21 July 2011

Foto8 Summershow, London

Photo: Jane Stockdale

Now and then it’s refreshing to go and see a photo show that takes things back to basics. At the Foto8 Summershow this year, there’s no obligation to wade through a curatorial justification of the arguments, themes or influences behind the selection of work; nor do you feel like you’ve missed out on anything if you haven’t read a photo-critical tome before leaving the house. Those things might heighten your viewing experience of course, and all of this isn’t to say that the show isn’t serious or rigorous… but in reality, it’s this simple: Foto8 accepts submissions for the show in any style, size or format, with a remit to ‘engage or challenge the viewer’. This year, 1000 entrants answered the call with 2,853 images, out of which the team at Host Gallery and Foto8 magazine picked 150 to hang, ‘salon-style’, in the Host Gallery space.

The criteria for selection is ‘single image impact alone’, which might suggest that the single biggest danger for the curators is succumbing to the photographic equivalent of the ‘quick thrill’ – images that rely on shock value or tired visual tricks for their appeal. However, in the two years that I’ve visited the Summershow (it’s been running for four), I’ve found the opposite: the pared-down, almost ‘naïve’ curatorial mission statement results in a fresh, absorbing selection of works. The relaxed, open format of the show (which must belie some pretty furious organisational manoeuvrings) translates into a selection of photographs that feels contemporary, unpretentious and bursting with life.

Photo: Neil Craver

The style of the exhibition hang itself is simple and democratic – the walls are filled, floor to ceiling, with prints of different sizes and framings.  More significantly, in my opinion, and surprisingly, given the emphasis on photojournalism and reportage in the selection of work, none of the prints are accompanied by caption information of any kind – not the photographer, title or date of the works. To find this out, you have to refer to the little exhibition catalogue that is on sale (or on loan, in my, cash-poor, case) from the nice people at the Host gallery front desk. This, by the way, is also a complete steal at £2; all of the works are presented in full colour in the little A6ish guide, with more impact somehow than in the most lavish coffee-table books.. In the exhibition itself, this unfussy presentation does the extra work of giving back to even the most literal photographs some of their mystery, and throwing the viewer back on their visual responses to assess the work.

Photo: Sebastian Meyer
Going back to the ‘quick thrill’ problem for a moment; many of the works here, as previously mentioned, are photojournalistic. I love this kind of photography, but with certain exceptions. Not to diminish in any way the remarkable bravery and creative ability under pressure of documentary and ‘news’ photographers, but I personally find it frustrating, in an exhibition context, to be faced with images that are judged to be striking because their subject matter is so. Blood, conflict and explosions are all ‘dramatic’, but I often feel that these images are done greater justice in the context of series or editorial presentations. However, this one (probably mealy-mouthed) criticism of mine doesn’t apply to many works here and there is one – Sebastian Meyer’s ‘Smoke Screen, Zhani, Afghanistan’ – which really stood out for me in this genre, combining the presentation of factual, ‘documentary’ evidence with that essential ingredient, the ability to communicate thought and feeling to and through the viewer, by visual means. The smoke here is so thick as to be almost tangible; the individual soldiers are just the opposite of that – unindividuated. The photograph embodies, for me, how it might feel to be out in that smoke – without anchor or orientation and without visual identity. I’m not sure whether the thought is calming (the image is strangely calm, luminous) or terrifying.

Photo: James Morgan
My favourite works in the show are all photographs that have this communicative quality, and that’s leaving out the ones which are appealing simply for their beauty, their technical mastery or their enigmatic subject matter. It’s hard not to mention a photograph like James Morgan’s remarkable ‘Enal with Pet Shark’, from a series dealing with the lives of Indonesian sea nomads, in which the little boy of the title is shown gliding, grinning, through clear water, clinging to the tale of the shark with enviable confidence. Neil Hall’s photograph ‘After The Crash’ (given an ‘Honourable Mention’ by the competition judges) is also compelling, showing UKIP MP Nigel Farage staggering from the scene of a light aircraft crash in an otherwise banal rural landscape. The aircraft wreckage itself cuts through the composition, drawing our attention to Farage’s strange, contorted expression.

Photo: Lydia Panas
And… well, I could go on for hours. Revisiting the Summershow’s website the day after I went to the exhibition itself, I had the aim of restating to myself some of the themes’n’memes I had identified in the work at first hand – the lives of children, vulnerability, visual identity, the individual figure’s relationship with landscape. This aim dissolved as I came across one after another photograph that demanded analysis on its own merits. Some of my favourites include Lydia Panas’ portrait of the unidentified ‘Kitty, Christine and Kira’, shot in some indistinct rural location, the sense of transience the portrait evokes heightened by the way in which the photographer has caught her beautiful subjects at odds, posturally, with themselves and each other. Martin Osborne’s studies of ‘Dogs in Cars’ are strange, condensed snippets of fear and aggression, and ‘Untitled’ by Lydia Goldblatt is a glimpse of what a single, well thought out, frame can achieve in terms of encouraging the viewer to reach for narrative outside it. Seen as if through a door stood ajar, bare legs rise up out of soupy green bath water, facing towards an unseen light source as if the bather has stood to catch a glimpse of an unexpected dawn.

Photo: Lydia Goldblatt

What more can I say? It’s a joy to visit this exhibition and I heartily recommend it – four superbly qualified judges – Richard Billingham, Charlotte Cotton, Emma Morris and James Reid – have selected their official ‘Best in Show’, but my advice is to get down to EC1 and choose your own (not just for this reason)!

The Foto8 Summershow 2011 is on display at Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London, EC1Y 0TH, from 8th July – 12th August 2011. Monday to Friday, 10.00–18.00; Saturday, 11.00–16.00. Entrance Free. A catalogue is available from the gallery shop for £2.

All photos courtesy of Host Gallery, London.

19 July 2011

State of the Union, Mitch Epstein

Photographs by Mitch Epstein. Published by Hatje Cantz.

State of the Union has the scope and character of a photographic 'Great American Novel' (even if it does not trumpet its status as such) and it's hard to avoid the description 'novelistic' when turning the pages of this handsome, thematically substantial volume. The comparison is somewhat specious, in that authorship here is the business of publisher Hatje Cantz and the Kunstmuseum Bonn - this is, strictly speaking, an exhibition catalogue rather than a monograph - as much as it is of the photographer. Strictly speaking (again) these photos also constitute two chronologically distinct bodies of work rather than one long narrative. However, the description seems to suit work that is as complex and eloquent, and as sensitive to the shifting relations of individual, social and natural scale, as this photography is. 

Epstein himself remarks in the engaging interview with Stefan Gronert, that he is working in 'a tradition of projects that address the idea of nation, and specifically America as a nation.' The two photographic projects presented form a coherent, intelligent overview of the artist's engagement with American life, both from a street-level, intimate perspective (more frequently in the earlier Recreation series) and from a wider, more emphatically detached point of view (in American Power). These series have been published previously as discrete monographs, but this volume makes plain how the artist's distinctive vision has persisted - and evolved - over time.

Prevailing characteristics include an ability to 'disappear' into a scene, enabling the photographer to capture intimate, even whimsical, moments in everyday life without the resulting image feeling either too staged or else incoherent. A photograph of four women crowded round an obscured object on the city sidewalk in Recreation, for example, is a cannily snapped piece of street theatre. A dense, hectic, unmistakably urban composition as well as a magical visual moment; four crazily-patterned dresses that are, the photographer knows, a joy to look at, though their owners strain to look elsewhere. There is also a genius for making visually legible the relationships between people and their neighbours, their belongings and their surroundings. In the earlier series, this skill manifests itself most obviously in portraits of groups of people, whether it be a family - strung out in a long line, each member subtly failing to connect either physically or by eye-contact with each of the others - or a crowd of Vietnam veterans, each individuated but not one detached or dispensable in terms of the composition. In American Power, an investigation of energy production, consumption and waste in the United States made in 2009, this skill transfers onto a (literally) larger canvas, where Epstein juxtaposes human beings (rarely individuals), their homes and their industry, all within the setting of grand American landscapes. 

It is hard to adequately convey the impact of these wide-angle, densely detailed landscapes, which document domestic American rituals, industrial apparatus and epic landscapes, often all within the same frame. The photographs individually become colder, both in mood and palette, partly as a result of the flattening effect that occurs when elements far and near - a golf course and a wind farm, in one memorable example - are given equal attention and brought into direct visual comparison. This is partly also, as both Christoph Schreier and Stephan Berg point out in their thoughtful, precise essays, because the photographer who was once in-amongst-the-crowd, close to his human subjects, has now distanced himself and resists the vivid, humanistic images he made in earlier, less pointedly political works. The cover photograph of this volume - from American Power, depicting an unfinished concrete bridge cutting through untamed countryside - seems to suggest that the 'State of the Union' is not necessarily cause for optimism; technologized but alienating, ambitious but without direction.

What is equally impressive, however, is the sensitivity and variety of Epstein's response to his surroundings and subjects, so that at no point do the photographs (or the book itself) become heavy handedly didactic or self-righteous. This is a point made variously by each of the three focused, analytical texts that have been contributed to this volume, as well as by the photographer himself, who states that he was keen to avoid a 'simplistic agenda' in American Power. The almost collage-like effect of some of these photographs - showing, for example, a glowing oil refinery at the end of a long avenue of trees, or a vast windfarm in the background of a sleepy small town - does not act simply as an indictment of complacent consumers, or a representation of the impassive face of big business. It is also a manifestation of the difficulties many of us face when confronted with 'energy issues', our blankness when presented with, as Stephan Berg puts it, 'the simultaneity of necessary energy production and the exploitation and destruction it wreaks.' 

The book itself makes light work of crafting an enjoyable, absorbing reading experience from two sections of dense, large-format photography, combined with a substantial amount of text in both German and English. The text is handled elegantly through a two-colour, highly readable design, and the two 'plate' sections are laid out in two distinct styles, contrasting the less consistent Recreation works with the more imposing, formal American Power. The only obstacle to the reading experience one may encounter is that the upright format of this book seems wilfully designed to disrupt the large square and landscape-format images - a deep gutter cutting right through the centre of some works. Yet somehow this 'human' orientation does not prove disastrously distracting. The format is dynamic like the work itself and seems to complement images that throw the reader back on his or her analytical skills, as much as on their appreciation for sheer aesthetic skill.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 8th July 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are by Mitch Epstein, from State of the Union, published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.

14 July 2011

Juchitan De Las Mujeres, Graciela Iturbide

Photographs by Graciela Iturbide. Text by Mario Bellatín, Elena Poniatowska. Published by RM/Editorial Calamus, 2009.

In 1979, Graciela Iturbide was just one of a group of artists invited by Juchitán-native Francisco Toledo to create work in his hometown in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the district to which it belongs, and the unique culture of its inhabitants form the subject matter of Juchitán de las Mujeres (a title which translates, awkwardly, as 'Juchitán of Women'). However, the scope of this body of work, made over a period of ten years, and of Iturbide's vision, suggest that the photographer somewhat exceeded her original brief.

Indeed, this work, initially intended for an exhibition Toledo planned at the Juchitán Casa de Cultura, exceeds many of the expectations one might have for a geographically-anchored project, which takes a visually and ideologically distinct culture as its subject. While there are elements of the work that seem straightforwardly anthropological - Iturbide's interest in dress, for example, or the recurring presence of particular totemic animals and animal icons - the photographs in which these emblems appear can be read equally as investigations in personality, identity and, more generally, presence. In one image, a girl, swathed in fabric, walks along the street with a group of similarly-clad women. She is recognisably part of a group, recognisably dressed for an occasion, but the image, dominated by her frame-filling figure and the billowing, patterned cloth that surrounds her, speaks as powerfully of how it feels to be this person, ceremonial yet exhilarated, as of how it looks.

We have become familiar, from more explicitly 'documentary' projects, with a photographic style that informs the viewer, through narrative detail, of the texture of the society we are observing. Iturbide's work is far more spontaneous in effect. In most of these images, the women she photographs are central to the frame, often making eye-contact with the viewer and obscuring their backdrop. The 'backgrounds' in these works are somehow nondescript - bleached out skies and bare or basic rooms usually direct attention back to the women portrayed, who stare and smile back, sometimes engaged in mundane activities, but more frequently, or so it seems, performing for the camera, aided by props, costumes and familial 'extras'.

These women are - as the book and its publisher, Editorial RM, emphasize - uniquely powerful. The indigenous Zapotec people who form the majority of Juchitán's population are unusual, we are told, in being a society dominated by women, and the essay contributed to this volume by novelist Mario Bellatin, evokes their gregarious, voluptuous, extravagant nature. However, it is instructive to compare the effect achieved by this essay with Iturbide's work itself, which does communicate a mood of female vivacity and community, and touches on similar themes of ritual, interaction between the generations and interaction with nature, yet seems far closer to its subjects in that it shows, rather than tells, their lives.

This emphasis on culture as it is lived rather than as it is described, is somehow also communicated through the design and format conceived for this re-release of Iturbide's project, first published in 1989. An elongated, upright format allows the work inside the book to be reproduced on a large scale, yet in an unusual and lively way, without large and deferential 'coffee-table book' borders. The unusual placement of some images on the page adds to this idiosyncratic, unexpected feel, and the individuals depicted in these photographs seem to jump up into the viewer's vision. The overall effect is one of assurance on the part of both photographer and subject.

There are moments of vulnerability and tenderness also. Indeed, solitary and introspective moments are expressed in a more conventional language, as in a photograph showing a young girl alone in bed surrounded by petals according to tradition and apparently anticipating her bridegroom, with eyes averted and the camera apparently a detached 'observer.' However, for the most part, this is a collection that identifies with its boisterous subject and forces the viewer to attempt the same feat.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 9th March 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from Juchitan De Las Mujeres, by Graciela Iturbide. Published by RM/Editorial Calamus, 2009.

13 July 2011

Family, Chris Verene

Photographs by Chris Verene. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2008.

In the short 'afterword' appended to Chris Verene's recently published monograph, Family, the photographer refers to the images collected here — photographs made over a period of 26 years in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois — as 'my life's work.' After a careful, fascinated reading of this complicated book, one is tempted to ask why Verene chooses to say 'my life's work' rather than, simply, 'my life'. After all, the intimate relationships and intense trust that exist between the photographer and his subjects (many of whom are members of Verene's close family) are clearly in evidence. His relations and neighbours are often presented during periods of extreme personal hardship, struggling with unemployment, illness and loss, and, as the photographer himself is at pains to point out, they are fully aware of and complicit in his presentation of these photographs in an 'art' context.

This last point is especially worthy of notice, as the book lays itself open to the accusation that its human subjects are somehow exploited — presented not so much as self-determined individuals as they are emblems of a particular working-class situation. The importance given to 'setting' in Verene's work, and his attention to manufactured objects and surfaces — for example, in the decorated interiors of 'Mabe and Marion's Front Porch' or 'Candi's Wedding..' — can intensify the feeling that these photographs identify the people presented with their material circumstances, and that we are simply 'looking in' on these lives in the interest of visual novelty, without any hope of gaining deeper understanding or sympathy.

However, it seems to me that Verene has thought very carefully about these representational issues and is sensitive to the implications of presenting a personal documentary project in the public context of an 'art' publication. He self-consciously borrows from the visual language of personal objects such as family scrapbooks and photo albums, juxtaposing the scrawled, anecdotal 'captions' that accompany his images with the scale and production values of an exclusive, luxurious photobook. His photographs, individually and as a series, are a disquieting mix of the confessional and naturalistic with images, such as that showing his cousin Heidi 'in her Renaissance Fair Dress', that are overtly theatrical. By playing with distance and intimacy like this, Verene acknowledges the element of storytelling involved in making and reading this book, while also emphasizing his subjects' own capacity for role-play.

In this respect, it surprises me that some comments about the book have only emphasized Verene's role as 'authentic' documentarian. While it is true that many of the photographs in Family are uncompromising, affecting depictions of real events — Verene's uncle loses custody of his children, his friend Amber is forced to live in her car when she loses her home — it would be wrong to completely detach this work and Verene's other, more emphatically 'theatrical' projects. His work often stages the imaginative lives of his subjects, as well as the bare facts or episodes of their existence. The flattened, cluttered, inhabited interiors created by his use of flash, his lack of interest in natural surroundings (or light) and his constant return to special occasions and dressing up (note the number of photos taken at Christmas) all have the function of throwing your attention onto the vitality, the character, of those he photographs. This book never loses this quality of warmth and vision, constantly avoiding sentimentality and questioning the reader's search for authenticity.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 12th February 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from Family, by Chris Verene. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2008.

12 July 2011

For Now, William Eggleston

Photographs by William Eggleston, selected by Michael Almereyda. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.

Who amongst photography enthusiasts wouldn't relish the chance to rummage in the William Eggleston archive? Biased as I am - William Eggleston was the first photographer whose work I ever studied in any depth, and he remains one of my personal favourites - I can't help but think that this library in particular, created by one of the medium's most prolific and original practitioners, would be a treat to browse.

Michael Almereyda, the filmmaker responsible for documentary William Eggleston in the Real World, was given just such an opportunity, and has returned from a year-long scouring of the complete archives with this collection of previously unseen photography, For Now, published by Twin Palm's Press. In the strictest sense, you could argue, this is not an 'Eggleston' book, carefully edited and ordered according to the photographer's vision. Rather it is another artist's response to his work and, as such, it self-consciously sets out to reveal a different side to Eggleston's creative personality. There is an element of the documentary-maker's investigative drive at work here, though readers looking for a sneak-peek into Eggleston's personal life will be a little disappointed - Almereyda and the publisher are vague when it comes to captioning these images, providing only a little anecdotal, contextual detail about particular plates in Almereyda's afterword.

The most obvious difference between this book and Eggleston's other published collections is the presence, in the majority of these photographs, of human beings, especially Eggleston's family and friends. People, individually and in groups, are often both literally and thematically central to the images here and the effect, especially in the wider context of Eggleston's visually democratic photography, is disconcerting. When the photographer takes a picture of his son, Winston, proudly presenting his collection of fireworks, there is a tension not only between childlike joy and danger, but between the photographers desire to document his son and his attention to colourful surface elements - the fireworks' vivid packaging, the garish floral curtains in the background - and visual puns (one of the fireworks is called 'floral bouquet'). Eggleston's great skill is, arguably, the ability to make images expressive and immanent without resorting to posed dramas of human actors or dramatically emotional close-up portraits. Where people do appear, therefore, there is a strange quality of mystery, a sort of distractedness, that inheres in the work.

It is also a quality of many of the works here that, beneath a surface kind of 'obvious-ness,' there is a resistance to reading and empathy that gives the viewer reason to pause. The photographs are warm in palette and reveal a powerful interest in the world but what, for example, are most of the subjects here even doing? Why does the photographer's young family appear in the forest, dressed in almost uniform-like primary colours and turned from the camera? The boy who stands near an open car door on an empty country road - what is he so carefully considering? The saturated colour and careful printing that are so characteristic of this photographer enhance these enigmatic moments of stillness, as do the number of photos somehow showing inarticulacy - figures in the middle-distance, children and figures sleeping. All of these factors encourage the reader to spend time with the images presented here; it is this kind of density that makes each photograph memorable, literary, even in some cases menacing.

In the face of this powerful work, it is somehow disappointing that the design of this book itself is not more distinctive. Luxurious and coolly classical, this large-format book gives the images room to breathe - the lavish use of white space contributing to the enigmatic atmosphere these works bear. However, there is for me some element missing that would ignite the themes explored by Almereyda's project - family and strangers, the personal and public, aesthetic boldness and private vulnerability. Nevertheless, For Now is a fascinating exercise in exploring a photographer's response to unusual challenges. While not the perfect introduction to Eggleston's work, it is a beautiful addition to and extension of existing anthologies.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 4th February 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from For Now, by William Eggleston. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2010.

11 July 2011

A Critic's Eye, Richard Bartholomew

Photographs by Richard Bartholomew. Published by Chatterjee & Lal, Photoink and Sepia, 2009.

Subdued, unassuming even, this small hardback, published jointly by a trio of photographic institutions based in India, sets out to afford the most respectful and thoughtful possible summation of the late Richard Bartholomew's work as a photographer. From the subtle, simple cover, swathed in muted duck-egg blue and featuring a small, enigmatic black-and-white image - a woman gracefully throwing her sari over her shoulder, glimpsed as through a door stood ajar - the book feels calculated to communicate an atmosphere of quiet, earnest aesthetic observation.

This mood is carried into the book itself, both as a quality of the particular selection of photos and of their presentation, which is modest to the point of being disconcerting, at least to a reader familiar with more commercial and lavish photobooks. There is no 'blurb,' no overbearing critical or editorial presence; all text, including an insightful (if densely argued) essay contributed by Aveek Sen, is relegated to the back of the book and the reader is left to a consideration of the photographs themselves.

And what photos they are. A variety of subjects, including intimate scenes from Bartholomew's family life, gatherings among his circle of art-world acquaintances, outdoor studies (for want of a better word) and more loosely conceived urban and suburban landscapes, are united by several key visual themes. Presence and history are inscribed on every surface shown here, for example, from the trunk of a tree carved with lovers' initials to the patched canvas walls of an abandoned marquee. This is perhaps to be expected from a man whose work (in the role for which he is best known, as an art critic) was the study of man's creative instincts, and showcases Bartholomew's skill in capturing the texture and minute detail of even mundane scenes.

A seemingly irresistible attraction to light effects, natural and artificial, is another striking aspect of this work, often expressed in images of delicate beauty - a battered street lamp at night, the illuminated buildings of New Delhi seen from rural surroundings - and frequently used metaphorically to suggest human thought and subjectivity, a point drawn out in the essay accompanying these images. Indeed, sensitivity to the world as it is 'felt' through the senses is the great theme of this collection, best summarised by a tender image in which Robin Bartholomew, the photographer's son, is depicted sleeping silently beneath a screened window, across which a tiny lizard, softly defined in silhouette against the screen, can almost be heard padding its night-time path. These photographs are attentive and will reward the viewer's attention.

Perhaps the impact of this quietly perceptive approach is heightened for Western readers by the ubiquity of coffee-table books that relentlessly treat India and its citizens (or those of any other 'Eastern' clime) as the subject of colourful, exoticising travelogue. The editors of this volume, by contrast, have consciously emphasized the minutely-observed quality of the work shown here, for example through their commitment to small-format presentation of these complex black-and-white images, and have highlighted the unsentimental, though formally sensitive 'critic's eye' of the photographer. The effective sequencing of this book foregrounds the almost literary skill of the photographer in communicating a great deal of information through the subject matter arranged within a frame.

Indeed, the book almost lies open to the accusation that it too emphatically constructs the persona of the educated and refined artist (bear in mind these are 97 images carefully selected from an archive of approx. 17,000). It is saved from preciousness, however, by wit and an openness to the magic possible through the photographic medium. Two ghostly figures appear in the background of one image - a dramatically lit tree is reflected perfectly in the dark body of water beneath it - and there is a visual charge: simple and beautiful.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 12th November 2010, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are copyright Richard Bartholomew, published by Chatterjee & Lal, Photoink & Sepia, 2009.

10 July 2011

Nirai, Manabu Someya

Photographs by Manabu Someya. Published by Tosei-Sha, Japan, 2010.

In one, strangely absorbing, image from Manabu Someya's Nirai, a small selection of clothes hang from the long, makeshift washing line strung across an urban rooftop. These T-shirts, a single sheet and several smaller pieces of laundry - gathered, inexplicably, on a still smaller laundry rack - cluster together in the centre of the large-format photograph, dwarfed by the neglected space around them and the wider context of a dense residential neighbourhood. A neat metaphor for urban anonymity, the photo is also representative of a sub-section of the book where the photographer focuses on small urban spaces, usually devoid of human presence, where the signs of decay or disuse point to ... well, they point to decay and disuse.

The question is, what does any of this have to do with death, or the co-existence of life and death in the minds of these place's inhabitants? The project of this book, as the artist describes it, is to explore the notion of 'Nirai Kanai' - a mythical locale to which the spirits of the dead are said to travel in the culture of the southern Japanese prefecture Okinawa. In the 74 colour images featured here, Someya sets out to visualize this place as it 'co-exists' with the lives lived by real people in the Okinawa region and further south, in Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As Antone Dolezal pointed out in his post about Nirai on the photo-eye blog, this kind of spiritual, or at least non-physical, subject matter sits at the limits of what photography can easily communicate, and Someya seems to struggle to find a coherent form for this work. There are images that do successfully hint at the presence of a parallel reality - be it truly mythical or simply psychological. The numinous light that characterizes many of the street scenes included here flattens buildings and objects so that even familiar or mundane sights can seem threatening or unreal.

Someya is also good at juxtaposing the artificial with the organic, and playing with scale, so that the immediacy of life lived in the modern world is played off against a sense of the scale and rhythms of the natural. A photograph early in the book for example, apparently taken from the back of a passenger boat, measures the distance to the horizon in ever more sparse manmade objects, emphasizing the indifference of the natural world to human life at the same time as referencing the myth of 'Nirai Kanai', often conceived as an island to which spirits fly.

However, the images often shift gear both visually and conceptually, leaving this viewer at somewhat of a loss as to how to read the work as a whole. A lyrical image showing a water bottle strung high above market stalls is followed by a bright, documentary-style shot of busy city streets, which is followed in turn by blank-eyed portraits of city inhabitants, and then a claustrophobic portrait of a woman sprawled naked on the edge of what seems to be a hotel bed. It is difficult to know how these works are connected, either to each other or the photographer's stated theme; the book can feel 'personal' in the worst way, in that it is almost impossible to penetrate for anyone not familiar with Someya's personal symbolism and preoccupations.

Of course not every photobook has to make a statement or set out a coherent 'project' - many work simply as collections of beautiful or absorbing images. Someya has set out, however, to document a very particular strand within the cultures of the countries featured here, and we might expect to finish the work sharing something of his connection with the subject. Unable to literally follow his journey (the photos are not arranged geographically or chronologically), it is disappointing that the book doesn't have a more pronounced visual logic. Simply juxtaposing panoramic shots of a city with images of skulls at an undefined burial ground does not automatically give an insight into this region's relation to mortality.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 26th October 2010, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are copyright Manabu Someya, published by Tosei-Sha, 2010.

5 July 2011

American Color 2, Constantine Manos

Photos by Constantine Manos. Introduction by Alison Nordstrom. Published by Quantuck Lane Press, 2010.

How much you enjoy Constantine Manos' follow-up to the much-praised American Color (1995) will depend whether you consider 'color' a theme compelling enough in itself to sustain a rewarding photobook.

This is not to say that Manos has conceived a dryly formal or simply superficial book. In his perceptive preface to American Color 2, he describes his approach as 'personal documentary' - motivated by formal experiment but also touching on a documentarian's concerns (Manos has been a member of Magnum for over forty years). For the work here, he focuses on American leisure in a handful of resorts, fairs and amusement parks in (mainly coastal) cities around the country. Themes present in American Color re-emerge, as tanned holidaymakers and entertainers, young and old, wander amongst lurid, man-made surroundings.

Yet the visual and thematic backbone of this book is color itself. Even curator Alison Nordstrom, who provides an informative introductory essay to the book, struggles to link up the 'American' and 'Color' aspects of Manos' project. This is arguably not intended as documentary work per se and details in the photographs suggest that the photographer favours abstraction rather than informative detail: faces are obscured and figures are dwarfed by the planes of colour - blue skies, painted hoardings and vivid signage - which dominate the photographs.

If you identify with this vision, you will enjoy Manos' love of graphic forms and his exploration of the American commercial palette. There are also clever moments of sequencing - a sweet segment of photos on food and food-as-entertainment for example. However if, like me, you find Manos' approach a little on-the-nose, the book can feel overwhelming, even relentless. His intense printing and bold sequencing combine with a design that scarcely allows the images room to breathe, to create a book that is difficult to take in, even at arm's length. Manos' intention seems to be to flood the reader with visual information. However the very long sequence of images becomes monotonous in places, and lacks the complexity and vibrancy of earlier Manos projects.

The photographer is at his best in spontaneous, slightly surreal photographs. For example, a playful image juxtaposing a small boy, breaking wave and enormous pelican towards the end of the book punctuates the self-consciously melancholy mood of much of this work, which often features single figures wandering amid the detritus of fairs and shows. The book is also well and thoughtfully made and clearly showcases Manos' technical precision. That being said, there may not be enough here to simply enjoy.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 9th September 2010, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are copyright Constantine Manos, from American Color 2, published by Quantuck Lane Press, 2010.

2 July 2011

First ever PLATE post..

Welcome to PLATE! This is a place to find new photography writing and criticism - reviews of photobooks and exhibitions (mostly in and around London, UK), articles on individual photographers and other long-ish photo-focussed posts of my composition. I'm going to be posting a few of my photobook reviews – originally published by the good people at Photo-Eye magazine – at first, but with new reviews and articles to come shortly, including a review of Taryn Simon at Tate Modern, a piece on the Foto8 Summer Show and (if I can bend bookclub members to my will) a multi-participant review of Rebecca Solnit on Eadweard Muybridge.

I'm going to try my best to avoid one-liner, look-at-this-photo-I-like type posts. I'll also try not to go off topic too much – feel free to complain if I start posting cute animal links or rants about public transport. Having said all of which, my main objective with this blog is to create something surprising and original (not just a collection of re-written press releases) that you really enjoy reading and want to return to again and again for informed, varied photo news.

As for me, I've been an editor of illustrated books for about four years, working for publishing houses including Phaidon Press and Aperture Foundation, New York. My real passion is photography – especially, though not solely, in print – and this blog partly satisfies an urge to engage with that interest in a new way. I'm not a trained photographer myself, just an enthusiastic student, so PLATE also functions as a way to continue educating myself about life on the other side of the lens.

Do get in touch if you like the blog, have criticism or things to add, or (she offers up a silent prayer) would be interested in having me write for your publication. I'm punctual and I deliver good copy. Just email platethephotoblog(at)gmail.com.

Here we go!