Saturday, January 5, 2013


In the weeks just after Christmas, many bookshops dump the prices on a wide choice of books to try to get rid of the unsold “gift books”, that typically have a market just around Christmas. These lavishly illustrated volumes on anything from dog breeds to cake decoration are sold at a fraction of the original price - a treasure trove of reference material for sometimes ridiculously low prices. I typically gravitate towards the sales tables like a fly to honey and go from one delightful discovery to the next. It is now quite evident that in terms of photographic books, I am irresistibly attracted by certain specific topics: people, unusual settings or light effects and anything that has to do with fabrics, costume, patterns or textures. In this spirit I scouted a couple of bookshops yesterday and came home with a number of wonderful and wonderfully cheap coffee-table books. Only when I unloaded my crates, I realized that there were two books rubbing covers in the same bag that represented the most outrageous contrast in content, worldview and ethics that you could possibly think of. 

The first was “Fashion - a history of the 20th century”, a compilation of items from the Kyoto Costume Institute edited by the well-known German coffee-table book magnate Taschen. These books are already fairly cheap when they are sold full price. This was to be had for the equivalent of 7 dollars and is a feast for the eyes. I am not particularly interested in fashion, but I am in costume (if you get the difference) and very much so when it is combined with the most unusual and luscious fabrics that designers can access, and tailored with the highest level of skills. Page after page of brocades, golden lace, diaphanous silks, furs, wonderfully designed combinations of shape and pattern, trims, sewed textures, and, in the latest pages, op-art fabrics, high-end punk, “fabrics” made of metal, plastic, paper and wood. Almost every page offered either an element for a picture I am already planning or an idea for a totally new one and some of the textures and light effects will come in handy in a variety of unrelated situations.

The text accompanying the pictures is very slim and yet informative, offering some precious insights in the fashion revolutions that characterized the century and the modus operandi of the major designers.

The second book is a slap in the face of so much sophistication: under the iconic title “The places we live”, the norwegian photographer Jonas Bendiksen has collected photographs of the slums of four major world metropoles: Nairobi, Mumbai, Jakarta and Caracas. The book has a very unusual format: each spread opens up to a four-pages wide landscape photograph, each page isolating one wall of the typically one-room dwellings and depicting the inhabitants (very often large or extended families) in their own “houses”. I got caught up by the book after a very cursory examination because the photographs are just stunningly beautiful and, given that the rooms have mostly just one door and no windows, the lighting is extremely moody and directional, sometimes literarily sculpting the features, attitudes and belongings of the subjects. The images are sometimes really breathtaking. Then you start reading the accompanying texts (short testimonies from one of the family members, generally the man of the family when present) and the breath remains away. It is the kind of sentences and images that you know will haunt you for quite some time, make you think and rethink about your life, the world you live in and the nature of happiness. When you listen to people praising their homes (these homes!) and how they are attached to them and how they worked to improve them and their lives, you start thinking: who is really the privileged here? When you see a mother sleeping with her 9-month-old on a bench in the street and happy because she has work enough to feed her child, you wonder what will become of our children, whom we fret upon because they eat with their elbows on the table or because they refuse to close their jackets...and who occasionally get sulky when they are refused the 100th toy....

The photographer generously makes available a free link to a slide-show of the photos, which can be found here.

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