A Conversation with Christian Patterson

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Christian Patterson

Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood (also see the publisher’s website and my review) made it onto so many “best of 2011” lists that it was by far the most popular book last year. A body of amazing depth and sophistication, it is a shining example of what the contemporary photobook can do. There now is a second edition, and I used the occasion to talk with Christian about the book.

Jörg Colberg: How did you first hear of the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate? And I’m curious about how you decided to approach the story photographically? How does one go about something like that?

Christian Patterson: Several years ago, I went to a movie theater and saw Terrance Malick’s film “Badlands.” I was taken by the film — its plot, its score, and most of all its cinematography. The film starred a very young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, and they portrayed Kit and Holly, a dumb, young couple who thought they were in love. In the film, Kit kills Holly’s father, they set out on the road and he kills several other people as they try to run away. It was a crazy story; beautiful, eerie, romantic and tragic.

I researched the film and discovered that Malick’s script was loosely based on the true story of Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old boy from Lincoln, Nebraska who killed his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate’s mother, step-father and baby step-sister in January 1958. The couple then drove across Nebraska, and Starkweather killed seven more people before they were captured as they approached the mountains of Wyoming. I was surprised to learn about this true story that was more prolific, tragic and strange than Malick’s more romanticized film version.

I then researched the story intensely. I read every book I could get my hands on made note of anything of interest. I began with factual information — the dates, times, places and circumstances of the murders. I also made long lists of visual ideas, random words and phrases. I should mention that I posted excerpts of these lists on my website, along with various scouting photographs and outtakes from the project. I thought it would be interesting to share this information, not only as a look into my process, but as a way of inviting viewers to enter the process and decipher some of these enigmatic clues themselves. If viewers read these lists and look at the work, they will find there are connections to be made. The information can be still found here.

Digging into the archive was like falling down a rabbit hole; it opened up all possibility, in my mind. I saw how all of these different visual materials worked together to tell a story, and how they related back to what I was doing.

I made my first foray into Nebraska in January 2005, during the same time of year when the murders took place. The spree included events in and around Lincoln, and in a few small towns and roadside locations between Lincoln and Douglas, Wyoming, where the couple was eventually captured. I began by using the story as a roadmap — I traced it 500 miles west and retraced it 500 miles east. I ultimately did this five times, during five successive very cold, harsh Januaries, usually working in the field between seven and ten days each year.

In addition to working as a photographer, I had to work as a detective. I searched for traces of the past in the present — places and things of significance to the story; evidence of these events that remained out there in the world. I found things that I never imagined I would find; I even discovered personal belongings and pieces of evidence that were never recovered by the detectives who originally worked the case. All of this came as quite a surprise, and a strange thrill. But still, there was a lot of the story that no longer remained, and it became apparent that I would not be able to simply travel from the scene of one crime to another and document what was there, nearly 50 years later. The project would involve much more than simply connecting the dots; I needed to find a new way of working with this material, conceptually.

Before I finished my first trip and returned home, I visited the archives of the Lincoln Journal Star, the local newspaper that originally covered the story. There, I not only found old newspapers; I also found press releases, news alerts, original press and police photographs and courtroom sketches. I also visited the Nebraska State Historical Society, where some of the physical evidence remains in storage. There, I flipped through Caril Ann Fugate’s photo diary and the contents of one of the victim’s wallets. I also saw crime scene photographs and held the murder weapons. Encountering this material gave me chills, and I began to see how it could complement and inform my photographs.

Digging into the archive was like falling down a rabbit hole; it opened up all possibility, in my mind. I saw how all of these different visual materials worked together to tell a story, and how they related back to what I was doing. It didn’t matter that these things were produced by different sources in different formats or different times. I let go of the old way of thinking about photographic documentation, truth and representation. Suddenly it all looked fluid; everything became the archive, everything became documentation. The only thing that mattered was telling a story visually, using my research and calling on my imagination as needed. Doing this with a well-known, pre-existing true crime story was unusual, I suppose.

There seems to be a lot of hand wringing about the state of photography, about its ability or inability to depict what people like to call reality. Of course, I have no idea to what extent you had that in mind, but I’m curious about this – how did this enter your picture making, and the way you combined these images into Redheaded Peckerwood?

In order to make this work, I had to abandon traditional notions of photographic documentation, truth and representation. Photography has never been reality and it never will be. It’s a two-dimensional representation of reality, ripped off from the real world. It’s not that I’m not interested in reality, or depicting that which exists in reality; it’s just that I’m much more interested in images and ideas. As far as Redheaded Peckerwood is concerned, I think the phrase I used earlier — “after the fact” — has some additional meaning here. All photography is “after the fact.” Other people hold onto the creaky, dusty notion of photographs as some sort of reality; this only increases the potential for complexity through the many different possible readings of work that challenges or contradicts this restrictive perception of what a photograph is or what it can do. I consider this a wonderful gift to me as an artist, or any artist making work that disregards this concern with the real.

I’d like to talk about this a bit more, because I find this very fascinating. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by people’s insistence that photography presents the truth or reality. This does depend a bit on context, of course. In some contexts, photography might indeed represent a facet of reality just big enough to do the job (think of a crime-scene photograph or your passport picture). But in most contexts, a photograph tends to represent all kinds of realities, first and foremost the one the viewer wants to or prefers to see. I understand why that might have some people flustered, but if you think about it it’s such an enormous gift, because it means that photography not only can easily be the most amazing art form, photography also is easily usable: It offers itself to be used.

In your book you seem to be playing with this, by throwing together all this photographic material that, I’m sure, will confuse and maybe even annoy someone expecting the truth (or maybe it’ll be just one big puzzle). I’m curious how you approached this, because depending on how willing you were to grant some photographs the ability to show some sort of truth, while being playful with others, that would determine how you could use them as material. It must be much more fun to play with all the options available if you know how people might react, how people might be rubbed a certain way?

I think this goes back to what I said about fluidity and telling a story visually using imagination. My two primary concerns were telling a story, and doing so visually, utilizing whatever means necessary. As I made this work, I continually consulted and revised my lists of visual ideas, and I allowed my ideas to come from anywhere, as long as they related in some way to some version of the story — even if it was a version that only existed in my own head. The ideas could be based on reported facts from books, newspapers, interviews or court transcripts; from highly interpretive literary or cinematic accounts, or based purely on my own imagination, which of course was also completely interpretive.

In the early going, I held tightly to the story and strived to artfully document whatever places and things were of specific importance and relevance to the story. But there was only so much of this that could be done, and once these things were done, many narrative and visual holes remained in my personal vision for the story. This compelled me to embrace new approaches to telling my version of the story, utilizing whatever means and methods necessary. I didn’t just want to retell the story; I wanted to tell it anew.

I often say that Redheaded Peckerwood is a body of photographs, documents and objects that utilizes a true crime story as a spine. The story continually served as a source of inspiration and ideas, but what really excited me about my work was the expansion of my own artistic practice. Previous to this work, I had only worked as a photographer. And while photographs are the heart of this work, they are complemented and informed by the documents and objects that in many cases were touched by the hands of the killers and their victims. In addition, Redheaded Peckerwood employs a wide variety of photographic techniques and styles — black & white, both appropriated and original; contemporary color, forensic imagery, both real and recreated; work on location — landscapes and interiors; and staged still lifes in the studio.

As I continued my work, the story began to disintegrate, fragment and fall away. It never disappeared completely; it was always there, but its sole function was to serve as a source of raw material with which I could play. I became much more interested in the conceptual side of the work, my process and practice, which expanded beyond the documentary and into more actively interpretive, manipulative realms — appropriation, reenactment, staging, word paintings and even blasting holes in pieces of paper with a shotgun.

I suppose that I gave some consideration to how people might react; this experience pushed my buttons and pulled me in different directions, and I wanted my presentation of the work to do the same for the viewer. Making this work was a new experience for me; it brought a sense of adventure and even a sense of humor at times to the work — take for example the political limericks, the dirty jokes, or some of the titles for some of the work (“Three-Story Rat Trap,” “Shit from Shinola,” “Fruit Cake 98 Cents” and “Let’s All Go Out and Get a Steak”).

Ultimately, I wanted the work to act as a more complex, enigmatic visual crime dossier — a mixed collection of cryptic clues, random facts and fictions that the viewer had to deal with on their own, to some extent. A certain amount of mystery was essential. A little mystery goes a long way. It’s funny, because a certain amount of “unknowing” forces us to form our own interpretations and responses, to fill in the holes ourselves.

There is also a fair amount of archival material in the book. How did you go about deciding what to include, how to mix archival photographs with your own?

I should note that not everything in Redheaded Peckerwood is as it may seem — there are photographs, documents and objects that may appear to come either from the archive or from me when in fact the reverse is true. This is the exception more than the rule, but there are exceptions in all cases. And in all cases, I had a visceral reaction to the material I created, selected and ultimately included in the project.

I approached this project methodically (through my research, note taking, list making and archival digging) but responded to its ongoing development intuitively (through my own image making and continual editing, sequencing and refining of all the material). I kept a mental inventory of my research, my lists, what I found in the archive, and what I was shooting. This was a fairly obsessive, ongoing process, including periods of inactivity, lasting five years. I treated every photograph, document and object as another piece of the puzzle. I wanted everything to work together; I wanted to confuse what was old and what was new, what was archival and what was not, what was authentic to the story or perceived as “real” versus what was simply a beautiful, eerie, sinister or strange image.

There are things about my nature as a person and photographer that relate well to the nature of Redheaded Peckerwood. I often strive to make timeless, or perhaps more appropriately, time-neutral images — images that bear little or no signifying evidence of the time in which they were made. Most of the images in Redheaded Peckerwood are successful in this respect, with a few exceptions. And as the work deals with a story from another time, this seemed necessary. I also feel I’ve always had a certain “forensic” way of seeing. I take pleasure in looking at things in a very intense, concentrated way — a very photographic compulsion. I say all this because I think these traits helped me to establish a fairly consistent aesthetic and feel throughout the book, despite the mix of material. Take for example the color palette — it’s fairly consistent throughout the entire work — the work has its own yellow, its own green.

There is a second edition of your book now (congratulations!), and I saw that you mentioned there would be “Noticeable enhancements. New visual content.” Could you talk about this a little bit?

I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to print a second edition of the book, for a number of reasons. First, I wanted the book to continue to be available. I have nothing against the first edition of the book being a collected or valued object, but I don’t want that to be a barrier to those who wish to access the work. I made the work to share it, not to have it become this unseable thing. Second, I wanted to make a few subtle changes and refinements to the book. And ultimately, when we went on press, we had the opportunity to work on an amazing new printer that made this new printing even stronger than the first.

The cover of the second edition will be subtly darker. I like the idea of the cover image changing with time.

Most significantly, we printed the second edition on a new ten-drum Heidelberg press using a new black ink and a light gloss varnish instead of the matte varnish we used on the first book. I also supplied improved files for a few of the images. I couldn’t believe the difference we were seeing with the new printer, ink and varnish. I’m sure all of these changes will be apparent, especially to anyone comparing the two editions.

Lastly, I revisited the material I acquired from various archives and added some images to the booklet insert, and so now the essays are accompanied by this new visual content.

Again, most of the content- and visual-related changes are subtle, so in that sense the book hasn’t changed all that much. But I’m excited about the improvement in the quality of the printing, which was already quite good, and the opportunity to add a few new touches, like the altered cover and additional images.

In his essay, Luc Sante calls the book “a kind of subjective documentary photography of the historical past.” I’d be interested in your thoughts about that term.

I’ve always felt conflicted about text in photography books. I very rarely read texts or essays; I prefer to have a direct, unmediated visual experience with the work. At the same time, I understand that text can provide context, among other things, and that it can add something to the experience of the work for some people. But with Redheaded Peckerwood, it was extremely important to me that a certain amount of mystery permeated the work and that any text did not detract from that mystery. Certain information could never be discussed or revealed. I’m very fortunate to have had two great essays written for the book. Luc Sante’s essay provides a historical/social context and Karen Irvine’s essay provides an art/conceptual context for the work. Each essay provides and reveals some additional information, but not too much.

I think it’s important to quote the entire sentence that Luc wrote: “In Redheaded Peckerwood Christian Patterson is working out something that hasn’t been done much before, if ever: a kind of subjective documentary photography of the historical past.” Further, he goes on to say that Redheaded Peckerwood “walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction.” I think that Luc is referring to the creative license I took with this well-documented pre-existing story that has been the source of inspiration for numerous books, films and movies over the past 50 years. But I think my handling of this material is dramatically different from anything else that’s been done before, and that to me is part of what makes it worthwhile.

I’d also like to direct you to Karen Irvine’s essay, which goes some way in explaining exactly that to which Luc is referring. She explains things much better than I ever could:

“Patterson approaches the archive as a space of negotiation, not authority. Patterson revisits and repackages the past, destabilizing the archive and making it a place of activation and possibility. Through his deft blending of fact, popular cultural elements, and personal vision he seems to be asking, ‘What are the limitations of the archive? What might it conceal?’ Hal Foster has written about artists who mine the archive: ‘the fact that … artists turn the archive from an “excavation site” into a “construction site,” is welcome … it suggests a shift away from a melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than the traumatic.’ In Patterson’s work, the archive is exposed as being incomplete and improvisatory, and this makes way for the implicit, liberating acceptance that human nature is unpredictable and flawed, not only in a tragic way, but in a strange and almost comic one as well. As Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, reportedly once said, ‘Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.'”

“Redheaded Peckerwood is not an artifact of cultural memory. It is an interpretation of history that operates like memory and gives the past life in the present. Patterson mines the archive and injects the past with possibility, making art that is at once both contemporaneous and historical. His refusal to delineate what is real and what is fiction prevents us from mentally shelving the events as part of history. Forget considering them only in a passive, distanced way. We must actively engage with our imaginations and our memories, and in that hazy interior realm where they intersect.”

I suppose we could discuss archives now. Assume you had a complete archive of something — this could be out of a Borges story — would you then have the full story? But what I’m after is something else. I’m more interested in your own role here, your role as the artist, your role as someone who creates what looks and feels like a documentary body of work, but isn’t at the same time. I love the fact that the book is both. As much as I hate using analogies from the natural sciences, the example of a photon, say, being both a wave and a particle at the same time as long as it’s unobserved as either seems relevant here. After all, all documentary work always involves a lot of fiction (history itself is a perfect example: a grandiose piece of fiction, composed entirely of facts), but we don’t want to see it that way. In much the same way, “art photography” is supposed to be fiction only, and of course it often is. But books like Redheaded Peckerwood are more like a photon: It’s both, a documentary (in the strictest sense of the word) and a piece of fiction (again in the strictest sense of the word) — and only when you “observe” it does it fall into one category or the other (it can’t stay in both). That’s where I have a slight problem with what Karen Irvine writes when she talks of “an interpretation of history that operates like memory and gives the past life in the present” – history in the sense of written or compiled history is an interpretation, just like your book is an interpretation of sorts.

Of course, there is a difference between that which historians do and that which you do: Historians are interested only in facts, even though, of course, what they produce is a construct that future historians might just brush aside, for whatever reason (new facts often play less a role than a changed cultural climate). What you do, however, is to do a historian’s job, except you are willing to do it in an artistic way, working with the limitations and possibilities of your medium, while still telling a story. The reason why this interests me so much is because I think it opens up opportunities to engage with the world, opportunities to realize that the word “truth” can have different kinds of meanings, many of them if not being the same then at least equivalent. For writers, we have long accepted this. A nonfiction book and a fiction book about something historical can each tell more or less the same story — and we know how to understand and treat the differences. As Karen Irvine wrote in the case of a novel “we must actively engage with our imaginations and our memories.” But for photography, we haven’t made that step, yet. We’re still stuck with people’s ideas that photography presents the truth or something real or whatever. I’m tempted to think a book like Redheaded Peckerwood is a perfect example of what can be gained by finally leaving this simplistic approach to photography. It is a true story, and at the same time it is the story you decided to tell (if I did it it would look very different).

What do you think?

I’m not familiar with Borges or his work, but I did find this rather insightful quote from his biographer Edwin Williamson: “His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author’s ability to generate ‘poetic faith’ in his reader.” This, to me, is a beautiful, perfect encapsulation of the way that photography works.

Another “Borgesian” quality is narrative non-linearity. When I first began making this work, I held tightly to the chronological narrative of the story. But as I continued to make work, explore and appropriate the archive, and edit, sequence and refine the material, I also began to freely mix the material. My interests and motivations for doing this were were two-fold. First, I had a visual interest. With photography, the visual element greatly increases the interpretive potential and therefore unavoidably complicates the narrative. Second, I wanted to push the work and its interpretation in unexpected directions. As Williamson said, I had to generate poetic faith in the reader.

I agree with what Karen Irvine wrote about “history that operates like memory,” and I think it agrees with what you said about interpretation, if we acknowledge that memory is largely biased, completely selective and therefore highly interpretive. I’m not sure how to respond to or improve upon everything that you’ve just said — the issues of truth and representation are a problem in photography for many people. But when it comes to most of the photography that I look at or make myself, I’m really most concerned with what lies within — our feeling and imagination.

A Conversation with CPC 2012 Winner Hye-Ryoung Min

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Hye-Ryoung Min

Hye-Ryoung Min’s Channel 247 was picked by Robert Lyons as one of the winners of the Conscientious Portfolio Competition 2012. He wrote “I first got it down to five different portfolios. But I kept coming back to Hye-Ryoung Min’s, whose work struck me the first time I looked at it, and it has only grown since. The images really suggest time beyond the moment of the picture. They are well composed, and each image suggests an interesting situation. The formal aspects seem to hold the group together. Although at first one feels as if these are ‘surveillance’ images – at least by the framing, and by things that obscure the images – one quickly is able to see how they are much more.” I spoke with Hye-Ryoung Min about the work. Find our conversation below.

Jörg Colberg: Let’s start with a very simple question first — what makes a good photograph?

Hye-Ryoung Min: Communication or interaction between the photographer and the subject. By this I don’t necessary mean actual communication between two human beings. What your subject is doesn’t really matter. It could be landscape, a model, a family, or a stranger. This invisible or inaudible communication can take many forms: passion, love, curiosity, admiration, sympathy. In other cases discomfort and unfamiliarity could work better and result in making original and fresh images.

No matter what type of photography, I can tell if the photographer shared any thoughts or emotion when she/he clicked the shutter. On the other hand, if the photographer just photographed because the landscape was beautiful or somewhat different than others, then the images won’t move anybody deeply or be long remembered.

There are elements of curiosity, voyeurism and surveillance in Channel 247, which makes for an interesting mix. I suspect different people will probably come to different conclusions about the relative mix. I’m curious about your own personal mix.

My mix contains all the elements that you listed. It started with a simple curiosity of mind, kept on going with voyeurism, and the way I made this project is certainly a form of surveillance.

Channel 247 began with just looking outside of my windows, which were situated directly opposite our dining table. I treated the windows as my TV. The three windows in the living room had the most interesting and varied shows and actors, since they give out on the main boulevard with its constant flow of people and situations. However, I also enjoyed the daily shows from the windows in the bedroom, which looked out onto the backyard and featured a more regular cast of actors and private moments. Before I knew it, I was completely addicted and tuned into Channel 247 day by day and for several months. I got curious about what was going to happen next day and wanted to know about the neighbors just by looking at them from the distance. Although for the most part, it was all silent film and the story lines were pretty much repetitive, I started noticing subtle nuances and differences from one day to another. Repetition helped me understand the basic characters in the neighborhood while nuance and difference offered me clues into their hidden stories.

Sometimes the channel had special seasonal broadcasts such as J’Ouvert, the West Indian American Day Parade at 4 o’clock in the morning, Mister Softy’s ice-cream truck during the summer, or middle-of-the-night backyard parties where illegal tattoo services were offered to ex-convicts who were full of confidence, laughter and loud cursing. On that occasion, I had to be more careful not to be caught as I stood near the window.

The reason that I chose to photograph when people were not aware of the camera was to avoid affecting their behavior. There are moments when people are oblivious of others, or simply don’t want to be mindful of anybody other than themselves. These moments happen between things, such as when we are rushing out to work in the morning, taking out the garbage, coming back from the deli with ready-made food, or maybe just sitting on a stoop daydreaming. Since I started watching people that I didn’t know anything about — name, sentimental relationships, occupation, age, personal history — I have noticed that those moments can be more revealing of their personalities than when they are trying to make a good impression on others. This interesting journey that started with pure curiosity ended with great discovery for me.

I thought you might be interested in the story that I wrote in my artist statements: In my teens, I couldn’t help but think that somebody was watching me all the time so I had to act as a main actress in some kind of movie which made me feel self-conscious wherever I went. This might be typical of many other teenagers and it might even play a part in how one creates a sense of self. I remember when the movie The Truman Show came out in 1998. It opens with the question: “What if you were watched every moment of your life?” It completely matched my imagination. The movie went on to show how Truman would really feel after he realized the truth of his condition. The Truman Show brought to an end my life on an imaginary movie set. Which leads me to ask: how different is our behavior when we are conscious of others around us? And what do involuntary actions tell or reveal about us?

There is that question of surveillance, though. When surveillance cameras are used by the government, say, many people get upset. They mind being watched. It’s one thing to see someone from your window, but it seems another thing to photograph them — without their knowledge and consent. How do you deal with this aspect of the work?

On the one hand, as an outsider, I was naturally curious to observe my neighbors. For various reasons, I was not in a position to interact with them more directly. In an effort to get to know them better, I found myself looking at them as they went about their daily routines.

Hye-Ryoung Min, from Channel 247

On the other, I had a legitimate reason for engaging in what might properly be described as surveillance. The ex-convicts who hosted parties in the back lots adjacent to our apartment gave me reason for concern. They were notorious troublemakers on our street and even the police was reluctant to intervene in their activities. This was a darker side of life in my neighborhood and opens other avenues in which to consider the meaning of the images.

Besides its content, Channel 247 centers on photographic framing and it carries various references from the history of photography. Can you tell me a little bit how you approached photographing what almost looks like the stage of life outside your window? Did you wait for things to happen, possibly with your camera in hand, sitting next to the window?

As I mentioned I had a dinning table facing the windows. I always love looking out windows in cafes, airplanes, home or the studio and remain a third person as I observe the world outside. For me that is a lot more exciting and attractive than any TV shows. It allows me infinite freedom of imagination and the ability to conjure up whole new worlds regardless of what may or may not be the truth of things.

For this project I always had my camera on the table with telephoto lens on. I came out to my studio space where the table was in the morning and started the day with breakfast as well as photographing. During the day if anything happened, the camera was right there — always ready — and if I saw or heard something interesting outside, I could just grab my camera, walk around and photograph. However, there were many things which happened routinely, on every single morning and this gave me a chance to reshoot or try a different approach. So I would wait and wait for these reruns.

The challenging part of this project was that I was the one who actually had a set of limitations to work with: transforming a scene from daily life into an aesthetic photograph. I sometimes had to move around from the first window to the third window and used the window frames to eliminate the elements in the landscape which I didn’t need and make it feel more like looking at a TV screen. But once my subject slips out of the frame, the show is over.

As a photographer, you juggle commercial and fine-art photography. How do you go about that? Do you find it difficult keeping things apart? (or maybe you don’t even want to keep them apart?)

It is certainly not easy, and there are conflicts between them. I treat them both as my work -that is they both require many of the same things from me such as creativity, ideas, hard work — but they have different cycles, goals, and approaches. One of the big differences is that commercial work is a result of team work and fine art is a struggle with myself. For my own projects, I ask myself and I have to find an answer. It comes from me, it affects me, it changes me, it comes back to me, and it is me.

I am an artist, and my priority is fine art. However, when I do commercial work I can take a break from being by myself. It helps support me financially and teaches me how to communicate and work with other talented people. I love when things work out very well with many people coming together as a team. It almost feels like a magic. On the other hand, I can always go back to the tiny room that only fits myself and do my own work. In a way, I am lucky that I can go in and out of the two worlds as I choose.

Riverfront by Curran Hatleberg

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Curran Hatleberg

For the past couple of weeks, I have come to this photograph, Riverfront, by Curran Hatleberg. I’ve been trying to find out what actually intrigued me about it. Most likely, it’s a combination of factors. For a start, Riverfront is one of those photographs that is very smartly constructed. It’s complex without it being complex for complexity’s sake. It’s smart, without it being self-consciously smart (like, for example, so much of that “new formalism”/”triangle art” photography: I can’t escape the feeling it’s too satisfied with its own cleverness). It’s a contemporary photograph that, at the same time, feels like a classic; or maybe I should say it references the medium’s history without being nostalgic.

The old ideas of form and content are particularly relevant in this case, I think. So let’s see how this works. Well, first of all, the image plane appears to consist of two parts, the foreground and the background. The road that runs from the right to the left (or vice versa) separates the two. I view the foreground as a bit of a stage, with the various actors, two or three groups, depending on how you want to count them.

There are the two men on the left who are engaged in what looks like a mock fight of sorts. They’re caught mid-motion, one is about a foot off the ground. The second group consists of five young men/children watching the former, on the right. There also is a child at the very right of the frame who is looking at something completely different – you can think of this as a third “group.” Whatever that child is looking at is outside of the frame — thus reminding the viewer of the fact that photography captures a part of the world, and we have no way of knowing what lies beyond.

In the background, there is a group of young women and men watching the scene. You could split them up into groups of four on the left and four on the right, even though it’s unclear to me what one would gain from that. And there’s the world in the background, Ernie’s Restaurant, a red truck, a bigger truck in the back, plus the bridges.

One can try to take apart a good photograph and figure out how it operates, but it will still work afterwards.

There are two bridges, a grey one running from the left to the right (or vice versa), plus a black one running from somewhere to the viewer’s immediate left towards a point we can’t see in the background. The grey bridge really just constitutes part of the background, whereas the black one visually connects the background with the foreground, meaning both the stage upon which the action is happening and where we, the viewers, find ourselves.

The stage, in other words, might be a stage, but it really looks like a stage because of this photograph. Had we been there, we would have been a part of it, just as we are part of the world at any given moment. In any case, the viewer is located on a little stretch of road that runs into the road that divides the foreground and background.

Now, whether or not you’ve found my way of describing the photograph successful or not, I do think it’s obvious that this photograph’s elements come together very successfully, both concerning the pictorial planes and the placement and interaction of the various proponents.

The infrastructure dissects the image in all kinds of directions, connecting us to what we see, while at the same time reminding us how roads or trails usually tend to do just that: To go into all kinds of directions. The placement of the various actors allows the eye to remain in place, while going back and forth between the different groups. Crucially, the group in the back is doing exactly what we’re doing — watching the scene.

The world is there to be watched, to be seen; and a good photographer will visually organize its content into pictures that make us see what we could but usually don’t see. And crucially, one can try to take apart a good photograph and figure out how it operates, but it will still work afterwards. In fact, one probably appreciates it even more. This is certainly what happened for me in the case of Riverfront.

I will add this: Whether or not this photograph was staged or found (street-photography style) doesn’t matter for me at all. I suspect many people will disagree with me. The street-photo crowd will want this to be an example of their beloved games — as will the staging crowd. It’s too bad that both often are too dogmatic about how their images are made to realize how rich photographs can be when they’re made in a different way.

Photographs that are “found” are not necessarily deeper than images that are made or constructed. To pretend the world is a richer place than what we could imagine makes the assumption that we are not of this world, that we are imperfect beings somewhat separate from it.

We might be imperfect, but we’re part of the world. We are of this world, living in this world. The role of the photographer is to pretend that that’s not the case, while, at the same time, reminding us how futile that idea really is. Riverfront by Curran Hatleberg does this most successfully.