I discovered Sergej Vutuc at Christer Ek’s blog. He comes from punk/skateboarding and carries across the DIY philosophy and aesthetic of those scenes to publishing photobooks. He brings out a lot of zines. His work is punk, but also soft-edged and blurry, a grey psychedelia. His zines could be samizdats from deep underground, degraded and damaged from being hidden in deep pockets and passed in secret hand to hand.
Čista Zona looks like a zine, but feels weightier. The pages thick and heavy-loaded with ink. It comes inside a glow-in-the-dark, silkscreened, rough-textured slipcover. The book itself is risographed full bleed in black and white, all double page spreads.
Vutuc’s rough approach to printing transforms everyday scenes of the edgelands, shot out of train windows, in abandoned industrial areas, on haunted streets. We come across a few looming figures, some domestic interiors. Ruins, a deserted playground. Where no one else goes skaters take over and make use of the wasteland in their own way.
But the unique quality of Vutuc’s work comes less from his subject matter than what he makes happen on the surface of his prints. Čista Zona’s images come layered with intruding artefacts of film and light, inexplicable white-out shapes, sooty smudges like charcoal drawings left out in the rain. And he’s scrawled over them in writing indecipherable in several languages. Captions, instructions, diary entries? This whole world seems buried underwater, as though seen via reflections in smeared and scratched aquarium glass.
Not to say these effects are just layers added on top. It’s all intrinsic to Vutuc’s invocation of the zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and of Chernobyl, a dystopian hallucination, all disintegration and decay.
In Edinburgh last week I went to the Surreal Encounters exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and a smaller show of photography by Lewis Baltz at Stills.
The surrealist exhibition was themed around four collections, those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It made me think about how I’ve resisted my own impulse to be a collector. When I was younger I obsessed over my collections of records and comics, but I like to think I’ve grown out of that kind of thing. I suppose I associate music or comics as something young people are really into and when you’re older it’s unseemly to define yourself by things like that. Not that I’ve given up entirely on music and comics, but other interests have come in, like art, photography, photobooks, artist’s books.
I’ve been buying photobooks for seven years now and I have quite a few. The fact that I haven’t counted them proves I’m not really a collector! They are of various kinds: some self-published, some from small publishers, a few from relatively mainstream publishers like Steidl, some are more like artist’s books, a few are exhibition catalogues. I’ve been sampling different things. There’s no totally unifying theme or genre, but there’s more about landscape and nature than anything else. Perhaps it’s time to admit to myself that I’m building a collection anyway so I should take it more seriously.
Collecting doesn’t have to be passive. Edward James was a collaborator as well as a patron, and commissioned some of Dali’s most famous work.
Most of those surrealist collectors bought the work at the time it was made. Right now we’re living through a boom in photobook publishing so why not make the most of it and make a coherent and representative collection of my favourite work?
At Surreal Encounters what fascinated me most were the original surrealist publications - magazines, books and posters - from the 1920s and 30s, shown in vitrines of course. I would have loved to have been able to page through all these. I’ve always been attracted to printed matter. Even in an exhibition of paintings I’m looking for something in print. Probably because magazines and posters are often seen as throwaway, it seems romantic they’ve survived at all, and they usually show their age, with yellowing paper with tattered edges, in a way paintings never do. They’re archival evidence that cannot be tampered with or rewritten.
There are no books on show at the Lewis Baltz exhibition, but the emphasis here is very much on the assembly of series of images rather than any individual masterpieces. Small photographs are arranged in grids on the wall, making them all of equal status to one another so none stand out. There’s no narrative sequence suggested here, but the grids reminded me of uncut sheets of pages on the printer’s table, or an arrangement of photos pinned to a board or lain flat on the floor ready to be moved around into new juxtapositions.
For me it all comes back to books, or possible layouts for a book. I like to look at pictures much more by paging through a book than shuffling around an exhibition. Baltz’s grids on the walls of Stills let you scan a lot of pictures without changing your viewpoint, but it’s hard to get close enough to see anything in detail. Being kept at this kind of remove is appropriate since Baltz always remained detached and unromantic as an artist. He used his camera as a distancing device between the subject and the audience.
It’s interesting how the curator, Sebastien Montabonel, has made these decisions on how the work is presented to highlight these aspects of Baltz’s approach.
Baltz aimed to achieve no style of his own and his subjects were everyday and unremarkable. He wanted his work to look anonymous, like anyone could do it. He wasn’t much interested in photography and saw it as ‘the simplest, most direct way of recording something’.
The minimalist mode is emphasised by the inclusion of a metal floor sculpture by Carl Andre, a grid to be walked on. You use this grid to stand on to get closer to the photographs.
Katrien De Blauwer calls herself a ‘photographer without a camera’. Her work is photomontage, but very different from dada pioneers Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi protest, or John Stezaker’s spliced movie stars and other strange juxtapositions.
There’s nothing overtly clever or sophisticated on the surface of De Blauwer’s work. Black-and-white pictures are cut out of old magazines and books and layered together with faded, torn, rough paper and cardboard, sometimes interspresed with flat planes of black or red. These materials are as much part of the finished work as the photos themselves.
Her technique is not intricate or meticulous, but blatantly disclocated. It’s often as simple as cutting a picture in half and reversing the position of the two pieces. There’s nothing to it, but somehow the effect is invariably uncanny, creating a lacuna within the image, a hole at its heart.
Opening the book feels like entering and exploring a long forgotten archive, perhaps an ancestor’s legacy found in a box in an attic. Old memories are reconfigured, like intersecting reflections in a series of mirrors or the unbound pages of magazines spread loose.
De Blauwer puts parts of human bodies into relationships with trees or manmade structures that complete them, transforming people into things half-human, spliced with their surroundings. Shadows and silhouettes suggest traces and fragments of secret identities.
Inexplicable spatial relationships abound, with hints of a narrative, its sequence out of joint, like rearranged panels of a comic strip. In a series of disconnections, repetitions and reversals, people strike mirrored poses and gestures that somehow just fail to connect with each other.
De Blauwer includes fragments of text, which might be memoir, fiction or script. The mind works to complete a story or a picture from assembled fragments like these, trying to make sense of everything.
The book also contains a central section of reproductions of cards, envelopes, wallpaper, patterns, and cuttings of text in foreign languages, all brown and decayed, date-stamped with the artist’s name like filed correspondence. There’s few scattered full page images as well, in light grey tones, ghostly, faintly evocative.
The connection with Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni is lost on me, but of course there’s always the resonance of photomontage with the montage of film editing. Film scripts and photomontage both invite further work by others. You can take them apart and rearrange them.
Photomontage always feels incomplete because you can see how it was put together from fragments of other work, found material. It’s fundamentally unstable because its cuts and joins remain visible. Photomontage forces the viewer to conceive of the original context of the material as well as further potential contexts.
I do not want to disappear… is a thick, dense book, building piece by piece into a kind of labyrinth to get lost inside. With a low-key surrealist tone, and its variety of visual tricks it evades labels and interpretations. It remains a deep, unsolvable mystery.
Gabriele Harhoff’s second photobook is a document of a visit to Tokyo. Hers is a cool, somewhat distant form of street photography; she’s not rampaging along the street getting in anyone’s face, Winogrand-style. She’s remote from her subjects, but it still feels very personal.
These are not exactly typical holiday photos, but the book is still a product of that desire to give a report on where you went and what you saw over there, to show what you brought back from your trip. There’s no text to explain anything. As such, Tobiko relates to the tradition of a tourist’s photos collected and presented in an album or a slideshow.
Almost all pictures are taken in daytime, in a neutral flat light. Here are many still scenes, of street corners and abandoned cars. Only a few people can be seen, usually standing, waiting to cross the road.
Harhoff finds stripes or blocks of vivid colour against grey backgrounds. She shows long intertwines of overhead cables, strange road markings, and street signs in Japanese characters; intersecting surfaces, textures and patterns. She’s also interested in containers, packaging and things wrapped up and hidden. All this attention to detail works together to suggest codes to be deciphered and mysteries to be solved. Insightful and particular findings of an investigation.
These slow, careful observations of an outsider convey the feel of a flaneur slowly exploring side streets of local districts detecting patterns and repetitions; making sense of a foreign place. The book subtly assembles its own simulation of the city, impressionist and fleeting. The inclusion of a loose local transport map in Japanese feels like a false clue, indecipherable. The title, too, which translates as Flying fish roe’, is hard to explain.
The book comes in elegant, clear and simple design that presents its series of images in an unforced, uncluttered way. It’s well-produced, with hand-stitched, soft covers and french folded pages. Images are all printed recto only, full page. It’s not an ambitious design, and some variation in layout may have been more effective in shifting emphasis and guiding the viewer’s attention.
Tobiko is a good example of what can be done with a self-published book without making it an extravagantly over-designed production. The book doesn’t try hard to impress and its grey cover doesn’t stand out on a table of books, but it rewards patient attention.
Designed and sequenced, printed, stitched and trimmed! Now at last I can hold a finished copy in my hand and my book feels real for the first time.
I took these photos on a trip last summer to the Åland Islands,, scattered and remote in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. Across the archipelago I came across these hidden, mysterious and dreamlike landscapes: a high rocky outcrop, a lonely stony shore, a deep woodland thickly furred with lichen. All found by chance, guided by curiosity and what catches the eye. Around the shoreline and into the woods, going deeper and getting to the heart.
I wanted to try to recreate something of the feel of these places within the close, intimate confines of a book.
I called it Nordic Songs & Fairytales because I wanted to make believe that mythical tales might take place here.
A small softbound book seemed best because this was no great expedition. More of a slow and soft exploration without maps, a few steps away, slightly off the beaten track. A magical world might be closer at hand and more easily found than you think.
The paper is heavy and uncoated, so you feel a soft texture when you hold it and turn the pages. I bound the book myself, longstitched with thread two signatures into the spine. I wanted a personal touch to every copy, to know that I put each one together by hand.
Some pages from the book.
Nordic Songs & Fairytales is published in a first edition of 24, signed and numbered. 38 Pages, 20 x 22cm, digitally printed on Fedrigoni Arcoprint paper 300/170, hand-sewn binding.
£17/21€ plus postage:
£1.26 / Signed For 1st Class £2.36.
Standard €4.75 / European Tracked
& Signed €11.00.
Please email me if you are interested: JF@jackfrench.photo