What is a Photograph?

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A recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography entitled What is a Photograph? “explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s” (quoted from the exhibition’s web site). When I saw the title I thought that the medium indeed deserved a discussion of what actually constituted a photograph. The list of the work included, however, convinced me quickly that this particular exhibition deftly avoids dealing with what it is that right now, in 2014, makes this very question relevant. Instead, the show looks like an updated rehash of an earlier and now rather dated-looking version.

Let’s state the obvious: In a day and age where the majority of photographs exist in ephemeral form, tying an inquiry into what a photograph actually is to experimentation by very art-world centered humans around materials simply misses most of the excitement. I’m writing this article on a computer, whose screen has displayed thousands and thousands of photographs, however briefly. There are thousands of photographs stored in my computer’s memory somewhere (plus on external hard disks). These photographs were created in all kinds of ways, and they have undergone all kinds of transformations. Right now, I can’t see a single one. But I could make each and every one re-appear in very little time, creating yet another ephemeral version.

Photographs, in other words, aren’t tied to materials any longer. What is more, experimentation around photography has moved much beyond experimenting with materials. Photographs, in essence, aren’t even objects any longer. All those photographs on, say, Facebook or Instagram, billions and billions of them, they exist in a way that decades ago would have been unthinkable. To use an example from the art world, Thomas Ruff‘s computer-generated photograms have vastly expanded our thinking about this previously so particular way to make lens-less pictures. Now, they exist inside the memory bank’s of computers before they’re committed to paper.

Ruff’s work, as it turns out, points at something else. Over the course of the past few weeks, Trevor Paglen has been writing about photography at the Fotomuseum Winterthur‘s blog, Still Searching. Starting out with the question Is Photography Over?, Paglen wrote that “traditional approaches to doing-photography and thinking-about-photography feel increasingly anachronistic.” A section a little further is worthwhile quoting:

“The landscape of traditional photography theory and criticism is in a similarly contorted shape. On one hand, the digital revolution and landscape of ubiquitous image-making has created a situation where curators and critics specializing in photography have to define the field exceedingly narrowly in order to have an ‘object’ of discourse at all. […] As a consequence of narrowing the objects of inquiry so dramatically, the critical discussion around photography ends up inevitably admitting only a very small range of photographic practices into its purview. Consequently, critical discussions take shape around a small range of photographic images and practices which are extreme exceptions to the rule. Photography theory and criticism has less and less to do with the way photography is actually practiced by most people […] most of the time.”

To move beyond these narrow ways to treat photography, Paglen then introduced the concept of Seeing Machines (part 3 of his writing deals with Scripts). It’s unlikely to surprise anyone who has been following my writing that I’m in full agreement with Paglen regarding his assessment of photography theory and criticism. Where it gets interesting is the idea of what he calls “seeing machines.”

Coming back to Thomas Ruff, this particular artist has already been working with what I want to call robotic image taking for a while. Ruff’s ma.r.s. uses images created by a machine orbiting our neighbouring planet of Mars as starting points, transforming them – again relying on computer technology – into completely artificial landscapes, landscapes that, however, are really not more artificial than any of the images professional astronomers produce on a regular basis.

The field of astronomy relies on robotic image taking, in part because it’s not feasible or simply impossible to send humans far into outer space to take pictures. Voyager 1, a satellite carrying a camera and an assortment of other scientific objects (most of them shut down to preserve power), has now left the solar system. Much closer to home, robotic cameras are all around us, in the form of surveillance cameras etc.

But are the images made by those robotic cameras photographs? What is a photograph?

I want to suggest that the minimum requirement for a photograph is authorship. Authorship in the form of intent, however specific or not specific it might be. Intent requires consciousness, and machines or robots don’t have consciousness. At least not yet. To robotically photograph the whole sky every night, to continuously film some spot on the street – that’s not really photography, provided you want to accept this requirement. You could, of course, widen what you see as photography to include anything remotely connected to image taking, but I don’t think adding this particular restriction isn’t such a big deal. Or actually it is a big deal: It defines photography in a very specific sense. What it leaves out essentially is white noise in the form of images that, in all likelihood, nobody – no human, no machine – has ever looked at.

In other words, while I don’t dismiss any of the images generated by robotic cameras, they’re not photographs until authorship is introduced. Seen that way, a script – as discussed in Paglen’s third article – introduces a form of authorship, but it’s not the machine’s. It’s the programmer’s. We’re back to humans.

This connects why the question “what is a photograph?” matters with the idea of beauty. Robots or machines have no concept of beauty (again, not yet). They can’t make photographs because they are unable to make decisions entirely based on their own whims (instead of relying on scripts or algorithms programmed into the memory banks), and they’re unable to make photographs because they have no concept of beauty. All they can do – right now – is to robotically record parts of the world so that humans, at whatever stage, assign value and sense to the resulting images.

Imagining robots with consciousness we’d be in a Philip K Dickian world. What would their photographs look like? If conscious robots were modeled perfectly after humans we could surmise that the photographs might look like our own (photographs of robot food, being at work, giving the robot equivalent of a victory hand sign while on a break etc.). But we don’t know whether robots perfectly modeled after us would exactly be like us. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Will they really want to be just like us? And what will their photographs look like?

These kinds of questions right now seem pretty far from where we are. They’re certainly very far from where photography is right now. But I think photography today is already closer to these questions than to an exhibition like What is a Photograph? We have so much to gain from looking at how much photography has changed and where it could possibly go.

I’ve argued before that photography really is more a practice than anything, the consequence being that photographs not only have become ephemeral, they often don’t matter any longer. Because of the practice aspect, however (“I photograph, therefore I am”), photographs are intimately tied to authorship: photographs are essentially re-confirming their maker’s (author’s) presence, one picture at a time. Or more accurately, the existence of a photograph provides proof that someone felt the need to re-confirm her or his presence.

While photography has always been tied to this idea, over the past decade this has become its dominant mode, resulting in billions and billions of photographs, a mass of images badly misunderstood by most theorists (and, sadly, many of the medium’s practitioners). In part, photographs have become what makes us human. We’ll see how this all will play out once we have the first robots with consciousness…


The Photobook: A History Volume III by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger

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A preface (of sorts): It has becomes somewhat customary to greet the announcement of a shortlist for an award, or even of its winner(s), with comments about how in one’s (actually not all that) humble opinion, it’s really a shame that XXX was not in fact included and/or the winner. But an award is really just an award. Should someone else have won? Well, no, because the jury picked the winner. If you don’t like that then you probably need to hand out your own award. In much the same fashion, I expect there will be all kinds of arguments about whether or not Martin Parr and Gerry Badger could or should have included that great book by YYY in The Photobook: A History Volume III. Could – I suppose – yes. Should, well, no. It’s their selection, and however much one might disagree with the inclusion or exclusion of particular books, discussions about that take away from the work Parr and Badger have done. If you don’t like the selection, publish your own.

Let’s face it, with this series of books, Parr and Badger have produced a tremendous contribution to the medium photobook. Anyone even remotely connected to the photobook has already benefited from it, whether it’s publishers or photographers making photobooks (commercial or self-published ones), anyone interested in what the medium has to offer, or educators teaching classes about the history of the photobook (I’m one of them).

Most of the preceding seems a bit obvious. But I really wanted to point it out anyway, in part because there are now so many books about photobooks that it’s almost tempting to wonder what the big deal is with another Parr/Badger. Inevitably, my own reaction to this new book is based on where I’m coming from. I teach classes about photobooks (their history as well as how they function/operate), so every addition to books about photobooks makes my job a little easier. I write about photobooks, so every book that helps me put them into a larger context informs my articles. In various capacities, I am involved in the making of photobooks (either my own or those of students), so every book that show more samples of what people have already done provides more guidelines for or examples of what can be done (or what should be avoided).

In some sort of way, I am a photobook collector. I own enough photobooks to qualify as a collector, even though I don’t necessarily see myself as one. I rarely “hunt” for specific books that I want to own, even though given the chance I will snatch up something I’ve been looking for. But I don’t necessarily need pristine copies for my library – in that sense, I’m more interested in the book as a vehicle for photography, not the book as something of monetary value. Needless to say, the inclusion of a photobook in any of the Parr/Badger books moves them away from being part of my library, given that they become collectors items right away, and we’re talking about real collectors here. People with, you know, money.

There are always some grumblings about the collecting aspect of photobooks. To some extent, I completely understand complaints about collectors ruining it for people who love photobooks, but don’t have the money to spends hundreds or thousands of dollars on a photobook. But then, that’s just part of the whole game. Photobook publishing is a business, and any business comes with its extremes. I personally never get upset about not being able to buy some particular photobook, because I don’t need any photobook badly enough. As much as I love certain books that I don’t own, I’m still perfectly happy with not owning a copy. And I don’t begrudge what collectors do at all: after all, they often – indirectly – subsidize a lot of photobook publishing. Until there will be wide-spread government grants for photobook publishing, collectors will continue to help underwrite photobook publishing. Good for them if they can afford some book that happens to be valuable because of the inclusion in any Parr/Badger book. Good for us that they can spend so much money on photobooks, helping publishers or photographers make books.

But back to The Photobook: A History Volume III (PB3). In a nutshell, this book covers terrain more deeply that the previous two volumes did not talk about in all that much detail, photobooks published after World War 2, with a particular focus on the contemporary photobook. If you own (and use) the previous two books, you definitely want to add this one to your collection for that reason alone. PB3 completes the set.

Like the previous two volumes, PB3 presents books in different chapters. The chapter topics are somewhat subjective, as is how one would go about interpreting them. This is, I’m happy to argue, a fruitful approach. The chapters cover “Progress Reports” (Propaganda), “Documents of Anger and Sadness” (Protest books), “The Kids are Alright” (“Desire and the Postwar Photobook”), “Monuments to our Moment” (“Modern Life and the Photobook”), “From Here to There” (Place), “Killing Fields” (Conflict photography), “Looking at Ourselves” (Identity), “Momenti Mori” (Memory), “Cannibalizing Photography” (Authorship). Clearly, the topics aren’t mutually exclusive at all. Someone’s protest book might be someone else’s propaganda. But the authors admit as much. They’re aware of the fact that categorizing photobooks is a tough endeavour, and they know that much can be gained from doing it.

In fact, PB3 derives its strength from the fact that its authors clearly know a lot about photobooks, that they’re fairly open as far as their own biases are concerned (occasionally, you need to read between the lines), and that their roles ultimately are closer to that of a critic than of an art historian. Where feathers are being ruffled, where readers might be tempted to disagree, to demand some other book might be included – that’s where PB3 – just like its previous volumes – triggers debate and engagement with the medium. In other words, while there is something to be gained from a pure art-historical approach to photobooks (there is no shortage of books doing that), such an approach also shuts down debate, and it turns engagement with the medium photobook into a rather stale affair. Nobody interested in photobooks can have much of an interest in turning the medium into a mostly tedious affair, and PB3 deftly avoids doing that.

But with its third volume the series appears to have exhausted itself. It’s hard to see what would be gained from a fourth volume in its current form. Unlike some of the other books about photobooks, most of them centering on geography, PB1-3 are rather short on both text about individual books and images of selected spreads. Which is fine if you want to get a broad overview. But anyone thinking about writing a book about photobooks might want to up the ante a bit. Survey books are fine, but how else can photobooks be approached? Isn’t there a lot more we can learn from them, from how they present their photography? If apples are like apples, and oranges and like oranges, what can we learn from comparing apples and oranges? I think this is where these kinds of books mostly can become interesting.

In the meantime, The Photobook: A History, Vol. I, Vol. II, and this new Vol. III are landmark achievements for the medium photobook. Anyone interested in the photobook, whether as a photographer, publisher, designer, educator, or critic might want to have the full set in their library. They’re an indispensable source of information, offering countless ways to review and approach the certainly most exciting – and often ambitious – way to present photographs.

The Photobook: A History Volume III; with essays/writing by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger; 320 pages; Phaidon Press; 2014

Review: Going Home by Muge

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Without knowing whether Muge‘s Going Home would be realized as a photobook, I was looking forward to seeing it (order here). I had an inkling it would arrive eventually. And it did, somewhat out of the blue, late last year. So there then was the first book that I penciled in for my list of favourite books to be published almost a year later.

I always give people a hard time when they describe photographs as poetic. I’m actually OK with that description as long as it becomes clear that photographs aren’t like poems, but that they can evoke feelings in ways somewhat similar to how poems do it. The photographic artifice is unlike poetry’s, and photography’s language is quite unlike poetry’s. But there appears to be something about poetry that invites these kinds of comparisons.

I suppose it has something to do with preciousness. The pictures in Muge’s Going Home feel very precious, even though what they depict for the most part isn’t precious at all. There is a tenderness in the photographer’s gaze that translates into the pictures. You cannot, after all, make these kinds of photographs if you don’t have that tenderness, that empathy not just for people, but also for the land.

And the land is tied to home, to the idea of home, the concept, the feelings that are connected to whatever is evoked in one’s mind upon hearing the term “home.” However much we sometimes like to pretend it isn’t so, that’s one of those powerful words, home, and “going home” is even better.

It’s almost as if you had a package that said “comfort” on it, you pour the content, a dry powder, into a mug, add hot water, and, voila!, you got instant comfort. Not to belittle the idea of home or comfort at all – it’s just that it works in such a simple, straightforward way.

Going Home is also filled with melancholy, with the feeling that something has been lost already, and more will be lost with the passage of time. In a literal way, photographing along China’s Yangtze River will almost inevitably deal with transformations, caused by the The Gorges Dam. But if it were just that, then Going Home would be like all those other projects that dealt with the issue.

There was more at stake for Muge. And you can see that. You can feel that.

You can’t force having something at stake for yourself all the time, often enough it just isn’t the case. But when there is something at stake for a photographer, when there is a friction, under however many layers it might be buried, when there is a passion, glowing deeply, then it’s likely you will also see that, feel that in the pictures. Such as in this case.


Going Home; photographs by Muge; essays by Louise Clements, Liang-Pin Tsao; 112 pages; Jiazazhi press (order link)

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 4

The Most Beautiful City in the World seen by Marco Lachi and Olufemi Terry

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Marco Lachi

“In 2008, while living and studying in Cape Town,” Olufemi Terry begins the text that is an integral part of How Does It Feel…, “I heard, over and over, two observations about the city: it was a place of singular beauty, perhaps even the world’s most captivating city. Visitor and local alike seemed incapable of seeing other landscapes than the physical one, and some claimed that the city’s insularity was a result of the mystical, domineering influence of Table Mountain. The second perception, loosely related to the first, was that Cape Town was not an African city or, at least, not a ‘real African city.'” Over the past few years, I’ve grappled with the idea of place and how photography can possibly treat it many times (see, for example, this article; also c.f. the Index). It would seem that the medium is perfect for a treatment of place: you point your camera at, well, some place, and you’re all set. But in reality, it’s very likely that someone will take offense, for whatever reason.

Terry’s words mirror this existential struggle at the core of photography (which, mind you, is not limited to place): “Visitor and local alike seemed incapable of seeing other landscapes than the physical one.” Photography, by construction, is incapable of seeing anything other than the physical landscape. If you want to address anything else – and let’s face it, place is almost always 99% about that “anything else” – you’re in trouble. But that problem is not insurmountable. All you’ll have to do is to stick your head out of the window, make your pictures while being open to what the world might have to offer, and then present the results not as the place, not as the picture of the place, but as a picture of it, your picture – a picture that inevitably will be flawed, but that, if you do it well, derives much of its power from its flaws.

To be human, after all, is to have flaws. To ask for more is to ask for the impossible.

How Does It Feel… combines Terry’s text with photographs my Marco Lachi, trying to get beneath the surface of Cape Town in two different ways. If photography deals with surfaces, then language does as well, but it does it from the other side. While essentially based on tacit agreements between those who use it, ultimately language, in particular writing, is the essential struggle to break out of a completely inner world in such a way that the words’ recipients (equally stuck in their inner worlds) get what you, the writer, mean.

Writers try to break out, photographers try to break in.

But one will never be like the other. The big mistake many photographers make when trying to incorporate writing (or when working with a writer) is to pretend that it’s all just the same thing in slightly different form (“photographs are like poems”), or to expect that the role of writing is to fill the holes. How Does It Feel… neatly avoids these misconceptions, these problems. It is what a collaboration between a photographer and a writer should be: a collaboration between two creative people whose media cannot be equal, on equal terms.

We get to see photographs made in Cape Town, photographs a great many of which work with withholding information (as if to drive the point home: these are photographs of this place, and they can’t do what you want them to do), and the text does the same thing, telling us about fragments that allude to something bigger. And what fragments they are! Consider this one: “For a makwerekwere, a foreign black, Cape Town offers no natural constituency. I, on entering a restaurant, became invisible unless in the company of a white person. If, however, my companion happened to be white and female, I became not only visible, but a spectacle. The worst thus, of all worlds: utter oblivion or the stares of voyeurs.”

And, again, isn’t that what photographs so often deal with?


Photobook Reviews (Week 11/2014)

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Photobooks come in all shapes and sizes. This hardly qualifies as a meaningful insight for those who buy, view, and/or collect them. But it’s true for any photobook, regardless of whether it’s being produced by a commercial publisher or by the artist her/himself. I’d have to do a little research in my collection, but even without having done that I’m confident to state that self-published books are much more likely to deviate from a format similar to a coffee-table book than commercially published ones. In other words, self-publishers are more willing to take a risk than most publishers.

I don’t mean this as a broad criticism of commercial publishing. While I do think that some publishers could really let loose a little (and try to produce books that are a bit more daring), photobook publishing is an iffy business to be in. The moment you deviate from something safe you’re sticking your head far out of the window, possibly creating something that will never leave your warehouse.

Self-publishers usually don’t have that problem. Well, they do, but many of them decide to ignore it, whether it’s out of not knowing better or out of simply wanting to do something more daring (or a combination of both). This is what makes self-publishing so exciting for me: Just like in commercial publishing you have to sift through a lot of books that aren’t so great, but the good ones usually raise the bar quite a bit. Plus, while self-publishing does of course involve making xeroxed, oddly stapled zines, many self-published books are as professionally produced as commercially published ones.

The three photobooks I want to focus on this week all provide examples of where things can go. Just from the photograph at the top of this article alone, you’ll easily get the “in all shapes and sizes” bit, at least in part. Just to give you idea of size, the book that says “Mandy” on the cover is a little bit larger than a letter-size piece of paper (for the nitpickers out there: I know that US and European letter sizes are different, but for each the book is slightly larger, either mostly in the horizontal or vertical direction).

The book I just referred to as “Mandy” is actually called Mandy and Eva, and it was published by Willeke Duijvekam. If you open the cover page, there is another page that says “Eva” on it, another cover page. Unlike the first one, that cover page opens to the right. As it turns out, the book, about two young women named Mandy and Eva who each were born as boys, literally interleaves their stories by combining two books into one, one that opens to the left, one that opens to the right. As you can imagine, this means that part of the other story will always be visible when viewing a spread. Designer Sybren Kuiper made sure that whatever you see always makes sense. In addition, the stories unfold backwards, going back over a considerable period of time. If you’re wondering why you’re looking at the lives of these two young women, you’re going to find out as you get deeper and deeper into the book.

As a photobook, Mandy and Eva is an incredibly successful example of how two stories can be told, two stories which really are part of one larger story. If my description is hard to get, or if you’re wondering if this isn’t just too gimmicky, you probably want to watch the video on the artist’s website; ideally, you’ll just buy a copy of the book (before it shows up in The Dutch Photobook Vol. 2).

I see a lot of photobooks on a fairly regular basis, but this one really stopped me in my tracks (I’ve also used it in classes, and my students reacted very positively to it). It’s rare to find something that’s so ambitious, yet so elegant and simple at the same time. Beyond the way the book is constructed, there is nothing to discover other than the pictures, and the experience of viewing the pictures turning a page left, then right, then left again etc. almost becomes a little meditative.

Next up is Pino Musi’s Operating Theatre, which, as you can see, is quite a large book. It contains, as you might guess from the title and choice of cover colours, photographs taken in rooms in which surgery has just taken place. Everybody is gone, but nobody has come to clean up, yet. The photographs are in b/w, which is a bit of  a shame, since I personally would have loved to see the colours, the – I’m guessing – mix of the look and feel of a clinical room that has just undergone a possibly gory, bloody amount of action. But OK, the pictures are quite good in b/w as well.

And while I quite like the way the book is produced, the hard cover with a side-stitched block of pages attached, what’s in between the pictures really doesn’t work for me. In between each pair of pictures, there is a page (slightly smaller, using a different paper) that contains texts by mostly Antonin Artaud. I suppose that could have worked in some way, but for me it’s really ruined by the design, which makes me not even want to engage with the text.

Thing is I might not be a designer, but I still have some ideas what looks good and what doesn’t. Crucially, part of the effort that needs to go into the layout of text is to make it attractive to the eye, so the reader doesn’t have to struggle figuring out how to read it (especially given the sheer size of the book). For what it’s worth, a graphic designer with two decades of experience I spoke with told me the same thing, after I made her look at the book, not providing any input, merely asking for her assessment.

So being ambitious is good, but if you’re ambitious you will have to make it work, and I don’t think Operating Theatre is as successful as it could have been. Which is a tremendous shame, given that the book itself and the way it’s produced is quite nice. But the text and the way it’s treated really doesn’t work.

If you found Anka Sielska‘s Salix Polaris next to Mandy and Eva and Operating Theatre on a table somewhere, you’d easily overlook it, given it looks small in comparison. But it’s not small. The size might be modest, but it’s entirely appropriate. The book combines photographs Sielska took while staying at a polar research station with short poetry (written by Grzegorz Olszanski) and various scientific texts. Unlike in the case of the two books I discussed above it’s not immediately clear what the book might be about. It’s a book that makes you work a little, even though the word “work” isn’t quite right, either.

What is it that has some people go to an environment incredibly hostile to human life? It clearly can’t just be the science, because you could just become a researcher that studies tropical plants and then enjoy, I’m tempted to assume, a much nicer life going to the tropics for work (knowing enough people in academia, I’m sure there are plenty of such researchers who dread those trips, but I don’t even want to get into that). What is it with the arctic? What does it do to or with people? I’m sure it’s not exactly a Solaris type experience, but it might be closest to being one on this planet (btw, the book the movie is based on is fantastic in its own right).

And this is how Salix Polaris succeeds: it is using photography that isn’t designed to be spectacular, it is produced modestly, and it relies on something unfolding in its viewers slowly.

Mandy and Eva; photographs by Willeke Duivenkam; text by Marijn van der Jagt; 2×44 pages; 2013 (order here)

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 5 – Overall 4.2

Operating Theatre; photographs by Pino Musi; texts by various authors; 15 pages; 2013 (order here)

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 1, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.2

Salix Polaris; photographs by Anka Sielska; texts by various authors; 60 pages; 2014 (order here)

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.5

Jens Klein’s Walking the Dog

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Jens Klein

You walk the dog, and someone takes your picture, because they can. They care, they might tell you, should you have an unfortunate run-in with them. They might tell you they care about you, about what you are doing. They also care about the greater good, which they say they are defending, possibly from the likes of you who don’t quite care as much, or possibly even not at all.

For example, large cities such as New York or London are now being covered with CCTV cameras, whose data converge in large centers designed, so we are told, to combat terrorism. Judging from the success of CCTV cameras it would seem they’re really only good at catching people after the fact. But they can do more, we are led to believe, and they would love to tell us about it, but, alas!, this is all classified! You see, even in a democratic society that prides itself on openness and transparency said openness and transparency only go so far.

For our protection and safety we must be kept in the dark. We must trust the spooks, even if sometimes things go astray. As it turns out, once you’re “in the system” you’ll forever be a suspect just because you’re in the system – even if only by mistake (how this works let William Vollmann tell you).

After the fall of the Berlin wall and the rapid demise of the political system that had ruled the country called “German Democratic Republic” (GDR), people gained access to the archives of its Ministry of State Security (usually known by its German acronym, Stasi). It’s tempting to see the Stasi as something uniquely German given everything was done properly, with files and files, and regulations, however absurd, were being followed. But whenever there are glimpses to be had into other such agencies, the same patterns emerge. I don’t think the Stasi mindset is particularly German at all.

But one needs to be careful with comparisons, because most comparisons will contain a part that matches and a part that won’t. What’s crucial here, though, is not to think that the parts that don’t match invalidate the whole comparison. If you wanted to go about things that way, we’d be stuck in a Universe where no two things or people are remotely alike, other than mass-produced products or maybe identical twins. That said, the parts that match also don’t mean that one is like the other. In other words, simple solutions won’t work.

With this in mind, let’s ask the obvious then: in light of the revelations around the NSA (and its sister organizations such as the UK’s GCHQ) and given we just learned that we completely lost not only our privacy but also our right to privacy, what can we learn from the Stasi archives?

I believe Jens Klein‘s Walking the Dog can offer some clues (some quick notes: if you can read German look at the German version, the English translation at times is a bit hard to follow. Also, I took the liberty to translate the German title Hundewege a little less literally than Klein who uses Dog Paths.)

As is obvious from the pictures, they were taken by human beings (as opposed to automatic, electronic cameras). And they show people going about their business, in the case above walking their dogs (most of the dogs cannot be seen, but the subjects appear to be holding leashes). It would be tempting to wonder why someone walking their dog could be of interest to the Stasi. Isn’t this absurd?

Well, if you walk your dog in Manhattan or London, you’ll be the subject of CCTV surveillance, so that’s not any different. The key to surveillance is to spot people when they are engaged in something illegal. But given we don’t have access to precogs (which are all over Philip K Dick’s novels, for example), the next best thing is to photograph people as often as you can to then infer something about them from the pictures.

What is more, the images have the distinctive look of a long lens plus black-and-white film, so they’re grainy, occasionally blurry. But just like the dog walking, it’s too tempting to focus on their aesthetic. Contemporary CCTV images usually suffer from all kinds of problems such as relatively low resolution, compression artifacts, strangely distorted colours etc. The look is another red herring.

What then do these images tell us about our own lives? What do they tell us, given that very similar images exist for each one of us, contained in a variety of databases that for the most part are inaccessible to us, regardless of whether it’s corporations or the government who don’t want to reveal what they got (“for your comfort and safety…”)?

Can we discover traces of the Stasi mindset at work in all those mechanisms set up by countries that have very little, if anything, in common with the GDR? If yes, is that something we’re happy to live with?

This is where Klein‘s Walking the Dog is utterly relevant today: by making us look at what happened in a very different country, at a very different time it reminds us that there are things to look at, to look into right here, right now.

Review: The Beauty of Serious Work by Andreas Meichsner

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Andreas Meichsner

Yesterday, I did a little online banking. The bank employs a series of security measures, one of which involves them showing me a badly drawn picture of a pizza, the so-called SiteKey (as we learned via Edward Snowdon, these essentially are all useless since the NSA hacks into everything anyway). “SiteKey lets you know you’re at a [add name of horrible bank here] site,” I’m being told, “and not a fraudulent one.” There might in fact be some rhyme and reason behind all of this. But if I step back just a little bit, I essentially have a serious business trying to instill trust in me through a badly drawn picture of a pizza.

Our contemporary life is filled with little infantilizing absurdities like the online-banking one. For the most part, we have decided to ignoring them, to accepting that this is indeed how we are supposed to live, because everything else would result in a Don Quixote style existence.

How do you go about photographing our often absurd contemporary existence? Andreas Meichsner had a simple idea: Go to a German testing lab that checks whether products follow German (or European) industrial norms, and take picture of people going about their work. As is almost always the case with photography (or elsewhere), the simplest solutions are the best (you just have to think of them). So there then is The Beauty of Serious Work, a book filled with visual gems.

I want to think of the women and men depicted in the book as standing in for all of us. In a very literal way, that’s their job: They are making sure that the norms designed to keep us safe are being followed. So they’re doing what we might be doing involuntarily or because we’re not paying attention or because we don’t know any better. And they might occasionally be doing what we really want to be doing. They are, in fact, very seriously acting out our innermost childishness, taking today’s infantilizing existence to its logical conclusion: If we’re being treated like children then we might as well act like children.

I wish they did these tests in public. It would be so enlightening. It would tell us so much about the times we live in. And it would be not just a very public display of safety tests, it would double as the most perfect performance art ever. I’ve always thought that most performance art is way too interested in making art, thus resulting in usually insufferable nonsense. If I take that thought further, I want to propose that real performance art can only exist outside of the context of the art world (this will not go over well with art critics). In other words, real performance art is involuntary. The art arises not from the intent or from the context, it arises from the spectacle.

Real performance art thus manifests itself on its own, their makers being quite unaware of it. It’s post-Duchamp: Something completely banal, taken out of some non-art context, becomes art not because someone says so (by signing it), but because someone doesn’t realize that art is being made.

Seen this way, Meichsner’s The Beauty of Serious Work is a deeply subversive book, a book that possibly only a German photographer could make. Where else, after all, are things being taken so seriously that if you make very deadpan photographs around very serious acts, done by very professional people, incredible art manifests itself spontaneously, as if out of thin air?

The Beauty of Serious Work; photographs by Andreas Meichsner; essay by Anke Strauß; 112 pages; Kehrer; 2013

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.7

Juan Aballe’s Country Fictions

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Juan Aballe

What chance of utopian bliss we have, it is to be realized in caravans and self-made homes, lacking any of the comfort most of us are used to. At least that appears to be a message that runs through fairly large parts of contemporary photography. It is as if we just shed all the comfort, all the gadgets and trinkets, we could instantly revert back to the happier stage of life that we gave up some time in the past. This is a most curious message, and I’m wondering what it is rooted in.

Photography is the medium of nostalgia: any photograph by construction shows us the past. This is a time of nostalgia: regardless of where you look, we have become backwards looking, rehashing what was there in all kinds of ways, whether it’s music running through past trends at an increasingly frantic pace (I don’t know whether the 1980s are not yet cool, cool again, or already out of fashion again), Hollywood increasingly recycling its own past (badly, one might add), any period of the year now being part of some “history month,” or whatever else.

We can’t let go of the past because we can’t stand the present.

Is that what it is?

Even if it is not, how could photography not be part of the larger trend? On the surface, the medium is gripped by a massive wave of visual nostalgia (see my article The New Pictorialism). As I noted, that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But aesthetics aside, photographers usually serve as canaries in our cultural coal mine.  Photography reflects our general concerns, and this is particularly true for what we could call “fine-art photography” (let’s just call it that: the photography made for photobooks and/or galleries/museums). This is the photography that at least on the surface has no obvious utility. It is made to exist in the form of luxury objects.

However, things aren’t quite so simple. Nobody needs a photobook or a print on the wall to survive. Fine-art photography has its own utility, a utility that exists beyond the worlds of regular commerce (that has no place for art) and of art commerce (that has no place for anything but art). Given we have become so obsessed with money, it’s hard to forget that what makes us think has immense utility, even if it’s hard to put a price tag on it. What reflects back to us what we are doing and what we want to be doing can be immensely useful for us.

This is where all those photographs of utopian paradises matter (beyond, needless to say, their own art spheres, which for the most part deal with artistic merit, something I’m ignoring here without wanting to imply that it doesn’t matter). These photographs present us with our general discontent with the world, by showing us another world.

Being presented with another, better world runs through the history of art, so we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter it (as far as I can tell being presented with another, worse world is limited to religious art, bad political propaganda, or Hollywood movies, there serving more specific purposes). If you think back to the 1960s, say, the idea of outer space, of space travel and rockets, created an abundance of imagery, which has become very “cool” looking again.

That’s the beauty of nostalgia: It’s easy to admire something that was popular in the past, because you already know a priori you’re in good company. In other words, you’re basically putting yourself into a company you admire. In the case of the 1960s space art, that would be the pioneering visionaries (this quickly falls apart, of course, because those forward-looking visionaries probably had very little patience for people so afraid of the future that all they can do is to look back).

What’s important in all of this is to realize that whatever utopia we are looking at, it’s all a fiction. Photography itself is a fiction (unfortunately one that comes in the disguise of a fact).  Through its title, Juan Aballe‘s Country Fictions makes this clear. These landscapes, these people clinging to their very rudimentary homes, this idyllic painting on the wall – all of that, once depicted, becomes just a fiction.

A fiction just like, let’s say, what you see in a Mad Max movie, the difference being that everybody knows that the movie is a fiction, whereas it’s much harder to accept Country Fictions as such (its title notwithstanding).

As a whole, Aballe’s project shows us what we think of as the solution for our contemporary conundrum, in which the future is so incredibly uncertain, in which our parents appear to have held much more comfortable positions than we do: It’s going back to the past, to a simpler, better world, a world that in reality never existed (just open any history book and read up on the grim lives of people in a world where, to give just one example, the idea of childhood was quite a bit different).

But the beauty of a utopia, of course, is that it does not have to conform to any sort of reality. It’s a utopia after all. Country Fictions confronts us with our dreams, and it would be foolish to deny that we have them. The question then becomes what can we do to make sure that our dreams will be fulfilled? We probably shouldn’t expect things to look like in this fiction. But what could a world created from our own fictions look like?

What could we do so that we wouldn’t have to rely on the narcotic that is nostalgia any longer?