Books I Love: Beyond the Fall

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The latest installment “Books I Love.” The concept is very simple. Find a book in my collection, photograph it, then share it with you. The idea being to share what I love about the book or why I have it. The books will range from traditionally published, POD and handmade. The only stipulation is that I love the book. Most of them have a backstory, which I will also share. Books and photography are forever linked, so why not explore the relationship through my bookshelf. Hope you enjoy.

In short, I don’t think you can find a better book of reportage. “Beyond the Fall” by American photojournalist Anthony Suau is a ten-year look at the former Soviet Bloc in transition. TEN YEARS for those of you who came of age in the “modern” photography world of weekend essays, isn’t an exaggeration or typo. He spent TEN YEARS working on this book, and one look at the images living on those pages and you will very clearly see what that kind of time does when it comes to the quality of reporting. Suau covers it all, politics, family, war, high-society and everyday life. When I think of documentary photography books, it’s publications like this that set the bar. You have to remember something very, very important. This is a book of moments. The vast majority of these images are one frame moments. Just think about that. Just think about how much time and focus that requires. Now think about doing that over a ten-year period. So many of the documentary books I see today are the “abstract urban landscape book” void of people(So no need for interaction or model release) or the “portrait series” documentary book which can be done VERY quickly(There are a few stellar books in this category however). Forget it, this book was like an ultra-marathon.

Now, books like this rarely get the credit they deserve because for whatever reason work like this is considered too reality based and the art world doesn’t seem to know what to do with it(Something that has been written about by a fair number of art-world folks), but for me this work is SO DIFFICULT, so RARE and so TIME CONSUMING it deserves it’s own wing in the museum world. Forget the gallery world, this work it more important than MOST of those spaces(There are worthy galleries.)

I KNOW there are so many of you out there living under the ultra-romantic notion of photographer. The loner walking the back streets of a crumbling empire, Leica in hand, pouring their life into their contact sheets. Well, in this case, that is in some ways what you had, but I will remind you of the DATE these images were taken, and the reality that this lifestyle is EXTREMELY rare today because the industry that supported photographers at this time is basically gone. Even during the time this book was made it was a supreme struggle to do this work. Today, nearly impossible. The time isn’t being spent, the work is made digitally now and it just doesn’t have the same cache or impact, nor do folks want to slow down and actually appreciate the work. The reason I’m telling you this is to slow YOU down when you consider a book like this. This is a treasure. A gem. Give yourself, and the photographer, some respect and sit down alone, sans mobile phone umbilical cord, TV, laptop, iPad, etc., and just look at the work, start to finish, front to back. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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I simply can’t tell you the range of what this book offers. I’m not even going start with design or materials, which are both very good, because I still can’t get over the quality of the photographs. The alarming thing is that each photograph represents what has to be an archive of other work. You see an image of a destroyed downtown Grozny during the height of the Chechen War and you think “What ELSE does he have?” You realize to get that one image there had to be MONTHS of preparation and sacrifice. This work is “classic” in all the right ways, and could or should be used in photojournalism schools to illustrate the kind of work being done by one motivated individual with time and resources. Perhaps not as much as he would have liked, actually don’t know, but I’m guessing. This book gets better with age.

Don’t walk, RUN, and go by this thing.

Blurb Down Under: Oculi + Blurb Opening Sydney

Last night we co-hosted an event in Sydney with the photographers of Oculi, a collective based here in Australia. Over the past few months one of our Blurb members, Garry Trinh, worked with Oculi on a book project as well as setting up last night’s show. Last night’s show was part of the Reportage Festival. Stephen Dupont, festival director, stopped by to unveil the new posters, complete with a cover image by David Burnett. You might be thinking, “Ya, ya, another opening,” but this one had a different twist. Each attendee had an opportunity to make their own book from the work of the Oculi photographers. After walking in, each attendee was given a form containing a book layout. Each person could make their own edit, choose their sequence and submit the form for Blurb to print and ship the book.

As a photographer your edit and sequence are critical and NOT something you would normally put in the hands of the audience, but that was precisely the point with this particular show. Both Oculi and Blurb were looking for something different. Personally I see so many shows and exhibitions and many of them are pretty generic. You have probably heard of the movement to “get the art out of the galleries,” which isn’t my particular view, but I DO feel there needs to be more exploration when it comes to photography. We were attempting to do just this.

There was an excellent turnout on a cold, extremely rainy Sydney night, even with a multitude of photography events all happening at the same time. Oculi is the recording device of an entire nation. Much of their work focuses on Australia which is one of the things that makes them so distinctive. The show prints were SMALL, something else I found refreshing. I was told the designer wanted the attendees to be able to see all the work in a small area as opposed to seeing each image massive and set alone. I applaude both the agency and Garry Trinh for putting it all together.

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A Reason To Go To Photo School

“Should I go to photography school, or should I learn by watching YouTube?”

Over the past few years this has been a common debate. Is it worth going to photography school, or should I just use the internet and get started? I can’t answer this question for you, and even if I could I wouldn’t. The answer is something you have to find on your own. I’ve always been a believer that if all you got out of photography school was photography you REALLY missed the boat. All schools are about relationships, heartbreak, success, being judged, passing judgement and also being pointed in a direction or two.

Last week I was invited to a retirement party held in honor of a local photography instructor, Rick Steadry, who has been teaching photography since 1971. I was only two-years-old and he was already out shaping young photographic hearts and minds. I know Rick, barely, but my wife had taken a class with him in 1983 and when she found out there was going to be a party she immediately changed A LOT of plans and said, “We are going.” There was a force in her voice I hadn’t heard in a while and it got me thinking. Really? One class in 1983? That is a long time ago. What was so special? The party was minutes from our house, and frankly I had given little thought to the gathering other than getting to see Rick and getting a chance to see his exhibition. Now people this is Orange County, NOT the hotbed of photographic activity, so when I heard “event” I didn’t get my hopes up(jaded). I rounded the corner at the exhibition space and was SLAMMED by a wall of humanity. I couldn’t believe how many people were packed into the exhibition space and the surrounding area. The faces were old, young and many had traveled great distances to get there. Within the crowd were some well know photography faces, people who unbeknownst to me, had come into contact with Rick at some point in their learning process. One such photographer, someone with three big books to his name, and another on the way, said, “Ya, I thought I was going to be a photojournalist but Rick saw something in my work and showed me what was possible.” “He showed me the way.”

Everywhere I went in the crowd the story was the same. These photographers didn’t copy Rick’s photography. These photographers found photography and he helped them understand it and see the possibilities. The teaching of the actual technical side of photography is not difficult, nor does it become a real part of the conversation after you learn it, so the real teaching, learning, education comes from being able to access people like Rick. Just so you know, Rick has two degrees from Harvard and has been shooting for many, many years, but learning from him, or any other great instructor, goes way beyond these details.

I think great teachers, regardless of genre or focus, leave a life-changing impression. I had two anthropology instructors that literally changed my life…by accident, or at least I THINK it was by accident. For all I know they were working me like a puppet. The didn’t change my life by teaching how to record in the field. They changed my life by exposing me to certain things, in certain ways, and by making simple suggestions. They also made me work extremely hard.

I use YouTube all the time, think it is a wonderful thing, but I personally don’t want YouTube, or the internet, to be my primary learning experience. I have a difficult time feeling inspired from YouTube and I can’t get the kind of critique I’m looking for from the computer(Unless you want the “great work” style critique). Perhaps I’m old fashioned. Perhaps I’m out of touch. We each learn differently, but I see a real positive in the idea of learning photography in person, in group form, with your work exposed and vulnerable. I remember getting ripped to shreds, and I remember handing out my share of criticism, which is almost entirely absent from the online world. I remember NOT wanting to be in school, but also remember the moment when I realized how grand the experience actually was.

Personally, I expect the future to continue to be a blend of the two learning worlds. Online can inspire someone in the far reaches of the Earth to pick up a camera, and the school experience is a great finishing platform. At this point in my life, like many of us, I wish I could go back. I would do things differently of course, and I would pay a Hell of a lot more attention. Plus, I would study overseas, and would also take more classes in the art department, more in the anthropology department and if you have heard my Spanish..well, I’d be there too.

So you might be asking yourself about Rick’s vest. No, it’s not dangerous, and anyone who has every shot a frame of Polaroid 665 or Type 55 doesn’t need an explanation, but just know the vest was for fun and for tradition. At the end of the night the vest, in a short ceremony, was passed along to the “next” Rick Steadry. Lets hope it survives another forty years.

And for those of you who are wondering, YES, we pulled the lid off those canisters and took turns smelling the precious chemistry soaked insides.

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So there are these photographers in Los Angeles. And there is this box. And the box has images. And the images come from the photographers. And I’m in it. Believe it or not.

I have a friend to thank for this, so I say, “Thank you.”

This is my image for this year. Democratic National Convention from the year 2000. Los Angeles. The downtown lockdown. I have a post coming about this event, a post I really like, but I’m saving it for a rainy day.