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
Over the last few months I’ve been fascinated by the career of Fay Godwin, who was one of the great photographers of British landscapes from the 1970s to the end of her life in 2005.
I bought her Ridgeway and Glassworks & Secret Lives books and borrowed her Land series and Remains of Elmet from the library. There’s plenty of source material on the web too, with a long audio interview at the British Library, together with a large collection of prints. Her appearances on the South Bank Show and Desert Island Discs can also be found online.
Fay Godwin is best known for her black and white photographs of rural places, but she wasn’t interested in pristine wilderness. She usually showed evidence of human presence, often remote farms, standing stones, or just a sign put up to assert private ownership. Sometimes she found wrecks of cars and ships.
She used square medium format film, which immediately gives her pictures a very different kind of composition from most landscape images; more photographic in character than following conventions of painting. She rebelled against the picturesque tradition and pursued an unsentimental and rigorous approach of her own; hard-edged and dark, isolated and elemental.
Her viewpoint was usually stepped back, to allow an expanse of foreground for the viewer to approach her subject. She emphasised distance and remoteness very effectively, but sometimes you wish she’d get in closer. Her photo of a prayer net in Iona is a rare domestic interior.
She often collaborated on books with writers, but insisted her contribution be seen on equal terms. She hated being thought of as merely an illustrator of someone else’s work. The Remains of Elmet, with Ted Hughes, is a perfect example of photography and poetry working together.
Godwin excelled at the technical aspects of photography and made fine prints in the traditional way, but when digital technology came along she cleared out her darkroom to make way for new possibilities.
Her breaking with traditions in art went hand in hand with politics. As an environmental campaigner Godwin used photography to visualise debates on access to land as a rambler and damage to the natural world by construction work. She was an artist unafraid to make the most of her ability to take the great and powerful to task.
Glassworks & Secret Lives was a late departure for Fay Godwin, self-published in 1998. It came before the boom in photobook self-publishing, so Godwin felt this was something she had to do herself because no publisher would take it. They weren’t interested because it was so different from the work she was best known for.
This body of work is in colour and somewhat abstract. It’s small scale, close-in and local. At this time of her life she could no longer walk long distances, so she stayed close to home and found more intimate subjects. The Glassworks project dates from 1989-95 and Secret Lives, 1994-99.
It’s a nice, small book with a standard layout, one photo to a page; nothing innovative or clever about it. Compared with self-published photobooks of today it looks like not enough design effort has been put in, but its straightforwardness comes as a relief too, and it’s fitting with Godwin’s forthright personality. She just wanted to show her pictures.
In his introduction, Ian Jeffrey discusses finding alternative ways with landscape. Here Godwin opts for the sensuous.
These are found still lives, assemblages of debris, the disused leftovers of industry. Discarded and lying around. Layers of glass, foliage, fabric and netting create diffuse, abstract and dreamlike effects. Colours are muted, soft and autumnal. Everything is close, but at one remove, untouchable, as though seen from behind a semi-opaque screen.
Ian Jeffrey sees this as a vision of an earth that has outlived the human era. A world under threat, drained of colour, broken and confused. It’s an abandoned place, where ruins are reclaimed and overwritten by nature.
Because there’s no horizon in these images they appear as ambiguous spaces where it’s hard to judge scale and spatial relationships. There’s no perspective. Another interesting idea from Ian Jeffrey’s introduction is about how the usual upright standpoint in photography serves to assert human interests and priority. We are in an elevated postition, surveying and commanding the scene. When you leave the horizon out of an image perhaps that returns us to a primitive and pre-rational view of the world. We’re closer to the ground, reading its marks, following its tracks and traces.
I went to the Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond The Visual event on 7 November in Bristol, where I saw Paul Gaffney and Jem Southam give talks and presentations of their work.
I learned a lot from them both about approaches to landscape photography, how to conduct projects and how to present the final work.
Jem Southam gave an overview of his career, from Bristol docks in the 1970s, to more recent local walks around Exeter and out in the Devon countryside, and walks in the company of others, including writers. Having someone else along lets you compare what each of you notices and thereby enable a multi-faceted record of a walk to be made, e.g when his brother, an ornithologist, notes all the birds he has seen, while none of them appear in Southam’s photos.
His practice seems to have become increasingly focused on everyday places and routes. It’s casual in a way, yet persistent, paying attention over a long period of time. He tends to work in ongoing, open-ended series, several of them continuing in parallel, with no need to ever bring them to an end. Some individual photos might seem mundane, but they become more interesting as they build into series, e.g. the newspaper hoarding giving daily headlines from the Express & Echo in Exeter.
What I learned from Jem Southam are that fine subjects can be found in the local, everyday and small scale. Southam uses a large format camera, but a compact digital and an iPad as well. You don’t have to seek out special places. They can be found anywhere if you take your time and look closely enough. An artist’s daily walk to work can be a fascinating journey.
One thing I liked about Paul Gaffney was how open he was about how he became an artist. He wasn’t always into photography. He was working in IT, and took a photography class and around the same time got into meditation as well. The two things seem to have gone hand in hand since then to transform his life.
Gaffney talked about the long walks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain and showed the photographs he took along the way that formed his book We Make The Path By Walking. There was no religious purpose behind this, but perhaps the effect was similar to a pilgrimage. The walk was not about the objective, but the route, the act of walking. He discovered the meditative effect of walking in nature, as the repetitive rhythm of walking frees the mind and its creative spirit.
But if walking is so good in itself, why make it complicated by worrying about photography when you could just let yourself go along? Why bother trying to turn it into a creative project at all? Is there still here the impulse to capture and organise nature?
Gaffney seems to have found a way to get beyond that in his latest project Stray. One thing is to not be too conscious about technical expertise to do with framing and exposure. Allow yourself to give up intentionality and (to some extent) choice.
One way of achieving this, as Paul Gaffney has, is to go somewhere you don’t know, e.g. a woodland in the dark. You relinquish up control of the camera when you’re taking photos in the woods at night, where you’re not able to see properly, you don’t know exactly where you are and you’re not sure how to find your way back out just wandering without reference to map or compass. Here you are freed from rules of camerawork and conscious decision making and guided by instinct and chance. In the dark the camera sees more than you can and all results come unexpected.
All this resonated with me because in my own work some of my pictures that have come to mean most to me are those that don’t seem to be about anything in particular, no fixed subject, just a dark tangle of woodland with no obvious focal point or sense of perspective. They’re mistakes, really, disappointing when I first saw them, but somehow they’re remained surprising because I can’t see what I was aiming for when I took them.
When it comes to photobooks, Gaffney explained how he went through printing several dummies to arrive at We Make The Path While Walking. You can’t expect to get it right first time. Editing and sequencing can be very personal and key to getting your message across. Gaffney’s never been happy with the results when he’s let someone else sequence his images.
On a residency Gaffney was given hard deadline to make a photobook in three days, which forces you to get on with it, without the luxury of too much time thinking in advance.
Stray is a great example of how to use a simple, consistent layout to create an immersive photobook. The prints were made for an exhibition of the work. By folding the prints in half and binding them together he showed how you can make a book of full bleed double-page spreads of superb quality that goes hand in hand with how the work displays on the wall.