Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Sun Shone Glaringly by Seth Lower

My review of The Sun Shone Glaringly by Seth Lower (Ice Plant, 2014) is now available on the latest issue of The Art Book Review. Read it here and get the book here.

All images © Seth Lower and Ice Plant
All images © Seth Lower and Ice Plant
All images © Seth Lower and Ice Plant
All images © Seth Lower and Ice Plant

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Half Wild by Peter Happel Christian

My review of Half Wild by Peter Happel Christian (Conveyor, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can read it here and order the here.

All images © Peter Happel Christian / Conveyor
All images © Peter Happel Christian / Conveyor
All images © Peter Happel Christian / Conveyor
All images © Peter Happel Christian / Conveyor

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Out of Order by Penelope Umbrico

My review of Out of Order by Penelope Umbrico (RVB Books, 2014) is now available on Paper Journal. You can read it here and get the book here.

All images © Penelope Umbrico / RVB Books

All images © Penelope Umbrico / RVB Books
All images © Penelope Umbrico / RVB Books

Monday, April 06, 2015

Invisible City and Night Walk by Ken Schles


My review of Invisible City and Night Walk by Ken Schles (Steidl, 2014) is now available in the April issue of The Brooklyn Rail. You can read the review here.

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