In this section the 10 favorite photobooks selected and narrated by Ken Grant, photographer (Liverpool, 1967). Since the 1980′s he has photographed his contemporaries in the city and engaged in sustained projects both in the UK and wider Europe. A monograph of the Liverpool pictures, The Close Season, was published by Dewi Lewis Publishing in 2002 and another, No Pain Whatsoever was recently published in Sweden by Gosta Flemming/Journal. He continues to work on long term projects and a recent outcome, the book Flock was published by APB Dublin in 2014. Ken Grant's photographs are held in important collections of photography, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Folkwang Museum Essen and other international public and private collections. He currently teaches Photography at Belfast School of Art.
Not just the most important books, not only the most innovative. But those that are special to us, the ones that we seek for the pure pleasure of reading. Books that are among our favorite choices of all time, the books we never forget. Revelatory books that opened windows on other cultures. Volumes that describe or create worlds or light up our curiosity and our interest. Tomes that we continue to look for even though they are dusty, yellowed by time or consumed. The books that made us fall in love with photography and still continue to seduce us. The ones that we want the most. Tomorrow of course there will always be others.
John Laidlaw - Photographs by Robin Grierson 1992, edition of 750
If you were to search for him, you'd be lucky to find a handful of references and a modest website advertising the work of Robin Lewis Grierson. You'd be forgiven for glancing past the editorial portraiture and you'd probably stop on a black and white picture that suggests a route into a more personal kind of photography. You'd be onto something. Robin Grierson's small 24-page book accompanied an exhibition in the coridoor of the original Photographer's Gallery in 1992. I bought mine from the photographer a little later, I think. When talking to students about telling stories, connection and ambition in picture making, I don't start here - I save this particular joy (for me and, I hope, for the class)… but I get here pretty soon. It's an elegant, astute, human and emotive piece that simply marks the friendship between the photographer and the older gentleman who lived at the edge of Grierson's childhood village of Fishburn in the North East of England.
Opening the card foldout cover presents John Laidlaw from behind, looking at the industrial landscape that his father, once an engineer at the pit, had overseen. Laidlaw himself had never been part of that industrial world as, in an opening text, Grierson hints at a past of mental breakdowns and a life that hadn't been straightforward. Grierson's text is brief but articulate, lasting for a single page and managing to set out the man's complete life until death in 1987.
The photographs communicate the essence of John Laidlaw in black and white.
Grierson seems to be searching for ways to describe his subject and, over time, returns with a number of different cameras. His own reflection can be seen, as he photographs through a window with a large format camera. It could be a mistake, but instead it binds the two men together, leaning a young life against the elderly Laidlaw. The photographer studies the man who, in turn, studies a map in the window-light.
Robin Grierson studied photography in the 1980s at Farnham and, whilst it remains conjecture, echoes of some of the influences that proliferated at that moment seem to surface in the work. The richness of the black and white printing and the hand stretched out against glass reminds me of a John Heartfield's 1938 election poster 'A hand has five fingers – with five fingers you can catch the enemy' – work that was certainly in conversations and history teaching at the time… although, in all honesty, that 'worker's' hand has worked its way through the whole of modern photography. There could be the influence of more contemporary teachers like Peter Kennard – who regularly taught at Farnham whilst Grierson studied there. Whilst Grierson also worked in colour on parallel projects (- his colour work in Spain, for example, employed daylight flash) this work was a Black and white piece). In addition to the large format camera, a 35mm camera lends a dexterity that we only see in the most fluent photography. In one picture, Grierson photographs a table top with things Laidlaw had saved or reclaimed – a shriveled pepper, broken spectacles and string, whilst elsewhere in the book, his camera is so close to Laidlaw's face that – to steal from Bruce Bernard's appraisal of Tony Glanville's plasterer's mate - Grierson seems to photograph Laidlaw's soul. It is a beautiful picture, lit with the sharp natural light that finds its way into the old man's home and made by a photographer close enough to be warmed by his subject's breath. Across the page there's a square picture and, looking through the book more carefully we are able to understand a lot about the man and, I'd propose, the photographer who celebrates him. One question stands unanswered. For all the energy and activity, the modest dignity of John Laidlaw surveying this land from a seat at the edge of a rainwater pool like some sooty crop haired cormorant, the company – seen through some of the children who drop by to hang out, have repairs done to their bikes and move on…one picture confirms that John Laidlaw is alone. The square picture is of a bed – a simple, single bed with a cloth on the headboard that is marked with the shroud - like impression of the body that has been set against it, night after night, whilst reading. It reminds me of the Walker Evan's photograph of the Burroughs bedroom – a photograph that betrays so much about life, family and safety and, by keeping company with such great photograph, Robin Grierson's book, John Laidlaw, is a fitting and touching celebration of a single man. More than this, it's an example of photography with soul, and the world needs more of that.
Chauncey Hare, Interior America, 1978 and Protest Photographs, 2009
In a recent radio interview, a Detroit schoolteacher spoke of her wonder at seeing a return to prairie for many acres of former urban space in her city. Whole communities, originally formed after a mass migration from the South towards the car plants and associated industries in the north of America, had lived through the Motor City era and found themselves surplus and disoriented after years of economic attrition. As one, they had to rethink how they might continue their lives and had eventually turned towards each other in co- operation, to grow orchards and farmland within the crumbling industrial landscape that had once been dominated by their provider and master.
Such a rethinking of roles always seems to come at points of crisis, when the dominance of figure industries no longer seem adequate, correct or viable. It brings a necessary departure towards a more uncertain but hopeful and fulfilling way to live. I am mindful of such a crisis (albeit a very singular one) and the shadow of the industry that encouraged it, as I move through the considerable volume of photographs that fittingly returns Chauncey Hare's work to its place among the most important American photographic projects of the last century.
Over nearly 400 pages, Protest Photographs draws on a small number of photographs from Hare's 1978 Aperture book Interior America and its 1984 follow-up This Was Corporate America and contextualizes them among many previously unpublished pictures now held as an archive that the photographer offered the University of Berkeley, California in 1999. If Berkeley had rejected the photographer's approach, it seems very possible that the work would have been destroyed at the photographer's own instruction, closing a career that in reality had drawn to a halt in the 1980s, when Hare stopped photographing to retrain and begin working as an adviser, counsellor and therapist to workers and their families.
The source of the ultimate dislocation that took Hare away from the world of photography is an undercurrent in the narratives that open this book. Instead of another polite appraisal, the kind that primes so many photography books, the photographer again deploys the strategy that so distinguished Interior America – using the early pages to unpack his life in open, earnest paragraphs. These personal statements are articulate, intimate and moving, building a foundation for pictures that – despite such an unguarded commentary – flow singularly across each right hand page in a structure as regular and predictable as a working life. Looking at each picture, it becomes impossible to dismiss the emotional crises that shaped, implored and ultimately stopped Hare's progress as a photographer. Whether hereditary (Hare's father gained a promotion that took him away from his Irish Appalachian roots, towards later years of depression and disaffection) or learned, across the 29 years Hare worked as an engineer, the act of photography is, before everything, a channel for personal and political application – for a protest that is as emotionally open as any I have understood in the medium.
Working as an employee of Standard Oil and later Chevron, Hare had begun his project in 1968 – a year after a works assignment had briefly taken him to a Mississippi region animated by inequality and Civil Rights protests. After what was perhaps a shocking and formative experience he returned to a normal routine, using his lunch-breaks to move out of the workplace and escape the tensions and monotonies of a working life that was increasingly shaping his own physical and mental well being. The act of photography, it seemed, could temporarily assuage the nausea that Hare experienced each evening after returning from his job, a condition that even his doctors could not account for.
Walking around the periphery of the factory in 1968, Hare had been stopped by a local man, Orville England, who was keen to sell the photographer a plastic camera. He had been invited inside England's home – a home that, years later, Hare himself would move into – to act as carer, as the old man's life, blighted by work-related asbestos poisoning, eventually reached its difficult and inevitable end. After that early meeting, Hare had returned with a plate camera and photographed England again, a move that spurred him on to consciously photograph the rooms and residents of the modest houses within th proximity of his workplace. He would recognise lives lived out uncomfortably close to the pollution that hung in the air. He would note how security, prospects and plans were hindered by the economic fluctuations that shrank an expanded industries like lungs, causing uncertainty and for youthful ambition to wane. The photographer, who would wake up scared at 5 am each morning, eventually left his job and – with his new partner, the psychotherapist Judy Wyatt – progressed a relationship based on a shared and deep pain, felt about what was wrong with the treatment of working people in the society they both were part of.
It's not hard to imagine the challenge of gaining access into these homes – a process built upon trust and a nervous but determined momentum that Hare explains thoroughly in his own words – before setting up the camera to photograph. Hare's photographic technique seems in part refined and in part abrupt or technically erratic, yet it's always compelling. While some photographs are gently lit, with diffused light perfectly balancing interiors with the views of industrial plants that can be seen through windows, others are illuminated with the intrusion of a harsh and undisguised light. Flash plasters deep black shadows of inhabitants onto walls, creating rooms that are tight and discomforting. Elsewhere black, loosely pinned electric cables chase across walls, rendering power supplies as unstable and vulnerable. Men and women are often alone, held down underneath low grey ceilings. Family members are often sat back within the photograph, among the iconography of the wider family, the Kennedy government or religious devotion. Sometimes people are framed in doorways or wedged at the edges of a frame – occasionally they are asleep fully clothed and curled around exhausted children on still-made beds. The extreme coverage of a wide-angle lens shows complete rooms, as residents sit or stand, passively looking into their homes, surely unaware of their inclusion in the photographer's frame.
For the first time, this new book reproduces a number of group portraits made between 1968 and 1972 – loosely structured, inclusive pictures of extended families who fill rooms by sitting on temporary chairs, which have been gathered – along with their children – and carried from other parts of the home. Working externally, Hare often photographed the sprawl of housing in the industrial belts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and there are echoes of a wider history of the American economic landscape – and of the history of photography, as the cemetery Hare photographs in 1972 in Bethlehem borders the same housing that Walker Evans had photographed for Roy Stryker in 1935, as part of the FSA programme to document struggling workers who merited the country's support, after the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
Hare recounts how, over his years of production, he felt obliged to "honour the reality of each person and their home" and speaks of a need to relate "the truth of people's lives". Yet this is not a measured, dispassionate process. In the book's afterword, curator Jack von Euw suggests that Hare did not want the book to be about himself – but this somehow seems unavoidable, with the photographer struggling to escape from his own working conditions and inevitably affected by the lives he finds inside the America he concerns himself with. As he moved further from photography into counselling and support work, it's clear that perhaps photography had its own conditions that the photographer wrestled with. A set of Hare's photographs were bought by the Museum of Modern Art, yet he grew to hold a mistrust of such institutions, noting how their organisational structures closely resembled those he had been at odds with throughout his life as an engineer. Hare would later picket a San Francisco MoMA showing of Szarkowski's Mirrors and Windows exhibition that included examples of his work, in a one-man protest over the show's corporate sponsor.
Chauncey Hare's work deserves to be understood alongside Walker Evans' American Photographs or Nan Goldin's first book, as a singular and articulate voice speaking of the condition of a real America – the same America that the poet Fred Voss, himself a factory machinist, would later describe as a people "as real as a Marshall's eviction notice, or a pink termination slip". The new book offers a serious, passionate and exhaustive statement about the nature of working peoples' lives to a contemporary audience witnessing the largest economic downturn since the 1930s. While Hare has created an important and singular response to such conditions, and found a life beyond the circumstances that once constrained him, in doing so he has fore - grounded questions around the role of the photographer and the possibility for photography to say something of worth about something we can no longer ignore.
Judith Joy Ross, Living with War, 2008
I once came across a recording of the folk singer John Prine, that tender but sharp witness to the troubled but trying, poor American soul. He was relating to an audience on a quiet day in Washington when, killing time before a show, he went with a friend to find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He describes taking the index in hand and, hardly believing the extent of the directory that listed the 58,260 fallen, the friends searched until they found reference to someone they had both known and lost in the conflict.
This personal thread, amid the numerous pages of the fallen and ordinary, this brief but important significance, perhaps chimes with the moment that Judith Ross chose to relate in her photographs of similar visitors in 1983. At the same memorial, she photographed with her 8×10 camera across the first two years of its opening, making the four-hour drive from her small Pennsylvanian town to work there. Ross began a chapter of work that she must have felt moved to do. While maintaining a formal integrity that is consistent with her earlier portraits, her new subject moved beyond those in safe and rural childhoods, who felt an absolute belonging to the America stretching out ahead of them. Under the grey, flat light from which Ross has so often come to build the portraits in this handsome and affecting book, Maya Lin's solemn construction could never have felt like anyone's home.
Ross' work is an important extension of a lineage in American portrait photography that moves on from Diane Arbus' interest in the discordant exotic. Yet perhaps her work more closely acknowledges the quieter America that Chauncey Hare was drawn to in the 1970s – those citizens who people the industries and unremarkable communities and who, when the time inevitably comes, see their children leave to fight the filthy wars. Judith Ross has moved along this trajectory, continuing her consideration of the impact of conflict in 1990 when she photographed reservist soldiers, on Red Alert and waiting for mobilization to the Gulf War and its inevitable consequences.
The emotional register Ross finds in her subject is extended through the precise detail in the resulting negative. It's in the working procedure that the camera demands and in the acceptance Ross has for the manner in which her subjects hold themselves in front of her lens. The large format camera meant that she could work in a manner that has paced photography's many seasons. Isolated by a process that turns backgrounds into shallow pools of shade or shadow, winter light occludes young protesters' faces, sharpening eyes until they are glass-like, shining and distant.
Thinking about the 8×10 camera might bring suggestions of precision, of accuracy, yet there is something successfully loose about Ross's pictures. There is detail, the shallow depth of focus rendering faces ever more urgently as the book progresses, isolating hair that blows across cheeks on these bright yet never comfortable days. But there is also openness. Hands sometimes drift out of the frame, the cloth slogans, ribbons and tags pinned onto jackets drift to nothing, their messages dulled.
It's this looseness, the dependence on a few simple elements in the frame that contributes significantly to the aura in Ross' work. Further refined by the printing-out process, that allows print detail to emerge slowly to daylight before being warm-toned, they rely on very little. The pictures are occasionally confounding in their depth, beautifully clear studies that betray the potential of photography. While making particular the resonance of war, these pictures seem to do more. Perhaps like Prine's "Sam Stone" – which details the long-term consequences of those affected by Vietnam with such aching detail – they speak of the long term, of the impact on lives that more common histories rarely – or adequately – choose to note.
Tom Wood, Photie Man,2005 and Looking for Love,1989
There are few templates for the collaboration that Tom Wood and Padraig Timoney have made - certainly no parallels with the many photographers who work briefly and clinically, producing books or exhibitions that don't merit publishing or hanging. In her later years, the photographer and teacher Lisette Model spoke of the 'lukewarmness-the kind of photography that just doesn't matter' that seemed prevalent. It was perhaps a sharp call to engage more urgently with the world, and perhaps take chances enough to shift ground and leave a deeper sense of themselves within the work.
When Tom Wood produced his first book, Looking for Love, it seemed a concise chapter in the work of a searching, persistent photographer; It was a portrayal of the familiarity and love in a bar: staring, convincing, risking, needing… a drama led by a people from a difficult land. For all its drama, it appeared measured, formally preoccupied. In the photographs, the pain of catharsis was both explicit and inferred. Fights spilled around the frame, never straying within. There was a sense of pressure too, simple flash light holding the urgent exchanges of glances.
Those aware of the photographer's work knew these pictures to be a partial account, one of a number of parallel projects that Wood had nurtured. Beyond the occasional published appearance, there was seemingly no goal, clearly no urgent agenda, but somehow a purpose and an urgency to respond, acknowledge and perhaps understand the lives of the people he lived amongst. There was a close affinity with Sudek, and the wish building a response over time. Then came the search for colour and the gathering of chance and life of the determined street photographer. The omission from Looking for Love seemed to be the wider lives of the people in the pictures. Perhaps as an account of Tom Wood's work, it was abrupt. It is not surprising then, that Photie Man has become a vehicle with which to liberate and realign the familiar and lesser- seen photographs Wood has been making since the early 1970s.
The publications that already exist provide a spine for Photie Man. Images from The bus book, 'All Zones Off Peak', Weinand's oversize 'People' and 'Looking for Love' conspire to become the foundation for more subtle or irreverent images. There is an undercurrent of chance in the selections - a willingness to lose detail and sharpness to gesture, light and mood. The kind of pictures often dismissed because of their untidiness - their technical abrasiveness - bed in against the most refined, tonally beautiful street portraits. It is the challenge to marry these qualities that betrays something of the depth of this book's ambition.
For much of his time on Merseyside, Tom Wood worked with portraiture, photographing on the streets and in the institutions of Liverpool. Portraiture is often a slow, deliberate process, confounded by the transience of the sitter, a temporary closeness. It is a gathering process, and often a poor harvest - yielding on rare occasions the harmonizing of a photographer's sensitivity and a subject's independence. More, it is when something is betrayed. Those few occasions when photography becomes nothing and we are left with people, themselves in the world - shouldering that world. Wood's portraits often show relationships – kinships, family bonds spanning generations or the confusions and knowing of youth. There are the workers, young and old, the mothers and children, the mothers who are still children. The earliest portraits are Black and White, perfectly rendered. They are coupled with colour pictures, a move that somehow extends their reach. For all the busyness and impact of the colour street pictures, there is the clarity of complexion, detail and purpose in the portraits, forever an anchor. Perhaps there are obvious balances too - a child on a bus with her grandfather reaches out to the photographer, in a way that the woman in the previous image, though sharing the same hair and shape, no longer seems able to in her middle age. Yet there are also occasions that constitute a leap of faith. They shouldn't work together, but somehow they do. A middle-aged couple feed a baby in an unkempt park, and over the page a gang of children stand semi-formally after play. A hooded child withdrawn against a city wall reappears as a struggling child in a classroom. It is these bridges across the book that become everything. Photography -perhaps like the city- can be tender and vulgar. Ideas can fail or progress our understanding of how we are. Sometimes, it's enough to try, and (as Beckett suggested) to 'fail better'. Sometimes, it's enough that the pictures are in the world.
Bertien Van Manen, Let's sit down before we go,2011
In a small book covered with slate grey, imperfectly-patterned cloth, Bertien Van Manen has drawn together work made over nearly two decades, on visits to Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and the surrounding regions. Van Manen first relayed her interest in the region in 1994, with the book 'a hundred summers, a hundred winters' which seemed to confirm a sense of the region's condition, whilst, perhaps, catching the tail end of a more 'intimate' kind of photography that had become prevalent through the previous decade.
We recognize relationships that have been established between the photographer and her subjects over time. Van Manen said, some years later, that she had to like people in order to want to photograph them and I'm mindful when I hear this of Louis Faurer, a lesser celebrated friend of Robert Frank, who photographed on the streets of New York for much of the latter half of the 20th century with the difficult but very clear strategy of looking for people who 'despite the city and it's brutal attrition, looked like they still carried hope with them, like they might somehow make it through…'
Van Manen cites both Robert Frank and Nan Goldin – two photographers who each defined a troubled historical moment in America - as one of the reasons she turned away from Fashion photography and began her own more involved and extensive work along personally driven lines. Not for the first time in life - we might say thank god to Robert Frank, this time for sending Bertien on a journey.…
Let's sit down before we go, it seems, is a Russian custom. Before family members leave for a significant journey, they might sit down and contemplate what may come… and of course, this seems a knowing metaphor for the motivations of a photographer who travels a long way from her Dutch home to acknowledge the lives of others.
If there is a departure in this book from the tone in earlier published work, it's perhaps in a more inclusive use of photography. Though the framing of domestic intimacy has always been a part of this photographer's language – with the impulse to embrace or – in an emotional sense - hold onto what is felt rather simply what is seen, there is a new register in this book.
Let's sit down before we go is a collaboration, with the British photographer Stephen Gill playing a key role in the construction of the series as it works on the page. In asking Van Manen to return to the archive and look again at the pictures on contact sheets that she may have rejected at the time - because of imperfections or technical doubts perhaps unacceptable at the time they were made - new work has come to light. And what wonderful new work it is. There's a lesser known story of Cartier-Bresson asking some other Magnum photographers to go through his contact sheets to check he hadn't missed anything - for very little return (Bresson, it seems, had found pretty much everything already). We learn, through conversations outside the book, that Bertien Van Manen chose to visit these countries with cheap, non- professional cameras, which were seen by her subjects as toys or the apparel of a tourist or a friend, and where control or exposure was often compromised in favour of being able to photograph without hesitation, as an extension of the activities she was engaged with.
In Stephen Gill's edit, the 500 or so contact sheets were re-edited and sequenced. Now those pictures rejected because of slight un-sharpness, or the bleaching of basic on camera flash, or the condensation inside a sauna, have come back in play and – with Van Manen trusting Gill's intuition – have formed a rhythmic and colour blessed series far too important to have ever stayed on the contact sheet.
Like the material that clothes the book, there is a sense of the fabric of homes, of the materials that wrap the body – a young woman stands proudly, dressed in a modest floral print. She's surrounded by the patterns of netting, of clothing hanging to air and the patterning of the foliage that diffuses the sun though the window behind her. With pictures modestly sized on the page to show the complete frame within space, the book spread achieves a symmetry through a scene of similar colour, the youthful body now replaced by a cluttered tabletop that carries a valve radio, make up and a small keepsake photograph at the heart of the frame. The small snapshot shows the signs of chemical ageing that betrays the news that photography might be able to keep something, but perhaps not forever.
Whilst talking about such arbitrary mechanics in photographic processes, it would be wrong to overlook the sheer pleasure of the photographer's eye – her dexterity in making so many successful pictures again and again should not be underestimated-and many hold the strength of framing moments of particular joy or exhilaration in ways that leaves me nourished and humbled. This is important work by a great picture maker. From the brevity of a woman's smile as she watches a bird held aloft on the branch of a young man's skinny arm, to the eternity of the process of lives and relationships that we recognize in a line of simple prams set against a nursery wall–we are born, we live, we love…
In November last year, Bertien Van Manen's small show at In Camera gallery, Paris, coinciding with her inclusion at Paris Photo, was a modest yet profound presence amongst the louder, bigger, more aggressive photography that photo fairs often hold.
Small, regularly sized and beautifully printed colour photographs – and, for me and as regularly demonstrated in this beautiful book, some of the most wonderful photographs of women at various stages in their lives that I've seen in a long time.
I was at another photographers house last year and, taking this book off his shelf to look at the inscription (because I'm nosey), I saw that she'd inscribed a note at the front, to the effect that every photographer has perhaps one good book in them that is strong enough, and timely enough to be a true and honest reflection of the photographer's ultimate ambition. Bertien van Manen think's Lets sit down before we go is that book for her… and I think she's probably right.
Michael Schmidt, Waffenruhe, 1987
Waffenruhe, which for me stands amongst the most important photobooks of the last century, begins in a willfully oblique way. A primitive claw-like iron railing, curves out from the frame edge on the cover and first photograph. Isolated against the Berlin sky, this motif primes us for the dark ink-heavy reproductions of walls and brickwork that follow. Whilst the Berlin Wall features, that heavy structure that partitioned Berlin's citizens until the late 1980s, it is a presence rather than a structure simply described. Schmidt, through a mix of observed portraiture of the city's punk youth, urban foliage that grows between grey concrete and at the edges of wasteland and austere symbolism, depicts the essence of a city with freedom and an individual vocabulary that has been much imitated. I remember Paul Graham, who had spent time in Berlin with Volker Heinze and others, presenting a carousel of slides of the book in a classroom in 1988/89, showing each picture in an attempt to convince us that nothing in photography might ever be –or need to be- the same ever again. He was right. Opening up the conversation more generally, we find a lot was going on in Germany at that time. Americans like John Gossage and Eggleston were present and worked there – as did Nan Goldin and, when we remember the films of Wim Wenders (I'm thinking in particular of Wings of Desire) and the performances of the Birthday Party and those others who passed through Berlin throughout that decade, we might come to terms with a kind of photography that was at once austere, exploratory - yet emotionally underpinned. Human experience in a divided city was being mediated through photography, amongst other forms. The book is interrupted half way through by a block of text that sits, wall like, to divide the book. It is typeset as a block, leaving no route through or moment to pause. I have only ever come close to this with Hubert Selby Jr.'s 'Last Exit to Brooklyn', a book that rejected punctuation and the politeness of approved convention to create a stifling and unorthodox account of dramas in an edge-land beyond central New York. Schmidt was lost to us in 2014, after his magnificent _Lebensmittel _seemed to raise the stakes in thinking about food, nourishment or simply the deal we have when trying to function amid the urgencies of economics, nutrition and our access to it. _Waffenruhe _reminds me of a time of frustration and anger – and yes, some of us are still angry… we need to be - but it was a time when some photographers ( - and I'd include Volker Heinze here – as a photographer painfully under represented in most appraisals of German work) managed to make a near perfect meeting of the vernacular, subdued youthful tension and a partitioned City that both compelled and confined. Schmidt's vocabulary, and subsequently that of photography, was shifting at this point. I visited Berlin for a while in the early 2000's and met some German photographers who I had once worked with - and who were now back in the city, making their way well. Tobias Zeilony, who went on to make his own great series 'Story, no story' – its title alluding to a time after the neat conventions of the photo essay - knew the value of the Schmidt work and its singularity. He'd seen a mint copy of the book in a Berlin shop window for a few euro earlier that day and wondered if I wanted it… Whilst he and I both knew the value of the book, for some strange, wonderful reason, the Berlin pedestrian public did not - a state of ignorance for which I am quietly, thankfully and will be eternally grateful.
David Goldblatt, On the Mines,1973
Last autumn, I sat on a discussion panel at a festival as part of an event about photographing 'locally'. A conversation broke out about text, its value and role in photographic work. The flow was dominated by the notion, in certain quarters, that captions were unnecessary (beyond names and dates, perhaps) – they might even be a surrender… shouldn't pictures stand for themselves and be strong enough to define their subject without the intrusion of words? Well, no, not always, I argued – I cited David Goldblatt who, quite rightly, is finally receiving the appreciation he deserves. I've had a long and deep fascination for this photographer's work. It seems he holds a place of singular integrity amongst the wider waves of contemporary practice. His stoicism, his persistent and energetic engagement with South Africa stands as an unrivalled investment in photography and culture. To understand the depth of commitment needed to realize a book like South Africa: The Structure of Things then –to cite just one example- is to recognize the belligerent determination at the heart of Goldblatt's photography. It would be so easy to not have made this work, to stop short of searching to deeply understand and convey the complicated circumstances of modern South African history - their dreadful genesis and complex unfolding over many years. But Goldblatt has persisted, and when we think we have reached the end of that book, another section emerges – one that details the politics, personal histories, dates and details that animate and sensitize the fabric of the photographs even further. Yet if I was to choose a book to show someone, I'd start with an earlier publication, 1973's On the Mines. It is a simple book in many ways – three sections that foreground separate aspects of the mining industry in South Africa and which display both Goldblatt's flexibility and invention as a photographer and simultaneously marks a challenge to those photographers content to endlessly sing a single photographic tune. From long 35mm exposures made in near darkness in the section 'Shaft-sinking' (–using simple steadying techniques he would employ elsewhere on night-buses for the book 'The Transported of the Kwandebele'), to the rigid technical precision of architectural photography, Goldblatt works with great versatility. Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer is a substantial contributor to the book, co-writing the first section and setting out a history for the land and industry in Witwaterstrand, how it was mined and how those who worked as part of the area lived. From listing the expansive territories that men arrived from to work, to noting the music played at social gatherings, it is a detailed but deeply human essay. The pages in the first section establish a format that leaves many left hand pages free for description. Rich information explains and extends our time with the pictures as the tools in a 'boss boy's' pocket, or the stars on his armband have their significance explained. The book is separated in its sections by the middle block, which see the pictures laid out on black ink – perhaps to emphasise the dark environment of underground during shaft sinking, perhaps to acclimatize us to a completely new chapter. These impressionistic scenes, fluid with movement and labouring bodies, are a stark change after the formality of the adjacent sections. The closing section is a series of small and medium format portraits, in which Goldblatt introduces those at all levels of the mines operation. They are all strong pictures, yet quietly refined in their construction and design. It's as if the photographer is intent on gathering and respectfully recording these building blocks of an operation before allowing us to work out, in turn, what those pieces finally mean. Printed in warm-tone ink, the book betrays a lot about the ambition and straightforwardness of some photobook design in Cape town in the 1970s. It's not elaborate, in some ways it is very simple, but it is nevertheless compelling – a setting out of just one small aspect of the incredible and far reaching body of work that David Goldblatt has now become rightly celebrated for.
Peter Mitchell, Memento Mori, 1990
For a brief spell through the later 1980s and early 1990s, photography book publishing in the UK seemed a particularly fertile ground. Cornerhouse, led by Dewi Lewis, progressed a catalogue that defined new developments in a kind of Documentary photography and wider socially engaged parallels. Arts Council funding was generous and supportive, if not widely available - and we might cite the burst of temporary energy that was (- and, to an extent, still is) their UK Photography Collection, as evidence of this. There was a will to offer first time publishing awards and galleries ensured budgets stretched to mark exhibitions in some stable, printed form. On such a wave a number of more singular enterprises found the confidence to commit to print. After the leading independence of Parr and Graham in the mid 1980s, Julian Germain worked to independently produce _Steelwork_s and, in 1990, in a small printers in Otley, Yorkshire, Peter Mitchell printed a book he had both designed and provided the content for, the important but probably under the radar Memento Mori. Both books might be seen as examples of a 'multi-vocal' tendency, in which a core set of photographs are contextualized by other materials that share the illustrative weight–family photographs, cuttings, and scans of relevant objects, texts - even song lyrics by The Smiths, in Germain's case - these allowed different positions and approaches to coalesce, fore-grounding the sense of differing perspectives, of living through multiple histories instead of perpetuating one true, authoritative narrative.
Peter Mitchell's book does something few of its imitators achieved–and many of them have followed, wide-eyed with the freedom the digital age now affords: It works with architecture and the simple collected picture materials of family life, to convey the rise and fall of one high rise block – the Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds-in a manner that weaves human outlook and the lived experiences of its dwellers into its structure so perfectly, that we can't help but feel what it felt like to live through that moment. Perhaps it was Mitchell's interest in design and architecture, perhaps it was his sensibility, growing up in Salford, Manchester before moving to Leeds and becoming committed to its pulse and the education of those passing through the City. As we read the introduction by the philosopher Bernard Crick… as we follow the diary extracts from Mitchell himself, whilst he records the urgency with which he needs to photograph something that will be lost forever (– and the wily ways in which he convinces those who allow him on site to do so). It might be the nagging thought that whilst the demolition is underway, most of the world's eyes focus on the Berlin Wall and shifting circumstances in central Europe. Perhaps it's in the refined, formally rigid, colour-rich interiors, which convey so much of the atmosphere of rooms, their scale and the choices of those who inhabited them. Or perhaps its in the borrowed photographs, fading advertising materials and – and this is always a delight- the tracing paper plans that nestle into the book long before designers began to clip in faux notebooks or letters into book maquettes… In truth it's all of these, as well as the clear sense of Mitchell's 'industry' – his careful and persistent gathering of accounts, events photographs, record pictures and reports. This book, it's integrity and the reasoning of the man who made it, is as solid as Quarry Hill must have felt when it was opened to great acclaim in March 1938. Whilst the flats, which were built on top of the old 19th Century Irish Quarter (- the same area that John Tagg wrote about so articulately in his The Burden of Representation) are long gone, this book remains as, for me, a portent to the great freedoms and complexities we now recognise in contemporary book design and subsequent approaches to narrative – as well as being one of the most important – though shamefully lesser known - responses to the opportunities, spirit and values of working class life in Britain in the 20th Century.
Robert Adams, What we bought: Scenes from the Denver-Colorado Area 1970-74, 2009
During a period of economic growth in the 1960s and '70s, a substantial shift in the commercial geography of Denver and the wider Colorado region began to gather momentum. Encouraged by their employees, who recognised the area's natural beauty and the prospect of a new beginning, a number of businesses, their attendant service industries and communities of labour began to resettle in what Jack Kerouac, writing in On the Road, had called "the promised land" little more than a decade earlier. In 1995, Robert Adams returned to pictures he made throughout this time and worked with curator Thomas Weski to select the 193 photographs that comprise this small, solid and deeply affecting book.
After a spell in California, Robert Adams had returned to Colorado in 1962, to teach English. He would photograph in his free time and, witnessing these migrations, had by 1967 cut his teaching by two-thirds so that his photography might progress. Over an extended period, and against a world unsettled by political unrest in Europe and war in Vietnam, Adams steadily photographed the region and between 1968 and 1974, he produced two books. The New West (1974) and Denver (1977) both held an authority previously found in the survey photography that had marked out the West a century before. Yet there was also something more. These photographs were idiosyncratic, collecting a singular vision borne of reflection, routine and perhaps even isolation.
The book is built upon what seem like contemplative, pedestrian journeys. There is a sense of walking from the edges of towns, through the grasslands, past fly-tips in unkempt peripheries, then moving through the tract housing and low-rise apartment blocks, the flat rectangular factories and arriving at the cavernous shopping areas before returning. The photographs, although diverse in form and freely made, emphasise the monotonies of architecture, the functionality of homes, the uniformity of sizes. Many pictures are spare of immediate drama; foregrounds are empty except for scrubland and concrete highways pave in whole half frames – or seem to show little but the litter that falls from cars and blows, until it is snagged on the slopes at the edges of highways.
The book has been carefully reproduced, so close to the originals that it is possible to understand the effect those six inch-or-so high originals would create when stretched around galleries over recent decades. Diner windows veil dark interiors, welling to black; figures are nearly lost in the shadow of unremarkable buildings, or fading under what Tod Papageorge would later describe, when writing about these pictures, as a light of "virtually nuclear intensity". When he was making the work Adams moved between two cameras.
The rectangle of a more traditional territorial survey initially dominates the book, before the square format becomes a preferred way to photograph the interiors of shops, offices and homes. In retail areas, adults are seen alone and often from a distance. They sit at tables in vast yet mostly empty malls. The square seems appropriate and stifling, offering no sense of how those workers, who have passed through the streets so freely until now, may ever leave the factories, thrift stores or supermarkets of this Colorado town.
The effect of What We Bought is accumulative. Adams writes in the book's introduction of "what we purchased, what we paid and what we could not buy". It's useful to recognise the personal inflection of the book's title, in contrast to the detachment that announced his earlier publications. Perhaps, looking at the work 30 years on, the photographer has allowed an expression of seasoned, slowly realised anger. What many pictures include, though hindered by the hoardings, telegraph poles and trees that Adams clearly shares with Walker Evans, is a sense of the settlement's edge. The photographs seem to map a sense of isolation, even insignificance against the wider America beyond. Gradually it becomes clear that, tucked under the tall, midday skies of this American West, the horizon promises nothing.
Andreas Weinand, Collosal Youth, 2011
I remember once being stuck in a hotel in northern Finland. It was late autumn, in a land where, by that time of the year, the day hardly broke away from night. I'd accepted an invitation to do a talk and sat, quietly regretting it, ahead of a Reindeer supper a long way from the nearest town. As the weekend progressed, a string quartet arrived to dispassionately interpret Beatles songs at the poolside, as we all got slowly drunk into the late afternoon and dipped and sipped between pool and sauna. But you can't be happy forever… and soon word spread that we had all been invited to spend a night in our host's local Jazz club and that a refusal was inappropriate. My presentation, later that weekend was worth going through, if only to listen to the careful and tender thinking of the German photographer, Andreas Weinand, who followed. I did not know Andreas before, but I did recognise a lot of what he described in a quietly spoken, precise and considered presentation. Through the 1980s in Essen Germany, he had photographed his contemporaries and continued - through intensely personal photography – to make work that left him exposed and transparent to an appreciative and emotionally open audience that afternoon. His photographs were striking – forthright and colourful pictures of his contemporaries going through the punk scene of the time, living life with exhilaration, abandon and considerable joy. It was strong work by a strong picture maker that had helped him progress a steady career that most of us outside of Germany would probably be ignorant of. At that time, the work wasn't widely published. It seemed that the moment had gone, that Weinand's pictures would never become a book or find any state of permanence beyond his own substantial archive. Thankfully, a move more recently to Berlin has struck up a relationship with Peperoni books and these pictures are alive on the page for the first time as the book Colossal Youth. In a small edition of 200, this A3 size softbound book is wrapped in a brown cardboard case, labeled with the kind of disc usually reserved for LP vinyl. The pictures are preceded by a list of 16 or so names - those young people who populate the book and carry out the rituals of drinking, coupling, being aggressive, gentle, as they fall drunk behind a sofa or cartwheel naked into the spray of the sea. These pictures veer from the flash-lit detritus of trashed rooms and people, to the single isolated notes of tenderness: a house bird is gently coaxed down from a child's head and, elsewhere, two young men stalk through an overcast field, stooped animal-like and looking into the grass for something lost or edible. As the book reaches its closure, babies have already begun to arrive and the positive joy of new life populates final pictures as young people once without cares start to adapt to the next generation they have brought into the world. Sometimes, photographers do one thing really well and then move on, rarely achieving the intensity in their pictures of the era they have lived through. Andreas has achieved this but still continues to make insightful and graceful work in a new phase of his life. I was glad to have been in Finland, to hear him speak and I'm glad to say I see him each year, never arranged - always by chance, at a photography event somewhere in Europe. Things it seems, for all their ominous signals, can turn out for the best. We went to that Jazz club and stayed till the next morning – as the youthful Jazz student band migrated from sober recitals to 1980s covers of hits I wouldn't usually admit to knowing (but sadly, I surprised myself to find out, I do). They were too frightened to leave the stage (- too fearful to disappoint the now bouncing audience or run the gauntlet of the dancing middle aged women photographers –names deleted here- who are old enough to know better but gladly choose not to…). As that memory recalls, and as this book proves- we survived - and did so long enough to tell someone what it really felt like. Andreas Weinand did too - and that's precious.