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Book Review: Capitolio by Christopher Anderson

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Christopher Anderson’s Capitolio is the first photobook designed specifically for iPad and iPhone. So before I address the work, a word about the format. Does the portable screen enhance or diminish the photographic experience? Is the full potential of the digital format used?

I was a reluctant convert to digital cameras from the analogue world of photography, and to this day I regularly tweet at my local repertory movie house to make sure they’re showing a 35mm print. Physical film is important to me. Digital formats may not suit most photobooks — to think of one fairly recent example, the photobook I reviewed last week, Jason Fulford’s Raising Frogs for $$$, makes the most *sense* as a strikingly bound physical object.

But the body of work in Capitolio is well represented by its digital format. Originally produced in a print edition in 2009, it’s a striking app laid out in wide-screen format, and the swiping navigation is sympathetic to the photographer’s intention that these photos make up a particular cinematic sequence. The stark, high contrast black and white images may not be what one would expect from the first iPad photobook, but the chosen tonal palette is somewhat limited by design, and thus lends itself well to digital reproduction. (Daido Moriyama’s grainy, hi-constrast images would work well in this format; less so the more subtle tones of a Eugene Atget, a catalog of whose works is available as an eBook (page layouts straight from the print edition, so not designed specifically for tablet) from the Moma Books app.)

Anyway, what of the work? Anderson shot this project in Caracas, Venezuela, in the shadow of a specific domed building or Capitolio, but he sees Caracas as a metaphorical Capitolio, a means of examining the nature of power, its cause and effect, modern architecture juxtaposed with poverty: something is rotten in the Capitolio. Anderson was given audience with Venezuela’s Socialist leader Hugo Chavez on numerous occasions, but the photographer insists that this is not primarily a political work, or what we ordinarily think of as photojournalism. Politics does pervade these images, but rather than declare rights or wrongs, the artist immerses himself to convey something of the experience of being there — a documentary made by a poet.

 

iPad features include a Director’s Cut section, which offers larger versions of images sized to fit the widescreen format of the “book” layout; and a link to buy the printed book on Amazon. In a bonus video interview, Anderson recounts the danger he was in while he worked in Caracas, culminating in the photographer having a gun pointed at his head, which threw him into a harrowing ordeal all in the name of political theater. The interview has an added poignancy: it was conducted by Anderson’s friend and fellow photographer Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Afghanistan War documentary Restrepo. On April 20, 2011, Hetherington was killed while covering the crisis in Libya. These are the new generation of photographers who take their vision and their lives to the front lines. Anderson’s work is black and white, but it is the grey area, the moral and political ambiguity that makes this body of work sing of an uncertain world.

Download Capitolio for iPad/iPhone app here.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.