The photographic tinkerers

E and I recently won tickets to a concert by a Congolese band that I had never heard of, Staff Benda Bilili ('benda bilili' means beyond appearances). Apart from the incredible energy that these guys managed to generate despite 80% of the band being paraplegic and all of them living (or having lived) in the gardens of Kinshasa zoo, I was struck by one of the musicians, a teenage boy who somehow managed to extract some pretty amazing sounds out of an electrified tin can of his own conception. This got me thinking about the tinkerers in photography. It's no secret that photographers can be a little gear-obsessed (I think they even give musicians a run for the money in that department) and the explosion of digital and associated software has done nothing to temper that, but are also a few garden shed eccentrics out there who are doing it entirely for themselves.

The most recognized example of this that I could think of is Miroslav Tichý. He was 'discovered' a few years ago, living in isolation in his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic in a house full of self-made photographic paraphernalia of all kinds which he used to surreptitiously photograph the women of his town. Thanks to his seemingly endless supply of completely unique vintage prints (helped by the fact that he had trampled on most of them for several years, before mounting them on cardboard frames which he then decorated himself... any photo dealer's wet dream) he has become extremely hot property and he is now represented by several galleries in Europe alone. While I haven't been swept away by his outsider art, I was fascinated to see the cameras and lenses that Tichý has made and how they had contributed to forging his undeniably unique aesthetic.

In a completely different genre, another photographer who has explored the possibilities of the self-made is Ryuji Miyamoto, who I have written about before on the blog. After many years shooting with a large format camera, Miyamoto developed a desire to be able to climb inside the camera after shooting his series Cardboard Houses on the cardboard structures built by the homeless in different cities. He ended up making a small wooden hut which he transformed into a camera obscura and which he lines with two sheets of light-sensitive photo paper. Miyamoto gets in, lies down and exposes the paper to light. The result is an upside-down image of the world captured in deep blue tones where his silhouette appears at the bottom of the image. Miyamoto's pinhole images and his recent photograms suggest that he isn't exactly enamored by the infinite reproducibility of photography in the digital age.

These are just a couple of examples that came to mind—I would be curious to hear if there are others. Perhaps none of this matters and just as buying the latest top of the line camera will not get you good photographs, building your own is no guarantee of a personal vision. But I like to think that in the process of building the tool with which you are going to photograph the world, there is a small chance of stumbling upon something that we may not have seen before.

Some things I bought this year

I've seen quite a few end of year lists popping up over the last week. There are the best books of 2009 lists, the more eclectic lists of "stuff I liked this year", the lists of books acquired in 2009 and many more. I think you need to be a breakfast-lunch-and-dinner kind of consumer of photo-books to post a best books of 2009 list and having just discovered a great many fantastic-looking ones through the future of photo-books discussion, I am not going to stick my neck out on that one.  Instead in order to jump onto the list-mania bandwagon, I am going to go with a list of a few of the photo items that I bought in 2009 (these weren't necessarily made in 2009). Looking back over the year, I think this is an interesting way of seeing trends in the things that you gravitate to and also seeing how much money you wasted on things that you spend no time with at all.

Some photographic things that I bought in 2009

(Note: I am in a fortunate position where a number of books that come into my possession I don't actually have to pay for, so there are a number of terrific books that I discovered this year that won't make it on to this list)

Anders Petersen & J.H. Engström, From Back Home (Bokförlaget Max Ström, 2009)

This won the Author Book Award at Arles 2009. I posted a review a while back.

Akihide Tamura, Afternoon (M Light label No.1, 2009)

Spread from bookshop M catalogue, Akihide Tamura's 'Afternoon'

Although I just got this and have already posted about it, I get the feeling this is one that I will keep coming back to.

Ryuji Miyamoto, Cardboard Houses (signed, Bearlin, 2003)

Ryuji Miyamoto, Cardboard Houses

Beierle + Keijser's "Becher box": Jogurtbecher

I have already spent the best part of an evening with E deciding what images we are going to use in our Jogurtbecher grid. And I actually hate yoghurt.

Michio Yamauchi, Stadt (Sokyu-sha, 1992)

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird (Taka Ishii, 2006)

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird

OK I cheated, I didn't actually buy this, but this is probably the book that I have gone back to most frequently this year so it had to be included. Check out Jeff Ladd's review here to get an idea why.

Ikko Narahara, Pocket Tokyo (Creo, 1997)

Ikko Narahara, Pocket Tokyo

Eikoh Hosoe, A Butterfly Dream (signed, Seigensha, 2006)

Eikoh Hosoe, The Butterfly Dream

The extragavance of the year. This book was produced as a companion to the first edition of Kamaitachi. Hosoe presented it to Kazuo Ohno for his 100th birthday, shortly before his death. (As Michael rightly pointed out, Ohno is still around!)

Paris Photo and beyond

It's that time of year: once again Paris Photo is breathing down the back of our neck and my diary is already getting out of hand. As always there is a lot to look forward to at Paris Photo itself, but the key to making it through these five days alive is leaving Paris Photo at regular intervals and reminding yourself of the existence of natural light. So here are a few of my picks, at Paris Photo itself...

  • Ryuji Miyamoto's photograms at Taro Nasu Gallery
  • The Arab Image Foundation in Beirut's selection from their collection. I know very little about the photographic tradition of the region and I'm not usually a fan of Paris Photo's central exhibition, but this promises to be an eye-opener.
  • 'Hanging out' with Roger Ballen (Saturday, 4pm, Project Room)

... and beyond

  • Irving Penn at Thierry Marlat. Penn passed away very recently and Marlat has represented him for many, many years. If anyone has got good Penn, it is Marlat and apparently Penn was involved in all aspects of the show down to the invitation.
  • Daido Moriyama, Lettre à Saint-Lou at François Sage. I'm sure there will be some Moriyama at Paris Photo, but if you feel in need of a bigger dose of 'are-bure-boke' then try François Sage's (appointment only) exhibition, which judging from the invitation alone, should be rather good.
  • Pablo Hare (who I discovered at Photoquai), Alejandra Lavadia and Cinthia Marcelle at Bendana-Pinel.

After today blogging is likely to be patchy at best, so bear with me until next week.

Ryuji Miyamoto: the grass, the bugs

Ryuji Miyamoto, The Grass, Bugs and Sea Ryuji Miyamoto has just had an exhibition of new work at Taro Nasu Gallery in Tokyo's equivalent of the meat-packing district, Higashi-kanda. These new photograms are quite a departure from his earlier work on the destruction of architecture. Miyamoto had already begun experimenting with photographic techniques for his previous series Pinhole, for which he built his own camera obscura. I have written about these pieces before, and now that I have seen more of the work I find the series to be even more strangely beguiling. They are beautiful, but invested with a sense of foreboding... images documenting the beginnings of a mass extinction. For those, like me, who missed the exhibition, Taro Nasu will be bringing some of these photograms to Paris Photo next month.

Ryuji Miyamoto, The Grass, Bugs and Sea

Ryuji Miyamoto

Ryuji Miyamoto

Ryuji Miyamoto is best known for his work on architecture, and, more often than not, on its destruction. With his series Pinhole, he had departed somewhat from his previous work by building his own pinhole hut in which he climbs to make his exposures of landscapes. He will be showing new work at Tokyo's Taro Nasu Gallery next month and judging by the image above, it looks like he has taken a very different direction with his latest series, The Grass, Bugs and Sea. I'm looking forward to seeing more.