Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bull City Summer Reviewed

Bull City Summer is here. I have a copy on my coffee table. I’ve read it once and gone through the photos a lot more times than once.

(Actually I am not absolutely certain it’s on the shelves of any bookstores or at the DBAP store yet, if anyone knows, jump in. I got mine through pre-order. It may be in the Durham Bulls store or at Quail Ridge Books. Add other locations in the comments, please.)

I am having trouble trying to figure out who my audience for this review is, or should be. Should I take off my Durham Bulls hat and try to find my book reviewer hat? The one not worn with any seriousness since the late 1970’s. Or should I take another angle, such as trying to write something with a couple of good “pulls” for the BCS folks, but also reach out to the typical readership of WDBB? That’s what I think I’ll try to do.

"Bull City Summer" was/is a deeply serious effort to bring artists — particularly photographers and writers — into a ballpark just to see what might happen. The book is just one expression of what they did in 2013. There’s more. They had a blog that gave us hints and substantive work through the year of what they were up to. The North Carolina Museum of Art has had an exhibit of many of the photographs. The Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh is currently hosting an exhibit. And I think that there is, or will be, exhibits on the American Tobacco Campus. Many of these photos are even more stunning in larger formats. Take a trip downtown.

This is an important book that should to be judged on its artistic merits. It succeeds on many levels. You don’t need to know much, or hardly anything, about baseball to be struck by any number of the images here. On a personal level I was particularly touched by Hiroshi Watanabe’s Zero (p. 117) and his Baseball (p. 106), Alex Harris’ pensive Outside the Ballpark #3, all of Jeff Whetstone’s brilliant interpretations of a collection of scoresheets, Leah Sobsey’s tintype of Shelley Duncan and his sons (p. 125), and by several of Frank Hunter’s stormy night shots. But the next time through I’d pick other photographs I am sure.

My point is that, like much good art, we didn’t know we needed it until it was given to us. Now we know and we are very happy about to have it in our hands.

Do I need to say again that you don’t need to be a baseball fan to appreciate these images?

The writing? We are fortunate to have two books written about Triple A baseball this year: John Feinstein’s Nobody Knows Your Name (reviewed here) and now Bull City Summer. Interesting for a Durham Bulls fan that Feinstein, who was writing about the 2012 season also spent some time in Durham with the Bulls. But I have to say that the BCS guys took on the task of trying to reach a wider audience than just baseball fans. You will have to judge if they succeeded. I think they did, magnificently.

Adam Sobsey takes on the bulk of the writing tasks and does more than a fine job at trying to capture not just baseball, our peculiar sub-species, Triple A baseball. His essay, “Orphan,” captures the very human interaction of talent and the business of baseball. I commend it to anyone who wants to get a handle not just on one of the finest Triple A ballplayers of recent years, but also on how very different Triple A baseball is.

Sobsey is not alone. To mention just a couple, there’s a fine piece by Michael Croley that shows us a bit about how hitter Shelley Duncan approaches his craft. Sam Stephenson takes on telling us about the Bulls manager, Charlie Montoyo.

Probably the greatest challenge of all in creating this book was editing the thousands of words at hand from the blog and choosing from certainly a vast quantity of photographs. As someone who followed the Bull City Summer blog I regret that a photo by Alex Harris did not make the cut (so I’ll just stick it in here and suggest that folks check out the blog, some interesting stuff there). As a baseball fan, I think it's too bad that Adam Sobsey’s two-part interview with catcher Chris Gimenez and pitcher J.D. Martin (here and here) didn’t make the cut. Together those are as nice as you will find on the craft of pitching baseball. My point is that the editorial challenge must have been tough. Judging by the final product, they did just fine.

The book is well-produced with a close attention to detail. I have not noticed any color or registration issues, and the paper and binding seem of as high a quality as you can expect for the price.

I have a few quibbles (gotta have a quibble, otherwise you won't know I actually read the book). The introductory blurb: “In 2013, a team ... to document the 72-game season….” is incorrect. The season is 144 games — 72 homes games, though. In my opinion the photo of Wil Myers (p.44) by Alec Soth is awkwardly posed and a bit deceptive (he never played in left field). But those are quibbles. I wouldn’t have noticed them if I had not been enthralled by the book as a whole.

Bottom line: Any Bulls fan absolutely needs to have this book on her/his coffee table. If any photography enthusiasts read this blog, take a look at Bull City Summer and see what happens when artists take cameras to a ballpark and just look around. Triangle residents? You need it too. You’ve been to the DBAP. Take home a serious memory. Everyone else — if you’re reading this blog, you, too, probably should have this book.

Alex Harris, from Bull City Summer blog

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