Review: Adriaan van der Ploeg, Mont Purgatoire

After Mariken Wessels' two mysterious tomes (one of which was reviewed here) which seemed to make most 'best of 2010' photobook lists, our Dutch friends have done it again and produced a book which really should not exist. I couldn't help but try to imagine this book idea being pitched to any halfway-sane book publisher, "I want to do a big, 150-page book of portraits of out-of-shape, middle-aged men who try to cycle up this mountain that most people have never heard of, but which has a cool name. The portraits will all be taken from the same head-on perspective with some kind of telephoto lens, they'll be tightly cropped and really flat and even out of focus sometimes because they're cycling up a mountain and the guys will all be sweating and in varying degrees of pain. Oh and as a bonus feature, I'll throw in a promotional website with a background video of one of the cyclists throwing up on the side of the road while some other guys ride past him." 99% of the time he would literally be escorted out of the building, possibly with a restraining order thrown in for good measure, and yet the good people of Habbekrats decided that there was some part of this project that was actually a good idea. The funny thing is that they were right.

There is nothing about this book that should interest me. I'm all for the odd bike ride but serious cycling leaves me cold... sweaty middle-aged men trying to reach their physical limits leaves me even colder. And yet, I was drawn in. Like it's non-illustrated cousins, 2008's Netherland about New York cricketers and current favourite The Hare with Amber Eyes (a 350-page book written about a collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny bone or ivory sculptures), Mont Purgatoire is not really about its (not particularly sexy) subject. Although the book comes with a number of essays written by cyclists, cycling poets and sports writers, the photographs it contains provide no context of the gruelling cycle that these men undertake to make it to the top of this mountain. For all we know, Van der Ploeg never even went near the place. I don't think it's going to reach quite the same sales figures as its fictional cousins, but what I found interesting is the way that it goes beyond its apparent subject to become a kind of study of the way we express feeling. Thumbing through its pages, you can't help but wonder what is going through these men's minds and why they are attempting this punishing climb. Their expressions convey the emotions that you would expect determination, exhaustion, focus, but often also a strong sense of introspection, as if this was less about proving their physical resilience or strength and more a process of self-flagellation.

As with most of the Dutch photo-books I've set my hands on of late, the book is very well made, with a really simple but intelligent and appropriate design. I particularly enjoyed the way that the essays were printed on newsprintish paper and designed to look like excerpts of a fictional (?) local Dutch newspaper. In its own (tongue-in-cheek, faux-Hollywood) words "Mont Purgatoire is an extraordinary photography-project about ordinary men, voluntarily battling their own strength on the steepest slopes." If you're curious to find out more, check out the book's website and I also recommend a trip to Van der Ploeg's website to get a view of his interest in the human face and what he has been doing with it in other contexts.

Adriaan van der Ploeg, Mont Purgatoire. Habbekrats (Soft cover, 144 pages, colour plates, 2010).

Rating: Recommended

Book of the Week #4: Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression

Michael Wolf has just released two new books, Asoue and Tokyo Compression, and I have to admit to having a personal favourite. Tokyo Compression brings together a series of images taken in the Tokyo metro during rush hour. Through a series of portraits of trapped commuters, compressed into jam-packed metal carriages, the book brings to life the claustrophobic hell of urban living at its most basic but also its most extreme. Tokyo Compression is beautifully printed on thick matte stock and Christian Schüle's blistering essay further drags you down into the bowels of the city. Leafing through the pages of this book, I couldn't help but hear the voice of Werner Herzog speaking about the Amazonian jungle. "I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and... growing and... just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us". Indeed.

Update: Book of the week is moving to eyecurious books etc. Look out for new picks there!

For those of you that will be in Paris next week, Wolf will be showing work from Asoue and Tokyo Compression at Paris Photo and at the Galerie Particulière.

Carlo Van de Roer capturing the essence

Yoko Okutsu, 2008 One of the most worn clichés in the realm of photography is the notion that a photographic portrait can somehow "capture the essence" of its subject. This has always struck me as pretty problematic; the idea that there is a moment that can be captured on film that encapsulates some fundamental truth about us, about who we really are seems to be a little reductive... I have always liked to think there was more to me than that. I can understand a photographer's search for an image in which the subject is as natural as possible, forgets the camera and maybe even themselves. However, this may not be any more revealing about the person being photographed than an image in which the subject is playing to the camera, showing another side of themselves in the process.

Whatever your take on the ability of a photograph to capture someone's essence, it turns out that there is a camera that is built to capture something pretty close to it. The aura camera was developed by an American scientist in an attempt to record what psychics might see (or perhaps those that are fond of the odd acidic experiment) when they look at someone's aura. Carlo Van de Roer's Portrait Machine project makes use of the aura camera to show us a few celebrity and other lesser-known auras and raise some interesting questions about the photographic portrait and the roles of the subject, the photographer and the viewer. The camera works by connecting the subject "directly to the camera by hand-plates that measure biofeedback, which the camera depicts as an aura of color in the Polaroid and translates into a printed diagram and description explaining the camera's interpretation of the subject. It also explains separately, what the the subject is expressing and how they are seen by others. ... This printout, which includes information about the subjects emotions, potential, aspirations, future, etc. is presented to the viewer along with each photograph". Click here to see the camera's description of Yoko Okutsu's remarkable aura (above).

If you are feeling inspired by Carlo Van de Roer's work, you might want to try out aura photography for yourself. Luckily it turns out that there is an online specialist aura camera store through which you can buy yourself the necessary equipment. The aura camera is currently discounted to a mere $3,497.00 (a remarkably specific price) and even better, their latest 3.1 version doesn't require those cumbersome hand plates and is a "nicer black color" than the previous one. What on earth are you waiting for?