Herewith our annual review of books that caught the eyes of PDN editors this year. Among them you will find stories of female adolescence; of family history reinterpreted; of popular culture. There are tales from apartheid-era South Africa, post-industrial America and the Arab Spring. There are visual riddles, evocative bookmaking and more. Here we present part two of this three part series.
As printed snapshots become increasingly rare, many artists have used family albums and found photos as the basis for works that examine the nature of the photographic image and its role as a repository of memories or aspirations. Photographer Sara Davidmann’s book is based on a trove of photos and letters she and her brother found in 2011 while cleaning out their mother’s house. The file, labeled “Ken. To be destroyed,” contained letters their mother’s sister, Hazel, had written about her husband, Ken, as well as photos and mementos saved through the years they were married. Shortly after their wedding in 1954, Ken told Hazel that he was transgender. As Hazel explained in a letter to her sister, Ken expressed his feminine self only at home, and kept his identity hidden from his parents, in-laws and friends for the rest of his life. (He died in 1979. Davidmann knew little about her uncle’s hidden life, but by coincidence had collected oral histories and done collaborative photo projects with members of the transgender community in London.) After finding the file of Ken and Hazel’s letters and mementos, she decided to scan them and use them as the basis for several photographic series.
As Davidmann writes in the book, she was initially fascinated by the surfaces of the old, scratched photographs. After enlarging the images, she altered the prints she made using a variety of chemicals and processes, including bleach and correcting fluid, sometimes highlighting and sometimes obscuring Ken’s face. Davidmann was particularly interested in a photo of Hazel posing in an elegant dress. Ken probably took the photo. Was its feminine pose and glamorous look in any way an expression of a feeling that Hazel recorded in a letter—that at times Ken was jealous of her femininity, and her freedom to be feminine in public? Davidmann unearths the pain she senses in the photo by scrawling on the image so that Hazel’s face is obliterated, leaving only her dress and body. In another series, Davidmann superimposes Ken’s head onto Hazel’s body, then hand colors the images in warm pastels. “I wanted to give him the freedom that he was never able to have in his lifetime,” she writes an essay in the book.
In collaboration with Graham Goldwater, Davidmann also shot still lifes of the files and envelopes. She reproduces some of the correspondence she found, including a letter from an endocrinologist whose advice Ken sought, a questionnaire from the Beaumont Society, whose mission was “to provide a social context amongst heterosexual transvestites,” lengthy letters of loving, nonjudgmental support that Davidmann’s mother wrote to Hazel, and Ken’s death certificate, which lists his sex as “M” for male.
Despite the instructions that these were “to be destroyed,” the files sat in a file cabinet for years. In Davidmann’s hands, they become a portrait of a life lived in secret, as well as an illustration of what might have been. —Holly Stuart Hughes
Justin Kimball takes a compassionate look at the people and places of America’s once-thriving coal country and industrial corridor (now known as The Rust Belt). It’s familiar territory, explored by many photographers in recent years. “In both literal and metaphorical ways, [Kimball’s] pictures address the interweaving of separateness and simultaneity, renewal and decline, proliferation and emptiness, entropy and the relentless cycles of capitalism,” says Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa in the book’s introduction.
Unfortunately, the decline, emptiness and entropy have the upper hand. Lament is in the air. Roofs are caving in, algae invades the swimming pools, parks and homes and businesses lie abandoned and overgrown. These are the casualties of global capitalism, and it is impossible to look at Kimball’s work without at least a passing thought about the bitter state of U.S. politics, and the anger and disaffection of certain voters for whom economic hopes are circling the drain. Help is probably not coming.
And yet, Elegy isn’t just another collection of “ruin porn.” Kimball is an outsider, keeping himself (and viewers) at a distance, but he doesn’t objectify, caricature, condescend or show his subjects as victims. They fret and worry, and hold onto their dignity and hope, as tenuous as those things are. One image, for instance, shows a modest duplex, abandoned and falling apart on one side, lived-in and loved on the other. In another image, Christmas lights twinkle on the front porches of two houses in a bleak landscape. Other images show quotidian improvisations and makeshift repairs. Kimball has an eye for telling gestures, irony and metaphor. And he makes intelligent use of color, texture and lines to show the triumph of the human spirit over hard experience, or at least its capacity to endure. —David Walker
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is alleged to have abducted and imprisoned at least 119 people between 2002 and 2008 through the process of extraordinary rendition: the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another. Held in CIA “black sites,” prisoners were subject to interrogation and torture—euphemistically referred to as “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” by various members of the U.S. government. Some details of this program have emerged, but its full scope and the actions of the people responsible for it remain beyond public scrutiny, hidden behind politicians’ denials and the strikeouts in heavily redacted documents. Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, the chilling book by photographer Edmund Clark and researcher Crofton Black, focuses on this system of denial and secrecy.
The book combines documents and photographs that explain the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program without fully exposing it. What the book reveals instead is the attempt to conceal extraordinary rendition from public view—the visual language of that concealment. Clark’s photographs depict mundane buildings and landscapes in Lithuania, Afghanistan and Romania where CIA black sites are alleged to have existed; a hotel swimming pool in Mallorca where a rendition team and flight crew relaxed between trips; a street in Milan where Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was abducted; the offices and hangars of contractors and subcontractors that arranged private jets for the rendition program. The documents, many heavily redacted, represent the physical evidence of extraordinary rendition: legal testimony, invoices for flights chartered for the CIA by contractors, drawings of torture apparatuses made by former prisoners.
The evidence in the book is numbered and captioned, and annotations indicate which documents and photographs connect to the others, giving readers a sense of the web between bits of information. Black’s texts contextualize the documents through stories that detail the building of a rendition facility in Lithuania and the history of a company that arranged last-minute flights. The scope of the research that went into creating this book, and the information available to the layperson, is staggering and impossible to reveal in a short review. Extraordinary rendition was yet another dark chapter in the history of the CIA, one that amounts, architect Eyal Weizman notes in his essay for the book, to a form of state-sponsored terrorism. “When we recognize the attempt to mask, we start seeing masks everywhere. This creates panic. This is when, in a borderless, immersive space, a targeted operation becomes terror,” he writes.
In his introduction, Clark notes, “The existing narrative – where it can be seen at all—is easily obscured by denial and secrecy. It is perhaps as a record of such negative evidence —and as a document of negative publicity —that this work may form part of a future discourse and future history.” —Conor Risch
The Velvet Cell is an independent photobook publisher dedicated to architecture, urbanism and street photography, and, according to their website, “not really ‘based’ anywhere.” Rather, since 2011, Eanna de Freine has published books ‘in transit’ while he has lived in London, Taipei and Osaka. That interest in groundlessness and place is reflected in what they publish, often studies of the manmade landscape and the rapidly changing urban environment, in places as diverse as Jakarta, Cairo and the semi-rural Canadian West.
Alexander Gronsky’s Mountains and Waters is a study of China made up of diptychs depicting the outskirts of Shanghai, Chongqing and Shenzhen. In the blank areas at the edges of these cities, large-scale developments are visible through the mist—there are clusters of apartment blocks and pastel-colored cranes, a nuclear reactor presiding over tile-roofed houses, and neat piles of dirt and sand left over from construction jobs or waiting to be used in new ones. But all that distant activity seems like another world—at the center of many pictures, not much happens. A vine-covered building from an earlier industrial age is set among new cement pylons; families fly kites on bare ground next to a low river; rafts float on a still lake. Peaceful and bathed in milky white light, Gronsky’s images suggest nineteenth century landscape photography or traditional Chinese painting.
Mountains and Waters is a deeply quiet book, and without captions or accompanying text, a reader might feel a bit like a foreign visitor wandering through unknown lands, unsure of the history of these buildings or where the roads lead, but seduced by the view. —Rebecca Robertson
The portrait subjects in Rania Matar’s new book are girls ages 8 through 13 who appear acutely aware that they are poised between girlhood and adulthood. As they gaze steadily back at the camera, some of the girls muster a saucy confidence while others look wary.
In her previous book, A Girl and Her Room, Matar used environmental portraits to show how adolescent girls express their personalities and aspirations through the way they decorate their bedrooms. The portraits in L’Enfant-Femme are more stripped-down; the subjects often pose outdoors, in an alley, a yard or on a porch. The simplicity draws attention to the subjects’ body language and gestures: A girl who confidently places her hands on her hips also nervously twists her foot. The format emphasizes similarities. A girl in a hijab posing in an alleyway in the Middle East and a girl barefoot on a porch surrounded by trees seem equally wary and awkward. The images are sequenced so that you see a series of images in which all the subjects nervously pluck at their skirts or clutch one elbow.
One photo shows a girl posing in front of throw pillows decorated with the likenesses of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, and another shows a girl standing in front of a wall plastered with a big fashion ad. These are two of the few clues in the book about where these girls get their notions of how to project themselves in front of a camera. They seem to be inventing their personae before our eyes. The quiet, considered portraits in L’Enfant-Femme invite us to ponder not only our notions about womanhood and their influence on girls’ self-awareness, but how subjects assert themselves for the camera’s penetrating gaze.
The underlying message here seems to be: Being a preteen girl is hard, whether you live in Massachusetts or Gaza. Matar’s work makes us root for all her subjects to get through the storms of adolescence with their hopefulness unscathed. —Holly Stuart Hughes
Between 2005 and 2015, the U.S. government spent more than $23 billion to erect 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.–Mexico border, and to install surveillance technology to monitor it. Coupled with aggressive immigration enforcement by the Obama administration, the fence has slowed illegal immigration across the border to a trickle. But there are some cruel consequences, if you look closely enough. And that’s what photographer Richard Misrach does in Border Cantos, his collaboration with composer Guillermo Galindo.
Misrach’s photographs are divided into eight thematic chapters, starting with “The Wall,” a series of beautiful (and mostly empty) southwestern landscapes divided and dominated by the fence. Unlike the Statue of Liberty, which once welcomed immigrants and still stands as a monument to our better nature, the fence says “Get lost.” Misrach photographs the personal effects—shoes, clothes, cell phones, teddy bears—that immigrants have abandoned or lost, as well as the haunting scarecrows they have constructed along the way for unknown reasons.
Other chapters reflect the Border Patrol’s presence and work (bullet-riddled silhouette targets, and drags for smoothing dirt in order to detect footprints). Most of the photographs are devoid of people, with a feeling of absence that adds to their power. Viewers are left to imagine the immigrants’ stories, and wonder: Did they survive? Who misses them? What are their lives like now? At the very least, Misrach has accumulated evidence for a historical record that may someday shame us. The book also includes photographs of musical instruments and scores that Galindo created from artifacts that Misrach brought back from his trips to the border. Through photographs and music, Border Cantos evokes the humanity and spirit of so many anonymous, invisible immigrants, lest we forget that at the other end of U.S. immigration policy, there are people worthy of compassion. —David Walker