Friday, March 19, 2010

Contact Sheets: The Americans, Jim Marshall—Proof

As an amateur photographer whose photographic experience extends over several decades, I've done my time in many honest-to-goodness analog/wet darkrooms—including the several years I worked as a professional printer. I don't miss it. Sure it's a magical experience, pure, closer to what "real" photography is all about, but for me photography has always been about the other side of the equation. I prefer to shoot. Spending time in the darkroom was a necessary evil that I thankfully do not have to endure anymore. But there is one thing I miss about the darkroom, contact sheets. Without a doubt, the only thing I liked to do in the darkroom was make contact sheets. I LOVE contact sheets, but then again...

all photographers love contact sheets.

I don't think I'm going out on limb or taking a huge risk when I make that statement. It might be less true now, but I'm certain that even photographers with little or no analog experience appreciate the value of the contact sheet. Besides the fact that it used to be an important part of the photographic process, and that it's a great photographic learning tool, it is absolutely pure photographic joy, a treat. So when photographers have the opportunity to peruse a contact sheet, they will seldom pass it up.

Therefore, it's been a blast over the last several years to see the release of photo books that include contact sheets of important or iconic images. The one that had most of the photogs I know drooling is Robert Frank's Americans: Looking In. This book is a real feast for photographers. It has over 80 pages of contact sheets from Frank's epic journey around the U.S. It's such a wonderful pleasure to peer into these treasures and to see how Frank went about creating the images that eventually became what is arguably the most important photographic work ever created.

Likewise, back in 2004 Chronicle Books released a book of iconic images + contact sheets, Jim Marshall: Proof. Proof is a cool book with some very cool images. It's also much less of a beast of to wrangle with than the Frank book, which is just a bit too big to deal with comfortably. Instead, Proof has a nice open feel. It's 12" x 10" and less than an inch thick. The Frank book is 11" x 9" and just over two inches thick.

Most of the images in Proof are portraits of celebrities from the sixties and the seventies--with a good percentage of those images being shots of musicians. If you were cognizant from the sixties to the nineties and mildly interested in popular music (rock and roll) and current events, then you'll recognize the images and the individuals. There's the famous shot of Bob Dylan rolling a car tire down a New York street with a stick and iconic images of Johnny Cash (with the often replicated 'camera flip-off'), Janis Joplin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Woody Allen, Allen Ginsberg. There's even a more recent shot of Ben Harper and Laura Dern that is really nice. And of course, you get the contact sheet from the roll that produced the image.

The contact sheets allow you to see Marshall's M.O. It's a blast to see how he worked with his subjects to get the final shot, especially the non-portrait shots where he seems to be floating around an event and recognizing photo ops. This is the real value of this book for photographers, especially those interested in portraiture. It's not hard to see and imagine how Marshall interacted with this subjects to get what he needed. He adds a short blurb of information and storytelling to each image that bring the shoot to life. All the blurbs are informative and some are pretty funny, such as when he told the Allman Brothers band that he wanted a "laughing" shot for the cover of the album 'Live at Filmore East', and that if he didn't get it, no one would get any coke.

Photography is a learning experience that never ends. If you've ever shot on the street or made an attempt at portraiture then you already know how fluid events and sittings can be—despite your best effort to control everything. Other than mentoring with an experienced photographer, the next best thing just might be perusing the contact sheets of an experienced photographer.

Book Proof!

The 'proof' of my next Blurb book arrived last weekend. On the whole, I'm pleased. I like the book size, the cover, and the fonts, but it's going to need another iteration. I need to do adjustments to several of the images, a few for tone and a few for size.

The tones are close, much closer than with World Away. I chalked that up to using the printer profile to check the adjustments. (I did not use the profile with World Away.) I should clarify that the new book is a mix of black and white and color images, with the majority of the black and white images having heavier shadow and mid tones. The printer that Blurb uses really struggles on these types of images; it has a tendency to add contrast and weight to the tones.

I like the book size; although, several of the images are too big, so I'll need to scale those down. I used a variety of page templates, because I just couldn't get a feel for what the Blurb software was going to do around the crop lines, so seeing now what I need to see, I'll have to change the layout.

Anyway, I decided to take a breather and give it a week before I jumped back into it.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Blow-Up Magazine

What can you get for $9 these days? Well, here's an instance where nine bucks guarantees you 26 different takes on the world around you from 26 different photographers. This latest edition of Blow-Up magazine (named for the 75 member Flickr group) is heavily influenced by the street shooting element within the San Francisco-based group. Kudos for this edition's production goes to group member and local photographer, Brad Evans, who compiled the photographs from the group pool and did the layout.

The images that Brad chose--while not indicative of the group as a whole--are definitely indicative of the stronger and more interesting street shooting contingent within the group and of an identifiable San Francisco-styled approach to the genre.

These are all very strong images, so don't get this expecting your typical Flickr artsy/calendar-worthy photography (although, I''d buy this if it was a calendar (note: please don't make this a calendar!)). As good photography should, these are images that resist and challenge. These are images that look back at you and stare you down in an unrelenting fashion. That ain't a bad entertainment value. After all, we could all use a good stare down.

If you want this edition, you should buy it soon. These PoD magazines are limited run and can sell out quickly, especially since the publisher, MagCloud is offering a special St. Patrick's day discount.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Eskanzi's Wonderland

I finally got my hands on this book, Wonderland by Jason Eskenazi. The book is one of those titles that has been sporadically popping up in my little world over the last several years. It seems I would hear it mentioned in a positive light (which would pique my interest), and then I wouldn't hear about it for a while. I would forget about the book, and then it would pop up again as a positive mention in an online discussion forum, blog, or in a magazine. The persistence of a thing seems to always be a very good sign, and Wonderland is no exception. This book has instantly become my favorite photo book.

First of all the book is actually called Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith. It's a small book, and it has a handmade feel to it. The front and back covers are made of a thick cardboard and the binding is exposed, which allows it to lay flat. That's a good thing, because most of the photos cross over the gutter and utilize both pages. With this binding, you don't lose a goodly percentage of the image, because it doesn't disappear into the crease, and believe me you'll want to see every inch of these photographs. The printing is very good, and the photographs are just incredible. The compositions are tight and every image is strong. This is classic documentary and street-style photography. They remind me quite a bit of Koudelka, because like Koudelka, the photographer seems to immerse himself in the mix of the environment and the subjects. He is so up close and involved that he is seemingly invisible.

The photographer is Jason Eskanazi a New Yorker (and MOMA security guard) who felt compelled to leave his job to travel and photograph the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism. He became intrigued with the concept of a nation suddenly coming to grips with the downfall of communism after almost a century. Eskanazi summed what he was trying to photograph as a nation dealing with the "difficulty of losing what you always thought would be there."

What Eskanazi came away with is an incredibly beautiful collection of some of the strongest images I have seen in a long time. The images are striking in their strength and sensitivity. The compositions are charged and dynamic. I put the images in this book on par with the best of Koudelka. The great lesson that Eskanazi came away with was "the realization that the people I was encountering had a nostalgia for tragedy." That realization is very much a part of the beauty of Wonderland. The sense of that is in every single image.