Alec Soth is a divisive figure in the photo world, something that comes with the territory when you get a lot of attention in an attention-deprived microcosm or when you become the figurehead for a whole sub-genre of photography. His quirky, folksy attitude may not go down well with everyone, but I thought his collective, LBM's idea to set up a photobook summer camp for "socially awkward storytellers" instead of doing just another photobook workshop was genuinely refreshing. It doesn't sound revolutionary—replacing the campfire with a digital projector to show the other participants images while telling them a story—but I for one would be interested to sit in on a session. Not all photobooks need a strong narrative to work, but there are a LOT that could definitely use it. Perhaps most importantly, it's free. They don't fly you out to LBM Land, but they are not asking you for hundreds of dollars for the privilege of taking part. For more info and to apply (deadline is April 15th), check out the LBM website.
Book Machine looks like a great initiative by Onestar Press and Three Star Books from 20 Feb - 10 Mar 2013 at the Centre Pompidou. The event is a FREE workshop open to the public during which you get to make a book. You get a 3.5-hour slot to work with a graphic designer from one of three design schools (ECAL, ENSAD or École Estienne) to produce a final PDF. The final book (in a very limited edition of 1 copy!) will be yours to pick up in "the next few days" at the Centre Pompidou. The book format is 14 x 2.25cm with 100 black and white interior pages and a glossy color cover, although I'm not sure what the printing process is going to be... all of this being entirely FREE. Plus there is a bunch of other book-related stuff going on. So if you have a book idea, sign up here.
(Incidentally this post is a defining moment for the blog since this is its first animated gif... slowly catching up with the times.)
For those of you who had been hoping for me to repeat last year's meta-list compilation of all of the 'best books of the year' lists I could find on the Internet, by now you will have realised that regretfully, I was going to disappoint you. Thankfully your disappointment will have been short-lived: QT Luong has stepped into the breach and has just posted the meta-list for 2012. The comfortable (and deserved, in my view) winner is Cristina de Middel's The Afronauts which I am extremely glad to have got my hands on while I still could. For the full list head to Luong's Terra Galleria blog. As for the meta-list, I believe that this is an exercise that a person should only do once in their Internet life so if there are any volunteers for compiling the 2013 photobook best of list, be my guest!
I've always found it fascinating to see early examples of colour photography, because they inevitably reveal a world that isn't so monochrome as all those black-and-white photographs might make you think. I've written about an archive of colour photographs of Depression-era America here before and now I've come across another even earlier archive (which also happens to be held by the Library of Congress) that has recently been published as a book. Nostalgia is a collection of 283 photographs from the early twentieth century "Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II", by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A pioneer of colour photography, he convinced the Czar (a fairly impressive sponsor) to back his project to travel across Russia to assemble a photographic portrait of the Empire, which he did from 1909 to 1915. The archive was acquired by the Library of Congress in 1948 but has only just been restored. Nostalgia is not a groundbreaking publication, but it's one that really deserved to be made, given how few people have been able to see these images in their original form.
Naturally this isn't exactly a hard-hitting account of the reality of life in those times: while they are not propaganda as such, these photographs are designed to show the Empire in its best light. With close to 300 photographs the book covers a lot of ground (but then so did the Russian Empire) and it's clear that Prokudin-Gorskii was determined to show how diverse this vast region was. Given the technical constraints of this photographic process, there were pretty severe limitations on the kind of pictures that could be made and some of these landscapes and portraits do all start to blend together. To contemporary eyes they could seem 'boring', a series of visual platitudes on the diversity of the people and the landscape.
While the compositions are often interesting, it's the intensity of the colour that is so arresting (helped by the fact that the reproductions are as good as they should be). I still had the same sense of shock at seeing this era in full colour rather than in black-and-white: on a basic level it makes these images less muted by historical distance, they feel almost immediate and accessible. Interestingly the publishers chose not to correct the damage to the glass plates or the oversaturated colours. At a time when most photographs being shared online are being processed through faux vintage digital filters to give them the illusion of age, Nostalgia is a shot in the arm of the real thing (Instagrammers eat your heart out).
This book is not only a historical document on the Russian Empire, but also on photography itself. Prokudin-Gorskii was a genuine trailblazer in the colour photography department and it's impossible for us today to comprehend how powerful these images must have felt for the few people that did see them at the time. Leafing through the book, I found myself thinking about how different the meaning of photography is today and how photography as "straight" and descriptive as this is now almost entirely absent from the "photo-world".
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Nostalgia (Gestalten, 320 pages, 283 colour plates, hardcover)
Andres Gonzalez's book Somewhere is a deliberately slippery beast. As its title implies it is not about a specific place, but more about the idea of place itself. It begins and ends in an airplane, as if to make the point that it will be taking us on a series of journeys. These photographs were taken all over the world (Mexico, China, Namibia, Ukraine...) over the course of a decade, but Somewhere is clearly not a travelogue. There are no images of the Great Wall of China or of the Namibian desert, but rather of the late afternoon light pouring into a bedroom or of an anonymous shopping mall parking lot. The book doesn't follow a narrative or focus on a single subject, but instead it seems to have been structured to mimic the way we remember, where one memory will lead to the recollection of another from an entirely different time and place. The design by Dutch graphic designer extraordinaire, Sybren Kuiper, emphasizes the overlap between these moments even further by interweaving sections with different sized pages to create a subtle flow of images that slowly appear and disappear.
Like the subconscious, Somewhere does not neatly catalogue memories of different times and places, but instead allows them to shuffle together into a more complicated and confused whole. Much of what we see is revealed through a window or behind curtains and the reflective matte paper stock itself contributes to this impression of distance from the subject. While it deals with many of photography's major themes—place, time, memory, dreams and reality—it isn't interested in making any grandiose statements. It is a quiet and modest book (it fits nicely in the palm of your hand), a book of emotions and atmosphere rather than of concept or ideas. It successfully conjures up the world of dreams and of memory, but without offering any particular resolution: Gonzalez's images obstruct as much as they reveal, and the impression that the book leaves is elusive and even a little frustrating... an intense dream that you cannot quite remember.
Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere, (Self-published, 84 pages, hard cover, 2012, edition of 700)