Looking at Photo books

Introduction

This is the first of what I hope will become a series looking at photo books by photographers. I will not include surveys or compilation books as my interest is on how an artist presents his/her own work to the public. The books I’ll review are part of my own library some are from photographers I admire, others were suggested by friends. There will be a mix of genres.

I’m doing this as part of my continuing education about art and photography. I don’t profess to be an expert far from it. This is a learning exercise leading to the eventual publication of my on photo book.

Descendants – Norman Mauskopf
– A review and analysis

The main themes in this book are religion, history and survival. These drive  Mauskopf’s story about the people in this part of New Mexico and we can see this represented in the first image after the title page where we see the detailing on the side of a car. There is a subtext to the story that describes a strong, proud people, artistic in expression, who are spiritual and connected to their past. The men are passionate about cars although as I’ll explain later the love of cars may in fact be more about status and control.

For someone familiar with New Mexico it’s likely the opening panoramic shot of a desert and distant mountains may be very recognizable. For everyone else,  the location and who these people are isn’t fully revealed until the two thirds the way through the series when we learn this is New Mexico. By this point we have transitioned from a rural and poor setting to an urban one with a younger generation of men and women, the descendats., and they can afford material things. The source of the money isn’t known.

From the start and carried through the book the importance of religious faith is in many of the images no matter which generation we see. Grave markers, late night prayers, images of the virgin Mary and a simple cross on a chain are all used to show the presence of the church in this community.

As significant as religion is the story of survival in harsh conditions. The wooden structures, fences and private land (if there is such a thing) are in various states of decay. Car wrecks in a field are not uncommon. Nevertheless I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the homes and churches are kept as clean and tidy as they can. The older people in this town look as though they have endured as much erosion as has the land around them.

From the way they hold themselves, especially the younger generation, from the historic costumes used in ceremonies and reenactments to the clean shaven intimidating young men who take care to have clean pressed shirts and polished cars these are strong and proud people. There is a definite sense of self confidence in their faces.

I feel there is also a darker side to the story. The poster looking for a murderer, the painted message asking “who is your enemy” tell us there is anger, perhaps a struggle for power and control, we can’t be sure. There is a connection to past conflict in photos of soldiers and what seems to be a reenactment of some battle. Art is present as well. Wood carvings by an older generation, costumes perhaps telling of old legends, and the artwork on the vehicles and some walls all show a need to be visual speakers of their lives.

Cars and trucks are important to the younger generation. What isn’t on display is speed and power that one might assume would be associated with motor vehicles. For these men, control and beauty are what’s important. This seems evident from the controlled bouncing of the truck, the meticulous detailing of the cars and perhaps the women we see with the young men. And is this so different from the older men who may have shown equally impressive skills with horses, guns, and livestock. Perhaps not.

Design

This is a hard bound 12×9 inch book with a slip cover. There are 90 pages comprised of 49 images, 12 of these are on two-page full bleed spreads. The other 37 are on single pages, there is no more than one image per page. There are 20 blank pages, and 9 pages of text not including the acknowledgements and publishing details. All the images are black and white. Only 6 images use a portrait layout 4.75 x 7 inches, and 37 use a landscape aspect measuring 7 x 10.75 inches.

Lessons Learned

If I compare this book to Stephen Shore’s From Galilee to the Negev, which I reviewed las summer, both are successful in conveying the photographer’s connection to the people and place but are quite different in their approach. While Shore’s images are clean, carefully composed and full of detail which we might feel best represents his subject matter, Mauskopf’s have a grit and roughness that suits his subject matter just as perfectly. In Descendants the fact that we don’t always see what’s in the shadows, or the darkness of the night, reinforces the mystery about the hardships faced by the older generation. When he moves to the new generations the images often are as bold and in your face to match the confidence and strength of those men and women.

I don’t know if this awareness of the project is second nature to these photographers, or if they are drawn to stories/projects that match their own personal style. This isn’t something I’ve given much thought to – matching a style to the message. Perhaps the two go hand in hand.

Mauskopf, or his editor, use of blank pages has me thinking. Was it because the number of pictures was relatively low, would the images be less powerful if placed on facing pages? Shore had a lot of images, so many that he introduced mini-booklets within the the larger set (groups of smaller images laid out on one or two pages in a grid format). He was very sparing in the use of blank pages. As a reader, I find the blank page creates a stronger impact if used infrequently almost as a surprise. When they are almost every second page but not always in the same position, they lose their impact because a blank page is what we’re expecting. Initially I found it a little annoying how the blank was sometimes on the left and other times on the right.

In terms of sequencing, Mauskopf blends a geographical and a chronological approach. The series starts in a rural setting with mostly older subjects but also a few younger men and kids. As we move through the story, the city becomes more urban and this is where we find most of the adult men and women. The second transition happens with the poem which leads us to the outskirts with its decaying or abandoned houses and that part of the current generation that perhaps carries on more traditional ways. From a design perspective, the important lesson is that the series has to go somewhere in order to tell a story. Without that there’s a risk the series won’t hold anyone’s interest and possibly will feel incomplete.