Stefanie Moshammer

Not just your face honey

Spector Books

The American band LCD Soundsystem often sound a lot like Joy Division, or David Bowie, or The Fall, or innumerable other bands. But they also sound great, and unmistakably like themselves. Current C/O Berlin Talent awardee Stefanie Moshammer’s photo book Not just your face honey is also a lot like many other things. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it starts with a letter, which may or may not be ‘epistolary fiction’. It matters not, because in either case the letter serves as an intriguing set up.

The rest of the book – a series of photographs which echo the text of the letter or symbolise related themes – is an edgy study of attraction and obsession, studded with strong sexual metaphors (such as a suggestively female kiwi fruit, an equally erotic orange, a cock-and-balls cactus and a giant cock rock). It is also – like the latest LCD Soundsystem album – about the death of the celebrity-obsessed American dream. This is subtly inferred throughout, but most memorably by a ripped tyre fragment in the dirt, its colour and shape mirroring a subsequent dead bald eagle, nailed to a mast. Figuration, direct reference, allusion, subtext, metaphor – this book has all the layered depth of a good novel, never mind a good photo book.

There’s something of Sophie Calle in all the surveillance and the stalking tendency. One or two cinematic pictures have a touch of the Gregory Crewdson aesthetic too. And in many ways – with its letter and a map introducing a warped love story told in both colour and monochrome, its road trip, telephones and tyre tracks, its mash-up of photographic styles, and its sprinkling with studio set pieces – it is more than a little like Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood.

Smart and millennial, Moshammer’s mix-and-match art is deft in its lightness of execution. However, as it occasionally wears its influences a tad heavily, maybe it misses greatness with little lapses in idiosyncrasy. But this is a picky criticism: Not just your face honey is a deeply ambitious and generally very successful work by an early-career artist. If she continues with this much imagination, sophistication and skill, many more awards should follow. Talent indeed.

Simon Bowcock

All images courtesy of the artist and Spector Books. © Stefanie Moshammer

Guillaume Simoneau

Experimental Lake


In itself, even the most detailed photograph, decontextualised as it always is from its physical and temporal surroundings, carries minimal meaning. But in a book, photographs accrue additional connotations via their mutual relationships, lending each other context, which, individually, they intrinsically lack. However, where the associations between the pictures are loose, there is a danger of incoherence. At worst, and most often, this approach results in a non-committal, confusing or even annoying photobook. At best, but more rarely, it can produce a fascinating, enigmatic work of art.

Fortunately, Guillaume Simoneau’s Experimental Lake tends towards the latter category. Made in a pristine region of north-west Ontario, in and around a world-class research facility exploring human impact on the natural environment, his elliptical, mainly colour photographs seldom vex and mostly intrigue. It certainly helps that Simoneau has a strong command of colour and a sophisticated eye for visual correspondence. A recurrent tangle motif runs right through the book, from the front cover to the very last photograph: a wire model, sewing, grass on water, a screen saver… they all suggest that everything is interconnected, and perhaps validate the need for the research Simoneau documents.

But there isn’t a clearly discernible position taken by the photographer, or even a dominant mood. In typically postmodern fashion, any overall meaning isn’t made obvious by the artist, and must be ascribed by the viewer. Is this research important, or inconsequential in the face of human activity and its effects on the planet? Will these scientists’ work have an impact, or are they just messing about in boats, fiddling while Rome burns?

The latter is suggested by the book’s afterword, a tiny found photograph tipped into the back cover: three youthful carefree figures crowd in a little boat on the water, while on the shoreline beyond, the forest is ablaze.

But perhaps we should not be so swift to judge. This image is not unlike Thomas Hoepker’s controversial 9/11 photograph, in which young people seem to be lounging indifferently across the water from a smoke-spewing Manhattan. As the widespread and heated discussion of Hoepker’s picture has demonstrated, photographs are at least as mendacious as they are meaningless, and we should draw conclusions with care.

Simon Bowcock

Images courtesy of MACK. © Guillaume Simoneau

Sam Contis

Deep Springs


Young men, the Wild West, Deep Springs Valley, California. For her first book, Sam Contis has mixed century-old archive photographs with new ones she has made in the same locality. A gentle, unforced continuity runs through the photographs in Deep Springs, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the old from the new.

Rugged landscapes, rugged faces, a cow’s torso, a man’s torso. It’s as if the earth and the animals and the men are the same. But – as the book’s pink endpapers hint – this isn’t just the macho west of the classic cowboy. There is femininity, even a subtle sexual undercurrent. And the tender images are just as likely to be the old ones, such as a delicate young man barely concealed by his towel.

A young man holding a plant, his hands caked in the dirt of today, mirrors another young man reading in the dusty past: sustaining the body and feeding the soul. Nice geometric and thematic correspondences persist throughout the book. The curve of a dusty road as it embraces a rocky hillside is the same as the curve of a man’s arm as it grips another man. All is suggestion, and little is shown. Much is hidden, like a man’s emotions. The images often flow beautifully, such as a water-themed sequence culminating in clothes drying on a line. But by the end of the book, the clothes have become rags.

What can we glean from all this? First, nothing changes. Now is as then. Men are men, but men can be gentle. There’s killing and hard physical work to be done, but there’s also learning and leisure and friendship. Sometimes there’s more than friendship. And it has always been so. Second, we are the land. We spring from it and are shaped by it. Its harshness is our harshness. Its beauty is our beauty. But in the end, only the land remains. We return to its dust. A rocky outcrop which recurs throughout the book sits proudly as its final image. Imperious and impassive, it couldn’t care less. 1917 or 2017, we come and go. The land doesn’t notice.

Simon Bowcock

Images courtesy of MACK. © Sam Contis

Daido Moriyama


Akio Nagasawa Publishing

With thin pages between organic-feeling cloth covers, this slight book of photographs seems as delicate and fragile as life itself. Its first image, shot from a dispassionate distance, could be of a tiny pair of strange prawns, touching at the tail. But the next picture, a distressing close-up, dispels any illusion of the non-human: what look like two cowering newborns hug each other, all wrinkled skin and baby-fat wrists. Visual correspondence between two images – common and commonly inconsequential in photobooks – has rarely been used with such life-and-death profundity. For these are not prawns or live babies. They are dead embryos and dead foetuses.

Heartrending yet detached and neutral, Moriyama’s stream of never-borns ebbs and flows between the amorphous and the gravely human. Potent individual images abound: a male silhouette’s hands are stretched out, as if trying to grab onto life; another is dumped upside-down into a translucent bag, the human treated inhumanely. But most powerful of all is a recurring luminous figure, its face to the floor, seemingly trying to crawl. Immobile, we see it from behind, from above, from the side: a few grainy, refulgent pictures of apparent failure which stand for all human helplessness and despair. Nothing could be further from the globally-celebrated scientific wonder of Lennart Nilsson’s roughly contemporaneous pre-natal foetus photographs.

Made over half a century ago, Moriyama’s pictures reflect his embryonic career as a struggling young photographer. But they offer much more. Most of them are ethereal, almost unreal, and the heartbreak they provoke is all the stronger for their sensitivity and gentleness. They also demonstrate a level of traditional technical accomplishment and control not readily associated with an artist best known for rejecting photographic conventions and pushing his medium to a new frantic extreme of unfocused grain and blur.

Most importantly, Pantomime is the work of a young image-maker who is already a true artist, even before finding what we think of as his own photographic voice. At a very early stage of his development, Moriyama created the base material he has now formed into one of his finest photobooks.

Simon Bowcock

Images by Simon Bowcock, courtesy Akio Nagasawa and © Daido Moriyama

John Cohen

Cheap Rents ... and de Kooning


According to the artist Mary Frank, in Lower Manhattan around 1960 “you couldn’t tell a party from an opening from a happening.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creative polymath John Cohen was very much in tune with this place and time when music, art and literature all seemed to merge and explode.

A film-maker, musicologist and prominent folk revival musician, Cohen is also an accomplished and at times original photographer. Here, Cohen paints a broad picture of the buzzing downtown art scene centred around ‘the block’ in 10th Street over half a century ago. Many of his grainy, available-light photographs of laughter and camaraderie taken in the bars and the galleries mirror their subjects’ artistic authenticity and consummately capture the atmosphere: Franz Kline’s snigger and Grace Hartigan’s laugh are almost infectious to look at.

Cohen’s often fine documentary photographs are supplemented by more lyrical ones. One image of a middle-aged man smiling down on two children is both warming (his paternalistic care) and disturbing (they pass “unfortunate homeless winos laying out on the sidewalks”). It has so much poetry it could have been taken by Roy DeCarava if it weren’t so unconventional. Another poetic picture – of a shadowy woman floating in a 10th Street window – is at least as lonely as Robert Adams’ famous silhouetted figure in her Colorado Springs tract house, and is just as skillful an evocation of melancholy.

Cohen’s portraits, by contrast, are wonderfully warm, but the one of Mary Frank’s husband Robert is edgy and unsettling. Robert Frank is just as intense in the photographs of him making his now legendary film Pull My Daisy, even if his collaborators Ginsberg, Kerouac and others seem more relaxed. And as Cohen underlines with an inventive Rauschenberg-esque assemblage of prints (of Robert Rauschenberg), Cheap Rents is primarily an artistic record of a place and a time when people were truly alive, very much in the world, living for art, and pushing ideas to their limits – together.

From the increasingly online, isolated and comparatively innovation-free present, this all seems very distant. “There is nothing like it today,” notes Cohen. Unfortunately, he’s right.

– Simon Bowcock

All images courtesy of Steidl. © John Cohen

Gerard Petrus Fieret

Gerard Petrus Fieret

Éditions Xavier Barral/Le Bal

Chaotic and unpredictable, the Dutch artist, poet and photographer Gerard Petrus Fieret passed away in poverty in 2009 at the age of 85. This near-600-page book coincides with a recent retrospective at Paris’ Le Bal of Fieret the photographer, who took most of his pictures between 1965 and 1975.

The mini skirt loomed large in Fieret’s photographic lexicon, and young women were his favourite subjects. But Fieret was no peeping Tom in the Miroslav Tichý mode, and his complicit collaborators always look comfortable, even in consistently insalubrious surroundings. The resulting photographs are intimate without being explicit, sexy but never smutty.

Stylistically, the work is highly ‘lo-fi’: all grainy black and white; often out of focus, overexposed, or even solarised; and usually covered in cack or otherwise maltreated. All this complements the slightly sordid subject matter, and also lends an accelerated decrepitude, making the pictures look ancient. Fieret, who was reputedly paranoid about his work being appropriated by rivals, also liked to stamp and/or sign his prints across the images themselves, often multiple times, completing their idiosyncratic look.

Despite containing many hundreds of photographs, with lots of blurred faces, self-portraits, crossed knees and many other parts of the female anatomy, the book seldom feels repetitive. You can see right through the thin paper stock to the images on adjoining pages, and this can bring out surprising relationships between the pictures, or help reinforce a brief narrative.

We frequently get a sense of zooming in, getting closer and closer, more and more intimate. But even though the photographs gradually become a bit more naughty, they always remain playful and suggestive, implicit rather than explicit. This helps keep the book compelling throughout, and the overriding mood is one of levity, or even joy. But the joy in these photographs is the joy of the distant past. And there are also pictures of decaying walls, clapped-out doors, crumbling faces, old people and old photographs, also covered in the crap of the darkroom and the patina of post-production neglect.

So what does it all mean? Perhaps this: Beauty fades, everything decays – and quickly. So live and love – and do it now.

Simon Bowcock

All images courtesy of Éditions Xavier Barral. © Gerard Petrus Fieret