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Original author: 
Jeffrey Ladd

As an avid photobook enthusiast I have gone to great lengths to see books that are far out of my reach economically. I have spent countless hours at photobook auction previews just to carefully flip the pages of rarities that will be sold for thousands of dollars. I have no intent to bid or buy, or to check the condition which is the main reason for attending previews. My reasoning is just to experience and gauge my own level of interest (albeit quickly) concerning what are the important titles of photobook history. When so much material is out of reach, one depends almost entirely on the scholars and historians as a guide, but in the end it is all subjective. This is why I am so happy that MACK has succeeded in creating a facsimile edition of the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s 1978 book Kodachrome. On the anniversary of Ghirri’s death, I finally have the chance after so many years to have the opinion that it’s, well, not my cup of tea.

Luigi Ghirri came to photography in 1970 with an interest in the conceptual side drawn from his training. One pursuit was the paradox of photography itself and uniting the real and the artificial, visible and invisible in the single image. Photographs in general, Ghirri believed, whether “art” or advertising, create a vast labyrinth of images to navigate daily through which it is difficult to decoding our true surroundings.

‘The daily encounter with reality, the fictions, the surrogates, the ambiguous, poetic or alienating aspects, all seem to preclude any way out of the labyrinth, the walls of which are ever more illusory… to the point at which we might merge with them… The meaning that I am trying to render through my work is a verification of how it is still possible to desire and face a path of knowledge, to be able finally to distinguish the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life.’

That, for me, is interesting to ponder philosophically but are the works in Kodachrome, in the words of essayist Francesco Zanot, “powerful devices for the re-education of the gaze?” This seems a modest collection through which many things can be projected, but without the textual introductions of the edition laying out the intent, or at least providing guidelines for reading, I don’t see the photographs alone enabling the task. A small handful of the 92 images compel me to try — but most have me grappling just to keep my attention.

The qualities of the photography in Kodachrome call into question for me why this book seems so universally revered among the writers of photobook history. The major developments in color photography in general seem so often boiled down to the Americans “William Eggleston and Stephen Shore,” whereas post-war European color photography books seem to get scant attention — even though one of the first true pioneers of color work was the Danish photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen with his 1948 book 122 Colour Photographs. Then the historical timeline of European photobooks continues along mostly in black and white until 1978 and the publication of Kodachrome? Are there no other landmark books between 1948 and 1978 that could also act as balance to the historical dominance of Eggleston’s color?

Being that I approach most photography, my own and that of others, knowingly comfortable to be trapped within the labyrinth of illusion, aesthetics, style, and photography as the language of metaphor — Kodachrome is a deck stacked against me. It stands as the antithesis to my own practice where the visual component compels you to explore the relationship to the image before you.

Luigi Ghirri’s Kodachrome was reissued by MACK in November, 2012. Twenty-five vintage color prints from the series were recently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

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

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In photography, “the road trip,” especially by car around the United States, has been a right of passage for many photographers. Embarking on a fourteen-month world tour however is a bit less common, but that ambitious challenge was taken on in 1959 by the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken and his wife Gerda. The resulting photographs would turned into one of the most epic Dutch photobooks ever produced, The Sweet Life.

Ed van der Elsken

Ed van der Elsken photographing his exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1966.

Van der Elsken secured the much needed financing for the trip through contracts to make a series of films enroute for Dutch television and at the Royal Dutch Shipowners Association (KNRV), where Elsken and his wife would be provided first class passage on merchant vessels. In exchange, van der Elsken was to make a short film about the merchant navy that would be a present to Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. Additional funding came from Gerda van der Elsken who wrote a series of articles about their adventures for Dutch magazines illustrated by her husband’s photographs. On Aug. 22, 1959 they sailed for Africa.

Their travels would cover West Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States and Mexico. Van der Elsken found his stride photographing in the streets of each major city or backwater; “When I’m working I get up fairly early, cup of coffee, camera, check if the film’s alright, any dust…then I set off to see what I can find. Hunting for luck, hoping I’ll come across people who excite me…I let them know with my eyes and facial expressions what I am doing, that it’s okay, that I mean no harm – and I don’t.” In all he would shoot more than 5,000 pictures, and by the time of their return to the Netherlands on Sept. 19, 1960, they were both completely exhausted and their money had just run out.

If the scope of the trip wasn’t enough of an exhausting (albeit exciting) experience, the ordeal to get Sweet Life published as a book would be frustrating and even more exhausting. Upon his return van der Elsken immediately set to work printing, editing, sequencing and designing a book he thought at first to call Crazy World. After four years of work there were still no book publishers interested that would take the risk on bringing his world project to print yet Elsken continued to rearrange and improve the edit and layout. He employed various improvised means to shape the material including hand drawn “storyboards,” cut up photo prints, variant printing techniques, extreme croppings, images bled to the paper edge, and double-spread pages that linked separate images into a run-on panoramics. Additionally, van der Elsken wrote 26 pages of extensive captions for each of the images with stories of experiences in a hipster voice that recalls the lyrical styling of Kerouac and Ginsberg.

*SWEET LIFE* – sweet and sour, sweet and bitter. Who am I to spout about life, love, happiness? About whether all’s right with the world, or whether it’s just a vale of tears, so store up your treasures for heaven. I think it’s unbelievable, fabulous, this life of ours – everything, the birds and the bees, the dear and the antelope, the spacious skies, the foggy dew, the rockabye babies. Men like John F. and Robert Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Georges Brassens, Fidel Castro, Pope John XXIII. My wife’s embrace, a landing on the moon, space, time, eternity. I don’t understand one damn thing about any of it, except that it’s enough to keep me in a constant delirium of delight, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.

© Katholieke Illustratie

Article in Katholieke Illustratie #39 from 1959 announcing the departure of Ed van der Elsken and Gerda on their world tour.

Finally in 1965, Andreas Landshoff a friend of van der Elsken’s who had ties to the American publisher Harry N. Abrams, persuaded Abrams and several other publishers into co-publish an edition that would appear in seven different countries (with seven different covers!) totaling 17,000 copies in all – a huge number of copies for a photography title. Borrowing the name from a tramp steamer they traveled upon in the Philippines, the book’s title became Sweet Life. During its printing, van der Elsken stood next to the presses in Japan and ordered the black ink to be applied as heavily as possible resulting in the dense and contrasty gravure images far blacker than his original prints achieved.

Today, for historians and those lucky enough to see a copy firsthand, Sweet Life is admired and celebrated for its cinematic energy, raw style, and gritty in-your-face design reminiscent of another masterpiece, William Klein’s Life is Good & Good for You in New York. What Klein’s New York and Robert Frank’s The Americans did for the genre of ‘personal’ documentary of one country, van der Elsken’s ambitions took on the world.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Errata Editions is featuring Sweet Life in its Books on Books series this month.

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