Friday, March 21, 2014

Sheer magic...

I earned my living as a 'unit' in a class of company workers ironically termed by Fernand Huts back in June 1980 as 'brilliant career boys'. These are the so-called 'executives', often Vice Presidents, Directors, Managers, preferably with a 'Senior' attribute in front, who sacrifice a great deal of their first 30 years to obtain the 'proper' education as their sole key to a future 'success'. Such might be reached after long and struggling labor inside corporate management landscapes, often working for multinationals, and being paid 'modest' albeit quite generous 'fixed' pay, accompanied by a more than generous, merit dependent 'variable' part, plus, by no means ignorable, a shitload of share options. Sounds fairly glamorous, and there have been made indeed many Hollywood movies illustrating the sexier aspects of such professional "vida locas", low-flying execs from boardrooms to airports, another day another country, 'talking to customers' (ie. assistance in the closure of some deal by pledging bottomless love to clients until the latter sign the papers, followed by a "don't call us, we'll call you" sort of thing), and fulfilling C-level requirements about the 'numbers'. Or, else... Another quarter, another 'retirement', another corporate 'wishing the best' in someone's future 'endeavours', another bitter headhunt, landing (hopefully) on another job. And the history repeats itself...

I remember quite well a UK gentleman, one of my best mentors I was lucky to encounter in my early career, whom I met and worked with during the late 80ies to mid 90ies. Graham Price his name (R.I.P.), a native Welshman, who spent a lifetime as a Xerox executive in Rochester, NY, and even at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto (not sure whether he wasn't pulling my leg on that last bit). A stoic and incredibly wise man, who had gulped corporate politics and top floor intrigues with buckets! He was eventually made redundant (don't we all?), about when he hit 50. He subsequently became an independent consultant, and I happened to involve him in a number of ICT strategy projects in the Benelux and Switzerland. Norsk Hydro and Hoffman La Roche were among the largest of our customers, where he spent many long months with. I was more than 20 years younger than him, but he didn't mind 'working for me'; why should he, as we ended up me working for him in real terms, while he's been 'selling' the results of our analysis work to the client company chiefs. In general, C-level folks prefer grey wisdom to tell them what to do, and Graham had that, sort of... Anyways, during 1988 and 1989 I used to drive with him a lot to customers in various parts of Central and South Holland, and in Belgium. One 'sunny' day, while driving from Eindhoven to Venlo, I saw him stunned, staring at the Dutch landscape, obviously impressed by what he saw, like he'd never seen that before! With a gasp, he uttered, "I been around here a million times, I never managed to 'notice' the 'windmills', dammit! Did they just built them?". "Yeah", I giggled, "like two hundred years ago!" We had good laughs about this, years later, talking about the 'old days'. However, the incident has been engraved in my brain cells, and I remember this like it was yesterday. Graham hadn't noticed the damn windmills in Holland's countryside!!! I remember him often using a wonderful expression about bartenders and waiters for "being the world's leading experts in looking at you and never seeing you". I believe his very quote was exactly applicable to him, as he 'forgot' to swallow his 'own medicine'. Looking at the windmills countless times but actually never 'seeing them'...

You gotta be blind to come to Holland, travel around and never see the windmills. I had a scream when he said that. What a moron, I thought! Much I knew then... He basically admitted that it was all about arriving at some airport, picked up by some taxi or limo service, driven to the company facility while leafing over the relevant reports on the way, never talking to the driver, toil all day long, being driven for overnight stay to some 'corporate standards' hotel in the neighbourhood, probably being entertained by some business partner in between, with night cups before sleep, expensive French wine, and cholesterol saturated dinner meals, back to the office the following day after a few hours sleep (courtesy of the usual jetlag) for more torrential meetings after meetings, and eventually heading back to Schiphol to catch the overnight flight to some other corner of the world. For more of the same. Graham passed in September 1999. Hardly 60 years old. Complications of an operation, his son wrote to me months later. Into the year 2K, it was. Un homme pressé! Diabetes, cardiovascular, or maybe cancer. Or a combination of any of the above. I'll never know. It doesn't matter anyways. All of us, brilliant career boys will go down similar ways. Mark my words. Not much glamour there. The keyword is 'stress'...

It's the tulips season these days round. Early spring that is. We got quite a few of those in our garden, and, for a number of seasons during the last 3-4 years, having abandoned corporate life for good, encouraged by friends from countries where locally grown tulips are a rarity, I photographed and shared my pictures with those same friends. As a matter of pastime. But like Graham, I never stood still by their intricate tulip beauty, so divinely expressed by simple but brilliant geometry, another proof that Mathematics is nature's very architect. To many indeed Mathematics is nothing short of The Creator! God Itself. (Aronofski's 'Pi' is an interesting try to prove this thesis. Worth viewing, despite it's technically mediocre B/W filming and its occasionally scary occult 'messages'.)

Nonwithstanding our broad knowledge about the obvious destiny, like many millions other 'brilliant career boys' running the enterprises of the world out there, me as well, I never stood still. I actually 'forgot' to do it! Can you just believe this? My world for decades was merely the Company, its products, its customers, its numbers! I haven't 'seen' my offsprings grow from infants to teenagers, to adolescents and young adults. I'd been still looking south to see them stepping on my shoes to do the 'funny walk', but I was shocked to find them north, my eyes staring upwards and discovering them quite few inches above my line of vision. I had become the shortie and hadn't realised. 'Who knows where the time goes? Nina might have known... Life passed me by and I found myself driving through countless and vastly spread fields in the last 30 years with millions, probably billions, tulips, in the very Netherlands of all places, but I hadn't 'noticed' them!

Click on my recent picture above for a larger view. I somewhat annotated it to prove my point hereafter. When I saw four tulips like this one with their petals spread open, during the uniquely sunny and warm day yesterday, exceptional for the time of the year, I became speechless. I just couldn't believe the wisdom by which evolution 'managed' to create tulips like those four. All configured and pre-defined for millions of years, deep in each and every specialized cell of theirs by their own (magical as well) DNA code. We witness a miracle taking place, and we feel too incompetent to grasp its magnitude. I mean the size of the divine wisdom that 'created' nature's laws, which subsequently made tulips 'happen', as well as the rest of the visible and invisible universe for that matter.

Look carefully. There's two systems of three petals each, 120 degrees apart, combine into a simple but beautiful symmetrical structure to form almost a full circular disk, as they spread wide open. In themselves, each of the 'systems' forms with its tips 2 virtual isosceles triangles that are repositioned 180 degrees apart to combine into a 'star of David'. They actually result in a virtual hexagon, with at its center the flower 'style' ending at the 'stigma'. The stigma itself, in a shape similar to each of the petal systems (reminiscent of a Merc star), is also properly aligned with the rest. Everything seems symmetrical by revolution. With every 60 degree angular turn the resulting shape remains invariant as seen from a fixed reference system of angular coordinates. But the sheer beauty of all this is how those 6 anthers (why 6 indeed?) appear aligned to the tips of the petals. The latter turning from light yellow to dark purple around the spot opposite those same anthers, is creating a stunning visual contrast. Probably in order to better attract insects, the masons of the fertilised plant seeds. Like the archangel messengers of the coming of life's next generation.

My description so far has been simply of the static state of rest of the flowers, after they unfolded their petals to attract by their scent and visual marvels the flying bees around them. It is far more spectacular to witness them, when by obeying nature's mechanisms of 'simple' biological pathways inside all of their flower-cells, each time ambient temperature and daylight 'allow it', hermetically 'closed' petals graciously unfold... open up! I often saw time-lapse sequences showing this slow unfolding process, petal after petal, and it's sheer fun to watch it as an accelerated smooth 24 FPS video clip. It might be one of my next projects. Takes a lot of organisation and patience to get it right. But it's worth the try. Don't you think?

I think, this time, I might have indeed 'noticed' the tulips. Never too late to teach an old dog new tricks...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Photobook: A History, Volumes I, II and III

I recently received a Phaedon email ad about Vol. III of this book series, and, realising celebrity Magnum Photographer Martin Parr was one of the authors, it made me take a second look at the attached PDF extract of volume III. The rest is history. Order placed with Amazon and Vol. I and II (Vol. III is currently under production, I reckon), delivered yesterday, on a Saturday, by BPost (good for them).

These are large books, quite heavy and 'pagey' indeed. Not as bad as the Modernist Cuisine and its derivatives of course, but large enough, and heavy nevertheless. Impossible to bring to bed for a casual 'read' before dozing off. You might risk suffocation for sure if you tried and fell asleep under its size and weight!

I haven't leafed them books yet, not even casually. I'm saving this for future savouring during genuine 'quality' moments (if I ever find those), relaxing and ready for 'deep' thinking. However, I spent half hour this morning reading the authors' Introduction to Vol. I. There's two authors, Martin Parr as said, and Gerry Badger, whom, I need to confess - cross my heart, I don't quite know, and if he's equally important as Martin Parr, my apologies for my ignorance. As a matter of fact, until ten years ago I hadn't heard of Parr either. During a visit in London during early 2000's to meet my daughter (a RUG Arts-History college student
then, as an Erasmus exchange student in Nottingham, England), and she brought me to the Barbican to an expo by Mr. Parr that she's been dying to attend to. It was then that I found out about the man. We even bought the catalog, and I remember the place and his photographs like it was yesterday. I even remember the guard shouting at me for using my own camera to shoot Mr. Parr's marvels as a souvenir. I always hate expo spaces, when they won't allow shooting your own pictures for fear of... flashlights damaging artworks, camera click annoying other visitors, stealing the artist's or the museum's IPR, or I don't know what else. However, in the meantime, in some clever places especially in Germany, you buy this 'shooting' right during a visit, but have to carry a badge at all times to avoid remarks by vigilant caretakers. At the least this is a much better solution for bypassing embarrassing guards acting like schoolmasters and treating us shooters worse than grammar school pupils.

Back to Martin Parr, again. Harsh, very saturated colours in frequent photojournalistic shoots, 'cease the decisive moment (Bresson)' kinda thing, Magnum style photography (I had fun with his shot sequence of napping commuter Japanese workers), many rather closeup single household and other object pictures as well, always with conspicuous deeply saturated colours (have I already said that?). He seemed like using dia-positive films, a lot like Kodakchrome and the likes. If I remember well, he is also known for using conspicuous flashlight fill-ins under sunny daylight conditions. Many use that style and it creates a sort-of 'plastic', almost acrylic, touch and feel. He once confessed this in an interview about the intensity of his colours : "I used amateur film, often Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens. This combined with flash gives very high colour saturation, there is no Photoshop used.". Needless to say, the camera he uses nowadays is simply Canon's marvel 5D Mark III (don't we all?).

In their Introduction the authors describe their rationale and choices made for creating this book series, a monumental epic work indeed. They were quite impressive by the clarity of their argumentation in this part of their narrative. Quite often this section in a book appears to be pompous and useless, instead of a good and comprehensive 'management summary' as it should. I found their analysis of the 'Photobook' concept and it's place in the Arts and History of the World quite remarkable. I'll touch base on a number of points mentioned that I found particularly useful.

1. "Photographs can function as historical documents, as political propaganda, as pornography, as repositories for personal memories, as works of art, as fact, fiction, metaphor, poetry." I bet you, this is one of the most comprehensive, to the point, and complete definitions I've come across about the aim of photography.

2. I loved their definition of a 'photobook' too, being a 'book' whose author(s), photographers or not, convey its message simply through a series of (theme) photographs. It has a specific character, distinct from the photographic print, the latter being either (business related) functional, or as a fine-art exhibition print.

3. Their mention of the Dutch critic Ralph Prins stating: "...(in a photobook) the photographs lose their own photographic character as things 'in themselves' and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event called a 'book'."

4. Book design, typography, binding, accompanying texts, the jacket, the print paper, the technology used. These are all important elements of the book, properly selected and designed to support the book's ultimate purpose.

5. This part I have appreciated a lot, notwithstanding it not being theirs. They expose a set of criteria to be fulfilled by a good Photobook, borrowed from photographer John Gossage: "Firstly, it (the book) should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest." I couldn't have said this better myself. Great photographs, consistent with the theme of the book, with an effective design, and focused upon stuff that matters.

6. They further develop the idea that a photobook should not necessarily only contain photographs of the book's author, or even contain 'great' photographs for that matter. Still, one can get a great book that is curated by a 'photography lover' author, who orchestrated a number of selected photographs by known or unknown photographers into a wonderful 'dramatic event' (the book), properly fulfilling all of Cossage's criteria. I found this quite a remarkable idea. As a consequence, their 'History' epic is not about famous photographer monographs or anthologies, except under certain conditions, like for instance Bresson's Decisive Moment (1952), but more about books that tackle worthwhile themes. Therefore, no Stieglitz, no Weston, no Adams (!) references in their opus magnum. Wow!

7. About the 'theme' of a photobook, they state: It can be as broad as the Universe, or as narrow as closeups of rippled mud. It might be formally precise as the geometry in plants, or casually intuitive. It can be simple or it can be rich as a dictionary. In any case, the theme must be clear, if not immediately obvious!

8. An interesting point made is about the known fact that European musea don't usually expose photographs as artworks, whereas in the US photography has often found it's way into the known musea and their permanent collections. European sceptics might bitterly claim "that's because they haven't got much else to show, them poor Yanks", but the fact of the matter is that it's all about Euro-conservatism and arrogance if you come to think of it.

9. Following (and pursuing) the theme of a Photobook by 'intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection' has been their criterion of inclusion in their work of any photobook that they considered. It is an excellent criterion and it thoroughly proves true their argument that not merely great photographs are a sine-qua-non condition to create a great Photobook. They admit however that a great book is more than the sum of its parts. And when the parts happen to be great, then the sum is likely to end-up even greater. Presumably, selection of the parts is the hard bit in this process. This is the area where the genius of the author or curator becomes apparent and raises them to the Pantheon of Greatness.

10. Finally, to complete this list of what I considered important points in their Introduction, I welcomed their assertion that a Photobook is a far more reaching, open and broader vehicle for disseminating photographic works than gallery exhibits during finite in time vernisages, enjoyed mainly by the 'cultured' intelligentsia of the large urban centers of the world. The book can reach you everywhere, even in the remotest of places, God bless

A must own - must read. Your choice...

UPDATE: A good friend who read this post sent me a message adding the following info:

Photobook collections appear to be quite a hot item in recent years. Even curators of known musea are picking them up wherever possible. This also includes self published photobooks, not necessarily originating through the 'usual suspect' publishing houses. Also, at the Annual October/November Photography Fair 'Paris Photo' with many participating galleries, photobooks assume an important place among the various exhibits. It's incredible how the photobooks presented in the Parr and Badger three volume history are currently being sought after. For some of them already considerable dollar amounts are being paid. They have a word for it, the Parr/Badger-mania! Incidentally, Badger is an authority in the field of photography, and photobooks in particular. He wrote most of the narratives of this book series. Parr, on top of being a celeb photographer himself, is also a fervent collector: He has 12,000 photobooks at his home.

My pal has about 1500 pieces and I thought that was far too many already. I hardly have 1500 books of any sort in total, maybe a few dozen photobooks alone, and I thought I had a serious library... Dream on! However, I saw that I own one of the Parr/Badger presented books, which incidentally was purchased by my daughter and offered to me long ago! Gosh, I'm rich! (nooot?)