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From Thomas Mailaender’s book ‘Illustrated People’ which won the Paris Photo+ Aperture Foundation Award for “Photobook of the Year 2015”

THREE WEEKS AFTER THE PARIS ATTACKS, I’D LIKE TO SAY THESE THINGS

Paris Photo 2015 will be remembered for reasons we never wanted.

Photographers went to Paris to see old-friends, hob-nob with moneyed institutions and to blur the lines between work and vacation. Some of them ended up documenting one of recent memory’s worst terror attacks.

Paris Photo opened the doors to the Grand Palais the day before the bombs shook Paris and 130 lives were taken. One of the biggest international photo events on the calendar, artists, publishers, gallerists, collectors and enthusiasts descended on the French capital for four days of viewing, networking, buying and selling.

After the tragic events of November 13th, Paris Photo was cancelled. No one was thinking about art sales. No one was talking about awards. Shuttering the event was the only sensible and respectful decision to make.

As with any massive event, though, the activity and conversation surrounding Paris Photo had long led up to the long-weekend. Check the social media timelines of any of the 147 galleries or the 60,000 visitors to understand anticipation and the pre-sales hype. Paris Photo can be career-defining, it can provide a crucial contact, it might be a platform to test or showcase ideas. And then there’s awards too.

On Thursday November 12th, Aperture announced the winners of the 2015 edition of the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards.

Some people say the best way to move forward is, after the memorials, to live life as you would. To continue with a full life. I would have written about these awards before the attacks and so now, three weeks on, I feel I should write about them still. I cannot make sense of murderous ideology, but I can make sense of books, photos and how they exist in the world.

Below, in each of the four categories, I offer some analysis followed by Aperture’s official blurb and videos. I end with some concluding thoughts about the four entrants considered in unison.

What To Make of the Winners?

Let’s do things the backward way round and start with the Special Jurors’ Mention category as opposed to the three main categories.

Special Jurors’ Mention

Will Steacy
Deadline. b.frank books (Philadelphia, 2015)
Designed by Will Steacy

MY THOUGHTS

Will Steacy’s Deadline is my book of the year (slide 42), so a tip-of-the-hat here is no surprise. Deadline is about the heritage of storied newspaper Philadelphia Inquirer and about the forecasted chaos of downsizing. It was printed on the same presses that churned out the Inquirer over decades.

Deadline is a look to the past with an eye on the future. Most of all, it’s a tribute to the working man. When labor movements are usually talked of in the past tense, Steacy is putting workers’ issues into art world discourse, reconnecting art with politics.

Union membership has fallen from 1 in 3 workers to 1 in 10, over the past 50 years. I’m no blind preservationist, but I do want to know that progress is made for the benefit of all and not at the expense of any. As I wrote for time:

“Fanatical in its view of both the newsroom and the printing presses, Deadline honors the labor of the copyboys, the reporters, the inkers and the editors equally. Decorated journalists reflect back on the Inquirer’s “Golden Age” and Steacy’s dad reflects on generations of their family working in newspapers. In five sections, the amount of research, fact-checking, phone-calls, line-editing and captioning in Deadline is astounding.

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Deadline is dense, daring and difficult to pigeonhole; I think that’s why it got the special mention but not one of the category gongs. It didn’t fit neatly, but it was impossible to ignore.

OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB

Will Steacy’s Deadline is a newspaper about a newspaper: the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he spent five years photographing the newsroom, employees, and printing plant. Thanks to the Internet, most newspaper staffs are a fraction of what they once were. The Inquirer is no exception, and Deadline chronicles its history — with texts by current and former staff, and archival photographs alongside Steacy’s own — through to its very uncertain future; the final pages see the formerly prominent newspaper moved into a much smaller office.

For Steacy, who comes from a family of newspapermen, this story is personal — his father was an editor at the Inquirer for nearly thirty years, till he was laid off while Steacy was working on this project. The materials, design, and printing quality of his son’s contribution are all in line with family tradition (it was even printed at the Inquirer’s own press), but the focus has been turned inward. As Christoph Wiesner comments, “it serves both as a history of the journalism sector and a work of subtexts, revealing a process of deconstruction or mise en abyme.” Deadline is less a case study than it is a eulogy.

Winner of Photobook of the Year

Thomas Mailaender
Illustrated People
Archive of Modern Conflict and RVB Books (Paris, 2014)
Designed by Thomas Mailaender and Rémi Faucheux.

MY THOUGHTS

One thing’s for sure: there’s no other photobook like it. Whatever gaveThomas Mailaender the idea to burn images onto people’s skin with UV light? I can’t work out if Illustrated People is fringe genius or just a gimmick, but the answer to the question is less important than the inquiry. For the deeper you go on these photos the more disturbing shit gets.

Let’s start with the easy obvious stuff, though. The coupling of images from the Archive of Modern Conflict on dull paper in washed out B&Ws with glossy glaring blood reds is very striking. It’s a catchy reference to red-top newspapers, so activist posters, to Soviet graphics to political and military propaganda.

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It’s strange that we might be put off by Mailaender’s violence toward his volunteers’ bodies. After all, these are images are taken from an archive devoted to war and technological chaos fo the 20th century. By comparison to any bullet or nuke, Mailaender’s work is playful. Maybe that’s the point? Is Illustrated People a manic embrace of disorder and a Dr. Strangelove-esque riding of the bomb?

Yet, even in acknowledgement — and some celebration of — Mailaender’s flippant wit, I can’t stop thinking that these are like some scorched-earth futuristic nightmare. Like this is sci-fi gone awry; a vision of a time in which humans are branded with culture, not creators of it, and a dystopia in which bodies are a drain on resources on an overheated, water-scarce planet. Or given the side-boobs and pin-up girls, is Illustrated People just a photo-sadist’s wet dream? That I’m still guessing is (and talking) is a good sign. Can. Not. Unsee.

OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB

When artist Thomas Mailaender was given access to the Archive of Modern Conflict’s photo archives, he decided to “print” some of the negatives he found onto a whole new medium: the human body. Using a UV lamp, Mailaender projected these negatives onto models’ pale skin, leaving sunburnt imprints of the images.

Full-color documentation of this performance alternates with archival images inIllustrated People, a playful softcover book encased in a translucent red plastic jacket. While the archival images have a faded appearance, printed in black-and-white on plain matte paper, the “sunburn” pages are bright and glossy. “What’s interesting to me is the relationship between the immaterial archive and the living bodies,” says Yannick Bouillis. “He made something that goes beyond just the selection of images — he’s putting pure culture onto something natural, the body.”

Winner of Photography Catalogue of the Year

Diane Dufour and Xavier Barral
Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence
LE BAL and Éditions Xavier Barral (Paris, 2015)
Designed by Coline Aguettaz and Xavier Barral.

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The Images a Charge/Images of Conviction book cover features a photo by Rodolphe A. Reiss, rendered in the negative, showing a demonstration of the Bertillon metric photography system.

MY THOUGHTS

Images of Conviction was one of the curatorial highlights of 2015, but a great exhibition doesn’t always guarantee a great catalogue, so it’s wonderful that the excellence of Dufour and Barral’s presentation of material on walls is matched by their presentation of content on paper.

Coincidentally, like Mailaender’s book, the only time grayscale is punctuated in this catalogue is by the red tones and exacting dots. Many of the images here are drawn from government archives, official reports, military imaging or sites of forensic investigation (even if the photographers, Meiselas below for example, are not forensic photographers).

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Grace A-South, Koreme, North of Iraq, June 1992 © Susan Meiselas, Magnum Photos.

Images Of Conviction brings together ten case studies in which images were used to establish truth and narrative in the wake of death — be that of a single person, of a religious tale or of an entire people.

I think of Images Of Conviction as the sister exhibition to the Tate’s epicConflict Time Photography in 2014. But whereas the Tate focused on the changing types of photographs made in response to conflict over time, Dufour and Barral focus on the changing technologies use to make photographs. Whereas the Tate considered subjective response (prints, photobooks, memorial), Dufour and Barral are concerned with the application of objective fact. Whereas Tate was sympathetic to artistic response, Dufour and Barral’s framework has little room for it.

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Photography extract from Decoding video testimony, Miranshah, Pakistan, March 30, 2012 © Forensic Architecture in collaboration with SITU Research.

In an uncomfortable echo of Mailaender’s work we see the body as a battle ground. Mailaender subjects are willing participants but, by contrast, Dufour and Barral show us images in which the dead are drawn into space of the contested narrative. Here, dead bodies are used to to deliver or deny accusations of a fatal crime against them.

Richard Helmer’s face/skull Mengele superimposition 1985 © Photo Richard Helmer Courtesy Maja Helmer, 1985.

Folks in the art-world often forget that photography underpins judicial, political, labour and territorial infrastructures. Images Of Conviction reminds us that pretty pictures are just papering the cracks over fizzing, and sometimes terrifying, realities.

OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB

In this meticulously designed catalogue, photography itself is put on the witness stand. Published to accompany an exhibition of the same name that originated at LE BAL, Paris, Images of Conviction is a fascinating historical survey of the ways photography has shaped official versions of truth — from the Shroud of Turin to crime-scene photography of the freshly dead, to video evidence of drone strikes.

The design is sedate but never boring, alternating between pale gray and clean white paper. The images are all reproduced in black and white, with a chilling negative image printed on the cover. “Everything is made so that the catalogue stays neutral, but not cold,” says Julien Frydman, who also praises the diverse, well-edited texts. The volume offers a variety of answers to the question posed by editor Diane Dufour in her introduction — “How does the image take shape in truth-seeking scientific and historical discourse?” — without losing its sense of mystery.

Winner of First Photobook

Daniel Mayrit
You Haven’t Seen Their Faces
RIOT BOOKS (Madrid, 2015)
Designed by Verónica Fieiras and Daniel Mayrit

MY THOUGHTS

The former Arsenal and Brazil midfielder Gilberto Silva expressed his dismay this week that next to no professional footballers were speaking outabout the FIFA corruption scandal that is tearing the heart out of the beautiful game. Maybe it’s that the story is old or maybe it’s that we don’t know how or where to pinpoint our anger at white collar crimes?

Despite millions of people losings their homes, pensions and security, still no-one has been prosecuted for their role in the housing crisis and consequent global meltdown. Daniel Mayrit’sYou Haven’t Seen Their Faces uses news and public domain images to mimic CCTV captures. The 100 people featured in this stack of butcher-paper fly-posters are those deemed most powerful in the City of London in terms of policy, politics, and those in control of banks, corporations and regulatory bodies.

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The title is a cheeky inversion of Margaret Bourke-White’s landmark You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) a book about poverty in the Southern states. In the 20th-century we thought we could, as a society, come together and solve social ills. Now, however, we struggle to know from where the confusion festers and we rely pathetically on mischievous artists to out the beneficiaries of 21st-century capitalism.

Images were once tools of humanitarian witness, now they’re cheapened, desperate and frustrated gestures toward the insulated power-classes.

OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB

Daniel Mayrit plays with the semiotics of law enforcement in You Haven’t Seen Their Faces. Full-bleed close-ups of the declared “100 most powerful people in the city of London” are printed in the style of grainy CCTV footage, with condemning information against them scrawled on every image. The book is a response to police fliers handed out after the 2011 riots in London, when surveillance images of alleged rioters’ faces were publicly distributed in a presumption of guilt. Mayrit flips this visual language on those believed responsible for events that are arguably far more damaging: the recent economic crises that have wracked Europe.

Yannick Bouillis calls the design “streetwise”; held together by screws at the top, the images are printed on lightweight brown pages akin to butcher paper, and fastened to stiff cardboard. A map of the suspects’ headquarters is tucked into the back.

Conclusions

It was not obvious to me until I really approached the final drafts of this review how depressing the four photobooks are in conglomeration. In them we have the slow death of free press, corporate criminals at large, homicide, dispute, intimate violence, microcosms of global warming, total surveillance, harrowing medical procedures, genocide, labor camps and the havoc of the markets.

The Paris attacks exploded out of fear, hatred, deep-level antipathy and dehumanisation. ISIS’ acts of terror are a symptom of profound division: Western military meddling and foreign bombs in the Middle East + Whackball religious ideology = Crumbling social fabric. Unfortunately, I think that the attacks will also serve as cause; the cause of more military meddling and fundamentalism.

The international community, and the French people in particular, have already shown that they will not be divided by murderous acts. Nor should France sacrifice its ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood in response to the extremist nutters. However, increased military incursions into Syria and strikes on ISIS will, I fear, only poor flames on the fire.

France launched attacks on ISIS positions the Monday after the attacks. President Obama has sent U.S. troops to carry out raids throughout ISIS-held territory. This week, the British and German governments voted to launch airstrikes in Syria.

Seeing Is Power

And so we have two types of “sight” in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Abroad, is drone recognizance, military mapping and satellite imagery providing data upon which awesome bombardments are planned. At home, throughout European cities and transit hubs, citizens are subject to pernicious and exacting CCTV. In both cases, the application of these technologies is meant to prevent further killing (perversely, in the case of guided-bombs, by killing targets not civilians) but also to establish moral cause and “truth” in the aftermath of death. CCTV will be used as evidence. News channels will be fed footage of bombs striking combatants through air vents. Facial recognition software will identify people IRL and in the digital realm at exponentially faster rates.

This writer cannot see how more bombs in a region already pummeled into unknown levels of chaos is likely to help, but geopolitical strategy is above my pay grade. Righteous anger is an understandable response, but should it make for armed retaliation? Let’s just say this writer is comfortable deferring to Nicolas Hénin, a man who was held hostage by ISIS, who cautions against massive military airstrikes:

While we are trying to destroy Isis, what of the 500,000 civilians still living and trapped in Raqqa? What of their safety? What of the very real prospect that by failing to think this through, we turn many of them into extremists? The priority must be to protect these people, not to take more bombs to Syria. We need no-fly zones — zones closed to Russians, the regime, the coalition. The Syrian people need security or they themselves will turn to groups such as Isis.

The fallout from the tragic events of November 13th will inevitably involve more bloodshed.

Anxiety reigns currently. That is understandable. Some reaction to the anxiety is less understandable. Sometimes, it is easy to overlook or downplay the constant state of vigilance in which people, and especially government agencies, operate. The Paris attacks revealed the threat is real.

As much as the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Awards reflect cultural production, and as much as cultural production reflects common concerns and public psyche, we can identify in these four winners the trauma and violence that bubbles constantly under the surface in our global community

These four books are not entirely unrelated to the violence that broke the peace in Paris three weeks ago. They are documents of our time and, sadly, they deal with miseries that harken back long before these tense times.

The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation award winning photobooks on view

Aperture Gallery, New York (December 12, 2015–February 8, 2016); Huis Marseille, Amsterdam (December 2015–January 2016); Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, Toronto (May 1–31, 2016); Self Publish Riga, Riga Photomonth, Latvia (May 12–June 3, 2016); 15th International Festival of Photography in Łódź, Fotofestiwal 2016, Poland (June 9–19, 2016); Landskrona Foto Festival, Landskrona, Sweden (August 19–27, 2016).

I was asked to nominate a book for TIME’s Best Photobooks of the Year 2015 list. So I chose a newspaper.

Will Steacy‘s Deadline is an absolute cracker. One for the working man.

I was proud to nominate Deadline because is brings attention to, as Steacy describes, “the silent army, the gears of the working press, the behind-the-scene workers whose eyes, ears and hands touch a story before it goes live/printed and after the reporter hits send.”

Here’s what I wrote:

Appropriate design and layout are central to a photobook. A newspaper format was the obvious choice for Deadline, Will Steacy’s homage to, an examination of, a downsizing Philadlephia Inquirer. 

But after making the obvious choice, Steacy had a long way to go and a high standard to meet. Deadline is a workers’ history of a paper that in the eighties was known as the “Pulitzer Machine.” 

Fanatical in its view of both the newsroom and the printing presses, Deadline honors the labor of the copyboys, the reporters, the inkers and the editors equally. Decorated journalists reflect back on the Inquirer’s “Golden Age” and Steacy’s dad reflects on generations of their family working in newspapers. In five sections, the amount of research, fact-checking, phone-calls, line-editing and captioning in Deadline is astounding. A collaborative and self-reflective cousin of the newspaper format it references and reveres. Unrepeatable. Unbeatable.

Steacy can breathe easier, now, after completing the epic project.

“This, for me, was an initiation into my family’s newspaperman club and as close as I will get to calling myself a sixth generation newspaper man.”

From where I stand, Steacy looks like a newspaper man. You?

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Today, the Philly Mag published a leaked document about the devastating decline in newspapers. It was created by Interstate General Media, owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It showed massive slumps nationwide but particular downturns in the fortunes of Philadelphia’s newspapers.

The slump has been rumbling on for over a decade now but the details in the leaked document make Will Steacy‘s project Deadline even more timely. Steacy is currently raising money to make a photobook and here’s why I think it deserves your support.

DEADLINE, by WILL STEACY

I was once Skyping with an artist on a residency in Europe. During the call, in the background, Will Steacy‘s head popped round the open door. Given the time difference, it was early morning for my friend, and for Steacy.

Pre-coffee, Steacy took the time to say hello. I noticed under Steacy’s arm a stack of the newspapers. Printed news from print newsrooms across the globe. Steacy told me it was his daily ritual to read, for hours, the news stories printed on actual paper. It shouldn’t have seemed so surprising, but in this era of digital information Steacy’s insistence on printed news was, in my mind, unusual. And comforting.

It makes sense that Steacy would not only notice — but also feel attachment — to the dying news daily in his once-hometown of Philadelphia. His photographs document an atrophying Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom. The number of staffers decrease, the presses go silent, the buzz of a breaking news scoop vibrates a little less.

The series is called Deadline, and Steacy is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter to create a photobook version.

I tweeted last week that Steacy was “photographer, labor guy and workaholic” and deserving of your support. He’s worked on the series for 5 years. His father was an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer for over 20 years before he was laid off in a round of cutbacks in 2011, and his family has been in the news industry for generations. Steacy talks of the newspaper as a form and as a bastion of an institution holding politicians, corporations and the like accountable to society as a whole. Steacy also believes the decline of the newsroom is a labour issue and more than just profits should dictate the operations of free press outlets.

Under corporate ownership every Inquirer asset is on the table in the strategy to stay alive. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you the Philadelphia Inquirer ain’t what it used to be. The focus on local coverage to secure it’s regional readership hails a goodbye to the days when the Inquirer racked up Pulitzers for fun.

The Philadelphia Inquirer still lives but it’s downsized from 700 to 200 staff, sold and moved out of its iconic headquarters, The Inquirer Building. This move, as documented by Steacy, is arguably one of the best visuals we have to grasp the size of the changes occuring now in news publishing.

While Deadline is specific to the Inquirer, the story is all too common. Large papers such as the Rocky Mountain News have shuttered completely in recent years. This devastating shift in news publishing was reflected in Philly Inquirer’s Hard Years Are Microcosm of Newspapers’ Long Goodbye, an article by my Raw File WIRED colleague Jakob Schiller, last year.

Deadline combines great images, great research, local and national narratives and a personal connection. The Kickstarter rewards are imaginative too: newsroom pencils and pin badges, and a limited edition artwork printed on the same presses that rolled out the Inquirer for decades.

Get over to Kickstarter and fund it!

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Kickstarter reward at the $25-level. Poster: “A MIRROR OF GREATNESS, BLURRED” (Edition of 50, hand numbered, signed by artist, 20″ x 24″)

© Amy Elkins 269 self-portraits, part of Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals

Last week, I reviewed Photographs Not Taken (ed. Will Steacy, published by Daylight) for Wired.com. It is a book I have enjoyed thoroughly, which may seem a bit perverse as the majority of the tales seem to be about literal death and sullen loss. The other essays are all essentially about metaphorical death – death of an idea; the abandonment of an ideal; fractured and sudden awareness of mortality; or a shattering of photographer-bravado.

Bryan Formhals, many months ago, hollered for more writing by photographers. PNT would be the most recent, stand-out collection of essays to support that call.

PNT features two essays about prison.

Stefan Ruiz talks about his frustration with the limitations on camera during a seven-year stint teaching art at San Quentin State Prison.

“Most of the time […] I was a photographer in a visually amazing place with all these great subjects, and I couldn’t take a picture,” writes Ruiz.

Amy Elkins recounts a visit she and her brother made to see her dad in federal prison in 2005. She ends up describing a thousand or more photographs she didn’t take.

Call it compulsion, call it therapy, her response during the final 9 months of her dad’s imprisonment was to turn the camera on herself. Amy began making self-portraits began in 2006. Her self-portrait series, Beyond This Place: 269 Intervals became a mini internet sensation in 2007, by which time her dad was out but Amy was not out of the habit. Her self-portraits continue in Half Way There and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

“All three projects overlap with my father’s story,” says Amy “Half Way There continues as he lived in a re-entry house for 365 days under strict supervision. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere becomes more about re-entering the world and starting over. All in all I’ve shot over 6 years of these portraits.” Amy still photographs herself daily.

You can view the legacy blog posts here and Amy speaks about the relationship between her self-portraiture and family-life briefly toward the end of this conversation with Joerg.

AMY ELKINS’ PHOTOGRAPHS NOT TAKEN

We had been talking here and there. Once a week. Fourteen and a half minutes before hurried goodbyes were exchanged with uncertainty. It was our allotted time to share what we were experiencing. My new chapter in New York. His, in a federal prison, three thousand miles away. My father’s stories were endless. His seventy bunk-mates. Spanish ricocheting off of the concrete walls until it became static, white noise, a flock of birds. The mess hall. The books that had their covers torn off. The Hawaiian friend he made who sang like an angel. The night he woke to flashlights banging along the metal bunks, looking for inmates with blood on their clothes.

The teams that were formed. The chess matches and basketball games. Prison Break on the television in the rec room. The pauses in his voice. We had shared just under fifteen minutes a week for months from across the country. I mostly listened, the imagery leaping to mind, as his words came through the line. These were the things I wanted to make photographs of. By the time I actually had my one and only visit with him while he was in prison, my imagination had grown wild and I was so emotionally charged that I had to place my hands together in order to keep them from shaking, and to hide the amount of cold sweat pooling in them. There were metal detectors, x-ray machines, electronic drug tests, and questionnaires before my brother and I were led into locked waiting rooms, before we were led into a barbed wire walkway, before we were led to the visitors’ area. No cameras, cell phones, keys, wallets, jewelry, hats, purses, food, or gifts were allowed. Just myself, my brother, my father, and a small square yard of short brown grass containing picnic tables, a walkway, and vending machines, wrapped in barbed wire fences, two rows deep. My father, looking aged by stress, wore a tan uniform that seemed to fall all around him like robes. His hair had grown somewhat wild and was whiter than I remembered it. His eyes were youthful and tired.

The photograph was in my head. The moment of panic, of not knowing what to talk about or how to catch up in reality, while families reeled all around us with children and their mothers or grandparents. The vending machine coffees and board games. I longed for this moment to stay preserved, as if it would become more real if I could hold it captive on film.

Or that my story would be more intriguing if I could prove what it looked like. The photograph not taken, a portrait of what we had become, the fear that my family had failed me, the confrontation of unconditional love, a portrait of uncertainty. Instead, I sat with my hands tucked against the worn-out wood of the picnic tables, watching and listening to the sounds of what we were able to be for a moment.

THE SELF

The story runs deep. But how about the images? There’s a touch of naivety in Amy’s self portraits, but no more than any other young artists sussing his or her emotions. The portraits are paired with quotes by her father delivered in those weekly 15 minute calls, a text/image play that adds some depth.

Whatever life these photos have had or will have, I’d like to think they’re ultimately for future generations of her family; mementos of the quirky granny who grew up in the first quarter of the 21st century; the favourite aunt with certainty of narrative but evidence of younger faltering.

After all, we might be miffed if we missed that shot of those things over there, time and time again, but we have no excuse for not recording ourselves. We might hit old age and regret not having the photos to match our memories.

Short-sighted folk may criticise 269 Intervals for its seeming indulgence or vague manipulation; it is strange that images to represent a family temporarily smashed apart by the efficiency of the law are of a pretty las (occasionally in a state of undress) but take a long sighted view and admit you are intrigued by photo-a-day projects. Who hasn’t thought about doing one themselves? … If only you I had the discipline. Between Kessels, Karl Baden, Hugh Crawford, Noah Kalina and Homer Simpson, Amy is in good company.

Amy Elkins was born in Venice Beach, CA, and received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Carnegie Art Museum in California; and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota. Elkins is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, where she recently had her second solo exhibition.

Sharon at the front door. Simone Lueck

CRITICAL MASS: 593 entrants, over 200 jurors, 181 shortlisted photographers, 50 finalists, 6 contenders, 2 eventual book deals.

For months, the Critical Mass jurors nudge and judge portfolio across the internet casting their opinions by way of prescribed digits – NO (0), YES (1), MEGA-YES (3), WOW (7). It’s numbers-gymnastics.

The 36,000 scores are then thrown into a big statistics cauldron and Shawn Records, one of CM’s organisers informed us back in November that the difference between the “lowest score on the list and the highest one that didn’t make the cut was just 0.01314411684.”

Down at the Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle the scores and calibration tables are forgotten as each of the Top50 winners is represented by a singe print chosen by juror Andy Adams of FlakPhoto.

RUNNERS AND RIDERS

The Top50 have been online for three months now. The names in the show are likely familiar, but the chosen prints possibly not. In some cases the anointed print on show didn’t satisfactorily deputize for the complete portfolio, and in other cases the strength of a single print was spur for a second glance at a portfolio.

Simone Lueck’s  Sharon at the front door was a stand-out print, as garish and perky as the subject’s make-up. Sharon holds your stare as the direct sunlight degrades her skin by the second. “Let me help you with that door” I urged, worried for the integrity of the l’Oreal face-goop.

Aguardiente shots backstage at the beginning of the Miss Light pageant, Mesitas del Colegio, Colombia. Carl Bower

Women and the politics of appearance featured strongly throughout. Carl Bower’s project Chica Barbie examines the beauty pageant phenomenon of Colombia placing the contests within the context of the country’s pervasive violence; pageantry as escapism.

Bower’s work compresses pride, anxiety, routines, achievement and exploitation, but never casts aspersions upon this particular cultural more. Bower’s even-handedness presumably stems from his photojournalist background.

Bradley Peters’ print was banished to the stairwell, yet his work is strong enough to endure. Earlier on the night of opening, PCNW gallery director Ann Pallesen described juror Andy Adam’s FlakPhoto project as “off-kilter” – Peters is perhaps the best proponent of that look. Peters constructs scenes that so flauntingly blur art and documentary the viewer is hooked. I was befuddled last year when Peters came on the scene.

I liken Peters to Crewdson but without the six-figure budget; perhaps Crewdson on Valium. Peters also won the Conscientious Portfolio Competition, 2009.

© Bradley Peters

Ponce. Ellen Rennard

Also on the stairs, Ellen Rennard. Let me tell you, I generally don’t care for pictures of aninals but Rennard is the type of special talent to get my stubborn eyes seeing again. The runners and riders in the stables are partners, total equals. Respect runs through this series from photographer to subject, man to mammal. Rennard’s work is as compelling as any documentary portrait project I’ve seen in the past two years.

Dead dogs anyone? No, how about dead cats then? Mary Shannon Johnstone cares deeply enough about animal welfare and responsible stewardship that she went inside a North Carolina euthanasia clinic. Breeding Ignorance is a view we’ve not seen before and it may not be one you want to see again such is the visceral rendering of matted fur, stiff eyelids and garbage-headed biomass.

Cats Disposed. Mary Shannon Johnstone

Tree, Boston Public Garden, 2009. Pelle Cass

Talking about fur, Pelle Cass specializes in composite images of frantic activity, human and animal. The print from Selected People chosen for this show depicts a tree covered in scores of pudgy, russet squirrels surrounded by less fat humans and a flutter of birds in various stages of take off and perch. Cass’ work made me laugh, which is always a good sign.

Jane Fulton Alt’s portfolio Burn series is delicate but underwhelming if isolated. Fortunately, it is not isolated in that Fulton Alt has followed up on previous work with great intelligence. In 2005, Fulton Alt worked as a social worker in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At dusk she’d document the ruined city. Burn series continues the same washed out grey of her Katrina series Look and Leave, only here it is smoke and not the “toxic, metallic air” of New Orleans. Fulton Alt observed upper respiratory problems among post-Katrina survivors and it as if this work is a lingering acknowledgement of legacy complications after the fact. Disasters are never just natural or man made but always a spiteful conflagration of the two … the air needs to clear … the dust needs to settle … the poisons sometimes burn slow.

Burn No. 81. Jane Fulton Alt

Alley Behind Ferris St. © Will Steacy

I really enjoy Will Steacy’s politic (his blog rants are a breath of fresh air) and he seems to be one of the hardest working photographers out there. The chosen print was luminous. However, I get the impression that Steacy only cares about these streets in as much as the debilitating effect they have on their inhabitants and itinerants. I’d have like to have seen one of his figure studies.

Manuel Capurso and Samar Jodha both pierced the darkness with portrait studies. Capurso’s chiaroscuro isolates his subjects and communicates the loneliness of life’s latter stages. Jodha literally spotlights the Phaneng people with whom he has lived for four years; they are a people on the verge of extinction and he has photographed every member of the 1,500 deep tribe. Both artists were effective.

Untitled. © Manuel Capurso

Phaneng 1. Samar Jodha

Alejandro Cartagena was one of the two book award winners this year and I wouldn’t argue with the selection; he is doing immensely important work about mass-suburbanisation/social-housing projects in Mexico. However, I would argue for the case of half a dozen prints from his portfolio before the one chosen for this show.

David Taylor and Victor Cobo are also engaged in important inquiries both probing issues of immigration and policing, family and place. In each case though, the print did neither of their theses any favours. Cobo’s print was bright and with humour but, without context, it receded quickly from memory. Taylor’s print was large and empty but perhaps that was the point to suggest the illegal immigrants as helpless, lost and losing agency?

Definitely spend time with Cartagena, Taylor and Cobo’s online portfolios as I think they are three vital political thinkers in photography. Perhaps that was the problem, my hopes for the print were too high ?…

Mi Abuela, México, 2003 © Victor Cobo

Untitled © Ed Freeman

Up until last Friday, Joni Sternbach had single-handedly carried the genre of surf photography. She now has Ed Freeman to help her with the load. Generally, I dislike pictures of surf (bar the odd Friedkin print) as much as I dislike pictures of animals, but Ed Freeman’s print really stood out. His online portfolio is as balanced too. Definitely the surprise of the evening.

Finally, leaving the best to the last, Andrea Camuto’s print romped home with the win in the ‘gut-punching-and-my-world-is-better-informed-for-seeing-this’ category.

Visitation, Waleyat woman's prison, Afghanistan © Andrea Camuto

Camuto is interested in the needs of families to survive as they have migrated in and out of Afghanistan and in and out of the capitol Kabul in bids to find livings.

From Camuto’s statement, “Feeling great compassion for their struggles, I was compelled to return several times, most recently in 2009. As my ties with these families deepened, I followed them into such places as the women’s hospital and the women’s prison. Each trip furthered my understanding of the political and social complexities of Afghan culture. Entrenched attitudes, coupled with rampant illiteracy, create the oppressive conditions under which Afghan women are forced to live. In these photographs I call attention to these ordinary Afghans, who go unnoticed and unrecorded in the larger narrative of the conflict in Afghanistan today.”

While the chosen print is a literal depiction of enclosure, the house arrests and claustrophobic hardships of rural life as portrayed in Camuto’s work bring a heavier weight to bear on the viewer. Camuto’s is the latest in a slew of projects I’ve seen recently coming out of the AfPak region that don’t depict military engagement. These personal struggles, significantly, are dictated by larger political and infrastructural battles currently being fought in Afghanistan.

The helplessness served up in Camuto’s work is bitter blow and one that lasts.

– – – – –

EXPOSED: CRITICAL MASS will be on show at the Photographic Center Northwest, 900 12th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122 until the 18th May.

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