Category: Exhibitions & Books

Sleeping by the Mississippi – Book

Once again, without really thinking about it, I find myself drawn back to and influenced by American photographers.  In this case it is Alec Soth and his book “Sleeping by the Mississippi” which has just been republished in a new edition by Mack.

It had not really occurred to me before when I first became aware of his work (I think as a result of a mention in Charlotte Cotton’s book) but it is now obvious to me the debt he owes to Robert Frank and Walker Evans.  Their books, particularly Frank’s, record road trips.  What is strikingly different about Soth’s road trip is though that rather than moving along an East/West axis, he travelled from North to South through the MidWest  which is, for me at least, a very different way of looking at the country.  It is also a part of the country with which I am not at all familiar having never been to that part of the world before, apart from an enforced layover in Minneapolis once as a result of Hurricane Bob many years ago.

Another thing that really appealed to me was the fact that Soth shot this using a large format, 8 x 10, camera – not the sort of kit you would normally associate with a road trip and such subtle and intimate pictures as he took.  As I have ranted on elsewhere, there is clearly still an artistic role to be played by film!

Although many of his images are unsettling, uncomfortable, and occasionally even ugly, and though there is a lot of pain in them, loss and loneliness, this is nevertheless beautiful book and a joy to flip through.  And despite the apparent simplicity of many of the scenes has has depicted there is below the surface a lot of complexity and each time I go back to some of his pictures I find more and more new things.

Soth, A, (2017).  Sleeping by the Mississippi.  London:  Mack.

Tony Ray-Jones: American Colour 1962-1965 – Book

I bemoaned in an earlier post the fact there is so little of Tony Ray-Jones’s work that is still in print (Only in England – Exhibition) so I was delighted to come across this book from a publisher previously unknown to me, Mack Books.  How I missed them is beyond me as they publish a small but interesting and challenging range of books, including some from well known artists.  I discovered them by chance when I learned that they are going to republish Alec Soth’s brilliant book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which seems otherwise to be available only at second hand prices that would make your hair stand on end!  (http://www.mackbooks.co.uk)

Anyway, this book is fabulous.  I was aware that Ray-Jones had spent some time in America and that he had shot there in colour but I had never before seen any of this work so this was quite a revelation, otherwise being familiar only with his later work in black and white once he had returned to the UK.  The hallmarks of his later work are all there – the clever compositions that look as if they have been dashed off but are actually very carefully considered, the probing but still sympathetic eye – but all in glorious colour, lovely rich but never garish colour.

I flipped through all the pictures first before reading the introduction (it is not a very big book) and was not surprised, having done so, then to read that Robert Frank in particular was a clear influence on his work at the time – The Americans had been published only a few years earlier.  Some of these pictures could easily be by Frank, were it not for the colour.  Others are clearly direct homages to Frank but the colour at least brings something new and individual to certain scenes that are already familiar from Frank’s work.

Lovely stuff!  There is clearly a lot more of Ray-Jones’s work in the National Media Museum archives (now swallowed up by the maw of the Science Museum?) and I for one can only hope that more of it will see the light of day.  But what are the chances?

Frank, R (2016).  The Americans.  Göttingen: Steidl

Ray-Jones, T, (2013).  American Colour 1962-1965.  London: MACK

Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography – Book

It has taken me a while to work my way through this book (which oddly is listed in the course reference material as both “Essential Reading” and “Recommended”!) taking it in in just small chunks, more by accident than design.  In retrospect I feel that this was perhaps the better way to approach it, giving it time and space to sink in.  I was initially expecting a conventional, chronological history, but it is more interesting and richer than that, concentrating more on a thematic and conceptual approach.  From the viewpoint of questions of aesthetics I think that Shore’s book is much more helpful, but this book has much more to say about the social issues, and social impacts of various approaches to photography.

The subtitle of the book is “How photography has changed our lives” but it strikes me that this is a bit of hyperbole tacked on by a copy editor.  It is not a phrase that Badger uses, nor is this an issue he investigates in any depth.  Yes, he does look at photography’s social impact but that is not the same as showing that life would in some way have been different but for photography.  In any event it strikes me that it is not photography as such that has had an impact as the basic nature of photography has not changed in essence since Niépce and Daguerre started capturing light in the early 1800.  What has changed is the technology and with it the ubiquity of cameras in various forms, of photographs, and indeed of “photographers”  SO, I would argue that it is technology that has changed our lives, not photography, which is merely (!) one of any number of manifestations of that technology.

What I get though from this book, above all else, is a greater sense of the different types and approaches to art that photography is capable of providing than the other books that I have read recently about photography as contemporary art, even though they all cover very similar ground.

Badger, G, (2007).  The Genius of Photography:  How photography has changed our lives.  London:  Quadrille Publishing Limited.

Shore, S, (2007).  The Nature of Photographs.  London:  Phaidon.

William Klein: New York – Book

This is a book that has been out of print for years, so far as I can tell, and is therefore rare and expensive when it does crop up.  All praise therefore to Errata Editions for this edition!  Errata specialise in reproductions of classic photography texts; not facsimiles or straightforward copies but ‘books on books’, as they themselves describe them, scans of the originals presented in the form of a new book, a sort of meta-book.  Though somewhat reduced in size from the originals, each page reproduces an image of a page or pages from the original.  They also come with useful introductions and essays, making these new versions more enlightening from a student’s perspective than the original.  Not to mention a lot more affordable!

It remains something of a bug-bear of mine that so many great photography books are not in print and are available sporadically at significant expense.  Even the likes of those estimable publishers Steidl, who are doing a lot to keep some classics in print and readily available, are still on the expensive side.

As to the photographs themselves: this book must have caused quite a stir at the time.  It is perhaps the photographic equivalent of Ginsburg’s “Howl”, so freewheeling and apparently anarchic, not to mention unvirtuosic, is its appearance.  Despite appearances though it does seem to me to be the product of a considerable amount pf thought about how best to organise and lay out the photos, which are in the end grouped thematically.  And what a book, visually striking and for all the kaleidoscopic effects, deeply affecting and often moving.  Although Klein show New York and its denizens in often unflattering light there is an occasional delicacy of regard that is clearly sympathetic.

It is interesting that in his accompanying essay, “William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties”, Max Kozloff puts Klein and Frank together.  Although their approaches are different from a technical point of view I see much in common with their vision and intention and I think they complement each other closely.  Together they are also, for me at least, another nail in the coffin of the decisive moment, on which I have previously expressed scepticism.  As Kozloff its it:  “A 35mm street shot was generally apprehended as a glimpse, a partial view only, whether snatched or studied.  To make it count despite its narrative limitations, one had to assume something like “the decisive moment”, or build up a tory or a theme through an accretion of related frames, much like a stilted movie.  Frank and Klein, contrary to both methods, developed a form of witness in which the whole of their perception is implied or evident in the single fugitive glance.” (Klein, 2016, unnumbered page).

Ginsburg, A , (1955).  Howl and Other Poems.  San Francisco:  City Lights

Klein, W, (2016).  Life is Good & Good for You in New York.  New York:Errata Editions