The latest book from Phaidon is an overdose of high-art eye candy, and its publication is nearly as exciting as the arrival of the JCPenney Christmas catalogue of childhood. Known for its weighty editions, both literally and figuratively, Phaidon seems to offer no tome less than 10 pounds. The books are also conceptual back-breakers, surveying heavyweight issues like the history of feminist art, conceptual art and minimalism.
Blink, billed by editor Antonia Carver as "an exhibition in a book," is another visual culture orgy: an assemblage of 100 photographers selected by 10 international curators for their "rising star" status. The survey book popularized by the Euro-publisher Taschen has become a symptom either of our glazed-eye, saturate-me consumer consciousness or an attempt to spread the love around by cramming as many interesting artists as possible into one fat volume. This all-encompassing approach runs the risk of diminishing the power of individual work, but Blink manages to cover a lot of ground while allowing individual talent to shine through.
The work, selected by curators from regions as far flung as Austria, India, Japan and Australia, encompasses fashion and fine art photography, documentary work and formal experiment, and it exhibits the undeniable influence of Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, the Bechers and Mary Ellen Mark. Nearly overwhelming for its panoply of imagery, the volume features every brand of shock art, banality and brilliance going in contemporary photography, with promising work in the latter category from the already well-known Netherlands photographer Rineke Dijstra, who offers continually absorbing, intense studies of vulnerable life stages. In Blink, he explores the subtle-but-cataclysmic evolution from child to teen.
Much of the work documents important recent trends in photography: the attempts to visualize and understand the seemingly clinical, banal spaces of contemporary architecture; a shift away from the natural to the artificial; the extension of documentary-making to family and self; the use of computers to undermine the real; and an increased questioning of the influence of the photographer's point-of-view in defining and encoding what we see. Where photographs once proposed just to "exist," now they are sagely understood as the intersection of country, self, economics, technology -- all the forces that operate behind the scenes of an image that the curatorial essays are quick to point out.
The curators perform their own subtext, allowing readers to get a sense of their personalities in the choices they make. Since their role is such an integral part of the book, it might have been more telling to arrange the photos by curator rather than alphabetically by photographer's last name.
Like all contemporary media culture, the images can be trite and shopworn on one hand. At other times, they test the limits of our visual jadedness, shocking with content or form, as in the work of Ukrainian wild card Boris Mikhailov, who pictures roasted chickens and himself in compromising positions.
The consistently weak link in the volume is the fashion imagery, most of it chosen by curator Dennis Freedman, the vice chairman and creative director of Fairchild Publications, whose magazine W has shown much of this fashion work in its pages.
Many of the fashion images, though they may be revolutionary in a glossy magazine's pages, are rigid and inert next to the fine art work. Though Curator Freedman calls an Inez von Lamsweerde / Vinoodh Matadin image of a nude woman with blue-tinted pubic hair and pink eye gloss "one of the most memorable fashion images of the last five years." But the image feels like warmed-over surrealism (and is a horrible representation of the two photographers' often provocative work) meant to momentarily arrest the reader's eye but little else.
The book can make a reader feel wanton and promiscuous for the variety of emotions and intellectual buttons it pushes. Very much like living in an image-dominated First World, one is pulled in a hundred different directions and left feeling a little woozy and fatigued. On one page are the hilarious critiques of homoerotic male behavior by Paul M. Smith, who makes orgiastic fake "snapshots" of himself posed at all-guy events. On the next, are Brooklyn photographer Marc Asnin's disturbing photos of his Uncle Charlie with his crack-addict girlfriend.
Though the gesture at first seems like overkill, 10 essays also have been included in Blink, chosen by the curators to elucidate some point about contemporary photography.
The essays are often prickly and provocative and many shake up the ideas that the images themselves seem to propose. It is a healthy, complicating gesture that suggests we delve beneath the seductive or revolting aspects of our photo-saturated world, be it high art or advertising, and train ourselves to maintain a vantage, in the words of essayist Angel Molla, "of active contemplation and comprehending vision."
Blink: 100 Photographers, 10 Curators, 10 Writers, Phaidon Press, New York, 448 pages, $69.95. www.phaidon.com.