Monthly Archives: February 2009

Skeet McCauley’s Sign Language

Recently I came across a book that I somehow missed in my many travels through the libraries and bookstores. I was reading Martha Sandweiss’ Print the Legend and there was short passage referring to a book made in the eighties entitled Sign Language by Skeet McAuley. It sounded quite interesting so I got on the web and found a used copy. When the book finally arrived in the mail I had forgotten I’d ordered it.
Skeet McAuley set out with the task of photographing the Native American at present (remember this was the eighties), and their current situation on the reservation. This is typically a sticky situation for a non-Native photographer to get into. McAuley worked it out in a non-typical way and what he accomplished truly impressed me. The book not only gives you the kind of images you might expect, but quite a few you may not have expected. He spent his time with two tribes, the Navajo and the White Mountain Apache who were both open to his ideas and had a willingness to cooperate. What really sets the book above is who also provides a written read on the photographs, McAuley enlisted the help of Mike Mitchell, a Navajo medicine man from the Dine College in Arizona to sit with the photos and give his own impressions.
I looked through the book once before reading the text to get my own impression of the pictures and then went back again to read Mitchell’s text about the photos. Our impressions could not have differed more. While my view on the photos was coming from a background in practicing photography and years of art history, Mitchell’s view was one of a different read. In a photograph where a tackily dressed young tourist stands inside a Hogan with a Navajo weaving family, my thoughts were of commodification and a constant need of non-Natives to want to give the Native their old way of life back. What Mitchell saw was the sacredness of the Hogan and the virtues of weaving as a Navajo way of life. He never even bothered to mention the young white tourist in the Hogan. It was though he had not even see the young man.
Again this happens when he is shown a photo of water running in a large man made ditch, part of the Navajo irrigation project. Mitchell describes the holiness of water, how it is part of all living things, and the role it plays in ceremony. Not once does he mention how man has diverted and possibly even squandered out natural resources.
How we read a photograph, or how we discern our visual language remains a mystery to many. What we see and how we see it is part of who we are and where we came from. Our culture, our upbringing, and our education have a profound impact on the way we read a photograph. While one person can see one thing, others often read things very differently. Seeing both sides of the coin, or the possibility of more than one reading is at the core of understanding our visual language.

Toshia Shibata’s Landscape 2

Often by the time I get around to wanting a book, I am months behind the list of the newest books on the market. So many come off the presses these days it is hard to keep up. Such was the case with Toshio Shibata’s Landscape 2. By the time I contacted Nazraeli Press to get my own they were long since sold out. With only a thousand hand numbered copies out there I was sure I was out of luck. Lucky for me I have Vincent Borrelli here in town who was nice enough to loan me a copy for a review.

Shibata has become one of Japan’s most revered photographers over the last decade. His original Landscape was released by Nazraeli in 1996 and quickly sold out. The second printing in 2000 did the same and he followed up with Dam in 2004. Switching from large format black and white to color for his latest release, the work takes on a whole new dynamic.

Landscape 2 has over five years of work and containing 84 images, the book has a lot to offer. Like his earlier works, Shibata continues to focus on the collision of man and nature and the never-ending battle to control it. Japan’s mountainous interior is constantly under attack by the forces of nature. Erosion is trying to bring Japan back into the sea and humans are trying to stop it when it impedes our own needs. Thus the mountains contain a bizarre conglomeration of attempts at halting nature’s reclamation.

A rigid structure within a natural order, the lines created by the construction take on the appearance of contour lines on a map following the hillsides and riverbeds on a mathematical path. The geometric pattern only becomes all the more beautiful when it begins to coalesce with the forces it is trying to control. The two are completely at odds, one trying to find a balance and the other trying to force a balance, yet together they form something that Shibata has the ability to make beautiful in his photographs. The eerie repetitiveness of the constructions with nature on all sides and quite often creeping back in only made me wonder, who is winning and who is losing?

There is no introduction, no foreword, and no explanation at all, something I find completely refreshing and really enjoyed about this offering. The photographs said all that needed to be said. Shibata’s work left me only wanting more by the time I got to the end of the book. The only thing that bugged me about the book was that the book contains eighty photographs from Japan and four from Oregon. Even without reading the text describing the images locations they felt slightly out of place. Had those four photos been left out, the book would have been just as successful in my opinion.

If you are looking to add some contemporary landscape to your photo book collection, I highly recommend this book. As a limited edition it is almost guaranteed to go up in value if you can stop looking at it long enough to keep it in great condition.