This Week In Photography Books – José Pedro Cortes

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was all set to review Josef Koudelka’s re-issued “Gypsies” this week. Big name artist, spanking new monograph from Aperture. It seemed like the natural thing to do. I try to balance looking at famous photographers and newcomers, but this was a slam dunk. Write it, email it, move along.

But I didn’t like the book that much. I’m sure many of you would, as it’s filled with extremely well-made, grainy black and white photographs. Of Gypsies. It was totally expected, and that was what bothered me. If I had envisioned the series in my head before opening the damn thing, it wouldn’t have deviated much from what was printed on the page.

We’ve all seen strings of photographs that depict poverty, disease, and general misery. So. Many. Times. Before. We just tune out. Or at least I do. Additionally, I hadn’t realized before I opened the book that it was a re-issue. So in fact, it had actually been seen before. (Of course, the photos are great, and must have been fresh when they were originally released. But I’m reviewing books here, not kowtowing to history.)

Disappointed, I reached back into my shrinking stack of books. (Time for another re-up at photo-eye.) I came across a yellow and black, almost metallic hard-cover from José Pedro Cortes, recently released by Pierre Von Kliest editions in Portugal. If you think that I just reviewed another book by a dude with three names, from the same publisher, you’d be right. I did. Two weeks ago.

But once I opened this book, I was totally caught off guard. Challenged, confused, and just generally off-put at such an eccentric collection of images. (But in a good way.) First, the premise: The photographer lived in Tel Aviv, met four US born women who moved Israel to join the military at 18. After they finished their service, they stayed on. Super-specific and yet totally random. Intriguing, and (obviously) not a subject I’d seen before.

Then, inside, it was even odder. The first photograph was of a woman, from behind, in her bra and panties, looking out a over a balcony. Slightly referential of an early Dali painting, but also not what I was expecting at all. So this was going to be one more book selling sex?

Not quite. The images of the four women, in their underclothes or partially nude, were interspersed with detail and landscape shots of the city. Big flash, flattened out images, alongside ones shot with natural light. Old cars and porticos and clothing shops and puddles of water. Some color, some B&W. Over-grown palm trees and chain-link fences. A rumpled tarp that resembled a body bag.

None of it made any sense at all, as the book is non-linear and non-location specific. Then back to the undressed ladies, whom, while attractive, were far from what we typically see in a book reeking of sexual energy.

I’m not quite sure what this artist was on about. And that’s why I like it. I don’t want a photo-book to tell me a story I already know, nor do I want to be lulled to sleep with a derivative vision. What’s the point? But this book, “Things Here and Things Still to Come,” got inside my head. It made me think about why humans are so obsessed with looking at pictures of naked people?

Pornography is one of the most lucrative and perhaps destructive industries around, and yet it really isn’t discussed that often, relative to it’s cultural ubiquity. Not that this book is pornographic, but making naked pictures look so discomfiting and awkward, including pimples and cellulite, it’s not what we’re used to seeing. It was almost meta-gratuitous, like Tarrantino meets Porkys.

So let’s just say now that I’m not a silent partner in Pierre Von Kliest editions. I don’t even know who these people are. But they seem to be putting out photo books that depict contemporary life in a messy way. And nothing about the human condition in the 21st C is clean and simple. So at least they’re keeping it real.

Bottom line: Weird, potentially offensive book that made me think

To purchase “Things Here And Things Still To Come” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies” is a towering achievement and timeless classic–one of the most powerful and sensitive works of photography ever created. The original book is extremely valuable and difficult to come by. Aperture deserves praise for reissuing it in order to make this essential work more available to those who would learn from Koudelka’s genius.

  2. “Gypsies” would have been a better showcase for a book. Many readers, like the reviewer, may not know of Koudelka’s place in history or the monument it has become, but it’s narrative, photographic style and subject matter are as sophisticated and intimate a document as I know. If it’s “expected” it may be because it’s the original. If I were one of Jonathan’s students, I drop out and find a more informed “educator” or do like Koudelka and make my own way.

    Your mileage may vary.

  3. Cortes’ work is deceptively simple, in a way that makes it easy to dismiss. Like Jonathan wrote, “Challenged, confused, and just generally off-put at such an eccentric collection of images. (But in a good way.) ” Once I got past comparing the aesthetic approach to other photographers I already know, I thought about what it took to make these images: moving to Tel Aviv, living there for several months, meeting 4 seemingly random US born women who decided to join the Israeli army, and then documenting them in private/vulnerable situations in a country not generally known for such displays of sexuality. It’s not clear if the photographer simply paid for the pleasure of shooting the women, but as most documentarians know, “Access is everything,” and he had it in spades.

    A browse through the photographer’s other bodies of work reveals he has similar working methods of traveling to far off lands and gets in close with whoever he chooses to document, intermixing those images with landscapes of cities, terrain, or random detritus.

    One thing I’ve come to appreciate from these sorts of artists is that there is more to the photographic game than waiting for a photo editor to call one up, getting paid flights, hotel rooms, fixers, and expenses. There’s real work to be done and it’s not all about landing a big ad job or even Tumblr followers.

    Thanks for reviewing the book, I’ve added it to my wish list for future purchases.