It's exciting times in the photobook world. There are new ways of printing, distributing, editing, selling; new inks, new papers, new publisher, new inserts, new everything. But for all the newness, nearly all photobooks made by publishers, both big and small, are innately conservative. Sure, there is visionary photography that gives a book certain shape. Paul Graham's Shimmer of Possibility springs to mind. It was still a conservative book though. The Altogether by Chris Coekin with its ambitious combination of text, images and music pushes the boundaries a bit more and Alec Soth is publishing brave and labor-intensive gems at Little Brown Mushroom.
So where does that lead us? Well, there's a new book out by David Alan Harvey called (based on a true story) and it rather sets a new high water mark in imaginative, effective book design. Add the fact that it's intelligent, sexy and really, really cool and you end up with a book that is certainly the most enjoyable I have handled in the last few years.
And it's fun. It comes in a box overprinted with a black and white crazy paving design. Open that up and there's a cloth-covered slipcase, again with a black and white design. Then you're into the book. The cover is an unsaturated picture of a girl in a bikini. Pale pinks and light blues mix with a beach ball, an ice-cream and some big Brazilian buttocks. Yay, we're not in Kansas anymore! Let a thousand clichés blossom!
Open the book and there are loose clad leaves held together by a Prussian-blue cord with wooden beads. What's going on? Everything's all over the place and there's that girl in the bikini again, scattered on a contact sheet buying ice creams, beach balls and candy floss.
So what is going on? Fortunately there's a postcard to give you a clue. That's what it says on its reverse side; "Clues." Clue one is "There is more than one way to read this novella." Clue 2 is "It is analog, 3D, interactive (Please Handle With Care)" and Clue 3 is "See Map."
I searched for the map, but I didn't find it. Where's the flipping map! No maps that I could see, so I started looking anyway. We get past the girl and we're up in the favelas and there are guns. But it's half a picture. There's a tennis player and the beach. It's a kind of intro, but then we see the title and the book starts proper. It's Rio, so it's beach football, then more beaches. There's wealth, there are suntans and it's feeling hot, hot, hot. All very Brazilian so far. The landscape formatted pictures are folded in two so to see them fully you pull them out from under the cord. But funnily enough you don't need to. The halves fit together with other halves or the full portraits on the facing page. Bare flesh and night lights vie with the golden hour and party life. The energy just pops out of the page; it's like Martin Parr meets Bruce Gilden but with a vivacious element added. Harvey might just have been enjoying himself during the making of this book.
There are street scenes, Carnival and party life. Sex and wealth sit next to a gun barrel (pull the picture out...) and then there's a pause, a sobriety, a distance, an apartment, a woman and a pool. It's a respite, a break, a different kind of photography from the usual Harvey full-color model. But from there from then on things get a bit seedy; spliffs, blow jobs, baggies and guns. More half pictures and more opening up, unfolding and rearranging of the elements.
Then we're at the end and it's the girl in the bikini again, this time holding a stick of cotton candy between her legs. But we're not at the end, because that's just the one version. We can go back and pull the pictures out, rejig them, see if we can do better. The way the pictures are folded over invites another response, to find matching halves, to see what goes where, who goes with whom?
(based on a true story) seems to be a random machine gun attack of a book, but it's not. It's held together by carefully (and very cleverly) calculated clues. External elements such as the postcard of clues and the 'map' (it's a visual map – I found it in the end) of the book point you in one direction. But at the same time, there are other structures holding the book in place; the uphill/downhill nature of Rio's topography, the gaps between rich and poor, the magnetic attraction of the beach. It's not a nuanced book, you will not discover the inner truths of Brazilian society from this book, but why would you expect to? Instead, you get a raucous, dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable ride around the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro, in a book where the text, design and layout is incisive, innovative and fun.
Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of Wired.com’s favourites earlier this year.