The books of photographer and artist Bruce Connew.
By Hamish Thompson
“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” — Robert Frank, LIFE (26 November 1951)
This comment from Robert Frank, the photographer whose book The Americans turned photography and a culture on its head in the middle of the twentieth century, comes to mind when I look across the breadth of Bruce Connew’s published work. His earliest book follows in the tradition of book-based documentary work established by Frank and others like Gary Winograd. South Africa (1987) sets up the subject with an expansive essay (40,000 words), followed by uncropped 35mm black and white photographs, which have been edited into a sequence that provides its own rhythm and ultimately meaning.
Since teaming up with designer Catherine Griffiths (they live and work together), Connew’s books have evolved into a design sequence of their own. While each tells an individual story, the most recent have become objets d’art themselves, celebrating the aesthetics of page design, size, materials and printing and binding style. This is the work of Vapour Momenta Books: an at-times extraordinarily rich process showing what can happen when photographer and graphic designer truly collaborate.
Connew’s documentary speciality, 35mm available light photography, reveals his bent and expertise, as a fundamentally humanist photographer – focusing on the average person and their everyday experiences. Over the years his work has evolved from photojournalism to art photography – moving from the ‘found’ photo to images (and books) that have been created to fulfil the creative vision of the artist.
On the road to an ambush
In 1989, Connew spent five weeks in Burma, observing the Karen people’s war with Burmese government troops. The book was published in 1999. It’s not a subject likely to push a book to the top of the bestseller list: “One crucial theme is the capriciousness of death, including the untimely death of my wife,” says the photographer.
“Because the book mixes genres it completely confused reviewers, publishers and bookshops. Where do you put it – photography/history/biography? It includes all of those.” Connew wanted to make a book that people would sit reading, rather than just look at – this informed the choice of format, purposefully smaller than the standard photographic book.
The making of Ambush followed what is now the couple’s standard modus operandi: Connew developed the text and a sequence of images, letters and ephemera, then put a rubber band around it and handed it to Griffiths to design. He then went off to India for three weeks with his daughter, returning to a 98% finished layout. He says presenting a complete book concept is easier for a publisher than an odd outline such as, “Ah, it will have 50 photos, some text I’ll write, faxes, letters and a few items I’ve collected…”
Muttonbirds – part of a story
“This was intended as a political book … about those who have or have not the right, through whakapapa, to collect muttonbirds. The point of the book, working with a beneficial owner of Taukihepa, a muttonbirder, was to make this issue public.
“ In one breath, it is about the beauty of these extraordinary migratory birds, and the photographs show that. In another breath, it is about a family who have seen their right to collect muttonbirds sidelined. So, the book, the photographs and the oral history with Dean Tiemi Te Au, was constructed to help begin a process of redemption for the family, and in part to assist in the process of resolution of the issue."
Despite his overtly political intention, Connew wanted this book to feel like an artist’s creation, not the work of a pamphleteer – as Victoria University Press’ Fergus Barrowman describes it, “a bomb in plain wrapping”. Griffiths' use of French folding, wire binding and brown paper provided just the understated tone he wanted: low-key, almost blue collar.
Griffiths says the choice of brush calligraphy for the cover of Muttonbirds was instinctive. It was then a happy design accident that the words actually looked like birds, flying in on the front, flying away on the back, migratory.
This time Connew’s focus was a small Indian-Fijian sugar cane settlement. The Stopover photographs came out of seven visits to Vatiyaka over three-and-a-half years. They set an extended family at the heart of a story about migration, and are supported by his narrative captions and a fictional story by Brij V Lal.
Connew and Griffiths chose to have Stopover printed in Italy, by Editoriale Bortolazzi-Stei (EBS). This Verona-based printer is known for its duotone production, which involves mixing the gloss into the ink rather than laying it over the top of images. Aficionados consider this gives the images greater luminosity, with a more rounded feel, like “the difference between vinyl record and a CD”, says Connew.
Griffiths’ cover design is all restrained elegance. She resisted the photographic images, and instead illustrated migration with typographic elements: the back cover’s dots – “spots on the world”, points of arrival and departure – are in fact a mirror image of the filled-in Os of the title on the front cover.
I Saw You…
By the end of Stopover, Connew was already looking to change his realist documentary approach. His next work was still the result of hours spent with his camera, but this time operating in quite a different mode. I Saw You… is planned as the first of a trilogy examining socio-political themes – in this case, surveillance.
“For twelve months, from the top floor of home, veiled behind an apron of black velvet, through double-glazing and a long lens, I photographed the comings and goings of a car park in Balaena Bay – an ample piece of reclaimed Wellington land that juts out into a bay, a family beach to one side.”
The book’s images are tiny portions of cropped 35mm photographs (slightly PhotoShopped) placed on the page in proportions that suggest Polaroid prints. “These,” he says: “can be read as sweet, painterly images, but there’s often an uncomfortable twist… they can be a little creepy… peering in, unobserved, on people’s private space.”
A CD was developed out of the book and sold separately, featuring a Quicktime movie of the image sequence, with music by Alfredo Ibarra.
This is the second book in the trilogy. It extends Connew’s examination of control, from uncomplicated self-restraint to artful government manœuvre, and how it modifies behaviour, “what human nature might really involve”.
The book itself defies conventions. It has no text, no captions, no page numbers. The format is similar to Stopover, and it was also printed by EBS in Italy – “luscious yet modest”.
Griffiths says its cover design exemplifies her aim to always respond in fresh ways to Connew's content. Using typography provides an opportunity to “add further to the layers of meaning inside the book, not to alter or avert, but to support Bruce’s telling”.
She enjoys the direct affect of this book’s cover: “Throwing the title up on its side immediately causes a behavioural response… when you watch readers take the book, most turn it sideways for a literal read… I find that very interesting”.
Connew identifies a continuity in his work, from South Africa, where his camera and mind focused on aspects of human nature thrown up by apartheid, through to I Must Behave, which looks more broadly across his regular subject of human nature”.
He’s unsure yet of the subject of the final book in his trilogy – perhaps he might turn the artist-photographer’s gaze on himself and his past, he says. Wherever that mind aims, it will be a challenging, evocative publication that presents the result – that much is certain.