It occurred to me the other day, after wrapping up a beginning photo class, that it’s a lot easier to teach style than substance. My students, all young, had turned in an assignment of self-portraits, and the level of stylistic sophistication was pretty advanced. Very fashionable. As to the substance, let’s just say that one would glean little about their personalities, beyond the fact that they were pretty successful in masking any inner turmoil. Now, while this might seem to have little, if anything, to do with a weekly photo book review column, I used it as my inspiration for today’s selection. Each book below carves out some serious new ground, stylistically, while looking at subjects that have been photographed to death. They use blatantly different techniques, and yet all manage to end up at hyper-real aesthetic that is so emblematic of the 21st Century.
Edgar Martins’ “This is Not a House,” is a smooth, mid-sized hardcover recently released by Dewi Lewis Publishing in England. I suspect many of you might be familiar with some of this photographs, as Mr. Martins was embroiled in quite the stink a couple of years ago. I vaguely recall the scenario, in which the NY Times had to pull his work from their website when it was determined that the images had been “manipulated,” as if we’re living in a world where anything is not. But I never got a chance to see the pictures. They’re terrific. Irrespective of the controversy (and the book’s text makes many, many references to it), I think this is probably the best visual encapsulation of the housing bubble meltdown I’ve yet encountered. We see an image of the inside of a new, traditional-style living room, well-lit, set against the window view of a golf-course and snow capped mountains. Perfect. Wood, concrete, glass and steel, all new, but vacant and post-apocalyptic, coalesce into a vision of a society where “More was More,” and now we’re left to grapple with the idea that “Less is More.” It’s definitely reminiscent of Lewis Baltz’s “Park City,” but with his strong use of strobes, and the apparent digital correction in favor of symmetry, Mr Martins’ images feel constructed, sculptural and false. They’re hollow and fictitious, all the while “documenting” a phenomenon that shared the same characteristics.
Bottom Line: Worth the drama
Suzanne Opton’s “Soldier/Many Wars” is a new, hard-cover offering from Decode Books in Seattle. It’s one of those two-books-in-one type deals that I’ve seen a bit recently. (Turn it around, start again.) And like Mr. Martins’ project, apparently the work created some controversy that I missed a couple of years back. Her portraits of soldiers, taken up close, while the subjects’ heads were resting on a table, were blown up into cryptic billboards and installed in cities around the country. I wish I’d seen one, as I’m interested in artists who are taking their work directly to the people. But of course, none of that really has anything to do with whether the book is any good or not. It is. With the “Soldier” project, Ms. Opton manages to pull the viewer as close to a contemporary warrior’s face as we’re likely to get. By photographing the sitters sideways, she automatically changes our perspective from every other portrait we’ve seen. Yes, some of them look like they could be dead, but that only enhances our interest. The photos are contemplative, powerful, and nuanced, and the slightly-off color palette and super hi-res look definitely push them towards hyper-real. Fascinating. The “Many Wars” project, in which she photographs soldiers receiving treatment for PTSD, wrapped in cloaks, was less interesting to me. But one dude is a dead ringer for Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that was worth a giggle right there.
Bottom Line: Cutting-edge
Finally, we come to Alejandro Chaskielberg’s “La Creciente.” It’s a smooth-surface hard-cover published by Nazraeli Press, with funding support by the Burn Magazine Emerging Photographer Grant. Many a documentary photographer had gone into the bush, or the forest, or the jungle to highlight the story of a group of indigenous workers, cutting into the Earth in some way or another. Been there, done that, true. These photographs, however, don’t look like any of the other images you’ve seen with that particular obsession. (And I believe they are staged as well.) Mr Chaskielberg, an Argentine, photographs only in the light of the Full Moon, (which doesn’t seem to be connected to any concept,) but that light, mixed with a healthy use of strobe lighting, creates a striking effect. With the shallow depth of field, they look a bit like tilt-shift images, but not entirely. Truthfully, I don’t love all the photos, but at least a handful are so good that the book is worth a look. “The Foreigner,” in which a beautiful woman, head turned to the side, emerges from the green grass with the sun behind her, looks so much like a 21st C Madonna image that I had to look twice. Two pages later, in “Escape,” a woman is perched awkwardly on the riverbank, a blue canoe below her in the water. It just doesn’t look real. I accept that on some level, there was a woman, and she did exist on the river bank, but my brain still reads the image as a surreal construction in a studio somewhere, or more likely a vision conjured up and rendered by a computer. Very fitting for our times.
Bottom Line: A fresh look at a familiar subject
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