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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!

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