Saturday, February 26, 2011

photo book review: Carmen Soth, The Brighton Bunny Boy

Photo courtesy of Little Brown Mushroom.
Here is this week's literally eleventh-hour (twenty-third hour if you keep military time) photo book review, brought to you by the pile of photo books I bought last month.

Last year Magnum photographer Alec Soth was commissioned to work for the Brighton Photo Biennial. But due to a last minute snaggle he was unable to get a work visa in time. At a loss to deliver what was asked of him, on the fly he enlisted his then seven-year old daughter Carmen to photograph what she saw in Brighton. This young woman has now produced two books based on that experience under the auspices of her father, and although in some ways less ambitious than Brighton Picture Hunt,  The Brighton Bunny Boy (Little Brown Mushroom), a collaboration among Carmen, Alec, and Gus Soth,  remarkably conveys both the innocence and anxiety of childhood.

Soth pere recently explained to the New York Times, for whom he occasionally blogs that there are wall photographers and there are book photographers, and he considered himself squarely in the company of the latter. I wouldn’t tell anybody not to see a Soth gallery show, but I would tell you to run and find one of his excellent books, from his landmark debut Sleeping by the Mississippi (of which I am fortunate to own the much-sought after first edition - and signed at that!) to the tabloid style newsprint edition The Last Days of W.

He has passed on his gift for the photography book to his daughter, who supplies the kind of openness and imagination that most of us unfortunately grow out of. The Brighton Bunny Boy incorporates Carmen Soth’s text and illustrations with her father's photos of an elusive boy (played by brother Gus) who mysteriously hides in a bunny costume. Such alienation is often seen in her father’s work but I all too well remember that childhood alienation, different from that of adulthood but no less acute, and Soth adresses one of the painful dilemmas of growing up: how to find and assert your identity in the greater society. In the span of eighteen zine-sized pages, a brief but not at all minor drama plays out with character development and resolution. The book is cute and unsettling, a winning combination. May the Soth family continue their monographic winning streak for generations to come.

Also recently reviewed: the new Criterion DVD editions of Sweet Smell of Success and Luchino Visconti's rarely seen Senso for Blogcritics. This post was brought to you by the letter S.

Update: The Seattle Post Intelligencer syndicates Blogcritics content, and Alec Soth just linked to the review from the Little Brown Mushroom blog with the clarification that Carmen took all the photos as well. Yay Carmen!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

every camera I own: the olympus pen f

This is the second Olympus Pen F I've owned, the first one having literally fallen apart after moderate use. Olympus resurrected the Pen series in name and compact spirit for their EP line of Digital SLRs, but the quasi-retro design of those new cameras, while not unappealing, pale in comparison to the keen contours of their inspiration.

The original Pen F series  were half-frame SLRs that made two photos - in portrait orientation - on one frame of 35mm film.(Pen EE and other models were less expensive, fixed-lens cameras.) More than a dozen lenses were produced in this particular mount, which is not compatible with the standard OM mount (though an adapter was available). The most sought after of these Pen-mount lenses is the 38mm f2.8  "pancake lens", named not for syrup and blueberries but for its even more compact design. You could buy a lot of short-stacks for what these lenses go for. The only lens I have for this camera is the 40mm f 1.4 pictured - but it's a sweet fast lens.

The double-capacity of the half-frame camera was used to sell this series as a means to conserve film, but I like it for the possible juxtapositions.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

nanowrimo day 24: gluttony

The character of Jimmy the Gent started as a stock Damon Runyonesque thug-cum-Lenny from Of Mice and Men foil, but he grew into a stand-in for authorial awkwardness. In this scene Jimmy the Gent (whose name I took from a James Cagney movie) appears at the family of Mmrma/Mortimer, who the careful reader may recall is the once jawless ventriloquist dummy sho took my nanowrimo work in a completely different direction from the art-world satire that I started out with. An except from the 1920-word output for November 24:

“Hey Morty, did ja really eat all those people like the lady dreamed, did ja huh?” inquired an inquisitve Gent.
Morty looked over at Crackers, Cheese, and Butter, the sisters all gathered there for the holiday feast. “Why, no, Jimmy,” Morty responded without additional hesitation or sweating of the brow that would indicate that he was hiding something or other to the contrary, Crackers and her sisters ain’t nevah eaten a juicy, tender New York strip of haberdasher marinated with Worcestershire sauce and brown sugah and vinegar --”
“--and gahlic! Lots and lotsa gahlic!” clarified Butter, smacking her lips at the Gent’s thick calf muscles peeking out from under his flood-length pants.

“Not dat I tink dere’s any ting wrong wif dat,” noted the Gent. “Azza mattera fack, I could maybe use somebody like dat in my manner of employment, if ya get my drift.”
Cheese slipped the Gent a card. “Well, and again, like I was sayin’ it’s not like we’re in that kinda business - at least not anymore,” clarified Cheese. “But if ya need a hand you could give us a buzz at that numbah. Anytime after 4,” Cheese whispered. “In the mornin’!“ The card read, in 14-point Gill Sans, [the following is one of my favorite lines in the whole 50,000 words I wrote]:
Several bottles of wine later, The Gent, who up till then in his acquaintance with Morty had barely so much as raised an eyebrow in guffaughter, was dancing with Cheese and a lampshade on his head, in that order. "Put me down, ya big ape!" Cheese shrieked, afraid for her life and worried she'd have to be refinished. "Put me down! Ye'll wreck the wood grain! Put me down! Jimmy! Down! Down! Down! Jimmy! Down!"

"Da, have ya ever done da limbo rock, Cheesy? It’s all dey talk about on da islands, mon!"
"No I ain't nevuh done da limbo rock and I ain't about ta, now put me down right now Jimmy the Gent or oil moider ya!!" protested Cheese, as if to remind the Gent of that so-called dream.
"Aw, you wooden dames ain't no fun. And by that double negative, I mean that ye wooden dames are a lotta fun! Haw haw haw!" The Gent swung his head up and down like a heavy-metal singer with a screaming and hanging on for life ventriloquist dummy named Cheese in place of a curly blonde head-banging mane. This rhythmic semi-circular motion continued for several minutes, untill ... 

"Oh Jimmy, I tink I'm gonna be ill ..." Cheese warned tenderly, before her eyes rolled in the back of her head, her spring-loaded double-take mechanism jammed on repeat and the contents of her dinner [begin word-count padding exercise] (mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, dark turkey meat, white turkey meat, turkey gizzards, turkey neck, a slice of ham, a slice of prime rib, a spoonful of green peas, a dollop of cranberry relish, two slices of home-made bread and store-bought unsalted butter, noodles au gratin, a slice of apple raisin pie with crumbly crust and a scoop of fudge ripple ice cream, a slice of pecan pie with toffee and chocolate chips and bourbon topped with low fat chocolate whipped cream, two glasses of red wine, and two hands full of Girl Scout salsa trail mix) [end word-count padding exercise] spewed projectorilly in a wide vibrating arc defined by the angle of the Gent's headbanging ambition of the moment and the aforementioned jammed spring-loaded double-take mechanism.
"Ah gee, Morty, sorry about dat," a chastened Gent begged pardon of his host as at the same time he delicately wiped a weary Cheese’s mouth and dinner dress. "Dah, it's no wonder I don't get invited ta parties too much. Ya okay dere hon?"
“Don’t ... call ... me ... bleaugh ...” an exhausted, and suddenly hungry, Cheese half-heartedly chided her awkward ride. 
"Don't worry about a ting, Gent," Morty reassured his buddy, although the steam pipes behind Crackers' ginger pig-tails began to percolate with impatience. [begin word-count padding exercise] "I was already gonna warsh dose curtains, and I had a mind ta hose down the winders, and it was on the toppa my ta-do list ta re-paper that wall over there on the uddah side a the room, and I was just gonna have a conservator look at that Turner etching, and you might see the post-it note to remind myself to polish the Giacometti walking man replica, and tomorrow’s my day ta pressure clean the stucco ceiling, and this weekend I was gonna have the parquet floors refinished, and it’s high time we had the Oriental rug steam-cleaned, and the predetermined hour approacheth for to give Junior, Segundo, Bottles and Tilda a sponge bath, and I gotta wash my hair ever night ya know, and I’d almsot forgotten to take my collection of Madagascar string-ties to the dry-cleaners, and my calendar tells me it’s the semi-annual day to re-bind my first edition of the complete works of Henry James, and bi-weekly bathe my collection of seventy-eight RPM records of Enrico Caruso in soap and distilled water, and after a big holiday supper we always re-fill the salt and pepper shakes in the life-sized shapes of Shields and Yarnell anyways - [end word-count padding exercise] so don't you worry about a ting, and make sure ta come fer Christmas. If ye ain't busy, dat is!"

"Aw gee, I'd be happy ta come fer Christmas!" The Gent was touched, a lot, and even more still, and wondered what he'd do for presents, not sure what was cool with the kids dese days. When he was a young tyke, he always wanted a Tonka car carrier, and dreamed he got it but never did get one. He never had a Big Wheel. He never had Rock 'em' Sock 'em Robots. But he had a tricycle, and then a bicycle, and then a unicycle, and then shoes, and always a roof over his head and warm food in his mouth and a wool blanket with cowboys lassoing cows on it, and he never wanted fer nuthin.

“I wunduh if Cheese’l be there. Aw, I hope she’s fuhgiven me for makin’ her trow up like dat an’ all. Say, I know what I’ll do - I’ll bake cookies - lotsa cookies! Dat’s hat I’ll do!” And that’s what Jimmy the Gent would do indeed, because his source for Hallwoeen Oreos out of season was none udder than himself, Jimmy the Gent, that is ("That's *me*," he directs his thumb at his barrel chest to reaffirm his identity as gentleman as well as to answer knock-knock jokes) possessed of an industrial-grade wafer mold procured from the since renovated Oreo plant in Walla Walla Washington, secret recipes wrested from Oreo chefs after minor administrations of troot serum and oil of eucalyptus, to relieve congestion and open up the nasal passages, and a team of elves to man the assembly line production and packaging of Oreos of any season.
But he'd make special cookies from scratch just for the kids. And fer Cheese, if she’d fergive him. And if Crackers would let him back inta the house. It was gonna be Christmas after all. 

Outside the American Yeast plant, Giuseppe D'Abbondanza wept and kneaded his yeaAst apron. "No! No! No!" he cried as he watched the unintentional conflagration of his life's work rise up like fluffy devils in the place of countless loaves of bread that would no longer be any good for sandwiches. "Mamma mia!"

Saturday, February 19, 2011

every camera I own: the yashica A

The Yaschia A is a Twin Lens Reflex - the iconic model of such cameras is the fabled Rolleiflex. I've always wanted a Rolleiflex - I remember staring through the window of the old Penn Camera on E Street at a model that was going for what now seems a not-bad $300. But the varieties of Yashica TLRs are exponentially less expensive, and still take wonderful photos, and I'm only now beiginng to realize that. This model comes with an 80mm Yashikor lens that stops down to f3.5. Shutter speeds are from 1/25-1/300 and a bulb setting. I've read that the technical specs of the shutter and lens are "limited," but I use far more limited toy cameras, and on a regular basis.

I bought this camera in the early 90's and can count on one hand the number of rolls I've fed through it since then. But on one of those rolls I took one of the few pictures I made of my mother, who died seventeen years ago today.

As I've been going through my cameras I've found rolls of film that I started years ago. The film I had loaded in the Yashica went back to early 2007, when I stayed at the fabled and haunted Hotel Chelsea. I'm a part-time student of the modern ghost story, and know there are many instances where photographers claim to have captured an unsettled spirit on film, or more than likely now, in pixels. But I'm not faimiliar with any stories where the camera itself is haunted. Can a lens retain the memory of what it saw? I'm projecting. But my mother died long before she could see her grandchildren, and my sentimental imagination likes to think I've somehow linked them through the soft lens of my Yashica A.

maggie and julien

I don't know why it is I've neglected this camera, even after my renewed enthusiasm for photography, but when I saw the results of this roll, I knew I could not refuse what it had to see. This picture of the next generation of my family was shepherded in part by the next generat of photo technology: I metered this with an iPod touch app.

Friday, February 18, 2011

photo book review: Michael Abrams, Strange and Singular

I'm going through the pile of photo books I blogged about earlier this month, and, somewhat amazingly to me, here is the third book review from that storied pile in less than two weeks. This article was first published as Book Review: Strange and Singular by Michael Abrams on Blogcritics.

There seem to be almost as many collections of vernacular photos as there are pictures in your shoebox archive. Michael Abrams’ Strange and Singular (Loosestrife Editions, 2007), designed by Abrams and photographer John Gossage (who knows a thing or two about a great photo book himself) dispenses with the usual categorization and compartmentalization that can turn a book of snapshots into something quaint and predictable.

Strange and Singular is not a narrative of the family or of America, but is a poem for the voyeur. In this way it is similar to my favorite book of "found photos," Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection (Twin Palms, 2000 - currently available for the bargain price of $25 at Amazon). Also like Other Pictures, there are plenty of "mistakes": blurred photos, double-exposures, faces completely obscured by shadow. One two-page spread simply reproduces the back of four vintage prints, with and without inscriptions. Such pages celebrate the mechanics of the camera and the photographic print, the kinds of mysterious, provocative shots that make addicts out of people like me, haunting flea markets for that elusive image — the kind you can't describe, but you know it when you see it.

The design of the book brings this disparate material into a cohesive whole. Strips of snapshots are aligned along the middle of a page spread in order to organize visually if not thematically. Startling juxtapositions arise to form intense narratives, like a beehived blonde with her back to the camera as a rifle aimed from a photo years and miles away threatens from the opposite page.

Pages are littered with quotations in a variety of fonts, some streamlined, some elegant, and lead the reader without holding their hand. The title quote is from Foucault: "a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential." In other words, there is no index. Quotes also come from photographers like Nan Goldin (who waxes on the snapshot as the very foundation of her work) and Stephen Shore, critics like Gerry Badger, and even Chuck Berry.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

nanowrimo day 21: the mind eats itself

my bologna has four brothers
I haven't looked at the issue of my Nanowrimo loins in some time, but I've alluded to this particular episode for some time and after some distance it's not so bad as is. Of course, tomorrow it may horrify me. I do still wonder at the sudden violent turn I took; inspired by a jaw-less ventriloquist dummy, my muse turned on itself, or I on myself, in some vicious cycle. A freeing creative episode became something threatening.

Here is an extract from the 1673-word output for November 21st:

Morty, who could read Hannah’s inner monologue, tenatively raised his hand. “Before ya go about rebuildin’, Hannah, I gotta question for Crackers.”
“What is it darling?” Cooed Crackers, lovingly batting her eyes and twirling her ginger locks.
“You say you an’ her unholy sisters ain’t cannibals - you may be hooers, but ya don’t eat the flesh of yer own kind.”
“That’s right, sweetie-pie. What’s on yer mind?”
“Well, my beloved Crackers,” Morty continued,”if you were cannibals, you’d be eatin’ toothpicks or baseball bats and such, right? I mean, eating human flesh doesn’t make you cannibals at all, really, does it?”
Crackers, Cheese, and Butter stodd there silently, rolling their eyes to the left, then to the right.
“La la la la, say lookit what time it is!” announced a punctual Cheese.
“Well we ain’t exactly vegans if that’s whatcher gettin’ at!” an impatient Butter retorted.
“Hey, it’s no bark off my trunk if yinz slaughtered Tunbridge and ate his greasy, gamy flesh and ground it into habder, habber, habb, tailor-made burgers.”Morty began to smack his lips at the thought, looking at all the tasty human passengers who surrounded him on this bus, a regular captive audience. “So, say you slaughtered the man and had loin of Tunbridge steaks for a month--”
“We slaughtered the man and had loin of Tunbridge steaks fer a munt,” the sisters said in
intermissionTex, not possessed of a spring-loaded double-take, performed an organic double-take of the flesh at this astounding revelation. Butter, whose rotating eyes were well-attuned to the sound of human double-takes in their native habitat, turned her head slowly in the direction of Tex and winked at him. There were no survivors named Tex.
“My question is, den,” Morty got to the question,”--did you marinade him in Worcesteshire sauce?”
“Well Morty lemme tell you about marinade,” declared Crackers.”Yes, we did soak his gamy flesh in Worcesteshire sauce, and me, I like to add a little brown sugar and vinegar to the marinade,--”
“I chop up lotsa garlic for my Tunbridge shanks, but the othah goils don’t go fer the garlic so much ya know,” suggested Butter.
“And Tunbridge was a little long in the toof, so he neede quite a bitta tenderizin!” helpfully added Cheese.
Hannah regarded this latest conversation with not a little dismay, as the remaining human passengers on the bus slowly backed away from their wooden interlocutors, despite outnumbering them by a ration [sic] of at least four-to-one. The remainder of this interrupted piece evolved into a collaborative effort among the spirits of Sam Peckinpah and Rankin-Bass,and the assembled crowd wished they had never heard of the spring-loaded double-take that was soon to tear their flesh from their bones.
Crackers, always true to her Morty, was not so true to those of human persuasion, and sank her jaws into the juicy hambone of Nipsey Russell, who kicked his shiny shoes into the air until subdued, a brutal end to a lifetime of laughter and entertainment for all Americans. Butter made short work of Tex, who being a lifelong afficionado of his home-state barbecue, was smoky and tangy even without marinade. “It’s hard to pick out the meat behind the jewelry, but my tummy tinks it’s woith it!” Cheese took a chunk out of Connie the coed, who would no longer need to study for mid-terms. “How tender and studious, even, “ ran Cheese’s review on the then-fledgling weekly food newsletter Yelp! I have been Eaten by a Ventriloquist Dummy, now under new editorship: Cheese! editorship: Cheese!
Morty had until that point had spent his life eating the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables, seafood in abundance, white meat on occasion, red meat in moderation, and alcoholic beverages on the average of three glasses of wine a week, and abstained from any food or clothing products derived from the human. Yet, drawn in by his people’s infectious massacree [a reference to Doris Day in Calamity Jane], he nibbled at Texas bones and co-ed collars and comic breasts. “Say, you know, this ain’t half bad!”

At this point, I had painted myself into a corner, plot-wise; Hannah woke up and realized that it was all a dream. Or was it?

every camera I own: the nickelodeon photoblaster

The Nickelodeon Photoblaster takes four pictures on one frame of 35mm film. There are a number of popular cameras that take four pictures at once on a single frame, but the Photoblaster operates more like a half-frame camera (coming soon) times two: four individual images can be taken on one frame, allowing for unusual juxtapositions or just a highly efficient use of film.

The camera went out of production in 1999, and I bought mine on eBay shortly after that. I remember using the Photoblaster to take photos of the 2000 Election protests outside the Supreme Court. Those were the days.

The plastic camera with the slimy handgrip is sturdy, but the frame advance can be erratic. From 2001:

In my recent camera inventory I dusted off the Photoblaster, which still had film in it from the last time I used it. Which turned out to be around six or seven years ago, which was when I took photos of the old Children's Museum that was the venue for Artomatic 2004.

The camera was loaded with Kodak Elite Chrome, transparency film that I remember using in the 90's and at the time had already started to shift color. I corrected the colors in the above shot in PhotoShop, but the uncorrected image is completely magenta:

The Beanie Bears are on display in the MotoPhoto where I dropped off the film. The last frame of the barren trees on Pennsylvania Avenue begins a sequence where I just turned around in circles burning film and shooting at random. Much of the lost color can be brought back in PhotoShop:

Friday, February 11, 2011

every camera I own: the agfa isolette

Welcome to the first in a series of Every Camera I Own posts. I'll be digging into the collection pretty much in a random order determined in part by what's accessible, and this series debut is brought to you by a camera that has been sitting at my desk at work for several months. My friend G. gave me a few cameras he found as he's cleaned out his apartment - the other one is a Polaroid, which I'll get to later.

This is an Agfa Isolette with a Vario shutter and an 85mm Agfa Agnar lens that stops down to f4.5. You can read more about this camera on I was concerned about the bellows but on an overcast mid-winter day they seemed perfectly light-tight - the thing is well preserved for a camera that was produced nearly sixty years ago.  A bigger problem will be human error: It will take me some time to get used to range focusing again:

Oddly, I had an easier time focusing at the short end of the Agnar's range, which is about three feet. I can't show you what I think is the best photo I took with this camera, because it's subject did not think it was a good picture of him (I disagree), but this is what my desk looks like:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Bloggy Bloggy Photo Book Review

Will I review every title in the pile of photo books I posted a few days ago? Perhaps, perhaps not, but a photo book review a week isn't a bad idea. My own would be an even better idea. [Takes notes.] This week's review is of John Gossage's The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/Map of Babylonwhich I wrote about for Blogcritics and DCist, but please read the latter, with local value-added content:

Washington is one of the world's most photographed and photogenic cities, and the subject of many photo books: from glossy souvenirs that never stray far from postcard views, to more local-minded work by the likes of Carol Highsmith, who documented the decay and restoration of the Willard Hotel, and the late Fred Maroon. Soon to join the latter ranks will be our DCist Exposed magazine -- but while you eagerly await that, a new book by local photographer John Gossage, the subject of a recent show at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, as well as a DCist interview, will more than whet your apetite for the city beyond the postcard.

Read the rest here.

 It was also quite gratifying to get props from the publisher:

Sunday, February 06, 2011

I, hoarder: photo-book edition

These are the photo-books I acquired last month:

I don't expect to have months like that all year, but I have had enough of them over the past several years to remind me why I stopped collecting photo-books. Then again: they're an investment! Two of the pictured monographs are comps - a review will be forthcoming of the John Gossage book. Most of the times were purchased the old-fashioend way - with a credit card, in one ramen-fueled mid-January flurry in New York (thank you, Dashwood Books, Deborah Bell Photographs, and the ICP shop). This year I hope to actually write about some of the new acquisitions and older titles in my collection. My first photo book review, of Michael Schmelling's Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South, is up at Blogcritics.

Photographer Michael Schmelling’s most recent project was borne of his admiration for Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which created a palpable and rhythmic sense of the New South metropolis. Celebrity reeled him in, but as Schmelling began to explore the city’s growing music scene, it was the unsigned artists who really intrigued him, and it was these unknowns who inspired Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South, a remarkable marriage of photojournalism, music, and art.

We are living in a golden age of the photography book, and like the best examples of the genre — standard bearers like Robert Frank’s The Americans, modern exemplars like Ed Templeton's Deformer — the design of Atlanta is at least as important as the the photographs themselves. Schmelling’s previous book, the small press edition The Plan, documented the work of Disaster Masters, a company that cleared out New York-area homes of the kind that make Hoarders one of A&E’s biggest hits. Those photos were printed in black and white on newsprint and bound like a White Pages index (soon to be an obsolete format in itself), suitable to the density and disposability of its subject.

Chronicle Book's Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South is a more ambitious and more handsome book, but thematic elements remain steadfastly home-grown. Sure, you see bling and bravado, bold women and big cars, tattoos and pit bulls; but you also see makeshift studios with egg-crate soundproofing, weather-beaten loudspeakers, hand-written lyrics and set-lists. Such details are the photographic descendants of Stephen Shore’s or William Eggleston, but in a very different culture.

Essays by New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh put the photos and the music scene in context — you can hear Sanneh and Schmelling talk about Atlanta on WNYC’s Soundcheck. An appendix features interviews with Atlanta hip-hop figures from the famous — Ludacris, Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi — to the less known. A download code is included for a mix tape of some of the unsigned artists featured in the book.