My favourite photobooks in 2013

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Vanessa Winship

Photoland spends about 10% of each year creating, reading, discussing and/or getting upset about “best of” lists. I’ll happily admit I enjoy looking at lists. They are what they are. I’m not sure all lists are really equal – I find it more and more galling to see people’s misfortunes reduced to best-news-photo lists, for example; but it’s fairly simple to ignore what needs to be ignored. And let’s face it, lists are a geeky pleasure. Which is why I still compile the list of my favourite photobooks each year.

The following books are not the best photobooks this year. They’re my favourite books. There’s a difference, and it’s important to me. While I try to review photobooks with the idea of possibly getting closer to their merit, trying to disentangle the inevitable subjective from whatever can be picked up in an objective manner, this following list really is just shamelessly subjective. These are the books I enjoyed the most this year. So far at least. Because, you know, tomorrow I might just ditch a book and decide it’s not worth my time after all, and another book will preoccupy me in ways that might be a tad obsessive.

Needless to say, the following list is not only subjective, it’s also based on the books I have had access to. As it turns out, I only have access to a limited fraction of photobooks produced every year; so some books simply never make it into the list. There also are books that could have made it into the list if – and only if! – I had spent more time with them. Or if I could just admit that I like it more than I want to. On top of that, there are all those books that I simply forgot to add to the list.

Various of these following books made it into the lists I was asked to contribute to magazines or newspapers. There, it might say something like “Top 10” or whatever else magazines and newspapers will use to attract readers. In the British Journal of Photography‘s list, I included Teresa Eng‘s Speaking of Scars, mistakenly thinking I had omitted the book from last year’s book. Turns out I hadn’t. So I’m not going to list it again here.

When people ask(ed) me about my favourite photobook this year, I give Vanessa Winship‘s She Dances on Jackson (reviewed here). It’s quite interesting that this book somehow prevents people from arguing over the choice (in the past, people would usually say something like “Yeah, but have you seen XXX?” or “I quite liked YYY”). This might or might not say something about Jackson. The book certainly isn’t flashy or attention grabbing in any kind of way, but once it has you it won’t release you again.

In completely random order, I enjoyed these following other books this year.

There’s Lydia Goldblatt‘s Still Here, which I still have to review, the perfect antidote to often overly self-indulgent books about family.

Daniel Reuter’s History of the Visit (which I wrote about here) and Dorothee DeissVisibleInvisible both emerged from the MFA photo program I’m teaching in. I’m perfectly aware of the problem of nepotism (which, let’s face it, is the art world’s elephant in the room), but these books are simply too good not to include them in this list (btw, History has just become available again after its initial print run sold out).

Adam Broomberg  and Oliver Chanarin‘s Holy Bible can be found on many people’s lists, deservedly so (reviewed here). I hope it’s not going to spawn a whole industry of people pasting pictures into books, though.

David Moore‘s Pictures from the Real World features photographs taken in the late 1980s (reviewed here). My only complaint about the book is that it really should have more pictures.

Just like Lydia Goldblatt, Amani Willett tackled the issue of family in a way that avoided the usual pitfalls. Disquiet makes the political and the state of the country a large part of the book, mirroring what appears to be a growing feeling that things seem to have gone off the rails a bit (reviewed here).

Sandi Haber Fifield‘s After the Threshold works with groups of images, something I really enjoyed looking at (reviewed here; not all of the groupings succeed, though).

At the occasion of a retrospective in Germany, Harry Callahan was published (reviewed here), the kind of book that re-engages an audience with a photographer’s work smartly. I’m a bit surprised I didn’t see it on more lists this year.

Since I’m a sucker for good portraits, Nelli Palomäki‘s Breathing the Same Air needs to be part of this list (reviewed here).

The 2014 Winter Olympics are almost upon us, and Vladimir Putin is trying to polish his image by releasing political prisoners. If you’re interested in the history of the region, the Sochi Project got what you need (and more). Having spent years in the area, The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova is their crowning achievement (reviewed here), a book that shows what documentary storytelling can really do when it’s done very, very well.

Another catalog, this one even called Katalog, showcases the genius of Hans-Peter Feldmann (reviewed here).

And another one, of sorts, published at the occasion of the Hasselblad Award: Joan Fontcuberta – The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography. This one’s also available in electronic form. You probably want to get the real book, but I’ll talk more about that in my forthcoming review.

Willeke Duijvekam‘s Mandy and Eva pushes photobook making a little further (non-electronically), and it works very well. It’s the kind of book where I thought I had it all figured out, and then I didn’t.

Eva Vermandel‘s Splinter had me come back to it over and over again – very few books manage to maintain this kind of pull so well (I wrote about the work here).

Philip-Lorca diCorcia‘s seminal body of work Hustlers got re-released in book or actually tome form. I can spend a lot of time with diCorcia’s work (who, I think, has shaped American photography in ways that still are completely underappreciated). But who came up with the idea of making the book so damn huge?

In contrast, Barbara Probst marries form and function very well (reviewed here). This is probably the book that surprised me the most this year (you just can’t judge books by their covers).

Another very pleasant discovery: Tobias Zielony‘s magnificent Jenny Jenny. The book changed my mind completely about this photographer’s work.

Lastly, Elisabeth Tonnard‘s In This Dark Wood found a commercial publisher after previously existing in self-published form. Another gem, and I hope it will give the artist a bit more exposure.


Photobook Reviews (Week 51, 2013)

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Found photographs are magical in ways that other types of pictures will and can never be. With usually no or very little actual information available, they still speak strongly of a stranger’s desire: This moment is worthwhile being captured, this is what I want to remember in photographic form. Unlike what postmodern theorists want you to believe, their meaning is not entirely up for grabs. You can play all kinds of games with them. You can be truly postmodern and make yourself the sole author. Or you can try to imagine or even research what these photographs might have meant to those who took and/or cherished them, and then work with that. This latter approach seems more common, probably in part because not only postmodernism theoretically has a few holes, but also because inherently it is so cynical. Artists working with found photographs usually reject this cynicism, even though often enough the pendulum swings into the opposite, very romanticized, nostalgic direction. Three recent photobooks reminded me of what can be gained from working with found photographs when it’s done well.

Everything Passes is reminiscent of Elisabeth Tonnard‘s In This Dark Wood (which just got re-released as a trade edition) in that it uses photographs of people walking in the streets, photographed semi-candidly. Unlike in Tonnard’s case, here the photographs are used to hint at a fairly specific time and place. The photographs were all taken by fotocineros in Medellín. On your stroll through the streets, a fotocinero would snap your picture and hand you a little slip of paper, which would give you the option to pick up your portrait at some studio later. In other words, fotocineros really were unsolicited portrait photographers, working in the streets. Everything Passes collects a number of these photographs (all of them picked up by their subjects) into a single little book, with short essays talking about the city, the past, and the connections photographs can create with those in the pictures. There isn’t more to the book that just that, but it’s all you need. There’s not so much a story as a feeling that is being evoked: It’s like catching a fragment of a tune, a whiff of some perfume, or a quick glimpse of a face and – albeit briefly – being transported back to some special moment in the past.

Hotel Silesia by Matteo Terzaghi and Marco Zürcher also deals with place, albeit in a very different way (there’s an order link on this page if you scroll down, below the Polish text; note the text in the book is in English if you order the, well, English-language edition). On a residency at the Gliwice Museum, the two artists spent their time looking for old photographs, trying to create, in their own words, a record of “a childhood one century long, pondered (or dreamed of) through photographs.” Given its history, Silesia is not the kind of place where this task can be done without bumping into a reminder of any of the horrific events that happened there over the course of the 20th Century. Photographs, of course, can’t speak of any of those in ways that will bring them closer. Photographs only deal with surfaces. A portrait of an evil person, say, is really just a portrait of a person. Evil cannot be photographed (sorry, photojournalists!). Put together, however, photographs can be made to speak in ways that evokes some of that which can’t be shown in them. And this is what Hotel Silesia does.

Max Sher‘s A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz, in contrast, focuses on very specific people, Galina Babanskaya and Veniamin Averbach. Sher came across the photographs in a former communal apartment in St. Petersburg that was being sold. He rescued the boxes of colour slides from being thrown out (and photographed parts of the apartment and some of the belongings). “Is there a big difference between photographs found in someone’s former apartment and broken pieces of pottery unearthed from ancient tombs?” he asks in a short introductory piece. What can photographs tell us? What can they tell us about those in the pictures and about those who took the pictures (which, often enough, might be the same people or people very close to each other)? Inevitably, the people in these found photographs will forever remain strangers to us. But the photographs make us feel that we’re getting to know them. The more we look, the more we think we know.

In the end, we have little hope of knowing anything from found photographs. But we are being given the opportunity to make a connection with people we will never be able to meet, people long gone, people who might have had the same dreams and aspirations we still have. This is why photography is so powerful: Not because it shows something or someone, but because it makes us feel something.

Everything Passes; found photographs; texts by Alfonso Morales; project coordination by Isabel Garcés; 104 pages; RM; 2013

Hotel Silesia; found photographs; text by Matteo Terzaghi and Marco Zürcher; 72 pages; Museum Gliwice; 2013

A Remotely Barely Audible Evening Waltz; found photographs and photographs by Max Sher; 168 pages; Treemedia; 2013

A few thoughts on Lewis Hine

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Lewis Hine, LOC collection

A little while ago, I went to the post office, to look for the Lewis Hine stamps. “The what?” asked the clerk back. “The Building a Nation ones.” Those they had. I suppose technically speaking, they are not really the Lewis Hine stamps, given he took only eleven of the twelve photographs used. But you’d still imagine that postal employees might have a better idea of what’s on the stamps. However, the stamps don’t give the photographers’ names. They offer “USA” and “Building a Nation” and “forever”.

To tell you the truth, I never thought very highly of the pictures used for the stamps. They are, you know, fine. And if these were all the pictures Lewis Hine had produced in his lifetime, I might be bit more forgiving. But they’re not. I was reminded of that, yet again (not that I didn’t need much of a reminder), when I saw a feature the other day entitled Tracking Down Lewis Hine’s Forgotten Child Laborers. Now those are the pictures that I think should have made Lewis Hine a household names, at least a name in the circles of photography; but I’m not sure that’s even the case. It’s most curious.

It’s relatively easy to make the case for these photographs, since a whooping 5,123 are available online, in the Library of Congress’ National Child Labor Committee Collection. And “available” here means really available. To give you an example, the photograph at the top of this article can be found here. The page gives the full title (“Gastonia, N.C. Boy from Loray Mill. ‘Been at it right smart two years.’ Location: Gastonia, North Carolina.”), and the Library of Congress (LOC) has both a print and the 5×7 in. glass negative in its possession. You can download digital scans of both (the above uses the negative), at very high resolutions. Not all the photographs are available this way, there are “only” 355 glass negatives in the collection (source; just as an aside, I’ve seen contemporary photographers publish books resulting from quite a bit less than 355 negatives, not even to talk about over 5,000 of them).

After having downloaded the high-resolution file, a scan from the original glass plate, you’re able to look at this nameless boy from Loray Mill in full detail. Slight motion has resulted in his form being ever so slightly out of focus and/or blurry. You would imagine that this would in fact ruin the photograph, but quite the opposite is the case. Instead, it serves as a reminder that this is a photograph of a living human being, a very young one, a young boy whose face tells the viewer that physical age doesn’t match mental age. And the viewer is made equal with this young boy – the camera is placed low enough not to look down.

The LOC website also notes: “The NCLC photos are useful for the study of labor, reform movements, children, working class families, education, public health, urban and rural housing conditions, industrial and agricultural sites, and other aspects of urban and rural life in America in the early twentieth century.” This is correct, of course. But it seems so lacking – at least to me. The reality is that while these photographs can indeed be used for that, a large number of them are also amazing photographs in their own right, photographs that could easily stand next to, say, August Sander’s work (a large number of whose work was produced around the same time). These photographs deserve to be re-evaluated, in terms of their sheer artistic qualities. I feel the focus on labour studies or any other the other topics, while entirely worthwhile and relevant, reduces these photographs (and by extension their maker) to less than what they (he) could be.

Photographs need to be seen with context in mind. Many photographs are created with a very specific context in mind, Hine’s child labour photographs in quite obvious ways. But context can also be an anchor that prevents access. I remember showing some of the child labour portraits in a class on visual literacy, I think in the context of a segment on portraits, and my students’ reaction was utterly thrilling. None of them had ever seen the pictures before. But many of them literally just sat there for a while, their mouths agape. On their own, many of the portraits do not reveal much of their context. And even where they do, the portraits are so mesmerizing that it takes a while before the viewer can start looking at the machinery or scenery around Hine’s subjects.

In these photographs, there is something going on that transcends whatever might have been needed for them to serve their original purpose. These photographs speak to us in ways that the ones made during the construction of the Empire State Building don’t. The latter now look oddly propagandistic, the result of a world long lost, a world very different. The former, however, speak directly to us; many of them escape their context and talk of the human condition, of the things we will do to each other to make a quick buck, and of how we all react to being in a position we don’t want to be in, a position that might leave us with much less than what we should have. Much beyond the issue of child labour, this is an issue that has re-emerged in the United States forcefully. At the same time, these photographs show what happens when a master photographer sets up her or his camera: The results will stand the test of time and, inevitably, they will want to break out of whatever context they might have found themselves originally in.


In Defense of Merit

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I can’t help but feel that in the world of photography the idea of artistic merit has receded quite a bit over the past decade or so. While it is questionable whether there is indeed a flood of images (see David Campbell’s recent article), there has been a flood of work that is being lauded one day, to be forgotten the day after. I’m not old enough to know whether this is a development caused or merely amplified by the internet, and it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter, however – at least to me – is that artistic merit often (if not usually) isn’t even considered when the latest photographic sensation is being brought up. Mind you, I like a good story. I like something uplifting, I like something edgy, I like a good provocation. I like a lot of those things. But I don’t look at photographs for those things. More precisely: I don’t look at photographs only for those things. First and foremost, I look at photographs to see great pictures, to see great art. When those great pictures then are uplifting or edgy or provocative or whatever else, that’s an added bonus.

However, when I see something that’s uplifting or edgy or provocative, or when I see something that I know is just being lauded for the great story, while the pictures are clearly lacking… Then that’s either essentially just entertainment, or it might a better form in a different medium. Think Vivian Maier: Now there’s a great story. But the images don’t even remotely hold up to what so many already well known photographers from the same period were doing. In fact, I stopped looking at any of the Maier coverage, because the majority centers on the story itself or any of the other talking points, which literally have nothing to do with photography.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain about this situation, given they reflect the times we live in. But we could also look closer to where we are, instead of pointing at larger forces that seemingly are beyond our controls. There is a dearth of serious criticism in photography. The arts in general are under fire. Mainstream magazines used to employ art critics who would write about art for large audiences. Now those critics are gone, as are many of the magazines themselves.

In fact, criticism itself is under fire, because, to simplify things just a little bit, it is said to be elitist. And the charge of elitism makes sense, albeit only to a rather limited extent. We could probably all agree that if there were that one person who’d decree what is good and what is bad, that would in fact be elitist and obviously bad. The same would be true if we had a very small, secluded group of people. People don’t seem to be concerned about the fact that in the sphere of politics and economics, we are in exactly this situation. But that’s a different subject matter (maybe it isn’t since the 1% with all their money drive a lot of what’s going on in the art world, whether it’s through buying certain pieces of work or through their seats on the boards of institutions – why does this never get discussed?).

To refer to a critic as someone who decrees what is good and what is true narrows down the critic’s role too much. Let’s start looking at it from the other end: How are we to determine what is good or bad in photography? To be more precise, how are we going to determine which body of work has artistic merit and which one doesn’t? We could just look around, and what we like is what must have artistic merit. Case settled. In the day and age of so-called “social” media, it’s then just a small step to equating the number of Facebook “Likes” with artistic merit. And it’s very hard to see what’s wrong with that (now there’s a curve ball for those who thought they knew where I was coming from, right?).

We need to talk about how to establish artistic merit so we can engage with photography on a deeper and more meaningful level, so we can enjoy what photography has to offer on a deeper and more meaningful level.

The role of the critic in fact is not be to berate “the masses” for their choices. That would indeed be a bad form of elitism. Instead, the critic’s role consists of talking about artistic merit, in particular how it can be determined. A good critic is more like an educator who helps us when we have to make our choices, who help us see photographs with a fresh set of eyes. If I like the pictures by this particular artist, maybe there is something to them that makes me appreciate them even more? Or if I don’t like the pictures by that other artist, maybe I can revisit them and look at something I haven’t seen, to build an appreciation?

Seen in this light, criticism can (should!) help us enjoy more deeply what we are already interested in. Thus when talking about artistic merit, the key is not to establish the standard to define merit. Instead, we need to talk about how artistic merit can be approached. Can we, collectively, agree on certain criteria to talk about some work? What could those criteria be? What do we learn from applying the criteria? Using this approach, we can have a larger discussion about merit, and we all might come to an agreement when talking about a specific body of work. Or maybe not. It’s not even that we have to agree – that would be boring. It’s about having discussions on levels that mirror our passion about the medium. In other words, criticism can help us appreciate photography.

Part of what makes photography so interesting is the variety of work that is being produced, large parts of which are very hard to compare. The question is how to approach this situation? A simple solution would be to simply stick with what one already knows (and likes). This obviously directly leads to the various photography groupings and to, let’s say, street-photography fans dismissing abstract photography (or vice versa) for mostly shallow, uninformed reasons. If you’re into street or abstract photography and whatever else, and you really don’t want to look at something else, then, well, enjoy. You’re good to go. You’ll be happy in the internet forums of like-minded souls, those vast echo chambers of the same old, same old.

But there is quite a bit to be gained from expanding one’s horizon, even if that initially means trying to look at photography that seemingly makes no sense or that is “boring.” Provided you are interested in this, how can you go about it? For a start, it really helps having something at one’s disposal that will make the task easier – and there we are talking about criticism again. Even a trusted friend pointing out something is a form of criticism. There are quite a few people whose taste differs widely from mine, but whose recommendations I always look at. Crucially, I can ask questions (or have long arguments over a few beers). As a result, I have come to actually really like and enjoy quite a few artists whose work I simply didn’t get before – while still disliking others.

Regardless of whether I like or dislike some work, getting closer to the its artistic merit has always helped me. The question “Why is this body of work worth looking at?” (which is a rephrasing of “what is its artistic merit?”) does not automatically entail liking it. Instead, it opens up a larger space in which to move around, a larger space in which to place (or actually find) oneself. In other words, criticism, when done well, can help us to learn something about ourselves: Instead of telling us what is good or bad, what it really does is to give us a deeper understanding of what we’re looking at, which, in turn, allows us to understand our own reactions better.

Thus instead of being elitist, good criticism is exactly the opposite: It is designed to lift everybody (willing to get lifted). And this is part of the reason why we need to have discussions about establishing artistic merit: Not just so that we will spend less time with meaningless fluff that’s only on every website, because its maker is promoting the crap out of it. We need to talk about how to establish artistic merit so we can engage with photography on a deeper and more meaningful level, so we can enjoy what photography has to offer on a deeper and more meaningful level.

Conscientious Portfolio Competition 2013: The Winners

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Josh Quigley

Each year, the quality of the work submitted for the Conscientious Portfolio Competition makes picking the winners a tough job. But it has to be done, and it is a luxury problem to have. This year, guest judges Alice Rose George and Ann-Christin Bertrand helped me do the job. Theirs was a true “blind tasting”: With the photographer names encrypted in the files name, the winners were picked based solely on their artistic merit (It’s fairly blind for me as well: While I do put together the list of the 25 finalists, my own chronic inability to remember names essentially has me look at the files not knowing who they are by). I do think that the combination of a free competition (in other words, no pay to play) and the final selection done “blindly” makes the competition fairly unique. Oh, and you don’t win anything – other than an interview and some exposure. It’s really all about the merit and recognition.

Without any further ado, let me announce this year’s winners. Alice Rose George picked Dorothee Deiss‘ submitted portfolio, VisibleInvisible:

“I find myself going back again and again to these portraits by Dorothee Deiss. Yes, they are inherently fascinating because they show people with what seems to be some physical or mental handicap, but they don’t let you go after the initial surprise. At first they may disturb because they aren’t ‘normal’, but the sensation moves surely and quietly to acceptance and a growing curiosity. Who are these people? What do they feel? How am I to face them? They seem so brave and trusting and vulnerable. They look directly back at the photographer. It’s almost as if they would reverse the roles. The light is bright, more like an examining light than one in a formal portrait; it reveals the mistakes of the flesh but is not mean. And the background is not black, which would be harsh and drama-making, but is a light grey or neutral shade that frames the subjects comfortably — not too tight as to be imposing or distorting, not too wide as to be distancing. The quality of the image making, the surprise of discovering these individuals, and the intelligent and unflinching eye of the photographer make these photographs my choice for the Conscientious Portfolio Prize.”

Ann-Christin Bertrand selected Bahar Habibi‘s Whispers Will Become Eternal:

“This wasn’t an easy decision to make. While going through the series several times, I realised that the series by Bahar Habibi was the one I stopped to look at the most. For me, this portrait of  a country and its people seems particularly successful. The project combines sensible portraits and landscapes, but also sometimes slightly absurd seeming situations, using in a well-thought-out aesthetic in every image. Content and form join together very well.”

My choice is A Shameless Longing by Josh Quigley (his whole site shows the project):

“Behind the cookie-cutter facades of their anonymous homes, people go about their private businesses in all kinds of ways, and it’s hard to see what’s wrong with that. Except, of course, that large parts are kept hidden away, possibly only hinted at with carefully constructed euphemisms, for reasons that aren’t entirely obvious (beyond cultural fiats that deserve to be questioned rather severely). People procreate to have babies, or they do everything that’s involved in the act of procreation except for having that baby. Josh Quigley depicts all that in a way that makes the overly beautiful facades looking a tad freakish, while what’s going on behind is given all the attention it really deserves. There’s no ogling, there’s no sensationalism, there’s just a celebration of the human condition, in all its different forms.”