Recommended Books: Mauskopf and Hetherington

As you know, I now spend much of my “professional” life in the book world. I’m not a designer, publisher or book expert, but I’ve learned much about books in the past five years, and I’ve fully integrated the idea of the book into my photographic life going back to the mid 1990’s. I’ve self-published over 120 titles, mostly for clients, and I truly enjoy collecting the books of others. My collection is not the largest I’ve seen, not even close actually, nor the most strategic. I simple buy what I love, what resonates with me and what I want to eventually pass along to my nieces and nephews. I’m a part-time Santa Fe dweller and to my chagrin Santa Fe is home to Photoeye, one of the best illustrated book sellers you will ever find. And….it’s within walking distance of my house. I made a pact with myself, “remain calm” whenever I enter Photoeye, but seldom am I able to maintain my initial pledge. So, I came up with a new tact. Just look at one tiny section of the story each time I go in, then talk with Melanie or Rixon and get out as quickly as possible. My goal is to add to my collection each time I “live” in Santa Fe. Recently I made a stop in my home away from home, and came away with two new books I wanted to share with you.

The first book is “Descendants” by Norman Mauskopf, a book published by Santa Fe’s own Twin Palms. Over the past few years I’ve gotten to know Norman both as a photographer and a friend, and I can’t tell you how inspiring he is. I’m forty-two, Norman is a few years older and he knows about photography, a lot about photography. He knows his history, theory and clearly he knows how to execute. Norman has been teaching photography for over thirty years, from Maine to Santa Fe, and has left a real legacy of education in his path. “Descendants” is work created over a twelve year period, work that details Northern New Mexico Latino culture. Not sure if you have spent any time in New Mexico, but in short, what he did..isn’t easy. Not by a long stretch, hence the twelve or so years required to make these images. Folks, I cant’ tell you what this means to me as a fellow photographer. When I turn these pages, see these images, I not only reflect on content and meaning I reflect on what it took to make these. A classic black and white photographer in the rangefinder tradition, Norman works on his on, as opposed to being on assignment and when he prints…he prints silver, darkroom style. If this sounds interesting, stay tuned, I’ve got an interview with Norman locked and loaded and ready to go.

I mentioned before that this book was done by Twin Palms, another one of my stops anytime I’m in Santa Fe. I can’t remember a book done by Twin Palms I didn’t enjoy, and “Descendants” keeps this tradition alive. The cover image on this book just hooked me in, as did the title page. Often times, when I’m working with students, or those new to books, things like a half-title page, or title page get overlooked when it comes to the nuts and bolts of creating a book. I have to admit, a few short years ago, I was guilty of this as well. Now, when I study a book, these things really influence my decision whether to buy, not to buy, recommend, etc. Nothing in these books happens by accident. Every single detail is meticulously planned.

The layout and pacing of this books are really worth studying. Before this book became a reality, I was able to see a large stack of work prints, and one of the questions I had was, “Hmm, how do these fit together.” The underlying theme was clear, but as we all know, the edit and sequence…really cement what the book becomes. Not sure who did the edit and sequence on this, guessing Norman and Twin Palms (I was a C student give me a break) and I think they did a wonderful job.

The final aspect of this book which really contributes to the overall power is the addition of a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca.To say that Jimmy is a New Mexico legend isn’t going far enough. I’ve read several of his books, including the one about his life, which in itself reads like an adventure novel. The poem is designed to come in and out of the work, shifting, adding, taking away. Very well done and fits the work and vision of the book to a T.

The second book I want to discuss is “Long Story Bit by Bit, Liberia Retold” by Tim Hetherington. This book was published by Umbrage Editions. As many of you know, Hetherington was tragically killed in April of this year while covering the conflict in Libya. You might recognize his name from his work in Afghanistan, including the film “Restrepo” which went on to receive much acclaim. I never had any contact with Tim, but I have to say something here. I know a fair number of people in the photojournalism world and typically, when someones name is mentioned, I normally hear a range of reviews. “This person is great, but they do such and such,” kinda thing. Again, never met Tim, but I have to say, I’ve never heard one negative thing about him, which in itself is intriguing to me. I not only didn’t hear anything negative, I kept hearing about how “different” he was in terms of how he approached his work and WHY he did what he did. I also kept hearing how intelligent he was. So again, I was intrigued. I also thought “Restrepo” was well done and brought home what I imagined it felt like to actually be IN the war. I saw the film and immediately sent links out to the widest range of people possible with the simple opinion, “You need to see this.”

After Tim was killed I, like many many others, tried to find out what had actually happened. After time had passed stories began to emerge that detailed Tim’s life before his trip to Libya. At some point I found an article, which I believe was written by another photographer, regarding running into Tim in Liberia, several years ago, and how Tim didn’t really seem to fit the mold of the traditional photojournalist. The article went on to detail how Tim had lived with rebels in Liberia and had covered the war from basically the opposing side. Again, I was intrigued.

So when I saw this book I immediately opened it up, and I have to say I was hooked from the first image. Many of the photography books I see are from what I would call the monograph tradition, simple, clean design with little text. Typically you have title page, introduction, an essay, etc, but the overall look and feel tends to be very similar. Not this book. Quickly flipping through, front to back, I found myself feeling like I was holding a textbook filled with high quality photography.

The book felt like a country study, a translation of oral history, an interview book, and a long-term photo-essay. I love books that on the surface might appear as one thing only to reveal many faces once inside. A few others that come to mind in this regard is “The World from My Front Porch” by Larry Towell and “Working the Line,” by David Taylor. Books within books if you will.

What also struck me right away about this book was the actual look and feel of the images, which were done in the color square format, one of my favorite formats in photography. Much of the color, square work I see in documentary is portrait heavy, but this book was really done in the classic reportage way but with color square. This might not seem like a big deal, but it does have a dramatic impact on the imagery. This work looks very different from the work I had associated with Tim. In fact, this work resonates with me more than any other still work I’ve seen from him. When I got further into the book what came across loud and clear was how much time he spent, and how close he got to this place, these people and this story. I love to study imagery like this and try to figure out how it was done, what amount of time was required, how much of it was created when the light was great, which normally translates into vast amounts of time on the ground, waiting and watching until things are right which, let’s face it, is getting more uncommon because people are on such short deadlines.

Page by page I found myself getting sucked in, and I found myself thinking as much about the photographer as I did about the images. This might seem like a negative but I don’t see it that way. I think this was happening only because I’m a photographer and I recognized how good the work is. “Long Story Bit by Bit” is not a quick hit by any stretch of the imagination. This was a long, long haul and I have a tremendous appreciation for work like this. As I get older I find myself less and less interested in the action of war. I find myself more and more interested in the “why?” and the surrounding circumstances, before, during and after the war. I also find myself more interested in the photographers who commit, really commit to the long term. In many ways it’s a thankless job, especially when you are working in a place that many people can’t place on a map.

As I progressed through the book, more and more depth began to emerge. Interviews, detailed accounts, time lines, etc. This book was a major undertaking, just based on the copy alone. I’ve only begun to explore this book, and in fact have added it to my “reading” list and put it aside for when I can start, front to back, and realize what this book is truly about. Liberia has somewhat faded from the news, but I feel like I never even really knew what happened there. But now, with this book, I feel I’ve got an intensely personal account of what went down.

We live in the electronic age, but there is something about books that allows me to focus on an issue in a different way. Books force me to live with the story, and the tangibility of the book is part of what lives with me. I can’t click away. I can’t reboot. I can’t turn it power it down, and there is no buffer. I have to face what is inside.

Daily Dispatches: Nairobi

Wanted to bring your attention to a project getting underway in the East African city of Nairobi. This project is headed up by Brendan Bannon, a long-time friend and fellow photographer who has called Nairobi home for over five years. I first met Brendan in Sicily where we were both snapping away on the Easter processions. At one point Brendan broke out his 6×17 camera, and I knew at that point he was both strange but likeable.
Brendan dropped me a line and let me know about this new project and I found it to be interesting from several angles. The basic information is in bold below, but I wanted to give you my take on a few things.
Brendan has a track record of making great imagery and also taking new angles to work that has been presented before. But, seeing as he lives in the middle of what he is photographing, I’ve always found an intimacy I don’t always see with other photographers who jet in and jet out. Also, he has found a way to attach his work to schools in the US, which you can read a little about below, and they are going to print and exhibit the work. I think this is the first time I’ve seen this, and I’m thinking it could be window into the future of this type of project.
I’m going to follow him and his work and see where this idea lands. I’ve not been to Nairobi but this site is named in tribute to a photographer who lived there for decades, yet another reason to follow the breath of a modern, African, mega-city.

Nairobi, Kenya
An innovative photojournalism exploration of a fast-evolving African city, unfolding day by day in real time. Compelling, informative and surprising.
Nairobi-based photographer Brendan Bannon and journalist Mike Pflanz will spend each day in April 2011 gathering images and stories of lives lived in Kenya’s capital. These will be uploaded to our blog and sent to sponsor universities in the US who will hang them in an exhibition which grows day by day.
To create a nuanced presentation of modern urban Africa, rooted in the discipline of daily newsgathering, but free of the restrictions of a media outlet’s commercial, geographical or cultural agenda.
Coming soon…


My Comment on The Melcher System

I just posted this comment on Paul Melcher’s blog, The Melcher System.

I really like his blog, and I think he tends to come up with topics that don’t get a lot of play. He looks more at industry trends and business tendencies. His latest post is about all the multimedia pieces regarding the death and dying of Africa, and how this is so overplayed. I think he has a valid point, and I’ve certainly had conversations with many photographers about this exact thing. He also touches on NGO work and how it seems to be what everyone wants to do now. Take a look.

First of all, I think there are plenty of good photographers doing valid and important NGO work, and in fact I have friends who do. Their heads are on right and their hearts are also in the right place. They are professional, get paid for their work, and are constantly reassessing what they are doing and if there is a way they can do it better. They are respected by the people they work with, and for, but earned this respect by being real photographers, and by not just doing what is expected. They supply more than just images. And…you have probably never heard of them.

But, I think there are also a lot of photographers who gravitate toward this work for a variety of other reasons, and I’m not sure how many of these reasons are often talked about. First, I think this work is easy. I know that might sound odd, but when you shoot things of this nature your subject matter is right there in front of you. I’m not saying it’s easy to get to, easy to look at or easy to stomach, but the contents are provided. It’s a lot different coming up with projects in your neighborhood in Brooklyn, or Boise or wherever else it is that photographers live, and there are plenty of people in these places that also need help. I’m not sure how skilled the photographer needs to be to get this imagery, perhaps you need to be a more skilled traveler, to get in and out, than a skilled person behind the lens.

I also believe that this work is as much about lifestyle as it is about the work. Hey, I think we have all had romantic notions about being photographers, and typically when we do, these notions don’t come in the form of running a portrait studio in suburbia. Most of the time these notions revolve around travel, major events, etc. I think this is natural, but again, we don’t seem to want to talk about this. Ever seen a portrait photographer in a scarf? How about photojournalist/documentary photographer? I’m guilty. After my first trip, many years ago, I came home with a scarf. A few years ago I was in a gathering of photographers in New York and we were all introducing ourselves. As my turn came I introduced myself and added, “I shoot weddings.” You could feel the air come out of the group. Photographers scattered. A friend of mine in the group asked, “Why did you do that?” I told her I just wanted to see the reaction, and a reaction there was. I do shoot a few weddings a year, and many portraits and documentary work, and I have an interesting observation. When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, if I say, “I shoot weddings,” I NEVER get a follow up question. When I say, “I shoot portraits,” I will occasionally get a follow up question. But when I say, “I’m a documentary photographer,” I get a follow up question, typically many, every single time. I don’ think there is anything surprising about this, but I think this is, again, about lifestyle. For every Elliot Erwitt, there are hundreds of photographers focusing on death and dying.

I also think that this work shows up on industry radar, Brooklyn and Boise are less likely, and can afford the photographer name recognition in the most macho of photo-circles. This is, after all, the genre that presented us with the “concerned photographer” title, which I’ve never really understood. Again, there are great photographers doing this work, but I’ve also run into a fair number who don’t really seem to be concerned about what I think we have been led to believe they are concerned about. We are all concerned about money, getting work, getting published, getting more work, doing the right thing, having those we photograph represented in the most accurate way, etc, but this seems to bounce off this crowd, masked by the “concerned” label. I think being a “concerned” photographer can also be used as a crutch for asking for more things, whereas a portrait photographer or commercial photographer maybe just has to work more to get where they are going. Anyone who does journalism, documentary, or most any other genre of photography is a “concerned” photographer. I think PDN recently did a piece titled, “Photographers Making a Difference.” I think this is a far better way of labeling these photographers and their work. In the end that is what matters. Are the images incredible? Are you making a difference?

I have also found there are huge numbers of these young, and sometimes not so young, NGO photographers who are working for FREE. Is doing volunteer work a good thing? Yes, it can be. Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place. But, I’ve found many of these photographers think that “nonprofit” means the company doesn’t make money. I’ve found photographers that don’t realize many NGO’s have a budget for photography. NGO’s are in business, so if they can get images for free, they do it. It’s not a malicious thing, it’s financial. Working for free, for me, isn’t sustainable, and frankly I’m not sure how anyone else does it.

A while back I was at an NGO gathering in Los Angeles, a fairly large gathering, and was introduced to an NGO coordinator from Latin America. Finding out I was a photographer she said, “Oh, I take advantage of you guys all day long.” I was a little surprised and when I questioned her further she said, “Photographers just don’t know the business, so we get them for free every time.” This might be an extreme example, but I think the message is true. How many times has a photographer heard, “Well, so and so is way better but so and so will do it for free.” In the end, everyone suffers, most importantly those in the photographs. We are bombarded by so much of this work, that continuing to rapidly produce the visual overload we are creating will only contribute to the image fatigue regarding places like Africa. Our technology has allowed us to mass produce incredible numbers of images, and then instantly load them into the information pipeline, flooding the world with work that frankly should have never been released. I think it would benefit everyone to slow down and create work that is top-notch, thought out and presented in ONLY the most critical of ways.

Death and the dying will always be covered, more so today than ever before, but perhaps photographers should also focus on the humanity and the glimmer of hope. I’m sure it will be a harder sell, and perhaps not viewed in the same daring regard, but you just never know. And, the outlets for this work should also widen their coverage…….I know, I’m crazy.

Writing this email made me think back to the recent Africa stories, those I can remember, and most are as you point out, war, famine, but I can also think of an education story or two . What I wonder about is farming, agriculture, transportation, commerce, the elderly, debt, the residue of colonial times, etc, and wonder where all the stories are about these topics? Maybe there out there and just not getting the chance?

Maybe the answer is that you can’t win awards with these stories?

Brendan Bannon/MSF/Africa

So I have this friend Brendan, a photographer, who lives in Nairobi. Brendan has been over there for a while, years in fact, and has been doing much work for the NGO world based out of this East Africa region. Kenya, Somalia, etc, BB has traveled many roads and many miles in pursuit of the image, or images that will transcend the expected, images that will force us to ignore our “fatigue” of such places and events and take notice.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t easy. Not by any stretch.

First, you have to get there, which in today’s world perhaps isn’t THAT difficult, at least when it comes to the major cities. But that is where the veiled simplicity ends.

Then you have to REALLY get there.

Planes, trains, automobiles, and then on foot.

Many of the places he works are remote, requiring access through small bush plane, then small transport. Time is limited, people are suffering, consequences are dire.

These situations separate the people with purpose from the tourist.

Brendan has to get in, under difficult circumstances and make pictures. Pictures, not snapshots, not “content” but pictures that convey that life sharing vein of being human.

We all have have this vein, perhaps lose it from time to time, but at the heart of this work is a very, very simple idea, there are certain people who are suffering, and there are certain people who can help.

Brendan’s photos are that line in the sand that confront us, when we take the time to notice. It’s easy to think of the world as “us” and “them,” meaning anyone outside our specific, daily circle, but we really are one place, one people, regardless of categories of convenience.

But there is something else about his work, and him, that I like. Is it his full and bushy beard? Nope? His fondness for running shoes? No. His passion for lugging around a panoramic camera through the mountains of Sicily? No, not that either.

What I like is that he lets his work speak for itself. BB is a thoughtful guy, and is very much an unassuming individual. He doesn’t brag about his work, hype himself up, but instead just produces pictures, and stories, and in the end, just gets things done.

He doesn’t seem to be concerned about photo-contests or feathers in his cap, although he has a few.

He just makes pictures, makes reports, files stories, podcasts, etc, and lets the work confront those who view it.

In other words, I’m sure he owns a scarf, but he probably doesn’t wear it everyday.

There are a lot of photographers out trying to do NGO work, a good thing, but being the jaded individual I am, I always wonder about real motivations, but with Brendan I never do.

All you have to do is look and listen and you’ll know why.

Western Kenya Displaced People MSF

The Story of Monica Juma

Treatment Programs Western Kenya