Mario Popham’s Enduring Growth

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Mario Popham

I’m tempted to see the photograph above as summing up most the existence of large parts of the so-called developed world on this planet, with Nature carefully integrated and kept in its bounds (in more ways than one), surrounded by our man-made structures, which already are suffering from all kinds of neglect and indifference (ditto). It should really be the other way around. We should be surrounded by Nature, and we should be taking care of things, both what is around us and what was and is being made by us. But this is not to be had. The wheel of progress is turning and turning, and money is to be made (which, inevitably, these days has become: money has to be saved so that those who already have quite a bit of it can squeeze out more).

The fate of our cities provides possibly the largest and most obvious expression of what we are doing these days. The scale of a city is something the human mind can still grasp (as hard as this becomes for the so-called megacities). Beyond that, we’re lost. The ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising, vast parts of the land are polluted or in bad shape – who can take this in? Who can comprehend this? And it all comes back to the cities anyway, because that’s where the strings come together that are being pulled. The cities are the nerve centers from which the signals radiate out and back in.

Cities often seem like entities that will last forever, entities that don’t change, but that’s not the case. Cities do change. They are born, they grow, and they might shrink, or even die. Modernity is old enough to have resulted in some cities undergoing massive changes; and if any city stands for the growth and decline of Western industrial history, it’s Manchester (UK), the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It seems fitting that the photograph above was taken there, by Mario Popham.

These photos are part of Enduring Growth, Popham’s portrait of the city, in which he has been living for ten years. In his brief statement about the work, the photographer speaks of the struggle between Nature and the man-made environment that I talked about in the very beginning.

On second thought, maybe this whole idea of Us vs. Nature is flawed, though, because, after all, we’re animals ourselves. We might be thinking of ourselves as at least a special kind of animal, but still, as animals we’re part of Nature. As that part of Nature, we’re bound to follow the trajectories of its inhabitants just like every other member, whether we like it or not. The difference between us and the dinosaurs, for example, might end up being not the difference in brain sizes, but that climate change we are going to face has been brought on by ourselves.

This might be taking things a tad too far, it might be making this little essay a bit too loose, a bit too out there. But if we stick with the simple fact that we are the result of Nature, then the struggle that we perceive between Nature and us – that struggle doesn’t exist. Mind you, there is a struggle, but it’s much closer to the elementary struggle to survive that all species living on this planet face. Nature, we could thus extend the argument, might not even be the greatest threat we face. It’s not Nature that’s taking jobs away or cutting benefits. And it’s not Nature that is responsible for the profit-principle. Nature here as in: That which is outside of our human sphere.

It’s our very own nature that is responsible for all these things. Nature might be overtaking plots previously used for what we think of productive ways, but it’s our own nature that made that possible. We build, and we destroy. We build our cities, and then we destroy them – all the while pretending we’re fighting a big struggle against forces outside ourselves. And that part of Nature overtaking what we’re discarding – that might just be Nature telling us: Hey, if you can’t get your act together and take care of yourselves, I’ll take something back and re-use it.

Review: Fukushima Black Rain by Soichiro Koriyama

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Soichiro Koriyama

It is probably appropriate that Soichiro Koriyama‘s Fukushima Black Rain starts out with a photograph of a wall clock, hanging askew and stopped. It’s a metaphor, and a photographic reference at the same time (Shomei Tomatsu’s famous photograph of a wristwatch from Nagasaki, you can see it here). Nothing truly arrests time. But when your life undergoes massive changes, it can feel as if time had stopped.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused widespread damage, and they led to a massive loss in life. But they also led to one of the worst nuclear disasters mankind has managed to produce in the relatively short period of time since radioactivity was discovered. The four nuclear reactors at Fukushima were hit by the tsunami, they lost power quickly, and three of them experienced a meltdown. The reactor buildings also exploded, but unlike in Chernobyl this did not expose nuclear material to the atmosphere. As it turns out, information coming from the company in charge of the reactors and from the Japanese government itself has so far proven to be very unreliable (here is just one of the latest examples).

The full extent of the problems at the reactors is still unknown. The radioactive material (this includes the still highly radioactive spent fuel) seems contained and cooled, but there appear to be vast leaks of radioactive water somewhere. If the cooling ever fails again, for whatever reason, the site will be back to where it was after the tsunami hit.

The 2020 Olympic Games were just awarded to Tokyo, which is 238km (94 miles) from Fukushima. Even without the Games, the presence of a nuclear disaster site of this proportion so close to a metro area inhabited by around 36 million people is a very big problem.

So far, the people hardest hit by the Fukushima disaster are those living closest to the plant and those who used to live there, but who had to relocate. Dozens of villages and towns had to be abandoned, many thousands of people had just a very short period of time to collect whatever they could carry or transport, to be evacuated to safety. Soichiro Koriyama is one of the photographers who went to the area to take pictures. Unlike many of his Western colleagues, he did not focus quite so much on empty streets in deserted towns. Instead, he worked more closely to the people of the area, some of them going back once a week to their homes, some of them dairy farmers, some of them going with their lives elsewhere, giving birth or dying.

Fukushima Black Rain, the resulting book, compiles this work, to create a moving and somber reflection on loss, and on lives turned upside down. The photographs are stark, and they are made to work together wonderfully. One cannot help but be moved by what one is looking at, even if a Westerner might miss a lot of the cultural connotations in many of the photographs. There is an index at the very end of the book, with short captions that provide some context for the photographs – this helps massively understanding some of the more subtle things going on.

Radioactivity is invisible, as are feelings. Photography can only deal with something that is invisible by trying to work around it, by doing this little dance that if you do it well will reveal that, which is talked about only indirectly. Fukushima Black Rain does this very successfully. Recommended.

Fukushima Black Rain; photographs and short text by Soichiro Koriyama; 72 pages; Shinnihon; 2013

(Unfortunately, I was completely unsuccessful tracking down information about the book online. The publisher has a website – this might prove helpful if you speak Japanese (I don’t). There’s an ISBN: ISBN978-4-406-0563-1; and Peter Evans of Microcord fame supplied me with the Japanese Amazon page)

Matthew Swarts and Beth

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Matthew Swarts

Photography’s ultimate cruelty is that you cannot take a picture without involving an act of selfishness, however miniscule it might end up being. Portraiture, the depiction of another person, makes this overabundantly clear. You point your camera at another person, with or without their consent, and you want something: A picture. There is a lot of talk about how portraiture works, and I have contributed to that at various times. However, the aspect of selfishness is usually being swept underneath the table. What photographer, after all, trying to sell her or his work to an audience desired to be fawning afterwards, has the honesty to say “I don’t want to take someone’s picture, I want to take my picture of that other person”? You don’t hear this very much. Instead, there is a lot of talk of a collaboration, of the model giving, and the photographer taking (this is as far as people will go). And possibly, there is some collaboration going on. But who cares? What makes a good portrait a good portrait is not the amount of collaboration, it is a photographer’s willingness to take what s/he wants. If that sounds too Nietzsche to you, then, well, maybe you don’t want to take portraits.

Of course, it’s easier to be selfish when there’s nothing at stake, when, say, you’re prowling the streets of some big city looking for people to photograph without their consent. OK, great. It’s much, much harder to be selfish when working with someone after having gained consent. This involves asking (and, possibly, rejection). It gets hardest when there’s more at stake than just a good picture – let’s face it, even the greatest photographs are just photographs, really not more, but also most certainly not less.

This is part of the reason why family photography is so hard, and why the vast majority of if never gets beyond producing photographic Hallmark-Card moments: You have to seriously consider being an asshole, at least every once in a while, to get your picture (maybe you’re lucky, and your family shuns calling out selfish acts using expletives). This does not mean that to photograph your family you have to be an asshole per se; what it does mean, however, is that for you to do this type of photography very successfully (and this means in such a way that the results will have artistic merit) you have to be perfectly fine with occasionally acting in a way that might make your loved one(s) use expletives either when you’re doing it, or when they see the results.

While selfishness really is an important part of portraiture, to focus on it too much, or to judge the results involving the (perceived) amount of selfishness, is a mistake, though. Because whatever amount of selfishness was required is only a means to an end. Even the word selfishness is a dangerous word, given that it can (and thus will) be misunderstood – or misinterpreted – in so many ways. But photography is a selfish act, and we might as well be honest about it. Actually, any expression of a creative urge involves an act of selfishness, the setting of a boundary between you and the rest of the world: Here, this is me, and I’m going to show you something that I created and that is going to be as unique as I am.

Seen that way, it’s easy to see why portraiture would seem like such an odd area to talk about selfishness. After all, if one wants to photograph another person, isn’t that all about that other person? About, possibly, that person’s essence, personality, or whatever else? It isn’t. Ignoring the fact that photographs are unable to reveal a person’s personality in ways that go beyond what, well, cartoons show, what makes portraiture – and especially looking at its very best practitioners – so exciting, is to see how someone shaped a picture out of another person, using nothing more than a camera. The other day, I met a person I thought I knew from one of my student’s portraits, and I didn’t recognize him at first. How could this be? How can this possibly function, given there’s a camera, a technical device that we think of as faithfully representing what is in front of it?

Here is Beth, photographed by her partner, Matthew Swarts. Of Beth we, meaning everybody except those who know this young woman in person, have a set of photographs and nothing else. What are we going to make of Beth now? What do these photographs tell us about her? What do they tell us about the photographer? What do they tell us about their relationship?

I don’t think there is a simple answer for any of these questions. This is exactly why the photographs are so compelling. In other words, Swarts’ selfishness has paid off. As a matter of fact, the picture at the very top obviously does not look like a straight photograph, and it isn’t. It’s a scan of a photograph emerging from a broken printer. Machines, of course, cannot be selfish (machines are always only stupid). But people using photographs coming out of broken machines can be.

And Beth, the project, shows how this all comes together, albeit in ways that have the process remain a mystery. That’s the other frustrating thing about portraiture: You will never learn it from other people, only from doing it yourself – however much was, is and will be written about it. These pictures show the same woman in a variety of ways that almost make it seem we’re looking at more than one person. Almost.

It is that “almost” that is crucial here, because in that “almost” lies the fact that while photography cannot literally depict someone’s inner state, it can still make a stab at it. Or rather: A photographer can make a stab at showing us her or (in this case) his idea of that other person’s inner state, which he has no direct access to, either (this is what makes life exciting – life on Vulcan must be perfectly boring).

In the end, what we are looking at then is not clear. All that added uncertainty is what defines photography. This is why machines will never be able to produce real art (the relentless hype by today’s tech fetishists notwithstanding): Machines don’t do uncertainty.

A Conversation with Thomas Weski

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Arne Schmitt

Thomas Weski is one of the most preeminent German photography curators. Working at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, Weski has been at the forefront of photography in Germany and beyond. His exhibitions include Nicholas Nixon – Familienbilder (Sprengel Museum Hannover 1994), Robert Adams – What We Bought: The New World (Sprengel Museum Hannover 1995), Judith Joy Ross (Sprengel Museum Hannover 1996), William Eggleston, Los Alamos (Museum Ludwig, Köln 2002), Cruel & Tender (Tate Modern, London 2003; co-curator), Andreas Gursky (Haus der Kunst, München 2005), ClickDoubleclick – the documentary factor (Haus der Kunst, München 2006), William Eggleston – Democratic Camera (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2008; co-curator), Photography Calling! (Sprengel Museum Hannover 2011; co-curator), and many more. Since 2009, he is a professor for curatorial studies at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (University for Graphic and Book Arts), Leipzig. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Weski, talking about photography, and I asked him whether he would be available for an interview. Much to my delight he said yes.

Jörg Colberg: Let’s start with a question that I have come across frequently: Is there a difference between German and American photography? If yes, how can that difference be put into words? Are the Germans, let’s say, a bit cold, or is there something else that sets them apart from the Americans?

Thomas Weski: I always find it hard to view photography based on national characteristics. But I noticed that after the impulses provided by American photography up until the early 1980s contemporary photography was then developed further in Europe, both in terms of aesthetics and content. These days, things have come back together. In the area of “photography in the documentary style,” to quote Walker Evans, there now is a sort of international visual language, with a similar way of working when accessing reality and a common aesthetic. I would not call this a bit cold. It’s distanced and in the best cases analytical.

To simplify a little bit, I think contemporary German photography is less tied to photographic conventions than its American counterpart, and it uses a wider range of approaches. However, this heterogeneity is not being noticed abroad. Instead, German photography is reduced to the Düsseldorf School. Thankfully, under Peter Galassi MoMA’s photography department introduced very different positions over the past few years: From Michael Schmidt to Andreas Gursky to Thomas Demand. It would be very nice if other American institutions had exhibitions with contemporary German photographers, which, might possibly not be necessarily popular, but which would allow visitors to discover something new.

JC: Today, photography is more popular and widely used than ever. But many discussions are centered on the question whether the medium has come to an end, or whether there are too many photographs, or how one is supposed to deal with the flood of pictures. What do you think about the medium in this year 2013? As someone who curated so many important exhibitions, who knows so many important artists on a personal level, is it still as much – or maybe more – fun to deal with this medium?

TW: Yes, it’s true, photography today really is very popular. A little while ago, I was looking at a paper from around the mid-1970s, which dealt with exhibition spaces for photography. Back then there were exactly 41 spaces in Europe that exhibited photography either regularly or exclusively! This included not only galleries or museums, but also exotic locations such as state-owned or corporate exhibition spaces. Today, in Germany alone there are over 200 spaces.

But there are only slightly more than a handful of museums in Germany that deal with photography on a regular basis, meaning museums that collect, research, preserve, exhibit and showcase photography. So far, there is not a single museum in Germany that uses the climate-controlled storage of photography that I know well from American museums. The budgets to buy new work have shrunk to zero, and a culture of donations like in the US does not exist.

In other words, there is a huge discrepancy between the international recognition of German photography and the way it is handled and accepted as an equal form of art in its own country. That notwithstanding, I’m still having fun with the situation. But at the moment, I am not working for an exhibition space or museum, and thus I’m not subjected to the very strong monetary restrictions.

I don’t think that photography has come to its end; maybe it is in all respects past its prime, but as a way to deal with reality it still is a very valid tool. Photography offers and can construct a particular closeness to reality, and for me, this is unique and very fascinating. And photography is being developed further with each new generation of artists.

“To simplify a little bit, I think contemporary German photography is less tied to photographic conventions than its American counterpart, and it uses a wider range of approaches. However, this heterogeneity is not being noticed abroad. Instead, German photography is reduced to the Düsseldorf School.” – Thomas Weski

JC: Which contemporary bodies of work are you interested in right now and why?

TW: Right now, I’m very interested in the works by Stephen Gill, Annette Kelm, Christian Patterson, Alec Soth, and Heidi Specker to name five artists who are well established in their respective countries. They all believe firmly in something like a specific photographic quality, and they all often also refer to the history of photography. This reflection of the medium’s possibilities, combined with contemporary content and artists’ abilities to translate their capabilities into pictures – that I am very interested in.

But there are also young photographers, such as Arne Schmitt, who studied in Leipzig and who presented and published a very original body of work about modernity in post-war German architecture. This body of work really investigates the question of what public spaces in our cities mean – many of them were developed in postwar Germany in the 50s and 70s and they refer to certain democratic ideals – how and what the implications are concerning how people can be included or excluded. What all of these artists have in common is that I often don’t understand their work right away, that I maybe even initially reject it or file it away too quickly in some drawer. But they all pull me back and ask me to re-engage and to look more closely. The fact that these bodies of work initially refuse to be engaged in a simple and easy way makes them all the more precious for me, something I often find hard to put into words.

JC: How can one master the flood of images online? Is there a way to deal with it?

TW: I view this flood of images as a type of visual communication, which I look at and use, but which in the context of art has no bigger meaning for me. The physical presence of a printed photograph still has an enormous influence on me. It allows me to access a photograph in a sensual, even physical way. I could imagine that this approach is going to become more important for other people as well. The photographs stored on my cell phone are not going to be printed, and they thus remain immaterial. They are fleeting – like falling stars…

JC: That might be a good approach to classifying photographs, the fleeting ones and those that have lasting power. I am able to truly appreciate a good photographic print, but I am a little bit worried about connecting physicality and not being fleeting. In the arts, there is an increasing number of artists working with images from the fleeting domain, and those images gain relevance not just because they are being printed. Don’t you think the fleeting images might play a more important role in art? I’m sure a lot of people will not be happy about the comparison, but we already have Jeff Wall’s light boxes or Nan Goldin’s slide shows, and both aren’t that far removed from images on computer screens.

TW: I agree that images might become relevant not only in printed form. This has been especially true for journalistic photographs online. On the other hand: Who was able to see Nan Goldin’s „Ballad of Sexual Dependency“ as a slide show? In the context of art, non-fleeting images that can be viewed by larger crowds bring other ways of engagement with them, which then determine a certain viewing time, much like video or performance art. For me, that is too restrictive, and such „black boxes“ give me the horror. But there are always new bodies of work in this area that impress me, because they create an atmosphere that photography cannot offer. Usually, I’d prefer to see them in a well-equipped cinema instead of a museum, however.

JC: Let’s talk about museums. Under John Szarkowski MoMA did a series of trail-blazing exhibitions, which were designed to bring the medium photography closer to the public and which explained it. With time such exhibitions appear to have become more and more rare. In 2003, you curated Cruel and Tender at Tate Modern. Has the time of such exhibitions passed, exhibitions that critically examine and/or define photography? Isn’t there today a large audience for exactly these kinds of exhibitions, combined with almost an urgent need to newly examine and understand this changing medium? Or is it maybe simply a wrong idea to expect this from museums, and one needs to look elsewhere?

TW: These days, museums are subject to a lot of pressure to have exhibitions with many visitors. I could imagine that in Szarkowski’s days the numbers of visitors weren’t even counted… At the end of the 1990s, when assessing culture business considerations and interests became firmly established even in Germany. Such exclusively quantitative expectations are often hard to meet with arguments concerning quality, which deal with the educational mandate, renown in the arts and a willingness to accept a certain risk.

Right now, I personally miss exhibitions centered on the development of the medium photography very much. But unfortunately it is a fact that exhibitions focusing on one artist attract more visitors than thematic ones, because they can be more easily dealt with under marketing consideration, and museums shy away from risks. Often, curators in the area of contemporary photography shy away from exhibitions on territory that is not yet historically defined: You’re on slippery territory there. In the past, at various institutions I tried to work out a photographic discourse for a wider audience with big exhibitions, and I very much enjoyed the specific challenges of such an exhibition format.

However, the resulting publications often ended up being more important than the exhibitions, and I would also say that about Szarkowsksi’s projects, without comparing myself to him. It is noteworthy that when we talk about photography exhibitions – even excluding “Family of Man” – we talk about the catalogues, and the exhibitions and their displays don’t play a role. Why is there no book about the history of photography exhibitions? If I look at my generation’s calling to establish photography as an equal form of art, based on what we did I could easily challenge today’s generation to create new spaces or forms of engagement with the medium, physical or otherwise. If they exist, I’m not aware of them, yet.

“If I look at my generation’s calling to establish photography as an equal form of art, based on what we did I could easily challenge today’s generation to create new spaces or forms of engagement with the medium, physical or otherwise. If they exist, I’m not aware of them, yet.” – Thomas Weski

JC: I’d agree one hundred percent. I do miss museum exhibitions that thematically deal with the development of photography today. Given that monetary concerns have become so important for museums, and given we are often talking about books… Maybe the time for new critical engagements with photography in museums is over? Maybe we need to look for other areas and work with books or internet-based exhibitions? It would be a pity, after all, to let this moment pass – where photography is more popular than ever before!?

TW: I just don’t want to believe that the time of a critical engagement with photography at museums is over. That would mean that museums and curators would be unable to lead the discourse in this area today. But maybe most museums really are too caught up in their roles and with themselves, so that smaller and more flexible institutions could play a role. In just the same way how we do not focus students on the art market any longer and instead apply other criteria, there could be other locations – let’s call them producers’ galleries, which would have other organizations structures and other priorities than museums. Each generation creates its own infrastructure, and I think there is a potential here to give today’s dominant organizations a run for their money and to challenge their values – much like the extra-parliamentary opposition did in the 1960s. Maybe just like in the area of film there could be an independent movement?

JC: How do you view the medium photograph, which right now is immensely popular? Do you look at photobooks?

TW: I’m interested in photographers who develop different forms for presentation and publication. Earlier, I talked about the very small infrastructure for art photography in Europe in the 1970s. That was the time when I started to get interested in photography. There were hardly any exhibitions, but there were three book shops that sold photobooks. Along with magazines like “Camera” or “Creative Camera” (which still existed) the photobook for my generation was the most important way to get exposed to photography. To create your own photo library was thus extremely important. And it was an enormous privilege for a photographer to get published. It’s almost impossible to imagine this, but the very first monograph of a living post-war German photographer was published in 1978, in the form of “Situationen und Objekte” by Heinrich Riebesehl. For me, photobooks thus are their very own category of artistic expression, and they are as important as a carefully conceptualized exhibition – just in a different way! I see the work on a photobook as being closely related to curating an exhibition. Those are related activities, that also deal with dramaturgy, which to work in the long run requires highs and lows, which needs to “breathe” and to include different ways of engagement. Recently, I’ve been noticing how much I miss the practical curatorial work now that I teach and don’t create regular exhibitions. Photobooks instead of exhibitions could thus provide a real alternative for me.

That aside, I’m always very interested to see how artists translate their work into the different formats exhibition and publication. Some time in the 1960s, television replaced photography as a means to report the news, and it thus freed it for its artistic use. In much the same way, the ubiquitous availability of the internet and the flood of images might lead to the photobook now having not only a comeback after its first golden age in the 1970s, it might even get developed further in a variety of ways. This is very interesting, in part because now we have affordable ways of production.

The future of photography as an art might lie in the form of a hybrid, which finds very different expressions online, in an exhibition, and in a photobook, expressions that are connected and that refer to each other and push each other. This would be a dynamic model that I would find very interesting and in which the photobook would have a new role.

Photobook Reviews (Week 37/2013)

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The three books I want to talk about today amount to a total of just under 1,300 pages. That’s not the reason why I decided to review them together, however. Each of these books offers something a little different, something that makes each book not your typical photobook. Seen together, these books could serve as reminders that the medium photobook is complex. There is quite a bit of variation, with many books deviating from being a very specific experience created from that one project of photographs.

Strictly speaking, Trolleyology isn’t a photobook. Instead, it’s a book about ten years of photobooks published by Trolley Books. And it’s about the man behind the publishing house, Gigi Giannuzzi, whose vision created and made Trolley. After Giannuzzi died of pancreatic cancer earlier this year, at way too young an age, in his obituary Sean O’Hagan described him as “a maverick, a radical and a legendary reveller,” noting “you invariably spent the night trying to keep up with him and his appetite for argument, alcohol and provocation” when running into him. That intense passion went into the making of the books shown and discussed in Trolleyology.

You can make a good photobook if you have a moderate amount of passion, but to make a great book you need a lot of passion, ideally a limitless amount.

Trolleyology could have easily become a tedious affair, listing one exciting book after the other. And it does list one exciting book after the other. But it has deftly avoided all tedium, bringing a lot of Giannuzzi’s passion and excitement to the presentation of these many books. For almost every book, you get to read a bit, often quite a bit of an inside story, part of the making of, the creation, the struggles, the fights, and the joy of having all that come together in the end result. There are reproductions of spreads and behind-the-scenes photographs, many of them.

With so many books about photobooks out now, many of them surveys based on countries, Trolleyology shows that you can in fact produce a book around photobooks that adds something new, that offers a different approach to looking at collections of photobooks. After all, photobooks reflect their makers’ visions, and a lot of those get lost when the books are filed away based on geographical or other criteria. There is a reason why the photobook has become such an exciting part of what photography has to offer. Talking more about what drives some of the most creative people to make photobooks can help us learn a bit more about them (and, possibly, ignite our own creative fires).

Wolfgang Bellwinkel‘s No Land Called Home approaches similar ideas, albeit using the perspective of a single photographer. Compiled from photographs shot over the course of 18 years, the book combines personal and assignment/editorial work, mixing it all up to produce one photographer’s view of, well, life. In addition to the photographs, you get segments of very short stories. You end up with something that doesn’t feel whole, something where there are threads that start and end, seemingly without being connected. But taken together, experienced together, there is a very definite story here, 18 years in the life of photographer, traversing the world, rarely staying in the same place for longer.

No Land Called Home is no book you can look at casually. Well, you can, but then you’re basically going to miss almost everything that is unfolding in its pages. Instead, not unlike William Vollmann’s The Atlas (which, curiously, I keep coming back to these days), the bigger picture emerges from the fragments. It’s a very difficult way of making a photobook: You basically have to hope that people will spend enough time with the book and the many pictures and stories, to see the pieces connect. And the pieces do not connect like in a puzzle. Instead, they connect like they tend to do in real life: Often not really fitting, but sticking to each other anyway.

Sipke Visser‘s Return to Sender is a very different beast: “For two and a half years I picked addresses randomly from google maps. I sent to those addresses a handwritten letter like the one on the right here and a photograph I had taken. All in all I sent out 500 letters, all over the United Kingdom and some to the US.” The photographs and resulting correspondences are included in the book. I don’t remember the last time I received a hand-written letter, let alone a letter from a stranger (of course, I’m excluding the automated junk mail that keeps arriving in my mailbox). Who still writes and sends letter? Or are all those people doing that the internet’s “silent majority”?

In any case, Return to Sender reverts the usual process of photobook making. Usually, you take your pictures, put them into a book (ideally with a lot of passion), and then you get your reactions once the book is out in the world. Sending your photographs out first is the exact opposite approach. Needless to say, it’s slightly inaccurate to compare these two approaches. But there is something endearing about reaching out to a stranger and hoping to get something back. Post a photograph on, say, Flickr or Facebook, and you can expect, well… You know what to expect. The difference an actual object makes becomes clear in the book. To see how many people reacted, and how they reacted, is quite amazing, and it could teach us something about our ideas of social interactions (alternatively, it could – should – teach us that the “social” in “social media” comprises just a very limited subset of the meanings included in the word).


Vittoria Mentasti and a Woman With Two Names

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Vittoria Mentasti

It might be time to state the obvious: It is very, very unlikely that photography will save the world, in whatever way or form. That’s just not going to happen. Photographs possess power, some more so than others, but to attach too much to them is a foolish endeavour. You essentially end up kicking the can down the road, to have it potentially lie right in front of the photographer, whom you can then accuse of all kinds of things.

This is not to say that photographers can or should go about their business mindlessly, in a state of being naively oblivious of both their medium’s history and history in general. But it seems to me that all too often we blame photographers for our larger collective failures, such as the failure to address specific issues or to come to terms with our own past. In other words, we mustn’t expect a photographer to be mindful of the past, while essentially refusing to do the same thing (the lip service we pay notwithstanding).

Over the past week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about photography’s engagement with the world, and about the various problems that can arise from it. Photography is a unique medium, in that it can take selected moments from the world and freeze them forever. We are often led to think all kinds of things that upon closer examination have very little to do with what is in the pictures.

Given we have become aware of the many problems our societies have been and are still struggling with, photography has lost its initial innocence (and that’s a good thing). You can stay clear of many of the problems by, say,  photographing your family (as many photographers do), or you photograph around the medium itself, creating work that loses all meaning outside of the context of art itself (ditto). But the moment you go out into the world, possibly the much larger world, things aren’t that easy any longer.

For A Woman With Two Names, Vittoria Mentasti has been traveling to Iqaluit, “the territorial capital and the largest community of the Canadian territory of Nunavut“(source), to photograph the Inuit community there. (It’s one of those strange coincidences I have become used to by now that the book I’m currently reading, William Vollmann’s The Atlas, also features parts involving communities in the Canadian territories.) In a sense, the story is not that dissimilar from the one experienced by other native peoples all over the world, with present efforts to undo the sins committed in the past often being, well, too little, too late.

How do you photograph “too little, too late,” though? Or how do you photograph any of the many issues experienced by the Inuit? As Mentasti demonstrates, you don’t. Or rather you photograph that which is photographable, and you then let it speak of all of that that can’t be captured by your camera’s sensor.

The key here is to realize that what wants to reveal itself will do that, provided we are willing to look carefully enough. In her statement, Mentasti writes that she was “looking to depict the sense of isolation,” and it’s hard to miss this here. But there is a lot more, especially once you look at the larger selection of photographs. There appears to be a pervasive atmosphere of sadness and loneliness in these photographs. It is as if all these people found themselves dropped into a strange world, which, in a sense, they were.

So much was taken, so much was undone or destroyed, to never come back.


Review: Top Secret by Simon Menner

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Simon Menner

Somewhere in East Berlin, a group of old colleagues are getting together every Wednesday night, to reminisce about the good old times, now long gone. Following established procedures, the meetups are held at different, secret locations. It’s not that anyone would really care – it’s true, the media might go for a quick story (which would then be forgotten even more quickly), but old habits die hard. And they’re not just habits, they were – and still are – the tools of the trade. Secret worlds don’t like to become unsecret.

These old men feel for their younger counterparts across the Atlantic many of whose secrets have been spilled so unceremoniously into the open by a young contractor who should have never had access to all those files in the first place. A contractor! What were they thinking?

Previously having been in charge of constructing and maintaining a surveillance state with the widest reaches, these former Stasi operatives can’t help but feel a little bit envious of the new tools they had never access to, those computers in every household into which people willingly enter their most private information to share, those portable telephones that have people essentially track themselves. You don’t even have to do much! How amazing is that? What if… What if…

I don’t know whether there are in fact members of East Germany’s secret service, the Stasi (short for “Staatssicherheit” or “State Security”), who have these kinds of meetups. It’s possible. I think it’s likely. But who knows? And I don’t know what the Stasi members who are still alive would make of this new world we find ourselves in, where it has become widely accepted that “privacy” actually means exactly what they always thought it would mean. You can’t help but wonder.

There is enough material left over from the Stasi to give us some clues. The archives were huge, and they still are. For quite a while after they were made accessible, people used to go to find out what they would find, often with devastating consequences. Here is just one such story. Imagine those playing out all across East Germany (or Eastern Germany, as it’s now called).

Artist Simon Menner got access to the files to look for whatever visual materials might be available. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of it. A collection has now been published as Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives (the artist wrote about the material and his experiences on this very website two years ago). The material comes in a variety of categories, some of them quite expected, others less so.

Nobody will be surprised to see surveillance photographs of mailboxes, say, or of the entrance of the US embassy in East Berlin. This is, after all, what spies do. Few people might be surprised to see photographs taken in people’s homes without their knowledge. This is also what spies do, but it seems quite a bit more chilling. However, images secret hand gestures or of disguises might come unexpectedly. Of course, there would be photographs taken – how else can you show someone what a good disguise might look like (let’s not argue about the “good” here). But somehow, you don’t expect that to happen anyway. These images – some shown above – somehow meet at the intersection of so many different areas that it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it.

There is a danger here, though. It’s tempting, too tempting, to focus on the absurdity of many of these images. Many are funny, many are absurd. But at the same time, each and every one of these photographs was absolutely serious and could, potentially, have very serious and possibly bad consequences for someone. If there is a banality of evil, there also is the absurdity of evil, and this absurdity easily stretches into areas that we would not consider to be evil at all. Quite a bit of the material in Top Secret could easily found its way into, let’s say, Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.

Our contemporary societies live as much from often oddly ritualized amounts of sheer absurdity that can have the most extreme consequences for those who refuse to conform than previous societies that, say, had people wear powdered wigs over their usually perfectly fine own hair. We usually use the term “bureaucracy” to sum up an apparatus that so desperately needs strict rules to follow to maintain itself, rules that can and usually will become absurd quite quickly.

So to marvel or to laugh at what is on display in Top Secret is fine, but it shouldn’t stop there. How and where does any of this apply to the world we’re living in? That’s what we have to be aware of. And if you think it doesn’t apply, talk to, let’s say, William Vollmann (who, btw, even has a photo connection in his story, through his friend Jock Sturges).

Top Secret; images from the Stasi archives edited/curated by Simon Menner; 128 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2013

Conscientious Portfolio Competition 2013

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Hye-Ryoung Min

The Conscientious Portfolio Competition has become a tradition on this website, and I’m thrilled to announce this year’s incarnation. The winner(s) will have their work featured on this site, in the form of an extended conversation.

First of all, the Conscientious Portfolio Competition (CPC)  is free to enter. There are no costs involved for you other than the time it takes to decide about and send in your work.

CPC is aimed at emerging photographers. We could probably argue about the term “emerging.” What it means here is that photographers not represented by a gallery will get preferential treatment. But of course, the quality of the work plays the most important role.

There are two guest judges joining me this year to determine the winner(s), Alice Rose George and Ann-Christin Bertrand:

Alice Rose George is a New York based independent photography editor, curator, and consultant.  She has been the Director of Photography for several magazines including GEO, Fortune, DoubleTake and Granta.  She is one of the founders of Here is New York, a photography exhibit in response to September 11. She has been the curator/editor of many books and exhibitions, as well as being an art consultant for many years to a major American photography collector. Currently, teaching in the Univ. of Hartford MFA program in photography, she continues her work with young and upcoming photographers.

Ann-Christin Bertrand is curator for C/O Berlin. She heads the C/O Berlin Talents program, an annual internationally advertised competition for young contemporary photography and art criticism, and has organized collective and individual shows including „Larry Clark“, „Rafal Milach . 7 Rooms“, „Edward Burtynsky . Oil“, as well as „Christer Strömholm . Post Scriptum“. In addition, she organizes the „C/O Berlin Book Days“ and is currently developing the series of public programs „In Transition: Thinking about photography“. After completing her studies in art history, visual arts, literature and media studies, she worked for several years in Paris and Vienna as a curator, art critic and project manager.

CPC happens in two stages. The first stage – where we are now – is the submission stage. Photographers are asked to send in their application via email in the following form:
email address
website URL (a proper website: no Flickr, no blogs/Tumblrs)
name of the portfolio/body of work (please do not forget this part – surprisingly often, photographers forget to mention which project they’re submitting)
Send your email to review at (you’ll have to replace the “at” with @ and remove the spaces for this to work, of course), subject line “CPC 2013”. One submission per photographer. Please do not submit images or pdfs directly by appending them to the email.

The deadline in 31 October 2013, 11:59pm ET.

If you need a statement for your work, it should be on the website. Your website should have a bio/CV, of course. If you don’t have a website, you will not be able to enter the competition. This might strike you as unfair, but every serious photographer should have her/his own dedicated website.

From the pool of submissions, 25 candidates will be picked for the second round. The photographers in this pool will receive an email, and they will have to send in ten jpeg images, in a uniform format (size etc.).

This is where Alice and Ann-Christin will come in. They will each pick their personal favourite from the pool of 25. I will pick one, too. Here’s the twist: There will be three or two winners, or maybe just one, if a photographer is picked more than once.

Having a second round is based on the idea of making everything as equal as possible. With uniform file sizes, fancy websites won’t be able to beat out simple ones. With a special naming convention for the jpegs (which will hide the full names), the winner will be solely chosen based on the quality of the work.

The winner(s) of the competition will have their work featured on this website, in the form of an extended conversation.

Good luck!