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Book Review Haiti Photographs by Bruce Gilden Reviewed by Blake Andrews “At first blush, Bruce Gilden photographing Haiti does not seem like a fair fight. With a confrontational style honed on the gritty sidewalks of New York City, Gilden has a reputation as an aggressive and in-your-face street shooter..."

Haiti. By Bruce Gilden.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=DU642
Haiti
Photographs by Bruce Gilden
Atelier EXB, 2023. 144 pp., 75 illustrations, 8½x11½".

At first blush, Bruce Gilden photographing Haiti does not seem like a fair fight. With a confrontational style honed on the gritty sidewalks of New York City, Gilden has a reputation as an aggressive and in-your-face street shooter. "I'm known for taking pictures very close,” he boasts, “and the older I get, the closer I get." His proximity is often exacerbated by surprise attacks and off-camera flash, with provocative results.

Haiti, meanwhile, has been a geopolitical punching bag for centuries. It has suffered under the clumsy mismanagement of various governments, strongmen, and paramilitary organizations, plagued by US meddling, resource depletion, corruption, and poverty. Its poor citizens would seem to have enough on their plate already without a Magnum photographer poking around their affairs. Throw in the fact that he’s a white interloper from the most powerful country on earth, and Haitian photo subjects are lambs to the slaughter.

That might be the expectation. But the actual results are more nuanced. It turns out that Haitians can hold their own with Gilden’s camera. In photo after photo they stand their ground, glare back, and claim dignified self-possession. They’re a force for his lens to reckon with, even more so than New Yorkers.


But you needn’t take my word for it. For the first time in a generation, average photobook readers can judge for themselves. A new edition of Gilden’s titular classic Haiti has been co-published by Atelier EXB and Gost. It updates the original monograph which was published by Dewi Lewis in 1996 and then republished in 2002. Both editions are long out of print. With a newly designed bold red cover and thirty added photographs, this latest version should tide demand for a while.

Gilden’s monochrome photos are culled from numerous visits to Haiti conducted over the course of decades. They began in 1984, when he made his first trip to photograph Mardi Gras in Port au Prince. A picture of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier on a campaign poster reminds readers of the prevailing conditions then, and the cycle of pretenders to the throne. Captivated by initial impressions, Gilden returned for more. In photographs of a man with a pistol hustling a captive through city streets, a woman in open-mouthed despair, and an oblique dog trying to hide behind its shadow (a minor classic in the Gilden ouevre), he struck an uneasy tone. “Life isn’t always about smiley faces,” he says, the point driven home by his imagery.


But not all was downcast in Haiti. Gilden captured good times too, with photos of revelers engaging in celebrations and rituals. Firepits, ashen mascara, funeral rites, and Voodoo ceremonies add layers of mystery. These are spiced with more mundane frames. Some show average folks enjoying downtime or socializing along passageways. On occasion Gilden dispensed with people entirely, homing in on ramshackle domestic dwellings. “I’m not interested in corporate types. I’m interested in the common man,” he says. That comment extends to buildings, fashion, and government. But his primary concern, in this book as throughout his career, is human beings. Several portraits isolate individuals captured in their own thoughts, with penetrating power. In other shots, the hordes are so numerous they threaten to spill from the frame. As with any destination, people are the beating heart of Haiti.


With no captions in the book, the reader is left to piece together timelines and circumstances. The sequence seems to bounce between trips, dates, and locations. It begins with casual passing candids, shot in available light. The photos gradually reach a sustained climax in the second half, with a series of bangers, one incredible shot following another. The frames begin to mix murky lighting with off-camera flash to cast a Voodoo-like spell over communal gatherings. Gilden fans will recognize several classics in this latter section. Indeed, a handful of photos in the book have become iconic, for example a vertical of sweaty revelers in slow-synch blur, a split frame triptych of shadowed figures, and a trafficked corner with triangles of gesture and shadow.


These last two pictures lose some oomph amid the book’s double-spread gutters. But that’s a minor quibble. The photos are familiar enough already in the general photo consciousness. We know them inside and out already, and the book serves as affirmation rather than revelation. But even if you know the work, the new Haiti is worth stocking in your library. It has not been widely available since 2002, and who knows if/when another edition might occur. And for those lucky readers who are not yet familiar with these photos, Haiti will be a special treat indeed.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.
Book Review Cross Road Blues Photographs by Oli Kellett Reviewed by Arturo Soto "Oli Kellett’s Cross Road Blues is a meticulously crafted series of photographs shot over four years in major American cities (Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, etc.) with a few additions from around the world thrown in the mix (Mexico City, Madrid, London, and Rio de Janeiro)..."

Cross Road Blues by Oli Kellett.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=TR548
Cross Road Blues
Oli Kellett

Nazraeli Press, 2024. 68 pp., 28 four-color plates, 14x11½".

Oli Kellett’s Cross Road Blues is a meticulously crafted series of photographs shot over four years in major American cities (Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, etc.) with a few additions from around the world thrown in the mix (Mexico City, Madrid, London, and Rio de Janeiro). Kellett’s version of street photography is crisp and dramatically lit, albeit produced with a high-end digital camera on a tripod. About half of the pictures present a view from a high vantage point, highlighting Kellett’s aim to convey how urban environments often create a sense of oppression.

The project, titled after the famous blues song by Robert Johnson, aspires to intertwine philosophy and visuality, positing the action of crossing the road as a metaphor. This line of thinking is effectively unpacked in the introduction by the philosopher Nigel Warburton in terms of Sartrean freedom, determinism, libertarianism, and contingency, although he also considers the gestures people make before crossing the road as indicative of their relationship with the environment. For instance, the book concludes with a person pointing his finger to the sky, echoing the famous gesture by Plato in Raphael’s The School of Athens.


The exhibition prints of this series are up to 60 x 75 inches in size, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in their details. Following the same logic, the size of the book encourages a close and prolonged look at the pictures. In this sense, Cross Road Blues, comprised of only twenty-eight photographs, can be described as a portfolio photobook, which is a way to describe bodies of work conceived for the wall rather than for a print publication. In terms of trim and design, the book adheres to Nazraeli’s trademark style, keeping everything as simple and elegant as possible.

Still, the images are interesting beyond the gestures they show and their high resolution. I find the work to be at its most provocative as a representation of a particular kind of American city (the fact that not every metropolis in the country has a dwarfing scale might sound obvious, but it’s not a distinction Kellett or Warburton make). In many of these scenes, concrete, steel, and glass come across as silent subjugators that people don’t notice anymore. I see Kellett’s selection of cities as being intrinsically related to his preconceptions about the US. Figuring out Kellett’s relation to American mythology (using the term in the broadest sense) is a legitimate area of inquiry, and, at least to me, the most emblematic aspect of the series.


Precisely because of his interest in the cultural specificities of American cities, it is a surprise that Kellett included pictures of other places, which interferes with reading the work as a political reflection of the country. Kellett states that “it scarcely matters where or when the images were made. The step each person is about to take seems far more momentous than simply crossing a street.” His only criterion for choosing the locations was that they showed “a nondescript urban space” (he felt places like New Orleans had too much personality for his purposes). While geographical specificity may not matter as much when looking at individual pictures, it is essential when analyzing a series as a book, where relations amongst images are not only encouraged but inevitable.

Then, there is the fact that the concept of non-descript urban spaces is an illusion. The pictures in Cross Road Blues represent Kellett’s subjective vision of the US, even if the pictures give the appearance of neutrality. It’s telling how Kellett remarks the passage of time as an important theme, which is an aspect of the work we cannot see (he spent “a thousand hours” waiting for the right moment to photograph) but dedicates little attention to the sociopolitical specificities of the urban environment that fascinate him, which is an aspect that we can see.


In this sense, and given the prominence of the pictures’ formal qualities, one of the book’s main propositions is how the scenes reveal a photographic way of looking at the world. This distinct perception is manifested in Kellett’s use of underexposure. Our eyes would have perceived these scenes differently if we had stood next to him when he made the pictures. As such, the project’s cinematic flair is the opposite of naturalistic documentary photography that strives to underline its veracity. Watching Kellett’s promotional video for the book, where we see him make one of the series’ trademark images, can help us understand how different and unspectacular the scene looked to the naked eye.


While Cross Road Blues is visually stunning, some might find the book too brief, contrived, or monotonous. Yet I kept returning to its images, not because they were weighty metaphors about personal destiny and freedom, but because of the details that envelop those people about to cross the street. The book may not aspire to be a systematic reflection on the politics of urban design or urban policies, but it can be taken as a point of departure to think about how our uses of space produce social relations (think, for example, of those people coming together for a brief moment and what that says about city life, national culture, fashion, etc.). This is not a minor point. The more critical our seeing becomes, the clearer we can be about the kind of cities we want — and at least according to theorists like Henri Lefebvre — deserve.

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Arturo Soto is a Mexican photographer and writer. He has published the photobooks In the Heat (2018) and A Certain Logic of Expectations (2021). Soto holds a PhD in Fine Art from the University of Oxford, and postgraduate degrees in photography and art history from the School of Visual Arts in New York and University College London.
Book Review My Mother, My Son Photographs by Mary Frey Reviewed by Brian Arnold "I want to start by saying that I’ve been unable to learn much about artist Selina Kudo, short of an installation she composed for the Tanks Art Centre in Australia in 2022 (a conceptual piece about backyard trampolines)..."

My Mother, My Son. By Mary Frey.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK562
My Mother, My Son
Photographs by Mary Frey
TBW Books, Oakland, CA 2024. 72 pp., 12 color / 21 duotone plates, 12x10".

"I was becoming alive to certain essential qualities in family photographs. Above all I admired what the camera made. The whole person was presented to the camera. There was no interference, or so it seemed. And sometimes the frame cut through the world with a surprise. There could be no doubt that the picture belonged more to the world of things and facts than to the photographer."

— Emmet Gowin

I am of the belief that Emmet Gowin deserves credit for bringing the family album to discussions of fine art photography. He certainly wasn’t the first artist to photograph his family — many of the Pictorialist photographers like Clarence White worked almost solely with their families, and Emmet’s mentor Harry Callahan made remarkable photographs of his wife and daughter — but somehow Emmet changed things. His photographs are often arcane and layered with thick metaphysical questions, but he also photographed Christmas morning, family camping trips, and his children at play in the backyard. These pictures in turn influenced generations of new photographers, including Sally Mann, Tina Barney, and Doug Dubois.


Enter Mary Frey, an artist who again challenges distinctions between fine art and family albums. Frey is an incredibly interesting photographer whose work has come to light late in her career. After completing an MFA at Yale University in 1979 (just missing Walker Evans), Frey spent the next decades teaching at the Hartford Art School and making pictures of her family. Her first book, Reading Raymond Carver in 2017, was an immediate favorite in photobook publishing. Since then, Frey has published two more monographs, Real Life Dramas (with an essay by Tim Carpenter) and now My Mother, My Son. Like her contemporary Peggy Nolan, Frey brilliantly demonstrates that a relentless, unflinching look at our most banal selves — little league games, high school dances, garden snakes and pet rabbits, a first bb gun, Bruce Lee movies, and a flat tire on a blinged up Schwinn 5-speed — can show complex ideas about being a middle-class American during the Reagan and Clinton years.


Published by TBW, My Mother, My Son is presented as nothing more than an album. The front cover has a classic photo of Americana tipped-in by its corners; it’s a young man wearing a ¾ sleeved t-shirt and Adidas Stan Smiths, taking aim with his new rifle, as the photographer’s shadow is cast across the bottom left corner. It reminds me of pictures I saw in family albums when I worked at the Colorado History Museum in the 1990s, no different than Brownie photographs of hunters trying out their new goods in the backyards of Beuna Vista, CO, the same shadow of the photographer cast in the lower corner of the frame. Inside Frey’s album, however, we see something much more sophisticated; the intimacies of an ordinary New England family, played out against the backdrop of the repressive years of Reagan pitted against the scandals of Bill Clinton, striving to find themselves.

The book is composed of 33 photographs — both color and black-and-white — with just one image per page spread. Most of the pictures feature boys or young men, presumedly her children, with some photographs of other family members, neighbors, and friends. Frey’s photographs are beautifully executed and superbly reproduced in the book. I grew up in the 1980s-90s, and there are many signifiers in the book that seem familiar, be it the home décor or clothing found throughout the pictures. Just as importantly, the life she documents is true to many of us, a simple middle-class American existence.


I do have one minor criticism of Frey’s photographs in this book — her use of flash feels a little stale at times. I’ll offer the guess that when she uses strobe, it’s a small-ish camera mounted flash, she isn’t experimenting with the more even illumination of ring flash or connecting the lights off the camera body for my elusive effects. I do feel this approach to strobe lighting can appear brutal and clinical, not ideas that I feel best support or characterize Frey’s pictures.


Regardless, My Mother, My Son is worth the time (like most TBW publications). It is a meditation on motherhood, illustrating Frey’s investigation of what it means to raise boys. Through her lens, we watch her sons negotiate puberty, play, masculinity, learning to define themselves. As far as I can tell, we only see Frey’s mother one time, and it is the last photograph in the book. She appears frail and vulnerable, unable to take care of herself; Frey’s son carries her across the threshold into her own bedroom, and her death feels imminent. It’s a poignant image, and helps the reader situate Frey in the narrative; the pictures of her children really chronicle her own passage of time, surmised as we see the photographer’s mother on the verge of passing away, carried gently by the changing lineage of family.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.
Book Review Phosphor Photographs by Viviane Sassen Reviewed by Blake Andrews “ If the name Viviane Sassen immediately conjures up images of haute couture, that’s understandable. The 51-year-old Dutch photographer has worked both sides of the fashion lens, as both model and image-maker, gradually gaining stature in the exclusive world of luxury brand photography. At this point her Rolodex reads like a Paris runway checklist. She’s been commissioned by Miu Miu, Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Dior, Lancel, and more..."

Phosphor. By Viviane Sassen.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=PX380
Phosphor
Photographs by Viviane Sassen
Prestel, Munich, Germany, 2024. 528 pp.

If the name Viviane Sassen immediately conjures up images of haute couture, that’s understandable. The 51-year-old Dutch photographer has worked both sides of the fashion lens, as both model and image-maker, gradually gaining stature in the exclusive world of luxury brand photography. At this point her Rolodex reads like a Paris runway checklist. She’s been commissioned by Miu Miu, Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Dior, Lancel, and more.

After appearing initially in advertisements and magazines around the globe, her photographs have made their way increasingly into monographs. Sassen is a prolific creator, and she has authored or contributed to more than twenty photobooks since 2008. Her latest, Phosphor, may be the most comprehensive to date. It is certainly the largest, weighing in at 500+ pages, 1.5” thick, and several pounds. The weighty softcover tome is published in conjunction with a large traveling mid-career retrospective. It is prefaced with 5 critical essays (translated into French and English), and the main body is comprised of hundreds of photographs stretching from the late 1980s through 2023.

Most of Phosphor’s images have appeared before elsewhere, either in advertisements, previous monographs, or both. In terms of pictures, Sassen fans will be on familiar ground. But the book’s bifurcated design casts them here in a novel format. The book is comprised of two inverted halves, each sequenced chronologically toward a midpoint, where the format flips 180 degrees. One half features personal work. The other half is magazine assignments. The reader can begin at either end. Regardless of starting point, the process will be roughly the same: Behind a bright painted cover — one side green, the obverse blue — comes a deluge of photographs leading steadily from Sassen’s origins to the present.


Phosphor’s
format divides Sassen’s oeuvre into two separate piles, fine art and hired gigs. But the reality is somewhat messier. Like some colleagues — most notably Roe Ethridge and his comparably sized mid-career retrospective Polychronic — Sassen has long blurred the lines of art and commerce. Many of the same motifs run through both halves of the book: self-portraiture, human forms, bold color, ragged physicality, jarring compositions, a recurring fascination with Africa, where she spent part of her childhood. She’s a master of wry composition, unexpected cropping, and look-twice layering. Many photos could slip easily into either half. If Phosphor’s imposed dichotomy feels artificial, that may be exactly the point. It takes a winking stance against silly labels. High end commissions be damned. You get the sense she’d create them herself, even in an unpaid vacuum.


In any case, Sassen’s career trajectory seems clear: Her work has moved inexorably over time toward abstraction and surrealism. These strains have been evident for a while, but in her early photos they were confined to simple collage, complementary hues, and formal alignment. Since roughly 2017 Sassen’s creative tool kit has broadened considerably. Phosphor’s burgeoning middle section — and its expressive core — features recent work from the past half dozen years. Commercial gigs and personal work meet here in dazzling rush of techniques, invention, experiments, and flat out fun. As always, models create a visual baseline. But Sassen then blasts off into the artistic stratosphere. She paints directly onto prints, rephotographs elements, montages with scissors and/or Photoshop, slices, dices, saturates, colors outside the lines, and generally has a ball. The overall impression is of a mature artist with numerous skills at her disposal, and a thirst to mix and match them freely.


“Maybe I call myself a surrealist,” Sassen is quoted in the opening essay. “I also think of myself as a sculptor.” Whatever the label, she’s found a real groove at mid-career. I won’t say she’s settled into it, or into anything that might be called static. Her process feels fluid, and it’s hard to know what she’ll be doing ten years from now. For the time being, Phosphor lays down a marker. This is a selective survey of where she began, her artistic evolution over time, and a healthy sampling of current or recent work. If the name Viviane Sassen conjured up images of haute couture before, it’s time to think again.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.
Book Review Journey to the Center of the Earth Photographs by Tiane Doan na Champassak Reviewed by Britland Tracy “What was your favorite book growing up? This was a question posed over dinner by a multi-hyphenate novelist at an artist residency I recently attended, comprising mostly Young Adult writers who ponder the adolescent reading experience in ways that I, a child-free visual artist, do not..."

by Tiane Doan na Champassak. 
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZK557
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Photographs by Tiane Doan na Champassak
the (M) éditions, Paris, France, 2024. French, 224 p pp., 56 photographs, 6½x10¾".

What was your favorite book growing up? This was a question posed over dinner by a multi-hyphenate novelist at an artist residency I recently attended, comprising mostly Young Adult writers who ponder the adolescent reading experience in ways that I, a child-free visual artist, do not. The question intrigued me as it inspired a round-table discussion among accomplished adults — New York Times bestselling authors, screenwriting professors, award-winning composers, graphic novelists — reminiscing over Star Wars and The Babysitters Club with what I can only describe as high-brow earnestness. The obvious fact I had failed to realize until that moment was that childhood stories brand our psyches forever, that what we devour ravenously and repeatedly are one of few choices we are free to make for ourselves at a young age. These fictions can enhance an already enchanting upbringing or salve a bad one. Whichever respectable titles you announce as a respectable adult performing cultural literacy before other respectable adults will never hold a candle to that one book — you know which one — that transformed protracted afternoons into timeless portals a decade or five ago.

For artist Tiane Doan Na Champassak, that one book was Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth — the tale of a German mad scientist who, in search of volcanic tubes extending to the center of the earth, joins forces with his nephew and a subterranean tour guide to dive through Mesozoic strata, prehistoric creatures, and otherworldly phenomena by entering an inactive volcano in Iceland and erupting back to Earth’s surface through an active one in Italy, with all of the requisite lessons and gambles along the way. This literary expedition is punctuated with fifty-six illustrations by Édouard Riou, and together these pictures and words entered the canon of early science fiction.


Champassak’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, recently published by The(m) Éditions, is in conversation with Jules Verne in as much as it is with the artist’s boyhood self. In it, the photographer sets out on his own journey — not to the center of the earth, but to Laos, home of Xe Bang Faï, one of the world’s largest river caves most easily accessed via kayak spelunking. He documents this geologic wonder on color film and returns home. He then superimposes his pictures over Riou’s illustrations; fifty-six photographs of the river, alternatively processed with unspecified “unusual substances” which alchemize a diaphanous grotto into aqueous abstractions. Was Xe Bang Faï the “center of the earth” for the artist, his own dreamt odyssey realized in adulthood? I can only imagine so.

There are a few entry points into this hefty tome of a Hero’s Journey-turned-artist book. To begin, I should mention that its narrative text is entirely in French. It is, in fact, a perfect facsimile of an early edition of Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre, published in the late nineteenth century in the heart of Paris and presumably mimicking the version Champassak first encountered in his youth. So, if you are a lapsed or aspiring francophone, wanting to level up from Le Petit Prince but not yet ready to delve into Colette or the grammatical Mount Everest that is Proust, alors, ce livre est pour vous.


Language lesson aside, this reconceptualized version of Journey to the Center of the Earth is a sumptuous visual object; relatively narrow and long, and hardbound in a satiny emerald green. It is substantial, like an imperial object anchored to a grandfather’s bookshelf. The titular front matter is debossed into the jewel-toned cover; an elegant invitation to touch. Each C-print of the river cave is only partially adhered to its corresponding illustration, which allows for a tactile game of hide-and-seek and serves as a reminder that découpage was invented by the French. The pages are matte, textured, and studded with a constellation of ink blots and blemishes, while the photographs that appear every couple of turns provide a counterpoint of saturated, velvety sleekness. If you’ve ever dabbled in papyrophilia, been seduced by stationary too good to use, used the term “chromatic variation”, “cotton rag”, or “GSM” to describe paper in casual conversation, then might I suggest that you peruse the backlog of The(m) Éditions titles. They are a consummate book lover’s book maker.


Finally, the images: a scavenger hunt of gemstones, brilliantly incorporated into the text and thus easily overlooked as their own sparkling objects. Celadon and cobalt and charcoal swirl and bubble to the photographic surface in a variety of liquified forms, obscuring the mysteriously delineated human silhouettes that occasionally appear like tiny Matisse drawings in a midnight swimming pool. The photographs invite imagination and wonder by suggesting more than they describe, and while they could be renderings of a Laotian river cave or underground volcanic tubes or even the walls of Lascaux, that is hardly the point. To encounter this book is to return ever so briefly to a childhood fantasy, but better, with twice the number of pictures.

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Britland Tracy is an artist and educator from the Pacific Northwest whose work engages photography, text, and ephemera to observe the intricacies of human connection and discord. She has published two books, Show Me Yours and Pardon My Creep, and exhibited her work internationally. She holds a BA in French from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Colorado, where she continues to teach remotely for the Department of Critical Media Practices while living in Marfa, Texas.