My dear friend Amelia Shaw miraculously escaped from her office in the UN building in Haiti, when the earthquake hit two weeks ago today just before the end of a work day. She has updated friends and family through Facebook and with an occasional e-mail. This third letter she sent this morning and I wanted to share her personal perspective.
“Dear practically everyone,
I got a few requests from people to send out some more news from down here. So here it is…
I was looking at what is left of the commercial district of Port-au-Prince. It’s like walking through a technicolor photo from war-time France. It’s as if the city was bombed.
Today marks two weeks since the earthquake. I have to say, it’s still hard for me to link the words “Haiti” and “earthquake”. I mean, people expect earthquakes in Los Angeles and Mexico City. But what would you say if you woke up one morning and an earthquake had leveled Wichita? Or Pittsburgh? It would be just plain weird.
But if I have learned anything from these past two weeks, it’s that the onward march of time is relentless. Time waits for no-one. Not for the missing, not the dead. And certainly not for the living to catch their breath. People survive. They put one foot in front of the other. They face the impossible and they go on.
The other day on the street, I passed a motorcycle store that had collapsed like a pancake on its display of bikes. The front wheels of about a dozen motorbikes were sticking out of the rubble like a row of crooked teeth. Groups of young men were heaving and pulling on the tires to yank them free. Some people would call this looting. But in another sense, It’s a form of collective recycling – sifting through the debris to look for things that can be transformed or repaired, and used again.
One of my good friends works for an NGO that specializes in building major infrastructure, like bridges and roads. Since the quake, she’s been helping the government to clear away rubble from the hundreds of collapsed buildings around town. She is a tiny Korean-American who just broke her sacrum snowboarding in California over Christmas. She hobbles around quake sites with a cane and a baseball hat, in work boots up to her knees, and directs a team of tractors and bulldozers through apocalyptic landscapes. She is hiring Haitians by the hundreds to pick through the debris, to find things that can be re-used, like wires, or tubing, or cement for building roads.
The grim reality is that there are still bodies in there. So she spends much of her time screaming into her cell phone for somebody to please find more body bags. She told me about a t-shirt factory her NGO supports downtown. It was a major supplier for big American companies. It was also the hope for Haiti to revitalize its textile industry. But it collapsed into a pile of dust two weeks ago with about 750 workers inside.
I stop to think about the tragedy of that. The jobs lost. The lives lost! Each one of those people a wage earner, each one loved by a mother, a lover, a child. All gone. The immense cost of cleaning it up. The factory owner goes to the site every day, exhausted. But not broken. He is determined to start again, and build a factory bigger and better than before. And certainly more resistant to earthquakes.
The landscape of this entire city is in flux. The only thing that is sure is the big question mark on everything.
Geologists expect another big earthquake soon, but when? The dead are still lying in the streets. As people clear out more rubble, they come across broken bodies crammed into crevices, frozen in poses of struggle and flight. How many died, does anyone really know? And the survivors, where will they live? Will they stay in the city, or march like armies of ants back into the countryside to eke out a living on tiny plots of land? Hundreds of thousands of people live in tent camps on every available patch of grass and green in the city. Some say the government might build new houses – but where? And when? And last, what will happen to Haiti when the news fades, when the world loses interest and the humanitarian aid teams leave, off to parachute into the next disaster someplace else in the world?
I have no answers to any of these questions. I don’t even know if I will have a job in 6 months. I do know that in these two weeks since the world here changed, we have remembered what it is to sleep outdoors. To conserve our precious water. To laugh in the face of chance. And to grieve our dead. As I look around this sun-wizened and weary city, I see the small signs of a population beginning to pick itself up and dust itself off. It’s just the first step of the long hard road of cleaning up the wreckage. And soon, people will start building again.
As I write this letter, I feel the first kicks of tiny baby feet inside of me. It feels like a miracle. It is all I can do to bow my head in thanks that amidst this tragic landscape of the destruction and loss, life is determined to go on.”
Her first e-mail sent to family and friends was published in the Daily Freeman, a local newspaper in the Hudson Valley. You can read it here.
Amelia has lived and worked in Haiti for the last five years.
Todd Hido A Road Divided
Nazraeli Press, 2010
14 x 17 inches, 64 pages, 28 four-color plates
Hiroshi Sugimoto Hatje Cantz, 2009/2010 10¼ x 11¼ inches, 396 pages, 229 color and tritone illustrations
Original edition published in 2005. This edition includes two new groups of work, Lightning Fields (2006) and Photogenic Drawings (2007).
Lay Flat 02: Meta
Edited by Shane Lavalette and Michael Bühler-Rose, 2010
Photographs by Claudia Angelmaier, Semâ Bekirovic, Charles Benton, Walead Beshty, Lucas Blalock, Talia Chetrit, Anne Collier, Natalie Czech, Jessica Eaton, Roe Ethridge, Stephen Gill, Daniel Gordon, David Haxton, Matt Keegan, Elad Lassry, Katja Mater, Laurel Nakadate, Lisa Oppenheim, Torbjørn Rødland, Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, Joachim Schmid, Penelope Umbrico, Useful Photography, Charlie White, Ann Woo and Mark Wyse.
7.75 x 10 inches, 104 pages, perfect bound
Phillip Toledano Days With My Father
PQ Blackwell, 2010
Today would have been my grandmother’s 89th birthday. Yet just a week after her 88th birthday the great-grandmother matriarch of our family slipped away peacefully. She was strong-willed, kind, and generous, and gave her grandkids many years of memories in Cape Cod. These photographs (selections from a larger personal project) were taken almost ten years ago, at a time when the reality of change was beginning to compete with the timelessness of the past.
I was transfixed by the frozen natural ice sculptures of “Valhalla” on the cover, the interview with her by Patrick Amsellem (page 16), and one photograph that looked to be of tiny colored dots on a white background that almost blended into the white of the magazine page (page 19). I could barely decipher the image, but could not stop looking at it. Sadly to say, that was the last printed issue of the Photo-eye Booklist with Darius Himes as Editor, but that horizon-less photograph of fishing huts started my photograph collection. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to see more of her work in person with Debra Klomp Ching of KlompChing Gallery in DUMBO.
Her inclusion in Flak Photo’s weekday series WINTER PICTURES presented a perfect opportunity to ask Lisa more about her work. I corresponded with Lisa from my snowed-in home in Virginia, while she soaked up the sun in mild Arizona. We talked about her Fulbright to Argentina, the reality of photographing in snow, and the new body of work selected by Andy Adams for his online exhibition.
Larissa Leclair: What was your Fulbright proposal that took you to Argentina? Did you go as a photographer?
Lisa M. Robinson: I fell in love with Argentina in 1994, when I lived there for a year. I admired the Argentine spirit that seemed to be optimistic and pure, no matter the circumstance. Interestingly, I had proposed a photographic portrait of the people, in an effort to better understand such complexities. But in the span of time between my proposal and my arrival, my photographic interests had shifted, and I found myself drawn to the private and public spaces that still reverberated with a human presence. I could not experience these spaces without recognizing some hint of the past, and made photographs that investigated light and darkness as metaphors for deeply layered lives. The resulting images are quiet, poetic ruminations on the significance of seemingly familiar moments.
LL: How have you tapped into very international and diverse venues for showing your work — the International Photography Gathering in Aleppo, Syria; the Museo Tambo Quirquincho in La Paz, Bolivia; and Kaunas Photo Days in Kaunas, Lithuania? And the U.S. Embassy in Kazakstan has your work in it’s collection. Which ones?
LMR: I began showing the Snowbound series in 2005, while still in the midst of the project. I was living in New York, and took advantage of every opportunity to get my work in front of people. I think the international opportunities arose primarily from various portfolio review events – FotoFest, PhotoLucida, Rhubarb-Rhubarb. These meeting grounds allowed me to share my work with a broad spectrum of curators, gallerists and editors.
I was surprised to find how profoundly these images seemed to resonate for people from such different cultures. I thought the work to be distinctly American, emerging from a suburban sensibility and rooted in a combined tradition of the New Color photographers and the New Topographics. While I appreciated how many more concepts informed the imagery, I didn’t fully expect others to see or feel what I did. It’s kind of like believing that your own baby is beautiful, while recognizing that you can’t help but have a particular bias. The international receptivity to the images reminds me of the universal language and power of photography to evoke the specific and the immense simultaneously.
“Solo” and “Harmony” are prints in the collection of the U.S. Embassy in Kazakstan. One is an image depicting a lone basketball hoop in snow; the other, a baseball backstop. These sports are iconic representations of American culture, but the stillness of these playing fields under a blanket of snow suggests a more introspective moment.
LL: Tell me about the photograph “Wish” — which is the cover image of your monograph by Kehrer Verlag.
LMR: From the beginning of the Snowbound work, I recognized that I was drawn to elements in the landscape that provided a point of human reference, perhaps as a source of comfort and familiarity in an otherwise unfamiliar world. But as the project deepened, I began to read my images in a different way, on a more metaphorical plane. I began to see the connections that had slowly emerged… not only was I drawn to human elements isolated in the snowy landscape, but also to spaces that suggested a time of year that had passed, or an activity that was now suspended.
“Wish” was one such image. The very discovery of it functioned like the work itself. I was traveling through Utah, looking for frozen lakes in hopes of discovering more ice fishing shacks. I had called a local outfitter store to find out which lakes might freeze over, and had been directed to this summer location. Driving across the snow and ice toward this designated space on the map, I was a bit skeptical. Eventually, though, the road opened up and I could see a lake in the distance, across a mile or two of snow. I parked my car, and as I was lacing up my bunny boots, preparing for the long trek ahead, a pick-up truck stopped and a local resident asked with grave concern if everything was okay. “Sure is,” I said. “I’m headed out there to photograph.” He was perplexed, and didn’t quite understand why I would be tromping off into nothing… “In the summer, this place is full of people,” he said. “But there’s nothing there now. It’s all covered in snow.” “Precisely my interest,” I thought. I had encountered a Rothko-esque landscape, and was going to approach the horizon in order to capture this painterly reality. And as I trekked through the snow, which was up to my knees, approaching the waterline, I could see a black dot in the distance, a dot that grew larger and larger. I thought that it might be a trashcan, and was speechless when I realized that I was standing before a sunken picnic table. It was a perfect moment, the top of the table pristine from previous sunny days, but its legs submerged in snow. My Rothko painting had been punctuated by a memory. Time and space, form and color were all suspended here, in this moment. I feel privileged to have been a witness, and to have made this resulting image.
LL: The images are peaceful and calm – probably not at all adjectives you would use to describe the winter conditions you were photographing in. What was it like to work in the snow physically and mentally?
LMR: I don’t think I chose to photograph snow and ice, as much as I recognized that it lured me with its understated beauty. I remember late one Sunday afternoon, walking across a frozen lake in Maine, heading toward an isolated fishing shack. A cloud passed over the sun, and in an instant, the gently falling snow began to be driven horizontally. The wind had come from nowhere, and the snow stung like icy pellets. The scene before me was sublime – a hand-crafted shelter silently acquiescing to the storm, like a patient sage. At the same time I was being beckoned by this scene, I was confronted by its physical difficulties. I gave up trying to make a photograph that day, my fingers numb from immediate exposure to the wind and cold. I remember defrosting in my car, frustrated but compelled by the challenges ahead. I knew that I must confront the storm, and its attendant challenges and difficulties, in order to find that still center. Learning to embrace the physicality of the work — finding the proper clothing and gear, learning how to read the atmosphere, developing a methodical ritual with my 4×5 view camera, learning the rhythm of my breath in pace with my steps as I walked through snow — all of this was essential to my understanding of this quest.
It is no accident, then, that I became deeply meditative through the act of photography. Often, I would wake an hour before sunrise, in order to light a candle and write in my journal, as a way of finding an internal equilibrium that could be maintained throughout my external experience. I began to practice yoga, and developed an awareness of my body and its connectedness to an outer world that, I believe, manifests in the images themselves. Walking that edge, where the tension between the physical reality and the internal peace, can co-exist, has resulted in images that can sustain such seeming contradictions. Somehow, the blizzard is manageable, when you are inside your own head and inside the storm at the same time.
Such cold, such seeming emptiness, the unknown space before me… I went into it alone, without a guide. No one knew where I was, often times not even myself. That was part of this journey, to confront the unknown, to confront myself, and to glean something from the experience.
LL: You are now in Arizona. Do you miss that kind of snow and winter?
LMR: I never realized how much the winter experience had become a part of me until I no longer had it in my life. You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry… I have spent the last year and a half re-calibrating my inner compass in order to learn from this new landscape and spaciousness. Living far from the sea, from natural bodies of water, has certainly been challenging, and 70 degree winters confound me (though I can’t complain about the long bike rides through the Sonoran mountains). My yearning has compelled me to travel a bit, seeking out the places and atmospheres that I miss.
LL: What brought you to the southwest?
LMR: Love… I fell in love with a man from Tucson who couldn’t relocate, so I moved to his world.
LL: The work selected by Andy Adams for WINTER PICTURES featured on Flak Photo is from a new series. Can you tell me a little about it?
LMR: During the last two winters of the Snowbound work, I was especially drawn to areas of water, where this primary element existed in multiple states, often simultaneously. This new series has taken water as its starting point, perhaps because I have yearned for the vastness of the sea at the same time that I am trying to embrace the mystery of the desert. There is a deep history embedded in the land here, a past that is characterized by oceans and water, but only suggested by the traces left behind. Walking through the Sonoran desert, one can almost sense being on the floor of an immense sea, where cacti are like anemone. I am seeking a connection between the water and the land, trying to understand a larger arc. This search is taking me from tumultuous water to the frozen edges, from desert tundra to underground formations. The image in WINTER PICTURES is one of transition, illustrating stillness and movement, that nearly imperceptible shift in time and space that underlies every passing moment.
I fully agree with Miki and the “people” about being hesitant to buy an expensive print-on-demand book without having seen it in person first. Aside from the Blurb Photography.Book.Now Meet-Ups and FotoWeek DC, there is nowhere to hold and flip through these books.
I asked Elizabeth about her experiences publishing with MagCloud and Blurb, her audience for both formats, and if there is a limited edition artist book in her photobook future.
LL: Which came first – the MagCloud magazine or the Blurb book? Elizabeth Fleming: I made the magazine about a year before I made the book.
LL: What was your motivation behind each of these forms?
EF: With the magazine it was primarily a desire to see physically how my images would relate to each other in print format. It felt like a freeing way to experiment: because it was a magazine, and cost nothing to produce, I was able to play around without the pressure of trying to make it “perfect.” (With Blurb you have to buy a copy of your book in order for it to be listed for sale on their website.) As a result I found that creating the magazine was a very fulfilling process.
The book was the next step; I had kept the magazine under a certain amount of pages because I thought allowing it to become too “thick” would detract from the sense of the medium, in that it’s not as precious (even if my perfectionistic tendencies came into play in its making). With the book I was able to hone what I’d done with the magazine–I made it longer, a bit slower in the pacing, and included a dedication and statement. The size is bigger, and the format (vertical for the magazine, horizontal for the book) made it feel more polished to me as well. Obviously the hardbound cover turns the book into a more hefty object, which gives it a certain “mental” weight too, in my opinion.
LL: Do you have the same audience for both?
EF: I think the magazine is more accessible in general. It certainly is much cheaper to purchase. I believe people might be more inclined to browse Magcloud and potentially come across my publication by accident, as opposed to Blurb, which seems to attract a fine art-oriented base. The price of the Blurb book makes it more of a collector’s item in a sense; the magazine, at $12, is something anyone can purchase, which seems more democratic.
LL: Do you use them for marketing your work?
EF: I do. When I attend portfolio reviews I always bring a stack of magazines and offer one of them as a leave-behind, and I bring the book as well–particularly if I have a review with a publisher–to show as a mock-up. There are also links on the sidebar of my blog to direct people to the sales sites in the hopes of generating interest and potential income. And if I’ve met someone in the industry in a more informal setting I’ll often send a magazine along as a way to keep in touch and place a physical reminder of my images in someone’s hands.
LL: Is one selling faster than the other?
EF: The magazine by far, it’s not even a contest. I’ve had many conversations with fellow photographers who have also used Blurb, and the general consensus seems to be that we’ve all employed the service as a means for creating a template. In essence, when we show the book around it’s with a bit of a disclaimer: this is what my book would look like if an actual publishing house were to produce a more high-end version. Blurb is good for what it is, but the quality isn’t impeccable, I have to admit–plus the prices for purchase are extremely high. My book is over $80 and I think it’s a deterrent–if someone can buy an art book for that much from Steidl or Schilt Publishing, I don’t think they’re going to spend that kind of money on a self-published piece. Again, at $12 for the magazine, there’s no “risk”–it’s a nice way for someone to have a look at my photographs in print, but because it’s affordable I think there’s an understanding that the color isn’t going to be 100% perfect, and that the paper quality is going to be like any typical magazine for sale out there.
LL: I read about the final moments of finishing and perfecting your Blurb book on your blog. Can you talk about the pros and cons of each process?
EF: For some reason, despite the fact that both Magcloud and Blurb have you upload PDFs and I used the same program (Adobe InDesign) for each, I had a much more difficult time with the template for Blurb. When my PDF was uploaded I ran into a number of technical difficulties with image distortion on the cover. Admittedly, I was down to the wire because I was trying to meet the submission deadline for the Photography.Book.Now competition and therefore didn’t have much time to contact customer service, so the problems I had may have been able to be resolved more easily if I had had some wiggle room. Instead I ended up changing my cover in order to get around the glitches. Regardless, I also felt Blurb’s templates weren’t entirely accurate, whereas Magcloud’s matched up well.
Otherwise, it’s not so much a pro/con situation as a different way of working. As I mentioned before, making the magazine felt freeing and enjoyable. With the book I was more emotional–I spent much more time with every aspect of its creation, and so putting it out into the world was a bigger deal for my psyche than with the magazine.
LL: Have you considered making a limited edition artist book?
EF: Yes, quite seriously. I think there’s a lot of room for new types of creativity to emerge through limited edition books. They have the potential to become artworks in and of themselves, with many options for being hand-bound, multilayered, or handwritten in sections, in addition to the images. One could even have a single edition for a unique one-of-a-kind piece, or a small run with some sort of maker’s mark. I think a more overt sense of the photographer’s hand is where the significance of the artist book lies, and will be what sets limited editions apart from the formalized self publishing industry.