Photobook/App review: The Afronauts, by Cristina De Middel

Article first published as Photobook/App Review: The Afronauts by Cristina DeMiddel on Blogcritics.

How many photography apps come with a spoiler alert? Ubicuo Studio, who produced an app based on Cristina De Middel’s limited edition photo book The Afronauts, gave me the option of learning the app’s secrets right away or exploring it for myself. Much as the photographs explore its subject matter in a novel and personal way, exploring the app on your own gives the consumer a chance to make their own discoveries.

Courtesy of Ubicuo Studios
Courtesy of Ubicuo Studios

The Afronauts is famous in the photobook world, so I envy those coming to the app from outside the field. Cristina DeMiddel’s self-published photobook was on a lot of best of 2012 lists. But good luck finding a copy. The modest tome book sold out months after its release. In a photobook market that is already insane, its rise from a $40 artist’s book to a thousand dollar (and up) collectible is legendary, and as DeMiddel told me in an interview for Lay Flat, the attention has been daunting.

DeMiddel can’t afford a copy of her own book at this point. Interest in The Afronauts has skyrocketed much like the dreams of the Zambian Space program that inspired the project. What made the print edition stand out besides its unusual subject matter was its mixture of photography and ephemera, assembled in a lovingly designed object.

De Middel cut her teeth as a photojournalist, and was intrigued by the way that images can reveal an audience’s prejudices. She created images of an African space program knowing full well the subject is potentially loaded. DeMiddel explains, “One of my intentions with The Afronauts was to raise awareness of how we consume the image of Africa that is given in the media, and how a whole continent has been stigmatized. This uncomfortable reaction and prejudice belongs to the viewer as it is not literally included in the images.”

This uncomfortable reaction is more provocative that it’s provoked by such a charming guise. The Other is dressed up in what appear to be hand-made space suits embellished in what we imagine are tribal designs. DeMiddel’s photos and invented ephemera work against the kind of images we have come to expect from Africa.

The material is fascinating any way you present it. But, in print form, The Afronauts raised the bar on what great design can do for a photobook. It was more than the sum of its parts, and the same is true for the app. DeMiddel wanted to make the material available in a new and affordable form, and designer Maria Cerezo had some fun with it. The app is set up as a game that requires the consumer to do a little exploration on their own before they can get at the images inside. The images themselves are laid out in a way that respects the book’s layout, but have the added app-behavior of an iPad’s finger gestures. You can pinch and expand the images in a way that you cannot do with the book. I have never handled the Afronauts book, but from images and video, the photo reproduction of the app seems to take advantage of the display resolution to present a much different tonal experience. The app images are processed with a higher contrast than the more subdued tones of the book, which had the look of a softly aged artifact. The app is a thing of the future present, a bright and shiny dream. Buy it here – only 99c until April 20, when the price goes up to $5.99.

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Photobook review: Photo Journalism (Getty Images), edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson

Article first published as Book Review: Photo Journalism (Getty Images), Edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson on Blogcritics.

This week’s big news story for pop culture aficionados was the appearance of a newly verified photo of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. The image is only the third verified photo of this elusive figure, who as the story goes sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the talent that made him a musical icon. If anybody’s name should lead that headline it should be Johnson’s. But at least one photo industry report led not with the image’s subject, but with a name that has become, for better or worse, synonymous with images – and image licensing: Getty.

Verification controversy aside, Getty Images is one of the main providers of digital images. Not any specific kind of images, but simply images, and the breadth that such generality suggests is daunting. It means pictures from the latest Hollywood product to stock images as mundane as an artfully prepared double bacon cheeseburger, but also editorial images which over the years have defined the news.

We live in a conflicted age of image making. On the one hand, more images than ever are experienced in bits and bytes, on a computer screen or a smartphone. On the other, we live in a golden age of the photo book, where more and more excellent monographs are presented in ways that further not only the art of photography but the art of the book. Into this environment walks a massive 800-page tome. 

Photo Journalism (Getty Images), edited by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson for h.f. ullman , is arranged chronologically and by themes like Revolutions, Entertainment, the Third Reich and the Role of Women. From the arrival of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, to the appalling images that came out of Abu Ghraib; from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse, Getty has it. This doorstopper of a photo book samples nearly two centuries of newsmakers as featured in the vast coffers of Getty Images. 

The book has the kind of structure useful in a reference book. But even though I am a voracious consumer of images and photo books, Photo Journalism feels dry and somehow unsurprising. The publishers tried to squeeze too many images into crowded layouts. Given the format, which isn’t as massive, as, say, Taschen’s excellent London: Portrait of a City, it would have been better to use fewer images in layouts that allowed those images to dominate a page spread. The book seems tailored to an internet attention-span, but is too unwieldy to comfortably explore the way one can effortlessly browse a web site.

I wish there had been some way to tackle the collection with more serendipity -an app that pulls up a random image for the viewer would be a way to be continually surprised by the breadth of this collection. The determined photography lover will certainly find arresting images in Photo Journalism, but more than likely the clunky format will send them looking for a better presentation of the image — online.

Photobook Review: Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt

Courtesy of Taschen
Courtesy of Taschen

Article first published as Book Review: Neue Welt by Wolfgang Tillmans on Blogcritics.

A picture is worth a thousand words,  so the old saying goes, but words can say something too. The title of Wolfgang Tillmans’ new monograph, his fourth book for Taschen, doesn’t say enough. Neither do the pictures.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt  (New Work) is a seemingly generic title. A long interview with Tillmans by Beatrix Ruf coaxes meaning from these brief syllables, finding resonance with a 1928 monograph by Albert Renger-Patzsch, The World is Beautiful. Tillmans expounds at length about digital versus analog photography and simply regards the digital camera as a different tool, the higher resolution a reflection of the higher resolution of a highly stimulated world. But his summation of this phase in his career could be said by any other photographer: he’s “trying out what the camera can do for me, what I can do for it.”

The images selected for Neue Welt reflect a wide subject range but little depth. Portraits from exotic lands, Family of Man-style images of humanity, are juxtaposed with cold details of cars, sinister banality a la John Gossage, and intermittent abstractions. Color blocks and starlit night skies seem to set up a concept that this New Work encompasses everything. What does it all add up to? The scope of Tillman’s work is ordinary but brings all these images no matter the subject into the same continuum, as if he is channeling all the different schools of the history of photography.

It’s an admirable concept but also unfocused. Neue Welt suggests new eyes, the eyes of a human being trying to take in all manner of stimulus and creating order and sense and meaning out of it. But while I am a fan of the banal school of photography placing these images in context with human faces does not elevate the banality so much as bring down the humanity to a banal level – it’s just another image, whether it’s in Tasmania or London.

Tillmans has recently presented his images in galleries as unframed prints hung flat from gallery walls. Perhaps this is a commentary on the way art consumers expect to have art framed and contextualized, but it’s also comes off as lazy. Tillmans is clearly a hard working, globe trotting image maker, and that his New Work seems lazy could be a reflection on his aesthetic or on the over stimulated world that he embraces and critiques.

Photobook review: London: Portrait of a City

ANONYMOUS. 24 hour milk bar in Bear Street, just off Leicester Square, c. 1936. (SSPL/National Media Museum)

This reads a little more like a puff piece than I’d like. Someday I’ll update this blog with the movie reviews I’ve written for DCist since I last blogged here.  Article first published as Book Review: London: Portrait of a City by Reuel Golden on Blogcritics.

All of the world’s great capitals deserve a coffee table book as lavish and vibrant as Taschen’s London: Portrait of a City, ready to adorn coffee tables around the world for perusal during rare Olympic lulls. The $69.99 list price may seem steep, but it’s heft and production values, to Taschen’s high standards, make it a solid investment as well as an eminently page-turnable tome for the discriminating coffee table.

Reuel Golden’s essays, printed in English, French, and German, divide the book into four neat sections from the city’s photographic history. These sections efficiently portray the history of the city in politics, art and literature, and trumps up the commercial ingenuity and fashion sense of London in all its eras, from Victorian to punk.

But it’s the photography that makes the book weigh in at 552 oversized pages, and the Taschen editors have expertly condensed a few centuries of London imagery to make a handsome volume that’s representative without giving short shrift to the city’s hard times. As such the the book serve as a brief history of British photography. Reproductions of beautifully atmospheric prints by Willaim Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton mark the first section, while further sections introduce photographs by names familiar and unfamiliar to the photography student.

German-born photojournalist Bill Brandt moved to London in the early 1930s, and his classic street photography covers the London scene up until Swinging London, covered by fashion photographers and anonymous names as well as Magnum photographer Inge Morath. What better way to capture the strangeness of a metropolis than through the eyes of outsiders? So for every ur-British photographer like Martin Parr you have the work of established young photographers from elsewhere on the continent, like Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller.

Even if those names mean nothing to you, you should know at a glance if you want to open up London: Portrait of a City, and you will: an iconic image of a swinging London bird poses in front of a double-decker bus, her red headdress and purse matching the bus in the iconic red of The St. George’s Cross.

Photobook Review: Dear Photograph

Article first published as Book Review: Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones on Blogcritics.

“The sun always shone brighter when our grandmother was beside us.” ”I wish we could live it all over again.” “I realize now that father knows best.” These are the typical sentiments voiced in Dear Photograph, a collection of photographs in which a vintage print is held up and aligned to a view of the present day. If Hallmark-commodified emotions are your bag, then this is the book for you. But does anybody really want a 250 page greeting card?

Twenty-one year old Taylor Jones was living with his parents when he struck on the idea that became the popular website DearPhotograph.com, which is populated with reader submissions that compare our photographic past to the present. It’s not a new idea. Rephotography existed long before “going viral.” Sleeveface and other sites feature photos aligned to other contexts. It’s a fun idea, and one with potential for both historical observation and excessive sentimentality. Guess what wins out.

I am not unsentimental. I buy corny greeting cards for my father, I cry at manipulative rom-coms, I spend hours looking through old photos at flea markets. The combination of family photos and text doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But even if you respond to greeting card platitudes more than I do, would you want a whole book of them?

It would be churlish to complain about the the genuine feelings contributors have towards their family members, or even their former, younger selves. But reducing what must be rich family histories to easy platitudes doesn’t honor the past so much as relieve it of any personality. Centuries of personal history have gone into the hundreds of photos gathered here, but instead of generating a powerful emotional charge, the cloying sentiment gets old fast.

Doesn’t anybody have more colorful stories to tell? As photography books go, this is a generous 250 pages, and the photos included could have offered something to the armchair historian. A photo of a John F. Kennedy motorcade doesn’t line up very well with the modern counterpart in Paterson, NJ, but must have been included for historical purposes. Selected images reveal a dramatic passage of time – landscapes that have been stripped of foliage, communities leveled by the elements. But we’ll never know the deeper stories behind them, and these specific narratives are overwhelmed by trite generics.  Dear Photograph is the Thomas Kinkade of photography books, for those who like their sentiment easy.

Book Review: It Chooses You, by Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire

Michael. Large Black Leather Jacket. $10. Hollywood. Photo by Brigitte Sire.

Article first published as Book Review: It Chooses You, by Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire on Blogcritics.

The hardback edition of Miranda July’s It Chooses You is the size and heft of a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew adventure. There are no murders or eerie old houses in this non-fiction endeavor, but it is an adventure — an adventure of human contact.

July was struggling with the screenplay for her second feature film, The Future, and found herself too easily distracted by the internet. She laments that her writing career had managed a meagre output before cyber ubiquity settled into its now permanent state of flashing cleavage and kittens in front of anybody trying to get work done on a laptop. But were there any distractions left untouched by the virtual?

The author found reality in the form of junk mail. Among the sales flyers delivered to her door was the print edition of the Los Angeles Penny Saver. The modest ads selling trivial items inspired what became a meaningful distraction. July called up prospective subjects to ask if they’d sit for an interview. It’s an invasive and potentially condescending adventure, but participants received fifty bucks, and what July got in return was a terrific, moving book that is better than the sum of its parts. It Chooses You selects thirteen subjects who answered the call, to tell their own story and in some way help shape July’s fiction with their true stories.

The kinds of items offered for sale are trivial: a $10 leather jacket; a $5 hair dryer dating from the first Bush administration; a $2.50 bullfrog tadpole. But the people selling these wares have fascinating stories to tell, all the more so when the author finds a rapport with them.

It Chooses You is a compelling hybrid of photobook, memoir and social observation. The photos were made by July’s wedding photographer, Brigitte Sire. There is an awkwardness to some of the portraits — the transactions, such as they were, were not always the most comfortable. But the subjects with whom July and her small crew warmed up to made for the warmest and most touching photos. Curious details of the sellerss home and wares are also pictured. I’l lleave it to the reader to discover the fascination of a series of hand-labelled manila envelopes. Although the book has a naturally episodic nature, a kind of narrative develops as July ponders the class divide between her and her subjects, her own neuroses about the creative process, and the small miracle of human beings connecting with each other at all.

Most of the people July interviewed, for reasons of class or age or culture, did not own a computer. Such people are not long for this world, and represent the crossroads of an era. Much like the dawn of the industrial age that hangs over masterpieces like À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and The Magnificent Ambersons, the author modestly but surely documents an elegy for a dying world.

Book Review: Pretty Much Everything, by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

Clint Eastwood, by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.

Taschen’s lavish three-volume set Inez van Lamsweerde Vinoodh Matadin: Pretty Much Everything is not a complete collection of the fashion photographers’ vast work, but it does gives the reader a sense of their creative breadth: slick, sexy, even avant-garde. In an accompanying essay on portraiture throughout the ages, William Blake is quoted and the ancient marble faces of the Cyclades are name checked, but don’t let that make you think this is a purely intellectual exercise. Van Lamsweerde and Matadin are smart but also visceral, so much so that they can get away with celebrity portraiture – say, of a smoke-enrapt Clint Eastwood – that often obscures the famous visages they are hired to capture. They take this even further with a series of graphic collages based on their photographs of Eastwood, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and other A-listers. It is a testament to their demand as artists that they can pull this off. But wait, aren’t they supposed to be fashion photographers?

Yes and no. In an interview Matadin explains that when they first arrived on the scene, their early work was often taken as a send-up of fashion photography, and their work frequently takes on a subversive element. A series of photos of young children glammed up and giggling through the makeup puts the spotlight on child pageantry years before Toddlers and Tiaras. What makes Pretty Much Everything work as a photography book is that photos from the couple’s many diverse projects are mixed and juxtaposed for maximum resonance. This is not a chronology of their growth as artists but a summation of themes. Thus improbable celebrity juxtapositions are offered – who would have

bet on similar facial expressions coming from Sean Penn and M.I.A.? , The pair’s reputation as provocateurs can be reflected in their celebrity portraits: Tom Cruise may think that posing with a streaming garden hose he holds at his waist suggests manliness, but it could as easily be taken as a satire of superstar arrogance. Their work glams and deglams: awkward nude portraits of Eva Herzigova suggest the lurid paintings of John Currin. Out of focus headshots of Rachel Weisz and Emily Watson may obscure but enough remains of the allure of beauty. And with beauty comes the surreal beast: “Lucy Fur” (2011) offers a three-headed monster atop a female nude.

It behooves me to point out that this set is a colectors’ edition that costs $700. I’m basing my review on PDFs, but I have seen the set and, as is the case from their budget line through their most expensive catalog items, Taschen does not skimp on production values. I was not familiar with  Van Lamsweerde and Matadin’s work before, and I can’t in good faith suggest you run out and drop half your rent money on a photo book, even if it is a Taschen. But if you’re in one of the better bookstores that carry the Taschen line, stop and give this striking collection a look.