Monday, July 07, 2014

Early Black and White by Saul Leiter


My review of Early Black and White by Saul Leiter (Steidl/Howard Greenberg, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

All images © Saul Leiter and Steidl/Howard Greenberg
All images © Saul Leiter and Steidl/Howard Greenberg
All images © Saul Leiter and Steidl/Howard Greenberg
All images © Saul Leiter and Steidl/Howard Greenberg

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Tales from the City of Gold by Jason Larkin


My review of Jason Larkin's Tales from the City of Gold (Kehrer, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.
___________________

Built on the tailings and cavernous holes of a once rich gold reserve, Johannesburg has a complex relationship with the precious metal. Long since depleted, the tailings, waste and dust from decades of mining now surround the city — infiltrating every aspect of life. Although the landscape is now the site of a renewed effort to extract gold due to its increased value, the landscape has been irreparably transformed along with the lives of the people who live there. Jason Larkin’s Tales from the City of Gold looks at the lasting social, racial and environmental consequences the precious metal has wrought on the city and the lives of the people who live there.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

Shot entirely on 2 ¼ medium format color, the book combines landscapes and portraits. Often shot at a distance, Larkin takes a somewhat measured and restrained approach in documenting his subject. Figures are rarely brought to the foreground and are framed as part of the landscape. A man, identified as an environmentalist, overlooks a mining pit; two children play with toxic sand on a paved sidewalk; and in one of the book’s most iconic images, a lone man stands against a towering mound of tailings while dogs circle and roam throughout the space. Although not always the focus of individual images, the scarred landscape is an omnipresent focus — tailings loom in the background, rivers of chemical sludge snake through the sand and ambiguous trenches fragment the landscape. What at first appear to be mesas and banks of sedimentary deposits are quickly revealed to be the aftermath of the mines, which have left no part of the landscape untouched.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

As with any story about Johannesburg and South Africa, race plays a central role. Mining is a grueling and dangerous work anywhere you go, and in South African it is most often done by black South Africans either through forced labor or due to almost non-existent options for work and employment. Although freed from the evils of Apartheid, contemporary black workers and inhabitants of the toxic landscape still struggle with systemic and generational inequality. Forced to live amidst the ravaged landscape, many have resorted to sifting through the discarded tailings, scavenging in the city’s dumps or by taking jobs with the new mining companies that have returned to take over the old sites.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

Although the two essays give the work contextual grounding within South African history and contemporary photography, the images feel oddly removed. While the names of Larkin’s subjects are given, their voices are absent and we learn little about their lives. The particulars are sacrificed for the bigger picture, when the two are not mutually exclusive. Julian Rodriguez locates Larkin’s cool and distanced gaze within contemporary fine-art photography, but given the enormity of the environmental, social and racial injustice the images skirt, the book as a whole seem a bit timid. This is especially true when Rodriguez references the brilliant, brave and unapologetically political work of Ernest Cole, the black South African photographer who risked his life to expose the injustices of Apartheid in his book House of Bondage. Larkin seem reluctant to either embrace the more artistic aspects of the work by leaving more unsaid, or to tackle the larger social and political reality of the work by giving us more information.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

Larkin clearly cares about his subject and subjects, but I was left craving a more inventive design and a greater use of appropriated source materials. Given the subject’s long and complex history, there are no doubt vast visual and textual resources to drawn on that could have been incorporated into the book, as well as voices that demand to be heard. The inclusion of the book’s two appropriated graphics does more for the book than both essays. At least one of which could have been forgone with a different design and/or use of additional material. Larkin is a very talented photographer who’s tackled an ambitious and important subject that deserves attention. Sadly, it’s a great project that deserves a better book.

Please note: This review originally appeared on May 29th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

World of Details by Viktoria Binschtok


My review of Viktoria Bischtok's World of Details (Distanz, 2013) is now available on Paper-Journal. You can get the book here.

All images © Viktoria Binschtok, 2013
All images © Viktoria Binschtok, 2013
All images © Viktoria Binschtok, 2013
All images © Viktoria Binschtok, 2013
All images © Viktoria Binschtok, 2013
All images © Viktoria Binschtok, 2013

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The 99 and The 9 by Katy Grannan


My review of The 99 and The 9 by Katy Grannan (Fraenkel Gallery/Salon 94, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can read the review here and get the book here.
__________________

Despite its fertility and proximity to the wealth of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California’s Central Valley has long been an area of entrenched poverty — an area to be driven past on the way to somewhere much less celebrated or visited. Long since overshadowed by the multilane RT-5, CA-99 cuts through the Valley and was once a major thoroughfare. Beginning in the area south of Bakersfield, the highway links the often-overlooked ‘Valley Towns’ of Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and others. For photographers, the region was made famous by Dorthea Lange who took her iconic image, Migrant Mother, in the area, and gathered the material for An American Exodus, her book with Paul Lange, which focused on the migrants drawn to the Central Valley during the Great Depression. Inspired in part by Lange, and building on her own work in California since 2006, Katy Grannan’s two-volume book, The 99 and The 9, explores the region and its inhabitants through a series of unsettling and evocative color portraits and black & white landscapes.

 All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014
  All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014

The two books, although linked and housed in a single slipcase, are markedly different. The 99, which refers to the aforementioned highway, is a series of large-scale color portraits shot against the ready-made studio backdrop of a white stucco wall and under the harsh noon sun. The 9, a series of black and white landscapes and cityscapes, refers to Modesto’s South 9th Street, an impoverished and crime-ridden street where many of the pictures from the book were taken. The expansive wide-angled shots often depict people bathing and wading in, as well as resting by the Tuoumne River, fighting in motel parking lots, and wandering city streets. Interspersed with aerial shots of the car-laden highways cutting through the verdant cropland, these images further emphasize the geographic isolation of the landscape and give a larger context to the lives of the people depicted in both series.

Like a cast of characters, the stark and isolated portraits of The 99 appear as though they were plucked from the images in The 9 and in some cases they were. More narrative in structure and content, The 9 is also the only the book to contain text. Beginning with W.B. Yeat’s apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, the book also contains a series of fragmented statements that are largely religious in tone and seemingly drawn from interviews and discussions with the book’s subjects. Tinged with hope, yet also tempered with disappointment, the voices long for a life free of hardship.

  All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014

Religious themes are present throughout the two books. One image shows a mural of Christ’s outstretched palms marked with stigmata, while another shows a woman and daughter whose pose recalls the Madonna and child. The river, a reoccurring character in The 9, also suggests baptism. People are shown bathing and wading through the river or lounging on its banks. Interspersed throughout are more troubling scenes of the hard lives lived in the areas. Fights breakout in parking lots over money and the guarded poses of women in the shadows suggests more illicit trade. There are also the harsh realities of the urban landscape that surrounds and haunts the people — cheap motels, barbed wire and ugly commercial strips. However polluted the waters may be, the river offers some measure of solace and escape from inescapable and harsh realities of the people's lives.

 All images © Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery, 2014

Similar to the work Grannan did in her recent book Boulevard, the portraits contain more than a passing resemblance to Richard Avedon’s famous work In The American West. An obvious homage, the work shares Avedon’s stark aesthetic and Western locale, but differs somewhat in tone. More theatrical than Avedon’s famous work, the people offer guarded and at times resigned postures for the camera. Given the religious overtones of The 9, I could not help but draw comparisons between her portraits and religious iconography of saints and holy men. Like the saints, Grannan’s subjects not only assume dignified and classical poses, but are also stripped bare, their characteristic scars exposed. Simultaneously signifiers of authenticity and a kind of armor, the wounds, tattoos, and make-up are evidence of their hard lives. Although intentionally left anonymous, many of the people are close friends of Grannan’s and have reappeared in her images over the years as subjects and collaborators.

From her breakthrough images of Poughkeepsie Journal and Model America to her recent work in California, Grannan has made a career of exploring the uncomfortable truths of portraiture — the desire to look, to be seen, and the gap, so brilliantly described by Arbus, between intention and effect. Like her recent book The Westerns, The 99 and The 9 continues Grannan’s move into a more expansive territory. Interestingly, Grannan has also released a trailer for her first feature-film, The 9, due next year. Based on the same subject as the book, the movie appears just as haunting and unsettling as her images. In both her photos and videos to date, Grannan’s work offers us a glimpse into the secret, forgotten or ignored lives of people on society’s margins, not only revealing moments of dignity, heartbreak and perseverance, but also reminding us all that fate and circumstances could have dealt us a very different hand.

Please note: This review originally appeared on May 8th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dolce Via by Charles Traub


My review of Dolce Via by Charles Traub (Damiani, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

(Full disclosure: Charles is a dear friend and colleague. Despite my bias, this is a great book. If you're at all a fan of smart street photography or social documentary work, this book is worth checking out.)

__________________

One of the many pleasures of seeing older work, especially work that has aged well, is that it gains new meaning within a contemporary context. Dolce Via by Charles Traub collects a series of color photographs taken in Italy during the 1980s, but is much more. While all older work maintains a certain seductive aura, it’s rare that such work exudes a sense of contemporaneity and offers fresh insight. Brimming with life, humor and sensuous energy, Dolce Via is at once a celebration of Italy and a valuable social and cultural document, but it is also a joyous reflection of the pleasures and challenges of being a street photographer. During the early 1980s, Charles Traub made numerous trips to Italy. Befriending photographers like the late Luigi Ghirri, Traub traveled throughout the country visiting Naples, Rome, Florence, Vienna and other cities. Shot primarily in medium format color, his large frames revel in the lush ancient details and vibrant colors of the day.

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

Although history and myth loom large, the statues and Roman walls that fill these images are also nothing but a picturesque stage on which the all too human drama of the street unfolds. Acutely aware of the stage on which his actors perform, Traub crafts complexly layered images that are humorous and alive. While pointed in their observation, they are compassionately revealed. In one image, the legs and akimbo stance of a young boy and girl standing on a dock eating gelato mirror the tilted and submerged dock posts behind them. In another, a horse is captured mysteriously bathing on a beach — the sunbathing women and two children in the foreground oblivious its presence. In others, men and women strip, bath, lounge and drink from the fabled Fontana di Trevi, whose appearance is a recurrent theme in the book — drawing us back with its magnetic pull and offering new dramas and new juxtapositions.

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

Playful and pointed, Traub’s images may expose our all too human side, but our foibles are always revealed with a gentle voyeuristic touch. Naked bodies luxuriate in the sun and diaphanous clothing reveals undergarments we may wish not to see. Streets and plazas become places of collisions and display. Men and women strut past in their fashionable, but now dated garb, momentarily performing for the camera or walk past unaware they’ve fallen into the frame. In many images, they bend awkwardly and unknowingly mimic the gestures of the statues and ancient friezes that surround them. This play between the history and myth of the place and its contemporary context is never forced, but is crucial thread tying the work together and imparts an immemorial legitimacy to the contemporary spectacle. As Faulkner notes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

The book’s title, Dolce Via, is a playful twist of Fellini’s famous work, La Dolce Vita. Here the “sweet life” becomes the “sweet way” or road. While the titular sweet way evokes not only the pleasures of Italian life at the time, it is also suggestive of the practice of street photography — a joyful pursuit by those who fall victim to its particular allure. However, the sweetness of its rewards are tempered by its challenges. How does one make sense of the evocative and fleeting parade of life that plays out in front of the lens? How does one tie all the images together?

The poet and dramatist Luigi Ballerini grapples with this dilemma in one of the book’s two texts. It is constructed as a dialogue between the photographer and his muse, who is begrudgingly called to duty not only to help make sense of the photos but also to inspire. While no answers are found, a truce seems to be struck, an acknowledgement of sorts that much of the pleasures are found in the pursuit. Meaning comes later, in retrospect. Although the book begins with an excellent text by the eminent art historian and photographer Max Kozloff who thoughtfully addresses the work, Ballerini’s piece most closely addresses the heart of the work and its motivation — albeit in a less direct way than Kozloff.

All images © Charles Traub, 2014

 Unapologetically voyeuristic, Traub's photographs savor the visual play of flesh, ancient beauty and human frailty that unfolds before the frame. While much color work from the 70s and early 80s has resurfaced lately, such as the work of Anthony Hernandez and Mitch Epstein, much of that work takes itself too seriously. Humor is a rare feat to pull off in photographs, too often becoming facile one-liners or cruel set-ups. Traub succeeds by embracing the humanity of his subjects. It’s refreshing to see work that is so clearly enamored by its subject and the elusive craft of picture making on the street. This pleasure is palpable and helps make the work feel so alive, so relevant and so fresh.

Please note: This review originally appeared on April 24th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.