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Carl Bower‘s Chica Barbie series won a Blue Earth Alliance prize for Best Project Photography and was a finalist for Photolucida’s 2009 Critical Mass Book Award. The project on Colombia’s obsession with beauty pageants is astute and multi-faceted, and Carl’s explanation of how he captured such a complicated phenomenon is powerful and eloquent. To see his work in person, check out the Select Gender show opening today at Farmani Gallery.

'Cat Walk' from 'Chica Barbie.' ©Carl Bower

Miki Johnson: Tell me a little about how you first found out about the beauty pageants of Colombia.

Carl Bower: I saw a small article in the New York Times that said there was a pageant there for practically anything imaginable — Miss Sun, Miss Sea, Miss Purity, Miss Pretty Legs, Miss Honey — the list went on. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of these contests with everything else I had been reading about Colombia: the cartels, the guerrillas, the bombings and kidnappings. I thought of how such parallel realities could coexist and the extent to which our popular conception of the country had been a caricature formed by stories of the drug trade.

At the time I came across the article, I was supporting a close friend in her battle with breast cancer. She had been a national champion ballroom dancer and a competitive bodybuilder. Her appearance was something that she took pride in and took pains to maintain even as she lost one breast, then another, and suffered the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout her ordeal, I noticed how her sexuality seemed undiminished, if not stronger. I started to wonder, if a beautiful person gradually loses elements deemed to be part of that beauty, where is the tipping point at which they are no longer beautiful? Is there one?

In my anger and frustration with the cancer and growing obsession with the commoditization of beauty, the story of the pageants struck a nerve. Here was an environment where all the issues I was grappling with were stripped bare and distilled to the point that it might be possible to convey some of them on film.

At first I tried finding the pageants through government records, but most of the information was unreliable or outdated. Through a friend, I met a fashion designer commissioned to create the dresses for a candidate to the national pageant. I photographed her preparation and coaching, learned of regional pageants, and met with judges, organizers, parents of contestants. I visited modeling agencies and schools where girls were being trained to compete in the pageants from the age of four.

'Aguardiente' from 'Chica Barbie.' ©Carl Bower

When I learned of festivals occurring throughout the country, I went to various towns and introduced myself in their mayors’ offices. I went everywhere: to the national pageants, with their weeks-long round-the-clock media blitz, to high school pageants, to pageants with just three candidates.

I began to see how the pageants were one of the few unifying threads in a country compartmentalized by geography, politics, and social stratification. It seemed that everyone, regardless of social standing, had an opinion about them: not on whether they were good or bad, or whether they should exist, but on who should win. When I returned to the United States, I found that some of the complexity I experienced was missing from the photos, so I went back. I kept finding new layers of meaning, so I ended up going back again and again.

You said that as you’ve gotten deeper into the story it has gotten more complicated and you feel more ambivalent about the role of these pageants in the culture (something visible in the images). What were some of the contradictions you discovered?

CB: When I began photographing, I felt that the pageants were essentially meat markets. It wasn’t just that thousands of people were scrutinizing the contestants’ bodies; what struck me was the categorical, exhaustive, and unforgiving nature of it. Are her ankles thick? Who has breast implants? Who doesn’t but should? Whose ass is too small, too large, or shaped like melons when it should be like oranges? After the current Miss Colombia was crowned last November, there were months of public demands that she have her nose fixed to better compete in Miss World. More »

During our Future of Photobooks project, Shane Lavalette‘s Lay Flat came up over and over as a great example of innovative, collaborative, independent publishing. With the release party and book signing for Lay Flat‘s second edition, Meta, coming up on Friday at ICP, we thought it would be the perfect time to check back in with Shane and ask him to share a bit about his blog, Lay Flat, and the impact both have had on his photography career.

From Shane's "Northeast" project. ©Shane Lavalette

Miki Johnson: What compelled you to start your blog? Did your goals for it change over time?

Shane Lavalette:
I began blogging when I was in high school, at that time using my blog as a place to publish my own photographs as I was first learning the technical aspects of the medium. When I moved to Boston to study photography more closely as an undergraduate, I felt a need to be more private/considered with my own images and decided to use the blog as a space to archive the work of others — highlighting artists, photographic books, exhibitions, and conducting interviews with other photographers. So, I suppose that some of my goals with it have changed over time but ultimately it has served the same purpose, functioning as a platform for learning.

From "Northeast." ©Shane Lavalette

From "Northeast." ©Shane Lavalette

MJ: Were you surprised by how popular the blog became? What do you think are a few reasons your blog has been successful?

SL: Somewhere along the way the readership grew, which was a nice surprise. In writing my blog, my tone has always been very personal — I write about what I’m looking at or spending time with, not what I imagine others will want to see. I never set out with the intention of making a site that was flashy or felt like an online magazine. This might be some of the appeal for readers, that it’s simple and approachable. I’m not sure. But it’s really fantastic that it has grown to be a resource for others and that it continues to promote dialogue.

From "Slí na Boirne." ©Shane Lavalette

From "Slí na Boirne." ©Shane Lavalette

From "Slí na Boirne." ©Shane Lavalette

MJ: It sounds like your blog helped you connect with a lot of other artists. Was that beneficial for you as a student and now as a working artist?

SL: Most definitely. In the last six or seven years, blogs have become so common that most of the people I know have one, but at the time I created mine, there really weren’t very many that focused on contemporary fine art photography.

Since the photo world is relatively small, a few of these blogs began to support an online community. And through this community, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful artists, writers, curators, gallerists, collectors, etc. These connections have been helpful in terms of my career (as I transitioned from being a student to, as you call it, a “working artist”) and also have grown to be meaningful relationships in general.

I’ve always been really interested in print publishing and a little over a year ago I began Lay Flat, a limited-edition publication of contemporary photography. As a specific example of how the blog has helped me, for both the first issue, Lay Flat 01: Remain in Light, and the recently released Lay Flat 02: Meta there are a number of contributors that I was originally acquainted with through either my own blog or the online community connected to it. As a result, collaborating with these artists and writers felt like a natural transition.

From "Waking Vrindavan." ©Shane Lavalette

From "Waking Vrindavan." ©Shane Lavalette

From "Waking Vrindavan." ©Shane Lavalette

MJ: You’ve said that Lay Flat allowed you to continue and expand your collaboration with other photographers. But it’s a lot of work, as well. Do you feel like what you’ve gotten back from this project has outweighed the effort?

SL: Lay Flat has certainly involved a lot of hard work but very aspect of the project has been rewarding for me. Growing up in small town Vermont, my interest in photography was initially sparked by looking at photographs in books (as you might imagine, there is a lack of art galleries and museums there), so in a lot of ways it makes sense that I eventually gravitated towards publishing.

It’s interesting to play the roles of a “photographer” as well as “publisher/editor,” but so far my experience is that these roles actually co-exist quite well. I don’t feel like one pulls me away from the other, though I’ll probably always identify more with the former. It is a big time commitment to begin a side project like this, but what you love doing doesn’t really feel like work.

MJ: Continuing on the topic of collaboration, you’re working with a different guest editor for each issue of Lay Flat. Why did that  appeal to you?

SL: This was an idea that came up early on, while working on Lay Flat 01. I felt like it would be interesting for both myself as well as the life of the publication to work with a new guest editor for every issue, helping to push each one in a direction that I may not have taken it alone. This has been a valuable process so far and has made working on the publication even more meaningful to me.

With the new issue, I never would have arrived at the final result without the ideas and insight that came from guest editor Michael Bühler-Rose. Sometimes collaboration requires making sacrifices or compromises, but I think I’ve primarily seen how it enriches a project like this.

There’s a lot that I’m excited about with photography and a lot that hasn’t been explored in terms of publishing, so I’m looking forward to experimenting, working with some great artists, and hopefully making some beautiful and innovative things in the process.

Photo District News has announced its 30 new and emerging photographers to watch for 2010. Check out their gallery for a images and interviews with a wide range of photographers, including a few names you’ve probably heard and several that are brand new — at least to us.

liveBooks also announced its own contest for emerging wedding photographers on Monday at WPPI in Las Vegas. The emerge Photo Competition will judge photographers on their ability to tell a story through images by asking them to upload a series of portfolios to a site for the judges. Winners will receive a prize package complete with everything to take a wedding photography business to the next level, with goodies from, Sony, LabPrints, Asuka Book, ShootQ, Rangefinder, Pictage, Think Tank, and liveBooks.

We found out from Andrew Hetherington this week that legendary photographer Larry Fink has started his own blog. It includes rarely seen images from his archives along with meditations from the man himself (although it’s run by his studio manager). New York-based photographer Robert Caplin also launched a new blog this week, The Photo Brigade. It showcases the work of talented freelance photographers and is sure to be a top destination for editors very soon.

We were also happy to see that the discussion we started with our Future of Photobooks project, a collaboration with FlakPhoto, is being continued by photographer/blogger Shawn Records on too much chocolate. Check out his interviews with Jason Fulford and Alec Soth about moving from photography towards publishing. His talk with Richard Renaldi will be posted next week.

Posted in Blogs / Books / Photography

Since completing the Future of Photobooks project in January, Andy Adams from FlakPhoto and I have received many positive responses and even opportunities to speak publicly on the topic. We’re very happy that the project struck such a chord with so many people, and want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated, either by writing a blog post, adding their comments, hosting a discussion, or helping to promote the project. We quite literally couldn’t have done it without you.

As a way of signing off and wrapping things up, I want to share a presentation I created for my APA talk on our Future of Photobooks project. My goal was not to tell people where photobook publishing is or is not going. As many of our contributing bloggers pointed out, that’s an impossible and somewhat unhelpful prediction to try to make.

Like the project itself, the main goal of my talk was instead to expand people’s ideas of what a photobook COULD BE in the future, by showing them some of the more fascinating concepts that were unearthed during our month-long cross-blog discussion.

Most of those concepts live online, and include embedded videos, clickable comics, microsites, and eBooks. For that reason I chose to present the information not in a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, but directly on the Web, using a Tumblr blog. You can see the full Future of Photobooks presentation hereI’ve also added my notes from the evening to help explain the significance of each example.

Although Andy and I are turning our attention to other projects, we are still dedicated to advances in photobook publishing and hope the dialogue we have fostered here will continue around the Web and the world. Please share your questions and thoughts on the FoPB Tumblr, in comments on the RESOLVE posts, or with us directly.


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