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.

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

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

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.
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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.
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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.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

100 Years by Doug Aitken


My review of 100 Years by Doug Aitken (Rizzoli, 2014) is now available on the newly relaunched Art Book Review. It's a great issue and I'm excited to be included in the relaunch issue.

All images © Doug Aitken and Rizzoli
All images © Doug Aitken and Rizzoli

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sudden Flowers by Eric Gottesman


My review of Sudden Flowers by Eric Gottesman (Fishbar, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.
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In our overly commoditized art world that fetishizes authorship and individual genius, it is often difficult to define a work of collective art. The answer defies the market-centric logic of most contemporary art, and often has more lasting power than any high priced print, painting, or sculpture. Sudden Flowers by Eric Gottesman is a unique book and document that only hints at the larger and more important work it records. Founded in 1999, Sudden Flowers is the name of an artistic collective based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and coordinated by Gottesman for children whose parents have died of AIDS related illness. For almost fifteen years, the collective has created photographs and films that document their lives, imagine their futures, and deal with personal trauma. Gathering together photographs, letters, transcribed text, and stills, Sudden Flowers offers a sampling of the incredible work done by the group. While the book cannot contain the real work done by the collective, the images and text offer a glimpse into the transformative effect the collective has had on the kids’ extraordinary lives.

All images © Eric Gottesman, Sudden Flowers, and Fishbar
All images © Eric Gottesman, Sudden Flowers, and Fishbar

Travelling to Ethiopia in the late 90s, Gottesman was compelled to find alternatives to the clichéd representations of Ethiopia within Western media. Like many documentarians, Gottesman arrived at one of the most obvious solutions — to involve the community being documented. Sudden Flowers emerged out of Gottesman’s work with Yawoinshet Masresha, a writer and founder of the Hope for Children Organization, who introduced him to the core members of the what would become the collective — a group of six orphaned children who were under Masresha’s care. Although reluctant at first, the group decided to work with Gottesman on the condition that their work was used to help children like themselves. Yamrot, a young girl in the group, came up with their name, and explained it simply: “if given just a bit of water and light, we will suddenly blossom.” The collective quickly grew and has included approximately thirty-four children over the years. With the goal of making art about their lives and the impact of HIV/AIDS in their community, the collective produced ten short films, as well as numerous photographs, which have been shown throughout Ethiopia and the world.

All images © Eric Gottesman, Sudden Flowers, and Fishbar

Arranged loosely by project, the book gathers a sampling of the images made by the group over the years, as well as stills from their films. Shooting with positive/negative Polaroid film, the images were immediately available to the kids to be drawn on or annotated with text, which is translated and included along with the images. Using a variety of different exercises and assignment, the group produced narrative stories and staged tableaus that are full of hope and sadness. As the book’s opening text explains, “we make pictures based on our dreams, our future and our past.” In one exercise where the kids imagining their future self, a boy named Mesfin imagines himself as a barber, while in another a boy named Tinasae wants to be a scientist. While these images are full of hope, others deal more directly with the tragedies in the kid’s lives, like the images that reenact the death of loved ones, or their own social alienation. The book purposefully removes almost all authorship from individual images and presents each as a collaboration and group effort. This is partially by choice, but as Gottesman explains in the book’s essay, in many cases he has forgotten who was holding the camera. Gottesman’s work owes its greatest debt to the master educator Wendy Ewald, who helped pioneer teaching photography to children and has done similar projects around the world. Having worked closely with Ewald on at least one project in the northern provinces of Canada, he learned from the best.

Coupled with the images are numerous explanatory quotes, texts, and letters from the members. In the most painfully letters, children write to their deceased mothers. Despite the underlying sadness behind some of the work, the book is filled with hope. In the book’s closing essay and collection of whimsical bios, we learn that many of the key members have achieved great success both in Ethiopia and abroad. Two are in college, the boy who dreamed of being a scientist now lives in Canada and posts funny memes on Facebook, and another works in development and has earned multiple masters degrees.

In our image-saturated world, we often take for granted the transformative power of image making, and overlook the cultural, social and economic restrictions that prohibit or circumscribe the opportunities to visualize ones self. It should be obvious, but making pictures has never been wholly democratic or accessible. The success of Sudden Flowers demonstrates the incredible potential of teaching and empowering young children to visualize their lives and futures. Although Sudden Flowers attempts to contain the impossible, through the documents and images in this wonderful book we gain a tiny glimpse into the extraordinary lives of these young kids. We can only hope the collective continues to blossom.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photoeye on Dec. 29th, 2014.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Events Ashore by An-My Lê


My review of Events Ashore by An-My Lê (Aperture, 2014) is also available in the Dec/Jan issue of The Brooklyn Rail. You can read it online here, but pick up a copy if you can.

All images ©An-My Lê and Aperture
All images ©An-My Lê and Aperture
All images ©An-My Lê and Aperture

Entre Entree by Stephan Keppel


As a regular contributor to The Brooklyn Rail, I was asked to select one of my favorite photobooks of the year for their list of "The Ten Best Art Books of 2014." I could have easily choosen 15, but selected Stephan Keppel's Entree Entre (FW:Books, 2014), a fantastic book I discovered at The New York Art Book Fair this year. Here is what I wrote:
"Composed of photographs taken around the suburbs of Paris and the city’s ring road, the Boulevard Périphérique, Stephan Keppel’s Entre Entree is a fractured and disorienting portrait of Paris’s peripheral urban landscapes. Equally interested in photography and its subsequent reproduction, Keppel utilizes various paper stock, over-printed images, and rephotographed printouts to explore the city’s compact surface. Designed by Hans Gremmen, the book layers Keppel’s black-and-white images into repeating patterns of concrete, foliage, and black ink. Taken individually, the images seem incidental, but together they both capture the urban landscape’s shifting surfaces and playfully comment on photography’s promiscuous duplication. Inseparable from their presence on the page, the often overlapping images and reproduced reproductions form a dense whole that constantly shifts our attention back and forth between the three-dimensional subject matter and the flat surface of the page. Reflected and refracted across the printed page, the suburbs of Paris become a hall of mirrors—a maze of cacophonous ink and concrete forms."
Read the entire list here.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

billie


My review of billie by Horses Think Press is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here and here.
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All portraits are impossibilities. Each frame is full of shifting variables that reveal and conceal in equal measure. Billie, the latest book by Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press, begins with a simple premise, but is mercurial in nature, defying easy categorization. At its most basic level, it is a portrait of a woman, the artists’ wife and titular Billie, but it is also a collaborative performance with the subject. All portraits involve an exchange, and as the Wolberger states, “I took the pictures, she made them.” This collaboration is essential to the meaning of the work as it both sets the terms of the images and gives them different legitimacy, but also acknowledges their own limitations. Yet, Billie is as much a exploration of the limits of portraiture as it is a fugal love poem — repeating and echoing, notes are picked up, taken forward and abandoned, but the melody always returns to its subject.


All photographs © Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press
All photographs © Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press

In some ways, Billie is a follow up to Wolberger’s Visitor, which was part of his 12 Books project. In Visitor, the artist took pixilated corporate ID badge photos of his wife and compiled them in a similarly performative work. As he has explained about that work, he first took the badges surreptitiously, but once found out, Billie became an active participant — wearing hats or posing slightly for the robotic cameras. Like Visitor, the images in Billie have a casual quality to them. Shot entirely with a 35mm half-frame camera, there is a raw impressionistic quality to the work. Shooting against the sun, incorporating haze, lens flare and soft focus, the work moves back and forth from partial glances to a more directed gaze. The book’s generous inclusion of images is an assertion that no one image will suffice, nor can any one contain all the possibilities.

Like Visitor, which gathered a smaller collection of images, the larger volume of pictures in Billie belie their informative value. Instead, each picture takes us further from what appears to be a singular truth. Hairstyles change, the light and expressions shift, outfits evolve over time, and the photographer constantly changes position. Each move takes us further away and somehow closer. While the focus of the work is Billie, the book also contains other subjects — incidental landscapes, flowers, still-lifes, a dead cat, and a man sitting on a park bench, are just a few. Despite this fact, the book never strays too far its subject. These details and seemingly tangential images form pauses in the musical structure of the book, a break or silent beat in the work’s almost relentless stare.

All photographs © Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press
All photographs © Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press

Although different in many ways, I was immediately reminded of Roni Horn’s celebrated body of work and book, You Are The Weather (1994-5), which brought together a series of close-up photographs of the artist Margrét Haraldsdóttir Blöndal. Submerged up to her neck in the waters of a geothermal pool in Iceland, the work is not really about Margrét, but about her shifting presence. Typically installed in a small room, the unframed images wrap around the viewer and offer subtle differences of expression — each frame is not only a discrete exposure taken moments apart, but traces emotional changes in the subject and our own perception. Billie is much less minimalist in its approach, but offers a similarly deconstructed portrait. Cycling and repeating, it loops back on its subject from different angles and at different times — an evolving diary and collaborative love letter.

The book is simply designed with single or double image spreads, and comes in three different colored covers — pink, teal and red, with the red cover reserved for the special edition. In keeping with the work’s disavowed authorship, or rather collaborative nature, there is no name on the spine or in the book. The front shows a hazy indecipherable backlight portrait, while the back is a cloud of smoke. There is no text or information in the book besides the title, although it comes with a small pamphlet with statements that appear to be by Billie. Divorced from their original context and with the questions redacted, they are somewhat cryptic, but the fragments of information tell us what the photographs could never reveal.

All photographs © Ofer Wolberger and Horses Think Press

We’ve grown accustomed to a default for contemporary portraits — sad men and women, blank pensive faces, sitting on couches or beds. Vacant stares allow the viewer to occupy a comfortable space and suggest understandable meanings, profound truths, or at least known unknowns, yet they never seem to tell us anything. The problems of a portrait are not easily solved. No person can be defined by a single image, but they can easily be turned into a symbol or empty metaphor. The portraits of Billie are made whole and complicated by her participation and their volume. Each image and sequence offers the possibility of something, but like the backlit silhouette or tendrils of smoke on the front and back cover, we can project ourselves into the darkness or concoct metaphoric readings, but it can easily fall away like smoke.