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.