Sunday, February 10, 2008

Putting Back The Wall - John Gossage

"I aim at photographing the past as present." -John Gossage

I'd been hoping to get a copy of John Gossage's new book Putting Back the Wall in time to include it in my "best of 2007" books. If I had, I think it would have made my pick of the year. As it was, there was a bit of a hiccup with the order and I didn't get it until the new year.

However, when it did arrive, I was delighted to find Loosetrife Editions publisher Michael Abrams had also included copies of his own new book Strange & Singular and also Waiting, Fishing, Sitting and Some Autombiles by Anthony Hernandez. What a fantastic package. More on those latter two in some later posts, but for now, Putting Back the Wall.

Life has been a bit crazy here over the last few weeks (I got a new winter day-job as a museum curator...) and so after a quick flick through, I put the book on one side until I could really take some time to look through it and read the two essays by Gerry Badger and Thomas Weski.

It was worth the wait. I mentioned Gossage's monumental book Berlin in the Time of the Wall rather briefly in my very first blog post. It is possibly one of the best photography books of the first few years of the new millennium; looking back as it does to one of the final decisive chapters in the history of the 20th century.

Putting Back the Wall is essentially an epilogue to that Berlin book (among other things it starts on page 465). It isn't so physically weighty and is, in a way, more intimate.

It is a very poetic book - poetic that is, in the sense of Paterson or East Coker. Many of the images are enigmatic, and the pairings and groupings take it well beyond "just" a book of pictures.

It is also virtuosic. There aren't many photographers who could pull off the way each of these photographs are just spot on - extreme darkness, narrow focus, multiple layers (both visually and in t terms of meaning), fragmentary views, veiled images - all with a unique vision.

This isn't just about the landscape of Berlin during and after the Wall, but it also about the Wall as a state of mind - it is both intensely personal and at the same time a "panoramic" view of recent history - it is about memory and history. It is very very much the powerful sort of photographic document as described by John Berger when he talks of photogrpahy working in opposition to and resistance to the monopolization of history.

Darius Himes says of Gossage that "he is the thinking man's photographer". This is a book that requires not long and thoughtful viewing, but which also germinates many new thoughts and ideas in the process.

Gerry Badgers words about Berlin in the Time of the Wall apply equally to Putting Back the Wall:

"But the legacy of Berlin on the work of John Gossage went far deeper. Berlin, one might say, is the place where photography became both easy and difficult for him. Easy because there was such a rich vein of subject matter, history piled up in front of his eyes, one metaphorical layer upon another, like the different strata that can reveal so much to the archaeologist when a trench is cut through a site. But such strata, translated into the archaeologist's sectional drawings, are notoriously difficult to read, and that, in a nutshell, was where the difficulty, the challenge lay for Gossage. He was faced with the task of evaluating the evidence, reading it, recording it, interpreting it, and fashioning it into a coherent 'report'--both for himself and for his audience. Of course, as John Gossage is an artist, the 'report' may be oblique, poetic, metaphorical, subjective, and ambiguous. In short, it is a creative interpretation."

Finally, John Gossage is a wonderful book designer - visually, this book is a delight - as are the other two Loostrife books I mentioned at the start. Would that more photo books had as much care in the design (and occasional whimsy) as these do.

BTW, you can also get both books - ...In The Time and Putting Back... in one mega boxed bonus package from Loosetrife.

Now, if only I could have been at that Berlin Gallery when John sold off his work prints for the book at 40 Euros each - and each was sold, the prints came straight off the gallery wall as an echo of the dismantling of the Wall itself.

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