December 18, 2015

Last Friday Round Up of the Year - 18 December, 2015

On this week's post, the last for 2015, three very special books are reviewed - Purple, Brown, Grey, White, Black: Life in Death by Daniel Schumann; The Middle of Somewhere by Sam Harris; and Moments of My Life by Konrad Winkler. Plus an interview with Gina Martin on collecting photography books.

Wishing all my readers a happy and safe festive season and a wonderful new year. Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up will be back on 22nd January, 2016. Next year I'll be inviting photographers to submit work for particular themes - hope, love, peace, the environment are some of the topics I'd like to explore. Let me know what you are interested in seeing.

All the best
Alison Stieven-Taylor

A Passion for Collecting Books - Gina Martin

National Geographic’s Gina Martin has been collecting photography books for close to a decade. During that time she’s amassed an impressive collection of around 720 books, many of which are signed and personalised. A number are no longer in print, and have become highly collectible – like her most expensive single purchase, Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol's Sabine. But Gina doesn’t collect to sell. These books are keepers.

Gina fell into photography when she joined National Geographic 16 years ago after working in politics for many years. When she moved into National Geographic Creative, the agency side of the business, her interest in photography began. But it wasn’t until she joined the team at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph (held in Charlottsville, Virginia) that her interest really piqued.

“When I started to work for LOOK3 it really opened me up to work outside of Geographic. I was very Geographic driven at that point and when I joined LOOK3 I was able to expose myself to other types of photography,” she tells me from her office in Washington DC.

That was around 2007 and since then Gina has invested in all manner of photography books. She says her taste has changed along the way moving from the large stylised publications of the big publishing houses to works that are more unique and published by boutique houses or more often by the photographers themselves.

“I am not a big fan of your typical coffee table photography book. The work is beautiful, but the design is not that interesting. I am more likely to buy a Todd Hido book than a Salgado. I love anything Alec Soth produces whether it’s in newspaper form or a tiny little book, anything Alec Soth does I think is brilliant. I love Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers, it is one of the coolest designs I’ve seen. Don Weber’s Interrogations is another one. I love the size and the design of it. Jason Eskenazi’s Wonderland is just beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Those are the kinds of books I collect.” 

Two Rivers Carolyn Drake (above and below)

Gina is a great believer in crowdsourcing and has supported numerous book projects, which she says is one approach to starting a collection. “With Kickstarter (and other crowdsourcing platforms) you are donating money and you are getting a book. If I can donate $50 to help a photographer with their project and get a book out of it, I think that’s a great way to start collecting. You have to support your community when you can. I really believe in supporting photographers and that’s how I get a lot of books”.

Other ways to boost your photography book collection is through attending festivals and book signing events. “If I am going to see a photographer at a book signing then I make sure I get that book. I buy a lot of books in Perpignan (at Visa pour l’image) as they always do book signings and also at LOOK3 - you know who the three main artists are going to be so bring your Nan Goldin or your Alec Soth books down there. You get to meet them and get them signed and I think that’s a cool thing. If they write something personal, whether it was great having a drink with you at LOOK3 or whatever, I love it”.

While Gina doesn’t look at her books every day, she often has the opportunity to go through her collection. “I do have photographers visiting all the time, I had four last week and that’s when it usually happens. I’ve had photographers come because they want to be inspired or they are looking to publish, so I pull books off the shelf to show what I like”.

Gina’s had bookshelves custom-made to house her collection, but she’s already being squeezed for space. “I’m just getting creative in where I am putting them,” she laughs. “I might have to clean a few out at some point, some that I’m not really attached to. I could probably get rid of 20…maybe”. 

Gina colour codes her collection

For insurance reasons Gina keeps a spreadsheet of all her books noting the name of the photographer, the title, the ISBN, how much it cost and whether it has been signed and personalised. “If my house goes up in flames I need to show that I had a collection. I take a photo of the front page of the book with the signature so I have a record because it’s worth a lot of money. Books don’t go on the shelf until they are on the spreadsheet. It’s a little work, but it’s a great reference...I looked for a book once for two hours, and I couldn’t find it. So I looked it up on the spreadsheet and it wasn’t there. I could have sworn I owned it. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I do now,” she smiles.

In closing I ask if she has a favourite book. “It is hard to choose…one of my favourites is Jason Eskenazi’s Wonderland. I love Chris Anderson’s Capitolio, and those I've mentioned before - Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers and Don Weber’s Interrogations. I have a signed copy of Eggleston’s Guide and that was kind of a coup for me to get that signed. I love Stanley Greene’s Black Passport, it’s a beautiful story. I rarely read the books, but I read every word of that one. Same with Eugene Richards’ War is Personal. But I don’t have a favourite favourite”.

Purple Brown Grey White Black: Life in Death – Daniel Schumann 

This is a beautiful book and an equally beautiful story. German photographer Daniel Schumann spent a year photographing nine residents at a hospice, documenting their journey and drawing focus on how we as human beings deal with the inevitable; death.

In Germany young people have to do Civil Service instead of Military Service. Schumann chose to undertake something he knew little about and had never had exposure to; working in a hospice. “I wanted to work with people. I am really thankful that I had this opportunity to work at the hospice – without the civil service I would never have had an idea to work there. It has influenced my ideas about life and my photography”.

Following this compulsory year of civil service in 2002, Schumann studied photography returning to the hospice four years later to being his first long-term project. Schumann sought permission from all those he photographed ensuring he asked only those who were able to make a considered decision about participating in the project. As the project unfolded family members were also involved in various capacities – a son held a reflector to provide Schumann with a softer light in which to photograph his mother. A wife called to let him know her husband had passed away and to ask Schumann to photograph him. 



“I followed each of them as long as possible – some I photographed only a few times and others over a whole year. With this project I am trying to show that every age of these people is very individual and that everybody deals with their situation very differently. Some are very peaceful and relaxed and have a feeling they have done everything in their life they wanted to do and are supported by family. Others are really struggling and are afraid of dying”.

I met Schumann in Sydney earlier this year where he was exhibiting this work for Head On Photo Festival. I asked him what it was like to photograph these people knowing that the end of his story with them would be their death?

“Civil service prepared me so I knew what would happen, but of course every time you get to know somebody it will be a loss when that person dies. It will be sad to lose this person. Photographing these people after death was a way for me to say goodbye and through this project I have found photography is a very good way for me to deal with and understand the world around me.” 



Throughout the book Schumann uses photographs of the forest in its four seasons to break the story. He says his intention here is to give the reader the opportunity to pause and think about what they’ve just seen and to also remind us that in nature there is birth and death with the changing of the seasons. “That’s absolutely normal for us to see every year. I want to propose the idea of trying to see our own decline in a similar way, as a natural process, to not have the feeling about death being something completely abstract and terrible. It happens to everybody of course…although I have no idea how I will view death when I get old”.

There are many things to like about this book. In particular the fact that Schumann chose only a few people to follow and has photographed them frequently throughout their journey, delivers an intimacy as well as clarity on the evolution of each individual’s experience.

Schumann, who also designed the book, says he chose to feature portraits in chronological order “so you meet people again and again. It was important for me not to focus on the decline of the person, so not to show their portraits all in a row where you focus on how they look. It was more about focusing on the personality of these people by not being able to compare them directly. To show more too of the cycle of life and how people are coming and others are going and how each of these situations are very individual”.

In Purple Brown Grey White Black he follows one woman, Ulrike, over the year and her portraits are interspersed throughout the book. He tells that she was an artist and knew what photography could do in expressing how she felt. “She had ALS so she couldn’t talk very well, but she told me she was using my photographs to communicate to her children what she was feeling“. 


Schumann has treated each person with dignity and it is uplifting to see that he has captured their personalities rather than just their illnesses or their isolation – so many who go into a hospice are shut out from the world, their dignity stripped with the failing of their bodies and minds, their individuality forgotten in the pace of hospice routine and modern medicine.

“When you go into a hospice you are drawn out of society. Nobody is going there if they don’t have to. I think especially for this reason people said yes I want to be photographed because I was saying I am interested in you, I care about the situation you are in, you are still important.” That’s a fabulous, and important message.

Visit Daniel Schumann's website 

The Middle of Somewhere – Sam Harris 

The “moment between moments” – that is what photographer Sam Harris says he was looking for in his quest to photograph family life. In his second book The Middle of Somewhere, it is this undefinable element, that unspoken something that makes this work so engaging, taking it from a collection of personal moments to a universally understood story.

The Middle of Somewhere, which won book of the year at the Lucie Awards this year, follows on from Harris’ first book, Postcards from Home, which documented life with his two young daughters.

In this new book, published by Ceiba, Harris extends the story to allow an insight into the family’s journey that saw them leave London, travel through India where their second daughter was born, and finally arrive in rural Western Australia where the now live in harmony with their surrounds. 

This story doesn’t follow a chronological order, which is part of its appeal. Interspersed with the photographs of his daughters at various ages and engaged in everyday pursuits, are snippets of writing inserted on paper that is reminiscent of a diary - post it notes stuck on a page, an excerpt from his wife Yael’s journal. A pictorial travelogue also features, again reproduced to evoke the idea that we are looking at a personal notebook. These design elements become conduits to a deeper narrative drawing the reader into an immersive experience as Harris and his family’s life unravels before us. 

The Middle of Somewhere is brilliantly edited and beautifully designed. It’s concise without losing its richness, the texture and weight of the paper and the luminous colour of the photographs allow the story to lift from the pages and for the images to take on a life of their own. It is a wonderful next step in Harris’ evolution as a photographic artist.


Moments of My Life – Konrad Winkler 

Another book based on personal experience is Moments of My Life - Konrad Winkler from M.33. Melbourne photographer Konrad Winkler has been taking photographs since the 1960s. In this book each photograph is paired with text that serves to explain the image through personal anecdote. It is written in a voice that suggest the author is having a chat with you over a beer or a coffee and that gives the book an idiosyncratic edge that really appeals to me.

As with other M.33 publications Moments of My Life is a quality production and its clean design by Jason McQuoid allows both the images and texts to receive the attention they deserve.  
In 2013 Winkler spoke of this body of work saying, “This is a (book) about photos; about why we take them and what they mean to us. It is about the photographs that we use to confirm and validate our existence; that help us remember both the significant as well as the insignificant events of our lives. We often remember things, not because they are important, but because we have a photo that we like and that makes us happy. What these images will mean to us in the long run, time will decide and many will be discarded. The text explores this connection, and is as important as the image, even when it slightly misrepresents it”. Moments of My Life really resonated with me and is highly engaging.


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