Words About Pictures: The Ugly Carnival

Simone Touseau, a French collaborator, being marched through the streets of Chartres prior to the liberation of France by the Allies.

Simone Touseau, a French collaborator, being marched through the streets of Chartres prior to the liberation of Paris by the Allies. Photograph by Robert Capa of Magnum Photos.

I had never heard the phrase “ugly carnival” until a couple weeks ago, when I awoke rather abruptly in the middle of the night, consumed with anxiety about electoral politics in my country, googling search results about an image I couldn’t get out of my head. Whether this retina-burn woke me up or kept me up, its insistence on being resurrected and brought to the fore of my consciousness had both the abrupt stunning characteristic of nightmare and the seemliness of a faint strain of music, playing in a minor key, a menacing leitmotif.

In any case, I woke up thinking about this image taken by Magnum photo agency founder Robert Capa. It shows a woman carrying a baby, her head shorn, being marched through the streets in the most literal walk of shame ever, jeered at (and likely worse) by French partisans closing in on every side of her. She holds her baby to her as both a point of focus and as a means for self-grounding, having her gaze and attention focused totally on the child—perhaps literally transferring herself from the present moment and into one where she exists solely as mother—as she is made to keep walking, and walking, and walking until the surrounding crowd grows bored or tired of the spectacle.

So it is 1:30am Mountain Time. Search terms such as “Robert Capa + French Collaborator” and “Robert Capa + Liberation of Paris” are flying into the search engine, the bright blue glow of the screen eliminating any remaining chance for sleep that night. And then the rabbit hole I began to go down was the one where I discovered that while this image taken by Capa may be the most iconic, it was by far not the only one. And that what happened to Simone Touseau in Chartes on August 18, 1944 happened to a conservatively estimated 20,000 other women in France alone (and I say this is a conservative number because it is estimated that over 80,000 French children were fathered by the Wehrmacht during the four years of the French occupation). The crime for which this punishment was meted out? “Collaboration horizontale” (a term I kept coming across that made me rage-groan) with the enemy during the occupation. Proof was as variable and a matter of convenience as it often is during periods of mob rule and reason: with Simone Touseau the proof was the three month old baby she was carrying. For others it was because they worked somewhere that the German soldiers frequented, like a laundry, or a brothel, or a restaurant. For still others, it was mere baseless but loud speculative accusation, sometimes for the self-interested reason of deflecting attention away from the accuser’s collaborative crimes of similar nature.

I was naïve to think this image was singular, and this event that Capa recorded unique. I came across dozens and dozens of others (sometimes the rabbit hole took me to very dubiously named URLs, with even more not-very-dubious-but-disturbing-all-the-same comments on the entries), and also some much-needed historical context for all of this public display of feminine humiliation and shame. The historian Antony Beevor, in an essay in the Guardian, wrote:

There was a strong element of vicarious eroticism among the tondeurs and their crowd, even though the punishment they were about to inflict symbolised the desexualisation of their victim. This “ugly carnival” became the pattern soon after D-day. Once a city, town or village had been liberated by the allies or the resistance, the shearers would get to work. In mid-June, on the market day following the capture of the town of Carentan, a dozen women were shorn publicly. In Cherbourg on 14 July, a truckload of young women, most of them teenagers, were driven through the streets. In Villedieu, one of the victims was a woman who had simply been a cleaner in the local German military headquarters.

In so many of these images, the tondeurs were gleefully manhandling their…victims? My sense is that this is the only appropriate word. There are sickening sequences where the woman is taken from her home, then dragged to an open and public location, and then held down and roughly shorn. Another very memorable image is one of a group of women being marched to a police precinct, and on the way they are very self-consciously touching the hair that soon won’t be, any longer. A haunting photograph picturing a woman walking with her back to us, arms gripped by a man, walking her onto a public square nearly emptied, save for other women and their discrete puddles of hair that had been stripped from their heads earlier that day. Embedded alongside all of this imagery, in the essays and blog posts that I found them in, were often patronizing, paternalistic and frankly misogynistic commentary either diminishing what was being done to them (“And don’t think the ladies didn’t appreciate the attention! However, that does not mean that collaborators deserve a free pass, not by a long shot,” opined one WWII enthusiast), or the perceived smallness of the punishment (“A shaved head? Big deal. Hair grows back,” offered a thoughtful commentator).

The pictures, and the practice are deeply disturbing, no matter what the context. I am not arguing for or against the reasons, real or imagined, that women had for collaborating with the enemy. I am not arguing for or against lives lost in the holocaust or WWII, or whether such punishment was too little or too much. What I am arguing, and what was keeping me up at night, is that this need and desire to bring a woman—or women, en masse—to heel, to humiliate, publicly degrade and parade that humiliation, and create a marker for  shame that can be easily seen and recognized for a considerable amount of time (so that the shaming and punishment can continue), that there is something deeply familiar about this punitive need, something timely… something Trump-y.

Today is the day that America is in the process of electing for president either a woman representing the escape from such legacies or a man who would seek to reinstate and reignite the partisans among us. With full knowledge that the American electorate and its constituencies have myriad reasons for voting the way that they will, I am and have been disturbed by the apologist language I’ve heard used to describe Trump’s language (“he has diarrhea of the mouth,”), his calls to action (“He’s just seeking the free media attention,”), and his systematic debasement and diminishment of any group or class of people that he deems other, suspicious, or offensive. Women, as a whole, are on that list. Images like the one of Simone Touseau that Robert Capa took, make me feel deep empathy and sadness. I identify with her. For others, the image represents a return to order, the righting of wrongs, justice being done. When I wake up tomorrow and this election is finally behind us, I hope I wake up to the popular majority choosing empathy, even if it’s by the slimmest of margins.

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Past Selves, Meet Yesterday’s Flood

O my floating life
Do not save love
  for things
    Throw things
to the flood.
—Lorine Niedecker, Paen to Place

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

How do you tell yourself to yourself?

What is your process for remembering, for mediating experience, for archiving the self?

Are you someone that has meticulously kept all of your correspondence—from a lifetime before email, when handwriting was personal, and a natural individual identifier—and bad adolescent poetry, journals, videos, photographs and ephemera? Is it packed away in boxes and covered in dust or is it somewhere accessible, that which you access with something approaching a kind of regularity? Do you know, to the precise location, exactly where all of your hidden, secret, past and present selves reside?

Maybe you identify with this and have these collections, these accumulations of your autobiography. Or perhaps you’re the other sort: the person that has been able to light a match to her past, put it into a bonfire when it no longer serves you. When those important junctures have occurred where you are, to paraphrase Rilke, required to change your life or die, you are that one who is determined to move forward into an unscripted future, never looking back at those relationships and events and interior monologues that drove your past feelings and actions. A person emphatic and decisive, even when they cannot be sure of outcomes. A person less concerned with what-ifs, and not particularly nostalgic for the past. Yours or anyone else’s.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

So I’ve always kept a journal. And had the old ones stashed in various places, but always together. In the past year, the place where I live has experienced an extraordinary amount of rain. In May and June, this spot of land where the prairie meets the desert got twice the expected rainfall for the whole year. Sometime last month, I chanced to open the closet where the journals resided after a particularly heavy night of torrential storms. I didn’t open it to check for water damage, but instead to retrieve a book. And then I saw: all of my journals, twenty years or so worth, were all soaked through with storm water. They were stacked neatly atop one another, directly under the only spot in the entire space that held water. The journals swollen and sticky with gum residue and running ink. Dumbstruck, I immediately scooped them up and, not knowing what else to do, carried them outside to a table, opening them up and leaving them in the arid Colorado air.

I began to survey the damage.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

I’ve always joked to close friends that the universe doesn’t bother to deal in subtleties where I’m concerned. Only heavy anvils of allusion and metaphor will do. In  extreme examples, some higher power surmises, will I ever truly “get” any lessons and take them to heart. So it seemed particularly inauspicious that of the entirety of our household goods, only these personal historical objects were affected. Affected probably isn’t the right word. Laid waste. Obliterated. Unrecognizable.

If the universe was trying to send me a message, it seemed particularly pointed and blunt. Let go of your past, could be one of those messages. Get over yourself, already, could be another one.

It was certainly a past, or a record of a past, that had been transformed.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

First loves. Failed loves. Bad choices. Life-changing travel. Things that inspired me. A record of lovers. My unwritten, unknown future, written and wondered about by my past self. Some of it still legible. Much of it looking like another language, or pentimenti, or a secret code.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

I have always been the collector. The archivist. The keeper of words and images and past longings and past potential selves. I don’t revisit these accumulations often, but there has been something reassuring about knowing that they are there, that they exist. As if my hand on a page spilling words and sentiments five, ten, twenty years ago can, if coaxed, relay something back to my present self, fill in some gap of understanding, if and when the need arises. It’s been an equal, if converse, comfort to revisit old journals and commonplace books, photographs and letters and know how far from those persons, those could-have-been-selves, that I’ve come and detoured from. The many doors and rooms of the psychic mansion that remained closed (some, after venturing through for a short time); a fact for which I remain grateful.

Beyond anything else, the thing that is most striking in this is the revelation that is handwriting. The notion of handwriting itself has almost become anachronistic, a throw-back to an inefficient and sentimental way of doing things and communicating. I’ve heard that penmanship, and even cursive, isn’t taught to children any longer, and that seems to me both sad and to make a kind of pragmatic sense. Who writes in longhand anymore? When you once were able to identify someone, in voice and person, by their hand, what takes the place of that now? Their email address? Their social media handle? Caller ID?

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

When my mother died last year, I immediately set about searching for things in my possession that she had written to me. Something about her handwriting was evocative in a way that little else was. Throughout her prolonged sickness, I found witnessing her handwriting deteriorate as her illness progressed touching and poignant in ways that were gut-wrenching, reminding me that even while she was still alive that everything shifts and will come to an end. One’s entire life and conception of self, how they understood time, and people, what they valued and what they reviled—all the things they both could and could not say, that they knew or never cared to know, that all ends when they do. What’s left behind is everyone else’s interpretation. Their conjecture of another’s lived life.

If I ever thought about what might happen to these journals, it was always something mundane: my daughter would get them at some point, or, in a pleasant anonymous fantasy: they would be found at an estate sale or thrift store, and sifted through and wondered about by strangers. Instead, the flood has answered this question with emphatic disregard for any desired outcomes. It has rendered the reliquary of my past an offering of object-ness from which to make something else. In making these images, I am offered the opportunity to refashion my past, look at it as a thing-in-itself as opposed to a thing (a life) that happened to me, make peace with it, and then be granted permission to tear all the pages out, and allow them to continue to deteriorate.

Consideration of an Image: Otto Steinert’s Ein-Fuß-Gänger

Ein-Fuß-Gänger, Otto Steinert, ca. 1950.

Ein-Fuß-Gänger, Otto Steinert, ca. 1950.

What we see is not a whole man, but a part of a man. The part that moves forward, that keeps going. Or maybe it’s the part or the quality of man that’s there, that’s concrete and definable, while the rest of the corpus is ever in flux, a blur, ephemeral and ineffable.

‘Ein-Fuß-Gänger’ meaning literally, “the foot walker” although my German-speaking spouse tells me that there is not really a word for “walk” in German, the verb is literally “foot go-er, or “to go by foot.”

Formal qualities of the image that are worth noting:
The circular decorative grate surrounding the tree, mirrored in infinite repetition by the arc of the cobblestones adjacent to it in the street. There is both verticality and horizontal elegance in the image, with the picture plane divided into nearly precise thirds: the grate and tree in the first third, a “blank” of cobblestone, street and sidewalk in the middle third, and the last third the same as the middle, but with the startling, surreal addition of an in-focus foot with what we presume is a blurred body attached to it.

Is it a blurred man? Or is it an erased man? It’s more of a mark on a page than the blur of motion that we’re seeing, the kind of mark made in a gesture of erasure. Make a drawing of a man in charcoal, then close your fist and smear it across the entire image of everything man-like of him save the foot. Everything else in the image is there, defined, and still: the grate, the tree, the sidewalk, the cobblestone street. Only the man is animate; and in his blur and in his foot, we are told that we cannot be sure of him, either. Or sure of what we think that we see.

Otto Steinert was a German medical doctor during WWII, and afterwards abandoned medicine to pursue photography. Greatly interested in what the Surrealists, and afterwards in Germany, what the Bauhaus movement had begun prior to the war (and what had been labeled “degenerate art” and banned by the Nazis during the war), Steinert aimed to pick up aesthetically where the movements had left off. Coining his first curated shows “The Subjective Movement,” members of the Fotoform group experimented with combining formal vision with evoking an inner psychology on film, and to those ends played wildly with photographic and darkroom technique, in much the same way László Moholy-Nagy was doing at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and his protegés Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind after him.

Steinert referred to what he was doing in the movement as “visual research,” and stated that the Subjective movement was concerned with “humanised, individualized photography,” and in reaction to the “objective” notions of photography as well as the propaganda-disguised-as-journalism use of the genre that preceded Fotoform.

What’s of particular interest to me is that like the young photographers coming out of the post-war Japanese photographic movements, there was a strong and instinctive shift away from using photography to describe anything that claimed to be “real” “objective” or “true.” Both Japan and Germany were mired in reconstruction not just of their cities but of a collective national identity in the face of being  on the losing side of an epic world war. One of Japan’s most interesting answers, coming a little later in the 1960s, was the VIVO and Provoke movements, which sought to “provoke” collective thought, action and art by fusing and cross-pollinating ideas with artistic and political mediums and practitioners. Dance, politics, photography, literature and theater were all ingredients to foment revolution, art and change for the young in Japan. In contrast, Steinert’s avant garde called for a turning inwards through photography specifically, and using the medium to evoke personal and individual responses to the realities of the outside world. To comment on the inner state and claim only that authority, rather than to pretend to accurately reflect the outer state.

What I’ve always loved about Ein-Fuß-Gänger is its inside-out-qualities; how it is and is not what it purports to be, that in the end it doesn’t purport to be of or about anything at all. It’s a bit of a visual joke, it’s quiet, it’s a small image and you could almost miss it entirely if you weren’t looking long or closely. It’s ambiguous, formally very pleasing, and it is an image that I could linger over for a long, long while, losing myself in thoughts of absence and presence, the real and the notion of fiction, of place and not-place.

Shortly after the war, in 1949, Steinert moved to Paris, which is where he made this image (ca. 1950). While I do not know much of his biography, and do not have any texts confirming this or telling me otherwise, I speculate that it was very appealing, perhaps even necessary, to remove oneself from the reality of a bombed-out German city during reconstruction, to attempt to resurrect one’s identity and self by escaping to a beautiful foreign city that was comparatively intact, civilized and yet somehow Other enough to not see oneself clearly reflected back in it. That indeed, the blur or the erasure of man was not just attractive or an exercise in subjective photographic abstraction, but a desire to disassemble, disintegrate, disappear.

Japanese Photography in 2015: the Master List

This is a great moment for Japanese photography connoisseurs and enthusiasts. For a long while now, photographic japanophilia was an interest that had to be nursed solely with foreign book purchases, the rare North American exhibition (or the less-rare European one), and abundant, if limited, use of google translate. If you’re an English speaker for whom Shinjuku, Japan is as far away as Mars, 2015 might just be the year that Japanese photography comes to you. There are an unprecedented number of events, exhibitions, publications and unclassifiable wonderfulness related to Japanese photography that is in explosive abundance this year. While those in the European photo scene have been in-the-know for some time now, it would appear that Japanese photography is having its moment stateside.

Below is a list of things current and upcoming in the world of Japanese photography (read: All the places I want to go…All the things I want to see…All the books I want to read, er, own…).

BOOKS

This is the catalog for the exhibition of the same name, currently at the MFA Houston (see below). Edited by associate curator Yasafumi Nakamori and Allison Pappas: For a New World to Come provides a thought-provoking look at photography-based works and other works by twenty-nine post WWII era artists, including such well-known names as Nobuyoshi Araki, Koji Enokura, Daido Moriyama, Hitoshi Nomura, and Jiro Takamatau, among others.  International scholars discuss their innovative works, many of which have not been published previously outside Japan.

Cosmology_10

Detail from Kikuji Kawada’s The Last Cosmology

Kikuji Kawada is one of the giants of classic postwar-era Japanese photography. His monograph Chizu (the Map), is regarded as a masterpiece of the form by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr, and Sean O’Hagan claims that this work is more personal in nature, citing Kawada’s moving forward to the text:

I was born at the beginning of the Showa Era. There was a great war during my boyhood and then I lived during the period of re-construction and growth and now I slowly approach the evening of life. Through these photographs the cosmology is an illusion of the firmament at the same time it includes the reality of an era and also the cosmology of a changing heart.

Brad Feuerhelm, writing on ASX, opines that, “It is brave to petition the skies for answers when all under our feet points towards a collapse. The book is somehow an essential inquiry of what it means to live with questions of origins, thoughts and beckons questions as to where we place ourselves within this dilapidated framework here on the ground.”

A generous preview of the book is available on the publisher’s site. Pre-order copies are for sale there as well as at Photo-eye.

Image from the monograph Toransupearento, by Daisuke Yokota.

Image from the monograph Toransupearento, by Daisuke Yokota.

Daisuke Yokota is probably one of the most exciting (to me, but to others as well) new and young Japanese photographers working at the extreme edges of the photobook form. Deemed “The Unpronounceable Yokota book” by a friend of mine, it’s considered by the publisher to the be the “hallucinatory sibling” of another photobook by Yokota published earlier in the year, Vertigo. I’ll be writing more about Daisuke Yokota’s work in the near future, but suffice it to say that I think enough of his work to be snatching up titles left and right. They are released in very limited editions of usually < 500, and my hunch is that he is on the verge of exploding onto the international photography scene (in as much as one explodes into that sphere).

Cover image of Daido Moriyama's A Room/Type B.

Cover image of Daido Moriyama’s
A Room/Type B.

Printed as part of a print-show event from last month, wherein collectors could participate in the editing sequence of their own books, there are three limited editions, with different covers and sequencing: a collector’s edition (edition of 100), A Room Type A (250 editions) and A Room Type B (250 editions). Unusually these days for Moriyama, the subject matter of the book is pretty discretely contained: one woman, one room, all the way through the book. Copies are available from the publisher and from the UK’s Photobookstore.

MAGAZINES

Cover of Issue #40 of Foam Magazine, Heaven and Hell: After Araki

Cover of Issue #40 of Foam Magazine, Heaven and Hell: After Araki

Cover of forthcoming issue of Aperture, #219, The Tokyo Issue.

Cover of forthcoming issue of Aperture, #219, The Tokyo Issue.

The city will not be a mere backdrop for photography, but rather the character of Tokyo itself will be explored as a principal protagonist within the narrative of Japanese photography. This immersive editorial approach will yield a rich, in-depth look at the city’s current dialogue around photography and will be essential reading for anyone interested in photography from Japan.

You can of course purchase the issue singly directly from Aperture, or you might find it in a bookstore (do those still exist in the U.S.?), but if you subscribe or renew a subscription, you will also receive The Photobook Review newsletter, published at the same time, and which will also be focused on Japanese photography.

EXHIBITIONS & EVENTS

There are more Japanese photography exhibits this year here (in the U.S.) then I ever remember knowing about in any year previous. In the case of the generous exhibition schedule in NYC this spring, you can thank Ivan Vartanian, author of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s, founder of Goliga Books and Program Director for the inaugural Shashin: Photography from Japan festival taking place in New York this April and May. To coincide with the Shashin event, which will include a 2-day symposium, artist talks, book performances, films and more, many NYC galleries are using the event as an impetus to showcase the Japanese photographers they represent. Below is a run-down of both the Shashin Festival itself, and the co-mingled NYC Japanese photography exhibitions happening around the same time.

From the Program Director and festival founder, Ivan Vartanian:

What is Shashin?
The word simply means photograph in Japanese.  Yet the art of making photographs in Japan has centuries old roots in the country’s traditions of graphic art and design.  Shashin is a visual language informed by cultural extremes: strict protocols and unconventional attitudes, ancient detachment and futuristic enterprise, teasing innocence and hyper consumerism.  Japanese Shashin artists articulate photography in and through installations, dance, film, writing and other art forms.

The stated purpose of the Shashin festival is to raise awareness of Japanese photographic culture in NYC, and to foster and stimulate dialogue across segments of the population that have an abiding interest in it: scholars, academics, art/book collectors, artists, photographers, students, etc. It is a joint collaboration between the Council for Photography from Japan, the International Center for Photography and the New York Public Library. The festival kicks off with a 2-day Symposium, which will include panel discussions on Experiments in Japanese Photography (1968-1979), Protest and Performance, Disaster and Vision and the Japanese Photobook. All panels include discussion and scholarship from leading curators, historians and critics in the field; many panels also include artist presentations or performances. The artist/performance roster currently includes Kunié Sugiura, Naoya Hatakeyama, Daisuke Yokota and Aki Onda.

All symposium events are to be held at the NYPL on April 24—April 25th. You can register for the event here.

This will be a pop-up event hosted by 10×10 Photobooks (the collective behind the eponymous recently published guide, and a platform for photobook events, co-sponsored by ICP) that will showcase photo-based zines from artists in Japan and from the Japanese diaspora. An open-call for submissions generated all of the submissions on display at the pop-up. I am uncertain as to whether any of the zines will be for sale, or if it is to be regarded mostly as a reading room event. In any case, it will provide a rich and rare opportunity to get an immersive look into the underground photographic zine scene of Japan, which is now where so many new photo stars get their start.

Photographer Daisuke Yokota in a book performance at Amsterdam's UNSEEN photo fair, in 2014.

Photographer Daisuke Yokota in a book performance at Amsterdam’s UNSEEN photo fair, in 2014.

In what I am anticipating as one of the most interesting events from Shashin, the exciting work of Daisuke Yokota will be “performed” in an open-air venue. In some book performances, entire edits of a book are created on-the-fly, and at other times, in conjunction with the participating audience choosing and making their own selections. In this performance, Yokota will be demonstrating some of his very unique technique of creating distressed images, which involves application by hand of ascetic acid to the prints, which have been screen-printed onto a thin layer of brass, thus creating chance distortions and new interpretations from the original images. These images will be used to create a new publication of Yokota’s: Untitled.

For full and updated information on all of the events on the schedule for this year’s inaugural Shashin: Photography from Japan festival, please check the events page on the site.

Emi Aranjuki, #370 from the series 1800 Millimètres, 2015.

Emi Aranjuki, #370 from the series 1800 Millimètres, 2015.

EXHIBITIONS OUTSIDE OF NYC

Lieko Shiga's Rasen Kaigan, #46. 2011.

Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan (Spiral Shore), #46. 2011.

Kusakabe Kimbei, Kusakabe Kimbei, Wind Costume, ca. 1870-1890, albumen print.

Kusakabe Kimbei, Kusakabe Kimbei, Wind Costume, ca. 1870-1890, albumen print.

A large selection of SFMOMA’s excellent Japanese photography collection has been on loan out while the museum undergoes its expansion. Below is a list of Japanese photography exhibitions in 2015 with material on loan from SFMOMA.

OTHER/MISCELLANY:

When I spend time with Rinko Kawauchi, Takashi Homma, Moriyama, and Hosoe, there’s something special about them – I’m either on edge or nervous, but always excited to be in their presence. It’s like the air is thick with potential…And that is ultimately what makes these performances so interesting. The participant can step into the photographer’s world and be connected to that body of work in a way that isn’t possible otherwise. I want to get away from that white cube with framed prints on a wall that no one can touch. What is ultimately interesting to me about photography is that it’s about a connection and an opening to interpretation — there is an element of not being sure what’s going to happen. (Ivan Vartanian, speaking on the subject of book performances.)

  • The Flakphoto Weekend Digest. From Flakphoto founder and photographic impressario Andy Adams: “The Digest is a weekend reader: something you can spend time with when the work week slows down — an opportunity to sit back and relax with a handful of photo/arts links on your mobile or tablet. Email arrives on Saturdays so you can enjoy over a hot cup of coffee (or tea) when you have a moment by yourself. It’s the perfect thing for a lazy Sunday morning.” The digest is in beta now, but I’ve received four editions so far and the information is so choicely curated, concise and just the right formula of curiosity and connoisseurship for a weekend read. You can sign up to receive the digest for when it leaves beta-testing here. I highly recommend that you do.
  • Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, 3-day conference at the Walker Museum of Art. May 28—May 30, 2015. I learned about this event from Andy Adams in one of his weekly digests, actually. What is the role of the online art critic, and what are some possible futures for online arts journalism are a couple of the driving questions this conference will be addressing. With participants from Frieze, Hyperallergic, Rhizome and more, the potential for this event is amazing in that weird, the-universe-is-speaking-only-to-me kind of way. If all is well with the universe and the planets are in the right alignment, I will be at Shashin Festival in late April and at this conference in late May. If so, you can bet I’ll report back here on both.
  • LPV Episode 2.9: Russet Lederman & Jeff Gutterman. This is from last month, but I am just now finding out about it and listening to it. This is Bryan Formhals’s photography podcast, with this episode focusing on talking to one of the founders of 10×10 Photobooks and the Photobooks Facebook Group (a dangerous and expensive place to lurk!). Lederman owns and has access to original editions of canonical Japanese photography that I can only dream about, and decades of passion and experience in an area that, by comparison, I am but an enthusiastic novice. It’s a great pleasure to hear someone so knowledgeable and so generous about her knowledge hold court.
Utagawa Yushiiku, The Story of Otomi and Yosoburo 1860.

Utagawa Yushiiku, The Story of Otomi and Yosoburo, 1860.

 

John Cyr’s Developer Trays: A Photographer’s Photography Project

The developer tray of photographer Emmet Gowin.

The developer tray of photographer Emmet Gowin.

It’s difficult to believe that there are, this very moment, an emerging entire generation of photographers that will never have used a manual camera. They will have no concept of a favorite film or one suited to a particular purpose, will have never had to wrestle with a roll of film that won’t load onto the camera sprockets correctly, or suffer the indignity of doing the same in the dark with a developing reel (stainless steel or plastic?). Take this metaphor into the darkroom, the very guts of Photography 101, and there’s a whole other list of things that any “traditionally” trained photographer’s eyes might be bulging out at the thought of omitting from an education. Take, for example, the mixing of developer chemicals, the washing (and re-washing) of fiber-based prints, the highs and hazards of dealing with dangerous raw chemistry that, handled correctly, can yield spectacular results: gold chloride, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid. These are the same stuffs that gave us eye-popping contact-sized prints for the nearly two centuries, as well as the stuff that used to blow up attic darkrooms by turn-of-the-century practitioners who didn’t know their chemical properties well enough.  A master printer, John E. Cyr knows and understands this historical connection to the analog and the wet darkroom, and what he’s given us to consider here is a kind photographer’s photographer project (and a collection so wonderful and specific I wish I’d thought of it myself). Imagine someone collecting all of the typewriters or writing desks of their favorite authors, or the paintbrush jars of a catalog of famous painters, or the keyboards of people who built ubiquitous apps and programs that we use everyday, and you’d be approaching the spirit of Cyr’s work from a multitude of disciplines.

Invoking the long-standing tradition of silver-gelatin printing while speaking in the same breath of its total eclipse by the advances of digital photography, Cyr believes that his project is a “timely endeavor.” From his artist’s statement:

The digital advances in photography over the past ten years have been remarkable. Digital manipulation is found in most contemporary work, even within these developer tray photographs…Many photographers, printmakers, and photographers’ archivists’ have already discarded or thrown out their developer trays because they believed they were no longer significant or useful.

I am photographing available developer trays so that the photography community will remember specific, tangible printing tools that have been a seminal part of the photographic experience for the past hundred years. By tilting each tray with its owner’s name and the years in which it was used, I reference the historical significance of these objects in a minimal manner that evokes thought and introspection about what images have passed through each individual tray.

The developer tray of photographer Sally Mann.

The developer tray of photographer Sally Mann.

Begun as his M.F.A thesis work at The School for Visual Arts, Cyr began with a short-list of photographers to contact, which after each visit, photographic documentation of developer trays, and a friendly sit-down chat, begat more photography contacts which begat more contacts. In an interview with CDS, Cyr explained, “The deeper I got into this project, the more photographers agreed to be part of it. Once I had a respectable list of well-known photographers who had allowed me to photograph their trays, I think that the photographers I was contacting realized the vast extent of the archive that I was creating and were generally enthusiastic about being part of it.” The on-going list of photographers whose developer trays that Cyr has managed to contact and photograph is an eye-popping who’s who list of both canonically historic and contemporary luminaries in the field: Ansel Adams, Emmet Gowin, Sally Field, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, just to name a few. The administrative and bureaucratic process itself by which Cyr has had to navigate to realize this project could be seen as its own work of art in and of itself. Sometimes the tray of an influential photographer could not be located, Cyr has explained, because upon the passing of that photographer no one in the estate considered a developer tray to be a thing of value, or understood or cared how integral to the process of making amazing images it was. For a photographer, a developer tray is a necessary tool. For anyone else, it’s just a dirty piece of plastic.

The developer tray of photographer Aaron Siskind.

The developer tray of photographer Aaron Siskind.

Developer trays are the first place one places the paper after the image has been exposed on it under an enlarger. Both film and developing paper have a certain amount of silver in them, and the chemicals in the developer tray detect that silver and turns those that have been struck by light into metallic silver. The residue that you see in the images is that left by oxidized silver that remains in the tray from repeated use (and maybe not being totally rinsed clean and thoroughly dried each time). The trays in Cyr’s series themselves vary in scope of perceived use and abuse, in darkness of stains or apparent absence of them, or reveal that a photographer used an alchemy of additives to their developer brew, such as toner, or potassium ferrocyanide, or something else, all to achieve a specific end look to their images. Sometimes the marks left in the tray just indicate that the photographer would absently push the developer tongs over and over the tray or paper in the course of working. There is certainly something of the artist’s aura in this project, a fetishization of object-ness in a field that has become increasingly about objectless-ness by dint of its materials and output having become largely digital and virtual.

The developer tray from the George Eastman House.

The developer tray from the darkroom of the George Eastman House.

When considering these images, I can’t help but be struck at how alien, foreign and anachronistic—primitive, even—these tools must seem to the emerging population of photographers that have no concept of—or use for—an old, expensive, unhealthy way of doing things. Even as I write this, I find I am still incredibly attached to and nostalgic for my memories of, and thoughts of a possible future in, the safety-light red glow of a darkroom, a place where hours passed with a liberating dissociation from time and space, where music was played loud, and where one wrestled with one’s sense of perfection and craft in an endless loop. It feels sobering and dated that I still own t-shirts that are hopelessly and forever stained with fixitive, that a barn attic in upstate New York held my sturdy workhorse 3-barrel enlarger for five years (and now a garage in Colorado does the same), and that an avalanche of bankruptcies have befallen an industry whose dwindling market share cannot sustain itself despite a devoted, fanatical following of artist practitioners that buy dwindling stock by the refrigerator full, and have spent years perfecting their own recipe of film + developer + paper, only to see part or all of that equation continually shifting or becoming entirely extinct. What is photography 101 if not a study of light-and-dark, apertures, f-stops, and the 3-tray process of develop, stop and fix?

Still, even if kids today don’t have any affection for these artifacts (and just how and why is Aaron Siskind’s tray so very clean?!), I like that Cyr calls our attention to our artistic past by invoking these tools as a kind of reliquary. Where indeed can we move towards, if we do not understand first where (and from whom) we have come from?

This body of work has been showcased in the NYT’s Lens blog, Slate, Wired and numerous other places. The entire body of work can be seen at the project page on his website. A book of the entire project is also available by Powerhouse books. He is represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago.

Once upon a time, I was a contract writer, pitching stories and writing about contemporary photography for 20×200 (and its then other associated brands). The archives disappeared when the company re-structured and re-launched, and some of the people and projects I wrote about then I believe deserve a longer virtual life. Each Thursday for the near forseeable future I will resurrect one such piece, update/embellish it and publish it here. All of these #tbt posts originated on the now defunct Hey, Hot Shot! blog.

Zen Audacity in Eikoh Hosoe’s Barakei: Consideration of an Image

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Yukio Mishima, as photographed by Eikoh Hosoe for the publication Barakei, or, Ordeal By Roses.

 

This is it. The image that forever did me in, the one that turned me into a Japanese photography addict.

To tell you what you are looking at is one thing, and flatly stated it’s rather simple: this is a photograph of the late author Yukio Mishima, standing on a marble zodiac in front of his home, wrapped in a garden hose—the end of which is stuffed into his mouth, held there (in a gesture of pulling it from within himself) with his left hand. In his right hand, he holds a wooden hammer, raising it above his head. He is looking up. The photograph was shot from above, taken while standing on a ladder. Mishima’s gaze is direct, intent and provocative.

To explain what this photograph is, however, and what it means, is something else entirely. And the answer will vary depending on who you ask.

In the preface to the book, Mishima wrote that what he came to understand in the course of the making of Barakei was that all photographs were either “..a record or a testimony.” What he’s referring to is very similar to John Szarkowski’s assertion that a photograph either becomes a mirror or a window, and this modernist dichotomy is fittingly evoked by Mishima, given that he was a figure that was deeply divided between his fascination and love for classic western culture as well as fanatically devoted to describing and elevating the culture of a pre-WWII era Japan.

When the photographer, Eikoh Hosoe , is given room to speak, he recounts the following:

Mishima’s father happened to be watering the garden, so I grabbed the hose, and wrapped Mishima in it. I completely wrapped his body in the hose and kept him standing in the center of the zodiac where he was planning to erect a statue of Apollo. I asked him to look up and concentrate on the camera which I was holding on a ladder above. I asked him to lie on the zodiac and I photographed him from a low angle on the ground. Then I asked him to walk slowly, with the hose still wrapped around him, and to lie down in the narrow space between the wall of his home and his neighbor’s house. I continued shooting for about an hour.

“I have never been photographed like this,” he said. “Why did you do it this way?”

“This is the destruction of a myth,” I replied.

To me, it is an image that seems to recount a myth, one that is particularly Promethean in character. In the above photo, Mishima looks as if he has had that hose in his mouth for all time, and as if he will be holding that hammer up in the air for about as long. Prometheus is best known for giving humans knowledge of the gift of fire, which had previously been the sole dominion of the gods. In punishment for his overreaching, Prometheus was bound to a rock and made to have his liver picked out by an eagle every day, only for the wound to heal and the liver to regenerate overnight, so that he could be punished anew each day. Mishima’s life itself was caught between battling impulses and competing aesthetics, which for the author became a literal matter of life and death. Obsessed with Greek mythology and the martyrdom stories and iconography of Christian saints, Mishima was also radically political, adhering to a bushido creed and, at the end of his life, attempting a coup d’etat to restore the power of the emperor. He was among the best known contemporary writers of modern Japan, was enormously prolific in his (too) short life, writing over 30 novels, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times.

What was remarkable about this photograph (and the entirety of the Barakei series, but especially this image) is that it exemplifies what it is to have an encounter with someone whose will and creative fortitude is equal to that of your own. An encounter is not adversarial, but collaborative. Each player is open and loose, but still entirely contained within themselves and within their own power. Both experts at trained spontaneity. They improvise with one another, allowing themselves to be used as material by the other, and in turn still exercise their own creative will throughout.

Hosoe was a young photographer coming to the home of a well known and revered author. What he did that day on Mishima’s lawn was an example of zen audacity: Eikoh Hosoe walks into the world of Yukio Mishima with the end goal of making photographs of the man. Leaving himself open to Mishima’s environment and what it might reveal about him, he entered the scene with no preconceptions. He sees the garden hose and audaciously wants to wrap him up in it, stand on a ladder to photograph him from above, with Mishima placed in the center of his own zodiac. The act of wrapping Mishima in a hose is one that says, effectively, “I can’t work with you if I have to worship you.” And in the act of binding the author, Hosoe liberated himself from him. Mishima, in turn, accepted the initiative and humbled himself, finding it both profound and amusing.

In the West, a portrait is often the negotiation between the photographer and the subject, a mediation between the desire on the part of the sitter for a good image, and that of the photographer to make an image he deems worthy of himself (or, as I’ve suggested previously, all portraits are a form of self-portraiture on the part of the photographer). That is not what happens in this photograph. Mishima surrenders entirely here. There is no negotiation. He surrenders with trust, knowing that whatever happens photographically, Mishima will still be Mishima. He is opening himself to the experience of self-transformation under Hosoe’s direction, essentially trusting Hosoe in an act akin to a kind of photographic psychoanalysis. Hosoe, in turn, knows how to trust his own responses in the midst of an intense encounter with an intense personality. This would become the hallmark of all of his subsequent work. Hosoe knows how to get intensity out of a worthy subject; he knows how to have an Encounter. This image is not a record of something about the author Yukio Mishima. Neither is this photograph a testimony of Hosoe’s fantasy idea of Mishima. This photograph is a meeting of the two.

James Luckett: Botanist of the Sidewalk

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’—Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977

For five years, James Luckett lived in Tokyo: trying alternately to adjust to the city, to adjust his own expectations of himself, and, ultimately, to create for himself something of the experience of living so outside and somewhat alienated from that self. In the beginning, he thought he’d become a chef, and taught himself how to create elaborate Japanese meals. Then he came to the realization that he’d hit a wall unless he made a major investment in mastering the language, and that at his core, while being a more than competent cook, that he was no prodigy. So in his last year in Tokyo, he returned to what he knew, teaching himself something again this time, but something he had already known but discarded: the act of seeing photographically.

Untitled, from James Luckett's Suginami

Untitled, from James Luckett’s Suginami

Everyday then, for an hour or a few hours a day, he’d take long walks with his camera and his dog throughout Tokyo’s wards, or, ku, which is just another way to say that he wandered through the vast interconnected maze of backyards, alleys and sidewalks that make up the city’s neighborhoods. From his artist’s statement:

Houses and apartments there are sited tightly together; narrow streets and even narrower paths wind in around themselves in a maze of walls, fences, gates and plants that carefully delimit private space from public. In, around and through the margins of this place I walked hours every day. Suginami is an exploration of the ways this landscape layers into the edges of a frame, the transformation of light inside the dark box of the camera, and the space of discovery between the viewfinder and the eye.

I think of two things about these photos when I look at and consider the images that make up Suginami: the first is of Luckett as the quintessential flâneur, someone who, in Charles Baudelaire’s words, is, “a gentleman stroller of city streets,” someone who, though a detached observer, plays a key role in understanding and portraying the city, a kind of “botanist of the sidewalk.” The second is rather related to the first, but maybe a bit more spiritually leaning: still the sidewalk walker or stroller, but more in line with one that participates in walking meditations (which in Buddhist literature, one is instructed to, “Notice the beauty of your surroundings, both externally and internally. Smile with every cell in your body“), which is what I believe these walks eventually became.

Untitled, from James Luckett's Suginami

Untitled, from James Luckett’s Suginami

The images on view in Suginami are at odds with my imagined vision of a bustling, crowded and intense city. It’s as if on these walks the city has become a ghost, a place of emptying-out. The light seems bright, midday in character, and the neighborhood homes and apartments are silent, except for the occasional cat. The intimate yet detached view speaks of someone that is familiar with where they are and what they are looking at, but true to both concepts of flâneur and walking meditations, they are somewhat lonely as well—liminal and solitary. I bet when Luckett happened upon that feline shown above, both were equally startled. Deluze and Guattari describe the act of the flâneur’s walks (and specifically in reference to the walks that Virigina Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway took) as a “haecceity,” defined simply as a “thisness”, the essence or particularity of a thing itself. They finish off with an observation I find entirely  appropriate to Suginami, saying, “…A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines. It is a rhizome.

Untitled, from James Luckett's Suginami

Untitled, from James Luckett’s Suginami

The images in Luckett’s Suginami portfolio are part of a larger and carefully edited sequence that James created for Suginami to exist in book form. You can view the entire series here. When taken as a whole, there’s a sense of not only a quiet walking through, but a working through, going on as well. I’m uncertain whether he knew it or not at the time, but this would be the last year of James’ life in Tokyo. So lastly, the photographs serve in a personal function: they are a farewell to the dissimilar familiar that had made up that epoch of Luckett’s experiences there, and they are simultaneously a prodigal return to self, as these images mark his return and commitment to the practice of photography, which has since been ongoing.

Luckett in recent years settled his studio in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where, in his words: …”he fashions, with a wide range of photographic means, manners, methods and mistakes, images of the abject, troubled, melancholy and grotesque.” Currently James is teaching photography at several institutions throughout Southwestern Ohio: Antioch College, University of Dayton and Wright State University. Recently he was a Visiting Assistant Professor and Head of Photography at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. More images and an accumulation of Luckett’s writings and interests can be found on his website. The book Suginami can be viewed and purchased here, through Blurb’s bookstore. James also can be found stretching the limits of form on twitter and on instagram.

Francine Fleischer and the Watery Depths

For a long while now, I have been imaginatively obsessed with things that I saw in the National Museum of Denmark: mummified and eerily well-preserved remains of young women buried in oak log coffins and thrown into peat bogs; meticulously and gorgeously crafted bronze lurs, used for a single ceremonial occasion and then thrown into peat bogs; religious artifacts in the form of sun-dieties pulled by a horse and then thrown into peat bogs, recovered over two millennia later. The notion that’s been aesthetically and otherwise all-consuming for me in this is that no one really knows why these things got thrown into those bogs. From what can be surmised from the kinds of objects found in them and the condition that they were found in, it appears that only the most precious, the most highly-crafted and prized, are the things that were meant and fit to throw into the bogs.

The idea fascinates: that those who are most beautiful and precious to us and passed from the world too soon, or the most beautiful object a master craftsman has made or will ever make: it is only these rare things that by the very virtue of their preciousness were not meant or fit for human consumption. These are gifts given (and in the cases of beautiful women, sometimes taken by) to the gods. And the quickest method of delivery back in the days of Nordic myth was to throw whatever was most precious and valuable to you into the bog.

Which brings me to the work of photographer Francine Fleischer, whose work on first glance appears to be about summer swimming pleasure seekers, but is actually closer to that whole idea of throwing-things-into-the-bog thing. From Francine’s artist’s statement:

This series was photographed in a sinkhole that was used for thousands of years by an ancient culture for human sacrifice. Today, the deep water is used by thousands of tourists on holiday, for recreational swim. The contradiction of purposes is a bizarre and curious one. The swimmers seem oblivious to the history of the location although the darkness and depth of the water allude to another time and agenda.

FleischerF3
Fleischer’s images connote the unsettling disparity of place, use and history of this location very effectively. While we know at first glance that these are individuals idly and happily dog-paddling or back-floating in what seem to be serene waters, there is still this pervasive sense that something unfathomably dark and complex—unquantifiable—accompanies them. The waters themselves, Fleischer tells us, are deep, and the fact of their depth is what made them attractive to prehistoric priests practicing human sacrifice. Ominously, deep waters translate as near black in photographs, and the contrasting whiteness of the swimmers’ flesh can be suggestively read as tokens or tributes to a tendriled and terrifying water god.

FleischerF6

Do these swimmers know the history of their fantastic and exotic swimming hole? Would it matter to their holiday plans if they did? Perhaps like other haunted places, there is a specific kind of thrill-seeking to be found by re-contextualizing and re-purposing sacrificial waters for modern-day vacations. Maybe the two extremes aren’t so divergent after all. Fleischer seems to intimate that oblivion and sacrifice aren’t always such strange bedfellows.

In the last couple of years, Fleischer’s series Swim: The Water In Between has been generating a good deal of interest online, in print and in galleries. It has been featured in The Telegraph, Fraction Magazine, Feature Shoot and Harper’s Magazine. A book of the work was published by Utakatado Publishing, in conjunction with an exhibition in Kobe Japan at the Tanto Tempo Gallery in 2014. A very thoughtful review of her installation at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery can be found online by Richard Speer. Currently images from the series are on display as a part of the CTRL + P show at the Catherine Edelman gallery in Chicago. More images from the series, as well as several other bodies of work deserving of attention, are viewable on Fleischer’s website.

Once upon a time, I was a contract writer, pitching stories and writing about contemporary photography for the 20×200 site (and other associated brands). The archives disappeared when the company re-structured and re-launched, and some of the people and projects I wrote about then I believe deserve a longer virtual life. Each Thursday for the near forseeable future I will resurrect one such piece and publish it here. All of these #tbt posts originated on the now defunct Hey, Hot Shot! blog.

Resurrections and Redirections

Why do we remove ourselves from the orbit of things that we love?

Interests, activities, engagement that takes us out of ourselves, literally lifts us from a default state of self-defeating self-absorption, and transports us to a wider field of options and opportunities than we could have imagined? How do we begin to stagnate, and why do we persist within it once we recognize it? And what are those loves, interests and inclinations then replaced by? How do we spend our time? Why do we spin our (metaphorical) wheels so endlessly? Why do we stop caring what or whether we do, or dismiss the specter of our old selves that used to? Where does the curiosity and wonder and desire to make connections and communicate go? And how do we find our way back to it again, once we remember, with something approaching longing, that we miss it?

Such has been the case with me for so long that I feel embarrassed to even count the dd/mm/yyyy since it hasn’t. I wonder at reason, and causality, and what I must have done wrong. There are reasons, there are excuses, and there is Life, of course, that manages to insinuate and complicate and for stretches of time, totally subsume everything. Some of those entirely normal and collectively shared traumas and life events have been unfolding for me in the recent past, and for far too long they have served as convenient and comfortable blinders, hiding from my conscious self the kinds of ideas, art and people that excite and enliven me.

This space has been many things over many years, but one place that it—I—became stuck was in ceding to it a singular way of thinking and recording. A mode that became arduous and in turn aggravated an innate sense of perfectionism, so that I didn’t feel like I could write here unless all the writing was the way that it had become: longform, lyrical, thoroughly researched. There came to be this inability to be personal, or to switch gears or voices or to move between lightness and heaviness in the tone or topics of things I wrote about. And I began to feel a prisoner of what I had so meagerly created, and honestly probably came to resent creating. And so what happened was radio silence. For a period of years.

I don’t really believe in explaining oneself, in giving an accounting for any choices you do or don’t make, to yourself or the universe— unless you have wronged someone somehow. And the only person I really wronged in my prolonged absence from writing, reading and looking was myself. My method for making amends is to begin playing in this space again, truly and with regularity. Years of editing professionally for others has given me skills for things in the publishing sphere that somehow never occurred to me to apply to my own writing endeavors. Beginning with adhering to my own editorial calendar is a first step. There will still be longform writing (this is unintentionally approaching that zone), but there will also be more fragmented looking and musing, as well as trying to keep some level of engagement and conversation on current topics that I’ve always been partial to, if not awash in: Japanese photography, the odd current practitioners who interest me that aren’t Japanese, the history of photography, convergences, literature, the rich and unceasing world of ideas and questions. I’d also like more playfulness, when possible, and to be more connected to having an extended, virtual conversation with others that share some of the same sympathies and predilections that I have.

So: not exactly a manifesto, or an explanation of anything. Call it, to borrow language from the land of things woo-woo, setting an intention. Look to this place often in the near future for the manifestation of that intent.

(some housekeeping errata: About page and Links have been overhauled. The latter now is heavily curated, with preferences given to presses, online magazines, blogs writing about Japanese photography, personal favorites and lots of places where I buy—or more precisely: want to buy—monographs. Have fun finding out where I spend my time and money.)

Q & A With Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library

Great ideas often find their genesis in something that its creator has already been doing for a long while. Writer, curator and collector Larissa Leclair has been embodying this notion in her new project the Indie Photobook Library. Founded in 2010, the iPL is an archive of self-published photobooks, zines, catalogs and other printed matter whose intent is to be seen in person through traveling exhibitions and as a non-circulating public library. In addition to Leclair’s efforts, the iPL has an advisory board of several people who are likely well known to readers of this blog: Andy Adams, editor and founder of Flak Photo; Darius Himes International Head of Photographs at Christies and co-founder of Radius Books; Shane Lavalette, photographer and founder of Lay Flat; and Gabrielle Reed, of the Massachusetts College of Art’s Godine Library. Accepting photobooks from all over the world, the iPL has been enjoying a period of exponential growth. I recently talked with Larissa about the iPL and where she thinks things are headed next.

What is the genesis of the iPL? Did it begin with your personal collection? If so, how long have you been building/collecting it, and what was the impetus to turn it outward and make it a public collection?

LL: My interest in archives began in graduate school, when I spent most of my time researching and working in Manuscripts & Archives at Yale University Library with photographs, postcards, ephemera and books. Now each year I try and return to Yale for the Master Class at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library co-organized with the Photo Memory Workshops, which I had been a part of during school. The class is an amazing opportunity to spend time with an entire collection along with the photographer of the collection or expert scholar on the collection. The most recent Master Class this past April 2010 focused on the Peter Palmquist Archive. Peter Palmquist’s life mission after retiring was very inspiring and his collection has and will have a big impact on the history of photography specifically relating to women in photography since the late 1800’s. The passion and vision encapsulated in his collection was the final piece of encouragement I needed.

The idea of creating a public non-circulating library has been in my head for many years. It was an idea I wanted to bring to the table for a non-profit organization and at that time my focus was a broad range of international titles and making them available to a US audience. That initiative never materialized, but the idea stayed and evolved. In the last year or two, I have been personally frustrated with not being able to view most of the self-published books out there in person. So the idea of wishing for a central place to look at these kinds of books was in my head on the day I saw Peter Palmquist’s collection. I was blown away that a single individual could follow his passion, create a collection, and in the process have an impact on the history of photography. I was not only interested in promoting indie published books, but I was very interested in creating an archive. So two weeks after the Master Class, I plunged into the reality of overseeing a public collection. It was the right time and I knew I would regret the decision if I did not start the Indie Photobook Library.

The iPL was started for many reasons—the two main ones being—preservation and showcasing of these independent, self-published books to be SEEN (not just on the web) and for the future—a collection of books that decades from now people will still be able to see in person. Having a specific collection dedicated to these kinds of books allows for the development of future discourse on trends in self-publishing, the ability to reflect on and compare books in the collection, and for scholarly research to be conducted in years, decades and centuries to come.

Sometimes you wonder where your path is leading you, but once you get there it all makes sense. The iPL is my destination and I will be working on it for the rest of my life.

Search results for "Japan" at the indie Photobook Library site.

Search results for “Japan” at the indie Photobook Library site.

Does the iPL accept everything it receives? What is the curatorial process like? If there is a single criteria for inclusion, what would it be?

LL: For now the iPL accepts everything it receives. But with that in mind the iPL only accepts photobooks that are self-published, independently published and distributed, exhibition catalogs, print-on-demand photobooks, artist books, zines, photobooks printed on newsprint, limited edition photobooks, etc.

Are there plans to make the iPL more accessible online? Perhaps a flip-preview like with Blurb books, or photo-eye’s sneak peak?

LL: Photobooks that are in the permanent collection of the iPL are available online as a catalog record with a photograph of the cover of the book. The site, and thus the collection, can be browsed by image, title or photographer. I have been thinking about video “flip-throughs” or interviews along with a book flip-through similar to what Self Publish, Be Happy has been doing. I like the video idea for two reasons. It gives a better sense of the book and at the same time, from an archivist point of view, for the more delicate books enables someone to experience the book without impacting it physically. There are future ideas along these lines already germinating…

How does the iPL fit into the same milieu as things like Self Publish, Be Happy; The Independent Photobook blog—are you all a part of the same dialogue? Where do you intersect, where do you clash?

LL: I think we are all celebrating the photobook, and specifically the self-published and indie published photobook, but we are promoting them in our own way. The iPL is the only physical archive.

What is your deepest hope for the iPL? What is its ultimate reach?

LL: I have very ambitious goals for the iPL. I hope it will be seen as the “Library of Congress” for self-published books and that photographers will continue to add to the collection as they create new books. Once the iPL has a space of its own, I hope to have the collection listed on worldcat.org. And in thirty years or so, the entire archive will be donated as its own collection to a much larger university or museum archive to be preserved and be accessible for future photo-bibliophiles long after my lifetime.

What challenges do you face in getting the iPL out into the world? What other challenges are there that someone who is not so intimately involved would not think to consider?

LL: Time. The iPL has already turned into a full-time project and I am happy about that, but we will need a full-time staff person to oversee the day-to-day maintenance of the collection so I can also focus on further development. How to do that without financial support is a good question but one that will be answered in the future. Another challenge is the language barrier. I want the iPL to have books from every corner of the globe. We have gotten the word out in Iran through Dide Magazine and I am reaching out to photo communities in the Middle East and Africa. News is spreading of the iPL and already we have books in the collection from Serbia, Iceland, China, Taiwan, Peru, Argentina, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Singapore, New Zealand, the United States and Canada, to give you an example of some of the countries.

What is a typical day like working as the curator/promoter/voice of iPL?

LL: We receive submissions every day, so a typical day always includes looking at books that have come in and sending out a confirmation email, cataloging them for the iPL website and our records and then announcing the new books that have been added to the collection through social media, our RSS feed and by email to those following the iPL. Currently we are getting ready for the Flash Forward Festival and FotoWeek DC, writing grants, preparing our information for Kickstarter.com and looking for space.

Tell me about a couple of your favorite most recent submissions/finds.

LL: I don’t want to label any of the books in the iPL as favorite of mines. But I can highlight some recent submissions that people should check out. NY low and high by Marco Onofri, Clinic, Depressive Landscapes, Waterfall, anything by Matt Austin or Andrea Stultiens, Kitintale by Yann Gross, Pause to Begin… There are just too many great photobooks … See You Soon by Maxwell Anderson, Eastward Bound, How Terry Likes His Coffee…. In July I met with George Slade at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston and brought with me two boxes of books that I had selected from the iPL. In many ways it was a personal guided tour of the iPL where I presented and compared and discussed, and three hours later, we barely felt we had begun. So I could go on and on about which books you should look at. And I am pleased to say that George will get to spend more time with some of these books, because he and the PRC will be hosting a curated exhibition from the iPL collection next Fall 2011!

Aside from traveling festivals, are there plans for a more permanent home for the iPL?

LL: Yes, the iPL is actively looking for a space. The traveling exhibitions are an initial way to showcase the books in the collection, but ultimately I hope to have a public space that operates like a non-circulating library where people can come in and browse the shelves. I would also like to have a small gallery area in the space for rotating exhibitions from the collection. And I am interested in the idea of letting larger institutions borrow a book if needed for an exhibition they are mounting.

If and when the iPL has the happy problem of outgrowing itself, how do you see yourself adapting to the duties and demands of its growth, and what steps to grow it even further would you like to take?

LL: I am smiling. The iPL has already outgrown my office and I am looking for that space you asked about in the previous question much sooner than I originally anticipated. The iPL will be continually adapting to the duties and demands of its growth—and I like that. That makes it exciting and limitless. As far as the logistics of an ever-growing collection, that is where it will get challenging. The iPL has applied for a grant and will soon be joining the other fundraising projects on Kickstarter.com and we have welcomed Stephanie Obernesser as our first intern this fall.

Has your role as the curator/caretaker of this collection influenced your own buying, viewing and book-appreciating habits? Would you, for example, still want to put your hands on a popularly or more widely produced title by one of the more well known art presses, or is there a kind of conversion that takes place, where your independent values must be lived and choices made by them?

LL: In the end they are all photobooks. I am still just as interested in traditional trade editions as I was before. I have been collecting photobooks for over ten years and most of them fall into the category of what you described as “produced by the more well known art presses.” And I have a section in my personal collection of titles relating to contemporary African photography. What has changed recently about my buying habits is that I am now buying more “indie” publications. Through the iPL I have the opportunity to see more non-traditional publications and because of this am buying more books. And I hope that same impulse will affect other people looking at the books in our library.

Is there room for everybody in the art press publishing world? Room for every kind of approach? In your view, are the more tried and true traditional ways of doing things  (i.e. big, expensive, prestigious presses) dying out?

LL: I wouldn’t say dying out, but with the surge of self-publishers and indie labels, I assume it is probably a lot harder for the traditional presses then it used to be. The photobook market is only so big and there is so much out there to buy and collect.

What is some of the feedback that you’ve received about the iPL that has most surprised you?

LL: The feedback and support of this project has been amazing and overwhelmingly positive. I am hearing that photographers are selling books after someone has seen it in the Indie Photobook Library. That is some of the best kind of feedback.

Why is it important to collect photobooks at this particular place and time? In an age of fleeting ephemerality, is there something counterintuitive to trying to hold onto the material?

LL: It is inherent in my own behavior to collect. I understand the nature of collections and archives. I don’t like the fleeting ephemerality of information, images, time and really enjoy looking at history through an accessible archive. I started the Indie Photobook Library just days before I read the article that appeared in the Boston Globe on May 24, 2010, titled “Harvard’s Paper Cuts.” I read it in a nervous sweat. The article made me second-guess my decision as I thought about what I had just started. If one of the largest libraries and archives was collecting less physical material, what was I doing? Archives shouldn’t follow trends but collect the things that shape them. On a consumer level, digital material may be more practical, but I am still interested in the physical object and I think the role of the archive should be too. What is shifting within archives is how the collection and material is used and shared. And for that I think the more that is digitized and available online the better.

What do you see in the independent, self-published book market that is different and/or of a particular and rare value from the mass market?

LL: Individuality and creativity. It may be an idealist’s view but the physical expression of the book as object and idea is not as influenced by commercialism. The production of the indie book may be approached from a different perspective than a mass market book. The photographer is in control of the decisions and thus the end result is just as much an expression of the artist as is any of the photographs. It goes beyond just a book of photographs.

Tell us a little bit about the inaugural iPL event, the Toronto Flash Forward festival. How will people be encouraged or inclined to use the library? What will distinguish it from an art press book sale stand?

LL: Stephanie and I are busy getting ready for the Flash Forward Festival and we are very excited to be part of the “Self Published Book Expo.” The iPL will be showcasing its entire cataloged archive and people are invited to spend hours looking through all the books. It is such a diverse collection, from exquisite hardcover books to softcover zines, newsprint books to limited-edition artist books, print-on-demand books from Blurb and MagCloud, and everything in between. Check out our website to see the books that will be on view. Self Publish Be Happy will also be there showing a curated selection and I look forward to seeing the books selected by Bruno. None of the books in the iPL are for sale, nor is the iPL set up to sell books at the Flash Forward Festival, however on Saturday October 9 from 4-6pm, if you have a book in the iPL and will be in Toronto you are invited to bring copies of your book to sign and sell during that time to festival visitors.

Many, many thanks to Larissa for taking the time to so thoughtfully answer my questions about collecting and the world’s first Indie Photobook Library! Keep up to date with news and chances to view the iPL over on their website. The iPL also has a twitter feed and a Facebook page. If you have a book that you are interested in submitting to the collection, check out the submission page.

Once upon a time, I was a contract writer, pitching and writing about contemporary photography for Jen Bekman over at her 20×200 site (and other associated brands). The archives of stories on the sites disappeared when the company re-structured and re-launched, and some of the people and projects I wrote about then I believe deserve a longer virtual life. Each Thursday for the near forseeable future I will resurrect one such piece and publish it here. All of these #throwbackthursday posts originated on the now defunct Hey, Hot Shot! blog.