Category Archives: Photo-books

David Goldblatt Revisits “On the Mines”

As the German publisher Gerhard Steidl prepares a series of books on the life work of David Goldblatt, Jeffrey Ladd spoke with the South African photographer about the newly edited and designed release of his long out-of-print collaboration with Nadine Gordimer from 1973, On the Mines.

Jeffrey Ladd: Alongside the political and economic realities of mining Gold or other natural resources there can be any number of powerful metaphors associated with “mining.” For example: what is “on the surface” and “what is hidden”; social strata within the apartheid system; light and darkness; heaven and hell—what initially drew you working on a project about the mines?

Images:

The cover of On the Mines by David Goldblatt, published by Steidl.

David Goldblatt: I was drawn to photograph the mines not by any metaphor in which they might be seen but by their overwhelming presence in the life and landscape into which I grew. Photography offered both the justification and the medium for greatly extending experience and understandings begun in childhood.

JL: One of your earliest images, from 1947, is linked to mining. It shows an area called The Millsite dump purported by the local population to be the largest tailings dump in the world. You roamed this area and the mining estates as a child.

DG: As White children growing up in Randfontein my friends and I enjoyed almost unfettered freedom to roam among the mines that curved around our town. There were two provisions: never enter the fenced off areas that carried the skull and crossbones and the warning, ‘Caving Grounds’; and not to play on the slimes dams, formed by the mud that came from the mills. But we did play on the sand dumps, especially one called Whitey because of its fine white sand.

There was blind innocence to our meanderings on the mining estates. We took care to avoid the Pondo miners—our myth had been that they were ‘dangerous.’ We didn’t know their language, we didn’t know anyone who had been harmed by Pondos, but we feared them. We never wondered about the lives of the Black miners, living 40 to a room and far from their families.

JL: As a photographer were you able to see firsthand how the mineworkers lived in their compounds and hostels?

DG: Permission had been given to me by the ‘head office’ to take photographs in the hostel of the Western Deep Levels mines in Carletonville. Without consulting me the hostel manager sent out an instruction that men of each tribal group were to present themselves to me in tribal dress. I had no desire to do ethnographic “studies” and was preparing to withdraw. But then I saw the men and that they took the occasion very seriously and with great dignity. And so I photographed several groups.

JL: The book begins with a few photographs shot in color that date from the mid-to-late 60s, you turned to working primarily in color much later in your career, were these among the earliest of your color images? Was there a moment in working that you decided to use color?

DG: Professionally I worked in color on commissions since 1964. The color photographs in the new edition were made experimentally rather than from conviction that that was the ‘right’ medium for the subject. In addition, in the late 60s and in the 70s and 80s I did quite a lot of color photography underground for mining companies but I did not bring this into what I regard as my personal work.

JL: How were you able to gain, what appears to be, unrestricted access to the mining estates to photograph?

DG: Access to mining properties was quite severely restricted. If I was roaming on an estate that had ceased operations many years before, a mine policeman might appear suddenly as though from the earth to challenge me. Sometimes I would be allowed to proceed, sometimes not. On some properties I approached senior management first and was given permission to photograph. Photography in the compounds/hostels and underground would have been impossible without such permission.

JL: The 1973 edition of On the Mines is strikingly different from this second edition. You have redesigned, added 31 photographs and removed 11.

David Goldblatt

A spread from the book: “Notices in English, Afrikaans, Sotha, Xhosa and Tsonga, on the bank at New Modderfontein, Benoni, 1965.”

DG: The design of the original lacked wholeness and indulged in visual excesses in which I no longer believe. The first chapter (The Witwatersrand), was strongly graphic and contrasty, with some of the pictures going across the gutter; the second (Shaftsinking), was blighted by an ill-conceived attempt at drama, dropping the pictures into a black surround; the third (Mining Men), was classical one-picture-to-a-spread. In the new edition I wanted to give greater coherence and unity to the whole, and while not attempting to provide contemporary photographs, I wanted to enrich the mixture with many more photographs from the original archive. I invited Cyn van Houten, a designer with whom I had worked on magazines in South Africa and who had designed three other books for me, to design this one. We have a good understanding of each other’s thinking and so it became a real pleasure to put this book together.

JL: I recall you telling me that Sam Haskins offered advice with the design for a couple of your early books, did he help also with the 1973 edition of On the Mines?

DG: Sam’s influence is strongly evident in the first chapter of the first edition—bold, graphic, contrasty, but as far as I can recall, he was not involved with the design. Sam was remarkably generous to me. At a time when I knew nothing about using photographs in a book, he designed a dummy for my first essay, Some Afrikaners Photographed. In the end, I adopted a completely different approach from his, but in the process I learned a great deal about book design. The design of the first edition of On the Mines marked a sort of hybrid point in my understanding, where the first chapter is heavily indebted to Sam’s thinking and the last one, my departure from there.

JL: As Steidl publishes other volumes of your life’s work, will they all be completely revised and newly designed?

DG: I can’t say at this stage how we will approach subsequent books. I would hope to come to each on its merits. For me the particular attraction of a new edition is the opportunity to correct errors and to strengthen what was done originally.


The new addition of On the Mines is now available from Steidl.

David Goldblatt is an award-winning South African photographer represented by Goodman Gallery.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.



Review: Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere

Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere

Andres Gonzalez’s book Somewhere is a deliberately slippery beast. As its title implies it is not about a specific place, but more about the idea of place itself. It begins and ends in an airplane, as if to make the point that it will be taking us on a series of journeys. These photographs were taken all over the world (Mexico, China, Namibia, Ukraine…) over the course of a decade, but Somewhere is clearly not a travelogue. There are no images of the Great Wall of China or of the Namibian desert, but rather of the late afternoon light pouring into a bedroom or of an anonymous shopping mall parking lot. The book doesn’t follow a narrative or focus on a single subject, but instead it seems to have been structured to mimic the way we remember, where one memory will lead to the recollection of another from an entirely different time and place. The design by Dutch graphic designer extraordinaire, Sybren Kuiper, emphasizes the overlap between these moments even further by interweaving sections with different sized pages to create a subtle flow of images that slowly appear and disappear.

Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere

Like the subconscious, Somewhere does not neatly catalogue memories of different times and places, but instead allows them to shuffle together into a more complicated and confused whole. Much of what we see is revealed through a window or behind curtains and the reflective matte paper stock itself contributes to this impression of distance from the subject. While it deals with many of photography’s major themes—place, time, memory, dreams and reality—it isn’t interested in making any grandiose statements. It is a quiet and modest book (it fits nicely in the palm of your hand), a book of emotions and atmosphere rather than of concept or ideas. It successfully conjures up the world of dreams and of memory, but without offering any particular resolution: Gonzalez’s images obstruct as much as they reveal, and the impression that the book leaves is elusive and even a little frustrating… an intense dream that you cannot quite remember.

Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere

Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere

Andres Gonzalez, Somewhere, (Self-published, 84 pages, hard cover, 2012, edition of 700)

Rating: Recommended

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The Indie Photo Book in the 21st Century

Two years ago Larissa Leclair founded the Indie Photobook Library in her Washington D.C  home with the goal of preserving rare self-published books and making them available to a larger audience. She hopes the collection will one day land at the Library or Congress for safe keeping. From Nov. 10 – 18, Leclair’s collection is on view at FotoWeek DC.

LightBox: How did the Photobook Library start?

Larissa Leclair: The Indie Photobook Library started in May 2010 with an idea, one book and a Facebook page.

The idea of creating a public non-circulating library had been in my head for many years; one I originally wanted to propose to a non-profit. At that time, my focus was a broad range of international titles and making them available to a U.S. audience. That initiative never materialized, but the idea stayed and evolved. In 2009, as Blurb announced their Photobook Now Competition winners, and I was viewing a lot of self-published books online, I was personally frustrated with not having a central place to visit in order to look at these kinds of books in person. I referenced the idea of a museum/archive/library in my contribution to the Future of the Photobook discussion, but the final spark for the project came one day in April 2010 while attending the Photo Memory Workshop Master Class at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

George Miles, Curator of the Western Americana Collection at Beinecke, and Laura Wexler, Professor and Founder of the PMW, had selected to focus on the Peter Palmquist Collection. The vision encapsulated in his collection was the final piece of encouragement I needed. I was awestruck that a single individual could follow his passion, create a collection and, in the process, have an impact on the history of photography. Two weeks after that Master Class, I embraced the idea that I could be the one to create a space for self-published and “indie” photobooks while creating an archive at the same time.

The long-term goal of a lasting archive is what excites me the most. Having a specific collection dedicated to these kinds of books allows for the development of future discourse on trends in self-publishing, the ability to reflect on and compare books in the collection and for the scholarly research to be conducted in years, decades and centuries to come.

LB: What’s your background and why are you so interested in photobooks?

Leclair: I have a BFA in Photography and a BA in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. My interest in archives began in graduate school, where I spent most of my time researching and working in Manuscripts & Archives at Yale University Library with photographs, postcards, ephemera and books.

And I just love books. From remembering my childhood library to loving library spaces now, I enjoy being surrounded and being introduced to things through books. I prefer to look at most photography in book form and to be able to revisit the work over and over again that way.

LB: Can you describe the library’s physical space?

Leclair: The library is stored in my small home office, until I am able to find a donated public space. The books are shelved and stored in crates. I regularly pull from them each time there is an iPL event, exhibition, lecture, visitor or article I am writing. I have piles of photobooks on my desk of new submissions for the collection and boxes of packaging and ephemera in the corner that I have saved.

LB: Is there an online or social component to what you do?

Leclair: The iPL grew from the ability to share an idea online without having a physical space for the library. The online presence and social networking aspect is a big part of the success of the Indie Photobook Library. It affords easy collaboration and engagement with those that love photobooks and those that support the Indie Photobook Library.

LB: Can you tell us about the concept for the most recent show?

Leclair: For Documentary Styles in early 21st century Photobooks, at Gallery Carte Blanche in San Francisco, I invited Darius Himes, Assistant Director of Fraenkel Gallery, to work with me on the exhibition. I am interested in creating exhibitions and discourse around the photobook much the same way a museum would a photography exhibition. After some back-and-forth of ideas we agreed to curate the exhibition around the framework of documentary practice and styles in photography. And the medium would be the book.

LB: What was the process for finding and selecting books for this exhibition?

Leclair: When I am working on something I reference the library and choose from the collection. At least once a year, the iPL organizes a large feature-length exhibition of photobooks culled from the permanent collection. For the exhibition at Gallery Carte Blanche, Gwen Lafage, the Founding Director, wanted to have a call for entry, so we set a deadline that books needed to be part of the iPL by June to be considered for this exhibition.

There are books that speak to a more traditional documentary style, while others completely challenge it; there are diary-esque books and ones that are typology in structure; others that use found and vernacular imagery; and many that are documentary-esque in a fine art tradition. The lines between journalism, art and the long-term documentary project have blurred, morphed and continue to feed off of each other. The exhibition explores, rather than defines, the style.

LB: What makes a photobook interesting to you?

Leclair: For me, some of the most potent and challenging photographic work being done today is being realized in self-published photobooks. Freed from constraints, the photographic work should influence the book form. And it is when content, form, and experience come together in the right way, the book is magical.

LB: Could self-publishers replace the big publishing houses? Should they?

Leclair: Do I think they will replace the big publishing houses? Probably not. But self-publishers, independent/collaborative publishers and print-on-demand services are challenging the traditional publishing paradigm. A photobook is a photobook, no matter how it was published. A self-published book should not be judged differently. Doing-it-yourself is just as valid as publishing with a big press. All are part of the current photobook discussion and I have been championing that for many years.

LB: What’s your dream scenario for the library? What do you hope to do with it in the future?

Leclair: I have very ambitions dreams and goals for the Indie Photobook Library. I hope it will be seen as the “Library of Congress” for self-published photobooks and that photographers will continue to add to the collection as they create new books over their career. Traveling around with the library these last few years has been a successful way of sharing the photobooks in the collection and I’ve reached thousands and thousands of people that way. Yet, I’ve always envisioned a fixed public space that operates like a non-circulating library or browse-able archive where books in the collection are listed on worldcat.org and easily found by researchers.

I’ve just searched for many self-published photobooks on WorldCat and the Indie Photobook Library is often the only public collection in the United States that has a copy. If only people knew this on worldcat.org and I had the physical space people could access. That is the mission—providing the space and access for people to see these amazing photobooks.


Larissa Leclair is the founder of the Indie Photobook Library in Washington D.C. 



10×10: Japanese Photobooks

10x10

2012 is turning into the year of the Japanese photobook exhibition. After Contemporary Japanese Photobooks at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, New Yorkers now have the 10×10 Japanese Photobooks Reading Room to look forward to from 28-30 September. 10×10 is a 3-day pop-up reading room sponsored by the International Center of Photography Library with 100 Japanese photobooks selected by 10 specialists (=10×10). Since this event is also sponsored by the Photobook Facebook Group, there had to be some online action too, so the organizers have asked 10 people from the Internet to each select 10 books, which, according to my stellar arithmetical abilities, gives us a total of 200 books. For my list, I have tried to select books that represent different facets of Japanese photobook production over the last 60 years (I have managed to get one book from every decade since the 1950s). I should also mention a few obstructions in my selection. Firstly, I was asked not to select books that had already been selected other participants. As I tend to do things at the last minute, I had to make a few changes to my initial selection. Secondly, I have only selected books that I own so I could include some (rather poor quality) photographs of them. So without further ado…

Hiroshi Hamaya, China As I Saw It

Hiroshi Hamaya, China as I Saw It [Mite Kita Chugoku].
(Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1958).

In 1956, just before Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Hamaya travelled through China to Canton, Shanghai, Xian, Lanzhou, Urumchi and Beijing. As with most of his early work, these photographs focus on the local folklore and people’s everyday life. Although it is not self-published, this is one of the most self-made photobooks that I know of. Hamaya took the photographs, wrote the text, designed the book inside and out (which leads to some unusual layout choices) and used his own calligraphy on the cover and for the fantastic end papers (a hand-drawn map of the route he took through China). With the gorgeous gravure printing of the period thrown in for good measure, this is one of those “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” books.

Hiroshi Hamaya, China As I Saw It

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Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird: Blast 130

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird: Blast #130. (Tokyo: Taka Ishii Gallery, 2006).

I tried to avoid choosing personal favourites for this list, but I have to confess that this is one of them. The book is a kind of outtake from Hatakeyama’s Blast series on the explosions used in limestone quarrying. The Blast pictures are frame-by-frame deconstructions of explosions of limestone taken with remote cameras in order to get as close as possible to the action. When going through his contact sheets, Hatakeyama discovered that a bird had flown through the frame for the duration of one such blast. The book starts just before the charges are set off and ends as the dust is still settling in the air. Throughout, the bird continues its flight, only adjusting its course slightly in order to avoid the disturbance below. The drama and violent beauty of the explosion is made to feel almost insignificant by this bird flying across the sky. The production of the book is nothing special, but then it doesn’t need to be… in a way it reminds me of the flipbooks I loved so much as a kid. As an aside, Hatakeyama’s Blast series has, amazingly, never been published as a book, but thankfully that is soon going to be put right.

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird. Blast 130

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Eikoh Hosoe, The Butterfly Dream

Eikoh Hosoe, The Butterfly Dream. (Kyoto: Seigensha, 2006).

Eikoh Hosoe has produced some of the great and most elaborate Japanese photobooks. The first two editions of Barakei and the first edition of Kamaitachi are some of the most sought after books on the market. This book from 2006, devoted to the late Butoh dancer, Kazuo Ohno, deserves to be better known. As with Tatsumi Hijikata, who collaborated with the photographer to embody the kamaitachi, Hosoe photographed Ohno throughout his dancing career until his death in 2010. Hosoe made the book as a gift for Ohno’s century of life and it was published on the dancer’s birthday. The Butterfly Dream was designed as a companion piece to Kamaitachi, so that each of the two masters of Butoh would have their own. The brilliant Tadanori Yokoo designed the slipcase for the book, just as for the 2005 Kamaitachi reprint produced by Aperture.

 Eikoh Hosoe, The Butterfly Dream

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Mao Ishikawa, Hot Days in Camp Hansen

Mao Ishikawa. Hot Days in Camp Hansen [Atsuki Hibi ni Camp Hansen]. (Okinawa: Aaman Shuppan, 1982).

This is the first of two books on Okinawa in my selection. Ishikawa’s first book, Hot Days in Camp Hansen is a very unusual beast. Photography was still a male-dominated world in Japan in the late 1970s and a female photographer from Okinawa would have had virtually no opportunities to publish her work at that time, let alone work has uninhibited as this. The book focuses on the girls who worked in bars catering for the American GIs near the US military bases. To do this project Ishikawa became one of these girls herself, working in one bar for a period of around 2 years. The result is an astonishingly frank but joyous and affectionate portrait of the girls she worked and lived with and the GIs who frequented the bar. One of a kind.

Mao Ishikawa, Hot Days in Camp Hansen

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Kikuji Kawada, The Last Cosmology

Kikuji Kawada, The Last Cosmology: Photographs. (Tokyo: 491, 1995).

Kawada is known—almost exclusively—for his 1965 book The Map [Chizu], an extraordinary photographic object that now fetches astronomical prices at auction. Whereas Chizu was a kind of mental map of the horrors of the Pacific War, The Last Cosmology is Kawada’s personal map of the cosmos. Like many of his books, it combines seemingly unrelated images: long exposure photographs of of the night sky (Kawada is an amateur astronomer) are interspersed with visual fragments that echo the celestial patterns. Less elaborate in its construction than Chizu, like all of Kawada’s books, it is still beautifully produced.

Kikuji Kawada, The Last Cosmology

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Jun Morinaga, Kawa Ruiei

Jun Morinaga, Kawa, Ruiei / River, Its Shadow of Shadows (Tokyo: Yugensha, 1978).

Kawa is a study of Tokyo’s waterways as they were slowly being choked by the economic boom of the postwar years. This is a book of texture: Morinaga focuses almost exclusively on the surface of the water, as it bubbles, froths and stagnates in the mud. One of the most remarkable things about Kawa is its design by Sugiura Kohei, the man behind many of the best Japanese photobooks of the 60s and 70s. His use of gatefolds slows the reading process down and draws you in to Morinaga’s muddy, claustrophobic, abstract world and the way in which the images are integrated into the pages of text at the end of the book is masterful. Morinaga was W. Eugene Smith’s assistant for his Minamata project and the latter contributed a short text to this title.

Jun Morinaga, Kawa Ruiei

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Seiji Shibuya, Dance

Seiji Shibuya, Dance (Tokyo: Akaaka, 2011).

For my money, Akaaka has been the most interesting photobook publisher in Japan over the last few years. Shibuya’s previous book Birth, was a little too perfect for me, a succession of achingly beautiful images that didn’t really go anywhere. Dance is a much stronger book, particularly thanks to the edit and the sequencing of the images where little series appear and disappear like musical riffs. The book was made from Shibuya’s entire archive and the edit took around one year, using some images that Shibuya had apparently forgotten about. The book isn’t driven by a concept or idea, but instead seems to focus on conveying a certain mood, a kind of sunny melancholy. This book also has my favourite cover of recent years, not so much for its cover image but because of the thick textured paper on which it is printed which just makes you want to pick it up.

Seiji Shibuya, Dance

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Akihide Tamura, Afternoon

Akihide Tamura, Afternoon. (Tokyo: Match and Company, 2009).

If most photobooks are novels, Afternoon is more of a short story. With a mere 23 plates of black-and-white landscapes over 32 pages, the book is remarkably economical but very well made… not an ounce of excess fat here. Tamura was one of the photographers featured in the landmark New Japanese Photography show at the MoMA in 1974. My sources (ahem, Wikipedia) tell me that he shot the stills for several of Akira Kurosawa’s late movies, but I know very little about him apart from that. I know a little more about the publisher, Match and Company. They are the Machiguchi brothers, a cross between rock stars and book designers. Their books are immediately recognisable—maybe even a little too recognisable—with their clean, minimalist style and they are one of the few Japanese publishers with an eye for roman typography. They have also developed an interesting model, designing, producing and selling their books themselves through their online shop bookshop-m.

Akihide Tamura, Afternoon

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Shomei Tomatsu, Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa

Shomei Tomatsu, Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa. (Tokyo: Shaken, 1969).

Although far less elaborate than those of Eikoh Hosoe, Tomatsu’s books have also become some of the most highly collectible postwar Japanese photobooks. Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa is a somewhat lesser known title, which, you guessed it, focuses on the islands of Okinawa. Tomatsu has always been fascinated by the Americanization that took place in Japan after the war and in the 1960s he travelled to Okinawa, where the US has maintained a major military presence, to photograph. The islands became a major subject for his work and eventually his home (he has lived there for many years now), not only because of the US military presence, but also for their natural beauty and way of life so far removed from the intensity and chaos of Tokyo. In some ways this is a protest book (the slogans on the cover call for an end to the US occupation of the islands), but it also shows Tomatsu’s burgeoning interest in the beauty of Okinawa and its way of life. Some of Tomatsu’s color photographs of Okinawa appear in the current issue (#280) of Aperture magazine.

Shomei Tomatsu, Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa

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Yoshihiko Ueda, Quinault

Yoshihiko Ueda, Quinault (Kyoto: Seigensha, 2003).

In the summer of 1990 while scouting for a location for a fashion shoot, Yoshihiko Ueda, a successful fashion photographer, had a “moment of vision” when he discovered the extraordinarily lush Quinault rainforest to the west of Seattle. Ueda eventually returned with an 8×10″ camera and color film to try and recapture the feeling he first had in discovering Quinault. The images in the book are taken at eye-level in very low light to convey the feeling of wandering through this dense forest. The book is beautifully and very subtly printed on a thick matte paper in an oversize format to retain some sense of the imposing scale of the forest. If you are unfashionable enough to appreciate natural beauty, this one is for you.

Yoshihiko Ueda, Quinault

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The Darkroom: Nostalgia for a Dying Craft

The thought that most photographers working today will no longer, or will never, step foot in a traditional analog darkroom is remarkable for me. So much of the public imagination historically (and cinematically) with “photography” has been tied to the image of a man or woman hunched over trays of liquid watching an image appear on paper while enshrouded by the warm, amber glow of a safelight. Will that collective image ever be replaced with one of someone sliding a cursor along a histogram while bathed in the cool glow of a Macintosh monitor? Adam Bartos’s new book from Steidl Darkroom sheds some white light on the dying craft of analog printmaking and the environments that have produced most of the medium’s greatest images.

©Steidl—Adam Bartos

The cover of Adam Bartos’s new book from Darkroom.

Bartos is a photographer of the generation where working in a darkroom was a natural extension of the artist’s process and although I suspected this book to be a kind of lament to their near extinction, Bartos himself has been making digital prints of his work for over a decade.

“I’ve never thought that spending time in a darkroom makes for a better (or worse) photographer. That’s a matter of choice and process…The difference might be that I make distinctions about prints because I have a feeling for them as objects with history. Those of us who have spent time in darkrooms may be more likely to share that experience, but I hope that photographers who haven’t will be interested in what the possibilities of printmaking are before thoughtlessly accepting the standard product. It’s quite easy to make a digital print that looks alright, but it’s still very difficult to make one that is beautiful and expressive.”

Bartos’s still-lifes describe how darkrooms are part laboratory and part personal spaces – lived in and decorated with talismans; a ball compass hangs from a safelight fixture, old test prints and penciled notations are left pinned to walls, layers of dust coat unused equipment. (I recall reading a story about the American photographer Garry Winogrand and his darkroom enlarger upon which hung several items including an old bow-tie and a string of rosary beads. When asked about these things he simply replied, “They can’t hurt.”)

I have spent most of my life as a printer in such environs so the first few images bring a flood of memories from the last twenty-five years: Printing in Helen Buttfield’s ancient darkroom above the old Irving Klaw Studio where Betty Page was often photographed at 212 East 14th street; Trying to print on GAF photo-paper that had expired in 1968 – the same year I was born; My printing teacher Sid Kaplan pouring his hot coffee into the developer tray because the chemistry was “too cold”; Coming home to find a pigeon sitting on my film drying lines in my improvised darkroom in my 35th street tenement apartment. Discovering my cat Bun-Bun had once again used one of my 16X20 developing trays as a litter box. Having my exhaust fan tumble out of my window and somehow shatter my downstairs neighbor’s window. The shrill beep of my Gra-lab enlarger timer as it counted down: 5, 4, 3, 2…

Adam Bartos’s Darkroom is available from Steidl this now.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

Review: Nina Poppe, Ama

If I had to choose a single word to describe Nina Poppe’s book Ama it would be ‘modest.’ It is not a ‘clever’ book, nor a powerful one. It is quiet and does little to promote itself (the book’s open spine design which does not allow for text guarantees that it will be all but forgotten on a bookshelf). This modesty runs throughout every aspect of the book, from the subject matter to Poppe’s photographic approach to her subject, and even to the book’s size and design. In many ways it is a very ordinary photobook: a simple, straightforward documentation of the life of a small community. These unassuming, unfussy qualities could make it easy to overlook, and yet I think they are what make Ama one of the better recent photobooks of its kind.

Ama takes its title from the Japanese word given to these female divers. The book centres on a particular community of women abalone divers on the island of Ise-shima in Japan. Poppe has photographed these older women (they appear to all be in their 60s or 70s) as they prepare for and emerge from their dives, and go about the business of daily life. There are no photographs of the dives themselves. Instead Poppe has come up with the elegant solution of reproducing a spread of an ama mid-dive from Fosco Maraini’s 1963 book The Island of the Fisherwomen, one of the books inspired her to undertake this project. The image is printed on a different, thinner, light blue paper stock which differentiates it from Poppe’s pictures. The same device is used at the end of the book with an accordion fold on the same paper, featuring spreads from several other books through which she presumably researched the ama. I found this to be an elegant way of introducing what it was that attracted her to the subject in the first place and to share her love for the photobook.

In addition to the ritual of the dive, Ama reveals the physical environment of the island, giving a sense of an extremely simple lifestyle turned towards nature. Although it opens with a saying from the Ise-shima region which states that, “A woman who cannot feed a man is worthless,” there isn’t a single picture of a man in the book. Their absence gives this proverb an almost ironic quality, as the men seem irrelevant in the world of these women. Aside from the ama, the only other people that appear are children and young women. Their portraits seem to act as a contrast to the divers, raising the question of how different the lives of these different generations are. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of these young girls were in any way interested in the tradition of the ama, or indeed could even become divers themselves one day, or whether the women pictured here would be amongst the last to dive in this way.

While this all may sound rather nostalgic or melodramatic, this isn’t the sense that comes through in these photographs. These images are not romantic or lyrical. Instead, Poppe has built up a simple portrait of the ama and their island, one suffused with affection, warmth and respect, but which refrains from inscribing them in some form of mythology. This restraint is another of the book’s great strengths for me.

Japan remains a fascinating photographic subject for the West and one which has a potent exotic aroma. Much of the work that I see by foreign photographers on Japan seems to be unable to get beyond a search for the exotic other, a search for a series of clichés or preconceived ideas rather than an attempt to photograph what is there. I was struck by the fact that Poppe, a young German woman, avoided this trap so assuredly. The result is that Ama does not feel like the book of an outsider, but rather a work with an open mind.

Nina Poppe, Ama (Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 88 pages, 56 colour plates, 2012).

Rating: Recommended

Note: An exhibition of the series Ama is on show at Foam in Amsterdam from 11 May to 27 June 2012.

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Review: Roberto Schena, SP 67

The road trip is one of the primal photographic gestures. It has given rise to some of the most celebrated series of photographs as well as to countless clichéd and forgettable pictures. Thanks to—or maybe even because of—Robert Frank’s ten thousand mile drive across America which led to The Americans, it also feels like a quintessentially American exercise. The term also has an epic quality: it conjures up the idea of a seemingly never-ending journey. With his book SP 67, the Italian photographer Roberto Schena has played with the mythology of the road trip to explore a short (13km) stretch of road running through the mountains in northern Italy.

The books cover sets the mood: the landscape is wintry and barren and the air seems to be heavy with moisture. This is a book that is all about atmosphere. Although its title and endpapers (a reproduction of a map of this mountain road) seem to place importance on the particular location that Schena has chosen for this project, its subtitle, La strada della tramontana scura (The road of the dark north wind), is more revelatory of its nature. The book is structured like a drive from East to West along the SP 67, one almost entirely shrouded in a thick fog which only allows for glimpses of the surrounding landscape.

Most of the images in SP 67 are technically landscape photographs, but they reveal very little… the odd curve in the road… the foliage that surrounds it… always obscured by the incessant fog. This unsettling visual backdrop is punctuated by the odd animal apparition. This is what gives the book its rhythm: a pig running along a ridge on the horizon, a closeup of a horse’s head, a goat or some dogs picked out of the darkness by the car’s headlights. This creates the sense that this world belongs to animals rather than to men. This road seems to run through a parallel universe, a place that we recognise but where space and time are distorted and unfamiliar (another reviewer compared Schena’s world to that of a Murakami novel).

While Schena has undeniably created a heavily atmospheric world with this work, I found it to be a little too impenetrable. SP 67 is a slippery book that left me with a lingering sense of frustration. Like a dream that you awake from feeling unsettled, but, no matter how hard you try, you just cannot remember.

Roberto Schena, SP 67 (Rome: Punctum, 112 pages, 51 colour plates, 2012).

Rating: Worth a look

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The Search for the Best New Black-and-White Photographers

Last December, Gomma publishers—a small imprint in London with a magazine by the same name, or what founder Luca Desienna calls a “bijou” publishing house—set out to find the most exciting new talent working in black and white photography today. To begin the process they assembled an international panel of experts and curators from around the world that included Christian Caujolle, Yasmina Reggad, Peggy Sue Amison, Tom Griggs, Wayne Ford, Jörg Colberg and John Matkowsky to create a new publication called MONO. The fundamental idea for the new publication was to expose emerging talent to a wider audience by publishing them alongside more established artists pushing the boundaries of the medium, such as Roger Ballen, Daido Moryiama, Anders Petersen, Trent Parke and many others.

“Gomma was formed in 2004 by four friends and artists aspiring to create a new publishing space for photographers,” says Desienna. ”Our major inspirations were the influential Japanese magazine Provoke from 1968 and Permanent Food by Maurizio Cattelan. Since the first days of Gomma we’ve been always publishing black and white photography—it is and always will be one of the most extraordinary art forms that enables us to document the world we live in … and also what is beyond it or underneath it.”

This year’s winners of the MONO open call for entries are: Daisuke Yokota, Maki, Tricia Lawless Murray, Francesco Merlini, Jan von Holleben, Jukka-pekka Jalovaara, Sofia Lopez Mañan and Stephane C. Their work will be featured in the first edition of MONO to be released this fall.

Desienna says there has been a renaissance among the image makers working in black and white. “With the advent of digital photography, taking pictures has become sort of more accessible for everyone,” he says. “While black and white photography, which is often associated with analogue photography, has become rarer and rarer. Agfa collapsed, and films and chemicals started disappearing, so as it happens with anything that gets near to extinction, it just becomes more valuable.” At the same time, Desienna says great new digital, black-and-white photography has added to the exquisite and timeless world that monochrome images create. “We don’t see the world in black and white so this is probably why we are so attracted to it,” he says. “In addition I believe that black-and-white photography has the capability to show the inner moods of the photographers better than colors do.”

For more information visit Gomma Books and check out Gomma Magazine online.