Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Ikinga by Stephan Würth

 

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In late 2013, Stephan Würth embarked on a whirlwind road trip, winding his way across Burundi, a small landlocked nation in the heart of East Africa.  Discreetly capturing images on an iPhone during his journey, Würth portrays everyday life in the impoverished country, from the bustling open-air markets of its capital, Bujumbura, to the plantations of sweet banana and coffee deep in the country’s foothills.

The photographs highlight the integral role the bicycle, or ikinga, plays in Burundi’s culture. Würth’s images of this commercial bicycle culture are presented as a symbol of how the nation of Burundi is striving to overcome the decades of civil war and economic hardship since becoming an independent country in 1962.

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The book is bound in yellow cloth binding, with bright pink endsheets inside the front and back covers. Opening the book reminded me of when I used to work for a publishing company – when we got shipments from co-workers based in Chennai, India, the inside of their manilla envelopes had thin layers of brightly colored cloth with beautiful, printed patterns. Much like ikinga, once past the outer colorful display, there are materials needed to complete a project, materials needed to get work done. Würth’s scenes of life in Burundi show people living and working in impoverished areas, with few paved roads. Their bicycles are sturdy, and sometimes cobbled together with various repaired parts from different bikes. The goods transported via bicycle are crops like bananas and coffee, as well as building materials.

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Even though Würth consciously tried to avoid it in this project, one cannot completely ignore the political aspect of Burundi’s ethnic conflict and economic struggles, or the fact that Würth’s photos are that of a Western eye viewing a third-world country. But these ‘outsider’ portraits are similar in regard to those of Robert Frank, a Swiss photographer whose iconic images of America and Americans were taken in the 1950s. Frank’s images revealed a country quite different than what was being depicted by most American photographers at the time. Sometimes an outside viewpoint is exactly what is needed.

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In the book’s essay, Joseph Akel addresses the visual aspect of what Würth has accomplished in ikinga:

“Drawing from a conceptual lineage that traces back to Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’, Jean Rouch’s ‘Chronique d’un été’, and August Sanders’ encyclopedic survey of Germany’s population at the turn of the century, Würth’s images manage to succinctly – and with little artifice – depict day-to-day life in Burundi. In perhaps one of the most striking images to come out of the series, a young mother with her baby strapped to her back, is seen riding sidesaddle on a bicycle-taxi. The image is remarkable, not so much for the amazing balancing act the mother seems to achieve on the back of the bicycle, as it is for the beautiful, warm, and direct smile that she has on her face. Ultimately, what comes across in the photographs that make up Ikinga is the resilient human face of a country that has, for too long, occupied a place in our collective imagination as a land of inhumanity.”

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These muted color photographs of the people of Burundi are a far cry from a leisurely weekend bicycle ride Westerners might enjoy. There are no images of people dressed in Lycra with colorful helmets, and energy bars. Whether it is a utilitarian bicycle capable of moving hundreds of pounds of goods, or a bicycle-taxi decorated with brightly colored reflectors, streamers, and handgrips – Würth’s book ikinga shows a culture of people who are strong and determined.


Stephan Würth is a photographer originally from Germany who grew up between Munich, Texas and California.  His work has been featured in international editions of Vogue, The New York Times, Porter Magazine, GQ, Playboy, Esquire, Galore Magazine, Treats Magazine and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition among others. In 2011, Stephan released his first book “Ghost Town” published by Damiani.

Joseph Akel is a New York based writer and editor. His non-fiction writing has appeared inThe New York Times, Vanity Fair, Interview, The Paris Review, New York Magazine, Artforum, Frieze, and V Magazine,  among others.


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Stephan Würth – Ikinga (with essay by Joseph Akel)
Cloth, 9.5 x 9.5 in. / 72 pgs / 31 color
Published by Damiani – May 2016 (U.S. publication)

For more information on ikinga, and other projects by Stephan Würth, visit his website. Purchase the book via Amazon: ikinga


 

This is an edited version of the review originally published in F-Stop Magazine

Book Review: On the Nest by Dona Schwartz

 

Kristin and Ryan, 18 Days
Kristin and Ryan, 18 Days

Dona Schwartz describes her book as such: “In On the Nest, I use environmental portraiture to examine two moments of change that bookend parents’ lives—the transition to parenthood with a first child’s birth, and the transition to life without day-to-day responsibility for parenting when young adults leave their childhood homes.”

The book is comprised of three parts. The ‘Expecting’ series at the beginning of the book shows couples who are parents-to-be. Schwartz has photographed couples in the space they’ve prepared in anticipation of the baby who will soon arrive. The images are titled by listing their names and the amount of time left before their lives will change forever (due date/adoption date). The nervousness and/or excitement shown in the expressions and body language of the expectant parents is palpable. The clutter of all the recommended items for expectant parents in some of the shots is dizzying. Shelves covered with books for what to expect (but can never fully address), or clothes that won’t be worn for months and months after the baby arrives, and the single package of infant sized diapers… as if to declare: “We are ready”.

The middle of the book contains an essay by William A. Ewing. Ewing is a photography curator, author, and former director of photography for several prestigious centers for photography, including the International Center of Photography, New York from 1977 to 1984. Ewing’s essay, ‘Great Expectations’, is written both from the perspective of a parent who has gone through both stages of Expecting and Empty Nester, and that of an expert on the subject matter of a well-conceived and executed photography project – which On the Nest certainly is. These portraits have the power to draw in the viewer and as Schwartz says, “… invite viewers to reflect on their own experiences of change and the trajectories we trace in the course of a lifetime.”

The latter part of the book is the series of images, ‘Empty Nesters’. Presented in a similar fashion as the expectant parents, these couples are parents who are in the phase of life after their children have left home and their bedrooms/personal spaces.

Christina and Mark, 14 Months
Christina and Mark, 14 Months

The color images Schwarz presents throughout are practically deadpan. Couples are photographed in these spaces in a direct, documentary style. Couples of diverse races, ethnicities, and genders are all presented in the same way. The extreme wide angle lens used to capture these couples in small rooms results in images with the physical space distorted and exaggerated. Tables and chairs are distorted from their normal shape around the frame edge of the shots and the perspective is off – as if stretched by extreme gravity that warps both time and space. One could suppose this is how the Empty Nesters feel… Where did the time go? How did it go by so quickly? What happened to our baby?

Some Empty Nesters are shown in cramped rooms with some of the same types of knick-knacks as the expectant parents, with the substitution of exercise equipment for bouncy seats, and craft tables for changing tables. The only thing missing is the kids.

Gloria and Alan, 5 Years
Gloria and Alan, 5 Years

In fact, the children are never physically present in these portraits; save for photos on shelves or bulletin boards. The details in Schwartz’s photographs, the artifacts, the evidence that time has passed and are the only clues to the real inhabitants of these spaces. These clues are all we have to guess what the children are like – or in the case of the expectant parents: what they hope their children will be like.

Bobby and Kevin, Waiting to Adopt
Bobby and Kevin, Waiting to Adopt

Schwartz captures the broad strokes of the project by stating, “In our lives we experience multiple transitions, and in these moments of change we renegotiate our sense of self. Events like communions, weddings, baby showers, and retirement parties formally mark the new roles and statuses we take on. We cross other thresholds without rituals or celebrations—even though divorce is a momentous life transition, there is no script for marking its passage. I am intrigued by the ways in which we move from one life phase to the next, and I am working programmatically to represent complex processes of changing identity.”


Dona Schwartz is an American photographer living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She earned her PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication and is professionally engaged with photography as an artist, scholar, and educator. Amongst her many academic publications are two photographic ethnographies, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) and Contesting the Super Bowl (Routledge, 1997). Her photographic monograph, In the Kitchen, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2009.

Her work has been internationally published and exhibited at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, London, Blue Sky Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Stephen Bulger Gallery, the Pingyao International Photography Festival, and in numerous juried exhibitions in the United States. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, George Eastman House, the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, the Harry Ransom Center, the Portland Art Museum, and the Kinsey Institute. She is currently on the faculty of the Department of Art at the University of Calgary.


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On the Nest – Dona Schwartz (with essay by William A. Ewing)
Published by Kehrer Verlag – November 2015

For more information on On the Nest, and other books by Dona Schwartz, visit her website.


(Originally written for and published by F-Stop Magazine in February 2016.)

Harvey Stein: Briefly Seen – New York Street Photography

Sharing this review published by Lenscratch

“As individuals in New York City, when we become part of the crowd, we lose our individuality if only for a few minutes and become part of the fabric and mosaic of the city. We are the city, we belong and are beholden to the city, our identity is expressed through and of the city.…

Source: Harvey Stein: Briefly Seen – New York Street Photography