Thursday, December 31, 2015


Favorites encountered/discovered/acquired in 2015, plus a few least favorites:


1. Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out (2014)
2. Langdon Cook, The Mushroom Hunters (2014)
3. Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong To Us (2013)
4. Richard Marcus, American Roulette (2004)
5. Hampton Sides, In The Kingdom of Ice (2014)
6. Kim Gordon, Girl In A Band (2015)
7. Piper Kerman, Orange Is The New Black (2011)
8. Peter Stark, Astoria (2014)
9. David Shields and Caleb Powell, I Think You're Totally Wrong (2014)
10. Maajid Nawaz, Radical (2013)

Least favorite: Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life (2009)


1. Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2014)
2. The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt (2013)
3. Boyhood, Richard Linklater (2014)
4. Cowboy Del Amor, Michèle Ohayon (2005)
5. Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy (2014)
6. Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Werner Herzog (1997)
7. Partly Fiction, Sophie Huber (2013)
8. Meru, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (2015)
9. The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle (2015)
10. Life Itself, Steve James (2014)

Least favorite: The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam


1. Chuck Forsman, Western Rider (2003)
2. Gary Briechle, Self-Titled (2012)
3. Ivars Gravlejs, Early Works (2015)
4. Ossian Brown, Haunted Air (2010)
5. Andrew Savulich, The City (2015)
6. Wendy Ewald, Secret Games (2000)
7. Huger Foote, Now Here Then (2015)
8. Alec Soth, Songbook (2015)
9. Amanda Tetrault, Phil And Me (2004)
10. Dennis Hopper, Drugstore Camera (2015)

Least favorite: Kim Kardashian, Selfish (2015)


1. Shopping, Why Choose (2015)
2. Fugs, Second Album (1966)
3. Maggie Estep, No More Mister Nice Girl (1994)
4. Temptations, Psychedelic Shack (1970)
5 .Various, Punk 45: Burn Rubber City Burn! (2015)
6. Elton and Betty White, Sex Beyond The Door (1988?)
7. Massacre, Killing Time (1981)
8. Leon Redbone, On The Track (1975)
9. Shorty Petterstein, The Wide Weird World of Shorty Petterstein (1958)
10. Various, English As a Second Language (Talking Package) (1983)
11. Pops Staples, Don't Love This (2015)
12. Black Merda, Black Merda (1970)
13. Boojwah Kids, Med Beat (1980)
14. Ol' Dirty Bastard, Return To The 36 Chambers (1995)
15. Jayne Cortez And The Firespitters, Maintain Control (1986)
16. Petra Haden Sings, The Who Sell Out (2005)
17. D'Angelo, Black Messiah (2014)
18. Various, 10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975)
19. The Mistakes, The Mistakes (1995)
20. Various, Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4 (2015)

Least favorites: Arca, Mutant (2015) and Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love (2015)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

2015 Photobook Recap

 Best site to view photobooks 

Josef Chladek

With so many photobooks circulating now it's difficult to track everything out there. A lot of stuff looks good in short reviews but what do the actual books look like? Fortunatley Josef Chladek has done the legwork for you. "My aim," he writes," was to present books in an adequate way, to show them just as you'd see them in real life." His site contains thousands of books, each one scanned page by page. If it's not the same as holding an actual book, it's the next best thing. And holy crap he's got a lot of pages scanned online. What began as a personal project has developed into a nice public service. I recommend a stop here before finalizing any purchase.

 Best back pocket photobook 

Sam W Grant, Sometimes a funny sea (Self Published, 2015)

A followup of sorts to La Rue which made my list of favorites in 2013. Like that book this one is tiny but still charming. Grant expands on his previous photographic territory to include people, color, and multiple formats, all packed snugly into a package no larger than a postcard. Some images appear ripped and worn, and the landscape photo format constantly rubs against the portrait pages, all adding to scrapbook effect. The tones can be garish, sometimes with green colorcast. But the overall mood is quite pleasant, like thumbing through a short stack of flea market work prints.

 Best photobook by a photographer not about photography 

Lynsey Addario, It's What I Do (Penguin, 2015)

If you're looking for insight into how certain photos were made, photo theory, or photojournalism as fine art, this ain't it. Photography is a profession for Addario, not an amateur passion. That said, she's damned good at it, winning numerous awards and rollercoastering along from one globetrotting adventure to another. No time for chitchat, rumination, kids, or niceties. The woman means business. She could be a writer, internet executive, or international rug dealer and the narrative would be roughly the same. If this is what it takes to make the top as a pro, I'll pass thanks. A quick and interesting read though. 

 Best photobook by a movie star 

Dennis Hopper, Drugstore Camera (Damiani, 2015)

Dennis Hopper wasn't just a movie star. He was an all around renaissance man and polymath. And according to daughter Marin, photography was near the top of his list, something he wanted to be remembered for. So she helped make it happen, shaping this collection (along with Michael Schmelling) and writing the afterward. This beautifully designed book collects monochrome snapshots —"lo-fi recordings" The Times calls them— made in and around Taos during the magical early 1970s. The photos drip with simple groovy bliss, and posses a casual quality which might be instructive for more careful photographers. "What's beautiful about them is how not-deliberate they are," says Marin.

 Best photobook that actually lived up to its impossible hype 

Alec Soth, Songbook (Mack, 2015)

From my Photo-Eye review: "Don't let the gold art star and five figure prices by his name fool you. Soth may have shown at Gagosian and shot Paris fashion but... he has always been less concerned with high-brow theory than with the photojournalist's bread-n-butter, human behavior. To be more precise, American human behavior. The Songbook verdict: Americans are a strange lot, 'the lovechild of a Dorothea Lange series and a Woody Guthrie song.' "

 Best career jump-start photobook attempt 

Keith F. Davis, Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath (Nelson Atkins, 2015)

Photo critics suffer from the same nostalgic impulse as rock critics, sometimes slipping into an I-saw-them-before-anyone mentality. "I saw R.E.M. in '82, right before they blew a tiny theater with 30 people." That may be roughly the number of Dave Heath fans out there before this retrospective book, a figure Keith Davis hopes to expand. It's a comprehensive reboot of the formerly famous photographer who has drifted off the contemporary radar. Mike Johnston wants in on the ground floor too, which will probably move some books. Heath was abandoned as a child, and Davis views his orphaning as a key to his photography. Juicy thought. Yeah, there's probably something there, but...mehHeath has a nice enough body of work, but not very stimulating. Dark figures in moments of reverie, etc. For me his oeuvre slips undistinguished into the mid-century humanist stew. Photo League 101, or a gentile version of Faurer. Good career jump-start attempt nonetheless.

 Best photobook list rejoinder 

Mirelle Thijsen, reviewing The Bungalow

I love to read negative reviews. I think we need more of them. But Anouk Kruitof's 2014 review of Philip Toledano's The Reluctant Father was particularly nasty. "Mr. Toledano's ego is bigger than Mars...Let's not talk about design. There is none...A pathetic cliche picture-text book on an empty shelf." I like the contrarian spirit but she went overboard. Payback might have been expected, and it arrived this November as Thijsen savaged Kruitof's The Bungalow in her 2015 recap: "Cutting and pasting and sculpting and re-photographing, photoshopping and cropping, till the image is dead as a doornail. There is no new meaning, no added value. It totally lacks integrity." Woah. Flame war. I'm guessing there's a backstory here I'm not privy to. In any case the online aftermath proved entertaining. Can't wait to see where this goes next year.

 Best photobook to peruse in the morning with coffee and toast 

Will Steacy, Deadline (B. Frank Books, 2015)

From my Photo-Eye review: "I'm old fashioned enough to still read a print newspaper every morning, and Deadline is a perfect facsimile. The paper spreads between the hands over a kitchen table, sections tumbling loosely, rubbing ink smudges on the fingers. The pages crinkle audibly just like normal newsprint. The mimicry is so faithful that it borders on parody. But Deadline is nothing to laugh about. The Inquirer's demise is a sorry tale. If you need a primer, Deadline recounts the story section by section...It's the history of the Inquirer's rise and fall, extended in journalistic fashion to the entire industry."

 Best posthumous photobook 

Edited by John Klacsmann and Andrew Lampart, Photography by Jason Fulford, Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith (J and L, 2015)

Smith wasn't a photographer —more of a musicologist, occultist, and general freak even by beat standards— but he possessed a documentary photographer's foraging instinct. This is the first volume of several planned by J and L to showcase Smith's various ramshackle collections, all photographed by Jason Fulford with simple backdrops to highlight their eccentric forms. The reader is forced to face the uncomfortable fact that he/she would've ignored these structures had they been encountered in real life. Not only did Smith collect and treasure them, he generated a cultural phenomenon from their banality. In the fashion of all seminal figures, he saw something where others saw nothing, hopped in his paper plane, and flew off.

 Six photobooks the lists missed 

Despite my sometimes scroogy attitude I enjoy the rush of year-end lists as much as anyone. The irony is that although they show an astonishing diversity which seems to increase every year, taken as a whole listmania also exhibits a strange conformist streak. The overwhelming trend is to favor book-as-objects, photobooks designed as comprehensive vehicles, jumping off points for meditative or theoretical wanderings. Art books, in other words. That's fine. But sometimes a book can get in the way of its photographs. I generally value photography first, and here are six books that gave it to me. To varying degrees they're also nice as art objects but for me that's less important than job one: all six contain excellent straight photographs. Unfortunately I saw few of these mentioned on other lists.

Roger Steffens, Family Acid (SUN, 2015)
Andrew Savulich, The City (Steidl, 2015)
Timothy Briner and Thomas Hauser, Briner/Hauser (SUN, 2015)
David Solomons, Up West (Bump Books, 2015)
Huger Foote, Now Here Then (Dashwood, 2015)
Lee Friedlander, Children (Yale, 2015)

 Best labor of love 

Andrew PhelpsCubic Feet/Sec (Fotohof, 2015)

From my brief review in September: "In a world dense with impersonal concept projects, Andrew Phelps his paydirt with the small book of childhood memories edited from nine Grand Canyon trips over a four decade span. The photos —casual travel snaps— were shot by Andrew and his father, then filtered through shoeboxes and slideshows before recently being shoehorned by Phelps into book form. The layout, cropping, and subjects flow here and there, sometimes eddying out, sometimes barreling forward down whichever chute fits. The journey is the destination. Rarely has the Colorado looks so inviting."

 Most divisive photobook 

Bruce Gilden, Face (Dewi Lewis, 2015)

If the goal of good art is to generate a range of reactions, Face succeeded. That said, I can't claim Face is high art. In fact I find it slightly repulsive. But love it or hate it, everyone either loved it or hated it, no in-between, and that's a good thing in my book. Darren Campion's savage take was typical: "There is scant trace of empathy in the pictures. They have a cruelty that serves no purpose." Gary Cohen (Facebook's photobooks group) took the opposite view: "You are free to not like the photos but when you refer to them as looking like freaks maybe it's your moral compass that's off." Martin Parr and Vice both climbed aboard in favor. Parr's take (it was one of his 2015 favorites) sums up the book's ultimate success: "This work divides opinions, which for me is one of its merits." This is one beautiful ugly book.

 Photobook of the year 

Ivars Gravlejs, Early Works (Mack, 2015)

This book works for all the reasons most photobooks don't: Early Works is raw, unprecious, absurd, and whimsical. Gravlejs lampoons his childhood and photographic training before decimating the idea of good design, layout, flow, or typography. It's the counter to every perfectionist impulse, the type of book a child might put together, with cheesy "Super" sticker on the front and grainy clown middle fingering  the back. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the National Lampoon Yearbook Parody from the early 1980s, which I consider an alltime prankster classic. In today's photobook climate I have no idea how this got published by anyone, much less Mack. It shouldn't work, but against all odds it does. My favorite photobook of the year.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Go ahead, just ask a question

Here's a photo from last autumn that I printed recently. 

This is on the corner of SW 4th and Washington in Portland. I know the spot pretty well. There's a good Thai restaurant nearby where I sometimes eat lunch, after which I often walk by here. Usually there's nothing happening but this time a woman was standing in nice highlighting with an odd cowhide purse near our shadows. Nothing was moving, all the elements were in place, and I had plenty of time to line them up. 

But I still missed the shot! Argh@#! Photos like this frustrate the hell out of me because I can't go back in time. But I will anyway. One step to the left and I could've had this. 

I'm not saying the second version is brilliant. It's still missing something. But at least it's getting toward an idea. There's a relationship between the elements. If I saw this on the contact sheet I'd print it no questions asked. 

It's better but I'm still not totally happy with it. If I'd waited just a moment longer I could've captured this instead.

That's right. Portland's annual Holstein 10k Roundup was happening downtown that day, and I was in perfect position to photograph it. Afternoon fall shadows were popping and the cows were out, a rare combination in Portland. A little more patience would've been rewarded. But alas, there's no going back now. That's photography.

By now you probably realize I'm pulling your leg. This isn't my photo at all. It's the famous cow photo in Michael Schmidt's Lebenschmittel, his landmark book critiquing the industrial food chain.

I've always loved his image, not to mention the book itself. Both are classics. "Stop eating cows," they prod. Or something like that. Lebenschmittel was printed in a small run which probably limited its general impact, because whether it's a book or a Holstein, it's hard to build appreciation for something that isn't widely distributed. But the citation in last year's Parr/Badger III gave it some much needed attention, and maybe even nudged it into the canon. 

My cow photo, which I didn't take, pays homage to Schmidt's. If we were two parts of a tree his photo would be the root —No, the rhizome! — and mine would be the maple seed helicoptering on the breeze. Elements relating. But, dammit. I'm looking at this book now, or rather the photo I took of it, and I realize I got it wrong. One step to the left during exposure and I could've had this.

Photos like this frustrate the hell out of meOh well. There's no going back now. The moment is gone. But it's even worse, because I shouldn't have stepped left at all. A move instead back and to the right (plus a little patience) would've revealed the holstein whole scene:

This goes back to the old photo mantra. When you think you've got the photo, turn around and look behind you. That's where the cow will be. Or something like that. In this case behind you equals to the right. That version just kinda works. Don't ask me why. If I knew I'd do it every time. Something in the off kilter framing says Arty —Capital A.  I think this is the type of image that could wind me in a bigtime New York gallery, if that gallery happened to have a Parr/Badger book lying open on a cherry cabinet. And if I'd taken it off center with a long shutter speed.

It's good, but it still leaves something on the table, so to speak. I think it can be improved. Looking at this image now —D0h!— the realization hits me like a brick. What I should've done is replace the ceiling bulbs with blacklights, then close all the curtains. 

That's if I'd actually taken the photo. But, as I said before, I didn't. So the blacklight idea would be impractical unless I could convince the photographer I'd hired to shoot it that way. Most photographers are headstrong with their own lighting ideas, and they're especially prone to resist suggestions after you've pounded them with "Step Left! Now Wait For The Cow!" over and over. At least that's been my experience. many ideas have I had shot down by "Impractical"?

So, although I may have birthed the original conception for the photo —a woman standing near two shadows—  by the time it hits the tabletop it's been hopelessly altered. Welcome to my world. At that point I just need to retreat to my studio and reinvision the holstein whole scene in my mind, then turn on the blacklight and wait for the pills to take effect. Under those conditions if you step left just about anything looks good. So, you know, it's hard to judge. But it's not my fault. That's what the industrial food chain does to people. When the wrong material is highlighted carnivores never think to look behind them.

Now comes the surprise. Scroll up and look at the original photo again. That's not a woman at all. That's me! I hired a photographer friend to take the shot. The same guy who shot the book. That's his shadow on the right (he had his own highlighting ideas). The purse was a thriftstore prop bought just for the 10k. So was the cow, if I'd waited.

Northern Alabama map showing Huntsville and vicinity, circa 1930s

I often wonder what Michael Schmidt truly thought of this photograph. Sadly he has passed on and it's difficult to know. But if it were somehow possible to go back in time I would ask him "Why did you use my photograph in your book?" What I really want to ask Schmidt, though —what I wonder about at 3 a.m. after the day has worn off and the race is over and all elemental relationships have been firmly established— is "Why didn't you step left and wait a moment longer?"

By now you probably realize I'm pulling your leg. It's not itchy. It's me, this isn't my blog post at all. It's a verbatim copy of an article which caused quite a commotion when it first appeared on the front page of the LA Times in 2007 (left: highlighted yellow), Go ahead, just ask a question. I've always loved this article —it's famous for a reason— and I've been waiting for just the right moment to appropriate it. Like fine champagne it says, "Go ahead." So I've reproduced the text here word for word, but with new images and highlighting. That's what you're reading now. Some passages are yellow for easy reference. For other parts I've used blacklight. Hopefully you'll pardon the artistic liberties. Is it just coincidence that the LA Times foundered after this was published? Decide for yourself.

I suppose I could've saved some trouble by posting an image of the full article instead of writing it all out. The problem with that method is that a lot has happened since 2007. If I posted the thing as-is, it wouldn't make sense at all from a contemporary POV. FDR. CDC. PCP. 

Polar bears, for one thing. And Michael Schmidt and Pope Francis. The howsing bobble, etc. But we can't go back. That's photography. Plus there are all the problems with photographing the article and stepping left or right, and ruing what might've been or not been. You walk down the street one way and you see the article highlighted in the sun. Choose the other direction and that possibility forecloses. It's the Red Sea of photography. Keep heading east. Don't look back.

4th and Washington. Why this corner, this moment, this photograph? We'll never know the real answer, and that's ok. I have my theories as I'm sure we all do.  Sometimes the solution is just out there helicoptering somewhere beyond our grasp. But hey, that's photography. You can't go back.