Confession(s) of a bookaholic

I have a few serious issues when it comes to discipline—or the lack of it. Namely, I just cannot resist stuff I love. I could write about cheese here, but let’s stick to photography.

I live in a tiny studio apartment that I’ve been growing out quickly. Not so much because of the crap that I have been accumulating in the past decade, but books. In general, I have a fairly strict rule: I buy no book without needing it. Need is a tricky concept, however, as for my work many titles can be categorised necessary. Another rule is that a new book can only pass the threshold if there is no second-hand option to choose for. OR, if it’s ridiculously cheap; this could mean pretty much whatever up to 15 Euro.

This week, I bought a Kati Horna book for an article I am working on. Fair enough… But then I walked into Huis Marseille to see their latest show, and I sinned. For those lovely, yet inconsiderate, people working there had Life is Strange on sale: a book I had had on my radar for a while. It’s all about archive imagery. And it was one of the awarded publications amongst The Best Dutch Book Design (Best Verzorgde Boeken) back in 2015. In earlier posts, I shared already that my dream is to work on photo books one day, so collecting the best (and the worst!) examples is sort of a mission of mine. So now you see: I did need this book indeed. [But then again: did I?]

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Beyond this constant struggle in my life, the book is everything I could wish for. At the bottom, most of the pages are uncut. The captions are to be found within these hard(er)-to-access pockets, beautifully symbolising the work of the researcher, looking beyond the image. And I am a sucker for symbolism, of course.

This post is not to serve as a review for the book, it’s simply a teaser. In case you are in love with archive images and good design, go get it. It’s a beautiful object. In the meantime, I will go flip through my new Kati Horna book, that has just been delivered, a few more times.

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Archive-obsession

I have always appreciated old objects, even as a child. Sneaking into abandoned buildings was a hobby of mine as a little girl—and there is no better ground for such adventures than a small Hungarian village. Forgotten treasures like spinning wheels, religious artefacts or old suitcases full of toys under a silky dust blanket were almost guaranteed. [Once I also found an incidentally-mummified tabby cat but that story is for another day.]

Growing up, I was a regular to the antique shops in the nearby town, spending a serious part of my allowance on books of my grandparents’ age. And, of course, there was also our very own collection of tokens of fading family memories, carefully placed in lavishly decorated bonbon boxes grateful for a second life: discoloured photographs of long-dead relatives and their friends. I’m the first one to admit that I’m rather obsessed with this archive—so much so that they inspired an entire master thesis.

Given this, I have a soft spot for initiatives that have something to do with archival photography. One of these wonderful organisations is Europeana Collections, working hard to provide free access to its ever-growing assortment of digitized items, be it music, books or visual arts. Currently, one can easily access about 50 million items through their website with approximately 3.5 million photographs amongst those. [Just imagine the major amount of chocolate cartons they could fill!]

Now, for me, archives provide endless fun. While finding good stuff is time-consuming, it also is terribly rewarding. And quite a good way to make sure I always have something to write about.

To warm up, here is a gem from Girona, Spain, thanks to Photoconsortium:

Dolls from a catalogue [Or else ‘The envy, the smug and the absentminded’. ]

This glass plate from the 1930s or 1940s never fails to make me smile. I come from a big family: I’m familiar with the pictured dynamics. Being the youngest, I usually played the role of the ‘absentminded’. (Although I have considerable experience in the other two parts as well.)

The first catalogue in history was published in 1498. Its purpose was to help Aldus Manutius, founder of the famous Aldine Press, to introduce his books to the people of Venice. A few centuries later, prospectuses became part of everyday life, largely helped by the introduction of photography. As printing techniques improved, better and better images could illustrate publications. By the time the creator of this negative was hired for the job, photographs were pretty good-looking in printed matters.

Whether this image was meant for wholesalers or consumers, I cannot know. I can imagine a clumsy photographer, however, trying to make the most out of the situation. They probably had to follow strict guidelines set up by the client—or they simply possessed no creativity whatsoever. And yet, the way the dolls are placed, how their glances meet, their facial expressions tell me a story. If I were a little girl once again, up in an attic, discovering these toys, I would for sure feel my maternal instinct awaken: an urge to save that baby on the right from the other two that are clearly conspiring against their little mate. The universe must have sent me there to intervene, after all!

I wonder what happened to these very playthings. Burnt in a fire? Destroyed by the war? Ended up in a museum; or the ocean? And all the others these three helped to sell: where are they now? Were there any little boys that would have given the world for a chance to play with them in peace? How many little girls hated them secretly? How much joy they must have caused!?

God bless all those people who work in archives, enabling me and the like-minded to rant about an imaginary past. Thank you!

The season has started—again

Every year I go to Rotterdam during the Art Week. Not so much for the fairs but to see the photo festival. In 2018 it was a rather convincing event—this time, however, it disappointed me once again.

My problem is not so much the quality of photography, no work made me question the integrity of the commission. (The fact that it’s an all-male group is interesting though, to say the least. It’s 2019, People. Do something about it. There are many capable females in the world of photography who could join in.) What I find problematic is that after the selection process the artists seem to be left alone, without guidance in editing/curating and setting up their mini-expos within the containers.

Some did wonderful things, like Karlijn van Diepen. You entered a beautifully designed little world filled with just enough quality prints tastefully placed all over the walls, not to mention the nicely executed project itself: A box of roses, a tree and a plastic chair. There were a few other okay attempts, like that of the Willem de Kooning Academy, but in general, some more effort could have been put in the presentation.

When it comes to the photography itself, beyond the fact that I would have enjoyed seeing more visual diversity, I truly liked Stijn Belle‘s dark and moody work and Laisa Maria‘s delicate approach to documentary photography. Vergeten Voordeuren [Forgotten doors] is a project to keep an eye on. (And it’s analogue!)

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Blaak, Rotterdam 2017. This photo was taken in the living room of 54 year old Osman, who lives impoverished and alone next to Blaak station with just his television to accompany him. He sits at home and watches cartoons all day and night, with his bed in front of the tv. The only family he got, is his cousin Ahmed who pays him a visit every now and then. He is very kind, and for many years he took in Somalian families whom for any reason needed temporary shelter. Mothers with small children or single men, they could stay with him for free, even though Osman had little money to sustain himself. But nowadays they stopped coming, and Osman is alone again. Stay tuned, follow @vergetenvoordeuren about poverty in Rotterdam. The launch of my project will be during @rotterdamphoto, february 7-10, Deliplein Rotterdam, please be invited. Love, Laisa

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The hunter and gatherer

Ever since my childhood, I have always admired old books. I was a regular in the tiny antique (book)store in the closest town. Back then, I was into novels and poetry—and outdated lexicons.

Despite my long-time obsession with aged objects, only recently I have started to collect photographs. Mostly vintage vernacular snapshots by anonymous makers, randomly found in secondhand shops, on fleamarkets or online. My theme is rather specific*, therefore I have no more than a couple of dozen images so far. Beyond that, my only criterion is that it has to be cheap. (Like really cheap: not more than a couple of Euros.)

What I enjoy the most about this new pastime is that it has turned my trips into (strictly harmless) hunting expeditions and opened up new worlds. There aren’t many things that I find as rewarding as scoring a long-forgotten moment capturing my imagination. As a cherry on top, the places where I find them often are wonderful encounters themselves.

Now I know that Argosy Books Store is the place to be for all book-lovers and print-hunters in Midtown, Manhattan. Oh, girl, the pleasures of a long-established spot in a mysterious building that, most possibly, hasn’t changed a bit for decades! I wouldn’t call Argosy inexpensive but the experience is precious. In the end, I left with an overpriced trophy from New York and a large smile. (Now, I’m notoriously stingy indeed, but 5 Dollars for the kind of photographs I collect is a lot.)

I also popped into Bauman Rare Books, where pretty much everything was out of my league. It did feel great however to flip through a signed Weegee autobiography worth 2500 Dollars and a few other wonderful first editions that I will never be able to afford. Lovely people working in both stores, by the way. An important detail.

*If things go according to plan, I will highlight some of these findings on a new blog very soon.

The prodigal daughter returns

It’s been almost an entire year since I have written a post here. Not that I had nothing to share, I had seen a lot of good (and bad) photography. 2018 was busy—and writing came last. (A thing that has to change.)

Currently, I’m in the glorious city of New York,  sitting in a hotel room on the 15th floor. What I see through the dusty windows is pretty inspiring. Far from the fantastic view I experienced yesterday on the Top of the Rock, nevertheless, refreshing with all its water towers and reflected lights. I’m a corner away from a major bucket list item of mine, MoMA, waiting for it to open in about 30 minutes. Life keeps on treating me rather well.

New York is beyond my expectations. It doesn’t feel as big as it is: people are friendly and the streets are clean. Sure, I have been sampling Manhattan only. Still, let me be biased for a little while.

Update, one museum of modern arts, a rather good quiche and two amazing bookstores later: I can officially declare that New York is my cup of tea.

Tomorrow, I will go into details.

The season has started

I’m pretty sure I picked one of the best possible migration targets a decade ago when I moved to The Netherlands. There is so much photography going on here that I could easily fill a full-time job visiting all the related exhibitions, fairs, talks, etc. The palette is so rich that it’s almost frustrating – as I clearly cannot afford just quitting my job(s) and devote my life to these events, no matter how much I would like to do so. [#firstworldproblems]

The new year started only a few weeks ago and the winners of Zilveren Camera, thus the best photojournalists in the country, are already announced. However, for me, the party only begins when I can finally go to Rotterdam for Rotterdam Photo – and this year also Haute Photographie; two completely different approaches to the medium. The earlier is a rough street event open to just anyone, the latter is a fancy art fair targetting art collectors. About Haute, I have written a somewhat longer review for Fotóművészet (in Hungarian). It is going to be published in March, so here I won’t say a thing. Go buy the magazine, whether you speak the language or not. ;)

Rotterdam Photo was a real player this year! The previous editions had never really convinced me, but now I’m a believer. It got slightly bigger and significantly better. And even though the quality of presentation per container still differs a bit too much for my taste, I saw quite some wonderful stuff. (There were very well done displays, but some other simply caused me hallucinate huge question marks.)

Container #16, titled Camera Works (belonging to Todd ForsgrenMichael Meyer and Marc Redford, curated by John A. Tyson), was definitely one of my favourites. Their unorthodox approach to photography and cameras is inspiring. They like analogue and they like digital. They like including images of their visitors in potential future projects and they mess with their cameras to take pictures of sounds – I don’t need much more to be happy.

I also ran into Naomi Modde‘s beach photographs. I’m a fan of her imagery ever since New Photography 2018 came out. Her pictures remind me of Martin Parr somehow (a moody Parr in a parallel universe, bared of his sarcasm and flash).

In general, I’m into black-and-white, also when it comes to my own photography. Nevertheless, Modde’s photographs make me grateful for the existence of colours – and they trigger me to burn through those neglected colour roll films in my fridge.

Talking black-and-white, I’m a proud owner of Katja Poelwijk‘s Sivar now. (Minimalistic and gorgeous design by -SYB-.)  A book built on beautiful, sensitive pictures of a boy who was born into a girl’s body. I do have questions – but it is an impressive series, no matter what. I’m looking forward to Poelwijk’s future works.

(I’m working on a larger post on questions I have been contemplating lately so you will hear more very soon.)

Busy weeks

The first few weeks of the year have been pretty busy – in the best possible sense. Next week, I am starting a teeny tiny cooperation with an Amsterdam printing company that hopefully will lead to an internship. For now, I will spend a few days with the team in charge of perfect colours and hope for the best: earning the chance to stay with them longer. A wonderful opportunity I’m truly grateful for. I cannot wait to start!

Yesterday, I started a course in analogue printing techniques. This had been on my wishlist for years! We spent the first lesson handsetting lead type. It was heavens. Just like in a darkroom developing photographs… Oh, girl, I’m thrilled!

Other than that, writing assignments are queuing up, slowly but surely. I’m working on a longer essay about Jacob Riis that is due in May, and I just got another request to address next week’s Haute Photography in Rotterdam.

Here’s to a promising start of the new year!

Status report (and a quiet open call)

Since my last post, I have been acting according to The Plan – and even though karma doesn’t seem to be on my side just yet, things are definitely happening.

A few months ago, I decided to learn the ins and outs of photobook creation and become a designer of those wonderful things myself. I had enough of organised training for a while, therefore I am going for self-study this time. I have been doing online courses at my own pace ever since and reading books that are related. I have been in the graphic design business for quite a while, but there is still so much to learn!

I’m also trying to become an intern at some place where I could pick up even more, on the job. Real life stuff. And this is the part of the deal that turned out to be truly difficult: I contacted several people I would love to learn from. A few of them replied to my emails, I even had a meeting, but it will take time to get any further. I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake to find an internship alongside the job I need to keep, but I for sure didn’t expect it to be this big of a challenge. I’m not going to give up though!

Now, I am toying with the idea of finding some photographers that wouldn’t mind trusting someone inexperienced handling their work. Should you know anyone that might be interested, do let me know.

I am back (again)

Apparently, university life sucked me in so much that I haven’t written one(!) blog post for more than a year! Given that writing is a passion of mine, this is highly unacceptable. I am attempting to pull myself together right here and now.

Today, I finally found the time (and the right mood) to go to Leiden and collect my diploma. Mission accomplished now,
it
is
done.

I remember when I was finished with my first Master’s. Instead of any sort of relief or satisfaction, I was feeling incredibly lost. I was crying like I had never cried before. I had no clue what’s next: after 16 years of constant studying, all of a sudden, I was there with no plans and goals. I also remember how puzzled the people closest to me were, unable to handle the situation.

I can assure you all, this time I have no similar issues. On the contrary: oh, boy, what a relief!  I have plans, more than enough for a lifetime. Whether I will have the discipline to make them happen, well, that is another story. Nevertheless, I know I’m about to hit the right track. Life, bring it on.

Autumn Lights

There are two things I love about autumn: its photogenic lights and the beginning of the cultural season.

This year I started with NEU NOW, a festival that I had never visited before. The website was at least as intriguing as it was confusing so I got a ticket. It turned out to be a total waste of money as all my schedule allowed me to attend was the exposition that is free of charge…

To be fair when I was complaining about the fact that the website was not clear on this at all they were more than cooperative and even though I couldn’t get my money back I left with a very good impression.

NEU NOW is tiny – or at least much smaller than what I expected. Nevertheless it delivers on quality: Europe’s emerging talent couldn’t be any more promising.

Jaeyong Choi’s ‘Mass’ is mortifying and fascinating at the very same time. Reminds me of artistic experiments of my own a while ago – in a properly executed version and on a scale I would have never even dreamt of. A plastic cloud of human connections. I can’t help but think of one’s inevitable struggles by drowning in today’s fabricated social media “reality”, just like an unsuspecting fish swimming around in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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And then onto the wonderful photography of Viktorija Eksta. A story of the possible life of a Latvian woman somewhere in the countryside, based on real life legacy someone left behind. An abandoned house full of faded hopes and desires, a tactile memoire, reenacted, reinterpreted. I cannot imagine any better way to be remembered.

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NEU NOW was an excellent choice to start the season, I will definitely show up next year as well. And now on to UNSEEN, then Paris Photo, here I come.

For the complete list of participating artists please click here.