BooksWeekend

In New Photo Books, a Strong Sense of Place

Three new photography books explore a sweep of places and events from Cuba to the studio floor.

Tria Giovan, “Malecón, Gibara” (1993), photograph from “The Cuba Archive” (photo courtesy of Damiani)

For anyone with a smartphone, an inundation of photographic images has become an inescapable feature of everyday life. But in the Instagram Age, old-fashioned photo books designed to be lingered over, savored, and revisited have become the visual equivalent of a “slow food” meal.

This season, some notable new books focusing on the societies, histories, or cultures of particular places convey a strong, common subtheme — a general, discernible sense of place. Among them:

The Cuba Archive, by Tria Giovan (Damiani)

New York-based Tria Giovan was born in Chicago in 1961 and grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She first traveled to Cuba in 1990 in search of, as she recently told me, “a place to photograph that had escaped homogenization and commercialization.” There, on the island where Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution had triumphed three decades earlier, she found it.

Fascinated by Cuba in all its ramshackle, post-colonial-meets-revolutionary, funky beauty, and by its people’s indomitable spirit despite their hardscrabble existence, Giovan got to work shooting in color in the “straight photography” documentary manner (an approach that strives for veracity, without later manipulation of captured images). Over the course of numerous visits, she traversed the island, getting to know rural villages, cane fields, mountain retreats, and the crumbling, colonial-era palacios of Old Havana. She immersed herself in Cuba’s history, music, and, of course, politics. (Her earlier photo book, Cuba: The Elusive Island, was published by Abrams in 1996.)

Tria Giovan, “Che Plays Chess, Matanzas” (1993), photograph from “The Cuba Archive” (photo courtesy of Damiani)

The Annenberg Foundation sponsored Giovan’s most recent trip, and some of the images it yielded are featured in Cuba Is, a multi-artist photography exhibition that is now on view (through March 4, 2018) at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

Giovan remembers visiting Cuba during the “Special Period” of the early 1990s following the end of the Cold War, as the country became untethered from the Soviet Union, and Cubans slogged through shortages of fuel and basic supplies. The Cuba Archive includes photos Giovan shot in later years, subtly reflecting certain changes; during her most recent trip, she writes in the book, “Vegetable markets were everywhere, as were fresh coats of paint. Billboards once touting […] the virtues of the revolution had been replaced by mundane imagery and less vitriolic, more tourist-friendly messaging. […] There was a charged vitality in the streets that felt youthful, alive.”

Giovan captures that onda with images of the locals lining up to buy ice cream, the fresh faces of young couples, blonde beauties near the shore, and, inevitably, the sea, that tempting conduit to another world that, to many Cubans, appears as both a forbidding barrier and a shimmering, if uncertain, field of dreams. Giovan feels that her photographs “bear witness to an inimitable, resilient, and complex country and [its] people.”

Photos of Havana, Cuba, by Alex Webb (left) and by Rebecca Norris Webb (right), from ‘Slant Rhymes (photo of page spread courtesy of the photographers and La Fabrica)

Slant Rhymes, by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb (La Fabrica)

Husband and wife Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb are experienced street photographers with eyes for everyday life whose differing aesthetic vibes have been in evidence in a pronounced way ever since they began making photo books together in 2009. That year saw the publication of Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba (Radius Books; it will be republished next year), which contrasted Alex’s seemingly cinematographic approach to movement and composition (shadows, reflections, and patterns of light or motion) with the more emotionally or psychologically charged details favored by Rebecca, who came to photography from poetry (her images in that first volume included a man holding a bird’s wing, a little dog on a custom-made scooter, and cacti framing two peering cats).

Slant Rhymes pairs photos that Alex and Rebecca have made over the course of their 30-year partnership. In the book, Alex, a member of the Magnum Photos agency since the mid-1970s, writes that its title comes from a poetic term referring to “those pairs of words in poetry whose sounds echo one another but not exactly, such as ‘eyes/light’ or ‘blue/moon.’” He adds, “Sometimes we find that our photographic slant rhymes share a similar palette or tone or geometry. Other times, our paired photographs strike a similar note — often a penchant for surreal or surprising or enigmatic moments — although often in two different keys.”

The Parc Zoologique de Paris, by Rebecca Norris Webb (left) and a plaza in Tehuantepec, a town in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, by Alex Webb (right), from “Slant Rhymes” (photo of page spread courtesy of the photographers and La Fabrica)

In Slant Rhymes, the juxtapositions of the Webbs’ paired photos and shared energy can be striking — in Rebecca’s spread-winged Cuban bird laid out beside Alex’s girl gripping cast-iron bars, like a crucified figure, in a church in Spain, or in Rebecca’s image of giraffes in the Parc Zoologique de Paris set opposite Alex’s picture of children playing in a plaza painted blue and white in a Oaxacan town, in southern Mexico.

Rebecca told me, “Sometimes we work in the same place; other times we’re worlds apart. So we wanted Slant Rhymes to echo this creative rhythm of photographing together and apart, and that’s why you’ll see pairs of our photos from Havana, Istanbul, and Brooklyn, as well as pairs of photos made when we were on opposite sides of the globe, including the winter Alex photographed the Kumbh Mela festival in India, the largest gathering of human beings on the planet, while I photographed in the desolate, snowy South Dakota Badlands, where often I was the only person for miles.”

Mary Frank, “San Miguel” (no date), archival pigment print on bamboo paper mounted on aluminum, 21 x 16 inches (photo courtesy DC Moore Gallery)

Pilgrimage, by Mary Frank (Eakins Press Foundation)

Born in London in 1933, the artist Mary Frank moved with her family to the U.S. in 1940, where she later studied with Hans Hoffman and Max Beckmann. Over a long career, she has worked in various media and genres, and may be best known for her paintings and sculptures, in which abstract and figurative elements with allusions to history and myth come together to mine psychic depths.

Frank keeps studios in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York. Recently, in her Manhattan workspace, she recalled the evolution of the unusual photographs she has been making in recent years, a selection of which are now on view at DC Moore, in Chelsea (through December 22). These photos became the content of this new book.

Mary Frank, “Species II” (no date), archival pigment print on bamboo paper mounted on aluminum, 16 x 21 inches (photo courtesy DC Moore Gallery)

“A few years ago, in my studio in Woodstock, I literally began painting the floor,” Frank said. “I placed painted stones or small sculptures on top of those paintings, and then, out of curiosity, I snapped photos of these impromptu set-ups. I didn’t have anything new or special in mind, but these random gestures turned into the photographs in Pilgrimage.”

Still experimenting, Frank combed through her archives of past drawings, painted stones, ceramic fragments, and painted dried mushrooms; she also made new drawings and cut stencils, all of which she combined or layered to create, in effect, three-dimensional collages. When photographed, they became her newest, genre-combining works. Frank took apart her set-ups after photographing them; the photos, rich in suggested textures and allusions to the artist’s abiding themes, are both documents of ephemeral artworks and complete, finished images in themselves.

Like the photographs in all of the books cited here, Frank’s new images strongly evoke a sense of place — if not exactly of somewhere on a map, then of somewhere deep in the imagination, where ambiguous images feed the hunger of a restless, creative spirit.

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