book review

Book Review: Sally Mann "Immediate Family"

I heard that Sally Mann just recently published a book that is more of a memoir than a photo book - "Hold Still". I'm not going to buy or read it. Oh well, I ordered it already.

My issue with Sally Mann is that I wish I knew less of her and her life and how she puts her work into context. Or what the critics think. Or what the public thinks.

I wish I had just seen "Immediate Family", the photos. No essays, articles, interviews. It's counterintuitive, right, because usually if you like somebody's work, you want to learn more about it. I did the same with Sally Mann and I'm thorough. I'm afraid this was a mistake.

I wish I never knew that somebody actually stalked her because of her work (I wanted to reference the interview where she talked about it, but can't find it right now). It adds a dimension to her work I don't want to associate it with. I totally understand why she came out with those issues, it's not an accusation nor do I wish she presented her work differently. It's a massive 'fuck you!' to the narrow-minded people who can think of art as art and need to mix it with their own prejudices and take extreme positions based on that.

I never wanted to know that all the pictures in "Immediate Family" are staged. I'm not against staging photos, I do it all the time, but here work doesn't seem to be staged at the first glance. I never thought about it when looking at the pictures. Learning the pictures were staged didn't make me appreciate them less, but it made me think about it whether or not my position changes. I'm afraid that thought itself changed my position. I never wanted to know, I would've never asked about that.

In case of movie reviews, the writers put SPOILER ALERTS into their text when they start to describe the plot. For me the context - articles, reviews, etc - around Mann's work is all spoilers and not because it describes the pictures (it usually doesn't), but because it desperately wants make me choose sides. Pornography, says one side, greatest artist of our time, says the other. Whatever you choose (I'm certainly more in the latter camp), the fact that you even think about choosing (see, I had to position myself even earlier in this sentence) spoils the experience of looking at the pictures.

It's been said that there're no less than eight pictures in the book that could have yielded Mann arrested (probably due to nudity). I'm pretty sure this kind of publicity will make many people buy the book, which, in turn, makes me hope this wasn't a publicity stunt. But then, with all that powerful knowledge, can I look at the book again and not wonder which were these eight pictures?

Sometimes context is good and more information is good and multitude of opinions is good. And, it now seems to me, there're cases where reviews and articles don't do any good. At least for the people who appreciate the pictures; although controversy has certainly been good for Mann's career. But maybe there're works you just need to figure out on your own - take a quiet and lonely moment in the evening, leaf through the book and go somewhere deep. Dig into your childhood memories or just appreciate art, but don't tell anyone what you think. Pretty please. Because anything you say out publicly will bear the burden of social norms and moral values, it'll position you and set an example for others.

Of course I realize how naive this statement is, that Sally Mann would never had such a career and I likely would never heard about her work and all. But Sally's been naive too, publishing this book in "a world where ***philia exists" (see, in my endless naivety, I'm now censoring that word cause I don't want my writing to show up on google if someone enters that search term).

I'm really glad I first saw "Immediate Family" from a blank position, without knowing much of her work. And when looking back, it's even better. Had I read all what I have now, I'm afraid I would've looked at it differently. Not necessarily differently in a bad way, but with expectations too see everything that has been described - from pornography to innocence - there.

When I see a good movie or read a good book, it should make me see things in some new angle, in some different light, open some new perspective. It is the very definition of good for me. And although it's much much harder for photography to accomplish the same, some of it does. "Immediate Family" certainly did.

Book Review: Gvido Kajons "Theme 011"

One-sentence review: The first half relies too heavily on soviet propaganda slogans, the other half has historical value for Latvian culture.

Gvido Kajons is one of the Latvian photographers whose work I saw at "Cool Water" exhibition (together with Andrejs Grants and Inta Ruka). I reviewed Grants' book here should you be interested.

Kajons's book was quite hard to find, his website is in Latvian, but using Google Translate I understood that the book is sold by some gallery in Riga. I contacted the gallery in Facebook (they have a page) and they indeed sold me the book. Not the usual way to get a book.

First of all, the book is solid hardcover, printed on nice paper and the reproduction quality seems to be very good for me. But I'm saying that without seeing any original prints, so I don't have a reference to compare to other than my own experience with similar photo books. Oh well, I did see the prints at the exhibition, but that was too long ago to compare the quality.

The book is divided into two parts - the first and unnamed part starts right after intro essay and then somewhere in the middle there's a separate page with subtitle "Portraits".

The first part relies heavily on various Soviet propaganda slogans, posters, signs, roadside banners written in either Russian (which I understand to some extent) or Latvian (which I don't understand at all). Frankly, most of these pictures just fail to impress despite the fact that the texts are translated in the captions. I think the picture has to say everything without relying much on texts in the picture (I can think of exceptions but that's another topic). I found myself desperately waiting for the next picture without any texts. When I try to remember the pictures from the exhibition, I think all of them stood on their own - so the author has more and better work, it's just a matter of edit. Then again, I totally fail to understand the choice of pictures in the book.

Some small things I noticed: I very much like the picture of a parade in the snow on page 12 and it was an interesting realization how the sky is left completely blank white without any details on some pictures - it would be totally unacceptable nowadays, during the digital age, when you must get absolutely everything out of the dynamic range of the sensor (and you must have a bad sensor if your skies are blank white). I'm intrigued to try white sky now.

There's picture from London titled (and showing) Tower Bridge (on page 106) in a book where the rest of the pictures are from Soviet Latvia, at least as far as I can identify. I hope it's a human error during editing and not a choice knowingly made, this picture really doesn't belong there.

The second part contains mostly portraits of Latvian writers, musicians, journalists, actors, etc. I can't help but think if I'd find the portraits more interesting if I knew the people. I found myself thinking how would I connect to the work of, say, Jim Marshall if I knew absolutely nothing of the people on his pictures? I'm not even comparing the pictures, because Kajons is not nearly Marshall, but just as an intellectual exercise. All in all, it is history of Latvian culture, just as Kalju Suur's work is valued because it's history of Estonian culture, but the pictures don't stand on their own, mostly. I have another book by Latvian portrait photographer Inta Ruka (whose portrait is also among Kajons's portraits) in my to-be-reviewed list and I find the pictures there lightyears ahead of Kajons's.

Kajons's book makes me think how should I photograph, say, the streets of Tartu in a way that this work would make any sense in 30 years, in a way that it would tell something about life around 2015.

Book Review: Alain Laboile "At The Edge Of The World"

One-sentence review: Accessible and flowing street photography style family pictures from rural France that are not Sally Mann.

I first saw Alain Laboile's work on Lens Culture where he was titled as European Sally Mann. An ambitious title and it's whole another story whether the photographer agrees with it or not. I hope he doesn't because the work is not comparable to Sally Mann, there's not nearly as much depth. It doesn't mean Laboile's work is bad, but it sure is different (and I do hope the ambitions are different too).

While Sally Mann's photos are thought out and carefully staged, then Laboile's work is more like street photography from countryside (actually rural France) farm with kids.

There're some exceptionally good photos, and there're some average ones too. This seems to be author's second book within relatively short time and that shows - at least sometimes I wish the edit was tighter. It's a continuation to the body of work and (for me, as I've seen hundreds of Laboile's photos already on Lens Culture) and sometimes has the taste of sequel to it. The motives and places start to repeat themselves - it's no surprise as all these photos seem to be taken in a relatively small area.

I still like how the photographic techniques vary and how the composition is not forced to any frames. The work seems to just flow, it's rather ad hoc, just like the kids' games, thus making it suitable for this type of pictures. It's a celebration of childhood after all and not some cold formalism. 

Some of the pictures make me wonder if they're staged, they seem just too perfect to be random catches, but then - I'm more qualified to notice this as my main work consists of pictures staged with children. Nothing wrong with that if this type of works conveys what you wanted to say.

One can't but wonder about the prevailing nudity in the pictures as it seems a bit artificial and over the top at times, trying to add something to the work that's not meant to be there (as an exercise - try to imagine Sally Mann's most famous and controversial pictures without nudity and see what's left). The author himself has quoted another much disputed photographer - Jock Sturges as his mentor making me draw connections that I'd rather not see. Just for clarification - there's nothing wrong with Sturges's work, I own no less than two of his books and find them beautiful, it's the idea of the connection that creates associations I wish weren't there.

But all this is compensated by the flowing ease with the work is produced. It's best viewed if you just threw away your ideas of what a photo should be and what it shouldn't, try to avoid any connections and contexts (that's why I hate the title 'European Sally Mann'). Then it's definitely an enjoyable experience.

Book Review: Harry Gruyaert

I wasn't really familiar with the work of Harry Gruyaert before buying this book (according to Amazon, the title is "Harry Gruyaert" by François Hébel and Richard Nonas). It's not a good way to spend 45€, one could argue, but on the other hand, I've found amazing photography books taking similar risks - my life would be different without Sammallahti's "Here Far Away" ☺

On a superficial look on the Internet, Gruyaert's work somewhat reminded me another Magnum photographer - Georgui Pinkhassov, whose work I'm somewhat familiar with (here is an excellent collection although I'm not sure under what license these photos have been published). Studying the book, the differences start to surface. I'm trying to avoid a direct comparison though as it wouldn't help, but I still had to mention Pinkhassov as my first association.

It becomes increasingly clear though that when Pinkhassov uses color, Gruyaert photographs color. There're exceptions in both's works though, there're cases where Pinkhassov seems to have made the image because of colors and not human expression and there're cases where Gruyaert has caught human expression in addition to colors, but predominantly, the other way is true. Should you have the book - there's a good example of what I mean on page 54.

It takes a worse turn for me when even if there are humans in the picture, it's still 90% about color (and geometry) and anything about the people doesn't stand on it's own. In a sense that if you took the colors away, there wouldn't be much left, the expression doesn't stand on it's own (see page 63 for example to understand better what I mean). In Gruyaert's photos, people are just graphic elements of the picture, similar to cars, road signs, balloons, etc. It's not important what they do or how they feel as long as they're in right places.

Something in me says that if Koudelka's Exiles were in color, you'd still be able to notice something distinctively human in there, although it might not come out as easily if there were strong colors. There are some Gruyaerts that show the same qualities, but these are minority. 

On the other hand Gruyaert seems to be much more graphic, his compositions are much more sophisticated. There's perspective and visual depth in the images, multiple planes usually, if you will. There's clearly separate foreground, middle ground, background in most of the images, making he's work much more formal than the usual street photography crowd. And then again, Gruyaert seems to favor formalism to humanism (see pages 29, 75, 109).

Gruyaert's use of contrasts and deep blacks remind me another Magnum photographer - Alex Webb. I feel a bit bad to say that, but once you've been introduced to Pinkhassov as the 'color guy' and Webb as the 'contrast guy', you tend to see other work through this prism. It's impossible to tell who influenced who or if there was any influence at all - it's well possible that this particular aspect is a matter of photographic material of the time - slide film - that made the photographers "work around" its limitations (mostly very narrow dynamic range) in the same way. See pages 31 and 51 for example. Gruyaert seems to take it a step further though with depth and tonal relations.

There're several images in this book that I like because of their painting-like qualities, these are the very best in my humble opinion making the book well worthwhile (see examples on pages 32 and 95). And a few images rise to their own heights with some sort of symbolism (see page 67).

Despite this review might sound like a negative one - I do like the book (and I don't like the reviews that only glorify). Writing down my thoughts is not meant to devalue Gruyaert's work, but to advance my photographic thinking and understanding of images (having said that, I'm looking differently at my own ventures into graphic contrasts).

Book Review: Andrejs Grants "Fotografijas"

I've noticed a tendency to be more interested in the work of photographers with somewhat similar background as myself. For example I connect more with the work of photographers from the Soviet block than to, say, the work about social issues in US Midwest. Not that the latter was bad or anything (I have to write a review of Bryan Schutmaat's fabulous "Grays The Mountain Sends" to balance this statement), but as I said - I tend to connect more to the topics that are close to me - geographically, historically, spiritually.

So after visiting a group exhibition "Cool Water" showing Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian photography from the nineties I bought the books of Andrejs Grants and Inta Ruka. Neither are available new, but good options exist on Ebay.

Grants's works remind me a little bit of Koudelka (sometimes even to the point where I'd suspect he had seen and copied Koudelka - for example the landscape with hand and wristwatch), but in general are not as dark as his.

The book is divided into three parts - Impressions, Around Latvia and Colleagues, Friends and Acquaintances. I salute to the separation - having seen rather mediocre book with portraits mixed with nudes and industrial views from an Estonian author of the same time.

I liked the works of Grants on the exhibition - I wouldn't have bought the book otherwise - but the first part honestly fails to impress. The pictures are indeed impressions, with fairly little to connect to. You can rarely guess the time or place and although one can argue they're not important, it is why I become interested in his works in the first place. The photographs of Berlin seem to be out of place for me - one showing a graffiti in German and the other one with huge Marlboro banner among pictures of eighties Latvia. Not to mention one square format picture among the 2:3-s.

The second part pushes hard on the nostalgia buttons and seems also the strongest photography in this book - for me. The details are distinctly Soviet - the cars and buses, moped, clothing, etc, although europlastic makes it's way into the newer pictures too. The pictures show more signs of life than the first part, there're people on almost every picture. The situations vary from sad to humorously absurd, as on the front cover photo. It comes through as everyday life, found rather than staged. It's not depressing, but it's mostly not upbeat either.

The third part, Colleagues, Friends and Acquaintances, seems to be the weakest. The selection seems just random for me, studio work mixed with environmental portraits and hardly portraits at all. There're some interesting photos, I mostly like the ones that stretch the portrait category, again likely found and not staged.

My overall impression is positive, I'm happy to have this book on my shelf. More importantly, I'm glad this type of work - about life in Soviet Union - exists and has found it's way into the form of book making it more accessible. I'd have never been able to make myself familiar with Grants's works if this book didn't exist.

(Added 13.11.15): Now that I've had a bit more time to think about this book - I like that it's not melancholic, it's not outsiders view in, it's insiders view. It doesn't make things overly dramatic, these seem to be the pictures of a person who knew what life is like in Soviet Union.

PS: I like printing the negative borders, they frame the pictures nicely and underline the fact that the photos are uncropped. But leaving them out on 3-4 pictures in the book makes it a bit weird.