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Jeffrey Ladd

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Jeffrey Ladd

The artistic collaboration between Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin has spanned over two decades since their beginnings working as photographers for Tibor Kalman’s Colors magazine in the early 1990s. Using a wide variety of means, their practice, which has often concerned itself with how history and current events are perceived through images, reevaluates and challenges the classic ideas of photography as a tool for documenting the social condition. Broomberg and Chanarin have authored ten books including Trust (2000), Ghetto (2003), Chicago (2006) and People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011). Their latest book project Holy Bible is being released this month by MACK.

Jeffrey Ladd: Can you talk a bit about this current book project Holy Bible? Had it evolved from your recent work War Primer 2 which is a modern reinterpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer) from 1955?  

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: When we were researching Brecht’s work in Berlin we stumbled across his personal copy of the Holy Bible. It caught our attention because it has a photograph of a racing car glued to the cover. It’s a remarkable thing, and in retrospect, seeing and handling this object definitely planted the seed for this book. Just like the War Primer, our illustrated bible is broadly about photography and it’s preoccupation with catastrophe. Brecht was deeply concern about the use of photographs in newspapers. He was so suspicious of press images that he referred to them as hieroglyphics in need of deciphering or decoding. We share this concern. Images of conflict that are distributed in the mainstream media are even less able to affect any real political action now then they ever were.

An essay by Adi Ophir called Divine Violence is reproduced in an epilogue to Holy Bible. How did you come to this particular essay? 

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin—Courtesy MACK

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin—Courtesy MACK

Holy Bible, 2013

If you read the Old Testament from cover to cover, you notice very quickly that God reveals himself through acts of catastrophe, through violence. Awful things keep happening: a flood that just about wipes out most of his creation, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra – we constantly witness death on an epic scale and the victims hardly ever know what they have done to deserve such retribution. Adi reflects on this theme of catastrophe in a really interesting way that connects with our modern lives. He concludes:

“States that tend to imitate God benefit from disasters… even when they cannot claim to be their authors, because any such disaster may serve as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency, thus reclaiming and reproducing the state’s total authority. And when earthly powers imagine that they can take His place in the divine economy of violence, faith may provide resistance but no shelter. It is not God’s response to human sins but sheer human hubris that might bring the world to its end.”

This extract from his book, Two Essays on God and Disaster, became a philosophical and political map for the whole project. We felt lucky that he permitted us to publish it, as it’s previously only appeared in Hebrew. We’re going to badly paraphrase his argument, but Ophir suggests that the Old Testament is essentially a parable for the growth of modern governance (God eventually chooses his people, issues them with a set of commandments and punishes them when those are broken). At the same time, he points out that when his laws are broken, he meters out the most radical, unimaginably violent punishments. So this reading of the Bible suggests a contract we are all silently and forcibly bound into with the modern state and our naïve acceptance of the harsh punishments the state meters out; prison, the death sentence, a war on drugs, on terror… The camera has always been drawn to these themes, to sites of human suffering. Since it’s inception it has been used to record and also participate in catastrophic events. Catastrophe and crisis are the daily bread of news.

Is it possible any longer in your opinion to provide images directly with a camera from war or natural catastrophes that are not in some way undermined by this?

We both believe that events still need to be witnessed and documented. But what happens when those images of suffering are turned into currency, into entertainment/ Recently we were asked to give a presentation of our book, War Primer 2, which contains some of the infamous Abu Ghraib torture images. We had a moment of concern regarding the copyright of these images and did some research into the reproduction rights. It shocked us to discover that most of these well-known torture images are syndicated by the Associated Press. When we approached AP before we gave a public lecture showing the material, they requested that we pay £100 per image per presentation. How is it possible that those images have become currency? We must owe them hundreds of thousands of dollars by now.

Photographs are essentially mute in telling the “who, what, why, when, where of journalism without a caption and where simple gestures are read, properly or not, as a kind of photographic “shorthand” – what responsibilities do you feel a contemporary journalist with a camera has in bringing images to the public? 

Is there still such a thing as a contemporary journalist with a camera? Anybody with a telephone could pass for one. And the world, particularly war zones, are littered with cameras. Soldiers, insurgents, civilians, even weapons — all have cameras attached to them. The so-called professional journalist must contend with all these other forms of witness. We have engaged with so-called war zones and skirted around the parameters of violence. But we’re cowards and have always kept back from any real prolonged danger. The Tim Hetherington’s and Chris Hondros’s of this world are a different breed. Our role, is to instead think about how images produced in the theater of human suffering are consumed; the individual response to such images. We only went to conflict zones to explore these ideas, never to responsibly document any specific war.

How did you come to decide to use the Archive of Modern Conflict for gathering images as opposed to using many sources? Was there a method you applied to sifting through AMC since it contains vast amounts of material? How did you approach such a task?

The Archive of Modern Conflict is a weird place — a lot of that comes through in our book. Officially it’s an archive that spans the history of the medium and concentrates on images of conflict. Looking through the thousands of images at the AMC, the narrative that unfolds is not at all a straightforward account of war. It’s an extremely personal and very idiosyncratic one; an unofficial version of the history of war.

One shelf contains hundreds of personal albums of Nazi soldiers. We see moments of intimacy between men — we see them kissing their wives goodbye, hugging their children and then fooling around with their friends. These images run counter to the narrative we can morally cope with. We’re not used to seeing Nazi’s displaying human traits; showing tenderness, emotion, desire. Our days at the archive sifting through all this material was difficult. So many dead people. It’s depressing. But somehow we discovered a lot of humor, too. In particular, a large collection of photographs of magic tricks became a running motif through the book. We always pair these delightful images with the phrase, “And it came to pass,” which appears again and again like a form of punctuation throughout the text.

Words as image (I am thinking of work on the Egyptian surrealists), or texts integrated into the images, have played a part in your practice. In this work had the underlined fragments found on the bible pages come first and then the images paired?

Our only intervention is to underline phrases on each page to add an image. Pick up any old Bible and you might see similar notations. There is a long history of this. But we wanted to avoid a purely illustrative relationship between words and images, so at times the connection is quite oblique. Anybody reading through will be able to make their own connections.

The scope of your practice has extended beyond making images in fairly traditional ways (working as creative directors at Colors magazine) to including appropriated images from archives and exploring different narrative styles. How has this shaped (and evidently challenged) your notions of photography?

We’ve always been more interested in the ecosystem in which photography functions rather then in the species itself; more intrigued by the economic, political, cultural and moral currency an image has then in the medium. We’re fascinated by how images are made but also how they are disseminated, and how that effects the way they are eventually read. Photographs are the most capricious objects — way less faithful then words. They can’t be trusted. So we need to be on guard just looking at them, never mind making them. We still take photographs, however. It’s just that we don’t radically discriminate between images we take and those that we find. We’re equally mistrusting of both.

As collaborators, you have worked both in books and exhibitions in a certain degree of success where many of your projects work well in both forms. You have also started your own small imprint Chopped Liver Press. I was wondering if you have a preference for the intimacy of books over the public exhibitions?

The definition of ‘book’ is undergoing a radical transformation. Far from becoming obsolete, the book — particularly the photo book — is experiencing a new lease of life. They speak to us. They turn their own pages. They update themselves. They have been de-materialized. Chopped Liver Press emerged as a response to this. We make handmade books in our studio. Very limited runs. When they are gone, that’s it. For War Primer 2, however, we produced two versions, a handmade edition of just 100 copies that was instantly sold out, and an e-book version that was freely available and continues to be downloaded. The code that powers these digital books is limited. But there’s great potential for intimacy.

I understand you are both artists and your role is bringing thoughtful art and ideas to the table and where it leads after is not really your business. But, is there any frustration in the thought that these ideas or philosophies get trapped by the “art world” in which they are presented and the world of philosophy (another comparatively small arena)?

We are more interested in the world than the art world, which is exactly why we are so honored to have this conversation with you.

Holy Bible is being published by MACK in June 2013.

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

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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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The photographic voice of the English photographer Stephen Gill always has a playfully inventive ring. His book ‘Hackney Wick’ (Nobody, 2005), named after an area in east London where the photographs were made, is comprised of pictures taken with a cheap plastic lens camera he bought at a flea market in Hackney Wick for 50 pence. For his book ‘Hackney Flowers’ (Nobody, 2007) he gathered plants, flowers, and seeds, arranging the material over photographs (which he then re-photographed) — creating complex dimensional collage. For other series, he has buried prints to “allow the place itself to imprint upon the images through decay or markings;” or placed objects and creatures inside his camera creating images akin to in-camera “photograms” as seen in his book ‘Outside In’ (Photoworks, 2010).

So when the Centre National de L’Audiovisuel in Luxembourg commissioned Gill to create a new body of work and a book responding to an industrial wasteland that is the remains of the steel-making industry in the city of Dudelange, it seemed to be a perfect fit for an artist who is known to physically integrate the surroundings into the process and final results of his work. Gill’s newest book Coexistence has just been co-published by the Centre National de L’Audiovisuel and Gill’s own book imprint Nobody.

Concentrating on a pond that had once been used to cool the factory blast furnaces as recently as 2006, Gill became curious about the newly forming microscopic communities of life that would be returning and flourishing. As he writes in the afterword to ‘Coexistence’; “For eight months leading up to my first visit to the territory, my mind increasingly started tuning into the microscopic worlds within worlds, and I became ever more aware of the many parallels between patterns and process in the pond and those in our own lives as individual humans within societies…Slowly I became committed to the idea of attempting to bring these two apparently disparate worlds — so physically close yet so different in scale – visually closer together.”

In order to draw these two worlds together Gill employed the use of a medical microscope from the University of Luxembourg and a pail of water scooped from the pond. With the microscope, he studied and photographed the miniscule creatures and plant life. Carrying around the pail of water, he would dunk his underwater camera into it prior to making portraits of residents he met in Dudelange. The results, page after page, have your mind jumping back and forth between the recognizable and the indistinguishable — the scientific and the conceptual.

One might be tempted to dismiss Gill’s strategies as gimmicks were it not for the immediate beauty and complexity of the images. Admittedly this writer has questioned his cleverness, on occasion, as “the idea” dominating the actual content (dipping prints into the pond water to transfer life onto the surface of the paper), but I find the two approaches to image making here flow together into the ‘tapestry’ that Gill expresses as his intent.

With its gold foil stamped titles and speckled book block edge, ‘Coexistence’ is handsomely made to resemble a leather, quarter-bound, reference book that might be seen sitting aside Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. That is, after all, the ultimate metaphor here – the primordial sludge finding its footing and slipping seamlessly into society.

Stephen Gill is a British photographer based in London.

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

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Love makes people do strange things. The history of mankind is rife with love producing illogical and oddball behavior. When it comes to photography, falling in love with the medium is hardly an exception. For example, someone painfully shy might find themselves impulsively photographing strangers without asking for permission. Or, they instinctively photograph something without any ability to later explain why. Alec Soth’s newest book Looking for Love, 1996 is, in its way, about both—the search for love guided by the heart and the search of love guided by the eye.

Soth, a Minnesota native, came to national attention in 2004 after his project Sleeping by the Mississippi was featured at the Whitney museum during its Biennial exhibition and consequently released in book form by the prestigious German publisher Steidl to critical acclaim. Rapidly thrust into the worlds of art and commerce he followed up his debut with equally strong and provocative bookworks: Niagara (2006), Dog Days Bogota (2007) and Broken Manual (2010). Looking for Love, 1996 (Kominek Books, 2012) is a look to the past at his early beginnings as a photographer working with black and white film and a medium format camera.

In his brief introduction to the work Soth describes that time as one of working a miserable job (printing photos at a large commercial lab) and retreating to a bar to be comforted by “the solitude I found among strangers.” He began to concentrate on his own pictures, slyly using the lab to make prints which he smuggled, concealed under his jeans, out to his car. He writes of imagining one day “a stranger would fall in love with me.”

The first photographs of couples we encounter in Looking for Love cling possessively to their partners and leer at Soth’s camera as if to ask, “this is mine, where is yours?” While his journey takes us through the outside landscape and various social gatherings—the aforementioned bar; a convention hall that seems to bridge religion, spirituality and dating under one roof; poker games; singles parties; high school proms—we can sense a young photographer eager to hone his photographic instincts for metaphor and craving the fruits of collaboration between artist, medium and world. A photo of a flirtatious blonde cheerleader sits on the opposite page of a lone, slightly gothic teen outside a music club. The prom king and queen stand proudly before an auditorium empty but for a few hidden background observers and a basketball court scoreboard. An older man sits phone to ear at a ‘Psychic Friends Network’ booth while a quaffed blonde with a #1 ribbon pinned to her lapel passes by paying no mind. Alongside the underlying melancholy of some of these pictures is also the excitement of a photographer discovering their talent and seeing an affirmation of life stilled in photographs.

That affirmation makes the parting photograph all the more important. In it we see Soth himself sitting sprawl-legged in a rental tuxedo as if his own prom has just ended. Perhaps it had. I hope the love he may have found, lasts.

Looking for Love, 1996 is available from Kominek Books.

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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For the past five years, Kassel Germany has been home to the most important annual forum on the world of photography books, the International Fotobook Festival. This year, with the Documenta exhibition taking over the city of Kassel, the Le Bal photography museum in Paris hosted the Fifth International Fotobook Festival from April 20 – 22.

The festival is a weekend full of artist lectures, book exhibitions, booksellers and publishers showcasing their most recent offerings, portfolio reviews and awards for the “best” photobooks from the previous year. For photographers hoping to find interest in their yet-to-be-discovered book projects, the main attraction of the Kassel Festival is its “photobook dummy” competition for the best unpublished photobook mock-up. The first place winner receives a publishing contract with the German publisher Seltmann und Sohne. The second and third place winners receive several hundred euros worth of credit from the print-on-demand service Blurb.

This year, the dummy competition was between fifty-eight books culled from over five hundred entries, ranging from very roughly hand-made objects to the most finely polished in editing sequencing, design and printing. All books selected are tethered to tables and prominently displayed, encouraging visitors to leaf through them and discover new talents. On Saturday, a small panel of experts in the field convened in the closed galleries to passionately argue their opinion and decide on the three winners. This year’s panel included; Gerry Badger (Critic, Photographer, London), Todd Hido (Photographer, USA), Dieter Neubert (International Photobook Festival, Kassel), Laurence Vecten (Lozen Up, Paris), Oliver Seltmann (Publisher, Berlin), Diane Dufour (Director Le Bal, Paris), Andreas Müller-Pohle, European Photography, Berlin), Markus Schaden (Bookseller, Publisher, Cologne) and Sebastian Hau (Le Bal Books, Paris).

And the envelopes please…

Courtesy of Andrea Botto

From Andrea Botto's book, 19.06_26.08.1945

Third place went to Andrea Botto and his book 19.06_26.08.1945. Created in the memory of his grandfather Primo Benedetti, the book traces his journey through Northern Germany to his home in Tuscany after being released from a Nazi prisoner of war camp on June 19, 1945. Botto’s approach was to compile images from the internet by searching dates in tandem with the names of cities through which her grandfather passed. Pages of historical images are combined with 1:1 scale personal documents and letters sent to his family during his imprisonment. The resulting book feels as if the reader has discovered an encyclopedia of war filled with tender personal documents slipped between its pages.

Courtesy of Carmen Catuti

From Carmen Catuti's book MICHELLE (Best Wishes from 18,500m High. MICHELLE).

The second place winner is much harder to pin down in a few words. Liebe Grüße aus 18500m Höhe, MICHELLE (Best Wishes from 18,500m High. Michelle) from the Italian photographer Carmen Catuti is about a man who calls himself Michelle and says he’s a professional model. Catuti photographed her subject as he wished to be photographed according to his own conceptions “as a modern man” posing among arrangements of trees and shrubbery, cleanly drawn from darkness by flash. Mixed in are very brief texts, possibly letters from Michelle challenging the collaboration; “Plain backgrounds are often too boring. A picture must immediately be elegant, exciting and original.” This book is a U.F.O. (Unique Foto Object?) and the world of photobooks needs more sightings like this.

The top honors for the 2012 Photobook Dummy Award went to a remarkable body of work from Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer and their collaborative book Passengers. During a residency in Poland in the winter of 2011-2012, Keller and Wittwer were initially looking to start a project photographing Socialist architecture but discovered instead a tangential subject: a bus station in Kielce and its passengers awaiting departure within dozens of regional buses. Framing their subjects from outside, looking in through the frost and mist of the bus windows, the couple photographed individually but combined the results into a sequence of images that seem to have a completely unified voice. Calling upon the long traditions of portraiture and documentary style work, the images are stunningly intimate and beautiful but without the trap of sentimentality.

Congratulations to the winners! I find it refreshing that a majority of the winners from the past two years have been women. The history of the photobook, as written, is remarkably male-heavy. These contest results point toward a new horizon that may very well restore some balance.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his photo book blog 5B4 here.

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For the past five decades the photographer Danny Lyon has produced a mix of documentary photographs and film – both politically conscious and personal. As the artist turns 70 this year, a new exhibition called The World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs will celebrate his lengthy career at the Menil Collection in Houston from March 30 to July 29.

In the early 1960s when many photographers where working the poetry of the streets and snubbing their noses at the tradition of “photojournalism,” Lyon embraced both the lyrical potential of photography as well as its ability to raise awareness to current political issues. Some of his earliest images as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) documenting the civil rights demonstrations against segregation in the South (later published in the book The Movement) made their way into the mainstream press and also onto SNCC posters and brochures. “My camera was my entrance into another world…I had the rare privilege to see history firsthand.”

The Menil Collection has played an important role in Lyon’s career as it was one of the first institutions to acquire his prints as early as 1974 and the Collection currently holds 246 of his photographs. “Addie and Ted de Menil [Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter Snow] made a large contribution of my work to the Collection, and that morphed into this larger show,” Lyons said of the exhibition. The photographer’s cousins Leon and Ginette Henkin also gave the Collection 20 vintage prints that Lyons had given to the them in the sixties and early seventies. The World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs will consist of approximately 45 photographs covering his career from 1962 to the present including recent montages and his Polaroid albums which have never been shown.

Lyon lived in East Texas and Houston for 14 months while photographing within Texas prisons. This work would eventually be published in his 1969 book Conversations With the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life, with the letters and drawings of Billy McCune #122054. Lyon’s virtually unrestricted access to several prisons and their inmates went as far as conceiving the idea of having his book printed by the inmates working in the Huntsville prison print shop. The fruit of this idea, a smaller and necessarily less ambitious book of 15 images called Born to Lose (printed by Don Moss #150590 and with layout and lithography by ‘Smiley’ Renton #189994 and Ed Carlock #192204) will also be on display in this exhibition at the Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil started their collection in 1945, focusing on European painting and American contemporary works including Minimalism and Pop Art. The collection holds nearly 16,000 works of art. “I met Dominique when she was a teacher in Houston,” Lyon recalls. “She knew of my work in the prisons and helped me get art supplies to Billy McCune. In 1974, Mrs. de Menil was one of the first to ever purchase prints from me, and then in 1975 paid for the making of my film Los Ninos Abandonados. She handed me a check and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’” Los Ninos Abandondos is a film about street children in Colombia which has been recently been digitally restored and will be shown at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts as a companion piece to this show.

Los Niños Abandonados (1975) – Restored 2012 (Trailer) from Watchmaker Films on Vimeo.

“Dominique de Menil said to me many years ago that there was always something ‘happy and sad’ in my photographs,” Lyon says. “The announcement card shows a man gleaning coal walking down a long and sad railroad track. It could have been taken in America during the Depression, but it was made in China four years ago as part of my Phaidon book Deep Sea Diver. The hymn The World is Not My Home is a sad one, but it also implies an existential relationship to life and the world around us.”

Danny Lyon is an American photographer. He blogs at this address (http://dektol.wordpress.com) where he posts his current work with the Occupy movement, and more of his work can be seen here on his website. The above photographs are from the show The World Is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs, on view at the Menil Collection in Houston, March 30 – July 29. 

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

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In the digital age, touching the work of established photographic masters can be sensitive business. Recently a Swedish artist named Sanna Dullaway applied her colorizing skills to several historical photographs that included Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of an on-the-spot execution of a Vietcong on the streets of Saigon. The debate surrounding these modified versions was whether the interpretation was an improvement that could somehow be more powerful emotionally—due to addition of a color palette and the ability to reach newer generations who disconnect when they see black and white images—or simple vandalism.

The artist Pavel Maria Smejkal in his Fatescapes series took his appropriation of historical images one step further by digitally removing the people from images such as Nick Ut’s photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack and the aforementioned Adams image. By leaving only the landscapes or streetscapes to play on our subconscious memory of historical places and events, he questions the limitations of a photograph’s accuracy at the representation of history.

Perhaps the most provocative example in terms of potential copyright infringement is when the artist Sherrie Levine re-photographed some of Walker Evans’ famous images from the 1930s Farm Security Administration project and presented them unaltered and with her name (the series was called After Walker Evans). Many viewers were outraged. Her act called into question many issues regarding a photograph’s author, copyright (Legally the FSA photographs are owned by the American public, which financed the project so there is no copyright infringement case that could be brought against Levine) and the portrayal of the poor. To some it was Art, but to others, it amounted to Blasphemy.

After Evans, Robert Frank may well be the most influential photographer the medium has seen. Frank’s book The Americans, published in the United States by Grove Press in 1959, was equally celebrated and reviled for its view of the U.S. and its citizenry. Today there is hardly a contemporary photographer who does not acknowledge that Frank accomplished greatness while photographing America for two years on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Americans hasn’t escaped its own touches with appropriation. In his newest bookwork Less Américains, London-based artist Mishka Henner takes his humorous title from the French Edition of Frank’s book Les Américains, published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris. By scanning and applying Photoshop to Frank’s images, Henner has proceeded to remove most of the vital subject matter from all 83 photographs—leaving only small details hovering around the frame like background props on an empty theater stage.

Of course, as the title suggests, Less Américains does away with the “Americans” in Frank’s photographs so all that remains, for example, of the Hoboken City Fathers are a line of hats and some political bunting hanging on a two-by-four. And what has been spared in the most famous of all New Orleans street car picture which so perfectly expressed the implied race hierarchy of Jim Crow in the United States? A few vague, unidentifiable shapes that sit within the frame like mismatched puzzle pieces. To quote Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction to the American edition of Frank’s book, “The humour, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures (!)” linger like a ghost in these secondary elements.

Less Américains includes an introduction by the artist Elisabeth Tonnard that takes the form of a concrete poetry version of Kerouac’s prose. Tonnard’s approach was to systematically white-out the individual letters A.M.E.R.I.C.A.I.N.S. from Kerouac’s text, leaving an incomprehensible soup of vowels and consonants. His “…basketa pittykats…” becomes the even more cryptic “…B k t p tty-k t …”

Well, what can we make of Henner’s reworking of this masterpiece? I think Kerouac said it best: “What poem this is, what poems can be written about this book of pictures some day by some young new writer high by candlelight bending over them describing every grey mysterious detail.”

Less Américains was published earlier this year.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Visit his blog here.

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The thread that links much of the Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen’s work is her portrayal of the seemingly small, undramatic moments of everyday life.

It might be a photograph of friends sitting and sharing a drink or a deceptively simple photograph of a family snapshot sitting on a bureau, but the weight of much of her imagery lays in the perception of a connection her subjects. Van Manen’s professional beginnings were in fashion but after a photographer friend introduced her to the photographs of Robert Frank and other artists, she pursued a more personal direction with her work. “Both Robert Frank and Nan Goldin have inspired me, especially the directness and closeness to the subject they have. I have to like the people I photograph,” she has said. The seemingly casual language of her photographs stems from her use of automatic, non-professional cameras. “Traveling with expensive Leicas or Nikons in Russia at that time was asking for trouble,” she says. “They considered my cameras as toys… and they did not feel threatened by them, they considered me as a tourist or friend, who liked to take pictures.” What might be seen at first to be “flaws” to the images—a light leak bleeding in from an edge, imperfect focusing or flash burn from the on-camera flash—give way to the perception of Manen’s impulses to grab at what she sees before her, physically hold it, or more accurately as felt in the pictures, to embrace it.

For her first book, A Hundred Summers A Hundred Winters, published in 1994, van Manen traveled all over the former Soviet Union for more than three years photographing daily life. “I did not focus on poverty,” she says. “But the average living conditions are, of course, poorer than in the West. On the other hand I did not try to show happiness and lightheartedness where it does not exist.” Looking past the living conditions, one notices much of what is happening in van Manen’s images takes place in the sitting rooms, bedrooms or over kitchen tables where people gather to talk or get to know one another. The photos exude warmth, without judgment and with a keen eye for the unexpectedly beautiful. In one photograph from Kazakhstan, a perfectly stacked pyramid of silver metal bowls left to dry on a kitchen counter mimic the tiles on the wall behind. In another from Moldavia, golden brown loaves of bread line sets of white shelves while a man in uniform and Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder seems to stand guard.

Van Manen’s 2006 book Give Me Your Image focused her attention on family photographs she discovered in homes she visited while traveling in Europe. She photographed them where they were found or at times would place them among other objects creating impromptu still-lifes. “It was exciting to walk through the homes with a portrait, looking for the perfect place to put it,” she said. “I tried not to think and just follow my intuition. This sometimes gave surprising results, like the lady in Rome, who started crying when I put the image of her dead son in a corner, in front of a little cabinet that he always had treasured and that was all she still had of him.”

Bertien van Manen’s latest book, Let’s Sit Down Before We Go, published by Mack Books, is a collaboration of sorts. Titled after the habit of having Russians sit for a moment before a long journey to think about where they will be going and why, van Manen’s book came into being after a lengthy pause of its own. After revisiting some of the contact sheets from her work from the former Soviet Union shot between 1991 and 2009, van Manen sent some scans of a new edit of images to the British photographer Stephen Gill for his opinion. Gill in turn asked to see all of the raw material represented on the 500+ contact sheets and proceeded to make not only a selection of pictures but sequence them as well. Van Manen trusted his instincts. “I decided to stay with his selection and sequence, happy with the dynamic yet subtle repetition and rhythm of images and the combination of colors,” he says. “They are in complete accordance with my idea about the content of the album.”

Gill’s edit favors many images that were left on the contact sheets due to unsharpness or overexposure and in preparing the images for the book they were not corrected, in fact much the opposite. “Stephen had encouraged us to push to extreme results,” van Bertien says. “I was there for some days in the Lake District, with Rob Sara in his darkroom, while he was printing these images. For instance, working on the second print in the book, we held back the face of the baby even more.” The results leave the baby almost without detail – a glowing mass upended and swinging from a man’s arms.

When van Manen speaks of her books, she uses the word “album” frequently. An album, a family album in particular, makes little claim for aspiring to great art. Its purpose seems to be our desire to access memory, history, personal feelings (both good and bad) and perhaps even serve as proof of our existences. There is a shorthand of language in the gestures, faces that can be universal even if we do not know who is in the picture. Her work seems familiar because it is art that slyly poses as photographs that could sit alongside our own memories in such an album. It is such that we can feel the gift of the company Bertien van Manen keeps.

Let’s Sit Down Before We Go was recently published by Mack Books.

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

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“Produced in the early 1980s in Britain, Beyond Caring shows the interiors of unemployment offices and the large crowds of people waiting for their appointments. The offices, we are told in the essay by David Chandler, had been designed to deal with up to 600,000 people, and they were completely overwhelmed by the millions of people asking for help. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said - a sentiment mirrored across the Atlantic by the American right’s mantra that “government is the problem.” Regardless of whether we agree on these sentiments or not, they have serious consequences, and Beyond Caring shows some of those consequences.” - Joerg Colberg

http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com

Paul Graham: Beyond Caring
Essays by David Chandler, Jeffrey Ladd
104 pages, Errata Editions, 2011

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