Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books – Tod Papageorge

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve always wondered what would happen if I ran into a week where I had nothing to say. If you read my interview with Rob, published Tuesday, you’ll know a bit more about why I’m so fried. Endless deadlines, heading back to Christmas, when I digested the biggest of all: our daughter is coming at the end of August. No extensions possible.

The last time I was this burnt, I made a joke about a de-sanguinated chicken. (I was pretty proud of that one.) Today, I doubt I could drain the blood from a stink bug. And then the house would smell.

I hope you’ll forgive my wallowing, but I just don’t have it in me to be witty or profound this week. It’s hot, my kid is complaining in the next room, and I just want to teleport to the Costa Brava and drown my exhaustion in a pitcher of sangria. A bowl of garlic clams would be nice too.

Before the crash, Americans would head in herds across the Atlantic to Europe each Summer. I’m sure there are still a few people who can afford the airfare, (not including expense accounts,) but I don’t know any of them. My memories of living La Dolce Vita seem like a something out of a Woody Allen movie. Charming, but off.

In 2012, most of us only jet to the Continent if someone else is footing the bill. It’s like a game of musical chairs; if you’re still standing when all the Kickstarter funding has been disbursed, you’re S.O.L.

You’ll have to trust that I don’t plan these things, but we’re going back down a similar road as last week: the Artist Residence. I love it when themes come together. It makes it seem like I have more forethought than I actually do.

Tod Papageorge is a photographer, and also the head of the photo program at the Yale School of Art. Yes, the same folks I accused of running a photo mafia. It’s true I speculated that they might off me for shedding light on the Skull and Bones nature of the operation. Fortunately, their assassins haven’t hit the mark just yet.

Of course, I’m kidding. It’s hard not to respect an institution that consistently promotes sustained excellence. But as to Mr. Papageorge, he was fortunate to have his stay in Rome covered by the American Academy. Artist Residences are a hot topic, mostly because the allure of lounging on someone else’s dime is rather strong.

The artist lived in the Rome for a time in 2010, and “Opera Citta”, published by punctum, is the result. I’m not going to say this is a brilliant book, because it’s not. It’s very well-made, with the block of images released from the spine. They open out in a continuous fold, which is a very enjoyable way to experience the pictures. The paper is durable, so you don’t have to fret about ruining your purchase.

What I like best about this one, beyond the high-class production value, is that you can tell Mr. Papageorge really grooved on his time in Rome. It’s a vibrant place, one that has to meld together locals with multi-millennia roots, hordes of tourists that occupy each Summer, and newly integrated immigrants, who are changing the demographic of the country. It’s a magnificent city, but also a bit of a theme-park. (I’m not the first to posit that the Earth’s post-card mega-cities now belong as much to the world as to their local residents. Seriously, how many of you actually live in Manhattan?)

The book captures the cultural mashup very well. The images are not dramatic, in the conventional sense, but belie an insightful curiosity, and subtlety of vision: The fidgeting gestures of a group of nattily-dressed businessmen cavorting in a piazza. The light of grace on a old woman’s face as she catches her breath on the sidewalk. The glean of sweat on a tatooed shoulder at the beach in Ostia. The calm of a little girl sleeping in her father’s arms at Termini Station. Lovely stuff.

Bottom Line: Very cool book, if you don’t mind Euro-envy

To purchase “Opera Citta” visit photo-eye

 

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – JH Engström

by Jonathan Blaustein

Journalists tell stories. They relay facts. (As much as anyone can agree on the definition of a fact in 2012.) Photojournalists, by extension, tell stories through pictures; they visually encode reality. This happened to that person, and it happened there. Bombings, oil spills, butter-eating contests, all are detailed in a matter-of-fact way.

Artists, by contrast, are trained to make it all about themselves. My vision, my opinions, my composition, my color palette. This is what I think, symbolized in pictures. If you like it, cool. If not, that’s fine too. (Well, that’s the ideal. The reality is probably more like this: “You don’t like my work? I hate you. You’re a bourgeois homophobe. Die.”)

Anyway, I’m musing because I spent the past weekend meeting with photographers and checking out portfolios in Santa Fe. Everyone wants to talk about audience and context these days. If I edit this way, I can can blow them up big and hang them on the wall. A different selection will be more appropriate for the magazine editors, and another still if I want to get commercial clients. Welcome back to the 21st Century Hustle.

I’m not sure how I feel about these developments, but they’re probably here to stay. Fewer employers + many more people searching for work = everybody jostling to stand out. My take is that it makes a personalized vision, with the self-awareness to bend that vision at times, all the more important. How much can I learn about a person through their photographs? Code, if you will.

This week’s book does it very well: “La Résidence,” by JH Engström, published by journal. I had a whole intro today about how I got stuck in Brussels for a few days on my honeymoon, but decided to save it for another time. We’ll stick to Mr. Engström’s anecdotes today. Mine will have to wait.

Here’s what you can learn about Mr. Engström from looking at this book. He got invited to do an Artist Residence in Brussels, and it required visits in 2003 and 2006. That much is explained in the intro. Come, Mr. Engström, visit our fair city, relax and find yourself, then make pictures that reflect your time here. Sounds pretty straightforward.

Look at the book, and you’ll quickly surmise that Mr. Engström was, (I don’t know about is,) likely a lonely alcoholic who quickly adapted to his new surroundings by seeking out the company of the coordination-challenged, “I love you, man”-type, 2 am bar crowds that are so easy to find everywhere. Everyone is your friend when they’ve had enough to drink. (Unless they want to shank you.)

As we turn page to page, we see a succession of haggard-looking Belgian sorts, smoking cigarettes, and trying not to fall off the bar stool. We also see lots of banal, artsy-type visions of random detritus and architectural randomness. They look like the photos you’d take if you had to take photos for a couple of months to justify your stipend, but didn’t really connect to any underlying elements of the culture. (Beyond the aforementioned bar culture, which is transnational.)

What takes the book further, though, is Mr. Engström’s inclusion of text. Poems, musings, and even a starkly honest paragraph about his relationship with his father. Some observations are obvious, others smart, but all make you feel like the artist is letting you into his head. The book becomes far more experiential for their inclusion. (Sample: “These pictures may be an account of my failure to depict photographically a place I didn’t go to for private reasons.”)

Additionally, most of the photos are only accessed by folding the pages out to triple-spreads. It’s laborious and a bit time-consuming, especially as you don’t want bend or ruin the pages when you refold. But the additional seconds enhance the banal-style photography; you feel the photographer’s boredom that this book reflects. (And some of the portrait spreads are amazing.)

I doubt all of you would enjoy this book. It might piss you off. But it’s a terrific example of an artist downloading his thoughts and personality into a bunch of pages, bound and wrapped in linen.

Bottom Line: Boozy in Brussels

To purchase “La Résidence” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Brian Ulrich

by Jonathan Blaustein

I feel bad for kids today. Teen-agers in particular. There is no privacy anymore. No secrets. It’s impossible to grow through one’s awkward moments out of the camera’s gaze. If I had to worry about my worst habits and styles living forever in a Facebook post, I’d probably move to Plum Village and become a monk.

Am I exaggerating? Not really. You see, I grew up in the 80’s, that famous decade now fetishized daily in the mainstream media. (Have you seen the trailer for that new Tom Cruise movie? Yes, people, we have a new definition of irony. The king of the 80’s, who actually managed to get it right back then, parodying the entire farce in a fake rocker outfit. Please.)

Back then, I actually sported a mullet and braces at the same time. Yes, photographic evidence exists, but I suspect my parents will set a high price. My style was so bad, I wore a day-glo ski jacket for two years. My first earring hole got infected, so I went back to the mall to have it punched again. That’s right, the mall.

Was there ever a more American invention than the shopping mall? I believe it sprung to life in Houston, which makes sense to me now that I’ve visited. Who wants to try on the new Tommy Hilfiger button-down when you’re covered in a sheen of humidity-induced sweat? Not me. Not anyone. So the air-conditioned, sequestered, shopping-only zone was born.

The mall used to be the coolest thing in the world. (Again, this is a world that approved of rat tails and shoulder pads.) My parents would drop me off for a few hours, and my friends and I would search out others of our own kind: with our own two eyes. Clearly, that youth-mating-ritual is obsolete. (OMG, u r @ the fuud kort? B rite ther.)

And what of malls? Do they still reign? Not exactly. I’m sure the Beverly Center in LA still has its swagger, and I’ve never seen the Mall of America, so I’ll reserve judgment there. But in general, I think the safe answer is no. They’re an anachronism, like the myth of American Exceptionalism.

In fact, I think Brian Ulrich’s “Dead Mall” photos are some of the most compelling documents of 21st C America that we have. Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and say that his “Dark Store” Circuit City photographs are the enduring images from the Great Recession. (The crumbled KFC sign picture is up there too.)
Seriously, what could say more about the fallacy of endless consumption than those eerie, empty boxes, glowing from within? Yes, the stores are vacant and worthless, but let’s keep that electricity running. (Pictures can indeed communicate better than words, sometimes.)

The images turn up at the end of “Is This Place Great Or What,” Mr. Ulrich’s new monograph, recently published by Aperture and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The book is blue, which seems a bit random, and opens with historical images of a bygone American era, which seems odder still. At the very least, it sets the scene.

The book covers Mr. Ulrich’s “Copia” series, which has taken up the last decade or so of his life, broken down into convenient sections: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. Each investigates a different facet of America’s ubiquitous consumer culture. It’s the first book I’ve reviewed, I believe, where you can see the artist’s clear improvement as you turn the pages.

The initial series, from early in the last decade, depicts life inside the world of consumption, before the bubble burst. People push shopping carts through Costco, Target and Home Depot. We see crucifixes, big screen TVs, guns, and spilt milk. All smart, but slightly obvious symbols. The pictures feel grabbed, and a little naughty. The compositions are well done, but also a bit arbitrary. Good work, for sure, but it feels like he was just beginning to sort out his vision.

Next comes “Thrift,” which shows more of how the other half lives. There are some real gems here, true keepers. The room full of useless computers, the racks of empty plastic hangers, the barren garage with an asymmetrical Britney Spears poster. Sharply observed, and definitely more visceral than the first section. Mr. Ulrich was starting to hit his groove.

Finally, we come to “Dark Stores,” the project that rightfully made the artist’s career. Powerful stuff, this. The global economy almost broke completely during the creation of “Copia,” and it shows. Desolate parking lots, empty stores, and the sorriest looking abandoned Toys-R-Us I ever did see. These photos are as well crafted as they are well seen. The symbols resonate, the eye dances around the rectangle, and the physical impact of the disillusionment is palpable. These photographs will endure.

Bottom Line: An artist’s evolution, with some brilliant images

To purchase “Is This Place Great Or What” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Olivia Arthur

by Jonathan Blaustein

“You can’t kill an idea,” said the great Sherlock Holmes. (As played by Benedict Cumberbatch.) How true. It’s the reason behind censorship, gulags, and Ministries of Propaganda. It’s also the reason that information has become one of the world’s most prized commodities.

Stories are ideas, as well as information. They’re the core methodology through which human knowledge was disseminated before writing. Early humans had stories, and, of course, pictures. It’s always been thus, and unlikely to change.

That’s why we, as photographers, have spread to all the globe’s corners, looking for stories. Personally, I’m not sure why people get so enraptured by tales they’ve heard and seen many times before. (Though that is how children learn: through repetition. Ask any parent who’s seen Madagascar 42 times.) Furthermore, some would believe there are only a few meta-narratives that keep repeating in an endless loop.

I think that’s why Stacy Kranitz kicked up such a shit-storm with that CNN debacle a few weeks ago. Like it or not, whatever her reasons, she delivered images that re-enforced what people already thought, and had seen before. We’re all familiar with depictions of Appalachia, seen through the white shroud of a KKK douchebag. Been there. (Jörg Colberg had a nice reaction to this as well.)

No offense to Ms. Kranitz, of course, but I’m more interested in seeing things I haven’t seen before. (Yes, I know, I’m repeating myself. But not everyone reads the column each week. Forgive me.) When I choose a book to write about, you can be assured that I found it fresh. I look at a lot of books, and many are good, but lack the proper spark for my curiosity. Others, like Olivia Arthur’s new volume, “Jeddah Diary,” published by Fishbar, give me a perspective I’d not encountered.

Ms. Arthur spent time in Saudi Arabia, hanging out with several bubble cultures of women. I’ll spare you any sort of Western proselytizing on why the subjugation of women’s rights in the Muslim world is any of my business. Some would dismiss anything I said as the mark of Cultural Imperialism. (If you doubt that, just ask Pieter Hugo, who defended himself from such attacks in our comment section a few weeks ago.)

Where was I? Right. Ms. Arthur’s book. It’s powerful, personal, and innovative: a difficult combination to conjure. She uses text well, introducing the photos with a bit of backstory, and then including blurbs opposite the pictures as well. I must say, that’s the path I think I’ll take if I’m able to publish a book of my own work. Words and pictures, not one or the other.

But this is a photo blog, so let me at least give the images their due. We see women covered by black abayas, sitting in kitchens and on sofas. But we also see seductive glimpses of flesh, legs in particular, that riff on the supposed reasoning behind the big “cover up” phenomenon. Remove the temptation. Kill the serpent.

Ms. Arthur’s most interesting formal invention, though, is the way she chooses to obscure the faces of women who need the protection. She makes a print, then blasts it with light, and rephotographs it. The scattered glare mars any facial recognition, while imparting a metaphorical discomfort to the viewer. Really smart, and also visually compelling.

The book also delves into hypocrisy, that most human of conditions. The subjects in the book apparently find loopholes through with to party and booty shake, via private beaches and estates. Apparently, it’s OK to show off your belly-button-ring on holiday in Lebanon, but not in the comfort of one’s own home if there are any men around. Typical.

Bottom Line: A fascinating inside view into a hidden society

To purchase “Jeddah Diary” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books – Bernhard Fuchs

by Jonathan Blaustein

Waiting for the sunshine.
Waiting for the sunshine.
Tired of the gray days.
Tired of the gray days.
Oh, but it ain’t comin’,
it ain’t comin’, Soon.
No, it ain’t comin’,
it ain’t comin’, Soon.

The above text is not actually an old blues song. I swear. It’s an ironic little ditty my wife and I invented while living in Brooklyn. The winters wore me down in an onslaught of gray. Yes, I was Vitamin D deprived, so eventually, we moved.

Here in Northern New Mexico, we get something like 330 days of sunshine a year. No lie. And the depth of our blue skies gives a primal satisfaction to humans and animals alike. (Well, I’m guessing about the animals. I can’t actually speak to them, despite rumors to the contrary.)

The thing about all that sunshine: it’s addictive. Like photography itself, which derives from light, the volume and quality of light become an addiction. (Try saying that five times fast.) I don’t know how people live without it in Portland, as even a few days of gray will start to get me down. Like now.

It felt like Summer in April this year, (Big Ups to Climate Change) but the last four days here have been cold and wet and gray. Bone-cold. Bleak. Monotonous. So I’m feeling depressed. Forgive me.

Given that I can’t do anything to make the sun burst through the clouds, I thought I might as well sink into the moment. Revel in despair. Oh, the misery.

As I sifted through my book pile, though, I came across “Farms,” by Bernhard Fuchs, recently published by Koenig Books in London. What’s that, you say? A book about farms? What’s so depressing about that?

Well, these farms were photographed in the sad, desaturated light of Fuchs’ adopted home of Germany. Not a drop of real color to be found in this one. (Well, beyond a touch of green grass, that is.) We see barns, of course, and hay piles, leafless trees, and a pitchfork that has seen better days.

The book is the metaphorical equivalent of rubber-necking at a car crash. Nasty, on the surface, but impossible to look away. I don’t know why people take pleasure in the anti-aesthetic, (myself included,) but they most surely do.

The photographs are well-made, as is the book itself. It’s wrapped in substantial-feeling canvas, which matches the palate of the images within. So much melancholy. So much ennui. Yet strangely beautiful. Quiet. Lonely. Dignified.

I see images like this here on the farm all the time. (In real life.) But I don’t point my camera at them. I’m too busy waiting for the good weather to come back. So let’s consider this the book review where I bitched and moaned a bit, and gave you the opportunity to say, “Hey, Blaustein, get over yourself. Summer will be here soon. I promise.”

As to the book, which ought to be more of a focus of my musings, it’s really good. I recommend it. But only if you have the mental fortitude to pick it up, revel in its sad light, and then put it back on the shelf. Better to go outside and take a walk after all.

Bottom Line: Beautiful and bleak

To purchase “Farms,” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books – Leon Borensztein

by Jonathan Blaustein

I re-watched “Taxi Driver” the other day. My god, was New York a hell-hole back in the 70’s. Seriously. It’s no surprise Travis Bickle went bonkers. (But that happy ending…I smell studio meddling. Marty must have known he had the chops to go mainstream.)

Have you seen it? Or what about “My Dinner with Andre?” Some great mise-en-scene there as well. Brings you right back to that time. I was safely ensconced in a nearby suburb, so that crazy, graffiti-covered era offers me a touch of nostalgia, instead of a belly full of fear. Watching those films recharges my memories, which is one of the great benefits of Art. (A nod to Bruce Davidson’s 2011 “Subway” show at Aperture seems appropriate here as well.)

I mentioned the other day, in a short article, that Art is like time travel. I meant it in the sense that as artists, we embed ourselves in our work, and if the work survives, so do we. But a much more obvious example is the way a photograph locks light in time. We all do it every day, and most often take it for granted. Stopping time, and letting a fraction of a second age at a different rate. Now with digital files, one wonders whether a reproduction will age at all?

This aspect of manipulating time, I think it’s what ultimately hooks us as photographers. Wander back to the first time you saw a contact sheet of your first set of negatives. Magic, right? Not just that it actually worked, (which is now a lost sensation for many in a digital world,) but that it brought you back to a place where you had been. And a time that, in all other ways, no longer existed. Addictive.

That’s why Instagram and its ilk are taking over the world. It’s a compulsion over which people have little control. Because a camera can bank our memories much better than our brains can. Or more accurately, at least. Iphone photos are to photography what McDonalds is to hamburgers. Hopped up, cheap and tasty. Not that I’m complaining. Unlike some bloggers, I couldn’t care less.

I’m far more interested in the underlying desires. How we save our memories. How we crave to be remembered. How we desperately want to leave a mark. How we care so much what our relatives and friends think of us, even in a reproduction.

Speaking of family memories, I ran across a fantastic new book at photo-eye the other week. It’s called “American Portraits 1979-89″, by Leon Borensztein, recently published by Nazraeli Press. Oddly enough, the artist’s name doesn’t appear on the cover or the spine. I’d never heard of him before, and perhaps that’s part of the point. From the beginning, this book is about the pictures, far more than the picture maker.

In fact, you have to dive into the essay at the back, by Sandra Philips of SFMOMA, just to get a bit of the history of the project. Todd Hido got the book up and running, so implies the editor’s credit, and the artist was tight with Larry Sultan as well, so implies the benediction. But as to what the hell is going on in the pictures? You’ve got to figure it out for yourself, or read.

So I’ll make it easy on you. Mr. Borensztein, Polish by birth, somehow ended up a traveling portrait photographer in California, and the West. (Back in the aforementioned time period, naturally.) He went around to people’s homes, and at one point to conventions as well, and made memories for paying customers. Apparently, he shot a lot, and must have made a conventional image or two at some point, just to keep his job. But everything we see in the book is fresh and wild and crazy. Probably not the prints that the clients ordered.

The plates are all in black and white, and the backdrops are visible in many of the images. People are not smiling, and sometimes don’t engage the camera. These are, to a person, anonymous, average Americans, long before such Americans thought it necessary to live in a McMansion on credit. (And we saw how well that worked out.)

Some are noble, some are funny, many are surreal, and a few downright disturbing. (How did he get the guy with the Nazi tat to pose with his shirt off? And the dude who looks like the Kramer impostor from Seinfeld, dressed in Native American garb? Priceless.)

This will not be one of the reviews in which I give away all the best secrets. Though I will make a few extra snaps below, just so you can get the vibe, Man. Arbus, Bill Owens, Disfarmer, that’s the mood of the pictures. They’re powerful, and somehow manage to respect the subjects, while also slightly mocking at the same time. It’s a tough balance, and I expect that some of you might find too much of the latter. I though it was just right.

Bottom line: A time capsule, for good and bad

To purchase “American Portraits 1979-89″ visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Pieter Hugo

by Jonathan Blaustein

When I was a teen-ager, my family used to go to the Taos Pueblo each Christmas Eve. Some years, it was below zero, but so what. We braved the cold and wind, and marched along with countless other Taos gringos, to see the yearly celebration. Seriously dramatic, I assure you.

How so? The Pueblo is set at the base of Taos Mountain, and the event takes place just as the sun goes down, bathing the peak in deep shades of purple. As the sky darkens, they light bonfires, built as towers, that can reach 30 feet into the sky. The smoke begins to cloud your vision, which adds to the surreality.

Suddenly, you hear the chants of the Pueblo residents, who emerge, without notice, walking slowly in a chain. At the center sits an effigy of the Virgin Mary, stock still on one of those shoulder carriers that they must have used in Ancient Egypt. The chanting, the fires and the smoke are punctuated by rifle shots. Bang. Bang. Cracking across the evening sky. As a youngster, I’d always wonder what would happen if a bullet descended back into the crowd, but I’m sure it’s never happened.

Like I said, it’s dramatic. I went each year for a decade or so, then stopped cold. Suddenly, it seemed too cliché. Too Post-Colonial. Hey, look at the strange red people. Watch them dance. Like poking a monkey with a stick. Or so I thought.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder. On the heels of last week’s review of the Viviane Sassen book, I got to talking with my friend Melanie at photo-eye. I told her that my first impression was something like, “Are you kidding me?” Really, how many photographers need to point their camera at the poor brown people. We get it. Enough.

The essay eventually won me over, and of course the pictures are edgy and well done. But Melanie didn’t have the same disdain for the process, nor do many, so I began to wonder. Am I the only one with this bias? And furthermore, is the bias valid?

I ask, because, in Taos, you’re not from here unless you were born here. A lot of places are like that. So is Post-Modern theory, ironically. It was branded in any good student’s subconscious that what you have to say is inherently limited by your gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Rebutting the vision of many a wandering shutterbug, it imposed upon a generation of artists the notion that you ought to stick to what you know. (For example, if I ever met Chuck D, I probably wouldn’t smack his palm and exclaim, “Power to the people, my brother.” You dig?)

So now I’ve begun to wonder if it isn’t time to challenge that notion entirely. Maybe artists ought not to be limited to their continent, or class, or sexual orientation? Maybe photographers keep going to the Third World because of an insatiable human curiosity to learn about different things, and tell unfamiliar stories? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the pictures are distinctive, and, in some way, new?

And what of Africa? Maybe the fascination stems from the fact that it’s the homeland to all humans? And its wild creatures dominate our dreams and deep fears, despite the probable urbanity of our surroundings. (Yes, I did get scared by a tiger at the Denver zoo. The bullet-proof glass did little to quell the shivers creeping up my neck. Big, scary monster. Run, dammit, run.)

With that in mind, I thought it might be healthy to head back to Africa again this week. Now, Pieter Hugo was born in South Africa, so of course my argument is already weakened. He’s from there, so his opinion matters more, according to my original line of thinking. But let’s just judge the book and photos, and then see what we think. OK?

His new book, “This Must Be the Place,” also published by Prestel, is one of the best I’ve seen since I started this column. Given that I made you read all the above, I thought I’d cut to the chase. It’s amazing. If you like his work at all, this is one to buy. Why?

To begin with, unlike last week’s book, this volume needs no introduction. No backstory necessary. (If you’re looking for some on the “Parasomnia” book, photo-eye posted a more in-depth review.) In Hugo’s book, each set of pictures is titled by image, project, place and date. It’s not hard to piece things together, especially as all the images come in groups. It gives a nice bit of context, and allows the photographs to suck you in. (FYI, I continue to assert that if an artist does not include certain information, then they don’t care that we know it.)

The first set of portraits, from South Africa, establish straight away that Mr. Hugo, like the folks at the Taos Pueblo, has a flair for the dramatic. (Not news to anyone who saw that photo of a big Naked African guy wearing a Darth Vader mask.) They are shot close up against a neutral background, not unlike Thomas Ruff, but these reek of emotion. Intense stares, albino Africans, and a blind guy with silver eyes.

Then, a set of portraits of judges from Botswana, all decked out in the garb of the British realm. Next, we’re on to portraits of dead people, wrapped in burial shrouds. Also from South Africa. No, Mr. Hugo is not shying away from the legacy that brought lots of gun-toting white people to Africa’s shores.

On to boy scouts, shirtless taxi washers, and wild honey collectors from Ghana. All well-made, but they’re just place holders for what comes next. A chilling look at the “Vestiges of Genocide” from Rwanda. Lime-covered shrieking skeletons, and bones rotting in the dust. Brilliant.

The next photo, after that run, is of a pile of rotting tomatoes on the ground, from 2006. If you read last week, you know that I wondered what Ms. Sassen was on about with her version of rotting tomatoes on the ground. Now we know. It was a shout out. Pretty cool.

The book continues on longer than I can. So let’s condense. The “Nollywood” work, which drew so much praise and criticism a couple of years ago, shines in the context of this book. (And no, Vader is not included.) The guys hanging out with Baboons and Hyenas are fascinating. (From “The Hyena & Other Men”) For all the reasons I listed above. Primal fear and our insatiable thirst for visions of the “Other.” It doesn’t get more “Other” than people who pal around with Hyenas and Baboons, IMHO.

In the end, Mr. Hugo has the guts to expose his own world, along with the others. His relatives: naked and pregnant, topless after a breast reduction operation, and his little daughter, standing in the middle of the road, pushing a pink stroller, vulnerable to any car or bus that screams around the bend just behind her. (The last picture, of course.)

This book made me rethink my own experiences. It made me question bed-rock assumptions. It even made me re-write history a bit. (I saw a show of his last Fall at Yossi Milo, and thought the work boring. Perhaps I was impatient.) Unlike many of you, I was unaware that Mr. Hugo is a genuinely important artist, walking among us. There’s a lot we can learn from a great book. This is one of them.

Bottom Line: Fantastic. A keeper.

To purchase “This Must Be the Place” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books – Viviane Sassen

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, I like to watch the grass grow. It’s pointless, I know. Impossible. Still, I enjoy it. Sitting still. Listening to the quiet. Learning patience.

Perhaps some are born with more patience than others. If that’s the case, I was at the back of the line. It’s been a slow process, (not ironically,) but I’m finally getting the hang of things. Like a good Zen koan, it’s not a lesson to be learned quickly.

Earlier today, I found myself picking through the remnants of my book pile. Yes, it’s time for a re-up at photo-eye. I’m headed there tomorrow, but that doesn’t help me today. So I decided to take another look at a few books that I’d previously dismissed. Maybe if I just take a bit more time, my opinion might change?

The first couple were still boring, so no dice. Then I came to Viviane Sassen’s “Parasomnia,” recently published by Prestel in Germany. I’d already picked this one up, (and put it down) twice, so I was not optimistic. But hey, you never know. (Plus, I think she was included in MOMA’s “New Photography 2011,” and those guys are never wrong, right?)

The first couple of passes were hard for me, because this is one more project where someone from the First world goes to visit the poverty of the Third. Been there. Done that. And the narrative is non-linear, if one could call it a narrative at all.

This time, though, I slowed down, and realized that the book opens with a short story by Moses Isegawa. Normally, I breeze right past stuff like that. (Don’t you?) But today, practicing my patience, I started to read. It’s about eleven pages or so, nothing too time-consuming, but thoroughly engrossing, and 100% necessary. The story follows a teen-aged boy as he wakes up to another morning of hardship in Uganda, 2011. Dreamy and poignant, it sets the tone for the pictures to follow.

But I’m not sure that “sets the tone” is the right way to put it. This book needs the story. It gives us a time, a place, a backstory, and a vibe. The photos to follow need to be seen in the context of a desperately poor place, racked with violence and natural disasters. The streets smell like urine, kids sit on the side of the dirt roads with their willies hanging out, beer halls rage music all night, jerry cans filled with water must be carried long distances, and opportunities are tragically scarce. People die. People disappear. Heat waves radiate up off the asphalt, such as there is.

You have to read the story to understand Ms. Sassen’s vision. That makes the book a collaboration. Which is interesting. Most essays are throwaways, added to help the publisher feel more comfortable about the possibility of some ROI. Honestly, I’ve heard enough about the importance of bagging a big name to write an essay that no one will read.

And what of the pictures? Are they less good for needing Mr. Isegawa’s context? Not sure I can answer that question. I need to think on that a while. But I’m not here to judge her artistic cannon, fortunately, just a book. And I’m glad Ms. Sassen was wise enough to begin her book as she did. (And that I was forced to be patient enough to appreciate it.)

The photographs range from portraits to still lives to obviously staged situations. Each type of image repeats, thereby moving solidly into the symbolic. Young African men and women, staring at the camera, intently. Caucasian people, hiding from the stark sun with towels and leaves over their eyes. Flowering trees to prove that life goes on, and burnt stumps to remind us that it doesn’t.

Vegetables left to rot on the ground. Tomatoes and corn. Why would that happen in a place with hungry people? Too many pesticides? Was the owner taken away by government agents, his/her possessions dropped behind? We see a freshly-dug grave, several shrines, and a red plastic bag hovering above a concrete tomb.

There are no guns, no machetes, no blood. But we do see a young man in a red shirt sitting in a blue chair that has been tipped onto the ground. And another photo, this one from the cover, of a body floating in the river, face down. Dead? You can’t tell.

I’ve said the in past that I don’t Google to get a better understanding of a book. If I’m supposed to know something, I expect it to be there for me to parse. But in this case, I did look up the word “Parasomnia,” just to be sure. It describes certain sleep disorders, from night terrors to sleep-walking, that afflict people who don’t sleep well enough. It leads to delirium, I suppose. But it also fits perfectly with the surreal but familiar feeling of this book. Not a bad title, given what lies within.

Bottom line: Cool book, reading required

To purchase “Parasomnia” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – William Eggleston

by Jonathan Blaustein

Surely you’ve heard of Jeremy Lin? (The Knicks Harvard-educated, Asian-American point guard.) A better question might be, have you heard of him lately? Probably not. He might well be the world’s first viral athlete, rocketing from obscurity to planetary ubiquity within days. But an information-addicted global populace is in constant need of a new fix, so Mr. Lin has been relegated back to the bench. That’s how it is: today it’s Mitt Romney’s face on an Etch-a-sketch; tomorrow Barack Obama’s ears on an elephant.

Speaking of viral phenomena, you must have seen that article recently published in LPV magazine, called “10 Photographers You Should Ignore.” It went everywhere, almost immediately. Not surprising, as saying “Ignore Stephen Shore” is as inherently controversial as “Occupy Wall Street.” Guaranteed to get people talking.

The tweet might have gotten mad publicity, but the article was actually rather tame. The authors’ thesis was that photographers, (particularly younger photographers,) face a danger to their creativity when they push hero worship too far. Great work depends upon a fresh vision; a unique perspective. The more closely photographers emulate the greats, the more likely they’ll end up with derivative nonsense. It’s an important point, but the article would likely have drawn yawns, if titled “10 photographers that you should be careful not to be influenced by too much.”

Co-incidentally, a few hours before I saw that article, I took a look at a portfolio by a young Southern photographer at FotoFest. Almost immediately, I was repulsed by the shocking quality of a couple of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore knock-offs. Wow, were these pictures derivative. By the fourth or fifth photo, the artist’s own vision started to emerge, and by the end, I thought the project was really good. The artist had a keen eye for color, and a formal sensibility that was contemporary. But I couldn’t shake the those first few photos, like a great tiramisu at an inconsistent restaurant doesn’t quite get rid of the taste of that over-salted chicken.

Never one to mince words, I advised the photographer to get those first few images out of my sight. Burn them, I said. Off with their heads. There’s no reason in the world to show a copy of someone else’s work, when the original images that follow are compelling. Skunk scent is hard to wash off.

And what of these heroes? We need to carve our our own respective niches, but it’s vitally important to go back and re-visit the best work, again and again. Get close enough to the fire to warm up, but not so close as to singe your eyebrows.

Let’s tempt the fire gods, shall we? How about William Eggleston’s new primary colored trilogy “Chromes,” recently published by Steidl. When I refused to open Robert Adams’ triple-book-offering earlier this year, a couple of readers requested that I take a look at the Eggleston project. Why not?

Straight off, I can contrast it with the Adams’ publication, in that the slip cover is printed with shadowbox letters, in yellow and orange. Where RA’s work was cool and unapproachable, this is warm and inviting. Then, a quick look at the spines shows us yellow, red and blue. Whimsical and fun.

On to book one, and there’s little introductory text. Only a mention of the editors, nothing more. So it’s to be all about the pictures, is it? OK then.

We begin. A man asleep (the artist?,) cropped bare feet on a dirt road, another dirt road vanishing to nowhere, religious references, a dead, old black man in a shiny, satin coffin. On to a long-haired hippie, an abandoned shack, and then another black man, this time with a cigarette in his mouth, hands on a blue electric guitar. (Is he playing the blues?)

Cars, trucks, houses, and lots of late-afternoon light. Yes, this book takes us to the South, back in the day. And it does so with style. I suppose we’ll never know what it must have been like to see color images like this, for the first time? (At least those of us not around back then.) But while they may no longer seem revolutionary, they are absolutely exceptional.

Soon, we see an image with a sign that says “Mission Orange,” which is followed by six photographs containing the color orange. Witty editing, beautiful pictures. (A Wonder bread sign, a political ad for a Sheriff, a long freight train…) Then, six photos featuring grayish-white, and six that feature green. Are you paying attention? Apparently, Mr. Eggleston and his co-editors were.

Seeing so many of these pictures together, I can understand why it’s hard for photographers to lay off of this style. It’s so lyrical, so Romantic, so American. Of course, Mr. Eggleston owes a debt of gratitude to Walker Evans and Robert Frank, both of whom he references quite a bit. But still, try to take photos like this in 2012, and only one name will pop up. (Sorry, two. Mr. Shore has his denizens as well.)

Shall I go on? Book one ends with a diptych of a sleeping young child, in bed, across the spine from a photo of a light-up Halloween pumpkin and owl combo looming in a window. Spooky. A hint of things to come in Book two? (There’s also a brief essay dating these photos to 1969-74)

The red volume opens with the same witty tone. We see another run of images, this time grouped by signage. Cigarettes, Drug Store, Dixie Burgers, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Ice Cream and Gasoline. Thank you, good night. Wait, there’s still more?

Another Dixie flag, this time in neon. Then, perfect purple light surrounding another gas station, this time Arco. (I remember the first time I saw light like that, during a Tornado storm in Nebraska. This picture brings it back so quickly.)

Are there surprises? Well, we do have two portraits of men who look like hustlers or gigolos. (And one of them is juxtaposed against an image of Tom Jones and Elvis atop a juke box.) Yes, Mr. Eggleston has a sense of humor.

The rest of the volume holds true to form, though there are far more portraits than there were in the yellow book. Terrific portraits. It ends with a pimply-faced guy, drinking Coke on a pool table, in front of a sign that says “Refreshments.” Is that a cue for a bathroom break? Seriously, how many people would look at all three books in a row, in one sitting?.

Book three is blue, and the cover presents a photo of the inside of someone’s freezer. So this is the cold book, then? I’m obviously not sure yet, but this volume opens with another run. Again, signage. A flower shop, free steak knifes at a gas station, a bank, a row of toy dispensers, a pie shop, a drive-in movie theatre, a burger joint and a pinball machine. The 20th Century seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

As to the earlier question, is it cold? Kind of. We see the first few images with flash, and a recurring palette of blue, green, and a green-ish yellow. There’s also a photo of the artist, naked on a couch, with a gun-rack above his head. Followed closely by a bearded, drunk-looking guy, naked, in a green bathtub. Yes, I’d say that’s cold. As in, “That’s cold, brother, cold. Can you dig it?”

Any more surprises? Page 74 has a portrait of a guy who I’d swear is a young Lee Friedlander. Were they friends? (Followed, two pages later, by a photo of a drawing of Charles Manson. Let’s hope it’s not a reference to young Lee.) And it ends with a companion image to the portrait of the man that opens up Volume One. At the beginning, his eyes were closed, in bed. Here, they’re open, staring right at the camera.

Yes, that was a lot to digest. Shall I simplify? This is one fantastic collection of photographs. Really, it marks the vision of a master, a genius artist. For those of you obsessed with Mr. Eggleston, this is one to own. (I’m kind of sad that I have to give it back.) And for those of you who sometimes worry that you’re ripping off his style, check this trilogy out. Look at it like I did, all at once, and you’ll never again wonder, right before you click the shutter, whether the picture is yours or his. Because his vision will forever be burned into your brain.

Bottom Line: A Masterpiece, plain and simple

To purchase “Chromes” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Rineke Dijkstra

by Jonathan Blaustein

Who can remember the days of December? Not me. 2012 has been a blur, and I dispute the fact that it’s 1/4 over. (Can’t possibly be true.) It’s all been covered with film, for me, like the skin on a bowl of old chocolate pudding.

Why? That’s easy. As soon as you read this sentence, I’ll be the first lunatic to ever announce his wife’s pregnancy in a book review. It’s a girl, in case you were wondering. Due late Summer, we found out on Christmas Day. How’s that for symbolism?

So now, if you like, you can go back and read all the 2012 columns, looking for hints of latent madness. (The kind that comes from having a vomitorious wife, on top of an energetic 4 year old.) Me, me, me. It’s always about me in these reviews. How about her? Well, Jessie is my best friend, and it was horrible to watch her suffer for our daughter. But now she’s got the glow, and I have a few more months before I succumb to sleep-deprived misery. (Of the temporary variety, thankfully.)

Where were we? Right. December. Not so long ago, I wrote a column about a suite of images I saw at MOPA: the best photos I saw in 2011 that I hadn’t already written about yet. By Rineke Dijkstra. (Not to be confused with Lenny Dijkstra, who’s rotting in prison at the moment.) The column created quite a stir, though I still don’t know why. Apparently, Ms. Dijkstra’s dry style rubs some photographers the wrong way, as her subtle use of color and emotion lacks potency for those accustomed to dead children in redundant photographic pablum.

Now it’s April, and wouldn’t you know it, but Ms. Dijkstra has a nice new monograph out, published by SFMOMA and the Guggenheim Museum. A beautiful byproduct of her career retrospective, bouncing between the two venues. Does the imprimatur of two such esteemed institutions mean that you must now like her work and buy her book? Of course not. But if you know anything about me by now, (beyond my preference for cotton boxers, my father’s health, and the sex of my unborn child,) you know that I had to review this book. Even though we already talked about the artist back when the sun descended before 5pm, and everyone was cold and dour.

Come Spring, we focus on cleaning, renewal. New year, new possibilities. New births. My daughter will be a water dragon, according to the Chinese calendar. My son was a golden pig, which is meant to be auspicious, and that’s worked out pretty well. But a water dragon? I suppose I’ll have to hold on tight.

And for those of you who love Ms. Dijkstra’s work, or have yet to unpack its austere mystery, that’s what it’s all about. Possibility. Change. Growth. Adaptation. And the ineffable. (Which, if it was meant to be obvious, would go by another name.) That’s what becomes clear, at least, when you go through this book page by page.

Children by the sea, each standing in the same position. Minimize the variables, and the differences are all we have left to ponder. A young girl on the street in Odessa in 1993. Where is she going with that sunhat and leather valise. A boy, the next day, in the same place, holding two dolls. What gives? We’ll never know.

Women, naked, holding their newborns, right after birth. The scars reveal who had a Caesarian. Then, Tia, in Amsterdam, three weeks after giving birth, and then 5 months later. Look at the hint of change. Better hair, no circles under her eyes, she looks human in the second image, and slightly sad in the first. (Yes, I know that train is coming, and it has my name on it.)

On to the bullfighters, sure, then Almerisa, a young girl seeking Asylum in the Netherlands in 1994. (The project to which I alluded in the December article, as I saw several images at the Met in 2010.) Ms. Dijkstra carries this one through, and we watch the girl grow, in photographic stages, up through 2008, when she has her own child in the picture. We begin with a scared Bosnian girl, tiny, and end with an acculturated mother. Along the way, we get to see her legs grow, first hanging off the chair, then touching the ground. We see girlhood go by, and exhaustion set in. All the while, she’s sitting on a chair. Minimizing variables.

The book goes on to show some video stills, which of course don’t translate well in book format. I wonder, why do people keep trying? Then, soldiers being militarized, including our friend Olivier Silva. I’ll spare you the photos this time, so as not to arouse the vile anger of some of our less-than-polite readers.

Is it a great book? A work of art, as those London publishers would have us crave? Probably not. A bit too straightforward, and the cardboard cover could certainly be better. But it does give a fair accounting of a great artist. The plates are super-well-printed, and her ideas come through. So if you’re a fan, this would be a good book to have. If not, buy something else.

Bottom Line: Solid monograph from an important artist

To purchase A Retrospective visit Photo-Eye.

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Karianne Bueno, “Haiiro”

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s either ironic or pathetic, (depending upon your POV,) but I didn’t consider myself a photo book expert before I began writing this column last September. Sure, I love photography, and have devoted the last fifteen years of my life to its practice, but I viewed books as a by-product of the process. A result, if you will. Clearly, my thinking has evolved since then.

It seems that every photographer on Earth wants a photo book these days, though many wouldn’t be able to explain why. We did a guest post on the subject by Joanna Hurley of Radius books six months ago, but people are no less obsessed with the subject now. So I thought I’d use this week’s musings to delve deep into the meaning of Why?

Closing my eyes, I can easily recall the first time I pulled a photo book off the shelf in the UNM Fine Arts library back in 1997. Two months into my studies, I was bored, and stalked the aisles of the library with nothing better to do. I stopped, for no good reason, and pulled out “España Oculta,” a book of photographs by Cristina Garcia Rodero. She documented the surreal insanity of Spanish cultural rituals for fifteen years, and the magical book was the result. As good as the pictures were, (and they are brilliant,) the idea of that kind of dedication, over time, was what most impacted me.

Flash forward to the insanity of our present, and many photographers see a photo book as a marketing object. (Drop mad cash with a publisher, never recoup your investment directly, but hope to reap the rewards in the long run.) Recently, I bumped into a photographer, whose book I reviewed, who admitted to spending nearly $30,000 on his project. He felt it was worth it, as the book opened new doors for his business, and enabled him to be taken more seriously. Another photographer, with whom I spoke the same week, also told me he had to raise significant funds with the same publisher, and viewed his book in a similar light.

Alternatively, I have a cousin and an uncle who are passionate amateur photographers. Each time I visit, they corral me to view their vacation exploits, expertly printed and bound, through the wonders of Blurb’s online publishing interface. What would once have been the realm of scotch tape and plastic sheathing is now bound together in a hard-cover book. “Daytona Beach Spring Break 2012″ sits on the shelf next to Diane Arbus. (How’s that for Post-Modern?) So forgive me if I was a tad cynical about the publishing process when Rob tapped me to write this column last Summer.

Earlier this month, as you might have guessed from all the hints I dropped, Rob sent me to London to check out the scene. It was beyond fantastic, and I promise to share the visions of splendor before too long. (After I get back from FotoFest, if you can wait a little longer.) Luckily for you bibliophiles, I was able to interview two of the world’s best book publishers on consecutive days.

On a Thursday, late in the day I arrived, I met Aron Mörel of Mörel Books at a street side cafe in West London. I turned up late and flustered, as I couldn’t find the place, despite ascending from the Underground a mere 5 blocks away. Being British, he was gracious about the whole thing, and the interview was blissfully casual.

Though young, and relatively new to the publishing world, Mr. Mörel has worked with some of the best artists and photographers in the business, including Thomas Ruff, Ryan McGinley and Boris Mikhailov. He’s also published books by fashion photographers Craig McDean and Terry Richardson. Big names, yes, but surprisingly small books. Mostly soft cover, from what I’ve seen, and each project is tightly bound together by a concept.

What knowledge bombs did I solicit? Well, according to Mr. Mörel, a great book is a work of art. Not only that, but an affordable one. Who has the ducats to buy a print by Thomas Ruff? Next to no one. But many, if not most of us, can scrounge together $40 or $50 to buy a book. He sees the book itself, not only the images within, is the art object.

Back home now, 5000 miles away from that chilly London sidewalk, I’d have to say I agree. We chatted for a while about how Mr. Mörel got into the business, (a love of photography and poetry,) and my burgeoning theory that boobs sell books. (He agreed.) He also opened up a bit about his DIY style. Once the shipments arrive from his printer in Istanbul, he sometimes puts the books together himself, at home. (He once hand-folded several thousand covers in two days.) As a final thought, he said he looks at every submission that comes in, and encouraged photographers to send him an email, as he loves to see new things.

The next morning, jet-lagged, hung over, and not-yet-showered, (how’s that for TMI?) I had a meeting at MACK books, the new-ish imprint that released Taryn Simon’s huge book, and Gerry Johansson’s “Pontiac.” (With imminent publications by Thomas Demand and Paul Graham.) If you suspect I was a tad intimidated, you’d be correct. Fortunately, after they buzzed me into the building, the stairwell smelled of a strand of funk and mold not found in the United States. (I suppose an old city has old odors.) The stench, added to strewn boxes everywhere, grounded me, and helped me cross the threshold into one of the new bastions of the publishing world.

I stepped into the medium-sized office, flooded with natural light, and interrupted a staff of six, hard at work. I’d arranged for the visit with Poppy, the gracious PR person, who met me at the door and introduced me around. Then she led me in, offered me a “fake” espresso, and sat down for a little chat. Not intimidating in the least. How refreshing.

Shockingly, after I asked my very first question of Poppy, Michael Mack, the man himself, gracefully spun around in his swivel-chair to answer my query. Just like that. Had I intended to get a personal interview? Of course not. It just happened.

To start off, I asked Mr. Mack about Mr. Mörel’s theory, from the previous day, about a book being a work of art. He concurred, without a second thought. (But he hastened to add “I don’t think fashion photographers have the capacity to make a work of art.” Have fun debating that one in the comments below.)

Mr. Mack went on to explain that, to him, a great book has to be a unique, and equally important, expression of an artist’s work. It’s not just one more branded object to be commodified. (Which he likened to a product line: “Screen. Book. Wall. Magazine. Newspaper. Which is absolute crap.”) That’s the wrong way to go about it, he said. To further make the point, he held up a rainbow-colored copy of Paul Graham’s multi-book project, “A Shimmer of Possibility.” This, he said, was “a conceptual art piece in the form of a book.”

As this is the longest column I’ve written yet, (and I haven’t even gotten to a book review yet,) allow me to tie this back to the beginning. A book can be a family album. It can also be a marketing object. But, if you’ve set your aspirations as high as possible, a great photo book becomes the thing itself. It’s the opposite of what I foolishly used to think. The book is not the artifact of the process, the vessel that contains great photographs. It can be the ultimate expression of an artist’s vision, one that is as difficult to nail as a great film. (So much collaboration…)

Taken to the extreme, a great book might not even need to contain great photographs. Even a slightly-less-than-genius vision, if codified perfectly, can make a great book. Like “Haiiro,” a small, beautiful new offering by Karianne Bueno, recently published by Schaden. Yes, there was always a point to this column. Even if you lost faith five paragraphs ago.

“Haiiro” arrived in my book pile recently, and I was immediately drawn to it. It’s a small book, cloth-bound, with an image of the rooftops of a small Japanese village on the cover. The spine is covered by a thin piece of black elastic, like something off of my Mom’s phone book, circa 1986. The book is delicate and alluring, straight away.

Open it up, and it’s a vertical orientation, as the pages spill out accordion style. Green trees, a rice paddy, some girls by the stream, the Tokyo skyline, orange carp battling in a river, some more trees and water and buildings. No words. Then, a photograph of a trove of waterlogged documents, letters and such, depicted above an image of an empty apartment. Boom. The Tsunami reference sneaks up on you like a black-pajama-clad Ninja.

After that, an excellent, short, written narrative closes out the production. It’s inviting, so you read it. The tone and energy match the photographs, providing a glimmer of context for the artist’s travels, and then it’s done. Barely 15 pictures, and a page of words. You open it up again, test out the fold technique, and realize that it does stretch out like a screen. Better yet, it’s unattached. So you carefully, slowly, put it back together, and set it back on the shelf.

This book is as close to the expression of a poem as I’ve seen. It’s neither linear nor literal. It’s beautiful, remarkable, and the type of thing one would definitely pick up from time to time, just to recapture the mood. But the pictures are not terribly unique, and the printing is not the best I’ve seen. I’m not sure I’ll remember the photographer, but I’ll definitely remember the book.

Bottom Line: A perfect little visual poem

To purchase “Haiiro” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books – Deborah Luster

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s 4 something in the morning, and I ought to be asleep right now. Instead, I’m staring at a computer screen. (Insert pathetic attempt at humor here.) Why? I’m shaking the last vestiges of a nasty case of jet lag. Such a small, almost elegant term. What it really means is, you feel like your liver and stomach are doing battle for supremacy of your viscera. Your head hurts, it’s hard to complete a sentence, and you see a little man out of the corner of your eye who’s never actually there. (OK, I made that last part up.)

The human body was not designed for Inter-Continental air travel. Don’t bother arguing the point. It used to take someone like me a week to horse it down to Albuquerque, and now I can make it in a couple of hours. Technology has fundamentally changed the way our bodies interact with time, and mine still clings to GMT, for some odd reason.

So here I am, watching words miraculously appear in front of me, one at a time, as they march from my mind to you, our most excellent Global readership. Now that I have your attention, and have admitted that my half-mad ravings ought to be understood within a particular context, we might as well talk about a book, no?

As you’ll soon find out, I was in London last week, eating, drinking, and seeing lots of fantastic things. All to report back to you, in a series of upcoming features. Stay tuned. One thing I can say, straightaway, is that weight of history there is palpable, as is the awareness of all those people who’ve previously trod the ground on which you stand. As photographers, we’ve all visited old cities before, or battlefields, or former nuclear test sites. Places sanctified by blood. We accept that a spot of ground can radiate emotion well after some dark moment occurred in the past.

Deborah Luster researched and visited a series of such places for her new book, “Tooth For An Eye,” published in 2011 by Twin Palms. Except her collection of locales would otherwise have been anonymous, spots where people were murdered across the city of New Orleans. Such a grim concept, mashed together in such a beautiful volume. Like I said last week, I like to be surprised.

This book is over-sized yet slim, the front and back cover mirror images of luminous birds on wires, white on gray. Lovely. As to the grayscale theme, it continues inside. Each double-page spread contains a sheet of text on the left, and a circular, black and white photographic image on the right. The text, hand-written on a sort-of-bureaucratic-looking-form, details the victim, and the manner in which they were killed. The photos depict the location.

Would we care about the photographs without knowing the tragic back-story? I ask the question only to debunk it, because it really doesn’t matter. We do know what happened, and that’s the point. A great book has a story to tell, whether delivered by words, pictures, or both. But yes, the photographs are poignant enough that they’d hold attention regardless. As to the circular shape, well, I might always see the world through that prism if the last thing I saw was the barrel of a gun. (Yes, that’s a bit of a metaphorical stretch, but then again, it’s 4 something in the morning.)

I’m not big on rankings, but this might just be the best book I’ve reviewed yet. The photographs are powerful, the artist is staring down the macabre, and not blinking. As an object, you want to pick it up again and again, seduced by it’s desire to memorialize people who far to often fade away as if they were never here. And those birds on those wires, glowing on the cover, re-appear as the last photo in the book. Brian Christopher Smith, age 22, killed on July 14, 2009. He was found face up, and died of multiple gunshot wounds. That is all.

Bottom Line: Brilliant book, enough said

To purchase “Tooth For An Eye” visit Photo-Eye

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

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

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.

This Week In Photography Books – Francesca Woodman

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Now and again, my young son will ask what happens after we die? They don’t prepare you for that in birthing class. So I do my best, and tell him that most people are buried in the ground, or burned to dust. Either way, I say, we end up merging back with the Earth. Slowly or quickly, we become the dirt, the trees, the flowers. He says he’d like to be a rock. Sounds nice.

Several weeks ago, I gave a lecture about Vivian Maier in class. My students are in their late teens; not-quite-college age. I asked how many would like to make photographs throughout a lifetime, put them in a box, and then have the trove discovered after death. (As opposed to having a living photography career.) Posthumous fame was alluring, as every student raised his or her hand. I was shocked. But later, not really. I was quite the Romantic back in the day as well.

Where am I going with this? I just, just put down “Francesca Woodman,” the new monograph by SFMOMA and D.A.P., released in conjunction with a major solo exhibition of her work. (The show soon moves to the Guggenheim Museum in NY. March 16-June 23) It’s an impressive volume, as you might imagine. Intriguing and challenging at the same time.

If you don’t know the backstory, (no shame, as I didn’t either,) Ms. Woodman made an impressively large body of work, mostly nudes, as a young woman in art school. She took her own life at the age of 22, and her work has been considered important ever since. The new traveling exhibition coincides with the 30th Anniversary of her death. (And there’s the context for the first two paragraphs. Thanks for waiting.)

Though I’ve never seen this work before, I like it very much. Ms. Woodman, I mentioned, used her own body as the primary subject of her artistic practice. (Though other people pop up multiple times.) As she was young, and attractive, it’s the type of work I’d probably dismiss if I saw it from a contemporary female photographer. Anyone today would clearly know that sex sells everything, and that’s about it. It’s hard to imagine many young female artists exploring these themes in a fresh way, what with our current global culture of image ubiquity and massive over-sharing. (This from the guy who writes about himself all the time.)

Yet the photographs are lovely, whimsical, evocative, and experimental. It’s clear that Ms. Woodman was pushing boundaries. One recurring theme, in which she melds herself in with the background, often in decrepit homes, does make you wonder how badly she wanted to disappear? And for how long?

I’ve also got to give props on a technical note or two. Given the importance of pacing and flow, when two color images emerge, late in the book, after an onslaught of grayscale: Pop. And the cover image is haunting, presaging the innards.

As many of you will no doubt have the chance to go see this work on the wall in New York, I’d heartily encourage it. I’d love to go see it myself. But the book communicates Ms. Woodman’s vision, or at least, how history has edited her vision. (A separate question entirely.) So this one comes highly recommended, as long as you don’t mind a lot of nudity.

Bottom Line: Great book, great work, sad story

To purchase Francesca Woodman visit Photo-Eye

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

This Week In Photography Books – António Júlio Duarte

by Jonathan Blaustein

Addiction is nasty, and the house always wins. Put those together, and it makes for a cunning and helpless transfer of wealth. Whether it’s street dealers taking ten spots off of twitching junkies, sports arenas charging $9 for a warm Budweiser, or casinos absorbing cash from the repetitive slashing of one-armed bandits, it matters little. As I said, the house always wins.

Gambling is the addiction that I understand least. I’ve been blessed with good genes, as addiction does not seem to run in my family. Given how much beer I drank as an 18 year old in college, ever proud of my ability to double-fist Schaeffers, I’d have been an alcoholic years ago under different circumstances. Drinking and drugs, though, at least I get. The alteration of brain chemistry can be a heap of fun, and, until the hangovers descend in your late 20’s, the lack of accountability makes it easy to overdo it. Or do it, then overdo it, then do it some more.

But gambling…it’s never made sense. I’m told that the thrill of victory must overwhelm the fear of losing your dollars. But really, how much fun can it be? A lot, obviously, or Vegas would never have risen from the sun-baked Nevada Earth.

Apparently, Vegas is no longer the biggest gambling den around, having been displaced at some point by the Former-Portuguese-Colony/Island Macau. If you’ve never heard of Macau, no drama, as it’s a pretty small place off the South Coast of China. There’s the keyword right there. China. As the swirling-cash-toilet-bowl of choice for the world’s rising economy, just imagine how much money must be rolling around down there. Better yet, you don’t have to imagine. Just look at “White Noise,” a new book by António Júlio Duarte, recently published by Pierre von Kleist editions.(Subtitled “Sleepless Nights-Casinos-Macau.”)

Now, I’ve already tipped my hand several times that I love weird/odd imagery, and sci-fi infused imagery all the more. I must be easily seduced by shiny, flash-driven, gleaming photographs, so that’s one of my tells right there. I’ll spare you one more Murakami/Parallel Universe reference, but man do I have a soft spot for that style.

This book has it in spades. There are no people, the use of flash dominates, and boy do these photographs shine. Crystal chandeliers, gold-leaf encrusted sculptures, porcelain goddesses, mirrored-disco balls, metallic drapes, it’s all in there. Even more disturbing, elephant tusks standing at attention, Michael Jackson’s white glove resting on velvet, and cash money circulating through a vacuum-tube like something Bob Barker would dance to if he were dosed with LSD.

The casinos pictured here really do resemble spaceships. It’s not just that I’ve got Star Trek on the brain, (or better yet, Wall-E.) It’s definitely supposed to look like that. You can almost hear the imperceptible whir of the air-con systems, breath the recycled cigarette fumes, drain dry a watered-down vodka, and feel the vibration of all those machines and gaming tables sucking up money like a big, fat bong-hit.

So let’s have a moment of silence for all the poor suckers who bet it all on black, and lost. Homes gone, cars re-possessed, lovers left, it’s a sad tale. A sucker’s bet, you might say, thinking that anyone but the BIG MONEY comes out ahead. But then again, this is just a book review, and “White Noise” is a just a book.

Bottom Line: Shiny, gleaming, flash-driven casino awesomeness

To purchase White Noise visit Photo-Eye.

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

This Week In Photography Books – Irina Ruppert

by Jonathan Blaustein

In service of radical honesty, let me state for the record that I’m exhausted. Practically brain dead at the moment. In a couple of the interviews I conducted in 2011, I talked about the reality of the photographer’s 21st Century hustle. We all have two or three jobs, cobbling things together to make a go of it. We do it out of passion, desire and necessity. But sometimes, speaking for myself at least, it leaves one drained of creativity juice, like a de-sanguinated chicken.

Speaking of bloodless poultry, I spotted one on page two of the new book “Rodina,” by Irina Ruppert, recently released by Pepperoni Books in Germany. (Sorry, it was a rooster.) We’re always hearing some version of the conversation about how everything’s been photographed, all the good ideas taken, nothing new under the sun. As one who strives to innovate, I like to dispute that train of thought whenever possible. But there is also a ton of value in a story well-told, a vision perfectly executed, a narrative jaunt in an exotic place, rendered through the eyes of a stranger. “Rodina” is such a story.

Eastern Europe & Northwest Asia seem to have become hot subjects in the last few years. Some photographers have been attracted to the darkest of sides, human trafficking. Others to the kitch-tastic combination of fabulous oil wealth and fabulously bad taste. Others still are seduced by the “trapped in time” aspect of one of the world’s last “undiscovered” frontiers. Regardless, I’ve seen a lot of work made in that part of the world. Some stands out, some fades into the deeper recesses of my memory in an instant.

This book makes the cut, and I enjoy writing about it after highlighting work by so many heavyweights in the last month. I’ve never heard of Irina Ruppert before, and I couldn’t care less. That’s one of the true secrets of a great photo book: if it all comes together, the fame and/or reputation of the maker is of little significance.

The cloth-bound, tan hard-cover book lacks any text on the outside, and has a small piece of fabric embroidered onto the front. It’s a touch that speaks to the hand-made and the intimate, and indeed, it is a small and lovely little ride on the inside. The first photo shows an old Bulgarian Airlines airplane sitting on the grass in front of an apartment building. Consider me intrigued.

Photo two was mentioned above, and of course, I’m always interested in work that shows us what we don’t want to see.
A skinned cow head on the wall, chicken foot in a bowl of soup, and a goat standing on the road round out the symbolic theme. I love it. Woven in between, we see images of rolling fields, purple kitchens, hanging laundry, sidelong glances, and an old dead woman decked out in a coffin/horse cart. Throw in a fisherman rowing away from a random set of explosions in the water, and you had me at “Hello.” Really cool book.

Truth be told, (once again) I never thought of myself as a photo-book lover before I started writing this column. A photography lover, yes, but the books I could take or leave. That was then. Now, having had the privilege of scoping out all the new releases for a half-year, I feel differently. A book is an object, and the image edit a rhythmic narrative. It all needs to coalesce just so for me to really love the object, even if I never hear from the artist again. So for all the talk of shrink wrap, collectors’ markets and art stars, it’s good to remember that a great photo-book can come from anyone, and that it needs to be held and appreciated.
Bottom Line: A great book from a little-known artist

To Purchase Rodina visit Photo-Eye.

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

This Week In Photography Books – Ryan McGinley

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

A month or so ago, I was watching an episode of the new cartoon, “The Avengers.” (For the purposes of this article, let’s say my 4 year old was with me. Less pathetic that way.) Regardless, Captain America turned to Iron Man and said, “Leaders lead.” I’ve heard that line a couple more times in the ensuing weeks. I suppose it’s in the Zeitgiest.

The opposite sentiment, beyond ubiquitous, is, of course, “Haters hate.” Most popular in hip hop, but now everywhere, it refers to that ever-so-glib portion of the population that likes to tear down others’ efforts, but lacks the stones to put forth their own creations. And I used to be one of them.

Oh, how I enjoyed being a Ryan McGinley hater. I was so well suited to the job. Living in Greenpoint in 2002, when he was first getting traction, I saw a photograph at Priska Juschka in Williamsburg. The lovely Dakota, naked as the day she was born, was illuminated by flash while frolicking in the black ocean. OMG, I said. How hard is it to sell a photo of a gorgeous naked hot chick? Anyone can do that. Whatever.

Then, the legend grew. He too was from New Jersey, and ambitious. Plus, he was younger than I was. When I saw his solo show at the Whitney a couple of years later, my eyeballs almost liquidated in all the seething hater-dom. “Are you kidding me,” I wondered. “How is this different from Nan Goldin?” I fumed. “He’s just photographing downtown cool kids. BFD. Could it be any more derivative?” Yes, I was jealous. But it felt so good. Because in my heart, I was sure that I was better than he, and that was all that mattered. (Fools. I’ll show them all…)

Fast forward to 2012, and the release of Mr. McGinley’s brand new monograph, “You and I,” just published by New Mexico’s own Twin Palms. Can’t review this one, I thought. I’m the charter member of the Ryan McGinley hater club, and what’s the point of trashing his book? But then an odd thing happened. I checked back in with myself, and realized that I had, at some point, transcended the hate. I suppose, as I grew up, I realized that everyone walks his/her own path. Success comes to different people at different times, if at all. Mr. McGinley was an art star, and I was just some guy. C’est la vie. And that’s when I got very curious to see this book.

Yes, it’s filled with photographs of naked pretty young things. (Far more boys than girls, if that means anything.) But so what? It’s not like he’s selling these things at a porn shop. There are easily more than a hundred plates, shot over a ten year time range. What I mistook long ago as cynical booty-peddling has clearly become the artist’s obsession and passion, as valid as anyones’. In book form, it all makes sense.

Certain symbols are repeated, fireworks, falling, caves, rivers, trees, motion, all as backdrops or partner effects to the nude youths. (Or as Joe Pesci might say, the nude “Utes.”) Much as I once saw these subjects as hipsters trying ever-so-hard, in “You and I,” it’s hard not to imagine them as nymphs or wood elves, perhaps Roman gods on a time-traveling vacation throughout the American West. (Where it seems much of the book was shot.) Yes, it all happened, and these are real people, but they don’t seem so. The allegorical/metaphorical nature of work shines.

The color palette is lovely, blues, greens, yellows. The mood is consistent, as is the shooting style. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to hang most of these photos on the wall, (particularly the cum shot, which you know has to be there,) but in book form, they’re pretty great. Definitely his own thing. Nan Goldin’s name never came up in my head, which says a lot about Mr McGinley’s evolution as an artist, and my evolution from hater to open-minded artist/writer/whatever-the-hell-I-am.

As some readers believe everything I examine is a suggestion for purchase, please do read the above carefully. You might enjoy this book, you might not. Clearly, the subject matter is kind of a love it/hate it thing. But at the very least, I can say that this book is well worth looking at, as it coalesces the vision of an important American Artist. (And now, my 27 year old self is dying a slow, painful death, somewhere deep within my psyche. Good riddance.)

Bottom line: Fantastic book, perhaps not for everyone

To buy this book visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye.

This Week In Photography Books – Robert Adams

by Jonathan Blaustein

For all the controversial, opinionated, and edgy things I’ve written in the last couple of years, I think I’m about to put it all to shame. Here, now, I’m writing my first ever “book not reviewed.” Huh? What does that even mean?

By way of explanation, I should say that I’ve been sitting on a pristine, unopened copy of the new Robert Adams trilogy “The Place We Live,” recently released by Yale University Press. Much as it is akin to career suicide to criticize, let alone mention the Yale Photo Mafia, I’m committed to the path of honesty. Rob encouraged me to speak my truth, and here it goes.

I love Robert Adams’ best work. It’s transcendent. I even drove 700 miles to see the prints on the wall in the reconstructed “New Topographics” exhibition in 2010. Leaving the gorgeous galleries, I announced Adams’ work to be the best, and my three cohorts disagreed. (They voted for Baltz. Who’s now a Facebook friend of mine. What is the world coming to?) Anyway, I think Mr. Adams’ Colorado landscape images from the 1970’s are as important as any group of photographs we have.

The best images manage to walk the line between cerebral and emotional, subjective and objective, wistful and angry, optimistic and pessimistic. One can truly sense the presence of a man, standing on a spot of earth, perusing patiently through glass. And of course, anyone who grew up in a suburb, and then watched the subsequent residents slowly absorb the nature they craved…the work hits home. It was as prescient as it was picturesque.

So why have I been unable to cut the seal on these three books, sitting on my stack for two months now? That’s the question I’m asking myself, now, watching the ravens float through the sky in front of the purple, snow-covered mountains. For some reason, my inability to puncture the plastic seems more interesting here than the books would inevitably be. I feel a bit like Cameron guarding his Dad’s Ferrari. Best not to even touch it.

First of all, there’s the cost, I suppose. $250. For collectors only. Then, there’s the sense of grandiosity. Three books at once? From an artist who’s already had so many books published through the years? Thirdly, there’s the fact that I’ve already been scooped by Alec Soth and Fraction Magazine, both of whom published Mr. Adams’ work in the last month. Finally, I must admit that the sense of rebellion at not opening them is just too great for me to overcome.

That’s why I’m going with the “not review” here. Then, photo-eye can sell them to someone who will cherish them forever. Just like I cherish the memory of that art exhibition in Tucson. I’m certain the books would be great, so let’s not assume that I’m being critical here, I’m just going with the moment.

The reality is, this package in front of me is just too precious. It’s intimidating, like the Torah that I had to carry during my Bar Mitzvah in 1987. There I was, in the midst of becoming a man, rocking the hair gel, and all I could think about was what would happen to me if I dropped that f-cking gilded scroll. I think you have to fast for 40 days if it hits the ground, but I could be wrong. The Hebrew School training is finally starting to wear off.

Maybe I’m just afraid to write anything negative about one of the photography world’s true gods. I saw a small exhibition of his work at the Nevada Art Museum in the Fall, and felt like everything after 1990 was just not up to snuff. So if I don’t open the books, I won’t see the failures, and then I won’t have to write about them.

Or maybe I just like the idea of doing the absolutely unexpected, and not opening the books on general principle? (Like I don’t root for Tom Brady on GP. He’s just a pretty robot.) Regardless, I suppose this is a first for “This Week in Photography Books.” Come back next week, and I promise to talk about the images inside a book, instead of just the box. And if I wake up with a horse head in my bed on Saturday, I suppose that will confirm that the YPM is alive and well. Any contributions, in memoriam of my career, can be sent to the World Food Programme, courtesy of the UN.

Bottom Line: I chickened out of opening the damn thing, but it’s probably awesome

To Purchase The Place We Live visit Photo-Eye.

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