(Photo) Book Reviews (W23/24 2016)


I have another trip coming up, this time to Poland for a little less than two weeks. So I’m going to try to pack as many reviews as I can into this piece, which will remain on the site until I’m back (June 16th). Up until now, I have been publishing pieces at least once a week, and the reality is that that’s simply not doable right now. In the meantime, those new(ish) to this site might want to check out the extensive Index, or the list of previous rated photobook reviews.

Photojournalism is in crisis, for more reasons than just one. Part of the crisis is being enforced upon the profession by the media trying to adapt to business challenges following the standard neoliberal play book: cut costs, even if quality suffers, to make sure the dollar numbers add up for those at the top. As if this wasn’t a bad enough environment to exist in, photojournalists unfortunately have been caught like the proverbial deer in the headlight concerning their own medium’s development. Hardly a week goes by without yet another completely inane “scandal” over image “manipulation.” Where is this all coming from? How is it possible that so many otherwise so talented photographers struggle to mightily facing challenges that even most teenagers hardly bat an eyelid over when working with pictures on their smartphones?

Stuart Franklin‘s The Documentary Impulse provides deep insight into photojournalism’s problems. Mind you, that’s not what the book intends to do. On the contrary, Franklin set out to explore what he calls “the documentary impulse.” What exactly that is I’m not sure. For my taste, it’s not quite as well defined as one would expect, foreshadowing other problems in the book. That small problem aside, the book attempts to explain photography from the point of view of classic, orthodox photojournalism.

And that, perhaps almost inevitably, leads to the problems that are so common in photojournalism: things just rely too much on a combination of a well meaning, yet somewhat unresolved ideology and a rigid photographic orthodoxy for the wide field of photography being easily explainable. Things make a lot of sense for the kind of photojournalistic/documentary work so widely used around seventy to fifty years ago, but once it extends out from there, it gets incredibly problematic. This is not to say that the ideas, maybe even the ideology behind orthodox photojournalism is bad. On the contrary. But it’s just completely at odds with today’s realities. Problems cannot be resolved by being rigid about the supposed rules of photography, while letting media overlords get away with the murder of their own core businesses.

Still, despite these shortcomings The Documentary Impulse is a truly recommended dread. This is simply because it combines deep insight, and a longing for a better world, combined with an inability to see how the good old days are simply over, how our desire, for example, for that one iconic photograph that explains something — Franklin’s claim to fame is his “tank man” picture — simply makes no sense any longer. It’s a bit like the inverse of large parts of the art-photo world, which ignores basically every more important societal issue, to quite smartly “explore” what photography does today. If it only were possible to bring the two together…

In a world ruled by computers, algorithms, and data, a mistake is a bug, and bugs need to be removed. There’s a “patch” for that, which then, almost inevitably, requires another “patch,” and then another “fix” etc. ad infinitum (I’m writing this using a browser with the version number 46.0.1). As should be obvious to anyone but the proponents of conceptual art, art without failure isn’t art. It’s just boring or tedious, however nice or alluring or seemingly beautiful it might appear at first sight (good examples are provided by, for example, most of Taryn Simon‘s bodies of work).

Given it’s a technical medium, photography has struggled with exactly this problem for a long time, and it continues to do so. For example, cameras have been getting better, but we can’t say the same about the pictures. If you look at, say, a Carlton Watkins photograph, one of those contact prints from glass plate negatives he made in situ, your iPhone 6s photographs suddenly look a lot less amazing (and the same is true for roughly 95% of all art photographs on view at any Chelsea, NY, gallery). The lenses that man used, were truly terrible compared with today’s standards. Yet the photographs are a lot more detailed and amazing than what’s being made today.

Actually, we’ve now come to the point where the perfect little machines we all use to take pictures often have ways built in to create imperfections — an absurdity if there ever was one (usually, it’s just some presets, which produces the same small set of seemingly imperfect effects over and over again). If that words wasn’t so overused, I’d say there’s an irony here. We want imperfections, we want technical failures, because, well, they’re beautiful! Now why didn’t we stick to the original stuff in the first place? Oh, I know, Watkins couldn’t call his friends with his camera.

But there’s a lesson here, and it’s the lesson Erik Kessels explores in Failed It!, namely the fact that failure tends to come in a random manner. Randomness, something that exists outside of the world of proper calculations, often comes with beauty, opening up a previously unexplored, unimagined world. Of course, you can’t will mistakes to happen. They just do. So the real key to accepting failure is not to try to control it, but to let go of control, of that one desired end result. While this is getting harder and harder with ever more refined computerized cameras, it’s possible. Kessels shows the way, with charm and wit.

The vast majority of photobooks in my office is part of my library. My collection, in contrast, only contains a very small number of books. This distinction, which Josef Chladek made me aware of, is important. The books in my library are mostly good. Some of them aren’t, but they’re also nice to have around, in particular for teaching. In contrast, I cherish the books in my much smaller collection. Those are the books I love returning to. Those are the books that are great.

I’m fortunate enough to have almost a complete set of books by Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson, and almost all of them are in my collection. It’s somewhat straightforward to describe the pictures: with human beings mostly absent, they organize physical spaces in usually surprising and clever ways in their two-dimensional planes. Of course, this kind of description applies equally well to many other photographs. Needless to say, this description hardly does this photographer’s work any justice. But there really isn’t much more to them, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Most of Johansson’s books are modest affairs, featuring rough materials on the outside and surprisingly small pictures on the inside. In them, the photographer has mastered the art of organizing the square, his favourite format of choice. The pictures are little gems, whose visual cleverness somehow doesn’t get in the way of them inviting repeat visits. Recently Johansson has expanded, though, using different cameras — and larger books. Having started with Antarktis, there now is Tokyo, both employing an 8×10 camera.

The book reveals the artist being on a lot less secure footing with the rectangle, even though in many cases, the brilliant spirit of the squares manages to sneak in. In fact, the best photographs feel like extended squares. That said, there also are a few duds where things either become too static, or they don’t just come together. I find this very interesting: if anything, a clunky 8×10 camera would invite an obsession over the frame that could cause just that, an overly static frame, whereas the smaller, a lot more flexible Rolleiflex won’t get there. Johansson ultimately might be more of a flaneur than anything else, and only on a surface level such a statement might pose a surprise.

Interestingly enough, another thing I learned from Tokyo is that the lavishness and size of the production don’t actually add much for this photographer. There’s this old idea that every photo looks a lot better once it’s bigger, but Johansson’s don’t. Mind you, this isn’t a criticism, it’s an observation, pointing at what a great photographer he really is. So for the fans or fellow collectors, this is a must have. Everybody else probably might want to experience books like, say, Deutschland first.

Tokyo; photographs by Gerry Johansson; text by Kamo no Chomei, 160 pages; Only Photography/Johansson&Johansson; 2016

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 2.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.4

Up until I saw Charlotte Lybeer‘s Epidermis II, I had never heard of zentai (which, according to Wikipedia, is not the be confused with either sentai or hentai — I have no idea how people would confuse that, what with the different starting characters, but I could see why they might add that disclaimer nonetheless). Luckily, I’m at the age now where the amount of anxiety caused by such ignorance is pretty much zero: I don’t really have to be cool any longer by trying to know each and every somewhat obscure trend or fad or fashion.

Anyway, zentai practitioners (let’s call ‘em that) wear full-body suits that cover absolutely every part of the body. As you might easily imagine, that just screams for a photographer to take pictures, because you almost get good pictures for free. Almost. Of course, the reality is that you might have your subject, unusual as it is, but you still have to produce good pictures.

Needless to say, in a day and age where the media just crave for unusual pictures — that then can be used in any of the ubiquitous 20 Pictures You Really Need to See Right Now galleries — you might get away with shitty pictures. It’s unclear to me whether the picture editors of such galleries are overworked, lazy, or simply lack the expertise to separate the wheat from the chaff (it might be a combination of all three). Still, our collective bar for what is a good picture appears to have been lowered quite a bit over the past decade, as long as what is being depicted is sufficiently unusual.

Anyway (again), Lybeer’s pictures are good, are very much worthwhile looking at. Initially (see the above disclaimer) I thought I would be dealing with a result from one of those performancey art/photo schools of which there appear to be a few in places like the Netherlands, Belgium, or Switzerland. Of course, your desire to dress yourself head to toe in some material might be someone else’s idea of performance. But no, the photographs show “real” models posing (or maybe more accurately being made to pose) by someone who knows what a good picture looks like.

You might wonder how much mileage a photographer might get out of photographing zentaiists. The answer is at least 72 pages worth, because that’s the size of the book, and it doesn’t get boring at all. It’s really quite interesting (to the extent that seeing photographs of people dressed up head to toe in a monochromatic material might be interesting). And the makers of the book added just enough bells and whistles to keep things as interesting as possible, without adding unnecessary gimmicks.

Epidermis II; photographs by Charlotte Lybeer; 72 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2015

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.3

If you wanted to be very orthodox, enjoying discussions along the lines of whether a photograph should have a caption next to it in an otherwise empty spread or along the lines of rejecting a lot of text, then Ruth Stoltenberg‘s Objekt I isn’t really a photobook. I personally think such orthodoxy — much like any other one — is incredibly useless, given it both denies the medium photobook its full potential and it refuses to acknowledge that there are some things photographs simply can’t do.

Of course, you could just ignore the text in Objekt I. You’d probably conclude that the photographer’s photographic competence notwithstanding, it’s not necessarily a terribly exciting book. OK, sure. After all, with a book in your lap there’s nobody who will prevent you from shooting yourself in the foot. And an artist working with (or maybe even relying on, possibly having to rely on) text will have to live with such behaviour. But you can’t make a photobook to each and every person’s linking. You can (read: should) make the book that most perfectly delivers the right experience for a reasonably attentive and willing viewer. So here, the viewer will also have to be a reader (English translations of the text come in a separate booklet btw).

The photographs in this book were taken in a variety of buildings operated by East Germany’s “security” services — those of its organs designed to harass, intimidate, and mistreat those of its citizens who, for example, would rather be not that any longer. After all, much like North Korea today, East Germany was a vast open-air prison. So you can probably imagine what those places looked like, even when at least in principle, they were intended to tend to the needs of people, such as a prison hospital.

The text in the book is provided by the voices of some of those who had to endure treatment in the locations depicted in the pictures. There’s only so much photographs can show. Intimidation, violence, mistreatment — after the fact those can’t be shown any longer. As most photojournalists know full well, even when they’re being recorded, they don’t necessarily always convey what really happened. Being witness truly is not quite the same as being victim.

So those voices, those tales of abuse and mistreatment matter vastly in the book, because they up the viewer’s ante considerably. It is the possibly quite German matter-of-factness in the narration, of the pictures and of people recounting their treatment, that drive home the book’s point: People will do terrible things to other people when they can, when they are being handed a little power by a state.

Objekt I; photographs by Ruth Stoltenberg; text by various contributors; 128 pages plus 24-page English booklet; Kehrer; 2015

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.5

(ratings explained here)