4.01.2016

Photobook Review: "My Last Day at Seventeen" by Doug DuBois

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

Doug DuBois
My Last Day at Seventeen
Aperture, 2015
156 pages, 79 images, includes illustrations by Patrick Lynch, 9 3/8 x 12 1/4 inches

Also reviewed on: Collector's Daily, Hyperallergic
Additional links: TIME, Lens CultureLomography

Additional links on fototazo: Interview Part I, Interview Part II
Additional link on My Last Day at Seventeen by...me: Exposure 48:1 Spring 2015 
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I long promised a third part to fototazo's interview with Doug DuBois, the first two parts to which I've linked to just above. We did a preliminary interview for it, but in the end other commitments prevented it from materializing. Instead, now that My Last Day at Seventeen has come out, I'd like to bookend the interviews I did with DuBois during his process of working on the book by cracking the cover and taking a look at the finished project.

This review generally doesn't aim to judge the book, but rather understand how it works.
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© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

My Last Day at Seventeen (MLDAS) contains 79 portraits, staged tableaux, and spontaneous photographs made over five summers in the working-class Russell Heights housing estate located in the coastal town of Cobh in southwestern Ireland.

The book is comprised of four components: the main passages of photographs, a graphic novel-style comic by Patrick Lynch presented in a series of inserts, two sequences of photographs inserted in the same way as the comics and a short ending text.
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© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

In MLDAS, DuBois wraps together several elements to create an investigation of - and revisions to - the traditional coming-of-age narrative: Ireland, the working class, an economic downtown, an insulated community, DuBois' aesthetic vision, the American-ness of that vision, a middle-aged man photographing adolescents and the perspective of a man looking back at his own youth with a sense of loss, to name a half-dozen.

Coming-of-age seems at risk of being still born because of the lack of access to jobs and education for the adolescents of Russell Heights during the end of the Celtic Tiger. Through the complete absence of references to employment or future study in MLDAS, we sense that the next stage of the lives of the subjects is uncertain and the traditional coming-of-age narrative of graduation leading towards new opportunities appears at the point of breaking down. In one photograph, a house with a boarded up window and a "For Sale" sign signals the larger economic difficulties causing the lack of opportunities. That's all we need to understand the larger context. Here DuBois plays a subtle hand well from the elements he works from.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone


© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

The creation of a world without adults in MLDAS is another twist on the more traditional coming-of-age story that plays on the distinctive elements from which the book was made. This mythical world composed of only teens set within a circumscribed, shared space of drinking holes, alleys and hang outs in which no single subject dominates suggests the collective youth experience defines the individual experience. The neighborhood peer community thus defines the "self" for these teens more so than the institutions of church, parents, nation, work or school, bringing focus to the shared moment of confrontation with the arrival of adulthood.

DuBois singes his images with the melancholic sense of loss that accompanies looking backwards across the landscape of one's own youth and meditating on the sense of loss in leaving adolescence. Doing so gives a much different feel to his portrayal of coming-of-age than other contemporary portrayals, such as the hormone addled teens of Kids, the sensuality of youth adolescence found in Sally Mann's work, the teen awkwardness of Seth and Evan in Superbad or the rebellious fuck you vibe of the train-hopping community in A Period of Juvenile Prosperity.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

The book twists and updates the standard coming-of-age narrative, but it is not limited the particulars of its subjects, time and place. What's most valuable about this project is how DuBois' working techniques push the book beyond the specific conversation.

DuBois pillages the vocabulary of documentary photography freely – frontal, formal, full revealing summer mid-day light, sharp focus and, in his portraits, most often a shallow depth of field. He also works, however, with techniques such as digital compositing, reenacting scenes, staging, and poses borrowed from movies and other sources that push away from the straight documentary tradition into the worlds of Larry Sultan or Dziga Vértov.

The intermixing of techniques traditionally assigned to "documentary" and "art" helps create an abstraction based in reality – this is Ireland but not only Ireland, working class but not only working class, Russell Heights but not only Russell Heights. MLDAS is not limited to being a document of a certain group at the crossing of four dimensions. Instead, by freely mixing traditions, the book shows its willingness to put the greater truth above a singular truth, to sacrifice the document in order to more richly represent the inevitable bittersweetness of the end of youth.
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© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone


© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

MLDAS present two core narrative structures – linear and cyclical – that create a basic tension in the work and that coexist uneasily in the best of ways. It taps into basic questions about how we frame our experience of our lives and part of the book's power is to show that the same lives can be viewed through different narrative constructs depending on how you look and that these narratives are not mutually exclusive.

The linear narrative begins from the cover with a three drawing sequence lifted from one of Lynch's comics. A character hitting a hurley ball says, “Well, let’s...fucking...go!”

Turning the cover, we... fucking go! There are no empty white pages, no standalone title page, no dedication or introductory quote from an Irish literature giant you thought was just the name of a bar in Boston. In the two images above, we can see how the book opens directly to the first part of the title on the left and the first image in a two-image sequence on the right. Turning the page we see the second image of the two-image sequence and the second part of the title on the right. The kids in the two photographs have fallen to the right from one image to the next as they wrestle, moving forwards into the book, just as the three figure drawings on the cover moved us left to right into the book.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

From the two sequences, we move to an image of a boy lying down with his arm across his face in what appears to be a backyard, blocking his face from the sharp light. This image sets up the idea of the "last day" with a sense of dawn. The book doesn't continue with any sort of day's chronology, instead letting this first image and the title install "a day" as a linear temporal frame.

Many of the spaces and events in the photographs that follow also suggest a forward narrative thrust by their connections to rites of passage defined by a "before and after." A jump from a high structure into water, a crashed car and a star etched into a forearm, for example, all imply teenage rites of passage fulfilled. In addition, a number of times as we move through the pages, we turn a corner and see someone we met earlier in the book. The repeated subjects appear at different ages, underscoring the idea of time passing.

Patrick Lynch's comics, inserted between sections of photographs, provide a parallel linear development as they build a narrative through the book, guiding the book forwards with vignettes based around two main characters (discussed more below).

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

As we get to the book's end, however, we also see how the comic repeats frames from the end at the beginning (or vice versa), creating a sense of return, drawing us back into the book to start again. We also see that the bonfire images that open the book have a companion image at the end (above), furthering a sense that the narrative of MLDAS also works cyclically. As we look back through the book, we can find a number of images with elements that echo the cyclical structure: adolescents having babies, two young girls in wedding dresses, a print of an image we find the book taped inside another image on a bedroom wall which, in a different way, also emphasizes the idea of cycles.

There are components of the book that help to form connections between the linear and cyclical core narrative structures. The mix of ages of the various subjects in the book creates both a sense of a survey of adolescence, a look backwards across the whole experience of youth fitting more with a linear understanding, but also providing a glimpse at how the coming-of age narrative will cycle again in those just entering adolescence as others reach eighteen.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

There's also one image in particular where I see the two narrative ideas crossing, in a figure carrying a white door through a field. This door could be another symbol of crossing a threshold forwards, or it could be the removal of that threshold by unhinging it, leaving it dysfunctional, a reading that would also support the earlier conversation around the frustration of the coming-of-age narrative by the economic context these adolescents have grown up in.
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© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

Alec Soth, in apparently impeccable Spanish, said in a recent interview with El País that, "La fotografía se está pareciendo cada vez más a la escritura," or something like, "Photography is increasingly similar to writing." MLDAS pushes that fusion closer.

A post on Lomogaphy – I can't find the author listed anywhere on the page – states that the comics and photographs in MLDAS form "two distinct narratives in one book." DuBois himself, in an interview on Lens Culture, says that the comic narrative "complicates the reading of the photographs and our imagined experience of growing up in Cobh."

I experience the opposite: the comics thread the photographs together more specifically and they – comics and photographs - function together, sharing story elements and a single consistent mood to make potential readings both clearer and limited. The consistency of mood works between the photographs and comics to place me in a created world that has particularity, but not singularity, giving me a fairly specific range to understand the book without telling me too directly how to experience it.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

To explain why I get this sense, first it should be pointed out that word and image are yoked solidly together from the opening sequence in MLDAS. We start with the figure from the comics speaking text, then transition into pages that cut between the two-image bonfire sequence and the two parts of the title.

From there we quickly see in the first comic insert that the comics feature faces and subjects in line with those portrayed in the photographs, and we also see that the photographs, especially through graffiti, carry the text of the comics into the real world. The two sequences of photographs inserted into the book the same way as the comics - one of a boy juggling a soccer ball and the other a backyard barbecue with the subjects playing with a gun - are another way to close the gap between the photographs and comics. They are presented as a series of small squares the size of a frame of the comics on the same paper stock as the comics, which differs from the paper used for the photographs (see gun sequence image farther below).

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone


© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

This tight relationship between photographs and comics helps them function together as one narrative that forms a consistent mood. While the book contains images of tenderness and connection – a couple in a doorway, the girl with a hand on the boy's bare chest; a boy goofing around with some sort of fake eyelashes taped onto his eyelids - the two-image bonfire sequence that opens the book establishes a darkness that signals the dominant mood of the rest of the book.

The boys appear to be hugging in the first image, but in the second we see the "hug" is actually wrestling...with the combatants getting closer to the flames. Other photographs then reinforce this mood through gesture, event and environmental context. We have the rough grasp of hair and redness of skin in the haircut image (above), the crude graffiti in many images, an abandoned car crash scene, the fresh homemade cuts of a star on skin, broken windows, a middle finger and two kids grabbing each other's shirts, ready to fight on a wall. In sum, the passage to adult, which could be seen as a celebration and as an inevitable right, instead is presented as a struggle for survival, a process through which not all will pass.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone


© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone


© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

In the book's closing sequence of photographs, we see a cross, a stigmata reference and then a sort of pietà in the image of one girl plucking the eyebrows of another (the three above images). In these references to the Catholic Church, DuBois opens a conversation about the search for solace, understanding and meaning in the darkness of the his coming-of-age narrative interpretation, suggesting the lens through which many in the community he has photographed would most likely look to understand and overcome difficult times.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone


© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

The narrative of the comics reinforces the mood of the photographs. They present what appears to be a couple. They portray the male as alienated and the comics end by implying his suicide. This reading is corroborated by the dedication to the memory of three local youth placed at the end.

The darkness of the comics directly affects how we understand the photographs as one narrative that forms a consistent mood. In the clearest example, above, we see a photograph of woods that, after finishing the comic narrative, we understand as possibly the place where the insinuated suicide happened.

© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

There's only one place where the narrative possibilities narrow so much that the suggested range of reading feels more like a demand, leaving me little room to participate: the gun sequence. This feels true to the experience of the world presented, but also too direct. The theme of violence becomes explicit and the ways to read the sequence - and perhaps the theme - become singular in dimension.

To give a place where I see a theme treated more subtly working better, we can just look back to the photograph mentioned earlier, where the economic downturn in Ireland limiting the immediate future of teens from Russell Heights is suggested through a single “For Sale” sign on a house with a broken window. We feel the greater presence without the need for it announcing itself more loudly.
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© Doug DuBois - All images are review snapshots and don't accurately present color or tone

The last photograph in the book is covered over by the transcription of a conversation between one of the repeating subjects in the book – Eirn – with Doug and a couple of others in which Eirn explains why the photograph that is covered by the transcript can't be used in the book.

She knows she will, in part, be defined by the photograph and in the image she sees herself - and believes that her friends and family will see her - as a "knacker," presented in a tracksuit with a dirty towel behind her.

What does this ending do? First, it completes the sewing together of text and image as the book has worked to do since the cover and the presentation of the title between the bonfire images . Second, it corroborates the feeling of collaboration between the subjects and DuBois we have experienced in the book in which we see a relaxed intimacy between photographer and subject in the closer portraits, in the access granted to spaces where most adults are probably not welcomed, such as drinking holes, and in DuBois' eye-level, or, less frequently, below eye-level framing of those he photographs.

Lastly, and most importantly, it presents a young woman taking control of her life through taking control of her image. In this way Eirn completes the coming-of-age narrative that we have seen threatened in various ways during the book by economic lack of opportunity, violence and suicide: the girl who gave the project its title through a comment she made early in the process of making the photographs also ends the project by passing through the last rite of passage of her adolescence - assuming control of and responsibility for herself as an adult.

3.10.2016

Fifth Year Review

Nine of the ten fototazo microgrant recipients who went to the USA in the summer of 2015 at the airport in Medellín, June 2015

On January 26th, fototazo celebrated its fifth anniversary, giving us our annual opportunity to take a look back at the past year and ahead at plans for 2016.

This is also the "yearly report" required as part of fototazo's 501(c)3 non-profit private operating foundation status.
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The balance of fototazo continues to shift from the "virtual world" to "real world" work with these young photographers. This post will begin by looking at the work of the organization in the real world, then it will discuss the online content.

SITE MISSION

The site's primary mission continues to be the development of an integrated program of support for young, emerging Colombian photographers. All content on the site works to create viewership to fund the site's primary mission.

I made major changes in the structure of the support program for site grant recipients in 2015. For several years it had consisted of four parts: microgrants for equipment purchases; the mentorship program to give the photographers guidance, feedback on their work and connections to an international team of mentors drawn from across the spectrum of the photography world; the equipment delivery program to give photographers access to United States market prices; and, finally, private classes in Medellín that I teach for those involved with the microgrant and mentorship programs.

In 2015, the microgrant program raised $8,068. By comparison, in 2014 the microgrant program raised $2,640. Thank you to those who have contributed – this site continues because of your contributions!

In December 2014, fototazo launched its most ambitious microgrant yet in support of the Mono Colectivo, a group of nine former microgrant recipients who came together as a collective to support their continued education and development. The members are Alba Bran, Andrés Sánchez, Angélica María Restrepo, Aura Lambertinez, Edwin Ochoa Vélez, Juliana Henao Alcaraz, Margarita Valdivieso, Mónica Lorenza Taborda and Natalia Lopera.

The grant proposed a three-week stay in the United States for the collective to attend a photography intensive workshop at the University of Iowa with Jeff Rich, Zora Murff and Matt Williams; visit museums, galleries and the studios of Alec Soth and Beth Dow in the Twin Cities; meet with Andy Adams of Flak Photo in Madison and hold an exhibit of their work in Iowa City. The grant raised $9,393 between the end of 2014 and June 2015 and the collective raised approximately $1,500 for themselves through various fundraising activities in Medellín.

In June and July 2015 we completed the trip. The trip to the United States was a success from beginning to end, beyond one student misplacing her passport and some hit-and-miss experiences with new foods. It had a number of positive consequences such as a partnership with Kristine Muñoz, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa, who we met at the opening of their exhibition in Iowa City. She worked with four members of the collective on a photo and audio recording field project in Medellín in early 2016 for use in her classes at the university.

A second grant at the end of the year in support of Eric Robledo was also completed in 2015.

Mono Colectivo meeting with Andy Adams in Madison, Wisconsin, June 2015

In 2015, I ended the mentorship program completely. I felt that the program was an exciting way to connect students with professionals across a strong geographic divide between South America and other areas of the world photography community. Due to a language barrier, however, between most of the mentors and mentees communications both ways were funneled through me which made the program time intensive, giving me less ability to work with other parts of the site and creating an impersonal dynamic between participants. In 2016 I will look to relaunch the program with mentors who speak Spanish so that all involved can communicate directly and develop more satisfying and personal relationships between each other.

I continue to offer the equipment delivery program to microgrant recipients in case it proves helpful to have access to the US market, but over time I imagine that this part of the microgrant program will be phased out as delivery from the US to Colombia by sites like Amazon continues to get better.

Private classes continue for the mentees that live in Medellín on a once-a-month basis.

Importantly, but perhaps unexciting-ly for readers of this report, fototazo became a corporación sin ánimo de lucro, that is to say, a non-profit corporation, in Colombia in 2015 which helped with fundraising for the USA trip and will continue to pay benefits in the future.

In 2016, the major "real world" plan is to duplicate the 2015 USA workshop experience in Colombia by inviting one international photographer and two or three national photographers to Medellín to offer the group a workshop. This will cost approximately 10% of last year's project to take the grant photographers to the USA, while giving the students a chance to continue to professionalize by working alongside photographers of the highest standard. Details on this project are being worked on currently.
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Manhandling Alec Soth test prints, June 2015

CONTENT

I would like to extend a thank you to all of the 2015 contributors of images and words for their help in providing a level of content that has attracted a broad readership.

In previous years I have cited site visits relative to previous years, but this year it's impossible to give a reasonable report on that because a free Google Ad Word campaign budget given to fototazo by Google to support its USA trip microgrant distorts those click numbers, making them about 50% higher than previous years, while I'm absolutely sure that actual readership is lower.

The reason I'm sure of that is that I continue to produce fewer and fewer posts as I dedicate more time to the real world organizational projects. I made 72 posts in 2015, versus 103 in 2014 and 152 in 2013.

In 2016 I plan to make even fewer posts, but hope that these posts will be longer and more in depth essay style pieces. Interviews will also continue as well as short series on topics such as editing or developing projects. I also plan to continue to feature more and more work from Latin America this coming year and am actively working to use the site to serve as a bridge between Latin American photographers and an international audience, presenting work made in Latin America on an English language platform. One highlight of 2015 in terms of posts was the Argentina Notebook series developed with Jaime Permuth and Eleonora Ronconi which shows this future direction of site content.

I have been researching the possibility of making fototazo an online magazine-style publication to be published perhaps quarterly and that is something I will continue to consider.

la red fototazo was a Spanish-language photography forum side project on Facebook that I ended in 2015. I felt conversation levels weren't sufficient to warrant monitoring the page. In 2015, I continued to post occasionally to fototazo's Tumblr page, fototazo etc., and to maintain its Facebook and Twitter pages.

I made slight site redesigns in 2015 and plan to make a major overhaul in 2016 away from the blog style scroll format to something more dynamic.

I would like to extend a thank you to the fototazo Board of Directors composed of business leaders Yaron Ben-Zvi and Raphael Crawford and photographer Amani Willett and also to the fototazo Advisory Board, which includes photographers Nicholas NixonLaura McPhee, and Gabriel Mario Vélez for another year of service in their roles.

Finally, thank YOU for following the site and choosing to spend your time reading what we publish from among all of the many quality photography sites that exist. We look forward to taking another step in 2016.

All the best,
Tom Griggs

3.03.2016

Reading Shortlist 3.3.16

From "Not-so-secret atomic tests: Why the photographic film industry knew what the American public didn’t"

The Reading Shortlist is an occasional post with an eclectic listing of recommended sites, readings and links. A recommendation does not necessarily suggest an agreement with the contents of the post. For previous shortlists, please visit the site links page.

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Tim Barribeau, Imaging Resource, Not-so-secret atomic tests: Why the photographic film industry knew what the American public didn't. "The Government protected rolls of film, but not the lives of our kids. There is something wrong with this picture."

Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker, Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others. A take-down of HONY that articulates the problems of the popular blog well.

William Deresiewicz, The Atlantic, The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. A fascinating review of the history of the idea of the artist in Western culture and a convincing, albeit kind of self-evident by this point, proposal for an updated concept of the artist as entrepreneur.

Daniel Grant, Huffington Post, New York Dealers Cannot Afford to Represent Emerging Artists. $80-100,000 dollars a month to run a gallery in Chelsea? No wonder you can't get representation and big name photographic stars of the 60s, 70s and 80s continue to get shows of work that's half as interesting as their best stuff.

John MacPherson, Duckrabbit, Cameras, Communication and the Intimacy of a Moment. An eloquent argument for replacing "just ignore me, pretend I’m not here" when approaching photographic subjects with "please accept me" instead.

From "Scientists made a robot art critic that is able to form its own opinions"

Tony Manfred, Business Insider, Scientists made a robot art critic that is able to form its own opinions. What's interesting here is how they designed the robot to react to art - by studying the faces of others to create its own conclusion. I feel like I've sat in on a lot of crits like that.

John Edwin Mason, Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison, and Invisible Man: Life Magazine, 1952. A recent overview piece in the Huffington Post on Gordon Parks got me interested in his body of work "A Man Becomes Invisible" and the first post that came up in a Google search was a piece from 2012 by John Edwin Mason who explores not only the body of work, but how its publishing context in Life blunted its full power.

Jordan G. Teicher, New Republic, Is War Photography Beautiful or Damned? Critical take on David Shields' new book "War Is Beautiful."

Richard B. Woodward, Collector Daily, Gregory Crewdson, Cathedral of the Pines @Gagosian Solid review of Gregory Crewdson's new work, although it wades beyond the critic's job, proposing solutions for the artist's problems.