With respect to Cristina De Middel, there will be no mention of the ‘A’ word in this review of her latest book, published by Self Publish Be Happy as part of their ongoing Book Club series (the previous installments were produced by Broomberg & Chanarin and long-time SMBHmag contributor Brad Feuerhelm).SPBH Book Club Volume III from De Middel is something that one would have hoped she produce following her previous success. It is obviously approached in the authors idiosyncratic way, which not only continues to add charm to the photobook world, but that inherently Spanish humour also continues to lift the spirits of the photography world that can sometimes feel a little too damp.Indeed, during a conversation with The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan as part of PhotoIreland Festival’s Summer Campus this year, De Middel expressed her concern for contemporary photography’s addiction to heavy and profound subject matter, and its sometimes zealous rejection of anything that strains from a standardised ‘reality’. Fiction, she noted, was just as valid as any subject matter in photography; after all, we don’t treat any other art form in this way.Hence, her new book, complete with a unique graffiti tagged hardback cover on each copy, comes from her love of film, and in this particular case of West Side Story set in New York. Using a combination of imagery from the film itself to open the book, De Middel then brings us on a journey around the city of cities, in a relaxed, sit down and enjoy the ride kind of way.
In designing the imagery for the book De Middel did something street photographers have done in the past but pretend not to, and that is stage a shot: in this case asking individuals to partake of a typical West Side Story dance move. Of course, this could fall flat on its face as a strategy if it wasn’t down to the fact that De Middel likes to play with reality – even her own unreality. Some shots contain accidental involvement from passers-by, and some use Photoshop in a very subtle, confident manner that successfully, unashamedly distorts our own interpretations – the ginger haired boys at the beginning, the three trolley boys crossing the street, the skateboarder minus the skateboard – all take on a kind of visual choreography that gets to the heart of picture making in a truly contemporary sense.
One cannot escape the tone set by the characters and the character of the city itself, the unknown faces, the hard-faced brickwork and cold concrete pavements are brought to life but suggest something more somber with the deep shadows and dubious locations. West Side Story is a love story, itself based on Romeo and Juliet so it isn’t going to end well. However, De Middel avoids telling this love story, instead she frames it, and the reader becomes part of the framing as various pieces of ephemera, such as a Jets team playing card, US Customs declaration card and a fragment of 8mm film pop out from the well printed pages.
Having no experience of West Side Story or it’s characters, one still feels quite comfortable with the book, and this it has to be said is not only down to De Middel’s sumptuous imagery but also a decent, uncluttered edit that sails along without any stumbling blocks. The important thing, is that this book doesn’t just present beautiful image after beautiful image; there is space given to shots that touch on the grittier tradition of street photography synonymous with New York. It is respectful to all-comers, from those aware of the history of photography, or the subject matter, to those who simply want to appreciate something of tactile beauty. This, of course, is where photobooks are supposed to be.
This book is currently sold out, but you can check directly from SPBH Book Club here