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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review The Awful German Language Photographs by Jeffrey Ladd Reviewed by Blake Andrews In 2011 the American photographer and Errata Books publisher Jeffrey Ladd (born 1968) moved to Cologne, Germany, and began photographing his surroundings while learning the basics of the German language...

The Awful German Language. By Jeffrey Ladd.
The Awful German Language
Photographs by Jeffrey Ladd

Spector Books, Leipzig, Germany, 2020. In English. 246 pp., 110 illustrations, 6x8¼"

J. Ladd’s new monograph The Awful German Language (Spector, 2020) is not physically imposing. At roughly 6 x 8 inches, the smallish yellow book might tuck easily into a handbag or purse. But what it lacks in girth it more than makes up for in density. Weighing in at over 250 pages, the book is as thick as a thumb, with nary a blank space inside. After some cursory intro material and a brief Don DeLillo quote, every page to follow is full to the brim with one of two items, either a photo by Ladd or a random snippet of German glossary. If the reader finds the book overwhelming —which, frankly, I did— that’s just as intended. The effect is meant to mimic the bewildered excitement of a traveler in a foreign land, where new encounters are unrelenting, unfamiliar, and difficult to process.

If the learning curve proves steep, its slope roughly mirrors Jeffrey Ladd’s experience upon moving to Germany in 2011. He’d spent his entire life in the U.S. up to that point. But after marrying a German, they decided to resettle in Cologne to start a family. Having never lived in Germany and knowing little of the language, Ladd embarked on a crash course teaching himself “the awful German language” (a humorous phrase borrowed from a Mark Twain essay). He studied phrasebooks, vocabulary lists, and signs, slowly gaining a foothold of understanding. The words filling the book are presumably some of those he learned in the process. For anyone looking to learn German, they might serve as a disordered phrasebook. But there are easier ways.

The Awful German Language. By Jeffrey Ladd.

At the same time he was learning German, Ladd was out making photographs of his new surroundings. Judging by the book’s assorted selections, many things pulled at his attention. Beyond the common factor that all were shot near Cologne, the diversity is extraordinary. The book features interiors, strangers, family shots, vacant lots, domestic scenes, social landscape, farm animals, architecture, posters, roads, and just about any other vernacular tidbit imaginable. Leafing through the pictures, one gets the impression of a photographer unleashed in new territory, hungry to explore, and not yet locked into any particular direction or project. It’s a delightfully liberated romp, and a slight change of pace from Ladd’s earlier work, which was more heavily focused on people. Regardless of location or subject, Ladd is a skilled observer with a deft feel for offbeat monochrome layering.

Ladd’s pictures would be easier to digest if they were shown in their natural orientation (most were shot in landscape format) and given some room to breathe. But nothing is simple with this book, so they are instead twisted vertically, then stuffed into the pages, leaving almost no border space. But that’s only the start of the difficulty. Remember that half the book is taken up by lists of German words, each line of which is annotated by an alphanumeric code that corresponds to its English translation in the rear index. So this part must either be waded through on the way to enjoying the photographs. The sluggish pace provides ample time for Ladd’s pictures to settle.

Ladd is an accomplished photographer with over three decades of experience, but he is perhaps better known as a photobook booster and critic. He was the founding editor of legendary photobook blog 5B4, a co-founder of Errata Editions, and has authored or edited countless reviews and articles for various outlets. Considering his deep interest in the genre, it’s hard to believe this is the first published monograph of his own work. Oh well, better late than never. Perhaps Ladd was storing up all his book energy for the big debut? It feels that way. He’s made a content-heavy tome with enough meat to chew on for a while, especially for those looking to pick up a bit of German in the process.

The production quality of this book is excellent. In order to accommodate their large quantity, the page weight is spindly, like a reference manual. . But this measure does not sacrifice print quality. The photo reproductions are excellent, with rich blacks, fine resolution, and subtle tonality. Packaged between pleasingly gridded endpapers and a tough cloth exterior, the pages leaf easily in a nice tight binding. Short bursts of German glossary on the front and back covers hint at the secrets tucked inside. That the title refers to German as “awful” can be passed off as an ironic joke, but it also signifies that some work is expected of the reader.

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The Awful German Language. By Jeffrey Ladd.
The Awful German Language. By Jeffrey Ladd.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at