John Myers

The Portraits

RRB Photobooks

Over the course of the medium’s history, many extremely talented photographers’ pursuits have somehow managed to fly under the radar. For every success story, there are countless who, for various reasons known or unknown, are grossly overlooked or underrated. Occasionally a few of those talents resurface, often decades later, for a brief moment of attention. A recent book from RRB Photobooks on the portrait work of British photographer John Myers is one of these rediscovered bodies of work well worth its moment.

Myers’ images arrest us in part because they describe the vibrant 70s in all their kitsch and glory, but for the more patient viewer, those historical markers are simply an entry point leading to the persons photographed. What is remarkable is how often Myers was able to infuse the best of his portraits with a sense of empathetic human-kindness informed by the subtlest of clues, in a similar manner to August Sander or a contemporary like Judith Joy Ross. Myers, within just a year of picking up a camera, becomes adept at the weighty transaction between sitter and photographer to make pictures that speak to both the individual and universal qualities in people. These portraits provide for us meaningful emotional links to strangers in the space of a photograph that transcend distance and time and certainly Donny Osmond posters or antique furnishings. In the best, those set pieces are mere opening acts. Instead we can’t help but to study the faces and postures of Myers’ sitters and see sometimes they can link to something almost primal inside of us – like a fallen child looking to its mother’s expression to know whether to laugh or cry.

A young bricklayer standing in a doorway poses with a smudged face but seems more conscious of his dirty hands; a girl (Louise, 1975) sitting with tucked knee on a two-step ladder, while summoning patience for the camera her slack face seems to be looking past “us” and seeing perhaps how ordinary her life might be; a ballerina (1973) stands before us in black leotard and white knee socks, the projection of confidence coming straight through a tightened jaw and ever so slightly raised chin; a couple (Charles and Pamela, 1973) sit in what looks to be a coatroom – he feels composed of equal amounts of strength and sadness, stooped almost as if he knew straightening his back would put the top of his head out of the frame. He seems to harbour a secret he can’t speak out loud. She sits with an exuberant look smiling widely, eyes bright but seemingly seeing nothing (is she literally blind?), their hands clasped at the centre of an emotional divide. If the photographer wishes us to cry, he has enabled a moment for us to do so.

In a book of 93 photographs, not all are going to strike these qualities but a surprising number do. If one were to find fault with this book it would be with the edit and perhaps a quarter of the images could have been left behind to leave breathing space for the brilliance of the others. With more volumes of Myers work planned, a larger scope of his efforts will enable further exploration and, if as remarkable as demonstrated with this book, will perhaps finally solidify the inclusion of John Myers within the wider conversation of photography.

Jeffrey Ladd

All images courtesy of the artist and RRB Photobooks. © John Myers

Lesley A. Martin

Publisher at Aperture Foundation

New York

In the latest instalment of our Interviews series, Jeffrey Ladd speaks with the publisher of Aperture Foundation’s book programme, Lesley A. Martin. Their conversation reflects on the current state of photobook publishing, the idea of misperceiving books as the most viable vehicles to launch careers, as well as her thoughts on the seldom-discussed phenomenon of publishers taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production.

Jeffrey Ladd: How long have you personally been interested in photography and photobooks?

Lesley A. Martin: My interest in photography is probably fairly typical – an early introduction to the magic of the darkroom by a family member, hanging out with photo geeks in high school. I knew I was interested in it enough to pick it up as a minor in college. But the realisation that photographs had power and could become vital to a public conversation comes from having lived an hour away from Cincinnati, Ohio at the time of the Robert Mapplethorpe Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, and realizing that the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s were perfectly and terribly crystallised in this battle over which images would be considered true, beautiful, and permissible.

I don’t have a story about a particular book that changed my life as my interest in photobooks came somewhat obliquely – yes, I was always the kid with glasses that “loved books”. Yes, I worked my way through college at the Art and Architecture library and decorated my dorm walls with jackets of books that had been discarded before they were allowed to be shelved. And yes, I lived in Japan and spent a lot of time looking – sadly, not buying – books by and about Japanese photographers, but it wasn’t until I did an internship at Aperture that it dawned on me that there were people behind the making of those books… and that this was something that I could do, too.

JL: How long have you been at Aperture?

LAM: The best way to put it is that I’ve been at Aperture for roughly sixteen of the last twenty-one years, but not continuously. It’s a little scary to think about.

JL: How have your thoughts on photobooks changed over the course of your involvement with Aperture?

LAM: The ecosystem as a whole has changed pretty radically over the last twenty years. There were a particular set of formulas that Michael Hoffman, longtime publisher and director of Aperture, believed in. I’m really not sure what he would have made of the photobook world now. I left Aperture for a few years in 2000 when we began to disagree over the type of books that could – and should – be published. I sometimes use Eikoh Hosoe’s Kamaitachi as an example of just how much things have changed. Michael loved the 1971 edition of the book with its baroque use of gatefolds and wanted very much to find a means of reissuing it as a facsimile. The costs were daunting, and in 1997, when we first started discussing it, the idea of printing the book in a very small number and charging a higher price was not part of the Aperture model – he felt there wasn’t enough of a collector’s market to make that work. Now, of course, that’s a model most publishers incorporate into their arsenal of publishing strategies. When I returned to work at Aperture in late 2003, one of the first things I did was to put in motion a facsimile of the book. We commissioned a new slipcase by Tadanori Yokoo, and released it in an edition of 500 English-language copies and, working together with a Japanese publisher, 500 Japanese-language copies. The book sold out almost immediately. It had become evident by then that not only was there an audience but that this audience of collectors and dealers were building a new body of scholarship and connoisseurship of the photobook. This knowledge base, coupled with the shift in how accessible printing technologies have become and how much creativity is coming out of the self-published and independently published worlds, have increased the interest and appreciation of the book form. The idea of strict, old school publishing formulas of any kind, has been turned on its head, which is good for everyone.

JL: How do you think your direction as editor has been different from others? (past Aperture editors? Or other publishers?)

LAM: As a not-for-profit organisation, Aperture needs to be willing and able to explore a fairly broad interpretation of photography – but of course, it’s also an amalgam of individual tastes and interests. Over the course of almost sixty-five years, there have been so many book editors, each of whom left one imprint or another – from Nancy Newhall, one of the founders, onward. (Keeping in mind, too, that the book editors and the magazine editors used to be one and the same – now the book and magazine programs operate synergistically but autonomously). There are lots of odd little pockets in the Aperture backlist –Newhall worked closely with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. She was focused on the interchange of text and images and on the struggle for the recognition of photography as a ‘fine art’. Mark Holborn introduced Japanese photographers like Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu to Aperture, alongside British photographers like Bill Brandt. Carole Kismaric made a critical contribution, bringing in Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, John Gossage, and moved Aperture’s book program away from a certain beaten path – more ‘windows’ than ‘mirrors’. Michael Hoffman’s obsession with India can be read in vein of books by Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Mitch Epstein’s first book: In Pursuit of India, while also championing the publication of the Arbus monograph.

Current senior editor, Denise Wolf, has introduced a line of books about photography for children. Aside from my interest in Japanese and Dutch photography, which happen to be great photobook making cultures, I feel that my task over the past decade has been to ensure that the book programme felt relevant overall. I didn’t want Aperture to just do one kind of book, but to be able to publish across a range of types of book – to be more varied, flexible, and contemporary in our book making. I also made it a goal to engage with and help support the growing conversation about the photobook.

JL: Can you point out four or five books that have become your favourites of the last year?

LAM: I’m still looking back on the prior year’s books and won’t get to properly digest this year’s harvest fully until the end of the summer and The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize. Every Autumn I’m inundated by the 1,000+ titles that get submitted. I see A LOT. But there are inevitably, a few that stand out, or that I return to repeatedly over time.

In the past year, those include Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor by Mariken Wessels, which is a very strange set of images collected by Wessels of one man’s obsessive photographing of his wife. Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts, a document of one Los Angeles-neighbourhood over the course of twenty years also just gets better with repeat viewing. Both of these books – each very different in subject and approach but similarly predicated on a photographer’s long-term engagement with their subject – take pains to also be really remarkable physical objects, with particular care to with the printing, design, and structure of the material. Out of Order: Bad Display by Penelope Umbrico, is one of the artist’s iterative projects that returns to a prior book she created with RVB Books in 2014. Umbrico has become a really thoughtful about her books, folding the process of making them into her larger practice of making work, the unusual forms they take and the methods of their making are always directly tied-into the concepts within.

I also can’t help but be stupefied by the gorgeously printed re-issue and expansion (or, explosion) of William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest. As with the rest of Steidl’s insatiable drive to gobble up and put forth the archives of photographers living and dead, I’m a little ambivalent about whether or not to best categorise these as books or as furniture – it certainly is an excellent example of the collector-supported publication model. It’s quite an investment, at $600 per set. So while this skews the concept of a democratic anything, in terms of a flattening out the hierarchy of image-making, this material, of any, is best suited to the multi-volume, anti-edit approach. (I have to also confess that I may, in part, be conflating my appreciation for this book with my appreciation and enjoyment Prudence Ffeifer’s excellent review of the book in the May issue of Bookforum – the power of a great book review!)

JL: How much of the current state of photobook publishing do you perceive as artists believing books are the most viable vehicles to launch careers?

LAM: I often I see books made by artists that feel way too transparent in this regard – it’s as if every decision made in constructing the book was weighed against some external checklist of what’s worked for other people, rather than what’s right for the material itself. The use of different types of paper: check. Tipped-in facsimiles of vernacular material: check. Centred, sans-serif type that is underscored instead of italicised: check. There are certain design and format tics that seem to be contagious from year to year. Increasingly, people get hung up on creating over-the-top, bleeding edge design packages when something simple or pared down would be equally if not more suitable and successful. That said, there is so much room now for different ways of putting a body of work onto the printed page, it has led to some really stand-out books – both wildly innovative and more traditional books that have been able to launch careers or solidify reputations.

We’re seeing a dramatic shift in the gallery world, in which the smaller galleries are having a hard time of it – there is less space for showing and selling work, certainly less space for really being able to present an entire body of work, properly contextualised, which is what a book can do so well, and of course, a book can end up in anyone’s hands. A book of interesting work that has been done thoughtfully can certainly bring an artist to another level of attention. There are also a lot more books that I have a hard time wrapping my head around in terms of WHY. Why does this body of work exist in this form and what was the photographer or publishing thinking when they made those decisions? I’m all for borrowing, and great ideas often beget other good ideas, but not if they’re simply adapted without cause and clear intention. Really – more people asking WHY – why am I making this book? Does it need to be a book? And then figuring out the best way to take that forward would be really helpful. If you just want to make a book because it’s expected of you and you think it will help your career, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

JL: Do you believe that even though there are more books published each year, the amount that are really noteworthy has remained perhaps the same as twenty to thirty years ago?

LAM: It’s tempting to think along these lines, and I’ve heard that line before. But when you think about it, the categories and types of books have opened up and changed so dramatically that surely that’s not the case. I mean, how do you evaluate a really great self-published item printed on newsprint against something like the aforementioned Democratic Forest. There are so many more points across a much wider map, there has to be both more and better, don’t you think? They won’t all operate the same way in terms of pushing an artist or a set of ideas forward, and lots will get missed. But I’d like to think optimistically and to believe that there are more, better publications being made across a wider range of possibilities. Of course, there are going to be equivalent larger numbers of worse books getting made as well – and that can be depressing and a little brain-numbing. This is why I’m all for a network of signposts that can help navigate the overload of books – blog posts on sites like,, the fantastic vimeo feed from, Instagram feeds like @10 x10; and tags like #photobookjousting – that’s just a few.

JL: What appeals to you as an editor, when an artist approaches with a ‘finished’ dummy or would you prefer to see the raw material? I am assuming you are open to both ways. Can you estimate a percentage of each?

LAM: It’s so case-by-case and changes season by season. In an upcoming season of six monographs for Spring 2017, none of them came as already formulated dummies. The Autumn 2016 season, three of five books came as dummies. I think it’s helpful for an artist to wrestle with the problem of how to make something into a book, but not helpful for them to get hung up on wanting to control every detail, but to allow room for collaboration and input.

JL: Do you have opinions about publishers who are essentially shifting their role to becoming mainly distributors – taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production and beyond to publish their book.

LAM: There are several sides to this – first, I have to state Aperture’s position on the matter. We do not ask artists to write cheques to fund their books. However, we do have to raise the money for each and every title that we don’t see succeeding exclusively on sales in the mainstream book trade. That usually means a there is a collaborative effort that goes into figuring this out – whether it’s jointly mounting a Kickstarter campaign, to applying for grants, appealing to collectors and our patrons, or selling prints. And it is often a combination of the above.

But I also want to point out that this trend has to be seen, in part, in relation to how the roles have been redistributed across the board. Photographers are increasingly casting themselves as designers and editors so books are coming to a publisher already digested and the decisions that a publisher would usually help guide – what the book looks like and how it needs to be printed and bound, and thereby, what the budget and corresponding price point can or should be, are increasingly claimed by photographers. Along with those decisions come risks and repercussions. Essentially, photographers are becoming co-publishers as much as the simply authors. I’m not saying this makes it all come out fine in the wash, but I don’t think you can ignore that all of these roles function in relation to one another. You push one piece of the puzzle and something else gives way. It’s a reminder that very few of the traditional roles or rules about how publishing worked remain hard and fast anymore and we have to keep moving and evolving.

JL: Have you felt any photobook oversaturation or ‘burn-out’ in these last years either with publishing or photobook festivals?

LAM: I am very aware that the photobook community can easily find itself in conversations that are too much of a closed system, that are less about the work and the world and more about the book (and often arcane details of a particular book) as one tool for exploring and experiencing photography. It can be a little limiting and insular, absolutely. But I also love the obsessiveness and attention to detail and craft that the book community currently hosts, and I believe that a language and body of knowledge around the photobook is in the process of being built – one that has become an important, accepted part of the larger dialogue of photography. The idea that the circulation of an image or a body of work – and in particular it’s circulation on the printed page – is an important part of its history and our understanding of it. And this seems solidly established for the time being. But we have to keep looking forward and as photography continues to change, we know that forms of storytelling and experiencing images – habits of literacy of all kinds – are in the process of changing as well. So, I don’t feel that the level of activity we’re currently at will be sustainable if photobook making and photobook festivals do not continue to evolve. For now, though, this network of fairs is an important means of exchange and commerce – how long it can last is certainly a question I ask myself all the time.

And as for me, I personally reach a certain point of hyper saturation in late November, once the New York Art Book Fair is over, once The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize has been awarded, Paris Photo and Offprint are over and all the “Best of” blogs have been read – when I don’t think that I could possibly look at one more book. But somehow, by January, I find myself picking books up again, drawn by a particular cover or wanting to see what a certain binding material feels like, wondering what’s inside, and what else is out there. Hopefully those impulses – in myself and in others – will continue to be refreshed and rewarded by new, exciting creations and developments in this still-evolving field.

Image courtesy of Lesley A. Martin © Carlo Van de Roer

David Fathi

Wolfgang (CERN archive)

Essay by Jeffrey Ladd

Science brought photography to life. And in turn, photography has served science in any manner of ways, giving visual documentation to experiment and reaction. Taken out of context, however, any photograph that depicts the pure visual ‘facts’ resulting from any given experiment easily slips from science fact into science fiction. Enter David Fathi, an artist whose background in mathematics and computer science has led him to sift through the photo archives of the CERN laboratory in Switzerland and explore the various intersections between art, photography, science, and history with his recent project Wolfgang.

Founded in the 1950s, the CERN laboratory is known for its groundbreaking work on particle theory and for probing the fundamental make-up of the universe. It houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest particle accelerator used to smash protons and discover new particles that have been cast-off from such collisions. Among hundreds of new discoveries, it found evidence of the elusive Higgs boson whose existence was, for half a century, the central unverified question relating to the Standard Model of particle physics. In 2014 the CERN organisation started uploading photographs from their archives in order to start crowdsourcing missing information. According to Fathi, “They were missing information about all these photos and needed the public to help them identify anything useful. Who are the people in the photos? What are these machines? What specific experiments are the photos describing? For what event were some of these photos taken? Through 60 years of life at CERN all this information had been lost. They are still in the process of scanning and uploading but currently there are around 120,000 photos available.”

The central nucleus and title of Fathi’s project is Wolfgang Pauli, one of the pioneers of quantum physics who was nominated for the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physics by none other than Albert Einstein. Apart from his brilliance in physics, Pauli was also infamous to his colleagues for having numerous unexplained accidents and unpredictable instances happen simply due to his presence in the room. Pauli, when entering a lab, was said to invite the ‘Pauli effect’, which was held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment or experiments suddenly self-destructing or yielding different outcomes than before. At a ceremony at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich in 1948, where he was an honoured guest, as Pauli entered the room a flower vase crashed to the floor without any obvious reason.

“Wolfgang Pauli actually believed to some extent in this myth of the ‘Pauli effect,’ ” Fathi recalls, “he had a long correspondence with Carl Jung, and developed with him the theory of synchronicity – the idea that some events are linked by meaning and not causality. On one hand, this for me is kind of incomprehensible as to why some of the greatest minds can give in to superstition, or mystical beliefs. On the other, I believe that scientists who operate on this level of abstraction need to think so far out of the box that they entertain ideas and beliefs that waver between fact and fiction.”

Thus, many of the black and white images Fathi has culled from the vast CERN archive depict failures and unexpected surprises, searching for Pauli’s presence anywhere it might be suggested: a crane upends after trying to lift a shipping container; a car crashes through a metal retaining fence; a large silver sphere hovers in space before a worker; a lab technician standing before a large process camera disappears leaving only his shoes; a ladder accident leaves a man twisted among the rungs with a metal bucket on his head; in the last photograph, a man pulls back a stark white curtain attached to a wall revealing a portrait of Pauli peeking out from behind.

Using such archival material has a significant precedent, which should not be overlooked. Appropriation of this sort was shown most effectively in the mid-1970s when two graduate students from the San Francisco Art Institute, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, used the funds from a National Endowment of the Arts grant to gain access to, and use, various photographs from the archives of government and scientific research laboratories. They published their ‘findings’ in their now legendary exhibition and book Evidence in 1977. The fifty-nine photographs, relieved of captions or additional information, each became an autonomous world of mysterious events and confounding relationships. The viewer was then left in a tug and pull between the strength that each image was known to be in service of an ‘official’ organisation and the weakness brought about by the uncertainty of what the data Evidence claimed to present even was.

A similar tension and humour is also at work in Fathi’s Wolfgang, although a notable difference is that Fathi has manipulated the images beyond their selection. “There are of course manipulations through editing and piecing together a fictitious narrative, but there are also digital manipulations. Some photos are left untouched, and depict a real event, while others are created by erasing, adding or compositing elements, creating ‘particle effects’ and corrupting the image. But the source material is always from the CERN archive.”

The vast majority of the images seem to be sourced from older archives, judging by signifiers such as the clothing style and technology, giving them the veil of early explorations into the unknown. In contrast to recent images from CERN that can be found online, the men in Fathi’s work can seem in over their heads and groping around in the dark – an apt metaphor for science even at its current level. “It’s only through time and experimentation,” Fathi says, “that their ideas are proven or not, but you have to be a bit mad to make a living out of demonstrating that the fabric of reality is totally different than what meets the eye.”

The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” In looking through projects like Wolfgang, one might extend that notion to apply to photography too.

All images courtesy of the artist. © David Fathi

Jeffrey Ladd is an American photographer born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1968. From 2007 to 2012, he wrote over 450 articles for his website 5B4 – Photography and Books, a blog dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications. Ladd is one of the founders of Errata Editions, an independent publishing company whose Books on Books series has won many awards for their scholarship into rare and out of print photobooks. He is currently based in Koeln, Germany.

Boris Mikhailov


Walther König

It is bitter irony that the Soviet system essentially created Boris Mikhailov. Fired from his job as an engineer in a weapons factory on accusations of publishing ‘pornography’ – after developing and printing some nude photos of his partner in the company darkroom – he was drawn into the local underground alternative arts scene. Since his beginnings in the 1960s, Mikhailov has been removing the artificial “mask of beauty” on the region, its politics and his society as brilliantly presented in his new book Diary from Walther König.

Do not mistake this book as a retrospective, nor as its title states, strictly as a diary either. A diary implies a chronologic chain of events and this book is anything but. Made up from his favourite outtakes and variants of his different series, Diary skips back and forth through time and subject as fluidly as Mikhailov tests, experiments and dismantles the medium. His prints – presented here as objects taped to pages sketchbook style – are unprecious, imperfect, torn, and fogged. Their surfaces reminding you of the physicality of the photograph while the images themselves reveal his championing of the anti-hero, the imperfection, the error, and the corrosion of ideology.

If, as it was once said, that man thinks of sex every seven seconds, in Diary it is implied every seven pages. Mikhailov happily exposes his private sexual world and fantasy to the public sphere. That which enabled his artistic leap, ‘the pornographic’, is his undeniable muse. Francesco Zanot writes in his accompanying essay, “…without hypocrisy or shame, Mikhailov fills his frames with a wide range of sexual acts, from masturbation to orgasms. The result is a collective orgy which… becomes a new utopia.”

Structured into four sections, this densely thick 400-plus page opus with more than 900 images, Diary is not a book for a single sitting. Taking in small chunks of Mikhailov’s method, mockery and irreverent theatrics that tackle the history and crash of one former empire, one might start to wonder what Vladimir Putin might think of having a deviant like Mikhailov around to piss on his Ukrainian dream.

— Jeffrey Ladd

All images courtesy of Walther König © Boris Mikhailov

Mariken Wessels

Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor

APE Editions

Mariken Wessels’ new book Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor from APE Editions weaves a semi-plausible tale of husband and wife, a failed marriage, sexual frustration and voyeurism told through an archive of photographs, collage and sculpture.

Henry, an amateur artist, photographed his spouse and muse Martha in various states of undress, amassing more than 5,500 photographs, which he carefully catalogued, labelled, notated and cross-indexed. Feeling shame and regret over the pictures, Martha eventually worked up the courage to destroy many of the prints and leave the relationship. After the failure of the marriage, Henry became a recluse, piecing together what was left of his repository into collages used as sketches for clay models he in turn sculpted. Eventually Henry retreated from art and life altogether, disappearing into the wooded areas of Northwestern New Jersey never to be heard from again.

Wessels ‘translates’ the archive and other unconnected material into a retelling of events, which, as she states, “contains constructed elements, since no collection of facts can ever be a story in itself.”

The images we encounter first, inherently refer to the medium’s ‘cheesecake’ photographs and camera clubs which portray nude models quite explicitly and tried to hide their lusty gaze under the term of ‘figure studies.’ Presented in Wessels’ book as grids like contact sheets, they describe an obsessive taxonomy with little variation between frame composition, situation, or rolls of film – duplicating the wife into thousands of prints. The feeling of detachment, as if a stranger made them, is compounded by his labels and notes on which are written descriptions of basic poses; Kneeling, Bust together, Standing forward, Taking off.

In the book’s second chapter, Martha has left and we are faced with a collection of forty-six collages made by Henry from the remnants of material. Here Martha’s image is diced and spliced into wild compositions that veer quickly into the grotesque. Martha is surreally transformed into folds of thighs and breasts, mounds of flesh and patterns of the bedsheets. The work appears disturbed and controlling, angry even, as do their titles: Double belly knees up; Wrap Kneeling X; Triangle Busts XX; Hang Squeeze Busts; Bra Special X.

This sensation is offset once one sees the subsequent clay models attributed to Henry. They strip away the collage into cleaner forms – white and pure. Odd but somehow delicate and feeling elegantly constructed from a surprisingly loving hand, they complicate our former feelings towards Henry’s implied behaviour. Lastly, we encounter Henry’s withdrawal from society through a series of animal hunting traps attributed to his making that were found and photographed near Henry’s last known home, a self built cabin in New Jersey.

Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor adequately serves as a ‘catalogue raisonne’ of sorts of Henry’s artistic pursuit. His photography eventually cost him his muse and normalcy of life but the sculptures hint at something else – a creative vision that few would mistake for madness.

—Jeffrey Ladd

All images courtesy of the artist. © Mariken Wessels

Susana Vargas


Editorial RM

In the 1930s and 40s, the newspaper photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) exposed hundreds, if not thousands, of sheets of film of suspects detained by police emerging from police wagons into the brunt of his flashbulbs. While a majority of the arrested attempt to evade his camera and hide their identities with hats or handkerchiefs, one group seem to enjoy the presence of a camera smiling and posing for his camera like starlets – I am speaking of his photographs of transvestites. Susana Vargas’ new book Mujercitos from Editorial RM explores a similar phenomenon across the border in the world of Mexican transvestites as they appeared in the pages of the infamous Mexican weekly periodical Alarma!.

The term ‘mujercitos’, was coined by Alarma!’s Editor in Chief as a synonym for an ‘effeminate man’ and mujercitos were the subject of 286 stories that ran in the periodical between 1963 and 1986 – nearly one article per month. It is not often clear from the texts why the men have been detained but the implication is criminalisation for ‘deception’ – for being attractive on the streets and by extension of the publication, into the homes of the majority of ‘straight’ readers of Alarma!. These stories play both sides of the straight/gay divide at once celebrating their femininity and inviting a homoerotic response in the viewer to the mujercitos and yet condemning them as ‘degenerates’ or ‘perverts’.

Regardless, in most articles the mujercitos do not belie their femininity due to the camera’s presence or detainment. As the book’s editor Susana Vargas speculates, instead they show it off, aware of their image and momentarily taking control of the spectacle as a small act of resistance to the country’s homophobia. Like the transvestite in Weegee’s photo who daintily lifts her skirt as she descends from the wagon to the sidewalk, mujercitos turn the camera from a tool of condemnation into one of empowerment.

—Jeffrey Ladd

All images courtesy of Editorial RM. © Potros Editores, S.A. of C.V. and Alarma!

Daniel Shea

Blisner, IL

Special book review by Jeffrey Ladd

I have never heard of a town called Blisner, Illinois. Not that it matters much. I don’t make a personal study of being able to recall every town name spread large and small across the United States but I could easily imagine a few thousand people with birth certificates issued from Blisner’s hospital as I could also imagine most of them as bored, angst-ridden teenagers breaking bottles along the railroad tracks dreaming of the day when their turn comes to flee Blisner too. The town may not be found in any atlas or cited on road maps even though the name sounds genuine enough but there is one source, a book by the American photographer Daniel Shea, which proclaims its existence – so I am game. Gullibility balanced with a blissful state of ignorance can be a favourable trait to possess while looking at photobooks.

Supposedly seated within the rust belt, much of what shaped Blisner’simaginary economy, its industrial foundations, were apparently consumed as capitalism expanded to turn its hungry eye on its young. Shea’s book Blisner, IL opens with a preface of sorts, a book within a book featuring several pages of spreads of what seems to be a previously published volume on Blisner and what remains of its once cherished industry – a monument to coal miners; train-less rail lines and iron bridgework; an archive photograph of a coal-smudged miner; and cinematic double portrait of a man in a rust (or blood) spotted t-shirt on whose forehead appears the shadow of a cross; another man feeds a vegetation fire with cut logs.

Beginning the first chapter, a double image of windows reflecting nothing but shades of coal-like darkness open to a small waterway skinned with green algae; a crane sitting mid-water in idyllic sunlight; and a diptych of a young black man whose gestural grace and seeming sightlessness transcends the act of fishing in which he is the central player. Once Shea allows us bits and pieces of Blisner’s ‘main street’ the painted surfaces of walls and brickwork ring of a false tone that at once refer to and defer the town’s history while the windows seem to glow with the long gone flames of forging fire. Shea balances a confusion of fact (that of, objects found in the ‘real’ world) and fiction to paint, less a specific story, rather a series of cryptic messages that metaphorically define place, history, and mythology in the wake of deindustrialisation: a fading mural of buildings; fragments of monuments; weeds frozen into the surface of water; a ‘city’ sign; a duct-taped broken window; movie theatre marquees blank and unused.

Perceived in a different context, these bits and pieces of a town offered by Shea are camouflaged to most by everyday life. But isolated within his new photographic frame of reference they take on new meanings that further solidify Blisner’s presence, or rather, state of mind. Furthermore, as Blisner seems to be a reality woven from an assembly of disconnected locations – all with their own lineage and history – then it lends itself as a surrogate to comment on that larger state of a country where globalisation and demands of economy have shifted from production.

Some way into Blisner, IL a section of printed on different paper stock opens a dark suite of photographs that seem to swallow light from its pages: a railway spike; pairs of metal posts that from the first angle slant away from one another and in the second image from a different perspective form a crossing; an owl peering from a rupture in a wall; a stunning piece of industrial architecture now abandoned; a grainy old photo of men working a pit. These images, although using the same photographic language as the preceding photographs, seem more evidentiary as if to suggest a counter image to myth and monument.

The final act of Blisner, IL visualises what was being alluded to throughout, a finality of closure that lingers everywhere. Windows are bricked, gates are closed, a bouquet of wilting roses is offered, grasses take hold, a painted sign declares ‘Why not now?’, and in the final images a pair of hanging traffic lights turn from green to red.

If I have qualms with Shea’s structure of Blisner, IL it is mostly with the myopia of his vision. Much of the work focuses our attention upon small details which, although are important and in many cases certainly beautiful, he offers little by way of variation of vantage point. It is like a film shot ninety per cent in close-ups where the one’s ability to see into the far distance is always curbed. Leafing page to page this can induce a sense of tunnel vision with the reader wanting a wider field of view – something a little less focused to establish our bearings again. Perhaps one can argue that is a perfect sensation to induce for a book about a make-believe town whose industry was mainly working underground and in confined spaces. This relentlessness of Shea’s to keep us with our noses pressed tightly against his frames will work for some, but even considering the aforementioned possibility, in this reader’s case, it stagnates the flow of the book a little leaving the physicality of the elegant bookmaking to provide the desired variance.

As an object, Blisner, IL is smart, hip and pleasing in almost every aspect of design from the debossed image on the front cover of a silhouetted train-rail anchor to the colophon information printed into the back cloth. The spine reads an alternate title for the book, An Index of Work As Labor As Work. Within this nonsensical phrase sounds a homage – one to the cost from entire sectors of industry which have fallen by the wayside and have failed to be replaced. It is that that makes this apparition of Blisner, IL, a frightening image and one that will be all too familiar with time. 

All images courtesy of Webber Represents © Daniel Shea

Jeffrey Ladd is an American photographer born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1968. From 2007 to 2012, he wrote over 450 articles for his website 5B4 – Photography and Books, a blog dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications. Ladd is one of the founders of Errata Editions, an independent publishing company whose Books on Books series has won many awards for their scholarship into rare and out of print photobooks. He is currently based in Koeln, Germany.