Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Secret Gardens

This is an odd and rambling shaggy dog story. I’ve taken up gardening recently and spend quite a bit of time poring over manuals on how to raise tomatoes, amend soil, make compost, set up planting schedules, etc

All of this gardening on the brain made me remember a book I’d picked up a few years back that’s been gathering dust on the shelf, unread: Derek Jarman’s Garden, a journal the filmmaker penned at his cottage in Dungeness in southeast England where he spent hours tending his garden as he slowly succumbed to AIDS. “The flowers blossomed while Derek faded.”

I first stumbled on the book during a long weekend in Nevada City—a tiny outpost in the Sierras that dates from the Wild West era and that’s now, oddly enough, home to several bookstores. One shop with a few stalls on the front porch had its “Closed” sign out but a note hung in the window asking visitors to slip money under the door if they found something they liked. I discovered Jarman’s diary with the price of $1 penciled inside the cover so I slipped a bill under the front door. There was a sense of rightness in finding the book and a weird feeling of grace in the self-regulated trust between buyer and seller.

I dipped into reading it again a week ago. One of Jarman’s lines popped out at me: “I can look at one plant for an hour, this brings me great peace. I stand motionless and stare.” I completely understand this, having spent quite a few mornings peering into pots looking for seedlings or checking on plants that need attention. It is a completely calming, meditative activity…and I feel the same soothing effect as I float through Jarman’s prose.

The book is accompanied by London photographer Howard Sooley‘s images. Sooley keeps a blog on The Guardian UK site and just recently wrote again about his project with Jarman. I imagine that if Virginia Woolf had wanted someone to capture the view from Monk’s House, her country retreat, Sooley with his romantic images of storms and thickets and quiet parlors would be her man.


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Abner Nolan takes old found negatives and reprints them. There’s not a lot of his work online, but he did do a limited edition book with Trillium called American Negatives which looks like it might be out of print. He will have another limited edition coming out in the next year with These Birds Walk, a photo book subscription series out of Oakland.

Actually, this just in. Todd Wemmer over at Lost and Found Photos stumbled upon a collection of Nolan’s found meat photos in Issue 2 of Meat Paper, a great foodie journal about the “meat zeitgeist.”

And while you’re visiting Lost and Found Photos, take a look around. It’s one of the best resources for found photography.

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Kith and Kin

These Birds Walk is a small art book publisher in Oakland whose goal is to “provide affordable art books that quietly exist somewhere between a discarded pamphlet on the street and a high end coffee table book.” They publish an annual limited edition subscription series that includes four books, each from an individual photographer. The latest one is called “The Kin Series” and features books by Mike Brodie, Paul Schiek, Ari Marcopoulos and Jim Goldberg. The next series includes Todd Hido, Marianne Mueller, Abner Nolan and Alec Soth. Sign up and you’ll get small doses of good photos four times a year.

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Anatomy Lessons

hellweg1.jpgIt’s the question every photojournalist might ask him or herself. When dramatic events unroll before you, do you stay behind the camera and document or do you step out and engage? Max Aguilera-Hellweg decided to engage.

It started back in 1990 when he was asked to capture a neurosurgeon at work for Savvy magazine. He was transfixed by what unfolded on the other side of the camera and began documenting all sorts of surgeries—cosmetic, brain, heart. His work was published in the Mutter Museum calendar which features medical and anatomical oddities. And finally his fascination drove him to sign up for medical school where he is now studying to become a doctor. Talk about career change. It only makes you wonder more about what he saw in the operating room that so moved him.

Aguilera-Hellweg has published a book, “The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery.” His pictures aren’t “for the faint of heart” as the catalog copy warns. They are intensely fascinating; you cringe and at the same time you can’t stop looking. Aguilera-Hellweg’s images reveal something secret and intimate that most of us never see—the mysterious workings of our own “invisible” insides.

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I picked up “Diane Arbus: The Libraries” at Fraenkel Gallery. It’s a visual catalog of the books and photos that belonged to Arbus’s personal library, the actual contents of which were displayed as part of the Arbus retrospective, Revelations at SFMOMA back in 2003. The book is beautifully put together—accordion-pleated pages inside a cocoa brown slipcase with black lettering. The layout reminds me of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”

A shelf lined with books runs along the top half of the page, the titles and descriptions along the bottom. Scanning her library is to figure out what made Arbus tick, what the sources of her creative process were—the stories she carried around with her in her head, the personal photos of family and friends that surrounded her, the images by other photographers that inspired her. A press clipping with the headline “Woman Tortured by Agonizing Itch” serves as a bookmark in Albert Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom. Alan Arbus’s photo of a young Diane sits next to Vogue’s Book of Etiquette. Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural shoulders up to books on William Klein, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, El Greco and Claes Oldenburg. Knowing that Arbus chose these books makes them seem like a recipe, an equation that equaled in some way what her lens was drawn to.

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belger.jpgI was rummaging through some papers and came across a flyer for an exhibit I saw a while back at Varnish Gallery. The show was called “A Collection of Souls from the Borderland” and it showcased Wayne Belger‘s pinhole cameras and the photos he takes with them.

Belger, an LA-based artist trained originally as a machinist, discovered pinhole cameras when a photographer friend asked him to build one for a project he was doing. Since then Belger has created his own series of bizarrely ornate pinhole machines forged from aircraft grade aluminum that stand as pieces of sculpture in their own right. The structure and story of each camera is tightly interwoven with the pictures it takes. On his website, Belger says: “All the cameras I have built have been the work horses for the photos I have taken.” In fact, the two can’t be separated.

The camera in this photo is called the HIV camera. Two valves, one on each side pump HIV-positive blood back and forth between two plates of glass that sit in front of the pinhole. The blood acts as a red-color filter. With this camera Belger photographs people living with AIDS and HIV. Crafting another camera from the 150-year-old skull of a teenage girl, Belger decorates the camera with jewels and composes dreamy photos of roadside shrines and children’s playgrounds that speak to a life cut short. The heart camera enshrines an infant heart in a shiny metal box and produces images of women in the late stages of pregnancy.

Another pinhole book worth checking out is Jo Babcock’s “The Invented Camera” that I originally discovered at Printed Matter in New York. Babcock is a San Francisco-based artist who’s made pinholes from old beat-up things: cigar boxes, maple syrup cans, mailboxes, coffee urns, typewriter cases, packages of Brillo, even old VW buses and Airstream trailers. You name it, if it’s been thrown out Babcock can whip it into a picture-taking apparatus. The book is laid out with an image of the camera on the left leaf and the picture taken by the camera on the right; the two work together to make clever, wry combinations. Battered and bruised Samsonite suitcases give birth to images of crumbling YMCAs, Greyhound stations and neon-lit motels. An old metal movie projector case produces a shot of the glowing red neon sign of San Francisco’s venerable Roxie theatre. A self-portrait of the artist with bandage emerges from a metal Band-Aid box. A package of Tide paints a moody scene in a laundromat. And my favorite—a weathered index card tray long past its prime seizes an image of an equally outdated heaping mound of discarded books.

Both Babcock and Belger wrap their cameras and the images they create into a fascinating embrace.

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E.J. Bellocq

E.J. Bellocq

I just received a copy of the first printing of the second edition of E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville for my birthday. I love the history behind this set of photographs—Bellocq the commercial photographer and social misfit producing images of the ladies of New Orleans’ red light district in a project that was private and personal, never really intended for a wider audience. The photos were made in the early 1900s, forgotten, then rediscovered and reprinted by Lee Friedlander in the 1960s, a set of 89 glass plates, many of them corroded, cracked and defaced.

The book’s cover shot is a woman perched on a chair, her body swaying in a gentle “S” shape, her legs covered in a snake-like swirl of black and white striped stockings, a tiny glass of rye whiskey raised in a melancholy toast. Each of the models is posed, but they are also completely open and trusting in front of the camera; as some people have said, Bellocq made love to these women with his lens. Perhaps because the photos were never meant for public consumption, they capture even more forcefully the secretive atmosphere of the bedroom, and the fact that we were not meant to see them, makes us want to look longer and deeper into this private world.

In some ways, Bellocq’s revival is like that of Mike Disfarmer, the Depression era portrait photographer whose negatives were rediscovered and reprinted so that the residents of a tiny Arkansas town now live on, anonymously in between the spines of several art editions. Or the Malian portrait photographer Seydou Keïta whose stark black and white photos shot in 1950s Africa as small format portraits and meant only as personal mementos were rediscovered in 1990 by a French photojournalist. Keïta has since been embraced by the New York art world, his slides reprinted in large format and sold for $16,000. Controversy swirls around the prints—whether they were authorized by Keïta and whether they represent his original intentions.

What is so intriguing about all of these photographers is the fact that none of them were trying to create Art in a public forum, and their work seems even more fiercely authentic because of it.

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