Photobook Reader Reviews: Spirit is a Bone and Shelter Island (but not really)

I have only ever written a handful of ‘reviews’ on this site – it has never been the purpose of the platform in any way – and still is not, but for a few reasons I like to engage with the process. Primarily the review allows a new connection to the work and a deeper engagement with it – positive or negative – it demands a concretisation of loose and often fleeting thoughts. Secondly, the review, from a readers perspective should be invaluable to the author of the work – I am consistently surprised by the emphasis placed on a few ‘elite’ and selected reviewers over a true readership, especially with works that seek ‘to do’. Thirdly, any books I receive end up at Photobook Club events or, if light enough (and this is a very serious limitation) touring round different locations, getting posted to other parts of the world and being enjoyed by tens and hundreds of people.

With this in mind I thought a reader’s perspective on a recent publication* from MACK and a brief comment on another would be a good start. These books were received amongst others and were unsolicited. I had originally planned to write about Ivars Gravlejs’ Early Works – a book that I took to a Winter book club in Coventry and was extremely popular, but Colin Pantall had already written a thorough piece on the book which resembled a lot of my own thoughts**.

*New issues are interesting for sure but how about more reviews on older works/books that didn’t sell well/second editions etc?

** Colin’s review was posted in July – giving some cause to think that I may never be someone to write about a book when it first launches.

Oliver Chanarin & Adam Broomberg
Spirit is a Bone

It is inevitable that with a medium like the photobook, in which we, the reader, are given so much room to bring our own thoughts to the experience of reading, that we will find books articulating what we are thinking about at the time. I spent time with Spirit of the Bone at the same time as I was getting my head around the underlying state of the ‘visual’ that led to James Bridle’s proposal of a ‘New Aesthetic‘. The New Aesthetic – which represents a new way of looking and making, influenced by an undercurrent of computational seeing manifests itself in the everyday screenshot, glitch, timecode, manipulation or satellite image. Broomberg and Chanarin’s work immediately connects with these notions of computation seeing – images in a hybrid form – recognisable not as photographs but as photographic elements.

Spirit is a bone_ 7

The series of portraits in this book, which include Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevic and many other Moscow citizens, were created by a machine: a facial recognition system recently developed in Moscow for public security and border control surveillance. The result is more akin to a digital life mask than a photograph; a three-dimensional facsimile of the face that can be easily rotated and closely scrutinised. (MACK)

Spirit is a bone_ 9Together, the series as a taxonomy of portraits of resistance and futility is powerful. The breadth of subjects and the sense of ‘collection’ together with their lifeless representation through the cameras and software creates a highly voyeuristic reading. To compare a reading of this book with a visit to a taxidermy museum would not seem too far fetched.  Physically the book is commanding and exquisitely printed – the separation of image from page via tip-in(?) highlighting the alienation of subject from surrounding, reduced to algorithmic visual interpretation.

An interview follows the photographic section of the book – suggesting augmentation and addition as apposed to essential reading. The interview (between B+C and Eyal Weizman) is a little meandering. Physiognomy and phrenology give way to forensics and taxonomies, colonialism and retrospective anthropology before arriving at surveillance and facial recognition in relation to terror and modern conflict. A little more focus and some discussion on the process (including subject selection) would have improved my own reading and understanding of the work.

Spirit is a bone_ 16

A note on reading: Despite spending considerable time with the book, and having explored each page, I have never done so in a sitting and have not felt much has been missed in not reading the book in a single, linear fashion. I would be really keen to hear how others have navigated through books like this, and whether you feel it has had an impact on what you have taken away from the experience.

Roe Ethridge
Shelter Island

Shelter Island_ 8

Erm…. how to comment on a Roe Ethridge book? I don’t really want to comment on the work actually, as a reader I found it rather thin and was given no help in the work (Shelter Island is the only piece of tex aside from acknowledgements). For what it’s worth I figured that Ehridge was interested in speaking about the changing relationship to place (in current and past forms) that digital technology has brought about. What is really exciting about this work though is that it is a wonderfully made book, with high quality prints, of a decent size…. and for £10! Of course Ethridge’s name likely helps keep the edition size up and cost down but to know that works of this quality can be sold for £10 is so encouraging – perhaps MACK might consider a progression of Schilt’s excellent ‘Grey Matters’ series?


I like it, what is it? Ron Jude’s ‘Lago’

Disclosure note: I requested and received a review copy of Lago from the publishers, MACK

Ron Jude’s ‘Lago’ is a bit of a mystery to me, but one in which intrigue manages to outweigh frustration. Putting aside the typical blurb/statement that either whets your whistle or grinds your gears for its high score on the bullshit meter…

If one considers these traces to be a coded language of some sort, Jude’s act of photographing and piecing them together becomes a form of cryptography – like a poetic archeology that, rather than attempting to arrive at something conclusive, looks for patterns and rhythms that create congruity out of the stuttering utterances of the visible world.


… the work itself is really worth a look. There are few similarities with Lick Creek Line, at least in relation to sequence and rhythm of the book, instead it might bring to mind Gregory Halpern’s ‘A’ – seemingly disjointed, somewhat claustrophobic and reading a little like the stream-of-consciousness-style books we have seen becoming popular of late. What interests me most in the photobook are the separations of images, structure of the book and the repetitions of subjects and image styles – as I spent time with the work I felt more and more that the order dictated by Western reading (left to right) was a convenience as apposed to necessity.


This book read like the internet – loosely structured and waiting for connections to be imposed. Saying this, it is certainly not as try-hard in its random nature as the likes of Roe Ethridge – Jude has, through recognisable American photographic tropes and attention to shape, texture and colour, given small links and suggestions throughout. It is though, the sound recordings that accompany the book made by Joshua Bonnetta that really bring it to life…

Accessed via a download from the MACK site, these two soundscapes (a side A and B) offer an immersive experience, giving voice to characters suggested in images and overlaying what I can only describe as a more ‘homely’ and relatable narrative onto the rather desolate images. The recordings pose so many questions about ‘reading’ that it is hard to know where to start or whether I should even be attempting to answer them – for starters, each recording is just over 20 minutes – am I taking shortcuts by spending less time with the book? The two sides – should I read the book one time with each? Sides A and B – reminding me perhaps to flip the book – start one at one end and one at another? Should headphones be used? How important are these recordings? The must be downloaded from a link so they automatically remove us from an isolating experience with the book.


I appreciate some of these questions are stupid, the use of the audio is of course open to interpretation, but some discussion surely must be present. Not least for me because my burning question from the Lago experience is – what is it? The experience I had in reading and listening was greater than the parts – but it was also disruptive as I navigated the book and sometimes skipped sections of audio on the computer. I wonder why this isn’t a photofilm, and then I wonder whether a photofilm would have held attention for the time the book does.

I found this a really exciting project and one which I really hope will generate some lively discussion both from readers and from those involved in the publication itself.

Photobook Bristol – a brief review

Back from Photobook Bristol and getting a chance to look back through notes and reflect on conversations, themes and format. For a quick review of the event from someone involved, have a look at Colin Pantall’s blog in which he celebrates openness and a feelgood atmosphere, and for the programme, see here. It is hard to disagree with the feelgood festival atmosphere – it was clearly a celebration of photography and it’s relationship with the book but there was a distinct lack of substance or openness.

Speakers for the most part were of a particular set and without the inclusion of some newer blood in the likes of Abril, Pez, Degiorgis, Atkinson and Bush, you would very much feel as though you had paid someone to bring all their friends together for a chinwag. Some of the presenters were fascinating to hear from (Kessels and Mitchell in particular) but spoke little about the book, only occasionally and briefly mentioning a publication or design choice. Perhaps with some reorganisation of the available lineup there still could have been more engaging sessions – I would certainly love to hear more about Daniel Meadows thoughts on publication, digital storytelling and community engagement rather than what was essentially a presentation of a project. Similarly Erik Kessels was brought in for a feel good and humorous ending but at the expense of an exploration into his very playful use of the photographic book.

The price of the event should not be overlooked, most folks having paid £115 for the event (including some good food) – as a funding model it works but ultimately degrades the conversations and interactions – essentially the ticket price acts as a barrier for a whole bunch of people who might be less enamoured by the book than the super fans in the room and thus might offer some resistance or alternatives to the celebratory occasion. Despite the rather predictable demographic in the room it would have been interesting to include the audience more often. A large number of sessions had no room at all for Q+A, others only 3 or 4 questions were put forward. The inclusion of a hashtag or digital community space might allow for some additional layers of conversation that could then be expanded on in the break sessions.

Some of the more interesting panels that attempted to address what might be problematic areas of the photobook world (‘PhotoBiblioMania’ and ‘Let’s talk about Money’) were buried in the early morning slots at 09.30. It is worth highlighting Jeff Ladd and Lewis Bush as two voices on these panels that presented alternative views and posited some challenging questions, though the former was heckled for his. A personal lowlight was the ‘First Photobook’ panel with Eamonn Doyle, Kate Nolan and Kazuma Obara, chaired by Colin Pantall – The panel was a great opportunity to unpick the ‘success’ of three recent works in relation to the author’s intent. Unfortunately success was seen as the selling out of a book and Pantall failed to interrogate answers such as ‘I am glad it’s sold out so I can move on with the next thing’ (Nolan), a token question about the sustainability of the photobook world was included, again not in any depth.

Interestingly, both Parr and David Solo, in a separate panel were somewhat negative about consideration of the photobook in online spaces, Facebook groups etc. There is a great deal of truth here in that these platforms can often generate self promotion and repetitive and meaningless confirmation as well as nepotism but I struggle to think of Photobook Bristol any differently.

What was most telling about the event was that the word ‘market’ was used more often than the word ‘audience’, and this is a problem for the event itself. There is as yet no identity or intention for Photobook Bristol, it is not a conference or a book fair, describing itself as a ‘festival’ – and so perhaps it is unfair to expect more than was delivered. I would be keen to hear views from those that went or any that tried to watch form afar.


Paul Graham’s ‘The Present’

Having just posted a big ol’ list of Graham’s other publications, NY-based photographer and writer Adam bell got in touch to offer his own review of the book which I have yet to see.

From Adam:
“I thought you might like the following review I wrote for The Present back in April. It appeared in The Brooklyn Rail. The link to my blog contains spreads, whereas the Rail link does not.”

Adele Reed on ‘A1: The Great North Road’, a personal reflection

Thanks go to photographer Adele Reed for sharing her thoughts on Paul Graham’s ‘A1: The Great North Road’. If you would like to share your own thoughts on this book, do so in the comments section below or to me via email.

Graham’s portrait of this historically endearing straight-forward British system is poignant in many ways. The moments he captured and brought away from the culture along the road are portrayed in a candid, sympathetic and honest manner, serving tribute to working class Britain, their collective apathy of the eighties, and the despondent neglect the road suffered during these times. Rupert Martin wrote in an essay published as an introduction to the series that Graham illustrated the ‘kind of self-sufficient melancholy’ of the people – who somehow seem downtrodden but proud of their society.


For me it’s a heartfelt and warm testament to the salt of the Earth, the genuine, honest members of our nation who keep the cogs turning, who support the road, and who the road supports back. Cafe interiors crumble into decay but a charm withstands: vibrantly painted walls and garish patterned curtains reflect fashions and a flamboyancy our country should be proud of. I feel a deep affection for our provincial towns whilst viewing the images.

Adele Reed



And if you haven’t seen the book yet…

Photobooks: A Few Good Reads

A few books I have been enjoying lately, not all new books but new to me at least:

Chatanooga, The Green Factory
– Pierre Bessard, design by Muriel Paris


Here is a book that completely cheered me up after the disappointment of Magnum’s ‘Postcards from America’.
From the moment you open up the book’s containing box there is a sense of occasion, the book can be teased out of it’s perfectly formed home by the matching green thread and we are presented with a beautifully crafted hardback book. The book, and box are both of exquisite design but where this sometimes overshadows content, in ‘The Green Factory’ it does not.

Inside we meet with a variety of families who are associated with the Alstom power plant in Chatanooga, TN. Their own piece and interpretation of the American Dream set out alongside an unconventionally formal and distant family portrait. This book will keep me coming back for more, not only is there a large amount of content here, but it certainly invites second, third and fourth visits. Bessard points us to key phrases but there is also enough here from the mouths of the subjects that we can infer our own readings and interpretations and create a more personal experience. If I had seen this book last year, it certainly would have made the ‘B#@t of 2011’ list.

Photographs Not Taken
– Various (Ed by Will Steacy)


It seems that just about everyone was queuing up to get this one, and rightly so. This is a fantastic collection of short essays collected and curated by Will Steacy. Each essay from a smorgasbord of photographers describes a picture not taken, a picture missed perhaps, or a moment unable to be rendered in the confines of photography. The paperback form here really suits the material and can be read as a collection of fascinating short stories, or dipped in and out of at will.

Also worth checking out is Michael David Murphy’s ‘Unphotographable’ blog in which the photographer pens his unmade images which become a collection of tableau vivants.

In the Shadow of Things
– Léonie Hampton


I have no idea how I came across this book, or why, i’m also not sure exactly how I feel about it but it’s a touching and intriguing book for sure. Léonie has documented her Mother’s struggle with OCD and how it has affected her personality, environment and relationships. The images present single moments, snapshots of feelings and events presented together with occasional montages of family photos and collages.

My criticism of this book is simply that I found there was too much here to take in. So many moments that carry significance to the narrative that I felt somewhat lost within it: perhaps this was Léonie’s intention. The accompanying recorded conversations at the back of the book provide interesting points to dive back into the images, I would have loved to hear these discussions as I navigated the book.

Bird Watching
– Paula McCartney


Darius Himes states that this book “is purely delightful; it teases and engages the intellect as well as soothes the spirit with it’s crafty and crafted, playfulness”, and I agree wholeheartedly with him, it’s just a shame that with such thorough crafting of the images, the book itself, while well designed, could have gone further to emulate the twitchers journal it mimics. The notes that accompany each image are especially fun once the book’s secret is revealed, but seeing it artificially produced to live flat on a page removes some of the book’s appeal as an object.
(see a more in depth and articulate review and comment of this book over here by Douglas Stockdale)

A Minha Casa e Onde Estas/ My Home is where you are
– Filipe Casaca


‘My home is where you are’ is clearly made with love and affection by Filipe Casaca, the small images proudly displayed high on the large page resemble sculptures more than images, still lives of his partner over a period of years. The scale causes you to intrude onto the book and into their lives which, over 15 images is presented to us not as blissful fairytale but as a relationship with moments both tender and tense.

The book alone provides an aesthetically interesting read but when time is spent with the accompanying text and interview, the reading of this book becomes a more complete experience.
(I have just seen this post by Wayne Ford on this wee book which, just like Douglas’s review, is more in-depth and eloquent!)

– Matt

Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America’

I should preface the below by saying that this is only my own view on Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America‘, as yet, I have only really heard positive things about the book.

I’m not interested in slating this publication, but, as there are more of these trips planned by Magnum and their all-star cast, I thought I would share my thoughts for anyone pondering a potential purchase, you can hear other points of view on this publication herehere and here.

If you do not know of the project, and product already, check out this video walkthrough from a true photo hero of mine, Mr Alec Soth:

Magnum’s ‘Postcards From America‘ is an interesting exploration into a section of the Southern States of America, the collaborations between photographers and with writer Ginger Strand lead to new and exciting perspectives. I particularly enjoyed Soth and Subotzky’s input. However, I am not producing a view of the content here, but of the product instead:

Instead of a traditional book, Magnum present us instead with a box, and within this box we find all manner of objects along with a sticker detailing our edition number and presenting the 5 signatures of contributing artists. The disparate elements of the box make sense in as much as they echo the fleeting and fluid idea of a roadtrip but fall short of contributing any sort of understanding about the project and it’s themes or ideas. Perhaps this is where the book comes in, as a sort of guide from which we can scoot of to explore the mini-stories contained within the zines?

Unfortunately this is not the case. I love to see progression in what the book can be, it’s exciting and is pushing forward a fantastic medium, but I have to question the ‘book’ included in the Magnum box. It is unbound for starters which I can accept were it not so big and unpractical to be so. And more annoyingly – the sheets are not printed as a book sequence, they are in fact a big stack of posters placed one on top of the other, and then folded in the middle. It requires space, and patience to attempt a ‘reading’ at all, and the (very) cheap-feeling paper combined with (very) average printing do not make this ‘reading’ a pleasant one. it could be my love for the physical object speaking but everything here seems to be very much a throw-away object, especially when you consider the asking price.

And perhaps this is where my relationship with this project and publication came unstuck  – ‘Postcards From America’ was $250 and it was the first time I have ever spent more than $100 on a photobook, so from the beginning I was going to scrutinize what I got for my money. As you can see Soth demonstrate in the video above, you get a lot for your money, at least it seems as though you do.

Actually, there is little substance here in terms of material objects. A smattering of zines, the above mentioned ‘book’, some stickers and a poster which makes up most of the box weight but which I imagine only a handful of people will have the room or interest in assembling. Let’s not forget the postcards received during the trip of course, although to my disappointment, even though I had ordered well before the start, all were sent at the conclusion of the trip (those who payed the $125 for the postcards alone must surely be even more frustrated?).

I understand that I cannot boil this argument down to material costs but there is such a mismatch between cost and price here it is hard to understand what I paid $250 for. I can only assume then, that a portion of my money is helping fund this trip, to make it possible. Great! Except that where many projects are open with those that fund them, Magnum’s seems to take all the credit. I would have been far happier had this been a kickstarter-style ‘reward’; knowing that while the material costs do not add up, the extra money had made it possible in the first place, maybe even a contributors/funders thanks in the book or online.

‘Postcards From America’ is a really interesting project, there is lots to explore here, but I think Magnum has completely missed the mark in relation to the product. If I were to be so bold as to offer pointers for next time, either:

  • Tell people where their money is going, credit those who fund the project, or
  • Make the product beautiful, something worthy of the pricetag, or
  • Make a non-limited, no-signature version available for the $60 it cost

I would love to hear from others who have this publication, unfortunately there are less than 500 and I fear many have bought it to put in a cool, dry place, unopened, waiting for the dust and price to rise. But, if you have opened it, and feel like sharing, do so in the comments section below.

– Matt



Photo Book Club Barcelona: Review

Thanks to Makus Furgber for writing this piece on last weekends meet-up in Spain, looks like it was a fantastic event.

The third Photobookclub meeting in Barcelona was a huge success! The introduction on Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh” made by made Ricardo Cases was very interesting and spiced with his personal humor. He also raised more than a laugh! We discussed the possibility of intimacy and its limits in such extremely “intimate” photos and the floating frontier between intimacy and exhibitionism. His photos were related to his historical context by Photobookclub members, who had lived in Great Britain and confirmed a depressing social situation, which Richard Billingham reflected in his family pictures.

Foto: Paco Navamuel (CC BY-NC-ND)

The second part of the meeting was devoted to introducing several books brought by the participants. The books covered a wide range of authors, topics and formats. There were also some self-edited books. I can only remember Jon Uriarte’s self-edited book dedicated to foreign graveyards.

Foto: Paco Navamuel (CC BY-NC-ND)

You can have a look at the other titles at Barcelona meeting Facebook site.

Best wishes,
Markus Furgber (Lau W. Arm)

Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey: A Summary

A great month in December looking at Nobuyoshi Araki’s ‘Sentimental Journey’ and a big thanks to all who contributed. This is a rather late roundup of the events from December, but for those on the mailing list, you may have noticed I also thought we were in 2010!

In February we will be looking at Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’