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I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

I Am About to Call it a Day is a book printed in A-3 format. This book publication is No. 169 in the row of books issued by Patrick Frey in Zürich. This particular publication has been prepared in cooperation with Hannibal Publishing, I read on the cover, and in the colophon on the inside of the Brown minigolf cardboard cover. You can hardly call it a ‘book’; it has the appearance of an oblong calendar contained in a carton sleeve. This is not meant to be a depreciative comment, but an observation based on just the book-technical aspects. And the title (in a large bold Franklin Gothic Condensed font) printed in black on the front cover slams in your face. Why did you and the Dutch designer Mevis van Deursen choose for this format, this form of presentation? Tell me please how it all came about.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

Bieke Depoorter (BD):

Hannibal Publishing is a Belgian Publisher. I collaborated with Armand Mevis on a book project published three years ago. A modest edition it is.

 As for this book, it is important to me to let the images speak for themselves. Therefore deliberately is chosen not to include too much text. And for the same reasons captions are lacking. I think it is important that there is room for the viewer to interpret the pictures. I like to create a narrative; to use photography to tell a story. That is why the book size was important. Many small details are blended in the story, such as small texts incorporated in the photographs. It’s good to be able to view the pictures frame by frame, even though the sequence of frames makes up the story. That is why I have chosen one picture per page.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Yes these are full bleed images, and large in size. Actually you dive into the picture, right away into that space, be it a living room, a bedroom, or a kitchen-diner, somewhere in the United States.

BD:

Yes! I have tried many things, such as a smaller page size. Initially it daunted me, such a large book size. But finally it turned out well. So why not!

 

MT:

Isn’t the form of binding called ‘Swiss binding’? Looking at the tape cloth lining on the topside, and the cover is not attached to the face top edge.

BD:

Swiss binding..? I’m not exactly sure how such book-technical details are termed!

MT:

You have previously cooperated with graphic designers Mevis and van Deursen, I understand. During the production process of which book did you collaborate?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

Ou Menya … is a book containing pictures taken in Russia. And I got to know Armand (Mevis) while I was studying at KASK in Gent. He gave a lecture on design at the time. I thought highly of his artist’s strategy; I’m suspicious of designers who put themselves forward. Further, Armand is eager to understand my work and to search for a solution in book form together. When I graduated I asked him if he would like to create a book with me. The production process went very well, both then while compiling my first photobook, and now. It was perfect.

MT:

When did that take place? When did you collaborate on your first book project?

BD:

In 2011 Ou Menya was published.

MT:

We will get back to that later in our conversation. By the way, what is the size of the initial print run of I Am About to Call it a Day?

BD:

One thousand five hundred copies.

I know Edition Patrick Frey prefers to keep the print run low. And both publishers have 750 books for sales and distribution. So, Hannibal distributes in Belgium and the Netherlands, and Patrick Frey mainly internationally.

 

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Let’s talk about the title of your recently published book, which is strong and inviting… It is a typical American colloquial expression: “calling it a day”. How did you come up with that title?

BD:

I actually thought up the title. I make videos because I feel the medium of photography falls short, although I have not implemented any of the moving imagery in my work so far. At one time I was visiting a lady who lived in a small apartment home in a public housing complex, and I stayed overnight with her. She sat for 12 hours, the entire day, in front of her door. With her dog. I filmed her for a few hours straight. I knew already I might use a quote from that movie as the title for my book. She was constantly directing everyday life, from her chair, in front of her door. At one time, as the sun went down she looked at her mobile phone and she said: “I am about to call it a day.”   And she went inside. She had done nothing else that day. I consider the title quite appropriate, because only then did I start photographing people as they would round off their day. That moment I find quite interesting. Because as soon as people are indoors, they become more in tune with themselves, away from everyone … They start to relax.

MT:

How did you come to that conclusion: that you actually wanted to photograph that specific moment in the lives of other people? When did you become aware of that? I mean, to realize that this time of day, this subject matter appears to be appealing to you?

BD:

Gosh…Why? ‘WHY’ I always find such questions hard to answer! It started with my work in Russia. There I stayed overnight in people’s homes. At the time, that was not my intention. I only did that because I had no money. And because there were no hotels in the villages I visited. Next, I started to approach people and asked them if I could stay overnight. It was then that I realized that this was a fair way for me to work with photography. Previously, I often took pictures on the street, but never really felt comfortable with what I was doing. Because I had the feeling that this way of working was too snapshot-like. And I felt I did not give the people I documented a fair chance. That was a moment of insight: I realized how I wanted to deal with people in my work. That’s how it started.

And in this body of work, in America … I have a feeling that people are much less reluctant in their home environment. When the night falls, the time people go to sleep, is often a very intimate moment, not a chance occurrence. That aspect was attractive to me too. I don’t want to emphasize that the photographs are about these American citizens per se, they are also very much about me. The cinematographic atmosphere … is what I want to communicate. I feel that atmosphere especially at night and during that intimate hour.

MT:

So that expression “Call it a Day” is the outcome of that one meeting with the lady sitting all day in front of her door?  

BD:

Yes!

MT:

Now you have finalized the project, what does the phrase mean to you?

BD:

This book might be a collection of images, but the project isn’t finished. Each picture refers to the night that falls, to the day that dawns. Currently I’m working on a similar project in Egypt. And maybe one day I will be able to combine all the photowork into a more substantial large book. Already, in exhibition presentations I often bring parts of the different projects together. So, I do not consider the project accomplished at this stage, at the publication of this book.

MT:

So it is an artist’s strategy, a way of working that you will continue, at different locations, in terms of geographical area and social-cultural environment?

BD:

Yes. The project in Egypt started during the revolution, three years ago. It’s very interesting to be able to apply the same concept to a different culture. It is very similar. Anywhere in the world people go home after a workday, choose a way of social withdrawal, go to sleep.

 

MT:

Let’s go back to your book. First, who is Maarten Dings, the author of the afterword on the back flap?

BD:

Maarten Dings is a friend of mine. We have studied together. He is also a photographer. At some point, for a major exhibition, I asked him to write an introductory text. I did not think about it beforehand. It moved me immensely; I am not good at talking about my own work, in explaining things. I considered it relevant that someone close to me, and my work, wrote a text. And I preferred a text, which is not too vague, not a theoretical notion. That’s why I asked him to write an afterword for his book.

 

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

I wonder! And this might be my only criticism: I wonder to what extent his words refer to you, honestly!

BD:

Seriously?

MT:

Yes! Because he makes statements like … I’ll try to highlight some of them…What is Dings referring to with words like ‘the image of oblivion’ and ‘a figure moon bathing in the nightly gloom’? It all sounds pretty mysterious…

Like in this text fragment: ‘Her mind wonders off to places’. To WHOM is the author referring to?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

Maarten describes a picture: the next to last picture in the book. Do you have the book at hand?

MT:

Yes.

BD:

This is a picture of a woman taking a bath. Maarten Dings is making reference to that specific image in the first two paragraphs of the text.

MT:

I understand, so “her mind” is not about you.

BD:

No, this is about her!

MT:

That was not clear to me. Okay, we will return to this image later.

One more example: Which moment is Dings referring to with the phrase that ‘the photographer succeeded in making seem perfectly self-evident’? I did not understand what is meant.

 

BD:

In that section, he writes about my photographs in general. In saying that my photographs speak for themselves.

MT:

Yes, in that manner. I feel that the words seem to ‘hoover’ above your work, but not describe what you actually see: the reality. While reading the afterword, I was seeking for things. What exactly does the author mean?

 

BD:

Okay…Thanks.

MT:

Bieke, I am not so familiar with your work yet. Actually I am About to Call it a Day, is my first encounter with your work. Would you please introduce me to your debut author-photographer book publication, you mentioned earlier, entitled Ou Menya. What does the title mean? In which language is it written? And what is this photobook about?

 

BD:

That means in Russian: ‘with me’. The Communist ideology has flaws in the Russian language: for example, if someone says, “that car is mine”, one says actually: “that car is with me”. I think that is a beautiful way of expressing. Russians use that phrase in a similar way when they say: “come and stay with me overnight”.

 

MT:

Nicely said! So that is the way the possessive pronoun is expressed? Along the lines of: “that car is mine”?

 

BD:

Yes. Actually, in Russian you don’t make that clear. The car is rather ‘with me’, than ‘mine’.

MT:

Now I see! What is the book about? Would you please explain the content to me?

BD:

I have never done this kind of travelling before; this was the first time. I took the Trans Siberia Express, from Moscow to Vladivostok. Every time I start a project, I like to have no expectations whatsoever. This project was my graduation-work for the art academy. The only intention I had was that I wanted to take a trip on the Trans Siberian Railway. Prior to leaving I contacted one person, in Moscow, where I could sleep over the first night. She spoke English. She was the only person who spoke English during my trips. I also knew that I wanted to visit small villages. Everything else was left open. And because I had no money, and hotel rooms were not available in these villages, I asked the lady in Moscow to write a note in Russian, with the announcement that I am a photographer. I don’t have a lot of money and asking the person receiving the note whether I could stay overnight. With that note in my pocket I went travelling around. I showed it to people, in order to find a place to sleep, but at the same time, hopefully, it was the doorway to photograph them. I continued to do so, every night, consistently. I made three trips to Russia, each time I spent one month. I’ ve always travelled by train. Every morning I took a local train, I get off in a small village, walked around and encountered a person, and I took photographs.

 

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MT:

And people are open to the idea?

BD:

Apparently! Haha…

MT:

But what do you say to them? Or you just show that note to people?

 

BD:

We can’t talk to each other, because we don’t share a common language. That’s exactly what gives me a thrill. Without common language, and for a very short time – I stay only one night – we became emotionally intimate with each other. I was quickly included as a family member.

MT:

So basically you could say you don’t know each other’s history, don’t know each other’s background, you barely know a person’s name, and still you receive great hospitality?

 

BD:

Yes. Novelty and familiarity play an important role in this kind of meeting. First I thought it had to do with the fact we did not share a common language. Whatever cliché question we would like to pose to each other (Who are you?) was impossible. We, literally, could not talk to each other. We had to observe each other in order to see whether we trusted each other. You deal with one and another in a different way, allowing you to meet up and get to know each other quickly, much quicker than by other means, by using language.

MT:

In one of the book publications issued by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen in the realm of the Sochi project I read that Russians are extremely hospitable. As if this is a culturely-induced gesture, socially essential, and therefore everyone considers it important to be carried out.

BD:

Yes, as well as being very honest. On the other hand, people on the street were fairly gruff, they looked down, and they didn’t smile.   For example, in case you want to buy a train ticket, and you do not speak the language, then that’s your problem. But once they invite you into their homes, and feel they can trust you, the Russians are extremely friendly! I met extremely poor people: they lack any private property. Sometimes I simply slept next to them in one bed.

MT:

Extraordinary!

In 2012 you joined Magnum Photos as a nominee? How did the nomination come about? And has your status changed since?

BD:

How did it come about! Ha-ha… Anyone can submit a portfolio, but in general members, Magnum photographers, who support your work, will nominate you. Then all members take a vote. Some Magnum photographers were acquainted with my work already. I had won a prize with my graduation project: the Magnum Expression Award. Alex Soth had seen my work. Susan Meiselas was then serving on a jury. In the past I collaborated with Harry Gruyaert. Half of the votes need to approve. So now I’m an associate member at Magnum Photos, again after a further round of voting occurred. One more step to go: in two years time Magnum members will vote once more, and the outcome of the votes may result in a full membership.

MT:

Okay, that is the procedure and what additional steps have to be taken. Well, bon chance!

BD:

Thank you. Ha-ha!

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Let’s move on to the United States. Let’s try to make that transition. Why did you take that decision to continue the project in the US?

 

BD:

I wanted to continue the project in another location, when not faced with a language barrier. In order to experience whether that would make a difference. I wanted to find out whether getting as close as I could to people had to do with the fact that I don’t command the local language. We have plenty of stereotypes about Americans… This applies equally to Russians; I had very little knowledge about the US. I was simply curious. I just started travelling around, out of the blue!

 

MT:

Again by train?

BD:

No, because in the US, there is minimal public transit services in the US.

MT:

Greyhound bus lines?

BD:

Yes, but the Greyhound bus does not stop in the villages that I wanted to visit. The first five trips I hitchhiked up and down and around. It was not so pleasant; I don’t like to hitchhike. But I had no money to rent a car. I really wanted to go to unknown territories, visit small communities. So the last three trips I rented a car. During these travels the landscapes were recorded. These vistas are intertwined in the book.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Yes, interesting. These landscapes are like different pauses, scattered throughout the book. They are not intended as chapter divisions, I assume?

 

BD:

No, absolutely not. Also the landscapes do not necessarily convey something about the people who are depicted before or after. While travelling by car, I try as little as possible to think about what I’m going to do. I feel too restricted that way. But I was automatically being drawn to those landscapes. It comes first and foremost from the threat, the desperation I was facing in the mountainous areas. I started to document the landscapes. When I got home, I realized, while I started to create the story line of my book, that the landscapes fitted in and radiate the same type atmosphere as I felt when encountering these people. For me the landscapes are equivalent to the portraits. The end result is the combination of both.

 

MT:

You say for five times you hitchhiked as primary mode of travel, and three times you rented a car. When did that take place? What is the time frame?

BD:

I started in 2010. I enjoy working on multiple projects. Further, it requires a lot of energy to stay overnight with other people. I need to return back home and have to bother myself with something else. And even after returning home I do not immediately view and edit the pictures I’ve made. Sometimes it takes up to six months before I look at the material.

 

MT:

You have been to the US about three times per year?

BD:

Usually twice a year.

MT:

And how long would you stay?

BD:

Three weeks.

MT:

How many people have you visited in total during each of the three-week periods?

BD:

Every five days I take a break. Gosh…How many?

MT:

Let’s try to calculate: three weeks…An average of five per week?

BD:

I think I met about 18 people per trip. And the last time I took an ocean voyage to the US, I just went there to photograph landscapes. Not with the intention to stay overnight with people.

MT:

And the snow landscapes?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

Yes, I photographed the snow landscapes during the last trip, but also during previous trips. I felt drawn to that atmosphere, like a cinematic technique that creates drama. And Yes, I wonder, when actually is a project finished? Anyway, you evolve as a professional photographer. That process went so rapidly, it made me realize that the photographs I took during the first trip I could hardly use any longer.

MT:

So you came up with the idea to spend the night at the homes of perfect strangers in the US. How did you encounter these people? Would you please try to sketch a few of these meetings, give some examples?

BD:

I would meet people on the street. I would walk around and observe people. And try to discover who can I contact; someone who I can trust. Next, I rather bluntly ask whether I can stay overnight with them.

 

MT:

The author wrote: you actually ‘wander around’, as the text on the back flap suggests. So that is what you do, that is the case?

BD:

Yes!

MT:

Sometimes things can go wrong, or not?

BD:

Yes, sometimes that is the case, although extremely bad things haven’t happened. If anything goes wrong, then that is related to people I haven’t met earlier, or are unexpectedly present in the house I visit. But the people I have met on the street I have always been able to rely on. As soon as you pose the question, you assess the nature of their response, and their good or bad intentions.

I often decide immediately: “Okay”, or “I rather not stay overnight with you”, because once out and in the open, it feels a bit awkward.

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MT:

So in a split second, you need to determine: I do it, or I don’t. You will have to be very attentive, to know when it feels right?

BD:

Yes. Much is derived from reading another person’s body language signals, from personal behaviour.

MT:

Would you please mention one or two examples?

BD:

The lady in the hot springs, the second to last picture, I met her in a grocery store.

MT:

The Marylyn Monroe-type!

BD:

Yes! It is strange. Because it was night, and I always want to have a place to sleep before darkness falls, because that is safer. It was so dark and I was desperate; It was the first night of one of my travels to the US. She was a friendly lady, but it didn’t really feel like this would be a night in which I would take some pictures. You feel something is – or is not – going to happen, as soon as you enter the home. And suddenly she asks me to come along with her to a hot springs in the middle of nowhere, in a forest. The location was absurd.

 

MT:

Where exactly is this story taking place, in the US?

BD:

In New Mexico. Close to a village called Las Vegas! In the region of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. So every encounter that matters is a surprise; you can’t predict what will happen.

MT:

The very first time I saw one of your pictures, I was looking at the one of the elderly man with long hair, sitting in a wheelchair, and sleeping in an awkward posture. What kind of interactions did you have with this older man sleeping in his wheel chair? Did you stay with him, until he, literally, ‘called it a day’ and fell asleep?

 I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

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BD:

There is also a picture of an older couple lying in bed, embracing each other. That’s the same man. I stayed overnight at their home as well. The next day they went to a wedding ceremony and they asked if I wanted to join them so I could leave from there. They had also invited me to stay overnight during this occasion. As you can see the photograph is made in a hotel room. This elderly man just came back from the wedding party, in his neat suit, and fell asleep in the wheelchair.

MT:

Why is he in a wheelchair? What is wrong with him?

BD:

His knees aren’t working well; He walks lame. I like it when people, while studying my pictures, do not know the storyline, what subject matter is depicted. And that brings up these kind of questions. And my answers do not fully address your questions. That is also the reason why I have no captions accompanying the pictures.

MT:

Yes, this openness is very tangible in your book.

The author of the afterword, Dings, (I bring him up one more time) suggests you did ‘win their hearts’? It says by candidly admitting to your ‘own vulnerability’. What does he mean by that? What is Dings referring to by saying your ‘own vulnerability’?

BD:

My vulnerability? People lead with their chin, introducing me into their homes, and vice versa. I think it is important that we keep a conversation going; I am there not only as a ‘professional photographer’, but more as a person. I live with these people. That openness is vital. I am genuinely interested in them.

 

MT:

Do you stay in contact with some of the people after you’ve left? Or all that remains is the momentary encounter, and that’s it.

BD:

That moment itself is what counts for me. I do not contact all those people I have met again, because I cherish that one occasion. That is a beautiful memory. I’m also afraid of being disillusioned if I would meet these people again. Many people add me on Facebook and send emails from time to time. I do sent messages in reply. In general I leave it up to the people themselves..

MT:

You just said the following: ‘I’m afraid of being disappointed if I would meet them again’. What do you mean exactly?

BD:

Usually, It is in these moments when unique pictures are hatched. A particular atmosphere is created, since I’m only staying one night. We all had agreed upon me leaving the next morning. People share a lot because they realize we have decided to part ways the next morning. And this is why I do not consider it necessary to seek after those people again.

MT:

You savour the intensity of the moment?

BD:

Yes! That single night counts, yes.

MT:

I presume you stay awake all night.

BD:

The evening, I mean, that is more accurate!

MT:

I like to get back on that topic, as I assume, one or two pictures were not taken at night, but during the day.

But let’s first talk about a technical aspect of your book: Two kinds of paper have been used for the reproduction of the photographs: Olin regular natural 80 grams for the landscapes I presume, which is a type of thin paper with a fine texture. And Hello Fatt matt natural 150 grams, used for the main characters, for the narrative. We touched on this topic: Please tell me more about the pictures interleaved in the book depicting desolate snow landscapes and cities by night. Where did you take these pictures?

 

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BD:

There are eight landscapes featured in the book. Yeah, where did I take these pictures…? During my travels, in-between stays. I took several pictures in the Rocky Mountains.

 

MT:

How many US states have you visited? You just mentioned New Mexico. Where have you been?

BD:

I always choose two major cities from which I would depart from and at which I would arrive, such as Atlanta and New York. So I fly to Atlanta and my return flight is from New York. Then I travel in three weeks from one city to another. In the course of this project I crossed over the US. I took another trip from Seattle to New York. Yet another journey I took from Seattle to Denver. I also travelled across Florida. I have visited many US states, except for the Mid-West.

 

MT:

Well, now I get a glimpse of the range of itineraries. What happened to me is, while looking through your book, is that I did not get to the landscapes because that thin type of paper (Olin regular natural 80 grams) is sticking to the photo pages.

BD:

Yes! The opposite effect to that intended…Ha-ha.

MT:

I’d like to pose another question regarding the landscape photography: How do you relate these pictures to the book title I Am About to Call It A Day?

BD:

The comprehensive title is reflecting an atmosphere. Similar to the one reflected in the portraits.

MT:

Indeed, you consider this is a similar way of communicating, I understand.

BD:

Yes.

MT:

I’d like to address now a different aspect of your way of working: How does your work incline towards the cinematographic?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

I don’t know if ‘cinematic’ principles and techniques are the right qualification. To me my photographs are a form of fiction, like a movie. My predisposition was that my work about Russia was truthful: it is about reality. While in the US my work was evolving in a different direction: I am trying to make use of reality, not so much in terms of staging, but I admit that this body of work is not the representation of Reality per se. It is above all my reality. The people depicted are not so much portraying themselves, but rather a persona.

 

MT:

Aha, So it is! Your pictures had already led me suspect something, but I didn’t dare to ask! The facial expressions show it sometimes, like that little boy, sitting at the table studying his sheet music. The expression in his eyes is highly revealing.

BD:

Well, the positioning of the people is not staged.

MT:

I don’t mean posing, more … something going beyond reality.

BD:

I try to reveal something about these people: A kind of personal atmosphere. That might be the cinematic aspect: something ominous is hanging in the air… I find myself thinking being arrogant if I would confirm that those people are in daily life exactly like they are depicted in the pictures. I try to capture ‘something’ in people. The getting away from this world, and search for the moment in which they find themselves in a world of their own.

 

MT:

But how do you do that? You learn to observe people closely? Do you give instructions to people? Can you direct an emotion? Or you just wait and see?

BD:

I hardly direct anything. For example, in the case of the portrait of a woman lying in bed, staring at a red shaded lamp: she is well aware I am taking a portrait. Once I might say: “Stay like that”. At the start of a session I focus on communication, then I stop talking, allowing people to be thrown back onto themselves. That is the moment when I begin to take pictures.

 

MT:

And how much time is in between? Half a minute…or more?

BD:

It takes at least half an hour!

MT:

Half an hour! That session alone is most telling. So you’ll just sit in silence together in a room?

BD:

Yes, as is often the case! Before starting to take portraits in the bedrooms, I usually begin with a conversation. At a certain moment I am just living the present; I don’t talk anymore.

MT:

You don’t hear the camera’s shutter click?

BD:

In fact, you do!

MT:

So you make multiple shots of the person, in half-hour time frames?

BD:

Yes. My way of working varies from place to place. And it depends a lot on what kind of people I meet. Sometimes the pictures are taken rapidly, due to a volatile situation, at other times really slow.

 

MT:

Very nice; this provides insight in your inward disposition towards other people, as well as your artist’s strategy. Let’s focus on the cinematic aspects of your work, in a broader context. I don’t think that your work refers to Dennis Hopper-like movie scenes, or Wim Wenders-like scenes.

BD:

No, it comes from within myself, from being inspired by others. I just returned from the Ardennes: a week without internet, no telephone connections. The outer space radiates an atmosphere in the forest, there is the smell of manure, a type of threat, that moves me very much. Maybe that is what could be defined as the ‘cinematic’ aspect…

 

MT:

Or should we say ‘suspense’?

BD:

Suspense?

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MT:

‘Suspense’ is [a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety] the thrill of the unknown, like in a movie.

BD:

Yes, indeed!

MT:

We have a house in a forest, in the Vosges mountains, I know what it feels like!

BD:

Ha-ha…Super!

MT:

Let’s talk about the pictures some more, and also about text, because text seems to be an essential part of your way of expressing yourself. Who wrote the letter ‘My Useless Existence’ on July 2nd, 1997? Where did you find the handwritten letter?

BD:

I got to see that letter at a woman’s home; I stayed overnight at her place. She was present, as well as her husband. At one point I was sitting in her bedroom, we sat together on her bed, and she started telling me very personal stories. She was very open about her suicidal thoughts. This is an excerpt from her diary: A kind of farewell letter that she had written in the 1990s. And her husband actually knows nothing about that letter.

 

MT:

She took the initiative to show you that letter?

BD:

Yes. I also took portraits of this woman, but to me the picture is more a meditation on the significance of the letter as a symbol, on a more figurative level, much more significant than the portraits I took of her.

MT:

So you will not find her portrayed in this book? Only the letter is included?

BD:

That’s right.

MT:

And where did this take place, in which part of the US?

BD:

Gosh, that I don’t remember right now.

 I do keep a log, or notebook every morning or afternoon I briefly write down my feelings, the names of the people I have met the night before, and the location. But I do not know everything by heart!

 

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

One more example: the same counts for the note written on tinfoil, or is it paper kitchen towel?

BD:

I think it is written on duck tape. Is that what you mean? It reads: ‘It’s not because you hear noise…’ Yes, that note is handwritten on duck tape.

MT:

What is meant by that piece of text?

BD:

‘It’s not because you hear noise that we’re home…’ Not a very welcoming phrase.

It was glued to the front door. I have been inside, though! And I considered it appropriate for the book.

MT:

Was that note meant for you?

BD:

No, no. The note was addressed to visitors coming to the house. Actually I did not see the note until I closed the door and left the next morning.

 

MT:

Are these people represented in the book? Or did you merely take a picture of the note?

BD:

No, I photographed just the handwritten note.

MT:

In fact, text is very much part of your book project. We find personal notes, slogans on a wall (‘I love class’, scribbled on a wall in a teenager’s room. And this one is a little weird: ‘A little hope’ in adhesive letters glued on a wall in a living room. This phrase is adorable: There is a pencil drawing showing a heart pierced by a sword and surrounded with flowers. In the very heart of it, it says: ‘I Just Wanted To Tell You How Much I Like You’ – each word shaded in fat capital letters). This is truly a description of the emotional world of people.

 

BD:

You say it all yourself; I think so, too.

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MT:

There is a letter from a husband to his wife, written in jail, on recycled paper. Would you please comment on this letter?

BD:

She is a woman with whom I spent the night. Her husband was in jail for paedophilia. The letter from her husband is about his children. But being a child, you don’t realize it deals with paedophilia. The letter is interesting for different reasons.

MT:

What struck me is that the tone of the letter is authoritative.

BD:

Definitely a cold mechanical letter it is. It might be considered even the opposite of the love note with the heart.

MT:

Yes … a chilly, authoritarian way of approaching a person, nota bene your partner. Where did you get the letter?

BD:

She was also someone who told about her past, like the woman who has considered suicide. Actually, I ended up visiting prisons with families fairly frequently, about two or three times, because I went visiting with people who have jailed family members. But I didn’t do that with her. She took me upstairs to see pictures of her husband, some letters … that way I came across that letter. It all happens by talking to each other, sharing things. This took place in Montana, I think.

MT:

Watching television is mainly how these American citizens fade into ‘oblivion’, just looking at these staring empty eyes. I have been counting: 8 photographs show people staring at the screen. And studying the expression on their faces, I wondered if photographs (such as the picture of the boy with neatly combed hair, sitting at the table studying sheet music); have been staged? It looks like they have had instructions.

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BD:

This picture is taken of an Amish family. The boy is studying Bible songs, which are sung in the morning. They are always dressed this way. Children don’t go to school, I believe; they study at home. I sat at the table with him and at one point I said: ‘stop’, or ‘wait’, and then I took his portrait.

MT:

So while he is studying, you say: ‘wait’!

BD:

I cannot remember the chronology of events.

MT:

Why do you tell the boy to ‘wait’?

BD:

When a particular posture, glimpse or regard is of interest to me, then I put someone on ‘hold’. Other photographers work the same way, I think…

MT:

Now I understand. You want to hold onto that moment. The same with regard to the picture of the teenager girl lying down on her bed in her bedroom. That scene comes across as if something has been directed.Could we consider this atmosphere something what we have been referring to as ‘suspense’? A building of interest and suspense occurs in space, in the course of time; it seems to be a vital tool.

 

BD:

Yes, definitely.

MT:

I like to share a few more observations with you. What struck me is, looking at the picture of a young girl wearing a yellow plastic necklace and a pink sweater standing in a front yard, that it looks like the picture is taken early in the morning, at dawn. While ‘Calling it a Day’ is actually referring to the end of the day: there is nothing else to do, people are tired. Sometimes you work in the morning before you leave, am I right?

BD:

That girl was actually the only ‘volatile contact’ that I have had. The picture was taken in the evening, using a strong flashlight. I took a break, and was walking around the neighbourhood, not shooting any pictures, and I passed by that girl. As I took the next street, it felt as if she had hypnotized me, with her appearance. No further word had been spoken. I came back with my camera, and took that portrait. For me, the atmosphere was suitable for in the book.

MT:

Yes …And … I feel that, in this case, you are making contact with and photographing some anonymous person in public space. Because it was so intense for you, you were so magnified, that you went back with your camera. You worked outside ‘protocol’!

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BD:

Yes. Huh, I have no protocol!

MT:

I mean, usually, you repeat what is familiar to you; you use a way of working, a way to control the circumstances. You meet strangers on the street, ask them to stay overnight, go to their homes, get acquainted with each other and start photographing. In my view, it all has to do with creating suspense…

BD:

Yes, definitely! The fact that I stay overnight with people is ultimately part of a process, if you wish. And indeed, it’s all about suspense shared. Whether I stay overnight or not doesn’t really matter to me!

 

MT:

So in fact, that is not what it is about.

BD:

No.

MT:

And then the final picture: What are we looking at? For ease I call the person portrayed, a middle-aged Marilyn Monroe type. You met her at the grocery store, you said. She is relaxing outside, at night, in a dugout piece of concrete, wearing her swimming suit.

BD:

This is a hot springs in the middle of a forest. Probably in order to hold the water they poured reinforced concrete and dug a hole. An outdoor lantern has been installed above the hot springs. And that’s it. It is a weird place.

 

MT:

Speaking of cinematic atmosphere!

BD:

Yes!

MT:

You went along with her? First, you met this lady at the grocer, that evening…

BD:

Yes, she invited me to come along, and of course I was thrilled. We also bathed together in the outdoors hot springs. Then I stepped out and took some photographs. Everything is melting together.

Actually I feel a little uncomfortable explaining how I take my pictures. That’s why I don’t mention this in the book itself. It’s simply not important for the viewer to know. 

MT:

You do participate in someone’s life. You step into people’s lives, as it were.

BD:

Yes, that’s right. And those are precisely the circumstances, which create a living trust. This all relates to me getting access to a person’s bedroom. I can’t just say: “I’m going to take some pictures in the bedroom”.

 

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MT:

How to make it happen? How to convince someone to trust you? First you give that note, or you introduce yourself in English. Show me! Let’s say I live in a small village in North America, and we meet each other on the street. And then you ask me whether you can spend the night with me. How do you do it?

BD:

“Hello, I know this might seem like an odd question. I’m a photographer and I take pictures of people at home and I would like to ask if I may stay overnight with you”? That’s it, very direct.

MT:

Then you’re not yet in the bedroom!

BD:

The book consists of only 42 images… Well, how do I do it…? I participate. Things happen. I definitely do not knock on a bedroom door. It happens because the people don’t find my presence objectionable. And please realize than another method does not work for me.

MT:

That’s exactly it, what I am referring to; you have no method. You pick up their flow as a way of life. You’re built into it. Otherwise I think that you would encounter resistance of some sort.

BD:

Yes. When I take photographs, I’m just there, very mindful, and with them. Focussing on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring at that moment. The pictures just pour out. I definitely do not want to consider these people as objects. And therefore I take breaks, after three weeks I need to go back home, because otherwise there is a risk that I treat people unfairly.

 

MT:

That sounds respectful. It reminds me also of the working method of Bertien van Manen, as she proceeded in Russia in the 1990s. Although Bertien stayed with people for longer periods.

BD:

Yes, Bertien van Manen stayed much longer at people’s homes, I do believe comparing both ways of working is possible.

 MT:

Finally, please tell me what the work in progress IN BETWEEN is about. And to what does the title refer?

BD:

This is a series that I created in Egypt. The work is the result of a collaborative project with three other photographers. We were asked to photograph during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Well, not so much the revolution itself, which at the time took place on Tahir Square. I just came back from the United States, and wanted initially not to stay overnight with people, but do something else. So I walked around in residential neighbourhoods, and realized if I am continuing on the project, then it should be here. Private life in Egypt is very protected. It is not easy to intrude upon people’s lives; to enter Egyptian culture. Foreigners were considered spies during the revolt. That in itself, I find very interesting: to be in a distrustful environment and struggle to win people’s trust. And to be able to photograph, something that’s simply not obvious. Initially we organized an exhibition on this topic in Belgium. After that exhibition I decided that I wanted to continue working in Egypt. I have been there five times since, and have decided to go back.

 

MT:

And how do you introduce yourself? How to get into the private domain? Because it also applies to this country: you do not command the language? You have a new way of working?

BD:

Because it is unsafe in Egypt, I not only don’t command the language, people also consider me a spy on the street. I work together with a girl my age, a Belgian (Ruth Vanderwalle) who lives and works in Egypt. She often works with the Dutch journalist Jan Eikelboom. We are young and good friends. She interacts with people in a similar way as I do. We continue to work on this basis. She contacts people on the street. If we do feel safe, she returns to the hotel and I stay with that person, for a night. That’s the way we work.

MT:

Your companion is on a tight schedule. First she joins you and some time later she withdraws herself… You do see each other the following day? Is that the way it goes?

 BD:

Yes. When we tour we’ll make sure we have a hotel booked. Then at some point she will go back to the hotel. Hence I return to the hotel in the morning, and try to get some more sleep. Usually I don’t get enough sleep, because in Egypt I stay with people together in one bed; there is simply no room. These are the rules and regulations.

 

MT:

So the two of you go down this unknown route for a period of three weeks?

 

BD:

For two weeks we continue, because it can be a difficult place to work. It is very intensive.

MT:

Are you able to sleep at all, while staying with complete strangers?

 

BD:

No! Therefore it is exhausting.

MT:

How would you define the project outcome? Is it also going to be a Patrick Frey production?

BD:

I have no idea … a book anyway. A photobook creates an intimate experience with the viewer and the work. That aspect I find attractive. But when I’m taking pictures, I am living the moment itself, not looking forward to the final product. Well…sure, definitely a book!

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Today, one month before the first day of Christmas, I decided to make a selection of thirteen author/photographer books and one exhibition catalogue to represent the high quality of photobooks issued in the highly productive calendar year 2014. What is remarkable is that, except for the children’s book and the photo magazine for kids, all covers are extremely sober, some sheer gloomy. And one way or the other all of the bookworks deal with history and hierarchies, political issues, both local and global, with gender and everyday life, with surveillance and leisure. I will mention the publications in no particular order.  

 

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1. FRIET speciaal. Schrift voor kinderen over archeologie in Amsterdam en omstreken (French Fries special. Notebook for Kids on Archeology in Amsterdam and its Surrounding Areas) published by Van Zoetendaal and BMA. This booklet in a plain cardboard cover, is designed and published by Willem van Zoetendaal and reads like a primer for kids. It is a photo magazine for kids, containing numbered and free-standing objects (meticiously reproduced by Harold Strak) made of plastic material discovered at the Damrak and Rokin during the construction of the Noord/Zuidlijn (North-South Underground)  in 2003-2012. In the index, in the back of the cahier all the objects are clearly described, dated and measured. It goes like this: [25] Cracked red spoon 8,5cm long, 1950-2005; [23] Four dirty fries forks, of which two manufactured by Veriplast in Apeldoorn; [9] Two fragments, in different sizes, of a  broken comb. Red plastic, 3,3cm high, 1900-2005; [21] A piece from a KPN telephone card for 10,00 euro’s, decorated with a scene from a painting by Jan Steen. 2,5cm long, plastic, 1996-2005; [16] several fragments of celluloid film and black plastic holder, 1950-2005.

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2. I adore accordion folded photo books. Flipping through the pages of Contemporary Archeology, I wondered about various topics: ‘mental reconstruction’; usage of found and vernacular objects as well as personal documents; a self-made photographic reportage about the mummy transfer of Ramesses I; and the book project itself. I understand everything in the book relates to a CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) program in Karnak, in the south of Egypt where Olivier Cablat been working since October 2003.The way in which archeological findings from the Amsterdam Underground are reproduced and presented in FRIET speciaal is very similar to the method Olivier Cablat used in Contemporary Archaeology, published by RVB Books. Olivier started from raw material, found objects related to everyday life in contemporary Egypt; he made no hierarchical judgments about the nature of the material, and applied the same treatment to it as scientific researchers do to ancient artifacts. Olivier Cablat: “In the afternoon I used the same tools, the same light, the same technique, to record found objects in the street, in the garbage can at the office, or vernacular objects I bought at the corner shop, like my cigarettes packages”. Read all about it: A conversation with Olivier about this accordion fold.

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3. Southbound by Knut Egil Wang, I discoverd it at UNSEEN/Offprint art book fair. The funniest documentary photobook, I already spotted it online, is published by Journal in Sweden. This is a publishing house that makes exquisite photobooks (such as Trying to dance by JH Engstrom), but maintains low profile; e.g. Journal doesn’t attempt to increase its exposure through a website. Knut Egil Wang is a Los Angeles based Norwegian photographer with a surname that sounds Chinese. His documentary style has both a Martin Parr and Alec Soth edge to it. The narrative in this publication is related to local culture, warmer climate and simple amusement during ‘long dark winters’ in the Northern hemisphere. A small cute illustration of an aeroplane landing on the French title page and the bright yellow flyleaves introduce you to sunny destinations. We see elderly Western people in groups with Christmas hats on, poles in their hands, small backpacks on passing through a white wooden porch that looks like a misplaced prop in a movie like Paris Texas.

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4. The same counts for a three-volume publication Vienna MMix 10008/7000 in a sleeve published by Scheidegger & Spiess, I discoverd that numbered limited edition of 600 copies at East Wing Gallery during UNSEEN festival. Jules Spinatsch made 10.008 images, as part of what he called Surveillance Panorama Project at the Vienna Opera Ball. The Vienna State Opera was not amused with the end result, but did give permission for the project. Volume I, entitled Every Three Seconds, is bulky and dark green. It contains the integral sequence of the ten thousand pictures chronologically arranged in grids of 36 pictures on a spread.The images were made during an opera performance with two camera’s that moved every three seconds in a vertical line six positions downward along a rail, and up again after six shots. In this manner neither image selection nor editing took place. Volume III is a cahier containing two essays. One by neuroscientist Wolf Singer, who is exploring the transition of human perception in this age of social media and big data, and surveillance technology. Volume II entitled 71 photographs contains this exact amount of selected images, grainy and faded in colours: purplish, reddish, and yellowish, making them appear voyeuristic in nature.

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5. One more discovery at the UNSEEN festival/fair, last September in Amsterdam was a large-size children’s photobook, both conceptual and documentary in nature by the Slovakian female photographer Lucia Nimcova (1977). Animal Imago, published by sitcomm.sk & cee photofund, is containing pictures of abused, stuffed, encased, and misplaced animals in eastern and central Europe. We see a stuffed Nile crocodile in a shabby (what look like a natural history) museum presentation next to a stuffed monkey on the back of a scooter. Another double page shows a gracious grey cow’s head popping up behind a tree, opposite a sticky dead duck attacked by horseflies and dumped on a garbage can along a park lane. As is done with children’s books, the publication opens and ends with empty coloured pages, to make a drawing or take notes. There are no captions, and no other text. The publication Animal Imago is an ode to the photographer’s deaf-born son.

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6. And there is Pieter Hugo’s brand new oblong Aperture publication KIN. I bought at the gallery booth of Stevenson during Paris Photo. It reads like an album, I am pleasantly surprized. On the very first page Tasmyn Reynolds (it doesn’t say ‘my wife or girlfriend’) poses naked, with wet hair and pregnant with their first child. On another page his parents are portrayed, together in bed, all dressed, the mother with glasses on, the father with coffee cup in hand. After 10 pictures we see Hugo naked, lying down with his new-born daughter on his lap: a squirming little baby on top of his huge tattooed athletic body. While leafing through the pages I see his grand mother, his nanny, his second kid, and his extended family, and then the photographer just walks into the gallery booth. I turn around and there he is in person: the healthy looking tall blond Viking! I would not have recognised him otherwise. I say: “You must be Pieter Hugo, I just saw your portrait in your new book”. I asked him whether he speaks Dutch. “Ja”…. “My father was a French Huguenot”, he says in Afrikaans. I don’t get it all, but he continued explaining something like his family roots are in Denmark. Than I asked him how this publication came about. “Well, … in fact after the birth of my daughter six years ago. I’ve just seen the book once…well printed …paper a little thin.” I ask him what the three capital letters of which the title consists actually means: KIN. “Family in a broader sense… medemens!” [Fellow man], he exclaims. ‘KIN’ refers to ‘KINSHIP’, my partner explains a few days later on the phone. I requested Pieter to write that Dutch word in the copy of his book that I purchased on the spot, paying cash. With ‘medemens’ Paris Photo 2014 in Grand Palais starts. 

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7. 17.15 Friday November 14th, I am receiving an email in which Aperture announces The winner of The Photobook Awards. The First Photobook Award is for Hidden Islam (2013) by Nicolo Degiorgis and with good reason (even without the recommendation and foreword by Martin Parr). The publication was also awarded the author’s book award in Arles during the very last edition of the R.I.P. Nicolo was signing his books at Dirk Bakker’s booth at Paris Photo. Dirk handed me his plain textbook accompanying the already second edition of Hidden Islam. It contains 479 posts on an article entitled: ‘Arles 2014: Nicolo Degiorgis lifts the veil of Italy’s Islamophobia’, written by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian, and published on July 15th, 2014. People had five days to leave comments. The insides of the fold out text pages show schematic drawings and coordinates, corresponding exactly with the number of pages, themes and locations in the awarded photobook. This is new; this has never been done before, to my knowledge. I buy the textbook in situ ( I purchased the first edition of Hidden Islam earlier this year) for 25,00 euro. He signs it with a pencil: ‘keep looking, Paris 15/11/2014.’

 

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8. Since the 2014 Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards is including ‘The Photography Catalogue of the Year’, I decided to select one: MODERN TIMES RIJKSMUSEUM, designed by Irma Boom and published by the Rijksmuseum in association with nai010publishers. Not everyone may know but a large collection of photography is in the keeping of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A cross section of different formats, techniques and genres selected from the growing collection of 20th century photography is now exhibited in ‘Modern Times’. Divided over nine rooms of the brand new Philips wing 300 black-and-white and color photographs are mingled. Small insignificant work prints, prelimenary studies, advertising and vernacular photography are combined with  war-, street- and art photography. Dummies of photobooks, photo albums, scrapbooks, magazins and posters are displayed in window cases. Amateur- photography is intertwined with professional photography, as a token of equivalency. Irma is also responsable for the clear and clever environmental design of the exhibition. Knowing Irma Boom, she gets ‘carte blanche’, blowing up a detail from a nude portrait by Ger Fieret and juxtaposing it to a sliver from an icon of the New Photography. These full bleeds are like gongs banging in your eyes, both in the front and in the back of the bulky catalogue. Spreads from books like Naked City (1945) by Weegee, reproductions from magazines such as LIFE,  and even the front and back of the sleeve of Brian Ferry’s LP record Another Time, Another Place (1974)  are nicely clustered in the essays. And emerging from the matt black front cover is Olympic High Diving Champion Marjorie Gestring in 1936, photographed during class by John Gutmann. Her stretched out left arm and hand are an omen of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. And what a contrast between the black surface and the coloured page edges in fluorescent yellow.

 

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9. I nominate two books by one author/photographer, Valerio Spada, as Best Photobooks of 2014. One is to be considered a re-worked and re-issued existing book title. Twin Palms Publishers just released the third edition, which is a first American edition, of Valerio Spada‘s well-received book Gomorrah Girl, and has issued his next publication entitled: I am Nothing. Both publications are dealing with the Mafia in southern Italy, both photobooks are telling a grim story on a father-daughter’s relationship, one in Naples (Gommorah Girl), the other in Sicily (I Am Nothing). Both titles are remarkable for their outstanding documentaries, graphic design and bookmaking. Read more in the conversation with Valerio about both publications.

 

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10. Karaoke Sunne by JH Engström and Margot Wallard (I don’t know who did what) is published by SuperLabo. I like the size of the booklet, the choice of paper, the swopping format from landscape to portrait on a spread. The beautiful black hard bound cover with the title embossed in silver. Just imagine a pizzeria turned into a karaoke bar on Saturday evenings, in the outskirts of Sweden. Color photographs show this mixture of sadness and joy in Karaoke bars: people drinking, smoking, showing their tatooed bodies, clinging to each other, hands grabbing body parts, grubby faces loosing themselves for a second in front of the microphone. Just on the fly leafs, a small white cross scribbled on a google maps reproduction of Sweden indicates where it all happens.

 

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11. Max Pinckers‘ recent publication Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty is just like The Fourth Wall self-published, designed by Jurgen Maelfeyt, and India is the focus. The edition of 1000 copies was commissioned by Europalia International Arts Festival / Centre of Fine Arts in Brussels. First the portfolio and then the book have been praised by both Martin Parr and Alec Soth. The author Hans Theys describes the project and levels in the layout so well in his essay ‘Photographs as Poems’ printed on salmon pink thin paper in the back of the book, resonating the commercial slogan ‘visit colourfull India’. Here is a quote:

For his most recent work, Max Pinckers (born in Belgium in 1988, but raised in Asia), traveled to India for months, accompanied by his partner Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras. There he has attempted to document, capture, stage and bring to life various specific aspects of love and marriage. Searching through newspapres and magazins, watching films and roaming through cities, he has been looking for subjects  that suited his theme, such as couples on their honeymoon at the foot of the Himalayas, men on white horses, Victoria’s (carts on which newlyweds strut around), photo studios where couples have their portraits taken, strange decors for marriage ceremonies, a stranded photograph of a married couple (which is offered to to a river, lake or sea after their death), a set of discarded photos from a studio next to the Taj Mahal and many other things. […] Another series of ‘images’ consist of vertically arranged, bleeding texts, extracted from the weblog of the Love Commandos. Together with the documentary sequences, they seem to weave a basic grid for the book. There is also a set of ‘images’ consisting of found material. These can be found documents, but also found photographs or ‘found footage’ such as inscriptions in bamboo trees or on posters on walls. […] A last series of images consist of idealized digital landscapes retrieved from a photo studio, where they are used as backfrops for portraits.  

 

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 12. In my copy (#185) it reads published in October 2013 by the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in London, and RM Verlag in Barcelona, and Editorial RM in Mexico City. On the website of AMC it says Party. Quitonasto Form CHANMAIR MAO TUNGEST (the funniest and most cryptical title ever for a contemporary photobook) by Christina De Middel has been published in March 2014. Party is the English language title on the spine of the book, in gilt debossed patted boards. This cleverly created artist’s book, this cute and well designed – by Jose Luis Lugo (cover design) and Nova Era (additional design) – booklet just has to be on this list.  

‘Party’ refers to Mao’s Little Red Book. That publication is the most reprinted literature after The Bible, but can only be found nowadays in China at some tourist shop. De Middel’s appropriation of the famous booklet (print run 1.715, all numbered), is already a collector’s item. In fact, any publication she compiles turns into a collector’s item. The booklet itself contains reproductions of text pages from The Little Red Book, from which the actual text has been mostly wiped out with correction fluid Tipp-Ex, before reproduction. The remainder of the text fragments reads like: ‘change the enemy’; ‘over and over again in endless spiral’; ‘it is impossible to get work done’; ‘the bandit gang… achieved great discipline’; ‘propaganda is not good’. Party is interleaved with loose-leaf small and square colour photographs in perfect binding to the spine of the book: most are self-made, some have been selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC). During Paris Photo at Grand Palais, ‘The Party’ was presented as a series of ‘spreads’ in golden frames on the wall, about 40 by 60 cm each. In the frames you look at, on one hand, the censored Tipp-Ext text page, on the other hand, a colour photograph showing e.g. a portrait of a Chinese woman in profile, or a broken Mao figurine, or a table tennis table without a net.

 

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13. It is a typical American colloquial expression: ‘calling it a day’. I Am About to Call it a Day is a book on A-3 format. No. 169 in the row of books published by Patrick Frey in Zürich. This particular publication has been issued in cooperation with Hannibal Publishing, I read on the cover and in the colophon on the inside of the Brown minigolf cardboard cover. You can hardly call it a ‘book’; it has the appearance of an oblong calendar in a carton sleeve. And the title (in a large bold Franklin Gothic Condensed font) printed in black on the front cover slays in your face. Why did you and the Dutch designer Mevis van Deursen choose for this format? This is one of many questions for Bieke Depoorter in the upcoming interview with the Magnum nominee, soon on theloggingroad.

 

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14. I have been debating for quite a while which titles not to include (e.g., FROWST by Joanna Piotrowska, because it has been widely praised in the press; Peter van Agtmael who puts a spell on you in his well written chronicle of America’s wars from 2006-2013, entitled Disco Night Sept. 11). So finally I chose Something like a Nest, self-published by Andy Sewell. Because indeed, it is a ‘visual meditation’, ‘quieten our illusions’, and because the very first (color) and very last (black and white) picture of a kitchen sink with the window in front looks pretty much the same as the one my parents have, and still have, since 1973. In that year I was 13. They bought an old brewery in the province of Brabant. Our neighbors were farmers. I loved to visit them, get fresh milk, smell the cows, climb on a tractor. I like the serenity of the layout, the textual and visual puns in this documentary photobook. The kitchen sink is a returning theme in the book. A sign on the wall reads ‘product waiting area’ showing rows of stainless steel charts on wheels filled with… I don’t know what … chopped carrots? An egg carton filled with six eggs is placed on a plastic table cloth covering a kitchen table. The fabric is decorated with roosters, chickens and youngsters. The vastness of cultivated rural Norfolk, Yorkshire or Kent is so captivating. The cruelty and beauty of killing feasants or a dear are stunning. A rhythm of one picture per right page, landscape mode, and you may find only twelve photo pages on the left. All of them classically framed. The design is by Ivan Markovic. I love the transparant celluloid wrappers, with the title printed on the inside of it, in corn on the cop yellow. It reminds me of Dutch post war company photobooks like vuur aan zee (1958) and De draad van het verhaal (1960).  

I appreciate your comments.   

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Paris Photo 2014 opens its doors in the Thalys on Thursday morning at 9:17h. I happen to sit in front of Mariken Wessels (I recognised her voice after a while and stood up) and got acquainted with Scarlett Hooft-Graafland, who happened to have reserved a train seat next to me. She was reading De Volkskrant of that morning November 13, 2014. I read a headline with her, while the newspaper was lying on her lap: ‘400 photographs and artworks by Man Ray auctioned at Sotheby Paris on behalf of a new generation of heirs. On this particular day, the very first day of Paris Photo, a portrait of the very good looking ‘Lee Miller – with necklace of sea sponges from 1930’ (his muse, lover and friend, par hazard also his co-inventor of the rayogram, and herself an active wartime photojournalist) is being auctioned. The estimated yield is 40.000 to 60.000 euros.

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After a while I asked my neighbour if I might read the full article, and she sifted through the pages in order to hand the spread over to me with a generous smile. That was the moment to introduce us to each other. In the article is mentioned that Man Ray made a pipe with a glass bubble. On the pipe is written: ce que manque a nous tous (what all of us are missing). According to Ray the right answer is: ‘fantasy’. Ray made the pipe in 1927, two years before Magritte‘s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Ray was one of the first of his contemporaries who worked in series.

 Scarlett Hooft Graaftland used to live right next to Jacqueline Hassink in New York. Something prompted me to ask rather bluntly: “Are you of noble descent?” “Yes, that’s right”, she confirmed. It was her double surname, linked to a moment, a few days ago, when my neighbour lady, associated with nobility herself, during one of our daily routines of walking-the-dog, talked about Scarlett’s work (“…a bright blue painted zebra in the middle of a herd […] somewhere at a remote place on planet Earth…Madagascar…A red iglo…nothing is photo shopped …large formats”). She attended a reading of Scarlett at Insinger de Beaufort and was intrigued by her work, even considered a purchase. I asked Scarlett whether she has issued a book publication. She mentioned Kehrer Verlag, and the title Soft horizons (2011).

Then she described a scenario in which Bolivian women pose in traditional costumes with the typical black bowler hats on their heads, figuring as the centrefold of a crystal white salt mountain on a crystal white salt pan, holding (what looks like) pink cotton candy in hand. Dali-like, surrealistic photoworks Scarlett creates, and in almost every picture you stare at a wide horizon.

 

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Grand Palais

The very first gallery booth I visit at Paris Photo is Stevenson from Cape Town. Works by Pieter Hugo on the wall, his brand new oblong Aperture publication KIN on the worktable. It reads like an album, I am pleasantly surprized. On the very first page Tasmyn Reynolds (it doesn’t say ‘my wife or girlfriend’) poses naked, with wet hair and pregnant with their first child. On another page his parents are portrayed, together in bed, all dressed, the mother with glasses on, the father with coffee cup in hand. After 10 pictures we see Hugo naked, lying down with his new-born daughter on his lap: a squirming little baby on top of his huge tattooed athletic body. While leafing through the pages I see his grand mother, his nanny, his second kid, and his extended family, and then the photographer just walks into the gallery booth. There he is in person: the healthy looking tall blond Viking! I would not have recognised him otherwise. I say: “You must be Pieter Hugo, I just saw your portrait in your new book”. I asked him whether he speaks Dutch. “Ja”…. “My father was a French Huguenot”, he says in Afrikaans. I don’t get it all, but he continued explaining something like his family roots are in Denmark. Than I asked him how this publication came about. “Well, … in fact after the birth of my daughter six years ago. “I’ve just seen the book once…well printed …paper a little thin…”. I ask him what the three capital letters of which the title consists actually means: KIN. “Family in a broader sense… medemens!” [Fellow man], he exclaims. ‘KIN’ refers to ‘KINSHIP’, my partner explains a few days later on the phone. I requested Pieter to write that Dutch word in the copy of his book that I purchased on the spot, paying cash. With ‘medemens’ Paris Photo 2014 in Grand Palais started.

 

A little further, at the Fraenkel Gallery booth, hangs on the main wall facing the public a tableau by Nicholas Nixon, covering the entire wall: ‘40 years Brown sisters’, in 8 x 5 = 40 white frames. Every year, since 1975, Nixon makes a group portrait of the four sisters (one of whom is Nixon’s wife Bebe) consistently in the same setup (Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie), jam-packed in the frame. A canary yellow linen cloth hardbound, published by MOMA, is placed on top of a small table in front of the mural. The latest image in the series is published on October 3rd for the first time in The New York Times. Close by, on a narrow back wall of the booth another striking, but small tableau is resonating the large grid on the main wall: eclipse totale de soleil 30 August 1905. It’s a geometric collage of square contact prints, 6 x 5= 30 vintages glued on carton. At the bottom of the grid the full sun is depicted, on the left before, and on the right after the eclipse.

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Christina de Middel

Her work stands out, even at a giant fair like Paris Photo. ‘The absence of monsters’ is what I read in a monumental piece by Christina de Middel, who is represented by Black Ship gallery from New York. The phrase shows up next to a poster showing Mao wearing an Afro hair wig. Glued onto that poster is a typewriter letter by ‘the assistant of the ministry of Power, Transport and Technology’. You recognize ‘Afronauts’ in parts of the installation.

 

On the inside of the fair booth the series ‘The Party’ (2014) is shown. This work refers to Mao’s Little Red Book. That publication is the most reprinted literature after The Bible, but can only be found nowadays in China at some tourist shop. De Middel’s appropriation of the famous booklet, entitled Quintonasto Form CHANMAIR MAO TUNGEST (2013 – print run 1.750), is already a collector’s item. In fact, any publication she compiles turns into a collector’s item. The booklet itself contains reproductions of text pages from The Little Red Book, from which the actual text has been mostly wiped out with correction fluid Tipp-Ex, before reproduction. The remainder of the text fragments reads like: ‘change the enemy’; ‘over and over again in endless spiral’; ‘it is impossible to get work done’; ‘the bandit gang… achieved great discipline’; ‘propaganda is not good’.

The booklet is interleaved with loose-leaf small and square colour photographs in perfect binding to the spine of the book: most are self-made, some have been selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in London. ‘The Party’ is a series of ‘spreads’ in golden frames on the wall, about 40 by 60 cm each. In the frames you look at, on one hand, the censored Tipp-Ext text page, on the other hand, a colour photograph showing e.g. a portrait of a Chinese woman in profile, or a broken Mao figurine, or a table tennis table without a net.

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De Middel’s most recent series ‘Jan Mayen’, deals with the re-construction of a fake expedition. I don’t think that has ever been done in photography: Re-made and re-vived found fake photography. A crew, mainly people that reacted to a newspaper add, acting as scientists (only the captain and the photographer were real), was trying to discover a new island between Iceland and Greenland, in the early 1900s. The whole thing was a disaster. The boat could not dock, the island was never found. For the sake of honour, the expedition was staged in words (from a logbook) and images. De Middel basically made a visualisation of the fake expedition based on the record of events, collected in the fictional logbook that is in the keeping of AMC.

The manager of AMC happens to be posing in clothes that have been purchased on eBay, mimicking the outdoor fashion of a century ago. A pseudo vintage picture of a flying shark has been Photoshopped. In another image, simulating a hand coloured vintage black and white photograph, blue jelly candy is dispersed in creeks. Next to that a picture of red jelly candy scattered on a gravel beach. Microscopic samples from the AMC are reproduced with an iPhone. Adding to the cosmic elements in the project is an astronomical map from 1900. This specific cartographic representation of the galaxy was the result of one of the most costly astronomical projects ever in Belgium; trying to establish the galactic coordinate system, it turned out that incorrect research findings were provided. Thus, this project is yet another example of scientific failure. Reproductions from herbaria are pasted on the wall. Timothy Prus wearing a bowler hat, his son, and other AMC staff members took part in the imitation of the expedition, sitting all together, with binoculars and oars, in a dugout canoe.

 

The sister of Christina (enthusiastic and knowledgably about the work) shows Polyspam to me, pulling the publication out of her purse. This most recent publication, in an edition of 150, looks like a thick envelope, with a counterfeit airmail stamp in red: ‘thisbookistrue’. The artist’s book consists of envelopes containing, printed on an A-4, original spam mail Christina had received. It’s content inspired her to take pictures. Eight envelopes contain eight colour photographs.

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Open Book

Sebastian Hau and Pierre Hourquet curated the Open Book exhibition, a yearly event during Paris Photo. This is their statement to the public: “The exhibition presents a selection of art books published between the 1960s and today. Since the release of “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations” in 1963 by the American artist Edward Ruscha, the reproduction of photographic images is one of the preferred media for numerous international artists such as Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Hans-Peter Feldmann and many others. This new type of book, whether a multiple object, a limited edition or unlimited publication, directly designed by the authors, has been adopted and taken up since the 1980s by photographers and contemporary artists such as Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Wolfgang Tillmans, Sophie Calle, Mike Kelley, Gerhard Richter, Christian Marclay or Anselm Kiefer”.

 

A selection of about 75 artists’ books is presented in the ambulatory of Grand Palais. Strangely enough hardly anybody went there, I noticed. The title of the exhibition is ‘In Place’. A few quotes by Ed Ruscha (considered the initiator of low profile and self-published artist’s book for the people) are silkscreened on the wall. Samsung screens display numbered video clips showing hands leafing through several of the books, which are on view in window cases right below the screens, displaying the books with the corresponding numbers. I realized this is a short-lived exhibition, only up for the few days of Paris Photo. The artist’s books are cramped in the showcases. Kippenberger; Kosuth; Anselm Kiefer; Les Krims; Fiona Tan’s booklet vox populi, and, literally, lying on top of that is Dark Shadow by Gilbert & George, published by Art for All. One of my observations was, Hans Eijkelboom and Peter Downsbrough have something in common.

 

Brutus killed Cesar (1976) by John Baldessari is a revelation that stayed with me: an oblong spiral bound booklet, like a stretched postcard, inside of it a repetition of reproductions – or fragments from film stills – of two male portraits (politicians, film actors maybe?) facing each other. And in between them, in the middle of the triptych, a freestanding picture of a potential murder weapon (kitchen knife, a dart, a pipe…) pops up. On the website of the Paris Photo program I read this booklet is a visual pun referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s cynical phrase: “Let’s bring murder back to the family where it belongs”. On the website you may find more in-depth information on the specific publications (book title, place and year of publication, size, number of pages and a short annotation). You don’t find that in the exhibition per se.

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Gary

Before 11.00 A.M. visitors are already forming a long queue in front of the entrance of Jeu de Paume, where a major retrospective of Gary Winogrand is showing his ‘tirages d’epoque’ (French for ‘vintage prints’). Winogrand, being the autodidact he is, continuously growing and influenced by Robert Frank and Walker Evans, photographed the physical aspects of all kinds of parades, cabaret, opera, and most of all, street life in the 1950s and 1960s in New York, Los Angeles, and several cities in Texas. He called it ‘the circus’. ‘Down from The Bronx’ captures his aproach: the photographer eagerly on top of his subject. Gary is drawn to physical action. In the picture entitled ‘Richard Nixon campaign, New York 1960’, people, stacked up in the photographic frame, carry signs with election slogans. ‘NY World’s fair, 1960’ clearly is a good example of how he kept dramatizing body language, facial expressions, and ultimately, the Carnival of Life. The most famous picture fitting in that description is this one: In Central Park a white blond woman with a scarf around her permanent and a tall well-dressed black man both carry dressed chimpanzees into Central Park Zoo. It is the year 1967. All kinds of family photographs are in display cases: Gary as a tough young guy with a tie and a wide greedy mouth, a Leica in front of his chest, and wearing a trench coat. Arms folded, hands behind the head, one leg on a table: All part of Winogrand’s circus. “The photograph is more dramatic than what happened”, he explains during a recorded Question-Answer session with an audience (we don’t get to see the audience). He can’t sit still. He has his arms folded, hands behind his head, two legs on the pedestal, on both sides of the microphone. He left 6.600 rolls of film that he had never reviewed. Or that he edited in haste. Diane Arbus said the following about him: “Gary Winogrand is such an instinctive, nearly primitive ironist, so totally without malice, so unflinching…”

 

Offprint

Following the Seine, towards Saint Germain des Pres, you enter Rue Bonaparte where Offprint is held at the amazing Neo-classicistic Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts. I stumble on Eastern Trouble Press Boston; presenting a self-published booklet by Polish Photographer Karola Mech with two spines (perfect binding), like two booklets facing each other, and a blind print in the very heart of the thing. It will surely be a good weather tomorrow is the title of this reflection by the photographer while on her trip to Japan with her ex-boyfriend. Two perspectives in black and white.

 

I greated Johan Deumens, standing behind a large table in the far back of the fair. And talked to Anne Geene (met her when she was a student at Master Photographic Studies at Leiden University). The English edition of her book Plot 235. was piled high on the table. Visiting her website, which is well designed and a real treat for those people loving biodiversity research, I realize Anne has already published two more editions since the Dutch edition of Plot 235. Johan shows me Arjan de Nooy’s fake feministic magazine from the 1970s Haarscherp containing found amateur photographs of women inspecting their sexual organs. We laugh a bit, timidly at first. I write the title down in my digital notebook, considering the publication for my database in progress on Photobooks of Found Photographs.

 

 

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Polycopies Bar & Books

Polycopies is more like a ‘bar and books’ event situated on a boat docked on the Seine river. This new initiative by Sebastian Hau and Laurent Chardon has its premiere at Paris Photo. You may find here such esteemed publishers as Journal and Nobody, and Akio Nagasawa. More intimate, close to too small for a book fair, is this meeting place on the ship Concorde Atlantique, louder too. More specialised maybe as well: Kaunas Gallery is present with nationally renowned photographers, like Sutkus, and Rakauskas. Names I remember that appeared in Camera International, a high quality heliogravure printed photographic magazine, issued in Paris in the mid 1980s. Odee is there, and Fw is present at Polycopies and at Offprint as well.

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Awards and more

17.15 Friday November 14th, I am receiving an email in which Aperture announces The winner of The Photobook Awards. The First Photobook Award is for Hidden Islam (2013) by Nicolo Degiorgis and with good reason (even without the recommendation and foreword by Martin Parr). Nicolo was signing his books at Dirk Bakker’s booth. Dirk handed me his plain textbook accompanying the already second edition of Hidden Islam. It contains 479 posts on an article entitled: ‘Arles 2014: Nicolo Degiorgis lifts the veil of Italy’s Islamophobia’, written by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian, and published on July 15th, 2014. People had five days to leave comments. The insides of the fold out text pages show schematic drawings and coordinates, corresponding exactly with the number of pages, themes and locations in the awarded photobook. This is new; this has never been done before, to my knowledge. I buy the textbook in situ for 25,00 euro. He signs it with a pencil: ‘keep looking, Paris 15/11/2014.’

I read a post or two, it goes like this:

2          Italy is a Catholic country.

3:2       What point are you actually making? – Apart from stating the obvious?

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Photobook of The Year Award goes to Imagenary Club (2014) by Olivier Sieber, for what you could almost define as a reference work on the topic (Individual head-and-shoulders portraits, sharp and well lit, and in colour, depict a young generation of punkers appearing in bars and night clubs in major cities like Dusseldorf, Tokyo, New York and London over the years 2005-2012. The busts are juxtaposed to murky black and white pictures of ‘street views’ and urban landscapes. All images are compiled in a roughly bound colossal, but clearly sequenced and well-designed publication. (Did Katja Stuke, Oliver’s partner in life and work have a say in this? I wondered; she is not mentioned in the colophon). The bulky book is the size of an old fashioned telephone directory and is held together with two black rubber bands, which, I know from experience, will disintegrate in the coming years. In the back of the book you may find a state-of-the-art directory compiled of tweets referring to e.g. punk rock bars in Dusseldorf, ‘multiple personality’, ‘transgender’, and ‘skinhead culture’. The evolution from Frau Bohm to Imaginary Club has definitely been awarded! And more surprising, in terms of the definition of a ‘photobook’, is The Catalogue of The Year Award that goes to Christopher Williams’ exhibition catalogue published by MOMA, with the splendid title: The production line of happiness.

 

On Saturday morning, sitting at a café, I am reading in Le Parisien that the building located at 7, Rue des Grands Augustins (VI arrondisement) where Picasso in 1937 painted his mural Guernica possibly will be converted into a hotel with 25 rooms. Charlotte Rampling is a member of the Advisory Committee. And Jean Nouvel has in the periphery of Paris built Le Philarmonie already praised for its phenomenal acoustics. The opening is planned for January 14, 2015. I look at a newspaper picture of a wide wavy auditorium, which looks far from finished.

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Sunday at noon I take the elevators to the sixth floor of Centre Pompidou to visit the Marcel Duchamp retrospective. I am not the only one. L.H.O.O.Q. dating from 1919 is the very first icon you encounter after entering the exhibition. Mona Lisa with a moustache and goatee has the size and layout of a 19th century postcard or carte de visite, those sturdy carton ones. The surprise in making this association lifts my spirit. Tzara just came from Switzerland that year, I read in a caption. In a window case I try to decipher some autobiographic notes by Duchamp scribbled on pieces of paper torn from a notepad: “lhooq elle a chaud au cul comme des ciseaux ouvertes”. On Wikipedia I read that it is a pun: the letters of the title when pronounced in French sound like ‘elle a chaud au cul’ (‘she’s got a hot arse’). I didn’t know that.

Further on in the exhibition I discover a second version of L.H.O.O.Q dating from 1955, reproduced on, what looks to me like, a tea towel: l’Envers de la peinture. What I discovered too is that Duchamp aspires ‘non retinal’ painting; making a painting of the idea. Duchamp and his contemporary critics talked about ‘extra retinal radiations’, and ‘the electric halo’, and about ‘the question of fluids’. Depicting the ‘astral body’ of Paul Nadar or a nude from 1910 is very similar to the way Odillon Redon did. Nowadays this ‘astral body’ could be considered the energetic body, also know as the etheric body: the first layer around the physical body. I really feel exited about this discovery! Something he also tried to realize through ‘anaemic cinema’ in 1929. Marcel Duchamp painted his brothers in muted colours while playing chess at gaslight. The work is considered a rebellious act against the violent colours of fauvism. His brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon was a sculptor. Duchamp liked Cranach, his elongated nudes and the colour of flesh.

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Back to Grand Palais one more time on Saturday afternoon. By foot, the same way back. Once more, there were queues in front of Jeu de Paume, and Grand Palais. The first photograph I encountered in a crowded booth, which was substantially larger then most of the others I visited, is a miniature portrait of Margaret Bourke-White while she is taking pictures in the early 1930s with a large wooden view camera (still standard in those days) from the rooftop of the Chrysler building in New York: the selling price is 34.000 euro’s at Daniel Blau Gallery. Just before leaving the booth, I see a portrait of an elderly woman, wearing glasses, reminding me of a similar one by Alexandr Rodchenko. Apparently, Bourke-White made a portrait of Stalin’s mother in 1931. A kind of Quaker portrait and on offer for 7.000 euro’s.

 

After pitching my book proposal (An Anthology: Photobooks of Found Photographs) to some publishers/editors of content, among the crowds of people, I went out to get some fresh air, and walked back to Rue Bonaparte, to Offprint, a ‘disarming’ art-publishing fair that stretches from photography to experimental music. Yannick Bouillis, the creative mind behind it all and director of Offprint was engaged in a talk (to me he represents the philosopher in the world of photography), standing outside in front of the entrance to the fair, smoking a cigarette. Recently he moved with his family from Amsterdam to Paris. He looked happy, and Parisian.

 

From a table at Offprint fair I could, just like that, pick up from a small pile artist’s books by Christian Boltanksi. I was thrilled. Kadish, Les Suisses Morts, Scratch (still sealed), and in particular Inventaire des Objets Ayant Appartenu A Une Femme de Bois-Colombe. I knew the artist’s book, which is also a catalogue, existed, but never had a chance to leaf through it. And after a short introduction Laurence Dumaine Calle from Editions 591 – the CB-publications were on her table – handed to me a publication written by Bob Calle: Christian Boltanski artist’s Books (2008, still sealed). After reading carefully her business card I wondered: Is the author her husband? And are they, Bob and Laurence, somehow related to Sophie Calle?

 On the way back, arriving at Central Station Amsterdam, I stumble on Bas Vroege collecting his large duffel bag, and his partner Hripsime Visser. In the drizzle rain he offers me a present: an oversized photobook in a  cotton bag, he zips out of his luggage: Maydan – Hundred Portraits by Emeric Lhuisset on ‘the face of the revolution in February 2014’, in the centre of Kiev. A potential award winning publication. Thank you Bas.

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Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

I saw the announcement on Facebook: The king of the Netherlands, Willem Alexander, received the first copy of WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY presented by the author-photographer Henk Wildschut. A few days later I purchased online a signed and numbered copy from the photographer’s website. It said, handwritten on the French title page: ‘SE#04’ – number 4 out of 100 copies. While leafing through the book publication I realized I had obtained a contemporary company photobook in the tradition of new documentary photography.

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WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY is a state-of-the-art company photobook on futuristic high-tech ‘agriculture’. The publication is accentuated by the clever, clean and clear layout concept from Robin Uleman. I sent an e-mail query to the graphic-designer to explain the title, some of the technical terms regarding e.g. the sleeve for the map; the folding of the map; the kind of ‘system typography’ used for the inner work of the book, and the letter font. Uleman’s replies are inserted in this review, highlighted in purple.

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Robin Uleman (RU):
Since the building is qualified as industrial heritage, the exterior of the old warehouse has been largely kept intact while the interior has been stripped completely and will get an overall renovation. It was built at the end of the fifties, during the heyday of company photobooks. Most of those publications had a sturdy and alluring look. Hardcovers depicting full bleeding black and white or duotone pictures, with just the book title printed on top, or simply bound in cloth, with monumental type faces embossed in or foil-blocked on top of it were the convention. In the layout of WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY I refer to those days and combine the homage with a shot from the new interior. So the book has a hardcover clad with a canvas-like grainy paper, on which a picture is printed, so sleek and mysterious that it might as well be a still taken from a science fiction movie. The foil-blocked title puts the metaphor of the spaceship firmly on the ground and adds to the earthly tactile sensation of the canvas cover in your hands.

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Such books are rare these days. Let me compare a few examples compiled by Dutch photographers and /or designers in the past 20 years. The robust hand glued accordion fold Interpolis (2006) by Frank van der Salm is an artist’s book containing abstracted images of the interior, the exterior, and the location of the insurance enterprise.

All Ferrari Engines (2002) is a sample book collection of 7 technical drawings and 91 color photographs of Ferrari engines collected by an elderly employer from the period 1947-2002. The publication documents the technical history of a car manufacturer and is designed by Irma Boom. How Terry Likes his Coffee (2010/2012) is a non-commissioned documentary photobook by Florian van Roekel. The oblong self-published book is the result of a fifteen-month exploration of five different offices throughout the Netherlands. It documents a candid reality of the changing perception of people in office culture. Mensenstroom (1997) has been setting the standard for a new documentary approach to the genre. This documentary / company photobook is both a commissioned and self-published by Bart Sorgedrager, following the closure of the nuclear plant Dodewaard. Mensenstroom ultimately is a farewell gift for the employees, handed out on their last day of work.

RU:
The title WAREHOUSE / LABORATORY stems from the design process. I like to have that kind of freedom in designing a book: not only to develop the edits, but also to play with titles, chapters and words in order to direct the viewer’s attention and shape the editorial content.
PlantLab’s experiments with cultivating crops under totally controlled conditions, which are purely scientific in nature, so the title had to mimic a scientific formula or comparison, like different states of aggregation that are juxtaposed. In this book a building changes from one state – a former warehouse – into another – a laboratory for the future.
The book is divided in four chapters, in line with that same idea of transformation: STAGE 0 / WAREHOUSE, STAGE 1 / DEMOLITION, STAGE 2 / CONSTRUCTION and STAGE 3 / LABORATORY.

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The introduction text by the board of PlantLab is business-like; not what you would call a prosaic opening, describing ‘explosive growth’ (from five to 35 people, from 200 m2 to 20.000 m2 working surface); ‘preserve talents’ and ‘deliver results’. PlantLab, founded in 2010, ‘is a mission to change the way the world is fed’. The ultimate goal of the enterprise is ‘to ensure that plants can reach their full potential, so that we can have a world where everyone has access to a sustainable source of safe, affordable and nutritious food’. How to implement that mission, I wondered. Well, by merging know-how related to:
A. Plant physiology
B. Mathematical models
C. State-of-the-art technology.

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This business model carries a wonderful name: ‘Plant’s paradise’. So what they do is design and build Plant Production Units (PPU’s). These units are hermetically closed ‘growing environments’ with optimized climate control conditions applicable to all worldwide growing conditions. The consequence and environmentally friendly result allows shortening supply chains inasmuch as food is grown locally. In short, we look at sterile conditions for crop cultivation behind closed doors. All this is happening in a former warehouse, the nostalgic De Gruyter Factory (famous for making chocolate sprinkles and a highly flavoured sweet anise powder called ‘crunched Muisjes’), now a state-of-the-art innovative research facility.

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The documentary style of Henk Wildschut, as demonstrated in his recently published book Food (2013), is a remarkable in-depth study on the food industry in the Netherlands, and fits the recording of PlantLab’s culture like a glove. Inasmuch as post-war company photobooks were released as commemoration/ anniversary books to inaugurate a new factory building and in some cases to document the production process and manufacturing, WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY documents the revolutionary renovation of a piece of cultural heritage into a ‘spacelab’.

 

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RU:

To be honest I don’t know what would be a more appropriate term for the ‘sleeve for the map’. I guess that description comes closest to what it is. In terms of bookbinding it’s not a very common solution to create a sleeve from the last gathering of pages. The final two pages are folded inward like in Japanese bookbinding and subtly glued at the bottom. I didn’t want to insert an ugly triangular sleeve glued onto the end papers at the inside of the cover to hold the map. It’s a common solution, but in my opinion it’s better to avoid it, since it looks like an afterthought. I wanted it to be elegant and simple, an integral part of the object. NPN printers suggested this solution, which was created and executed in cooperation with Van Waarden, the bookbinders. The map itself is folded half through the horizon and then folded like an accordion.

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A schematic field report, tightly fit in a exceptional sleeve in the back of the book shows on a map, in floor plans, on the front side the different stages of transforming industrial heritage into a testing ground for indoor farming. On the backside the construction of laboratories is visualised. And this is new, not only within the genre itself: Numbered pink arrows on the map indicate camera standpoint and angles of every single image. So each photograph is indexed with A. a unique number, B. a location, referring to the coordinates on the field report, and C. a date, indicating when the photograph was made and in which stage of the renovation (demolition 0 + 1) or construction of the laboratories (2 + 3). This information is systematically put in a vertical sidebar perpendicular to the images (construction and interiors are full spreads, individual people and single objects are depicted on a single page). The book is divided into four chapters, according to the four stages.

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RU:
System typography
The book is all about the transformation of an industrial monument, the former De Gruyter warehouse in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (NL), into a laboratory for research at the cutting edge of indoor farming. It documents the first phase of the whole makeover, which will take another year or two to fully execute. The first section was opened in September 2014. The completion of the renovation will take place in the course of 2015 and 2016.
At first glance the book offers an impression of the construction process, showing overviews, details, some action and portraits of the workers at different points in time. At second glance the pictures are embedded in a system. To avoid a simply evocative experience, we wanted to stay close to the architectural nature of the book project and give it a topographical root, something both accurate and detailed to involve the viewer and to provide him with a tool for orientation. Specific locations in the building were documented, some repetitively at different stages. These locations function as a point of reference and make you aware of the actual transformation. To enhance this notion the typographical system visualized on the sidebars of the pages helps you to navigate through the building and offers additional information about the stage of the process, the date the photograph was taken and its actual content. The images carry a number, the floor number and the coordinates that correspond with the map showing all camera standpoints and angles. To make the narrative breathe the air of architecture and science all text has been typeset in Akkurat. Especially when restricted to the use of capitals this font creates an atmosphere of detachment and objective registration.

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Stage 0 shows the former storage room, the ramp for transporting goods, and the remains of temporary workspaces for musicians/artists. From 1980-2013 the former warehouse, a two-floor building with concrete arcades (windows beneath the arch), and tall concrete columns were then used for exhibitions and events. A corridor in green and blue led to rehearsal rooms for musicians. The book opens with a neutral and serene – almost blunt – view on a wide window above two central heating units, covered with five light cotton curtains, kept tight together with some pins, in order for the daylight not to peak through. Alongside are 1970s style orange painted walls in this former artist’s studio.

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Stage 1starts where stage 0 ends: the demolition of rehearsal rooms and studios. We look at how divisions between floors are removed. Pallets, plaster, loose wiring dangling from ceilings, piles of bricks. But in general the overview of each space is there. The first demolition worker is portrayed, sitting in his caterpillar, using his mobile phone while smoking. Single people, demolition and ground workers, are portrayed frontally, like the dockworkers in the photobook A’dam Doc.k (2007) by Henk Wildschut and Raimond Wouda. And unlike that publication, the name, age, profession and employer of the person portrayed are mentioned. On another spread an extraction installation for the disposal of construction waste looks like a red caterpillar crawling out of the window. A standard blue tarp, used as a contemporary chute for collecting construction waste reminds me of a temporary refugee shelter, much like the ones Wildschut photographed near Calais, collected in the book Shelter (2011).

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The daylight captured in the book is as serene as that in a museum exhibition space and the way the different sections of the building are recorded: Each former studio, each pile of disposal, the fluorescent red outlines for drilling and milling on the iron tiled floor are like art installations per se.

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In STAGE 2 / CONSTRUCTION you get to understand pre-heated paint, and a paint gun is needed at low outdoor temperatures. Walls are glued. An altimeter placed on a tripod in a ‘Mondrianesc’ coloured room measures the level of the entire second floor.
You get a glimpse of the temporary canteen during a break. In the kitchenette in front of a microwave and a coffee machine, a Makita battery charger is loading a cordless electric screwdriver. An electric outlet and cord is popping through a wall. Apart from constructing 22 Research & Development (R&D) units, 10 Plant Production Units (PPU’s) are installed and 28 km of heating tubes. On the following pages we witness how on top of twisted pipes a poured self-levelling concrete screed flows out. In this section of the book we see more people, more daily workers, most of them wearing safety helmets, and a few too many pictures showing the pouring of mortar.
Further in the book more pouring of screened floors is depicted on photographs 65-69, this time in Plant Paradise 1.
You could curate an exhibition in a PPU, they are very similar to museum spaces identified as ‘White Cubes’: a sterile white box. You could start a prison of a cooling enterprise behind the sliding doors of a R&D unit. And photograph 56, portraying the installers measuring high plain walls of the units with a red level, is like witnessing an art performance in itself.

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RU:
From daylight to LED-light, from RGB to CMYK and day-glow
The last chapter shows the new laboratory in action: a typical purple, pinkish light radiates from the so-called Plant Production Units. PlantLab creates an ideal environment to grow crops: micro-climates with pitch perfect humidity and temperature and ideal light conditions, provided by LED-lights. ‘Ideal’ means that they are only exposed to those parts of the light spectre that are beneficial to them. Green is taken out, which leaves red and blue, to which far red (a colour invisible to the human eye) is added. Every photographer and designer knows that you loose depth of colour when translating RGB images into CMYK, necessary for printing, but within those limitations these pictures were not suitable to translate into something credible and satisfactory. The reproductions were dull and boring: not resembling the spectacular originals. Finally, I considered replacing a substantial amount of magenta by a day-glow (fluorescent) pink and add this to the regular CMYK line up, it would do the trick. Test prints demonstrated that this strategy worked. In print the result comes closest to the stunning effect your eyes experience when you visit a working Plant Production Unit (PPU). The arrows used on the map are printed in the same colour to create consistency.

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In the final chapter of the book STAGE 3 / LABORATORY the fluorescent purple colour (like on the cover photograph) appears, showing Plant Paradise by night. And this is what it is all about: ‘The plants are exposed 24/7 to ideal light spectre that only consists of blue, red and so-called far red, that cannot be seen by the human eye’.
Photograph 074 is the only picture showing an actual crop: wheat drenched in purple light, creating an atmosphere like in a nightclub: artificial, trendy and sensual at the same time. The research is focussed on finding the optimal climate for wheat. In Plant Paradise it is possible to test over a 100 different climates simultaneously.
A young man behind a microscope is inspecting wheat plants to find out whether ears are developing. His job description is ‘plant paradise profiler’. The engineering control is in-house expertise, as well as the installation design, and production supervision.

So what actually happens in these units? Here it is getting really interesting: photograph 57, on floor 2, in field J6, depicts a dividing wall, a processing area where crops are sown, re-potted and covered with black sound insulating fabric and finished with birch panelling, the caption reads. It could as well have been a wall in a cinema theatre.

The special light conditions result in a growing speed that is often twice as high, and the annual production is three to five times higher. Bathing in the purple light, both the uniformity and transformation of the R&D units and the PPU’s stand out as rhythmical elements in the book.

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The most impressive photobook presented at the UNSEEN fair/festival last weekend was not at the Book Market per se, but at East Wing gallery [stand 39, gas silo]: a three volumes publication Vienna MMix 10008/7000 in a sleeve published by Scheidegger & Spiess, a numbered limited edition of 600 copies. Jules Spinatsch made 10.008 images, as part of what he called Surveillance Panorama Project at the Vienna Opera Ball. The Vienna State Opera was not amused with the end result, but did give permission for the project.

Volume I, entitled Every Three Seconds, is bulky and dark green. It contains the integral sequence of the ten thousand pictures chronologically arranged in grids of 36 pictures on a spread.The images were made during an opera performance with two camera’s that moved every three seconds in a vertical line six positions downward along a rail, and up again after six shots. In this manner neither image selection nor editing took place. Volume III is a cahier containing two essays. One by neuroscientist Wolf Singer, who is exploring the transition of human perception in this age of (social and big) media and surveillance technology. Volume II entitled 71 photographs contains this exact amount of selected images, grainy and faded in colours: purplish, reddish, and yellowish, making them appear voyeuristic in nature.

All pictures are zooming in on textures, objects and people. Most are strangely cropped and remind me of portraits by Craigie Horsfield. We look at a curtain cord, a lampshade, and man in tuxedo biting his nails in the loge. Women are wearing pearls and evening dresses with décolleté and are cramped in a balcony behind tall glasses with champagne or water. A royal couple is mingling among guests. Hairdo’s, camera flashes, peculiar facial expressions, arms and fingers gesticulating mysteriously. All are spreads, each framed by a white vertical bar on the far out left page and printed on thin, matte, wood pulp paper. The sequences are interleaved with sheer white pages. I bought number 504, selling price: 120.00 EUR.

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 The funniest documentary photobook, I already spotted it online, is published by Journal in Sweden. This is a publishing house that makes exquisite photobooks (such as Trying to dance by JH Engstrom), but maintains low profile; e.g. Journal doesn’t attempt to increase its exposure through a website. I was thrilled to find they had a stand at the UNSEEN Book Market. One of the titles from Journal is Southbound by Knut Egil Wang, a Los Angeles based Norwegian photographer with a surname that sounds Chinese. His documentary style has both a Martin Parr and Alec Soth edge to it. The narrative in this publication is related to local culture, warmer climate and simple amusement during ‘long dark winters’ in the Northern hemisphere. A small cute illustration of an aeroplane landing on the French title page and the bright yellow flyleaves introduce you to sunny destinations. We see elderly Western people in groups with Christmas hats on, poles in their hands, small backpacks on passing through a white wooden porch that looks like a misplaced prop in a movie like Paris Texas. They enter a desolate dry, stony and greyish landscape. Another page shows a girl in a bikini and her boyfriend in swimming trunks posing awkwardly on a tile floor. His left arm bandaged, daggling in a sling, face and left knee bruised. Both are holding arms around each other’s lower backs. On the opposite left page is a detail of two cacti stems with a branch that looks like it’s embracing the other plant.

You may find more of these kinds of dialogues in juxtapositions of images. Peculiar forms of amusement are documented: muscular boys dressed in nothing but a black, or yellew, crutch holder on suspenders and doing shopping, another boy in such costume sitting wide legged in front of the camera, greasy curly hair, wearing sun glasses, smoking a cigarette and drinking beer from cans. The following pages depict a snake show, a gay parade, an elderly woman milking a goat, people bowling on a parking lot, three boys posing in naked torsos at night drenched in soap bubbles. All images are framed in a sober, neutral and restrained, almost puritan, layout. The print run of Southbound is 800 copies.

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My first encounter in the gas silo was with a large size children’s photobook, both conceptual and documentary in nature by the Slovakian female photographer Lucia Nimcova (1977). Animal Imago is containing pictures of abused, stuffed, encased, and misplaced animals in eastern and central Europe. We see a stuffed Nile crocodile in a shabby (what look likes a natural history) museum presentation next to a stuffed monkey on the back of a scooter. Another double page shows a gracious grey cow’s head popping up behind a tree, opposite a sticky dead duck attacked by horseflies and dumped on a garbage can along a park lane. As is done with children’s book the publication opens and ends with empty coloured pages, to make a drawing or take notes. There are no captions, and no other text. The publication Animal Imago is an ode to the photographer’s deaf-born son.

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 ‘The Indian Iron’ by the German female photographer Regine Petersen is an award winning documentary and well deserves this honor. Petersen is the recipient of the 2014 Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund, which will result in a solo exhibition at FOAM in 2015. Petersen uses a kind of ‘retro-style’ in documentary photography: re-working and re-contextualizing found photography and collected documentation (newspaper clips) mixed with self-made images, traces and associations. Her topic is unusual: the moments in history that meteorites falling from the sky interrupt our daily practices, be it in Alabama, Rajasthan or Germany. Regine Petersen also made an unusual wall presentation at the stand of East Wing gallery, in which the narrative becomes part of the mural installation. So in one body of work ‘stars fell on Alabama’ you see a huge monumental image of a free standing meteorite against a black void, like a piece of gold ore, and underneath on the left side you see a much smaller image (a local photojournalistic record) of police officer and a woman, looking up at a huge hole in a ceiling of her living room in Alabama, next to an ever smaller photocopied and framed newspaper clipping describing the moment when a cosmic rock crash actually crashed through the atmosphere and appears to have hit somebody. So it seems. I like the fake history, the assemblage of photography, postcards and text, the humour, the cosmically aspect and the enticing narrative of this photowork. I dearly hope Regine Petersen will make an author/photographer book in the near future.

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TIERGARTEN photographed and ‘risographed’ by Johannes Schwartz, is a spiral bound. In terms of book production and size it is quite similar to A.M.G. Photographie (1933-1934), then published by Art et Métier Graphique in Paris. TIERGARTEN is a Japanese block in a soft carton sleeve, and is published by ROMA Publications. Experimental Jetset designed the book. Details are depicted of (rotten) food, fleshy meat chunks, and rows of slices of bread that happens to be served to animals at the Moscow Zoo. There certainly is a modernist flair to this book, in the way structures, fences, bread slices, potatoes and eggs and piles of leaks and crinkled newspapers are photographed. But the visceral quality of the food, the insects, the maggots, the packaging, the leaves, the fish, is all due to the offset printed and ‘risographed’ photographs made in the Charles Nypels Lab at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. Don’t ask me how that works, but the technique reminds me of dye-transfers. And what a marvellous typographic opening: each letter of the book title is a capital template letter. Each is printed full page in black on red heavy weight textured paper.

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 Collage is definitely back: Julie Cockburn, at the stand of The Photographers’ Gallery [stand 27, gas silo] shows embroideries on found photographs, all of which are portraits (Hollywood actors, American high school pictures). Another example is a series of portraits with round mirrors (where you would expect a face), and is created by Trine Søndergaard and presented at Martin Asbaek Gallery from Copenhagen. And of course Ruth van Beek (following up her well-received publication the arrangement), is displaying some premieres at gallery Ton de Boer.

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And striking documentary by Jason Larkin, Tales From the City of Gold, was presented at Flowers Gallery. This is also a wonderful book, about open air religious practice, mutating urban landscape and environmental issues related to mining in South Africa. The images depict mine dumps, hand made homes and coloured people in the Johannesburg area, interleaved with reproductions of a few small black and white drawings.

After the festival I collected by e-mail some refelctions on the event from booksellers present at the UNSEEN Book Market, who probally are already on their way to the London Art Book Fair or the New York Art Book Fair.

HOW many books did you sell?

Johan Deumens Gallery

How many visitors have been looking at the better part of a book? And were attracted and encouraged to continue this acquaintance, or to stay at home? Or would like to offer it to a friend? And did so by paying a small amount? Finally 47 people paid for one or more books.

 

Roma Publications

I didn’t count yet, but certainly more than a 100.

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I offered the latest titles from my programme and some from the backlist.
Very well received were three little books about Hong Kong’s vernacular culture by Michael Wolf:
Hong Kong TrilogyHong Kong Flora; Hong Kong Informal Seating Arrangements 

Also well received were: Replies by Andreas Trogisch and Escape by Danila Tkachenko (Award winning at World Press Photo 2014)

 

What was the focal point for this fair/festival?

Johan Deumens Gallery

To present a program of conceptual and research-oriented artists, in this context focusing on photography-related artists’ books, to cultural institutions, publishers, private collectors and those unknown with these kind of approaches. To maintain and extend collaborations with colleagues and institutions. To sell works.

 

Finally, it was also valuable looking at the brand new black and white portrait series ‘Imperial Courts’ (one of the largest housing projects in Watts, Los Angeles) by Dana Lixenberg (1964) at Robert Morat Galerie. The project is a ‘come back’ to an earlier series, Dana started working on this poor community in 1993. There is an in-depth interview with Dana on pages 174-175 of UNSEEN MAGAZINE. Always impressive of course is new existential work by JH Engstrom at Grundemark Nilsson Gallery. And please don’t forget to read the essay by Taco Hidde Bakker: ‘Photography 3.0: The End of Photography as We Knew It’, starting on page 21 of UNSEEN MAGAZINE.

 

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Editing room where Valerio Spada worked on video files and stills of police operations

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Gomorrah Girl prints

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Gomorrah Girl first edition

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Gomorrah Girl xerox copies on a wall

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Signed copies from Gomorrah Girl second edition

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

Twin Palms Publishers just released the third edition, which is a first American edition, of your well-received book Gomorrah Girl, and is releasing shortly your next publication entitled: I am Nothing.  

Both publications are dealing with the Mafia in southern Italy, both photobooks are telling a grim story on a father-daughter’s relationship, one in Naples (Gommorah Girl), the other in Sicily (I Am Nothing). Both titles are remarkable for their outstanding graphic design and bookmaking.   

How did you get involved; what is your relationship to the Mafia, let’s start with the Camorra, the ruling organization in the region of Naples?

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Valerio Spada (VS):

Fortunately I don’t have any relationship whatsoever with the Camorra. I was living in Paris for some years and in that period travelled frequently to Naples; during one of my earliest trips I met Giovanni Durante, the father of Annalisa, who has been killed in a war between Camorra clans in Forcella, and since then I’ve started to change my approach to, probably, my entire life. It was very painful to loose my parents when I was young, but nothing compares to surviving your own daughter… I guess.

 

These details from his story, sections from an interview he allowed me to record, gave me goose bumps. He describes details of the murder; how she died, the location of the bullet impact in her skull. After talking with forensic police I have collected even more details on the murder, like the lock of her hair that was broken off and fell on the street in blood, and many other things impossible to mention here. I got obsessed with the idea how is it possible in today’s world to die in this way, at the age of 14, in Naples. It’s the evidence of absence of the State. And since then nothing has changed really. And it’s sad.

 MT:

WHEN, WHY and HOW did you start to document the mafia?

 

VS:

I started in 2008. I think what intrigues me, are places where it is not safe to live, dangerous neighbourhoods and what life is like in those areas. I was trying to document the beauty of it, and I see it everywhere. The WHY, I think, is connected to the brutal way in which I’ve lost my mother and a few years later my father. Pain and suffering have always been in my life since I was 16. I assume it is a way for me to go back there, to the moment I lost my adolescence, trying to document my lost adolescence through the traumatic lives of others, in order not to loose anything of it once again.

 MT:

 How is it possible that a teenager (Salvatore Giuliano) becomes a Camorra boss at 19 years old?

 

VS:

In Naples it is possible, and not only there. In Naples you have young drug dealers of 10 years old. They start to reason and act like a drug dealer. Well, a few of them. At 13 you manage money, a stipend in fact, that your father collects on an average monthly basis (which is equal to a day fee of a drug dealer), and you do it during the weekend. At 17 you think bigger. And so on. It goes fast there. Any 14 years old girl in Naples is as smart in life as any 40-year-old experienced woman in Milan. They are even faster, better.

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MT:

Who was Annalisa Durante (daughter of Giovanni Durante)? What kind of girl was she? I understand that she kept a diary.

VS:

She was a regular girl. Beautiful. Dreaming of running away from Naples because she considered it dangerous to live there. Rome, for them, is like, for most of us, taking a trip to the moon. And in fact the city of Rome is only one-and-a-half hours from Naples.

 

MT:

On March 27, 2004, more than a decade ago, Salvatore Giuliano killed Annalisa Durante, just after a talk she had with her friends and the young Camorra boss, in front of her father’s store. It was a shot from the second revolver that killed Annalisa. Salvatore still has to serve 14 years in prison, charged for homicide. What happened?

 

VS:

In that year, 2004, 3 women were murdered. It was a one and only event in Naples’ criminal history probably, in recent history for sure. What I often do, is inform myself thoroughly about the topic before going to a location. I spend time in libraries, speak with journalists, with police officers, I read books, literature of all kind of events, and then I go there.

What happened is the following: Two murderers on a motorcycle and with uncovered faces pop out of a side street and open fire. Their aim is to kill Guiliano, who hides behind the car and starts to shoot back at them. The two friends of Annalisa find a getaway on the right side fleeing in a small street, while Annalisa runs in the opposite direction: where the killers are driving away. One of the three bullets fired by Giuliano hits Annalisa in the head, she died after 48 hours.

MT: 

The title ‘Gomorrah Girl’ refers to a colloquial expression?

 

VS:

It refers to the story in the Bible of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’; it refers to a book written by my dear friend Roberto Saviano who lived in Naples as intensively as I did. He was documenting in writings what I’ve tried to document in images. And it’s about a girl. It’s about every girl too.

MT:

Why is adolescence of young women ‘almost denied’ in this crime-ridden area? It seems such a primitive, patriarchal society.

VS:

As I was mentioning earlier, they just grow up faster than anywhere else. The area is dangerous; crime is everywhere. Surveys show a high percentage of teenage moms in Naples, the unemployment rate is very high. Actually there’s nothing ‘primitive’ about daily life there; it’s just an abandoned area due to the total absence of the government and the state.

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MT:

The publication Gommorah Girl is a book within the book: a police report in a cahier. On one of the first pages, the police report is showing the ‘proiettile’ from two angles. What are we looking at? Further on, the caption ‘Ril.12’ is referring to a projectile taken from Annalisa’s body, during autopsy on March 29, 2004, two days after she was killed. How did you get access to this police report and permission to publish?

VS:

My original intent was to present documentary evidence of Annalisa’s murder. That was not possible; you need to be a police officer to do that. So the local police gave me permission to photograph notebooks, reports and photographs containing all the evidence they collected. They allowed me to reproduce their pictures and donated to me some prints of the criminal investigations. I’ve spent a lot of time studying that material; it was a tremendous experience.

 

These police officers are obviously passionate about photography. For instance, the actual seize picture of weapons is made thanks to using a Manfrotto tripod they’ve borrowed me that day. When you look at the two pictures adjacent on a page in the police report [Ril. 1-2] what it shows is a ballistic match to prove that a single bullet at the crime scene has been fired from the murderer’s gun. The work of forensic police at a crime scene is crucial to get justice. It’s so under-evaluated in Italy. We have extensive juridical trails that failed to jail a killer because the first hours after a murder were lost; evidence was collected poorly or important traces were simply left behind. Naples’ forensic police is amongst the best there is in Italy and they work with such a limited budget compared to the amount of money criminals have, that it might even be considered an unfair battle.

 

MT:

The report is interleaved with small size documentary photographs in colour, pictures you took, from e.g. ‘La Scuola’, a former Kindergarten, and now an extremely dangerous place where drug addicts get together. How did you get in? How does this scene relate to the protagonist Annalisa?

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VS:

I can talk forever about the documentaries I made in Naples. I find correlations everywhere that other people might not see at first sight, and sometimes I am not happy to reveal them, maybe they are just in my head. That is a problematic I don’t want to solve; I like things to be untold, I like to credit the viewer’s intelligence. We, documentary photographers, have to leave a space, a gap, between what we document and what a viewer or reader is able to perceive. That gap is vital.

To answer your question: that picture in particular, in my opinion, is the reason why Annalisa was killed. The girl I photographed at La Scuola is shooting a dose of Kobret ( a low-grade form of heroine) in a vein in her arm, she paid 13 euros for the shot. The cheapest price in Europe you pay for that type of dope. That is Camorra’s core business. In Forcella, where Annalisa died, two family clans are in war to define superior strength and to control the area for drug dealing and crime related business. So, according to me, that is the connection between the two. Everytime I see that picture of the girl shooting a dose in her vein, I can’t help thinking that Annalisa died for that same reason.

 MT:

Please tell me about La Vela Rossa (The Red Sail) that looks like a run down apartment building in Naples. Francesca, and her sister (a single mother), and her mother live there. They, and the building itself, seem to be your protagonists?

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VS:

I don’t think there is a protagonist in this book. And if there is one, it is the one you don’t see, and you never get to see there, and that protagonist is the Italian state; how our government is seriously ignoring these problems. As I explained, I tend to approach a new story by thoroughly studying the subject matter. Then I get lost in the subject matter, on location. For months, even years. Suddenly I find myself, and I publish a book. I think the pattern is repeating itself. Certainly at the start of something new. I investigate a lot, conduct interviews, talk to prosecutors, to police officers, and journalists. And it all becomes pretty clear in my mind. Then I go to the area. And everything changes. I get lost. I think I am losing my time. I think I am a loser. I think it is stupid to risk my life… And for what reason? Then photography takes over. And everything changes again.

 

Francesca’s family was really sweet and welcoming. They used to live in Vomero, a wealthier area in Naples, later her parents got divorced and her mother had no money. So they moved to the apartment complex La Vela Rossa in order to avoid paying any rent. Francesca used to go out and work as a waitress in a pizzeria, one-hour drive away from Le Vele and she returned back “home” at 2AM. There are no lights on the run down stairs; she climbs ten/eleven floors up in total darkness, and goes to bed, bringing some money home. How many people do you know doing this?

 MT:

Suddenly a picture from the female prison in Pozzuoli shows up. Why? Later in your publication a woman, detained in the prison, describes the conditions inside.

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VS:

It’s about choices. What I was trying to document was what Annalisa could have become, after growing up. These kids are daily forced to choose between the good and the bad. The bad is there, with one-day cash money that their father, in case he is employed, has raised in three months time. The good is hard to find. It’s probably inside of you, …I guess.

Civilization of a country is measured by the way they treat their citizens in jail, someone once said.

 

Pozzuoli is a female prison. A dear friend in police work suggested to go there and take pictures inside on the living conditions of women inmates. Another policeman, while laughing, was saying, “They are going to rape you”. Anyway, it was a big experience. I remember being accompanied by psychologists guiding me in, and being envious ‘cause I carried all my cameras with me and they were employed for 12 years, and were never allowed to take a picture. I had permission from the Ministero dell’Interno [Ministery of Internal Affairs], it took a long time, months to receive it, but the permit finally arrived, and I’ve spent three days with 19 selected jail inmates. It’s a very difficult situation because very often the guards watching over the female inmates are themselves women that have lost their kids in drug issues. So they are very tough with women in jail, often committed for drug dealing related crimes. 

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MT:

You show other women in the book, young girls in fact: a fighter called Marcianise; an anonymous woman under house arrest and an Italian boxing champion named Viviana, as well as a 13 year old girl on her night out. To what extent do these girls relate to Annalisa?

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VS:

Again, everything I notice in Naples is related to Annalisa. The fact that her father is depicted in the first picture of the book, and carrying the only image of Annalisa on his necklace, doesn’t make that picture more related to Annalisa then the fighter in Marcianise. Viviana, the boxer, is a girl that works out 3 to 6 hours per day during championships and tournaments; it’s her way to counteract to the lack of government assistance or to the kind of life she is forced to live in. Viviana could have been Annalisa, in my eyes. Any of the girls in jail could have been Annalisa, if only Annalisa had been offered the time to make the wrong choices, and she wouldn’t probably anyway. After I had talked to Annalisa’s father, I started to see Annalisa everywhere and anywhere.

MT:

And then there is Sabrina, a ‘Neo-melodic’ singer. What does that term mean? And HOW does Comorra exploit this obscure market? I read that songwriters have been persecuted for paedophilic contents of their lyrics?

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VS:

That subject matter could have been a book in itself. Neo-melodic singers start their career very early, around 7 or 8 years old, and sometimes you have kids at 13, their fame already descending, and getting depressed. They sing at ceremonies, for about 15 minutes, several sessions per day during weekends, get paid cash and move on to the next one. They make quite some money considering their age. In a few cases Camorra abuses these singers to send specific messages incorporated in the lyrics at the end of a performance, in order to ease a conflict between two different clans in Naples.

MT:

Then we end up in the forensic laboratory of the ‘Polizia Scientifica’ [Forensic Police] showing a pile of boxes containing documents and weapons from the Casalesi’s family in Aversa. Who are these people?

 

VS:

Well, the Casalesi family is a smarter clan than the ones that use drug dealing as a main income. They are almost “Sicilians” in my eyes, in the way they run their business. Keeping it low profile and making huge money in construction projects. Although, the war they’ve started caused several executions in Naples. If you take a look at Walter Schiavone’s villa designed in the grandiose Scarface style, after the mobster’s mansion in the 1983 film Scarface, you understand the incredible loop. American movies were inspired by the Godfather’s Sicilian mafia life style, than Neapolitan mafia was inspired by American movies, like Scarface, to create their own image in the territory of Naples. In addition, there are movies about that too.

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MT:

Twin Palms Publishers released shortly a different edition of Gomorrah Girl, after two print runs of this cahier. A case bound edition containing 78 photographs will come out. Why yet another edition, and what is the difference with the first publication?

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cover Gomorrah Girl third edition Twin Palm Publishers 2014

VS:

I consider Twin Palms Publishers to be the best publishing house out there. I like all of it: their profile, their catalogue, their artists, the fact that they publish very, very, few books per calendar year, and for many other reasons. They wanted to republish Gomorrah Girl, in order to introduce my work to the US market, that was before my work in Sicily for the book project I Am Nothing, because the publication was sold out really fast and very few copies of the second edition were left. But still, we are talking about 500 copies of the first edition and 750 of the second edition. The third edition has the largest print run. I think it was a bright idea to have Gomorrah Girl out there NOT just for collectors, prices on the self-published first edition were getting so high, and in this way granting a wider audience to have the book largely available in the future.

 

MT:

Is Twin Palms Publishers making a facsimile of Gommorah Girl?

 

VS:

Twin Palms releases the first American edition of Gomorrah Girl. It’s not a facsimile. It is definitely a first American edition, and it’s the third edition of this book after two self-published editions.

The main differences in design and realisation compared to the earlier editions are:

a case bound hardcover; wonderfully designed by Jack Woody that protects the fragility of the book. What Jack Woody did to the cover design is poetic and cared for without changing the book at all. In the heart of the book, the centrefold poster in the second edition had a letter sent from female prison inmates describing the conditions inside the jail, very cruel and touching. In the third edition, Twin Palms has had that letter translated from Italian to English and over imposed the text on the photograph in order to better divulge the power of the letter itself. So there is no longer the foldable poster I’ve designed for the second edition featured in The Photobook A History Volume III (2014) by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. The cover photograph is different too.

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cover I Am Nothing first edition

MT:

Let’s move on to your recent publication I Am Nothing. There is an artist’s edition of 500 copies, signed and numbered. A trade edition of 1000 copies is available, again by Twin Palm Publishers. To what extent do both publications relate to each other?

 

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Santa Fe, working with Jack Woody on book layout of I Am Nothing

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Santa Fe, working with Jack Woody on the book layout I Am Nothing

VS:

Twin Palms Publishers edition is a trade edition, they will distribute the photobook to bookstores worldwide; in this way I do not have to deal myself directly with bookstores, which took a lot of time for previous editions. It may seem like a minor thing, but it is not, when you want to create a new body of work. I had a really bad experience with an bookstore in Milan that never paid the original low retail price for several copies of my first edition, while reselling my book for several hundreds euros a piece to their clients. Honestly, I am happy I don’t have to deal with this now. Fortunately, this only happened in Italy; there are plenty of fantastic bookstores worldwide. Twin Palms Publishers is used to dealing with bookstores and have a solid network. If you are self-publishing, there is only one thing you can trust and it’s your website and people that look out for you there.

Jack Woody has designed an additional dust jacket for the Twin Palms trade edition of I Am Nothing. I liked the idea to keep a small special edition of 500 copies as a first edition to sell directly from my website, signed and numbered, for collectors only, and hopefully for the people that showed all that appreciation for the first edition of Gomorrah Girl. Probably the types of buyers are very different, or maybe not, but it’s a good compromise to keep the book quality very high when in print and also to be sure that the book is and will be still available in the Twin Palms Publishers catalogue in case of possible future editions.

 MT:

And, in terms of content, to what extent do both publications Gommorah Girl and I Am Nothing relate to each other?

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VS:

This is a good question, because I presume every photographer ending up closing a chapter of years of work resulting in a book might have the same inner question. Which is: Why am I doing this? Why am I covering this? Will I always work on mafia and adolescence? I tell you that, for sure both books are chapters to me of a long-term project on Italy. I never get tired of portraying Italy. Gomorrah Girl is about the Campania region and specifically the area of Naples, while I am Nothing is about Sicily and whoever wants to rule that part of the country, and the latter is about never losing the focus on who is living there.

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Both projects are very much intertwined. Again we are dealing with an impossible or broken father-daughter relationship. Not that I go looking for that, but it happens to be there while documenting the stories and the areas. They have many things in common; there is a correlation between the two works, but this does not exclude something completely different and lighter in the future. Right now it is hard for me to move away from these stories; I rather do a ‘Gomorrah Girl 2’, if you allow me using such a strange expression, than moving elsewhere. This has nothing to do with the great feedback the book received, or about staying in a comfort zone (not that it is at all comfortable working in those areas) but just because Naples is endless. And so is Italy.

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MT:

I am Nothing is a book about Sicily, about impeded communication and about a hopeless relationship between a father, Matteo Messina Denaro – a most wanted criminal and fugitive – and his daughter, who he’s never met. Please tell me about the small slips of paper, so-called pizzini, mafia bosses use for high-level communication, and what it involves to disappear from Sicilian mafia circles.

 

 

 

 

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VS:

Matteo Messina Denaro has been a fugitive from justice since 21 years. I am not sure whether he is in Sicily right now or not. He might be there while I am talking to you. He has been in Tunis a lot because he can take night trips with fishers’ boats in Mazara del Vallo and still be close to Sicily controlling everything that happens there.

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The “pizzini” is how they communicate nowadays and have been communicating for the last 43 years. Bernardo Provenzano, a previous Mafia boss and Don of the Dons, used this technique, with a typewriter machine, which I had the chance to photograph. He sent of messages including the most violent death orders in Sicily and directed the money traffic in his territory. “Pizzini” are A4 paper size coded messages, folded multiple times and wrapped in transparent tape with a number on it. They usually had 160 people to give orders and to write to. So on the “pizzini” you have the number, which indicates the final recipient. That message will be passed from one person to another: 7 different people in total, before it reaches the order’s recipient. Only for urgent matters Matteo Messina Denaro is using Skype, to talk with his sister Patrizia, arrested last December.

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objects in a Bible which belonged to Provenzano

MT:

You have documented Matteo M. Denaro’s possessions. How did you get to him, and what possessions did you record?

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VS:

I’ve documented a lot of Bernardo Provenzano possessions. I was interested in what you carry with you when you decide to disappear; he had lists of things when he was moving from one place to another. Finally when he was caught, after 43 years on the run, during a massive police operation, they were able to list and collect all his personal objects and I had the chance to record them. Nobody ever had access to these objects before, not even a journalist who specialized in the Mafia and who wrote two books on this boss. When he saw these objects, he was there when I was photographing them, he was really astonished. On the other hand, regarding Matteo Messina Denaro, I’ve made a graphological analysis of the few traces, in terms of letters and documents, he left behind. He is smarter. You don’t really get to Matteo Messina Denaro.