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Another expert every month: We invite well-known bloggers and specialists from the international photography scene... Read more »

The Stanford Albums by Carleton Watkins

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In today’s terms of photography, digital or even analog, it is hard to imagine what Carleton Watkins endured to make photographs – loading up a team of mules with nearly a ton of photographic equipment including a mobile darkroom tent, a dangerous assortment of flammable chemicals, and an enormous custom-built camera that produced “mammoth” 18 x 22-inch glass-plate negatives. Dust and grit could easily ruin a day’s work as the plates were coated, exposed for up to an hour, and developed. Water had to be carried great distances. The sun warped and shrank camera parts. If photography were this cumbersome still, there would not be the gluttony of images we are subject to today.

IMG_7178 IMG_7179 There is good reason that the New York Times declared in 1862 that, “as specimens of the photographic art they are unequaled.” I think that praise still holds true today even though the photographs will be perceived to many as too “old fashioned” to consider that they still hold as pioneers in establishing the language of contemporary landscape photography.

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The Stanford Albums are made up of three unique albums of Watkins’s work which were left to the university by Timothy Hopkins: Photographs of the Yosemite Valley (1861 and 1865–66), Photographs of the Pacific Coast (1862–76), and Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon (1867 and 1870). This book is made up of a selection of large plate reproductions 25cm by 32cm, beautifully printed to mimic their original chocolate/purple tonalities. A back section of small reproductions, also well printed and large enough to enjoy on their own, show all 156 mammoth plates from the three albums.

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Throughout his career, Watkins documented the remote American West, generating more than 7,000 photographs of its most majestic wilderness sites as well as the dramatic transformation of isolated territories caused by logging and mining industries. His photographs won awards throughout the United States and abroad. With his early success, he established a gallery in San Francisco on prestigious Montgomery Street in 1861.

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Watkins’s fortunes took a turn with the 1874 failure of the Bank of California and the resulting economic panic. Heavily in debt at the time, Watkins had to declare bankruptcy and lost both his gallery and the majority of his negatives to a competitor.

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Watkins rebuilt his inventory, continuing to travel and work into the 1890s, but never recovered financially. At one point he and his family lived in a rail car in Oakland. Watkins’s health also declined, and by 1903 he was nearly blind. If that weren’t tragic enough, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed his studio and his life’s work, and he never got over the shock. His family eventually had him committed to Napa State Hospital. He died there in 1916. This publication and recent exhibition of The Stanford Albums is testament to his sweat and brilliance.

 

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

Stanford/Cantor Art Center, 2014

ISBN: 9780804792158

Mila’s ‘Remainder’ Pick #4: Medebach by Petra Wittmar

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In this photographic inventory of her birthplace, Petra Wittmar analyzes the architectural and topographical appearance of Medebach, a village located in Hochsauerland, in the center of Germany, and attempts to disclose the structures of village life in the process.

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Her interest in this subject was sparked by the drastic changes in the 1970s, which practically replaced the village with an increasingly interchangeable, standardized culture and lifestyle. Just as newly imposed construction norms and new directions in taste were taking hold, an apparently contrary yearning arose for “home” and personal happiness in this rural corner. Aesthetic breaches and varied cultural and political contradictions were the result, which led to an intensive investigation of questions surrounding the significance of identity.

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Medebach is an extract from a project to which the photographer devoted her time from 1979 to 1983. Her renunciation of inflammatory moments and her largely formal stringency distinguish the quality of these images, which can also be read as the German reaction to the American New Topographics movement in the late 1970s.

 

Petra Wittmar : Medebach – Photographs 1979-1983

Steidl, 2007

ISBN: 9783865212801

€ 15,00

Norma by Roger Eberhard

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Roger Eberhard’s book Norma looks curiously simply and straightforward. A photograph of a house, a photograph of a tree, house, tree, house, tree, house, tree, house, tree… At first it looks something similar to a Becher school typology study – different house forms alternating and juxtaposed with tree forms. The photographs are interesting because the houses are interesting. The approach is artless. The photos could be hanging in a real estate office wall of available properties although the color palette is too muddled – probably from being photographed in what looks like twilight.

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Then you go return to the beginning and read the essay that you skipped over. In most cases when the essay is the only thing that provides the context of a work, I find fault in the work and roll my eyes. It is like a voice over in a film telling me exactly what to pay attention to or trigger feelings. It is a cheap trick. In this case, I still do a fair amount of eye rolling (read: skepticism) but the context here is very interesting. These houses are all on a street that is only a few hundred meters south of the new take-off and landing runways of the German headquarters of the firm Airbus which currently operates the world’s largest passenger airplane, the A380.

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Fearing lawsuits from the home owners on Hasselwerder Straße in Hamburg from noise disturbance, the Hamburg Senate simply bought up the sixty-seven homes that would be most effected. But that isn’t the end of the story. The houses weren’t destroyed but instead preserved – empty of occupants but heated in the winters and with lights set on automatic timers. It is the appearance of normalcy and a healthy living neighborhood. This clean idyll, ‘no broken windows’ policy also planted the trees on the embankment across the street.

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Ok, so now armed with this information, the house photos take on an eerie, empty tone and one starts to think about governments imposing odd practices to keep up appearances (not to mention the power of corporations to displace people). But there is still a discrepancy between the essay and the photographs. The essay mentions sixty-seven homes. There are only eighteen of the house photographs and sixteen of the tree photographs. Since this is now more of a conceptual piece then I would be interested in seeing all sixty-seven homes. Why are they not all shown?

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At the end of the book there is a leporello foldout of the 18 house pictures already shown. I am not sure why this is there other than as a design extra. The opposite side doesn’t show the trees. It isn’t further enlightening and just seems to be an add-on, for?  I am left guessing.

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If I seem harsh it is because I want to like this book. It is interesting, cleanly designed and tests the reader’s notion of a book being a passively read object (this you have to turn sideways every other page) but too many unimportant questions leave me at odds. Why not show all of the houses? That would seem to make it complete and drive the point further – through excess. Was it because there were not enough trees on the opposite side of the road?

 

Roger Eberhard: Norma

Peperoni Books

ISBN 9783941825475

Nail Houses by Peter Bialobrzeski

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A ‘nail house’ is a building or home in an area being redeveloped where the residents holdout and absolutely refuse from moving, often halting construction or making the builders continue around these homes (which stick out like a nail) with elaborate changes to construction plans. It can be a proud protest against the overwhelming machinery of capital and so-called ‘progress.’ Each of these holdouts seem to ask deeper questions about the shift of culture and erasure of antiquity. In his newest book, Peter Bialobrzeski sought out neighborhoods in Shanghai China where groupings of nail houses form small communities surviving under the oppressive weight of the transitioning landscape surrounding them.

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A wall of brightly lit apartment skyscrapers loom in the background of nearly every picture – the houses below a jumble of ingenuity and improvisation to keep them standing and habitable. Bialobrzeski – obviously excited by the visual mashing of walls, power lines, plastic tarping, laundry, and rubble – makes pictures that are full of small details; a bin full of blue garbage bags, bright green leaves in a makeshift garden, scaffolding holding up parts of walls and ceilings, every conceivable form of air conditioner, a smattering of advertising which attempt to create the desire for a ‘cleaner’ more ‘modern’ approach to living – and in one image – a cat who has held still long enough to be clearly described during Bialobrzeski’s lengthy exposure.

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Another obvious character is the light. Bialobrzeski mostly photographs in the middle of the night among the playful mix of artificial light that emanates from street lamps and apartment windows. The towering skyscrapers give off their own glow of light pollution turning night into never-ending day.

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Bialobrzeski calls the series a ‘typology’ of these houses but it is the tangled mess of details and the formal play that the structures seem to be supporting that I am most drawn. His method is thankfully not strict or cold and his frames are filled with the enjoyable chaos of his subjects. If forced I would put him more in the likes of Atget and Evans than the almost clinical approach of the Bechers.

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Nail Houses is very cleanly designed and vertical in format so there is a mixture of images on a single page and double-page spreads across the gutter. I prefer the larger plates even though the gutter can be intrusive. Even though Lost in Transition was chosen for inclusion in Parr/Badger’s The Photobook Volume III, this is my favorite of Bialobrzeski’s books.

 

Peter Bialobrzeski: Nail Houses or the Destruction of Lower Shanghai

Hatje Cantz, 2014

ISBN: 9783775738293

5070 by Kurt Hörbst

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As a recent father of twin girls (who at 10 months are discovering that screaming at the top of their lungs is fun!) I can relate to Kurt Hörbst’s recent book from Fotohof called 5070. Over the course of their pregnancy, Horbst photographed his wife Alexandra with a large format camera and black and white film.

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Hörbst describes the day to day in frames that lend themselves to formal play; his wife standing in a stream, lounging outdoors, on the metro, waiting for an ultrasound, listening to music at a kneipe, and finally in the hospital. The 29 photographs are beautiful and full with his wife playing a static part while the world seems to flow around her. The anticipation of each step of pregnancy can seem to drag time to a stand still, while afterwards, all becomes a blur.

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There is a quiet and introspective tone at work although the camera always seems to be a presence. Perhaps it is the formal rigor of many of the better photos that draws this to the surface and in my opinion rings a slightly false note. It is a delicate balance.

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In the publisher’s words the work depicts “issues such as loneliness, uncertainty and joyful anticipation, unrest and calm, curiosity, anxiety and pride.” Perhaps if one is speaking generally about the emotions of pregnancy but in these photographs of Alexandra I find no range, just a vague sense of indifference in her expression (or perhaps the reality is an over awareness of the camera). I don’t fault the book for this necessarily. Much of pregnancy is a slow uncomfortable boredom.

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On the surface the sequence seems to adhere to the progression of time but a thumbnail index in the back of the book reveals the photographer/bookmaker playing some slight tricks for the benefit of the sequence which I am not entirely certain made much of a difference. Looking at the thumbnails, other than the frontispiece of Alexandra in the stream (which is the right start to the book), I think the sequence could have worked also just following the natural order too.

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The last image reveals the title, Hörbst’s son in his first hour of life, in color and on a scale weighing 5070gm. That image is an actual print adhered to the page.

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Funny but many publishers relate making a book to giving birth. As someone who has done both, publish books and seen through the process of my wife giving birth to our girls, I hope that metaphor gets retired. Making books is trite in comparison.

 

Kurt Hörbst: 5070

Fotohof Edition

Edition of 350

ISBN: 9783902675910

Eye to Eye by Vivian Maier

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The unveiling of Vivian Maier, the Chicago nanny and photographer whose entire life including her negatives and prints wound up in a storage auction and bought for a few hundred dollars, took the internet by storm. A Kickstarter campaign for the first book of her work raised over 100,000 dollars in a matter of weeks. A blog run by John Maloof, who bought her possessions at the auction, quickly spread to larger outlets and news stories revealing Maier as a talented woman who photographed seemingly daily in the streets of Chicago and New York. The work was surprising in that there was a lot of it and that she had kept it completely a secret. Many of those families that she worked for remember her having her Rolliflex slung around her neck but never saw the photographs.

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The story was told and retold many times and the center character besides Maier herself was John Maloof, a real estate agent and part-time historian who won the auction that contained the boxes of over 30,000 negatives. What I hadn’t known was that Maloof was not the only buyer that day of Maier’s estate – Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow also wound up with boxes of negatives. Maloof’s portion was the largest but eventually Prow sold 17,000 negatives to the Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein whose collection has been featured in two books, Vivien Maier: Out of the Shadows and the recent Vivien Maier: Eye to Eye published by City Files Press.

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Eye to Eye presents about 200 images from the Goldstein collection and as the title suggests, all of the images chosen have the subject looking directly into the photographer’s lens. Joel Meyerowitz in the recent documentary on Maier expresses, “As she was photographing, she was seeing just how close she could come into somebody’s face and make a picture of them. That tells me a lot about her. That tells me she could walk into the space of a total stranger and get them to accommodate her by being themselves. And generate this kind of moment where two presences were actually kind of vibrating together.”

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Eye to Eye is well produced, if a bit formally stiff design and concept-wise. It feels like a well made book from a university press but with a finer printing. Being an edit made entirely of her subjects acknowledging her presence, unfortunately the tone of the book is mostly, well, just nice. There are a handful of images that for this reviewer are very moving and meaningful without overt sentiment whereas the majority suffer from a saccharine sweetness that leaves me feeling nerved.

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Maier was a deeply secretive person so one can only guess which images she felt strongly towards, but from the little light that has been shed on her personality in essays and interviews with former employers, there was a darker and introspective side that I find difficult to match with this edit. In her best work, where the subject is unaware of her camera’s presence, there is a mixture of the profoundness of daily life flowing around her and a dynamic range of life’s experience. Eye to Eye would have benefitted greatly from a little more emotionally diverse choosing on the part of the editors. Just looking into the eyes of another does not mean there will be anything profound revealed about that person and by default, the larger world that connects to the viewer.

 

Vivian Maier: Eye to Eye

Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

ISBN: 9780991541805

David Goldblatt – Photographers’ References #1

IMG_7526I have seen many artist lectures in my time and most are a disappointment. Perhaps expectations for artists to give insight into themselves, their process and work are too large. What is one to gain by knowing anyway? Does one’s process repeated work for another? This is how they did what and this is what happened. It is an odd intellectual exercise. That said, few people are able to eloquently explain themselves and their work better than the photographer David Goldblatt. A new series of books called Photographers’ References starts off with a volume dedicated to Goldblatt and his thoughts.

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Photographers’ References is collection of in-depth interviews, and extended conversations with established photographers. Held over a period of time the interviews “expose a photographer’s creative and thought processes and provides insight into their practice, mapping out personal references and influences that have contributed to shape their distinctive visual language.”

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This series is the brainchild of editor Frédérique Destribats and photographer Baptiste Lignel. Small and vertical in format with a stark cover and typography the interior is nicely designed with foldout references that can be viewed alongside the texts.

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I return to compliment Goldblatt’s voice as a perfect starter for such a series but part of me asks what future artists will be featured, and will they be as forthcoming and interesting? The publishers are not revealing the future titles yet but I was told a few are in the works.

If I had one reservation it is with the price. The book is well-designed and substantial at 170 pages, but a price set of 20 euros (27 USD) means that the promise of inspiration come with a price.

 

Photographers’ References: David Goldblatt

Photographers’ References, 2014

ISBN: 9782954383910

Zoe’s ‘Remainder’ Pick #3: West Bank by Sophie Ristelhueber

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In her photographs, Sophie Ristelhueber embraces and records the scars of human existence. “I have these obsessions that I do not completely understand, with the deep mark, with the ruptured surface, with scars and traces, traces that human beings are leaving on the earth“, she says. She transcends the turmoil and specificity of a location and creates art without limits of time and identity through photographs that are haunting, provocative and telling.

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In West Bank, Ristelhueber’s photographs only ever carry evidence of human activity, never images of people themselves: it is through the absence that she manages to address, through the metaphor of various roadblock constructions, the divide and conflict of people in the region.

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West Bank could be considered a companion of sorts to her 1991 book Fait which showed an abstraced view of the landscape of the first Gulf War – both share the same size and basic design.

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Sophie Ristelhueber: West Bank

Thames &Hudson, 2005.

ISBN 9780500542989

€ 8,00

 

Shikishima by Tamiko Nishimura

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Normally one can discern the student from the master in most arts but in photography it gets a bit complicated. As John Szarkowski had written photography is promiscuous. A camera enables the amateur to make something in an instant as potentially profound as anything made before by a master or professional. Who hasn’t seen a random masterpiece in a family album?

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When looking at photographers from Japan, especially those from the 60s associated with Provoke, we identify the unity of the books more so that the individual photographs. For an individual Moriyama picture can also look like a Nakahira, or a Taki, or a Tamatsu just like someone might mistake a Gerhard Schuh photo occasionally for a Robert Frank.

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So looking at the reprint of Shikishima by the photographer Tamiko Nishimura, I see someone a kin to her contemporaries and at times indistinguishable. Nishimura was an assistant to Daido Moriyama in the early 70s and the language she employs – that of grit, grain, and blur – is very similar to Moriyama’s and others. The subject is a familiar; streets, people, backs, clasped hands, children, empty rooms, people sleeping, signs, streets at night, people up close and distant. The film quality of underexposure and over-development forces the highlights to dissolve off the scale and into oblivion – bursts of light within dark and shimmering black masses of ink.

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Shikishima is a series of photographs taken during 1969-73 on the artist’s journeys around the Tohoku, Hokuriku, Kanto, Kansai, and Chugoku regions of Japan and was published one year after Moriyama’s masterpiece Bye, Bye, Photography. The name is an epithet of the ancient name for Japan, Yamato.

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She was inspired to visit different towns because of scenes from movies she saw or song lyrics and looked at everyday life. Film seems to be one of her main influences as in the short afterword written in 1973 she mentions several films directly. “I once went to Okutsu Onsen, the location for the movie ‘Akitsu Onsen’ (An Affair at Akitsu), and just relaxed for a couple days. What I like best is walking around freely, without even deciding when to leave.”

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After viewing “Soshite, Kobe” by Kiyoshi Maekawa she went to Kobe, “The weather changed often, with strong winds, sunshine, clouds, and rain. I was strongly attracted by the how the light shined, by the smell of flowers, and just by the atmosphere of the place, rather than what I actually saw. Even if I walk through the same place every day, each walk would be different, depending on who I meet or how the light shines. It is not particularly about visiting somewhere new. Still, while watching foreign ships in Kobe Port I dreamed of one day sailing in one to a country I’ve never been to before.”

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I like the book but I cannot really say if I find it meticulous or random in editing and sequence. Nishimura mentions being in school and being excited by not only choosing the photographs, but making the whole book. It is felt but I feel no stronger attraction to this than I would one of Moriyama’s books. They leave me feeling pretty much the same, like I have just been jostled through a landscape that jumps day into night and day for night and night for night among the distinguishable and indistinguishable, between intimacy and detachment, between the personal and impersonal – I guess much like ‘life’ itself.

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This reprint of the 1973 edition of “Shikishima” is accompanied by a supplement composed of unpublished photographs, and English translations of the original text along with a newly written text by Tamiko Nishimura.

 

Tamiko Nishimura: Shikishima

Zen Photo Gallery, 2013

ISBN: 9784905453345

Printed in Germany by Christopher Williams

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Christopher Williams’s newest artist book just published by the Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koenig is a circular survey of the artist’s photographic work. ‘Circular’ as in a global circumnavigation of riddling references tracing photography’s link to industry, politics, global trade, art history, philosophy and history all with the crisp perfection found in the language of advertising photography.

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We start in Germany, one of Williams’s countries of residence with the cover image of a black man in a white stiff-collared shirt holding a Plaubel Makina camera. The camera was originally produced in Germany by Plaubel & Company until sold to a Japanese firm, Makina cameras, in the 1970s. It is an image that at once invites multifaceted readings on race and global production; the camera, German; the lens, Japanese; the man, African; and the stark white shirt, Italian(?). There is always more that went into each image’s construction and many entwining meanings lurking about than the viewer will most likely be intellectually prepared for. (Mark Godfrey suggests the image mentioned above is also in reference to Jean Rouch’s ethnographic films.)

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This book, conceived and designed by Williams, provides no explanation along the way – there are no texts, actually no obvious words at all, not even a title – so you are left respectfully on your own within his demanding oeuvre to make of it what you can.

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The first image we encounter, after several blank red pages (presumably where a museum director’s foreword might appear), is of a tethered twist of orange-yellow foam, which at first looks like a weirdly sliced mango, but is actually a soft sculpture by the artist John Chamberlain. That image is repeated throughout the book like chapter headings. Perhaps Williams is positioning and repositioning himself within the 1970s art-practice he studied under at Cal Arts, or maybe it is also that ‘yellow’ – a color that makers of film stock concern themselves with controlling. Chamberlain’s foam couch appears several pages later. I needed it to relax after a just few dozen pages.

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Reds, greens and yellows – the colors of the three different versions of this book – are important through out Williams’s work. Film companies prided themselves and touted their material that could allow the best tonalities of each. Williams is fascinated with the physicality of film, optics, equipment of photography as well as their use and operation. Many images show lenses or cameras sliced in half revealing their inner construction or photographs of hands operating cameras that look as if the fell from a ‘how-to’ manual – very simple operations that have very complex reverberations. When Williams shows us apples is he pointing to that specific red and perhaps as well how that saturated illusion seduces us to buy? How apples are genetically altered to be redder to enhance that seduction? When he shows us four Becher-like views of a Kiev 88 camera is the suggestion of the Cold War and German photographic practice at hand? Michelin tires a nod to Vietnamese rubber plantations and the Vietnam War? That is all far too simplistic as every image has its meaning-full demands and to be certain, Williams has thought about each conceivable angle.

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Fashion, architecture, still-life, portraiture, documentary-styles all are all represented in one way or another within the book’s four ‘chapters’, each divided by a section of those blank red pages (or yellow or green depending on what color of the book you chose). When you get to the last page, there is an additional pull-out booklet of blank pages (another invisible essay) and there, on the back you’ll find the only words that serve as the default title of this artist book which brings us back to our beginnings – Printed in Germany.

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As much as I enjoy digging at Williams’s work (this book is by far my favorite of all of his publications) it seems to exist as a play for academics, far removed from most viewers. It uses the language we all know and encounter daily, that of the seemingly simple advert, to act as a conduit to the larger, more complex world and its past. Stumbling through Williams’s jump-cut imagery I feel like I will always be several frustrating steps behind the maker and in desperate need of a reference guide.

 

Christopher Williams: Printed in Germany

Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koenig, 2014

Three editions, ISBN: 9783863356002 (yellow), 9783863356019 (red), 9783863356026  (green)