14 February 2012

More Cooning With Cooners, Kalev Erickson

As a British citizen, I have to confess I didn't know much about 'coon hunting before I opened this book. Now having closed it, I'm not sure how much better informed I am. This is simultaneously the most confusing and the most beguiling thing about this book. It is not an obscure, difficult or even unfocussed publication – More Cooning With Cooners is as much about raccoons, and the hunting thereof, as a sixty-page photobook can be. Even the cover is designed to resemble a raccoon pelt, with the bloody red endpapers inside evoking the inevitable conclusion of the chase. It's just that, alongside this thematic coherence, this blatancy about its theme, there is an ambiguity about the photographs within, and the book project itself, that far exceeds one's initial expectations.

So, what are you looking at? A short note at the beginning of More Cooning explains that the images within have been edited from 'a family collection of Kodachromes taken during the 1960s in Ohio.' We never find out who this family are, how editor Kalev Erickson encountered their photographs or, indeed, how he knows for sure that they are 'the work of a single, but unknown, photographer with a clear enthusiasm for the hunt' (all of the photographs are presented without captions). Other minor mysteries pervade the book: where one would normally expect to find a contextualising, critical 'essay' on the body of work presented, there is a short, straight-faced prose piece on 'The Art and Craft of Cooning,' describing the sport’s history and traditions. Similarly, the 1924 vernacular poem 'Dat Scanlus Coonhunt Itch' is dropped into the book without introduction – yet another element in a patchwork of references that circle the 'coonhunt' at the centre of this book, but never quite state their relationship to it.

Perhaps what I'm trying to get at is the problem of attitude posed by this book – what and who it is for. It is not simply the document of an enthusiast, though it makes reference to the eponymous 1924 'Cooning' manual whose cover illustration is reproduced on the title page. Nor, quite obviously, is it a sentimental campaign against blood sports, though the violence of the kill is emphasised in a number of individual photographs in the book and echoed in the raccoon skull line-drawing featured towards its end. It is conspicuously an 'art' book, an edition of 500, but without the patronising discussion of 'vernacular' photography and its charms that can appear in such collections.

What this book captures is the strangeness of going through someone else's photo archive – their memories and their passions caught on film – and the inevitable editorial distance that is created when one tries to order or 'archive' this work in any way. It is impossible to know the names, lives and motivations of the men captured in these photographs, and so they are reduced to a series of gestures and poses – presenting their dogs, sweeping their flashlights, posing with their kill – which we read from a distance. As a work of art in its own right, the book belongs to a tradition mined by photographers such as Zoe Crosher, working with 'found' material, who are interested in what is gained and lost when we 'read' a foreign group of photographs. The publishers of More Cooning, the resolutely mysterious Archive of Modern Conflict, have won international awards and garnered themselves a cult following by releasing a number of beautifully-produced titles in this vein, in which often historically fraught collections of photography (see Nein Onkel – a collection of playful domestic photos taken by Nazi soldiers) are mined for their significance and their conflicting effects.

So much for the conceptual ambitions of the publisher, what about the images themselves? Cropped with rounded corners, to emphasis their antique origins, and with errors of exposure and colour intact, these are enthusiastic, playful photographs edited with an eye to their humour and energy. While there is an element of threat about the images which juxtapose hounds with young children (and this is a recurring theme in the edit), emphasizing the contrast of vulnerability with strength, domesticity with animal instinct, there are equally images included that are about tenderness (a young man holds a hound puppy) and also, simply, routine (identically dressed men sit, blankfaced, outside a hunting lodge at night). Erickson also gives free rein to the excitement of the chase, as captured in a number of blurred, close-up shots showing hounds as they pursue their victims to the treetops. The images themselves are taken with an eye to composition and colour, while the editing – which focusses emphatically on the volume of kill towards its end, with repeated photographs of 'trophy' walls of raccoon tails – usually allows the emotional and formal range of the images its full play.

You may feel like you've been on a hunt after finishing this book, but whether for raccoon or a couple of cold, hard facts, it's hard to say. How much you enjoy it will depend on how informative, how eloquent, you like your photobooks to be. I, for one, only wished there was more of the book to hunt through.

This review was originally published in photo-eye magazine, 2nd February 2012, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from More Cooning With Cooners, by Kalev Erickson. Published by Archive of Modern Conflict, 2011.

1 February 2012

Two things of note..

© Edward Burtynsky
Yep - the temperatures are Siberian, the Tories are in power and all the Christmas chocolate is gone, but I'm determined to find things to smile about this month, starting with the following..

1) The Photographers' Gallery set to re-open!

After a long (18-month) wait, during which time I have tried and failed to attend any number of Photographers' Gallery events in temporary locations around London – a combination of obscenely quick 'sell-outs' and my inability to use their website are to blame – this wonderful gallery will be back in Londoners' lives from 19th May 2012. It always puzzled me that the gallery closed so quickly after moving to its new location in Ramillies Street (off Oxford Street, W1F 7LW), but apparently this was always part of the plan - to establish the gallery in its new site, tease us with a few months of great shows and talks, and then disappear again while the gallery was renovated for permanent use.

I can't wait to see the new building; we are promised twice the exhibition space of the old gallery, a whole floor set aside for 'education' and a new bookshop, café and print sales room. In addition, the gallery have already announced the two shows that will inaugurate the new space - a 'retrospective' of Edward Burtynsky's mammoth 'OIL' series, in which he documents the workings, addresses the consequences and envisions the future of our oil-dependency; and 'An Afternoon Unregistered on The Richter Scale', a video work in which the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective reproduce and reimagine one particular archival photograph from early-twentieth-century Calcutta. While I know of Raqs Media Collective, I've never scene their work 'in the flesh', so I'm really looking forward to this one. Edward Burtynsky also appeals, and it'll be interesting to see how he engages with work that has preceded him, including Mitch Epstein's towering 'American Power' series.

© Zarina Bhimji

2) Zarina Bhimji at Whitechapel Gallery

I'm ashamed to say that this exhibition had passed me by until now (saving myself, as I am, for Whitechapel's Gillian Wearing retrospective later in the year..) but I visited the gallery on Saturday and really enjoyed seeing this work. Turner Prize-nominee Bhimji makes film installations and large-scale photographic prints, usually focussing on sites in India and East Africa and subjecting the forgotten and often dilapidated buildings in her works to a deep, sustained gaze that unravels their structure, history and visual composition.

Colour seems to be particularly important for Bhimji, whose intensely printed photographs are stunning to behold and distracting, even, in the sense that their jewel-like beauty confuses the 'archaeology of place' which is ostensibly one of her themes. It's hard to unpick or analyse the evidence of time's passage when all you can think about is how gorgeous old buildings look! Indeed, my only reservation about the show was that this rapturous, high-fidelity visual style is in evidence throughout all of the work on display, however hard-hitting (or not) its subject (as in as series about the controversial examination of women as part of British immigration protocols in the 1970s). It could begin to feel, to some viewers, like an affection that Bhimji can't shake off. In other works, however, it is precisely this attention to aesthetic 'effect' that gives the work its force. In the film 'Yellow Patch', a study of trade and migration across the Indian Ocean, the subtle movement of Bhimji's camera around the colonial port buildings of Mumbai, in combination with a hypnotic, slowly shifting soundtrack, forces the viewer to read the history and architecture of these buildings in a way that would be difficult to replicate through a single, silent still.

This show, the first major survey of Bhimji's work, is open until 9th March and is, amazingly, completely free to visitors. Might even be enough to take your mind of things until summer gets here..