Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Recent books

 Here's what I've been reading lately, in date order.

Gene Smith's Sink, by Sam Stephenson. 
Gene was a prominent editorial photographer. He was also one weird dude. Not surprisingly, this is one weird book. Some of the time I didn't know if I was coming or going. I occasionally wonder what will happen to my photos and books when I die, and what some hypothetical biographer would think of them as they try to piece my life together. But Gene recorded a great deal of his life on tape. The biographer listened to those tapes and figured out who some of the people involved were and explored some of the associations. To say he lead an unusual life is a vast understatement. His death certificate says "stroke", but "everything" is probably a more accurate word.

Sh!tWent Down by James Fell.
There are 365 one page history snippets highlighting what happened on one day of various years. Some quite recent, and some a long time ago. There's a particular word usually expressed as the F bomb. If you don't like that word, don't even pick up the book. Don't even think about it. I'm pretty sure there is not one single page without an F bomb. Often there are many of them. His political opinions slant decidedly anti-conservative, and he lays into Trump with vim and vigour. I'm pretty sure that Trump is in Fell's top 10 list of worst humans ever.

Almost all the essays are good, given the viewpoint, but reading a bunch at a time is a bit much. This is better read as the flyleaf on a daily calendar.

The Invention of Yesterday by Tamim Ansary.
This is a wonderful surprise. I thought it was going to be a more literary effort, talking about how stories spread from one culture to another. It sort of does, but it mainly presents and overall view of what was happening in various places at the same time, and how the effects rippled from place to place. Extremely readable.

The Perfect Shot.
Blah. Don't bother. Typical tourist photos, all over baked.

Buddha by Michael Kenna.
Photos of various Buddha statues throughout south east Asia. A few other photos. Not much more to be said. I wanted a book of his landscapes, but this is what the library had.

Niagara, by Alec Soth.
I didn't get it. Maybe there's a story there. Or not.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron.
We found the show on Prime or Apple+, totally by accident. I'd been looking at something else, and clicked on the info thingie that tells you what other shows an actor was in. I picked Gary Oldman and saw this. Watched a preview and was hooked. We binged all of it, totally relishing all the great lines that Oldman delivers. 

Surprisingly enough, the show follows the book pretty closely, and even better, captures the atmosphere of the book really well.

Centennial by Irving Penn.
There's a lot to unpack here. This is a big heavy book. I had to prop it on the arm of the chair. Over a very long career he captured images for a variety of industries, and it can be hard to organize it. This book groups like with like. 

His portrait work really resonated with me. Somehow he captured something of the person in a plain setting. The small trades photos are fascinating, capturing a time when you could tell a person's trade from the clothes they wore, because the clothes were practical. 

These are not airbrushed lush photos with artful lighting and extravagant backgrounds. One series of photos wedged the subject into a tight V shaped setting. I can't help but think they would feel very constricted in there. It reminded me, in an oppositional way, of Rainbow Revolution by Magnus Hastings. (my review here.) I look at the photos and wonder how he set up the lighting. 

I'm also reminded of writing advice from The Elements of Style, that a sentence should have no unnecessary words, and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. Penn's portraits are a study in the necessary.

The Vogue fashion stuff was hit and miss, mainly because I'm not a fashion kind of guy. Some of his other work is decidedly a miss. I can't imagine what prompted him to take photos of cigar and cigarette butts. Some would now deem his ethnographic portraits to be exploitive.

The still life photos are different. Flowers in full colour. Stuff found in the street, aside from cigar butts. Packaging. Random stuff. All with superb composition, if I'm to believe the text. Frankly, I'm still struggling with composition, why one photo is well composed and another is not, and the subtle gradation between them. 

Then there was the advertising, which is different again. This guy had "style" out the ying yang, but one of the reasons he worked so much and so long, is that he worked hard at it. He was trying new things, pushing the boundaries, aiming for perfection.

One of his struggles was to break free of the shackles of previous work. All too often the clients wanted more of the same, and he wanted to move on to something different, to try new techniques. That really resonates with me, and is part of my current thinking about photography. 

I've been on lots of tours where we get taken interesting places and the group has some amount of time to make photographs. The problem, of course, is how much time. At any random place there's  going to be someone who wouldn't have stopped, and probably at the same place is someone that it's just killing them to pack up the camera and get back in the van. I've been both of those.

All too often the photos end up looking the same. I want to try to create interesting photos that express my view of the world. Something that is becoming more important to me is that whatever value my photos have as art, it's actually my work. Not AI generated. I'd rather produce a competent 'there I was and this is what I saw' photo of a time and place, than dress up such a photo with an AI generated drama sky, and punched up colour to get likes on Instagram. Not that I'm on Instagram any more.

To sum up, this is one of the best photography books I've read. Even if I didn't like some of the photos, they're interesting to look at, and think about the process that went into creating them. 

A Notebook at Random by Irving Penn.
Some of these images are in the previous book. What's interesting is some of the notebook sketches he did to plan the image, or to sell it to a client.

Of the Day
Driftwood (NZ)


Film (new)
The state of the fridge back in January.

Michelle X2

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