Photographic books: December 2011

by Anthony Byrt / 17 December, 2011
Not all photographs are taken equally.
Contemporary photography is one of those genres that can get people’s teeth squeaking. Believers see it as a fraught environment in which aesthetic decisions need to be delicately balanced with complex representational issues. But for doubters it’s an over-theorised field that analyses far too deeply the act of pointing a camera. Two recent New Zealand books demonstrate the pleasures, and dangers, available at each end of this spectrum.

Although Peter Black’s I Loved You the Moment I Saw You doesn’t quite live up to the crazy blurb (“one of the great photo-portraits of our time”), it is nonetheless a subtle collection that shows one of our senior photographers battling with a new technology – digital colour photography – and winning. Its 82 images, taken around Wellington from 2008-10, include romantic encounters, buskers hustling for cash, Bible bashers and businessmen negotiating between meetings. Poverty features large, too: tattooed drunks, men rolling up tobacco they’ve scrounged from used butts, people eating crap fast-food as affordable sustenance.

On the surface, then, it’s straightforward street photography. But there is plenty of art underpinning Black’s casualness, both within each image and across the collection as a whole. At one point, for example, a homeless man sits behind a sign that quietly asks for help, while on the facing page a businessman makes a much less dignified plea to a colleague, as the pair of them debate something beside an ATM. The book is full of intelligent contrasts like this – abrasive urban moments that give it a dissonant edge.

Ian Wedde’s accompanying essay elegantly describes the images’ loneliness, their well-disguised carefulness and their place in Black’s body of work. But his notion of the “urban nomad” – a role in which he casts himself and Black’s lens – never quite sticks. The Absolutely Positively Wellington vibe permeating the writing and the photographs makes the nomadic idea hard to accept. What Wedde means to describe is a particular type of movement through his home city, which his parallel figure of the “introspective flaneur” captures more accurately. But the problem here is that he uses it interchangeably with the urban nomad, when – to me – they imply very different kinds of traveller.

Either way, the writer’s presence in the essay is distracting rather than revelatory; he is far better when he stays focused on Black’s photographs.

Chris Van Ryn’s self-published photographic book, Bodyography: Portraits of the Body in Time, provides different distractions. If Black’s images are more artful than they first seem, van Ryn’s are the opposite. And the gulf between the two books demonstrates the big difference between taking a good photograph and producing good contemporary photography.

Bodyography’s main confusion is its subject: its title suggests it’s about portraiture, but it’s really a book of travel shots. Very good travel shots, but travel shots all the same.

Van Ryn hedges his bets by calling them “travel portraits”. Whatever one calls them, they have a kind of mid-20th-­century Magnum feel. The trouble is, things have moved on. So it’s hard to ignore, in the present climate, the slightly icky first-to-third-world gaze in the pictures and the whiff of “noble savagery” in the portrayals of weather-beaten old folk and elegantly impoverished children from Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

I’m sure this wasn’t van Ryn’s intent. But neither he in his introduction nor Graham Reid in the foreword tackles such issues meaningfully. As a result, they linger above the images. It’s a critical oversight that illustrates a danger of self-publishing: that without editorial scrutiny, things can become self-congratulatory very quickly. For his next book, van Ryn would be well advised to commission a writer to provide a sharper context for his images (the only comparison Reid draws, to Don McCullin, is inaccurate and pointless). Black’s book traverses the troubled world of photographic theory easily. For van Ryn’s, though, the trip is pretty rocky.

I LOVED YOU THE MOMENT I SAW YOU, by Peter Black (VUP, $60); BODYOGRAPHY: PORTRAITS OF THE BODY IN TIME, by Chris van Ryn (Chris van Ryn, $59.95).

Anthony Byrt is an Auckland reviewer and art writer.

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