Sunday, March 08, 2015

Islands of the Blest by Bryan Schumaat and Ashley Davis

My review of Islands of the Blest by Bryan Schumaat and Ashley Davis (Silas Finch, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.


In 1893, the historian Frederick Turner Jackson presented his influential paper “The Significant of the Frontier in American History” at the World Fair in Chicago. In the paper, Jackson argued that the western frontier forced settlers and pioneers to shed old traditions and to adapt to the rugged landscape forging a new and unique American identity. Closely linked to the concept of Manifest Destiny, Jackson’s theory not only helped promoted the idea of American exceptionalism, but also occluded more complex narratives about the inhabitation and contested nature of the American West. Despite the efforts of historians over the years to debunk Turner’s theories, the myths he promoted continue to hold sway. Islands of the Blest by Bryan Schumaat and Ashley Davis gathers together a collection of archival photographs of the American West that consciously explores this mythic narrative. At the same time, it is a thoughtful examination of the malleable afterlife of photographs that can be resurrected to tell or retell stories that speak of the past and to the present.

Drawing on the holdings of the Library of Congress, Islands of the Blest presents a chronological montage of the American West from the 1870s to the 1940s. Expansive landscapes make way for images of railroads and solitary figures, and eventually bring us to crowded streets, a brightly lit marquee, and prairie homes. While there are occasionally narrative links between images, like the pairing of a fire scorched living room and a burned forest, the book eschews a direct narrative for a tour of the West’s history from its initial exploration by white settlers to its rapid settlement and eventual industrialization. There are no protagonists. Instead, we are cast as omniscient observers watching as time moves on, houses crumble, mines open the earth, and railroads cut through canyons.

While this kind of decontexutalized presentation is not new and has historical precedent, Islands of the Blest feels very contemporary. A cross between the work of Michael Lesy and Mike Mandel/Larry Sultan, Islands of the Blest stands out for its depth, focus, and careful edit. While many of the images are well-known and by some of the medium’s most famous practitioners, like W.H. Jackson and Dorthea Lange, others are lesser known or remain anonymous. Despite the numerous contributing photographers, the book does a remarkable job of maintaining its overall tone. Individual authorship of the images remains apparent, but does not feel out of place and flows naturally from one to the next.

In some sense, the book functions as a preamble to Schumaat’s first book, Grays the Mountain Sends, a similarly melancholic examination of the American West. I may be in the minority, but I actually think Islands of the Blest is a better and more unique book. Whereas Grays the Mountain Sends felt too beholden to its obvious contemporary influences, the historical distance afforded by these images lends an air of mystery that was not present in the earlier work. While the book feels closely tied to Schumaat’s earlier work, it is a joint effort between Schumaat and Ashley Davis, a historian pursuing a graduate degree in American history. Even though it is the work of an artist and historian, it is still very much an artist’s book. Captions and image information are provided in the back, but the images are divorced enough from their original context that they fit within the book and suggest new meanings. Oversized with a soft cloth cover, the images are all presented in a rough offset black-and-white, which lends the images a fragile, ghost-like quality.

It is worth noting that Islands of the Blest does not try to tell a revisionist story of the West. Native, Chinese, and African-Americans are absent. Given the overtly poetic nature of the book and Schumaat’s previous book, I do not think the book was intended to be a political one, nor was it meant to counter the still dominant myths of the American West. As we now know, the expansive Western landscapes encountered by white settlers were hardly untouched or empty, but had been inhabited for generations by Native-Americans and settlers from Mexico. Instead, the book acknowledges, employs, and plays with the mythic narrative of the West.

The book’s title has its roots in Greek mythology, and refers to islands where favored mortals or heroes, who have been reborn three times and deemed worthy each time, would be received and blessed by the gods in paradise. (The title also appears in a fantastic poem by Michael McGriff that opens the book.) On the one hand, the title reads as a romantic homage to the men and woman who appear in these images and an attempt to cast the western landscape as the paradisiacal isles, but I think it is the actual images themselves that are being reborn and blest. From their original function as documents to their life within an archive to their resurrection within this book, these photographs, like all photographs, have shifting, multiple meanings. Like the heroes of Greek mythology who risked rebirth three times to make it to the isles, photographs continually die, disappear, and reappear. In the end, we’re the gods who judge if they’re worthy of rebirth rather than allowing them to fade, vanish, or smolder in an archive. In Islands of the Blest, Schumaat and Davis have resurrected these images to retell a familiar story of the American West, but the book also tells us about these images and their continued importance. That is of course, if we keep them alive

Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on March 5th, 2015. You can get the book here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality by Gilles Mora

My review of Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality by Giles Mora (University of Texas Press, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

As both an artist and educator, Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) has influenced countless photographers and played a central role in defining the medium in the late 20th century. Given the recent vogue for photographic abstraction, the need to understand the work of Siskind has become all the more important. Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality charts the evolving nature of the artist, demonstrating the fluidity with which he moved between different styles and how, even at his most abstract, he remained firmly rooted in the world and its visual pleasures.

All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press

Divided into four major sections, the book includes over 150 photos that span Siskind’s working life. It begins appropriately with Siskind’s work with the New York Photo League in the early to mid-30s, which he quit and later rejoined in 1936 to help form the Feature Group. A smaller group within the Photo League, the Feature Group was responsible for the Harlem Document, a collaborative project involving several photographers who sought to document the social, economic, and cultural reality of Harlem. Resembling much socially concerned documentary work of the time, Siskind’s images include cityscapes, portraits, interiors, as well as scenes from Harlem’s vibrant nightlife. Although Siskind moved towards more abstract work shortly after the completion of the Harlem Document, he worked on a similarly collaborative project with his students from the Institute of Design in the early 50s. The ‘Louis Sullivan project’ (1952-54) documented many of the architect’s remaining buildings in Chicago. Like the Harlem Document, the emphasis was less on individual authorship than on creating a dynamic archive that preserved an important aspect of the city.

All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press
All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press

During the mid-to-late 40s, Siskind began to produce some of his most iconic abstract images and move away from his social-documentary practice. Siskind continued to go out into the world to make pictures, but was beginning to develop his own abstracted visual language — marks on walls, peeling painted, cropped and disjointed signs, close-ups of rocks, and gestural reeds of grass. Never entirely abstract, Siskind’s work explored the way the camera could transform mundane surfaces, marks, and juxtapositions into poetry of light, form, and surface. While his work often sought inspiration in the natural world, he found delight in the textured, graphic surface of the modern city. Signs appear regularly, but are always illegible. Reduced to line and form, the marks and abstracted signs resemble the letters of an alien alphabet, spliced and reshuffled, or cut off. At times visually disorienting, Siskind’s images never confuse or confound, or dissolve into indecipherable abstractions. As the book makes clear, Siskind continued to shoot more legible subject matter like nudes, balletic divers, landscapes, and architectural images throughout his life, moving fluidly between what might be seen as diametrically opposed styles.

It was also during this formative period in New York City that Siskind befriended numerous Abstract Expressionists. One close friend was Franz Kline, who was later celebrated in Siskind’s series, Homage to Franz Kline (1972-74), a suite of images that depicted walls with gestural marks from around the world. While it might be assumed that Siskind was aping the Abstract Expressionists, this is an unfair and untrue assessment. At a time when photography was still struggling for legitimacy as an art form, and often ghettoized when it was given any recognition, Siskind was learning from and influencing some of the most acclaimed artists of the time. If anything, this close relationship highlights the absurdity of rigid curatorial or art historical boundaries, and points to the way artists communicate, learn from, and influence each other across mediums.

All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press

In addition to his acclaim as an artist, Siskind was an equally influential teacher; I would argue his teaching should be recognized as a vital aspect of his legacy. Hired to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago by Harry Callahan in the early-50s, Siskind went on to mentor countless students, including Ray K. Metzker, Barbara Crane, Charles H. Traub, Kenneth Josephson, as well as many others, who in turn went on to influence and teach more and more photographers at the increasing number of photography programs around the United States.[1] Siskind remained at the Institute of Design for twenty-years, leaving in 1971 and joining his by now close friend Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality is well designed and nicely printed. While a few of the very early images appear a bit washed out or murky, this is easily overlooked by the fact we’re given such a broad and comprehensive view of Siskind’s work. Sadly, the accompanying show at the Pavillon Populaire in Montpellier, France, which opened this fall, does not appear to have plans to travel to the US at this time. Hopefully, this will change. For now, we have this great book, which fills a long neglected void. It also reminds us of the visionary importance of Siskind not only for his time, but also our own.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on February 25th, 2015.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts (update)

As we approach our publication date of late-April/early-May, I wanted to share some advanced praise the book has received from some incredible people. We'll be having some NYC based events and signings coming up, so stay tuned.

If you want to pre-order the book from UC Press, be sure to use the code below so you can get 30% off.

“A valuable, timely, and stimulating collection” 
- Geoff Dyer, author of The Ongoing Moment

“A remarkable compendium of important artists, practitioners, theorists, and essayists, who muse on what constitutes creativity in the lens and screen arts today. I think this book is destined to be essential reading for all those thinking about the future of our visual culture.” 
- Mark Lubell, Executive Director, International Center of Photography

“Brings together prophetic historic texts with the best of recent thinking to create an essential reader. This book provides a critical framework that genuinely supports a creative life in photography.”
- Charlotte Cotton, author of The Photograph as Contemporary Art

Pre-order the book here

For a 30% discount use source code: 14M6812

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Songbook by Alec Soth

My review of Alec Soth's Songbook (MACK, 2015) is now available on fototazo. You can read the review here and get the book here.

I want to invite you to dance. Yes, you. Here, I'll show you. Like this. 

 Tender, innocuous words, yet full of vulnerability, Soth's latest work begins with an invitation. Arms held out, the dance beginning, we're invited to relearn songs we've forgotten or maybe never knew we knew. In many ways, it's hard to write something new about Soth. One of the most celebrated contemporary photographers, Soth's work builds on a long, and rich tradition of American photography—Walker Evans to Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Diane Arbus, and more. With each project, Soth has plumbed the American landscape to create works that are deeply personal, but universally resonant. Compiled from Soth's collaborative work with Brad Zellar on the Little Brown Mushroom Dispatches (2012-2014), as well as work as a freelance photographer for Magnum and personal work, Songbook is a tender, but heartbreaking anthology of love songs, ballads, choral anthems, and sing-alongs masquerading as photographs that speak about our yearning for both individual expression and communal connection.

All images © Alec Soth/MACK
All images © Alec Soth/MACK

Photographs rely on context, yet often thrive in its absence. While the images in Soth's latest book are closely modeled after newspaper photography of the likes of Weegee or any number of nameless small-town newspaper photographers, here they are presented without their original context. As part of the LBM Dispatches the images were accompanied by pithy and insightful texts by Brad Zellar and in other settings by essays, such as the work from The New York Times. Stripped of their original context, Soth's photographs have a heightened mystery. Although there are often signifiers that place them in the present, the appearance of anachronistic dress or environments confound any easy assessment of their age or provenance. This tone is furthered by Soth's use of black-and white in place of his signature color. Although the images vary in approach and style, the more event and documentary oriented images, like those of conferences, events or church gatherings, reminded me of Bill Wood's Business, a show at the International Center for Photography and also a book by Marvin Heiferman and Diane Keaton, which featured the work of Bill Wood, a commercial photography from the late-30s to 70s in Fort Worth, Texas. Self-consciously modeled on photographers like Wood, Soth and Zellar reported on many local events including self-help conferences, church socials, and town dances. Attempting to see beyond what is often assumed to be American monoculture, they looked for the local. As Zellar put it, "we wanted to see how folks were faring outside the ersatz, isolating communities of office hives and cyber space."

 All images © Alec Soth/MACK

In addition to small town photojournalism, the key visual reference for Songbook, is Evidence, the ur-photobook of decontextualized archival photographs by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan from 1977. Shorn from their original text and accompanying archival context, Mandel and Sultan's images suggest a myriad of possible meanings. Like the odd images used by Mandel and Sultan, Soth's black-and-white images often utilize a strong flash, which not only freezes his subjects, but also places them under a clinical gaze and asks us to look more closely. References to Evidence can be seen throughout the book, but are most present in the more peculiar imagery. In one such image, a man wearing a baseball cap has pushed all his hair over his face and resembles Cousin It from the Addams Family. In another, two hands, cut off by the frame, toss a rock that's frozen mid-air. My personal favorite is a vertical photograph that shows a couple from behind sitting on a bed. Turned towards each other for a kiss, both their faces are obscured. Like a found photograph from the 50s, the image is a vexing puzzle.

Bound in a green fabric, the book is embossed with the title on the cover and the music and lyrics from Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "Dancing in the Dark" on the back. As the lyrics on the back cover instruct, "slowly, and with much expression." These are appropriate instructions for approaching the book. Generously proportioned, the book resembles the oversized songbook it references right down to its semi-soft cover. Throughout the book are fragments of song lyrics that guide us along. They help maintain a beat, and bring us back to the melody at hand. Like the images they accompany, they are drawn from the longer songs and offer their own mysterious allure. Save the few lyrics and a brilliant quote by Eugene Ionesco at the end, there is no text in the book. Thankfully, there is a LBM Dispatches book in the works that will include the excellent writing of Brad Zellar, whose writings and collaboration Soth acknowledges in the book as the unseen presence behind almost all the work.

All images © Alec Soth/MACK

Despite the sense of loneliness that often pervades the work, the people depicted in Songbook are never ridiculed or patronized by Soth's camera. Although Soth acknowledges their quixotic search for fulfillment, expression, and connection, each image seems to be recognition not only of that same longing in Soth, but also an invitation to recognize it within ourselves. This is a theme that is present in much of Soth's work from his breakthrough book Sleeping By The Mississippi to NIAGRA, and more recently, Broken Manual, his darkest work. It is also what makes his work so very American. Soth acknowledges the fragile but powerful bonds that unite us as a nation, while also recognizing our fierce independence. While Soth may bend the narrative of his images to fit his vision, he's created a story that speaks to our post-recession and socially anxious age. In the end, all artists frame a version of reality to tell a large truth. Whether or not that truth resonates is what matters. Fans of his work have no doubt snatched up this book already and don't need to be persuaded, but the work may also appeal to people who don't know his work, or were not persuaded by his previous books. Admirably, Soth has refused to rest on his laurels and has continued to challenge himself. In this new work, Soth continues to explore familiar territory, but shifts directions again. Like the dancer who opens the book, he's asking us to follow, dance, and sing along.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Printed in Germany by Christopher Williams

My review of Printed in Germany by Christopher Williams (Walther König, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

Christopher Williams is an acquired and erudite taste. His dense and discursive photographs tell complex stories about their subjects and production, which are both immensely pleasurable and maddeningly obtuse. Similar in many ways to The Pictures Generation, who are his rough contemporaries, Williams occupies a unique niche. Stubbornly hermetic, Williams utilizes both appropriated and rephotographed images, as well as his own photographs and those by professional photographers. Although drawn from a variety of different sources and taken by various photographers, the work maintains a uniform, detached, commercial look. The second volume in a three-volume catalog, Printed in Germany not only playfully deconstructs the exhibition catalog but also questions the language of photographic representation and exposes the knotty reality that informs and supports the images that surround us.

All images © Christopher Williams/Walther König
All images © Christopher Williams/Walther König

Since the 1980s, Williams has used the language of advertising photography, as well as a variety of photographic conventions, to create richly encoded images that foreground their own artifice. In each carefully crafted image, Williams lays bare the flaws of these visual models, while also directing ones attention to the expansive social, economic, and political forces that bring these images into being and sustain them. Loosely linked, Williams’ work includes variety of different subjects, including apples, smiling models, bisected cameras and lenses, overturned Renaults, and intricately stacked and sliced Ritter chocolate bars. Each image functions as its own visual essay with a non-inferable backstory or rationale that is often alluded to in the long, detailed descriptions of the images. In one case, a hovering tire points to the production of rubber in Vietnam, as well as the Vietnam War and possibly the remnants of a colonial empire. In another image, an African man from Gambia, wearing a crisp white German shirt, holds a Plaubel Makina, a German camera, which was later manufactured in Japan. Beyond suggesting a complex international chain of economic links, the exact meaning behind all these details remains unclear. Pristinely rendered, Williams’ work offers its own aesthetic pleasure, but is always asking us to look deeper. Whether we choose to follow is up to us.

All images © Christopher Williams/Walther König

Like Williams’ corresponding retrospective, whose true subject is the exhibition form itself, the book is and is not the true subject of the catalog. As Williams recently stated, the multi-volume catalog “really becomes a model of a book, rather than a survey catalog.” Stripped of text, Printed in Germany self-consciously plays with the book format. Images are abruptly cut off in the gutter, only to appear again in the next signature or spread, and occasionally run off the page. Depending on the version of the book you choose, the book is also filled with sections of green, red, or yellow monochromatic paper. In one case, an image of a bisected lens appears on one of these pages, but they are otherwise blank and function as both pauses and ruptures in the book’s flow. The gaps also remind one of spaces typically held by catalog essays or text. This possibility is underscored by the empty pamphlet that appears in the back of the book.

All images © Christopher Williams/Walther König

Printed in Germany, so named for the only text printed onto the back cover of the pamphlet, is the second volume in a planned three-volume catalog accompanying William’s travelling retrospective. The first volume, The Production Line of Happiness, is a comparatively slim book and principally contains essays from the curators at the three institutions that hosted the show: Mark Godfrey, Roxana Marcoci, and Matthew S. Witkovsky. Interspersed in the book are other reprinted texts, including a talk Williams gave on the artist John Chamberlain, a piece by Barbara Kruger, and text by Claes Oldenberg. Whereas The Production Line of Happiness outlines William’s creative lineage and output, Printed in Germany foregrounds the pictures,. The third volume, not yet named, is slated for 2015 and will contain all of the artist’s copious image captions, installation shots from all the venues, and transcriptions from symposiums that took place during the show. Although the third volume has not appeared, the first two volumes recently won the prestigious Aperture Book Award for the Best Catalog. In some ways, it feels incomplete to discuss only the second volume, especially since all three are so closely tied. Despite this fact, this image-centric volume will clearly appeal to those who prize Williams’ images above their complex back-stories.

As Peter Schjeldahl recently remarked, Williams can offer three responses —annoyance and frustration, deeper exploration of its subject, or simple visual pleasure. Each response is equally valid, and not mutually exclusive. Yet, for someone who pays such close attention to images and image culture, it seems odd that Williams’ more recent work largely ignores the transformative effects digital and Internet culture have had on the way we consume, disseminate, and use images. Instead, Williams’ seems fixated on a dated analog image culture and critique from the 80s. For all Williams’ fetishistic attention to the expansive framework of his images, their meaning often feels circumscribed and restrained. Despite the conservative reach of Williams’ critique, it is hard to find fault with such an ambitious and fearless catalog. Whereas most retrospective catalogs are musty affairs, it’s rare to find an artist who so wantonly deconstructs what is typically a career-defining monument.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on January 29th, 2015.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Out There by Bruno Augsburger

My review of Out There by Bruno Augsburger (STURM & DRANG, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

Like a receding mirage, the “wild” has always existed beyond our reach. The exact position and nature of this categorical landscape shifts and changes depending on where we stand, but remains a constant trope — teasing us from afar and then slipping away. Journeying out beyond the perceived edge of civilized society and into this untamed space, it is easy to see the land as a foil or test. The nights are long, cold, or hot, and one is left largely to oneself. More imaginary than real, this desire for an untouched landscape has less to do with the terrain itself and has more to do with our desire for utopian renewal in a pristine landscape — a blank slate with which to not only position and redefine oneself but also move forward. Bruno Augsburger’s Out There joins a long tradition of venturing out into the wilderness. Evoking writers like Thoreau and London, Augsburger’s expansive images of the Yukon chart a personal journey and escape into a mythologized landscape.

All images © Bruno Augsburger
All images © Bruno Augsburger

We begin in the arctic. The Yukon. There is no journey, no destination. We’re just there. Thrown into the snow, the mist, and fog, we’re left to plunge through the heath and moss, staring out into the expansive landscape. Moving from winter to spring to summer, Augsburger takes us on a temporal and physical journey through the arctic landscape. Over the course of the book, the landscape is slowly transformed from a veil of snow into a tangled maze of verdant moss. Although the human presence is slight, we see the presence of Augsburger and his companions, either in a makeshift tent and carved out sleeping quarters or a freshly caught fish and slaughtered moose. Their bodies and death are a reminder of the prices paid to survive in this space. In an image that recalls the work of Caspar David Friedrich, we see a lone figure set against an expansive landscape and moving forward into the mist. Recalling Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1810), the meager figure is dwarfed by the snow and shrouded mountains, but moves forward into the abyss.

All images © Bruno Augsburger
All images © Bruno Augsburger

While Augsburger maintains this serene, and at times sublime, tone for most of the book, the illusion is broken about one third of the way into the book when we are shown an image of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Opened to show a spread containing one of the book’s most famous passages where Thoreau states, “I went to the woods to live deliberately,” the text immediately draws us out of Augsburger’s world. As if the influences are not clear enough, Augsburger also shows us copies of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and Rosseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker similarly opened to a key passages. Unfortunately, these additions are unnecessary explication. Despite this small issue, the book is full of incredible photographs. From the enigmatic image that graces the cover of a man in a tree blind to an image, taken at dusk, of a small camping spot carved out of the snow and illuminated by a lantern, Augsburger’s images evoke an other worldly sublime.

Slightly oversized, the book is filled with beautiful reproductions that capture both the subtle white tones of the snow and the rainbow hued colors of the spring grass and moss. Underneath the dust jacket, the cover is blind stamped with a graphic of twin moose antlers over a fish — a fitting homage to the two animals killed in the book. Created in an edition of 600, the book is clearly a labor of love and result of many trips to the Yukon throughout year. The book begins appropriately with a quote from Thoreau about getting lost in order to find oneself. Followed by a pristine studio shot, taken from above, of all of Augsburger’s gear — knives, fishing rods, worn flannel shirts, cameras, and sleeping bags — these two elements are the only preface we need before we embark on our journey. I just wish Augsburger had trusted us enough to get lost with him.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photoeye on Jan. 22nd, 2015.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Land Without Past by Phillip Ebeling

My review of Land Without Past by Phillip Ebeling (Fishbar, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

The erasure of individual and collective memory is often intertwined. Slow and cumulative, one image, one document or brick at a time until the illusion is complete and we’re left with blank spots or holes in the past. Phillips Ebeling’s Land Without Past deals with the painful erasure of one of the 20th centuries darkest moments. In the wake of WWII, Germany was left not only physically devastated, but forced to reconcile with the crimes it had committed against its Jewish population and the world. For those who participated, a simple denial was often all that was needed to move on. Burn the pictures, rebuild, and forget what happened. For those born in the wake of WWII, the task was not so easy. As Ebeling’s title suggests, they were born into a country without a past, or with part of its recent history excised, glossed over and forgotten, much less discussed openly. Combining his own color images with archival family photographs, Ebeling’s powerful book offers a glimpse into the difficult task of looking backwards, but also living with and acknowledging a past long forgotten.

All images © Phillip Ebeling and Fishbar
All images © Phillip Ebeling and Fishbar

Measuring approximately 10”x11” with a stark black dust jacket, the book commands a quiet presence. Dotted with empty photocorners, the cover resembles the internal pages of a photo-album. However, like the family albums Ebeling draws from, the photographs have been removed. Only one photograph remains on the back, and shows three happy young adults laying on the grass and looking at the camera. Slightly tilted, the remaining image appears as though it is about fall off the album, soon to be lost as well. Paired with Ebelings own medium format color images, the black and white family photographs inside the book have been enlarged and cropped to match size and proportions the color images. While many are innocuous family snapshots, some are more ominous and suggest a past many have chosen to forget. In one image, a group of Hitler Youth gathers and poses for the camera. In another, a small group of Nazi soldiers march past in the road and turn mid-stride to acknowledge the camera.

Ebeling’s own images are full of hidden and suggestive meanings that echo and draw on the older pictures. The book opens with the shot of a pristine house and well-manicured lawn. In typical German fashion, everything is perfectly maintained and organized, but the order seems to be hiding something. The next spread shows an older image of a young boy slouching in an armchair and is paired with a contemporary shot of a train set in the attic. Far from ideal as a playroom, the disheveled and long abandoned set-up shows a cloistered children’s playroom, shut off and insulated from the world outside. In light of the book’s larger themes, the boy’s sullen and annoyed expression takes on more complex meaning. In the book’s final image, we see an older man power washing a sidewalk — another mundane task that takes on greater meaning in the context of the book. While the symbolic meaning of Ebelings photographs works on their own, they are given added depth through the inclusion of the historical photographs, which force us to move constantly backwards and forwards in time, and reframe the present.

All images © Phillip Ebeling and Fishbar

Having left Germany for England many years ago, Land Without Past represents not only a return home for Ebeling but also an attempt to grapple with a past that was never truly left behind. By examining the subtle erasures that occurred within his own family history, Ebeling offers us a small glimpse at what must have taken place at a larger scale. While the years between 1930 and 1945 represent a large hole within the German historical consciousness, Ebeling’s work also hints at Germany’s struggle and turmoil in the wake of reunification and the years that followed. As Ebeling notes in the concluding essay, it’s possible “no two generations in the last hundred years has grown up in the same country.” Deceptively simple in its design and approach, the result is hard fought. Land Without Past succeeds in large measure because of its clarity, and demonstrates an astute and intelligent eye, as well an admirable courage that required looking into the past with clear eyes.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photoeye on Jan. 12th, 2015.