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Hans Bol on Paradise City

cover of Paradise City
Paradise City is a remarkable collection of images from Hans Bol, and serves as a thoughtful investigation of the Carrara region of Italy famous for its marble quarries. Known as Carrara marble, the marble quarries have been used for centuries. The Pantheon is constructed from it, as is London's Marble Arch; it is the marble from which Michelangelo carved his David; and it can be found in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and Harvard Medical School.

Bol photographed the Carrara region over the last two decades, investigating the landscape down the surface of the marble itself. Captivated by the challenge of making photographs that accurately depict the subtle tonalities and surfaces of these ancient sites, Bol has documented them extensively using a variety of camera formats and perspectives. His images feature the spectacular beauty and vastness of the landscape, as well as the subtle qualities of the stone itself, sculptural in its natural state. After photographing the site for over twenty years, Bol decided to put this project together in a book from his Recto Verso imprint. It was a difficult task considering the breadth of the project -- it is rare for a place to be this well explored. The result is a stunning volume of Bols work that expresses the multifaceted nature of Cararra, and Bol's photographs are accompanied by a thoughtful essay by Flip Bool.

We asked Bol to share with us the process of putting this project together, and how his perspective changed as this project developed. -- Sarah Bradley

small tipped-in print included in every copy of Paradise City
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photo-eye:     The marble quarries of Carrara Italy seem to be a very important place for you, one that you’ve photographed for over 20 years. The images show the depth of your exploration, and also a bit of conflict — it is at once a magnificent site with a rich history, a landscape of amazing sculptural quality, but also a location of enormous destruction, the literal tearing down of a mountain. Can you talk about this duality, what initially drew you to this landscape and how your view changed over the years you explored and grew to know it?

Hans Bol:     I initially started to photograph marble in 1986 because of its subtle and delicate tones; I wanted to master the reproduction of these tones in print; the whites should not be white because then they would be invisible, but also they couldn't be too grey because then they wouldn't be read as white. In addition, the difference between shadows and highlights in terms of f-stops was substantial - another obstruction to conquer. First I went to graveyards in the Netherlands, but did not find much. So I decided to go to Italian graveyards, for example in Genova and Florence. Rich places in terms of marble. I discovered how beautiful these statues were, the mastery of the craft that was needed to make the texture, face, expression and skin in stone - the delicacy of the stone itself struck me so to speak and I decided to go to the source: Carrara.

Once there, it was love at first sight. A rich area in terms of history, a harbor at sea level, more inland impressive mountains. In between it, industry and artists. The quarries themselves are impressive if you have never seen them, in terms of size, in terms of light, in terms of the process. For a period of more than 20 years I came, photographed and went again; back in the Netherlands I developed my films, printed, studied the work of other photographers and developed new ideas. Then, I would return, loaded with new enthusiasm. For that reason I managed to explore the area from various angles in terms of content and approach. I like returning to places, not for sentimental reasons, but simply to learn to know a place more intensely. Photographers that influenced my thinking have been Edward Weston, Aaron Siskind, the New Topographics among others. It's clear that the latter group opened my eyes for the immense damage done to nature. But at the same time, the damage seems to be a logical and natural by-product of the process and the way things have been going there for ages.

from Paradise City
PE:     You shot these images using several different camera formats — 4x5”, 4x10”, 8x10”, 8x20” and 6x17 cm. How does using these different camera formats change the way you see the landscape and effect the final image that you make?

HB:     When I started I was using 35mm in the very, very beginning. But soon I discovered the beauty of a larger negative: more sharpness, more precise, more detail, more sculptural, as it were. I started to use 4x5" in 1985, I believe. It took time and physical effort to do it, to bring my lenses and cameras up there. In many cases I did this by foot, backpacking. More or less simultaneously, while reading about various other photographers, I wanted to make the step up to 8x10" - which I did in 1987. You have to realize that in the Netherlands 2¼ x 2¼" is already considered 'large format.' In other words, the right information about lenses, development etc. really had to be found in books rather than from Dutch colleagues. Somewhere along the line I got in touch with work made by three photographers that were working in more horizontal formats: Art Sinsabaugh in the USA who used 12x20" among other systems, Michael A. Smith in the USA, who used 8x20" among other formats and Josef Koudelka in Europe who was using 6x17cm. Studying their work triggered me to make the final step to a more horizontal way of looking at the quarries, because I felt I needed to go to a more horizontal vision rather than a vertical one in order to capture the immensity. I met Michael A. Smith and his wife Paula Chamlee, both photographers many times, visited them at home - and they came to visit me during their trips to Europe. We became friends and I learned a lot from their large-format techniques that originate directly from the Westons, both Brett and his father. The most important aspect that was added by these large formats was sharpness, detail, tactility - hyper-realism in way. In general, I can say that all these various formats have one thing in common: slowness. I like things to go slow when I'm photographing.

from Paradise City
PE:     The book, published by your RectoVerso imprint, is beautiful — the design compliments the subtly of the images and the printing is lovely, bringing a tactile quality. What was the process of pulling this long-term project together in book form?

HB:     I decided to start Recto Verso in order not to be dependent on publishers that would have influence on the way my books would look like. That means that the financial risk of a publication totally rests on my shoulders; not easy, but it's OK - I am willing to do that. In the case of Het Formaat van Waterland things worked out really well - no losses, almost all books sold. In the case of Paradise City we will have to see how things work out. The good news is that the book has been selected as one of the thirty 'Best Dutch Book Designs 2011.' More problematic is the fact that we all suffer from a worldwide crisis, which makes people more careful in spending. For Paradise City I worked together with Els Kerremans, a very good, creative and solid designer. We choose ANDO as a printer, a specialist in printing on mat paper. We choose mat paper because it comes closest to the soft and open kind of tactility of marble; we also choose to virtually not use any white borders around the photographs themselves in order to stress that all images are part of a larger whole, to indicate that this is a book about an area in which practically every corner is touched by human hand. The fact that I used so many different camera formats over the years did not make it easy to design a coherent whole but we think it now works really well as a book.

cover of Paradise City Afterword
PE:     After the book was published, you produced a small supplemental volume about the verse by Saint Francis of Assisi that adorned the pathway to one of the mines and was recently removed by scavengers. Why did you feel it was important to add this afterword? Do you see the project as on-going or did this supplement put a cap on the series for you?

 HB:     After the book was ready, printed and presented, I happened to visit one of my favorite places near the village of Azzano. Someone told me that thieves had stolen the marble tablets that show Saint Francis' poem in which he says we should be careful with 'the creation' - for its copper letters! A caring and sympathetic poem, written in 1225. The tablets marked the path up to one of the most mysterious, old quarries I have found - my favorite place, the cover of this book. In 'Paradise City' itself we only included the text of this poem, not the photographs I had made of them on two separate occasions, in 2001 and 2003. This whole matter made me so angry that I decided to photograph the now empty spots where the plates used to be, for the third time - and make an 'Afterword' out of it that shows what had happened there. This lovely poem, that so eloquently asks for respect for the surrounding world, had now itself become the victim of stupid vandalism.

So, there you how things may go: I thought I had finished this project after some 22 years by making the book; then I was totally unexpected almost forced to make an afterword. If you ask me whether I'm done with the subject I find that a hard question to answer. I have two more things in mind I would like to do which I keep for myself at the moment. In general I can say however that when I started in Carrara 22 years ago I immediately had the feeling I had accidentally stumbled upon a lifelong love affair. So, we'll see what comes next.

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one of the prints available with the limited edition
Images from this extensive series will be published on the Photographer's Showcase in the coming weeks.


Paradise City is also available in a limited edition that includes a slipcased volume of the book and one of three prints. More information on Paradise City and the limited edition can be found here.

The Afterword can be found here.

See Hans Bols work on the Photographer's Showcase here.

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