Art review: The beautiful photography books escape from the coffee table at the art gallery

They weigh more than a Chihuahua and also feel unwieldy, but hardcover photography books demand petting. With sumptuous images printed on thick paper, the paper version of 1,000 thread count cotton sheets, the pages seem to be dripping with ranges of tones.

Yet these coffee table anchors are expensive not only to buy, but also to produce. Proofing, printing and publishing can cost upwards of $20,000, an economic hurdle for all but the most famous photographers. High financial barriers not only hurt artists, but also viewers. We lack photographers whose way of seeing can inspire or confuse us, and can challenge and deepen our understanding of the world.

PICTURE BOOKS, an extensive double exhibition at the Power Plant Gallery in Durham, overcomes these obstacles, reframing how we define and interpret photographs and their presentation. We are aware of artists’ visions that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Picture books features works curated by Power Plant, selected following a call for entries, as well as “An Inquiry into Documentary Styles in Early 21st-Century Photobooks”, where selections from the Freelance Photobook Library have were co-organized by Larissa Leclair and Darius Himes. The exhibition is well thought out, exploring a stylistic range: portraiture, street photography, impressionism and experimental.

One of the most spellbinding books in the exhibition is Premium by Lydia Moyer. She scoured the internet for images of hunters and their new victims. Then she appropriated the photos and deleted the hunters, but left a blur of their being. What remains are the prey bears, pumas, deer depicted in an otherworldly state. Sometimes the hunter’s spot feels like a soul is leaving the animal’s body. In other cases, the animal appears to be in an awkward position, such as when thrown over the shoulder of an unobtrusive hunter.

The book raises questions about the legal limits of copyright, the definition of a photograph, and the ethics of manipulation and derivative work. While I should have bristled at this caveat about copyright issues, most of the time I didn’t. The work is as honest as photography can be, considering that a whole truth cannot be contained within a frame. And the alterations are so obvious that we cannot confuse the footage with an intact documentary. I wondered, however, if my distaste for hunting colored my tolerance for ethical ambiguities.

Three books in particular are as notable for what they don’t do as for the artistry they achieve: South Road, a visual travelogue of the Deep South by Tamara Reynolds; Bear witness, an exploration of West Virginia coal country by Roger May; and Post Scriptum, an account of small town post offices and the communities they serve by Rachel Boillot, eschews stereotypes of rural America. The portraits are direct and empathetic but do not reduce their subjects to caricatures or exotic animals. The landscapes, though uncompromising there is no sugar coating that coal mining destroys the mountains, do not stoop to sordid pornography.

rural life, however, succumbs to these shortcomings. Tick-tacky home frames by various photographers smack of voyeurism; the portraits look at the hovering locals as if they were exotic sugar gliders.

Voyeurism, however, is part of a photographer’s job, and understanding the line between curiosity and exploitation separates amateurs from professionals. Emilie Volles the Windows features photos taken outside the cars, looking through the glass. People spend so much time in their cars that the front seats, in some cases, are cluttered with the same trash, food, cups, electronics, cell phones, papers strewn about as a family living room. (The other front seats are spartan, and I imagine these drivers’ homes are just as immaculate.) That’s not judgment, but observation.

In 27 Goodbye, Deanna Dikeman is inside the car, looking out. For several years, she photographed her parents saying goodbye as she walked away from their home. Sometimes their faces float, as if they are delighted to have seen her; in other cases, they seem overwhelmed and melancholy, as if to share bad news during his visit.

The strength of this exhibition is that while the photographs tell very subjective stories, they have an openness that allows us to bring our own experiences to the work. May the road rise to meet you by Sara Macel explores the world of traveling salespeople as they shuttle between airports, train stations and restaurants, taking notes on hotel stationery. I found myself creating short stories about salespeople and their inner worlds: Some were married. Some worried about meeting their sales quotas. Everyone drank too much.

In some cases, the form is as important as the content: Mississippi is made from wood cut into the shape of the state. Many books are printed on handmade paper, or even more simply, construction paper. Others are built in cubes or unfold like accordions.

In Floor, Tate Shaw has collaborated with Earthliterally. He began the project by burying a blank book on white paper in a Pennsylvania forest. Each time he returned to the site, he would turn the page, rebury the book, and let the dirt, water, and insects tell their stories. This allowed Shaw, as he says in the book, “to create without making a decision”. He later joined these images to photo collages to tell a visual story of fracking, mining and local geology.

In The A-train, each frame was shot as the doors of the New York City subway closed. The book, which opens like an accordion and includes a map that indicates the subway stop, compares the demographics of the car as it traveled through Manhattan: “Changes above ground are reflected by people traveling in below.”

The show also includes an interactive exhibit called The Collier Classification System for Very Small Objects. We are encouraged to bring tiny objects no larger than 25mm by 8mm (about 1 inch by 1/3 inch) and then use tweezers to drop them into tiny test tubes. With the help of a guide, we can classify and name objects according to their point of origin, their function, their color, whether they were alive or never lived, their shape, their texture and their visual comparison. This is how you create an object known as a “kno biglik helipad table”.

There are fears that the democratization of photography will endanger or dilute the art form. To be sure, there are a lot of bad photos out there. But as Picture books demonstrates, presentation is less important than how a photographer sees the world. While the image is compelling, construction paper images also beg to be stroked.

This article appeared in print with the title “Image Pages”.

Correction: Only one part of the Picture books the exhibition was co-organized by Larissa Leclair and Darius Himes. The rest was organized by Power Plant Gallery.

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