I don't normally post about awards, competitions, book launches, etc. (despite the best efforts of all the PR people who have got their hands on my email address) but I wanted to congratulate Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs for their recent win of this year's Foam Paul Huf Award. I was asked to nominate for the award and they were one of my picks so I'm extra happy for them. Their work is always surprising and visually exciting, but what I love the most is that it is also fun, something that is all too rare in contemporary photography. I also heard that they will be exhibiting at Le Bal in Paris from May through summer, so 2013 just might be the year of TONK!
If I had to choose a single word to describe Nina Poppe's book Ama it would be 'modest.' It is not a 'clever' book, nor a powerful one. It is quiet and does little to promote itself (the book's open spine design which does not allow for text guarantees that it will be all but forgotten on a bookshelf). This modesty runs throughout every aspect of the book, from the subject matter to Poppe's photographic approach to her subject, and even to the book's size and design. In many ways it is a very ordinary photobook: a simple, straightforward documentation of the life of a small community. These unassuming, unfussy qualities could make it easy to overlook, and yet I think they are what make Ama one of the better recent photobooks of its kind.
Ama takes its title from the Japanese word given to these female divers. The book centres on a particular community of women abalone divers on the island of Ise-shima in Japan. Poppe has photographed these older women (they appear to all be in their 60s or 70s) as they prepare for and emerge from their dives, and go about the business of daily life. There are no photographs of the dives themselves. Instead Poppe has come up with the elegant solution of reproducing a spread of an ama mid-dive from Fosco Maraini's 1963 book The Island of the Fisherwomen, one of the books inspired her to undertake this project. The image is printed on a different, thinner, light blue paper stock which differentiates it from Poppe's pictures. The same device is used at the end of the book with an accordion fold on the same paper, featuring spreads from several other books through which she presumably researched the ama. I found this to be an elegant way of introducing what it was that attracted her to the subject in the first place and to share her love for the photobook.
In addition to the ritual of the dive, Ama reveals the physical environment of the island, giving a sense of an extremely simple lifestyle turned towards nature. Although it opens with a saying from the Ise-shima region which states that, "A woman who cannot feed a man is worthless," there isn't a single picture of a man in the book. Their absence gives this proverb an almost ironic quality, as the men seem irrelevant in the world of these women. Aside from the ama, the only other people that appear are children and young women. Their portraits seem to act as a contrast to the divers, raising the question of how different the lives of these different generations are. I couldn't help but wonder if any of these young girls were in any way interested in the tradition of the ama, or indeed could even become divers themselves one day, or whether the women pictured here would be amongst the last to dive in this way.
While this all may sound rather nostalgic or melodramatic, this isn't the sense that comes through in these photographs. These images are not romantic or lyrical. Instead, Poppe has built up a simple portrait of the ama and their island, one suffused with affection, warmth and respect, but which refrains from inscribing them in some form of mythology. This restraint is another of the book's great strengths for me.
Japan remains a fascinating photographic subject for the West and one which has a potent exotic aroma. Much of the work that I see by foreign photographers on Japan seems to be unable to get beyond a search for the exotic other, a search for a series of clichés or preconceived ideas rather than an attempt to photograph what is there. I was struck by the fact that Poppe, a young German woman, avoided this trap so assuredly. The result is that Ama does not feel like the book of an outsider, but rather a work with an open mind.
The road trip is one of the primal photographic gestures. It has given rise to some of the most celebrated series of photographs as well as to countless clichéd and forgettable pictures. Thanks to—or maybe even because of—Robert Frank's ten thousand mile drive across America which led to The Americans, it also feels like a quintessentially American exercise. The term also has an epic quality: it conjures up the idea of a seemingly never-ending journey. With his book SP 67, the Italian photographer Roberto Schena has played with the mythology of the road trip to explore a short (13km) stretch of road running through the mountains in northern Italy.
The books cover sets the mood: the landscape is wintry and barren and the air seems to be heavy with moisture. This is a book that is all about atmosphere. Although its title and endpapers (a reproduction of a map of this mountain road) seem to place importance on the particular location that Schena has chosen for this project, its subtitle, La strada della tramontana scura (The road of the dark north wind), is more revelatory of its nature. The book is structured like a drive from East to West along the SP 67, one almost entirely shrouded in a thick fog which only allows for glimpses of the surrounding landscape.
Most of the images in SP 67 are technically landscape photographs, but they reveal very little... the odd curve in the road... the foliage that surrounds it... always obscured by the incessant fog. This unsettling visual backdrop is punctuated by the odd animal apparition. This is what gives the book its rhythm: a pig running along a ridge on the horizon, a closeup of a horse's head, a goat or some dogs picked out of the darkness by the car's headlights. This creates the sense that this world belongs to animals rather than to men. This road seems to run through a parallel universe, a place that we recognise but where space and time are distorted and unfamiliar (another reviewer compared Schena's world to that of a Murakami novel).
While Schena has undeniably created a heavily atmospheric world with this work, I found it to be a little too impenetrable. SP 67 is a slippery book that left me with a lingering sense of frustration. Like a dream that you awake from feeling unsettled, but, no matter how hard you try, you just cannot remember.
Roberto Schena, SP 67 (Rome: Punctum, 112 pages, 51 colour plates, 2012).
Rating: Worth a look
Paris is still recovering from the busiest week of the year on the photography calendar with the 2011 edition of Paris Photo which was held at the Grand Palais from 10-13 November and the many other events that pop up around it (Offprint, Nofound, Fotofever). In recent years Paris Photo has established itself as the most important photography art fair in Europe (maybe even in the world?) and this was a turning point for the fair. For it's 15th birthday, Paris Photo gave itself a pretty big present in the form of a move from the not-exactly-shabby Caroussel du Louvre, which did suffer from a lack of space, air, seating and natural light, to the Grand Palais which has all of those in spades. The relocation was deemed controversial by some, as people were attached to the Caroussel du Louvre which had housed Paris Photo since its inception. There was also some concern that the size of the Grand Palais space would lead to a more impersonal, bloated fair that would lose the strong identity that Paris Photo had created for itself.
Now that the dust has settled, it is difficult to find many dissenters on the big move. The Grand Palais is pretty much unbeatable as a space for housing a fair, particularly given the amount of natural light that pours in through the several-storey-high glass roof (sunny days can be a bit problematic but if they can find a way to guarantee cloud cover, you will not find better light for looking at photographs). The fair has increased in size with 117 galleries, 27 more than in 2010, and 18 publishers, but the airier premises make it feel less crowded and, if you put your mind to it, it is possible to find enough space to spend time looking at photographs without jostling for space with other visitors. The gallery newcomers included Pace/MacGill, Gagosian, Fraenkel and Marian Goodman, which gave a heavyweight feel to proceedings. Gagosian, who apparently doesn't really do art fairs, had a interesting quirk to his booth: a closet-sized "private viewing room", presumably so that the unseemly practice of paying for art would not have to take place in public.
One of the biggest improvements of the fair was the space devoted to photo-books, something that had been a point of contention in recent years. Although there was no increase in the number of participating publishers and book dealers, their booths were far bigger (the Steidl booth must have tripled in size) and this seemed to be a particularly busy section of the fair. There was also a great installation by Markus Schaden of Ed Van der Elsken's wonderful Love on the Left Bank. The installation, a kind of exploded book, gave a great sense of the process of putting a book together. And finally the Paris Photo book prize was launched to reward "a reference photographic book that has marked the past 15 years" (editor's note: the English translation of the Paris Photo website leaves a lot to be desired). Paul Graham's A Shimmer of Possibility was the deserved winner.
I guess at this point that I should say something about the photography itself. With a fair the size of Paris Photo I'm convinced that every visitor has a different experience and it is impossible not to find things both to love and to hate. My overall impression was of a strong year with a fairly diverse selection of material, whereas sometimes it can feel like the same pictures pop up on every booth. I don't think Paris Photo is the place to see the cutting edge of contemporary photography, although there is always something hiding around a corner if you look hard enough, but rather a venue for great vintage work and a cross-section of what is 'hot' right now.
Some brief personal highlights from the fair include San Francisco-based Fraenkel's booth, which was an achingly (overly?) tasteful mix of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Adams, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Richard Misrach, Edward Weston and others; LA gallery M+B's wall of Andrew Bush vector portraits of drivers in their cars; an exquisite 3x3 grid of late 1970s miniature Peter Downsbrough cityscapes at the excellent Cologne-based Thomas Zander booth; and Berlin-based Springer & Winckler Kunsthandel's booth devoted entirely to photographs by the recently deceased German artist Sigmar Polke. The fair has also maintained the guest country/region format from previous years and this year it was Africa that had the place of honour. This is a hit and miss exercise, but I thought Africa was well represented, and although Malick Sidibe turned up absolutely everywhere, there was a fairly diverse selection of material on show. A few personal favourites were a Michael Subotzky prison yard panorama at the South African Goodman Gallery (not to be confused with Marian), Nigerian artist J.D. Okhai Ojeikere's typological hairstyle portraits which appeared in several places, and a Michael Wolf Real Fake Art clin d'oeil to Malick Sidibe at 51 Fine Art from Antwerp.
Another innovation of the fair was to host exhibitions of both public (ICP, Tate Modern and Musée de l'Elysée) and private (Artur Walther, J.P. Morgan and Giorgio Armani) collections, a pretty simple idea that makes a lot of sense in the context of an art fair. Thankfully the exhibitions went beyond the "here's some stuff we bought this year" format and were generally well-curated and/or insightful.
The only big question mark over the success of Paris Photo 2011 has to be a commercial one. These new premises must involve a pretty significant price increase and I wonder whether the less established galleries will have made sufficient sales to compensate for the cost of a Grand Palais booth, particularly in the current turbulent economic context. With FIAC taking place just a handful of days beforehand, and a growing number of contemporary art galleries present at Paris Photo there is also a question of how these two fairs will coexist. I hope the outcome is a positive one because this edition of Paris Photo certainly felt like the best yet.
I should start by saying that this review is long overdue. This is partly due to the fact that my blogging activity has ground to a halt of late, but also because of Memory Traces itself. The book is an intimidating object consisting of one oversized (30.5 x 41 cm) volume weighing in at a hefty 202 pages accompanied by two smaller books, ‘Höffding Step’ and ‘Dark Star’, inset into a custom cardboard case. Memory Traces is not only intimidating but unwieldy. This is not a book that can be casually flicked through: it requires space (if only to support its weight and size) and time to get through its complex layout made up of gatefolds and double-gatefolds of different sizes. Its three-book structure is also complex and of course there is no easy instruction manual provided to tell you how to get started. However, while these first observations may come across as criticisms, it is precisely because Memory Traces is such a difficult book that it is so unique.
The central book in the trilogy consists of a series of large format landscape photographs that were made in Sarajevo; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Berlin, Bitterfeld-Wolfen and Ronneburg; Bikini Island and Nam Island; Chernobyl; Khe San and My Lai. These images all depict places that have been deeply affected by recent man-made conflicts or disasters. However, Markerink's images are far removed from the inflated drama of what has become known as 'ruin porn'. His photographs of Sarajevo, My Lai or Chernobyl reveal places that seem to be defined by the scars of their past. As the Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu said of Nagasaki, these are places where it seems as if "time has stopped". Memory Traces also depicts landscapes, such as those of Hiroshima or Berlin, that show few visible signs of past traumatic events. Although these cities are still defined in many ways by their history, their landscapes are in the process of being radically transformed by the objectives of economic growth.
You could say that Memory Traces deals with the different ways that history manifests itself within the landscape. However, it is as concerned with the present and the future as with the past. One of the most remarkable things about the imagery in this book is its treatment of time: the locations that Markerink has photographed all have troubling pasts, but these images do not give the sense of looking back. Instead they raise questions of how the past is carried forward and transformed as time passes. Although it is made up entirely of landscape photographs, this is fundamentally a book of big ideas. Markerink is not interested in the formal aspects of landscape, but rather in how landscape acts as a mirror for culture, for society in general. In 'Höffding Step', a book of text combining travel diaries, reflections on contemporary culture with Markerink's views on the changing nature of photography, Memory Traces reveals itself to have even greater and broader aspirations.
With Memory Traces, Markerink has created an object that is designed to create the space for us to stop and think, a space that is essential when dealing with such ambitious subjects. Everything about the way it is made — the book's huge size, its use of gatefolds, etc. — seems to be designed to slow down the reading process as much as possible. This is a book that also made me think about the way that we read photobooks. To use Markerink's own description, Memory Traces is an "experience" with many entry and exit points rather than a book that can simply be read from start to finish.
If all of this sounds a little lofty, that is because it is: I doubt that you will ever come across a more ambitious photobook. It is a project that Markerink worked on for over 10 years, one which he describes as a gift he decided to make to himself for his 50th birthday "as a means to come to terms with (his) culture and (his) position within it." It is a book that swims directly against the current of these times in which images are made, distributed and consumed and discarded in a matter of seconds. It will most likely bewilder you, frustrate you, confuse you and probably keep you coming back for more. Like Terence Malick's Tree of Life, it is not without its flaws, but it is rare to come across projects that are this outrageously ambitious and for that alone Memory Traces is worth seeking out.
Cary Markerink, Memory Traces. Ideas on Paper (self-pub., clothbound hardcover, 30.5 x 41 cm, 202 pages together with two small booklets, 'Höffding Step' and 'Dark Star' 12 x 16 cm in a printed box, 2009).
Rating: Highly Recommended