Photo Books

Stephen Gill, Self Publish Be Happy, Andy Warhol Polaroids

BY Vince Aletti, November 2, 2015

SPBH_Cover_RenderThe deadline for this column falls just after Printed Matter’s big, blow-out NY Art Book Fair, the PS1-based launching pad for scores of new titles in photography, most from independent and individual publishers. Among the many books I lugged home is one that captures the enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit at the fair’s heart: Bruno Ceschel’s Self Publish, Be Happy (Aperture). Subtitled “A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto,” it’s a practical guide to conceiving and producing a book, with specs and layouts from 50 recent publications to show the range of possibilities. Some of those examples are self-publishing legends, like Cristina de Middel’s The Afronauts, Ren Hang’s Nude, or Buried by Stephen Gill; many others will be brand new to anyone who hasn’t been haunting indie book fairs (or Ceschel’s brilliant SPBH website) over the past few years. Most are wildly idiosyncratic – projects so personal and uncommercial they feel subversive. “DIY culture is by its nature an ethic in opposition to society’s rules at large,” Ceschel writes in his opening manifesto, where he describes his irresistibly of-the-moment book as “a call to arms – a rallying cry to take part, to act, to share.”

© Stephen Gill from Talking to Ants. Courtesy Dillon Gallery

So let me share two of the other books I found at the fair before diving back into the mainstream. Stephen Gill’s photographic practice has always been process-oriented and extremely physical. For Buried, he covered his prints in dirt near where they were made, unearthed them sometime later, and published the corroded results in books that had themselves been buried underground. For Talking to Ants (Nobody), he introduced insects, plants, string, and other foreign material into the body of the camera he used to photograph the urban wilderness of East London. He wanted “to encourage the spirit of the place to clamber aboard the images and be encapsulated in the film emulsion, like objects in amber.” The resulting landscapes – gorgeous, funky accidents he calls “in-camera photograms” – sandwich realism and abstraction to hallucinatory effect. Shining in Absence, issue 12 in the Archive of Modern Conflict series they call AMC2, was edited and designed by Erik Kessels, the curator and mad genius behind the “In Almost Every Picture” books. Here, Kessels looks beyond his usual stash of found snapshots to the scrapbooks and albums they might have been taken from, all in the vast AMC collection. As the title suggests, Shining in Absence contains no photographs, only evidence of their removal: corner mounts, torn bits, pasted remnants, faded shapes, handwritten captions. Poetic, contemplative, and melancholy, it’s an essay in nothingness.

WARHOL_POLAROIDS_FO_INT_3D_05790Muchness, often too-muchness, was one of Andy Warhol’s specialties; not for nothing was his studio known as the Factory. The massive Polaroids 1958-1987 (Taschen) focuses on the format that, following the photo-booth strip, came to define Warhol’s Pop take on fame. His pictures of celebrities – Liz, Liza, Halston, Valentino, Dali, O.J., Schwarzenegger, the Stones – are familiar and rarely less than flattering; many of them were the basis for later silkscreen portrait commissions. A lot of the portraits have never been reproduced before, but only a few are surprising and even fewer feel intimate or personal in any way. Among those exceptions are the earliest images here: mottled, badly fixed black-and-white prints from the early 1960s of friends (John Giorno, James Rosenquist, Charles Henri Ford) and his assistant Gerard Malanga, that document a still largely underground scene. Also consistently interesting (and well-chosen) throughout are the still lifes, landscapes, interiors, and self-portraits, nearly all of which are better as photographs than anything else in the book. Warhol was franker, more probing and more irreverent when confronting himself than he was with other sitters. A master of surface, he didn’t pretend to get beneath his own, but he was good at messing it up.