knowledge of the empire’s actual history is unevenly distributed across the globe. Descendants of the victims of past injustice are often more familiar with the bloody annals of colonial government than British subjects, safely insulated at home from any exposure to the violent details of conquest and expropriation.” That was certainly the case with The Last Stand of the 44th: in 2000, soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment – the lineal successors of the 44th – reported that coloured postcards of the image were selling well in Afghan markets, as if in celebration of a recent rather than a distant British defeat.
When I was researching my book on the 1857 Great Uprising – still anachronistically known in the UK as “the Indian Mutiny” – I was horrified to discover the scale of the war crimes our ancestors committed while supressing the rebellion: tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were slaughtered in British reprisals; in one mohalla (neighbourhood) of Delhi alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded a young officer, Edward Vibart.
It was literally murder … I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful … Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference.
By 1858, Delhi, a sophisticated city of half a million people, was left an empty ruin, as were Kanpur (“Cawnpore”) and Lucknow. Similar excesses were inflicted on many other cities from Kandahar and Kabul –both laid waste by the British “Army of Retribution” in 1842 – to Mandalay and Rangoon, burned down a few years later. Yet most people in the UK remain completely unaware of these aspects of their imperial history, and many leave school without touching upon it at any point in their formal education. In our school textbooks, it is only the Germans who imagine racial hierarchies and commit racially inspired genocides.'
Dalrymple's talking about British history because it is something which is rarely addressed. But the same applies to any nation which wields or has wielded political, economic, ideological or religious power over others. 
Which means just about everybody. Rather than always pointing the fingers at others and wallowing in blame and victimhood, we should all look at the cruel side of our history, our ideologies and the consequencs of our actions. And if we think our country doesn't have a cruel side, then we should think again.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Jack Latham: How the United States got Big!

When I lived in Canada, I used to go to my wife's lectures in Anthropology, African and American History at the University of Toronto. They were far more engaging than the lectures I'd been given in the UK, and they gave me a grounding in history that I still remember to this day. It was like doing another degree course (I did all the reading as well).

Some of the things that stuck with me from American history were the expansion of the United States of America. We didn't learn about that in British school - we learned about the pyramids, the First World War, the Empire and how bad the Nazis were. It's still the same now.

But going to these lectures I suddenly learnt that the United States had started off so relatively small, that 200 years ago it was a place that was part of the people who had lived there for the previous millenia, that the whole of the USA was formed on lies and deceit and arbitrary power grabs that are mind-boggling in their venality. So it wasn't too different from the British Empire then (or any empire or expansion of power).

     all photographs Jack Latham

The idea that struck me most was the Louisiana Purchase. This was when the United States doubled in size by buying a bunch of land from the French. Not that the French had ever done anything with this land or even occupied any part of it for any length of time,or even 'owned' it in any sense of the word. It was wholey imaginary ownership based wholely in the mind and the statement of ownership. But if you stick a pen to a map, draw a line across it and give the space a name, it somehow looks real. And then you have something you can sell, as long as you can find someone who believes in your maps. That's how colonialism works.

So in 1803 on behalf of the United States, Thomas Jefferson bought a massive chunk of land from Napoleon Bonaparte for $15 million. Trouble was nobody knew anything about this land other than the people who lived there already. And they were Native Americans so didn't count.

So an expedition had to be mounted to 'discover the land' to find routes from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean, to map the mountains, to survey the lands, to see what was fit for farming and navigation and eventual exploitation.

The people who made this expedition were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. From 1804 to 1806, they walked across territory uncharted by Europeans, from Missouri to Oregon. It was an epic expedition, one that established an US presence on the Pacific coast and helped aid the eventual expansion of the country to what it is today.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is the foundation for Jack Latham's book, A Pink Flamingo. It's a nicely laid book of large-format images that follows the route taken by Lewis and Clark over 200 years ago.

And in a strange way, it echoes the original intent of the expedition, with quiet images of roadways and houses showing how the route is navigated now, how the route has been settled. And is still being settled, because there's a sense of austerity in there, the idea that what we have now is no kind of end game.

What were the results of the Lewis and Clark expedition. A Pink Flamingo doesn't give any answers to that question. I like that.  It's still too soon to tell, it's still being settled, it's still empty, and it's still for sale, but now to a different kind of buyer.

Buy the book here.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Dear Japanese: A genuine struggle with the past

J. M’s mother was never willing to tell her who her father was. She only knows the name of her Japanese father, who worked at a petro company in Java.

I like Dear Japanese by Miyuki Okuyama for several reasons, Most of all I like it for its earnestness, for its desire to do good, for its attempt to understand the impact Japanese imperialism had on the people of Southeast Asia.

If you don't know it, in East and Southeast Asia, the Japanese have the kind of reputation the Nazis have in Europe. The difference is that Germany has addressed (if not quite coped with) its past, Japan has barely recognised what it did in the name of the emperor.

J. S. as an infant, lived in Japan with her parents. The life together did not last, since her mother could not adopt to the life in Japan.

This attempt to understand one's own national atrocities and failures doesn't happen much in photography (very few British people are willing to address or challenge their own deeply held certainties for example), especially where Japan is concerned. It doesn't happen even when other nationalities are dealing with Japanese photography. In the West at least (and correct me if I'm wrong), there is one Japanese photo-narrative and it goes unchallenged; it runs along the lines of atomic bombs, American bombs, Japanese suffering, American suffering. Which is all true, but (atomic bombs aside), it's even more true of Germany. The traditional photo-narrative misses a few things out.

A massive bugbear of mine this year was the Time, Conflict exhibition at Tate Modern. There were four works (off the top of my head) concerning the aftermath and horrific suffeing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet there was nothing concerning the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army in 'The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'.

I found this astounding, especially considering 1) Japan has never truly recognised its disgraceful war record and 2) there is great work out there that addresses Japanese rule in Asia, and this work has been shown in Japan; Reminders Stronghold, the documentary hotbed in Tokyo, showed Jan Banning's Comfort Women earlier this year for example.

Okuyama is trying to address this imbalance in other words, and in so doing she has produced a really nice book with the Eriskay Connection. And it's not easy, you can feel how difficult it is for her.

It starts with a sincere introduction in which she describes who she is photographing. These are the descendants of Dutch-Indonesian and Japanese parents, people who returned to the Netherlands after the Japanese occupation ended and Indonesia gained independence. Despite the Japaneseness of the features Okuyama found in the people she photographed, many grew up not realising their Japanese backgrounds. So for Okuyama, the act of photography is a form of personal understanding of her own past (as manifested in the Japanese occupation of Indonesia/The Dutch East Indies) and a reconnection of her subjects to the Japanese culture that she believes in so passionately.

Claudine has been searching for her father since the early 70’s.

The pictures are quite straightforward and they are uncaptioned (go to her website to see the captions - I like the captions. I am not sure why they are not in the book. This is not a poetic story, this is a concrete story. And the captions help fix that.).

Max M. was born in Bandung. He is one of a few fortunate cases to have good contact with his Japanese family.

The pictures are a mix of darkly printed portraits of these descendants, mixed with landscapes from the Dutch countryside. There is a sliding scale of Japaneseness in the portraits. Some look more Japanese, some less so, as though they are gradually becoming part of a new landscape. In addition to these elements there are a few interiors and a page from a map of Indonesia (of the island of Sumba curiously, a very particular place).

In 2007, Max confronted his mother for the truth. For the first time, she confirmed that he has a Japanese father.

But that landscape doesn't look quite as Dutch as you would expect.There are skies, and flowers and snow-covered forest floors. There seems to be something very Japanese about these places, as though the legacy may become diluted in genetic terms, but it stays in other ways, especially through the photographic filter that Okuyama overlays onto the Netherlands.

The book is printed on thin, almost translucent paper. It feels good to handle, and the darkness of the images is accentuated by the mass of blank pages. There is a lot of white in there to temper the blacks and the greys, but also to bring them out. It's a dark history and you get the feeling there are stories beneath the surface that Okuyama is not telling. There's an understated side to it, but the book gives us a feeling of these stories for us. Everything is suggested in a book that was a lot more difficult than it appears on the surface. There is a struggle in here, and that makes a huge difference.

Buy the book here.

And see more of the project here with captions. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Versus: Black and White. Where does one end and what does it mean?

There are two books in David Jimenez's Versus; a black book and a white book.

The black book is made up of images where glistens of water, trees, fish, doorways, leaves, clouds, cats, lighting, hands and walls shine though. There's not much shining though. It's all pretty black and difficult to see what is going on.

The white book is made up of images of mud, cloud, sand, grass, doorways, flesh, sky and sea. It's not really clear what is going on. It might even be that the images in the black book are the same as the one's in the white book but inverted (they're not but they could be. Maybe there are duplicates).

So I'll say it again; It's difficult to see what's happening. And that's the point of the book? It's about how we see images when they fall apart, how we put together the tiny fractions of image that still remain and form something from them.

It's a black-white philosophical enquiry then, with the fractions forming a narrative that is 'halfway belong the real and the imaginary... The images explore the limits of visual perception and transport us to an uncertain region in which we only have our intuition to guide us' as it says in the blurb.

It's a puzzle of a book then, one where you have to work to find meaning and the meaning is never conclusive or pinned down. It is about the edges of our perception but provides no answers or framework to consider how those edges work.

But it does take us to those edges and that's where it gets interesting, when you can't easily see what's going on, or when one thing becomes another and for a fraction of a second you're in a no-man's land of seeing; switching between the gears of different parts of the brain. And it is a lovely little package of a book, coming in those two volumes in a kind of slipcase.

Buy the book here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

James Barnor: Ever Young

Ever Young  is a collection of pictures from the archive of Ghanaian-born photographer James Barnor that creates a kind of timeline of the move of photographer from the studio into news, fashion and reportage. It's a kind of social history through photography if you like.

It's really a catalogue of Barnor's career, going from his days shooting for Drum Magazine, his time in charge of the Forever Young studio in Accra, and his subsequent move to London just in time for the 1960s.

There are pictures of Barnor with Ghana's first prime-minister, we see a spread on Roy Akrah (the Black Flash), a boxing champion Barnor shot for Drum Magazine, and pictures taken at the Drum Party on Chorkor Beach in Accra.

The late 1950s sees the opening of the Ever Young Studios and a series of studio portraits in which the aspirational modernity of post-colonial Ghana is shown. There are priests, nurses, street performers and a professor of yoga. It's a great section that ties in well, but is so very different, to the other great studio photography of the era. I don't know enough about Ghana but you can feel a Ghanaian identity coming through in places.

London in the 1960s shows black Britain, especially 'Drum Cover Girls' - in Trafalgar Square, feeding pigeons, and posing by the underground. There's eating grapes by a swimming pool in Kent, and portraits of Mohammed Ali before and after his fight with Brian London.

It's back to Africa and here we get Accra in colour, including some magnificent pictures from the colour processing shop that Barnor now managed.

Ever Young is an eclectic mix of studio portraits, press images, fashion and street photography and a broad introduction to how photography was used and expanded in Ghana and beyond. The pictures are great but it's not (as far as I understand) Barnor's complete archive so you get the feeling there is more to come. But it is an introduction to the work of a photographer who has been mostly overlooked until now and the pictures are fabulous.

Buy Ever Young here.

My Eyes Are Bleeding!

Oh dear, I've got a headache coming on from looking at the darned computer screen for too long. Let's rest my eyes a little by letting them scan across the pages of a nice and soothing photobook.

How about this one? A Plastic Tool by Maya Rochat. This should do the trick.

Just open the pages and arrgghh,,,, my eyes! my eyes! They're bleeding!

OK, I exaggerate but not too much. A Plastic Tool is not a book of quiet photographs. If you want to be sure of buying a book that isn't quiet, this is the one. It's a Spinal Tap of a book where all the visual levels go up to 11, with pictures that makes the pictures in Bye Bye Photography or A Language to Come seem positively pastoral in comparison.

A Plastic Tool is something of an experiment in printing, so there's a reason for all the noise.  The basic idea is that Rochat is taking '...us into her own universe, a world mainly concerned with her immediate surroundings, tinged with mystery and blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Working with different media and materials, her work forms a vast web of intertwined images whose energy disturbs our habitual codes of interpretation and perception.'

No kidding. I have no idea what is happening in this beyond a general uneasiness to do with body mud, strange collages and gloomy interiors made merry with the full Rochat treatment. Other things disturbing our habitual codes of interpretations and perceptions are the range of print technologies on offer -  offset, stencil print and silkscreen all figure so there's a 'unique materiality'. It's tactile in other words, there's a three dimensional element to it.

It's abstract expressionist, riso-coloured, oil-textured, mud-splattered and much, much more. I don't know quite what to make of it. I haven't got a clue what's going on.

One thing's for sure though. Rochat is playing it safe with this one. She's giving it a go. And as always, that's probably a good thing. I think.

Buy the Book Here

A Plastic Tool, Maya Rochat


The Floods: the kind of floods you could have a cup of tea with

You get some incredibly nice surprises sometimes. That was the case with Joe Wright's  book, The Floods. It's a book made between 2012 and 2014, when there was heavy flooding in the UK, when rivers swelled their banks, meadows were indundated and life for people living by rivers came to a standstill.

I remember those years well. On a very trivial level we were affected. We couldn't get to the pub we visited after our walks over Solsbury Hill because the River Avon was flooded. The scenic route we took into Bath became unpassable because of a raging torrent of clay brown water was blocking our way. The river had burst its banks and invaded the pathways, the woodlands, and the brambles that had once stood so peaceful and benign..

Everything became wilder and more primaeval during those floods. I remember looking at the water flooding across rocks and tree roots, how swamplike the marginal lands that we usually passed by without a glance had suddenly become. It was never pastoral this land, it was disused and a bit wasted, but suddenly it had a wild side. It became swamplike and murky, a damp mud-soaked expanse that hinted at parallel universe of an unpeopled land.

The floods created a world that was quite exciting in its way, but it also had a resolute Englishness to it; these were still downtrodden, low-key floods. It was a flood, but it was an English flood on English land with English vegetation, the kind of flood that (if you weren't flooded out of your house and you didn't have the anxiety of living by a river) you could have a cup of tea with.

And that's what Joe Wright's book The Floods looks like exactly. It's a book of beautiful, beautiful pictures of these flooded margins, pictures that fit in that difficult space between the pastoral, the primaeval and the sublime (and you can read more about that in Rob Hudson's thoughtful review here).

A lot of the books featured here on this blog have some kind of ideas going on that take the photography up a level, that makes images work in book form rather than as images in themselves. But in the Floods there is both great photography and an idea that revolves around the representation of landscape, Englishness and the margins that we take for granted. There might be a bit much of this at times - I don't think you need the word Edgelands in the title for example (it takes away from the globally relevant environmental nature of the work - and there is an environmental side to it) - but at the same time, the use of text from Robbie Cowen's Common Ground is smart and gives the work a biographical tinge.

The Floods is a book that resonates at the highest level. It's a bit odd having something like this come out of nowhere; it leaves you second guessing yourself (and Rob Hudson had the same reaction), but in terms of intelligent landscape work, this feels very special.

It's a hand made book and unfortunately the first 50 books has sold out, so you can only get the special edition (Wright is a book-binder as well as a photographer so the special edition is beautifully made). It's very good.

Buy the Floods here.

Where Britain Leads the World

dressed fleas pulgas vestidas

Dressed flea wedding couple by Tim Cockerill

OK. So Mexicans used to dress up fleas. The were called puglas vestidas Then they stopped..And now, thanks to Tim Cockerill, Britain leads the world in flea dressing.

'After several years of research and experimentation, Tim has revived the art of dressing fleas and is currently the only person in the world to practise this intricate skill.'

More information is available at the Flea Circus Research Library Blog

Monday, 16 November 2015

Photography, Fakery and Paris

'But look closer, and other parts of Qatar’s new football culture are a desert mirage. Sanchez’s team perform in front of almost empty stands; so few people want to watch club matches that low-paid migrant workers from Africa and Asia are bussed in, in their thousands, to fill empty seats. When I arrived at a match in the Qatar Stars League, the top-flight competition, the first thing I saw was a Kenyan pulling on a traditional white gown. He and his friends said they were among hundreds paid the equivalent of £5 to dress up as Qataris, fill a seat and have a stab at singing football songs in Arabic.'

That was from this article in the Guardian on the 2022 World Cup.  It was one of a whole bunch of articles on how we evade the truth, how we create facades to defend and deny what is blatantly honest. 

There was this review of a book on class, which started like this: 'If there’s a single fact that illustrates the way social class works in Britain today, it’s in the opening pages of this startling book. Of the 161,000 people who initially filled in the Great British Class Survey, which ran on the BBC website in 2011, 4.1% listed their occupation as chief executive, which is 20 times their representation in the labour force. By contrast, precisely no one stated they were a cleaner. While it’s pleasant to have your status at the top of the social pile affirmed, it’s rather less so to be reminded you’re at the bottom.'

And photography is the same. It's full of fake competitions, fake festivals, fake photographers and fake curators. Followers, influence and glowing feedback are traded back and forth with no transparent, and it is pretty much impossible to catch anyone out. 

Though if you're wondering how to tell if all those twitter followers are real or fake, do have a go at Twitteraudit or similar. That tells you how good an account is.

And then there was Paris. Half of Europe's photoworld was there this weekend and one can but feel nothing but grief, sorrow and outrage at the brutal murder that took place. Thankfully I think nobody was injured or killed from the lens-based world (they didn't go for the Grand Palais?), and I can only wonder at the dignity and grace of Parisians wandering around the beleaguered city in the day's after the event. As I can only wonder at how other, more beleaguered cities manage to cope with their tragedies and killings.

But to look at the subsequent reactions of so many to the events was disappointing. It was another example of dishonesty, fakery, and denial. 

There are those who pretend it's nothing to do with Islam. But it is. Why you would even deny that is beyon me. But Islam is a large religion and it is not to do with a huge part of it. And it's not to do with 'muslims', as though 'muslims' are this huge undifferentiated block of hook-handed, bearded nutbags. 

There are those who pretend it's nothing to do with Western wars in Iraq and beyond. It is. How can you pretend it isn't.

There's the doublethink of those who complain about the spread of extremism, while aiding, abetting and promoting in the most venal of ways the very same people who fund and aid that extemism, from the ground up. And the people who suffer from that most are ordinary people who want to get on with their lives without religious interference in the most basic parts of daily life. 

And perhaps worst of all are those who tell others to apologise for things they didn't do, while failing to realise that they themselves might have something to apologise for. Or those who claim that others are celebrating warfare and death, when they themselves celebrate warfare and death. Is there really that much difference?

In other words, maybe the picture is a bit more complex than we care to pretend and rather than seeking to blame others, perhaps we should take a bit of responsibility for our own actions, our own denials, our own deficiencies, our own prejudices. We should not excuse those who it is easy to excuse, but should rather raise our voices against those for whom warfare, bombing and killing are the only possible answer to warfare, bombing and killing. It simply doesn't work.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Klaus Pichler: I don't think we're in Homebase anymore

These pictures are by Klaus Pichler and they are from the brilliant Schock Sink Brandbook. You can see it here.

As Joerg Colberg says. 'Finally! New Formalism I can believe in!'

Chronicle: No Progress, No Photography, Old Country, New Country

In 2014, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok self-published Euromaidan. It was a modest perfect-bound book consisting of images of the demonstrations in Kiev that winter. The book was handmade and when I got my badly folded copy I felt a strange resonance. It was my kind of book, inasmuch as I'm terrible at packing things and I can’t fold paper or do creases very well either.

The pictures inside were great though. It was a classic protest book in the Japanese sense, filled with  images of sturm und drang. It was are-bure-bokeh Kiev and it caused a stir in photobook land that went beyond its modest means.

Now Lebedynskyy and Krasnoshchok have published a new book with Die Nacht. It’s called Chronicle and it sums up their photographic activities as part of the Shilo Group. And this time it’s not a modest affair. It’s stitched at the side (that’s called open thread stitching) as are so many books these days, and the cover is made of simple brown card. But there at the top is the title, laser cut out of its brown surroundings, circled with what looks like brown smoke marks.

Open the pages and there’s a brief introduction by Lebedynskyy that begins. ‘We were taught in school that we were born in the best country and that we were sure to get the victory over everybody else. In a little while the country seized (sic) to exist. It is believed that the 90s were a time of changes and cataclysms, but for us it has all started just now.’

 So it’s a book that is about the birth of a country (Ukraine) against a backdrop of the death of a country (the Soviet Union). The pictures were shot over five years between 2010 and 2015 and are divided into 3 chapters, printed on 3 separate paper stocks.

The first chapter looks at pre-Maidan Ukraine, through images from Kharkiv (best known in photography for being Boris Mikhailov’s hometown – the place where he shot Case History). The second looks at the demonstrations in Maidan, Kiev. And the final section looks at the ongoing conflict taking place in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Depending on how world affairs progress in the next few years,  as well as being a book about the birth of one nation (Ukraine) and the death of another (the Soviet Union), it is also about the possible death of one country (Ukraine) and the possible rebirth of another (the Soviet Union). Which makes things very complicated.

The Kharkiv section is from 2010-2013. It shows black and white pictures of brutalist architecture, farmyards and snow-covered streets. There are stray dogs and telephone wires so the Japanese influence is apparent.

But through all the grain and the mist, there are bare-legged women standing on street corners, weather worn faces, tattoos and chimney stacks. The blacks are not quite black, they’re more grey, the pictures are falling apart and the sad nostalgia (in the picture of the man reading a paper on a subway train for example) is calculated and serves a purpose. Mikhailov is alive in these pages.
The Maidan section shows the events in Kiev from 20th January to 10th February 2014. Here the pictures are printed proper Moriyama style, in full-bleed with deep blacks and grainy whites. So we get the piles of tires, the flames, the smoke and the barricades. It’s a blurry mass of chaos that seems quite familiar.

It might be that it seems too familiar. There is so much blurry graininess around that it has become somewhat trite; the angst-filled equivalent of an Ansel Adams inspired landscape or an Edward Weston copied nude. In Chronicle however, the black and white mannerisms serve a purpose and are also built into the process of making the pictures look so old, and so grimly nostalgic.

The pictures in Chronicle were made on old film bought on ebay, and printed on a Soviet paper called Bromopress - it was discontinued in 1991. The rationale for this process is, says Lebedynsky, that , ‘It is cheap, the process of print development goes on it's own, always unpredictable, with bad "quality". In my opinion this aesthetic just fits perfectly for the place where no progress is made, also where photography is not treated as art, you can not even study it.’

This artlessness is most marked in the final section where the pictures were made in the Donetsk and Lubansk regions from December 2014 – April 2015. Here the paper is grey, the pictures greyer. Here, we’re in wartime and, as with Lens Liebchen’s Stereotypes of War, the Shilo Group are playing to that. Armed soldiers, burned-out buildings and shattered bridges testify to that fact.

This looks like an old war in an old country. And it is supposed to because it is an old war in an old country, one that keeps repeating itself wherever in the world you choose to go. All made in a style that, says Lebedynskyy, ‘…Just fits perfectly for the place where no progress is made, also where photography is not treated as art, you can not even study it.’

It looks great and it's smart, both on the surface and beneath the surface. I get the feeling that, despite all the looking like war, there's a lot going on that I don't have the background to detect, either photographically or politically. It's a fast burner and a slow burner at the same time.

Buy Chronicle here.