Summertime Housekeeping

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It’s summertime, meaning things slow down a little bit, while I’m getting ready for two weeks of intense teaching in early August. I’m also spending a lot of time on my own photographic practice right now. Regular programming will continue over the summer, albeit occasionally at slightly slower speed.

That said, I’ve been working on adding a couple of features to this site that I have had in my mind for a long time. They’re not linked up in the site’s navigation, yet, but they’re available.

For a start, I compiled an Index of the relevant writing that has appeared on this site (and its earlier incarnations). I never used tags consistently, so this required quite a bit of work. But I think the result is very, very useful (the Index is updated on a regular basis, as new content is being published). Have a peek – it’s very easy to find older pieces using the Index.

Also, I started compiling a list of Recommended Readings. Much like the Index, this page is going to get updated – whenever I can think of a book to add. While the list essentially is an incomplete work in progress, I do hope you will enjoy reading the books.

Not the photography I was talking about above, but still: if you’re on Instagram get your share of photographs of cats, discarded lottery tickets, free stuff, and more here.

Photography Today

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We’re all photographers now. Or are we? Certainly, it has its uses to paint with a brush wide enough to turn everybody who takes photographers under whatever circumstances into a photographer. It makes writing nicely populist, feel-good pieces easy, pieces that crop up on the internet like weeds. But the ideas that we’re all photographers or that photography is the most democratic medium really only have ideological uses. Take away the ideology, start asking some hard questions, and suddenly things are not so simple any longer.

Let’s assume that we are not all photographers. If that is the case, here’s the crucial question: what is it that photographers do that those who occasionally or regularly photograph don’t do? Populists will usually bring up the distinction between professional photographers and so-called amateurs and how that distinction is not very useful. They have a point, at least up to a point. The distinction between professionals and amateurs can easily become useless, and it’s not hard to find examples, many of them involving money and/or success.

As a matter of fact, all too often, debates about photography center on money or success – as if those two factors were what mattered the most. I suppose it’s a sign of the times, where we might rail against, for example, the 1%, while heartily embracing the underlying ethos.

Needless to say, a lot of people are interested in money and/or success. One, ideally coupled with the other, might be the outcome of an engagement with photography. It’s possible, but, let’s face it, not overly likely. But most photographers I have spoken with, read about, or learned about in whatever other way did not start out with this idea in mind: I want to take pictures to be rich and successful.

So let’s forget about money or success. Who cares?

What is it then that separates the photographers from all the rest of us? I think it’s aspirations. Ambition.

You might own a camera – or a cell phone with a camera built in – and take a lot of pictures. At the same time, you might not be overly interested in those pictures. You might not be too concerned with whether your pictures are good or not. Or you might even know that your pictures aren’t “as good as what the professionals do” (actual quote from my dentist’s assistant – we were chatting about her iPhone pictures). As a consequence, you might not be concerned with making better pictures; or even if you are, you don’t bother working on it – other than maybe trying a new app that promises you the world of photography.

Of course, that’s all perfectly fine, because that’s how we go about most things in life. It isn’t really a problem for photography, much like that it isn’t a problem for the meals in our homes that we’re not all Michelin star chefs.

But you might also have the ambition to make better pictures, to really work on your pictures and your skills. You might have the ambition to look at what other people do with photography. In that case, you’re a photographer.

Needless to say, this distinction has nothing to do with professionals or amateurs. Many amateurs are very ambitious, whereas many professionals go about their jobs like most people: they show up for work, get it done, and then they’re off to deal with what they really enjoy.

In other words, defining a photographer based on aspirations essentially is a judgment-free approach that allows focusing on the medium itself – instead on what is artificially being tied to it.

What do you do if you’re a photographer, and you want to learn more about the medium, in particular about its history and/or what other photographers are doing? Obviously, there is the internet. The internet is a great way to explore photography, but it certainly has its limits. In terms of talking about the history of photography, it’s very limited. And in terms of covering the full breadth of photography, it’s limited as well. The various people who write about photography online have their preferences for some things over others (this one included).

It’s easy to learn on the internet what’s popular in photography, and you’ll find the same photographers or photographs going viral every few years (like Sergei Produkin-Gorsky’s pictures; it’s straightforward to think of contemporary examples). But it’s quite a bit harder to see work that’s not easily accessible or that’s not very popular, or work that is widely lauded by photographers or critics but is difficult to access by a wider audience. My own photographic education relied on the internet for a while, until I realized that I had to expand what I was looking at in order not to get stuck.

Books provide a great way to learn more about photography, but you really have to find the right one. A lot of books suffer from a lack of illustrations, or from too much jargon, or from being written in such a way that reading them becomes a huge chore.

The good news is that there now is a new addition to the canon of books covering contemporary photography: Mark Durden’s Photography Today.

Writing a book about contemporary photography is a bit of a thankless task since the moment it’s published, there already is something else that is not included in the book. But completeness cannot be the goal of such books. Inevitably, something will be missing, for whatever reason. There will probably also be categories, resulting in debates whether artist XYZ should not have in fact been placed elsewhere, or whether some category might be missing.

The task thus is to present photography in such a way that any reader will be able to move forward after having engaged with the book. S/he might disagree with some of the choices, but s/he will know why, and – crucially – s/he will have a much easier time engaging with the medium on her or his own. Photography Today succeeds brilliantly doing just that.

For a start, the book covers the important bases, using ten chapters. The chapters each cover one particular topic, which could either be a type of photography (street photography, say) or a more general topic (for example, authorship and reproduction). The book thus focuses on photographic strategies rather than styles, which, I think, is the best possible approach to writing such a book. After all, each style or type of photography comes with its own strategies. Some might be fairly universal, while others are quite specific.

It’s easy to find a great picture. Everybody can do that. This is another one of those ideas behind the claim “we’re all photographers now.” But it’s damn hard to find great pictures on a consistent basis, over the course of months or years. To do so, you need a strategy. You need to know very well what you’re doing.

What makes photography interesting is that you can approach the same subject with different strategies. After all, the one thing that matters in the end is the photograph. How you get there, how you get to make or take that photograph doesn’t matter. The chapter The Street thus presents both the well-known street photographers (Garry Winogrand et al.) as well as more conceptual or critical approaches (Jeff Wall or Beat Streuli).

Photography Today mentions some photographers in more than one chapter. In part, this is because each chapter explores its subject matter by focusing on one particular body of work by a group of photographers – The Street gives 16 photographers, other chapters have more.  On top of this, the book presents the work of a grand total of over 150 photographers. Of course the usual suspects (that you can find all over the internet) are included. But the book also presents work by a lot of artists – women and men alike – that are not widely known, despite the fact that they are incredibly relevant for contemporary photography, people like Alfredo Jaar or Ana Mendieta.

Featuring hundreds and hundreds of high-quality photographs on 450 pages, the book ends up offering the probably best in-depth view of what contemporary photography currently has to offer. It even casually includes photobooks, granting them the importance and role they deserve.

Highly recommended.

Photography Today; writing by Mark Durden; photographs by various artists; 464 pages; Phaidon; 2014

Photobook Reviews (Week 25/2014)

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With big-name publishers commanding so much attention, the world of photobook publishing is more of a struggle for smaller publishers. Their pockets aren’t as deep, meaning they can’t offset the losses from a book that doesn’t sell against the income from many other books they print. Getting the word out there is harder, too. Often, you have the same person playing a wide range of roles at the same time: editor, designer, publisher, PR person, packaging and shipping department, etc. So I decided to focus this week’s set of photobook reviews on books made by small publishers.

I wasn’t going to review Back to Me by Christina Riley after I learned it was sold out. It’s not that I don’t like the book – quite on the contrary. But if a book is sold out, and people have no chance of buying it… However, there now is going to be a second edition, which gives those who either didn’t get to buy it or those who haven’t even seen it before to get their own copy.

The world of mental illness is hermetically sealed from a camera’s probing eye. Whatever is going on in your head might manifest itself in whatever ways in your expression, in what you do or don’t do; but the thinking and feeling and worrying and being excited and being drained is unphotographable. You can, however, photograph anyway, even if it’s “just” because you feel you have to. Out of whatever set of photographs you create might then emerge the story in ways that might seem almost miraculous. In a nutshell, that is the background of Back to Me.

For those who have never been depressed the world of depression is and will forever be completely inaccessible, and it’s the same for any other mental trouble one might be afflicted with. In other words, as a viewer you can’t look at a set of photographs and expect to see or even understand what mental illness is like. It’s just not possible. But there are connections that we all can tap into, given that our world of emotions is complex. While some emotions might be vastly amplified in the case of mental illness, we all know what it’s like to be sad or heart-broken or happy or excited.

And that is why Back to Me works so well. It doesn’t convey the photographer’s anguish and feelings directly; instead, it makes us feel with her, and it gives us an idea of the intensity of suffering, an intensity that most of us will never have to experience. Photographed with an old digital camera, the pictures contain the added element of rawness through the low quality of the sensor, driving the point home that a photographer is sharing something that is unsharable. But it’s being shared regardless, and out of that gesture derives the power of this initially unassuming book.

Wytske van Keulen‘s Sous Cloche is a double portrait of two people – Saskia and Andrez – who each decided to essentially live in solitude somewhere in the French Pyrenees. At some stage of their lives, both of them were confronted with a trigger that had them move away from everything. Saskia was diagnosed with cancer and did not want to subject herself to the standard medical treatments. Andrez lost his wife and unborn child. People have run away from what they had for lesser reasons; but these two certainly underwent traumatic shocks.

Presented literally side by side in the book, Saskia and Andrez never knew each other. Pictures on the left-hand and right-hand side of a spread are from Saskia’s and Andrez’s life, respectively. This juxtaposition makes for a very interesting effect, since their stories are made to merge, even though they are also kept apart.

We like to think of ourselves as unique individuals, but in reality we share a fair amount with other people, even when it comes to such extreme decisions in life as those taken by the protagonists of the book.

Just like Back to MeSous Cloche is an initially unassuming book, which reveals its beauty only upon closer engagement with it. It features text written by the photographer, descriptions of events or meetings with either Saskia or Andrez.

Saskia didn’t make it. She lost her struggle with cancer. Andrez still lives up somewhere in the Pyrenees. There are demons you just can’t run away from.

The subtitle of Michael Kerstgens’ Coal Not DoleThe Miners’ Strike 1984/85 – might make it look as if we were dealing with a book that looks back to a specific, historical event. And in a sense, it is. The strike involved a brutal fight against a government – Margaret Thatcher’s – that ultimately prevailed. As Kerstgens notes in the book “It was the birth of deregulation, the chief tenets of which were laid down in the 1980s by conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher, US President Ronald Reagan, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, followed by Tony Blair’s New Labour and Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democracy in the 1990s.”

The book is, in other words, showing us one particular – and noteworthy – facet of a development that has landed us in the, well, mess we’re in now, with jobs being rare and badly paid, and profits being the yard stick used to measure whether the economy is doing well or not. The book smartly makes this connection very clear, because the photographer went back to the places and people he photographed three decades later, most prominently among them a man named Spud Marshall.

Should photography be political? Should artists have an opinion? Well, who is to say? But it actually doesn’t hurt to occasionally come across a book like Coal Not Dole that reminds us of what photographs can do when there is an agenda, when someone decides to take a side, instead of waffling around conflicting points of view.

We might not have to agree with what we are being presented here. But it certainly makes for a livelier engagement. And it’s so refreshing to see a bit of passion, a passion that reminds us of a time when it seemed photographers were a little bit less afraid to offend someone, and jobs and the social structures around them were much more meaningful than they are now.

Back to Me; photographs and text by Christina Riley; 52 pages; Straylight; 2014 (both editions)

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.6

Sous Cloche; photographs and text by Wytske van Keulen; 80 pages; Kominek; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4.5, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.4

Coal Not Dole; photographs and text by Michael Kerstgens; 132 pages; Peperoni Books; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.6

My Daily Struggle

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We’re all Karl Ove Knausgaard now. Or rather, the Norwegian author has elevated the obsession with our own lives that we appear to have developed at some stage, instigated or enabled by the internet, in particular so-called social media. Knausgaard turned it into a six-volume novel that gives entirely new meaning to the term navel gazing and that, certainly to the surprise of its creator, became a critically acclaimed international bestseller (imagine a cross between the Harry Potter books and the TV show Seinfeld, minus either the magic or the jokes). I read about 85% to 90% of the first book. I did enjoy the somewhat Thomas Bernhardesque beginning. But I really only made it to where I made it since it was the only book I had brought on a trip.

I am tempted to think of the Narrative Clip as the photographic device that promises it will turn us all into Karl Ove Knausgaards. The little device actually does most of the work for us, because all we have to do is to wear it, and it takes a picture every 30 seconds. The resulting set of pictures, produced during whatever period its wearer was using it (you switch it off by covering its lens), is then uploaded to some server, and a piece of software creates a set of moments automatically. No, really, I’m not making this up: you don’t even have to do anything other than go about your business – as I’m doing now. As long as you wear your little clip and let the software do its magic, you will learn about the day’s moments because some software informs you about them. If that is not amazing in all kinds of ways, I don’t know any longer.

If I sound just a tad too excited about this idea, especially to those who have been reading my writing over the past few years, it is because I am perfectly aware of the absurdity of this whole idea, namely that you can “lifelog,” that you can be given, in the device’s makers’ words, “a searchable and shareable photographic memory.” That’s nuts. After all, memory works based on the principle of forgetting. While it certainly doesn’t feel great not to remember something, the clue to one’s memory is not what one has forgotten. It is what is being remembered. You might have forgotten about a few things you would really have loved to remember. But you have also forgotten a vast, vast number of things that, in retrospect, you’re probably quite happy you don’t remember.

Unless, of course, you’re Karl Ove Knausgaard: you write all that stuff down into a few thousand pages, and you’re lucky enough that somehow you’re onto something.

But even if you think your life is so incredibly relevant that you need to remember a picture of what was in front of you every 30 seconds, the idea itself is just nuts. It takes our whole obsession with and faith concerning technology, our ideas about what photographs can do, and it pushes them to their extreme.

Obviously, I just needed to take this all at face value. I’m using the word “obviously” for a reason. We live in a day and age where irony or sarcasm have become part of a life style. As a consequence, whatever power they might have had is largely lost. At the same time, criticism is in crisis, a crisis from which it might – or might not – recover. If criticism is in crisis, and if irony is for hipsters, then the only (or at least one of the most productive) ways out might be to take whatever is being promised at face value, to push it to its logical conclusion.

So here is my experiment: if I wear the Narrative Clip for a few days, going about my business as usual (which involves a rather large amount of time doing things that are not at all very interesting at all, regardless of whether or not they result in something that actually is), what does the device tell me about, well, my life?

I need to add the following, of course. Given that large parts of the public have become increasingly concerned about having their photograph taken without their consent, I’m restricted my use of the device to situations that did not involve other people. I know in the US it is not illegal to take photographs in public spaces; but there is the ethics of assuming consent.

My fancy is particularly tickled by the fact that by construction, the Clip’s software will pick something for me even out of a day like the one I used to start writing this piece. I did spend a fair amount of time sitting in front of my computer, typing and typing and clicking on links. It’s very unlikely this day will remain memorable for me in any way other than perhaps as the day when I started writing this piece. But now I have pictures associated with it.

Having uploaded my pictures… That’s right, you need to upload them to some server, on which the software operates (the idea of giving away your privacy this way is completely mind boggling: the things I do for my craft!). Having uploaded my pictures, the software starts working what you might consider to be its magic, to finally inform me “Done! 1 moment was built. You can now relive it in the Narrative Smartphone App.” (While you can have the software save copies of all the pictures on your hard drive, the results can – so far – only be accessed via an app.)

So what were (and still are, preserved forever now) my moments On the first day? Out of a grand total of 344 pictures, covering a little over three hours of my afternoon (1:10pm until 4:20pm), my Private Timeline on the app shows me two pictures.  I don’t know how or why there are two pictures. They cover the time spans “1:10pm – 2:41pm” and “2:41pm – 4:20pm.”

You can tap on any of the pictures in your Timeline, to open up a more detailed view. For the “1:10pm – 2:41pm” case, there are 48 photos to be looked at. If you tell the software to include “lower quality photos,” there are 141 of them. Comparing the pictures in the app with the raw images stored on my computer, I can see the software cropped and possibly rotated them a little bit. The “lower quality photos” often are blurry or very grainy.

I can also tell that even though I wore the device attached to my shirt, I didn’t quite get the angle right. But then that’s the photographer/critic in me talking. In my timeline, I am getting a rather large number of photographs showing my keyboard, the bottom of my computer screen, plus my hands. I think of myself as a writer, and I think of what’s on the screen. In the pictures, my moments now reflect that by showing my hands and keyboards – the tools of my trade. Needless to say, that’s just an interpretation, trying to deal with what I have. That’s what we do with pictures, after all: we adjust our thinking to make them guide our thinking, our remembering.

Judging from all of these photographs – I wore the device for a few more days – my days are quite monotonous (once, I even placed the device in front of me, “looking” at me). I now have photographic evidence that I do spent a lot of time at the computer, doing all kinds of things, mostly writing or clicking on stuff. As it turns out, gaining insight into what I knew already hasn’t really expanded how I think about my life one bit.

Now you could just accuse me of being cynical or too critical or whatever else, and as always you’d have a good point. But then, what exactly do we attempt to learn from thinking we need to photographically record our lives? In some way, the Narrative Clip takes part of the impetus behind Instagram to its logical extreme. Instead of us making the decision what part of life we want to photograph and share, hundreds or thousands or however more photographs are being stored for us. If we find and/or take the time to go through all of those images, we can select noteworthy ones and share them.

The three days I used the Clip resulted in a grand total of 1,284 photographs, covering roughly ten and a half hours of my life as a writer. What exactly am I going to do with this?

As far as I can tell, there are two issues here. First, do our lives really need to be recorded in this fashion? I suppose everybody will have to come to their own conclusion about this. And second, if someone thinks there is something to be gained from this recording, going through the mass of photographs that gets assembled takes up quite a bit of time itself. The camera produces a lot of junk, pictures that while properly lit and not blurry still are useless.

Needless to say, this is where the similarities between Karl Ove Knausgaard and what one can do with the Narrative Clip end. Knausgaard’s novels are the product of the author sitting down and working on them. While they are made to look autobiographical, examining many seemingly unimportant  moments in the author’s life, in fact they are anything but. They are carefully selected and produced and distilled. One could, conceivably, use the Narrative Clip in the same way – but that work would have to go way, way beyond what the little device has to offer. Maybe some day, someone will go about that.

In the meantime, I’m quite happy with forgetting.


The Trials and Tribulations of Making or Facing Photographs of War

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Why do we care so little about war photography? It is to be expected that many people will object to me phrasing the genre’s essential conundrum this way. After all, we do care about these kinds of photographs, often quite a bit. But we don’t care enough for their existence to have the desired effect.

The common assumption appears to be that war photographs will move us in such a way that, well, we will do something, or at least someone will do something. For example, the “something” could mean to end whatever war’s consequences are bring shown, or even, why not be an idealist?, to put an end to all future wars.

The reality is, however, that this simply does not happen most of the time. No picture has ever ended a war, and it’s debatable to what extent any photograph has contributed to possibly helping end one.

For example, in 1924 German pacifist Ernst Friedrich published a photobook entitled War Against War, a collection of (archival) photographs from and after World War I, showing what that war and its aftermath looked like. Originally published with captions in four languages (German, English, French, and Dutch), the book became a bestseller, running through many editions. Fifteen years later, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II.

Photographs can be immensely powerful entities on a personal level. But on the scale of a society or culture, unless they are iconic photographs they are mostly impotent.

The pictures we think of as iconic photographs in effect have ceased to be photographs, having essentially been transformed into a part of our societal or cultural mythology or ideology, part of the fabric that constitutes what we take for granted, how we define ourselves as a society or culture. In other words, we don’t view iconic photographs as photographs, we view them as representatives of often abstract ideals they are made to stand for. In a nutshell, when we admire or are in awe of an iconic photograph, we usually admire or are in awe of our own mythology or ideology: here is visual proof that what we believe in is really true.

Coming back to war photography, it’s probably safe to say that there exists a divide between those who take the pictures, photojournalists, and those who view them. This divide manifests itself in a variety of ways, the consequences of which are on display in the books I am going to discuss in the following. Photographers bringing home images of war are usually much more insistent that they ought to have the desired effect than the audience. When that desired effect is not forthcoming, the photographers will often not hesitate making their dissatisfaction known.

“If we don’t allow ourselves to look at horrible images, how will we be able to remember events comprehensively?” asks Christoph Bangert in the introduction to his new book War Porn (yes, that is the title). On the back of Robert King‘s Democratic Desert, the photographer is quoted as follows: “As a photographer it’s not my job to aspire towards aesthetically pleasing images of war that are palatable to the public or the photographic community. Many viewers may find it easier to condemn the image maker rather than the perpetrators of war crimes against humanity.”

These two quotes cover a wide range of what many photojournalists will say about their work and the (perceived) lack of the desired reaction to it: a) viewers and/or photo editors effectively censor images because they don’t want to look at them or b) they’re not pretty enough, c) without looking at the images the events depicted therein cannot be fully understood, and d) the public will always rather blame the photographers for what’s in the pictures than whoever is responsible for the actions or events depicted. This list might be incomplete, but I think it contains some of the most frequently heard sentiments.

Let’s look at these claims in detail, staring with c). Looking at images of some horrible event isn’t going to help you any more understanding it than not looking or not being able to look (if there are no photographs). A photograph, after all, is merely a very limited representation of what actually happened. On top of that, the idea that understanding events “comprehensively” is only able if we look at pictures limits the idea of what “understanding” actually means, in particular as far as its limits are concerned. Our understanding of events is actually as crucially based on how much we are able to understand as on all the things we will never be able to understand.

If you think of the sublime, for example, the idea that our understanding is essential misses the entire point. The sublime is so powerful exactly because there are things beyond our understanding (or imitation etc.). It’s not hard to think of other very important concepts that operate the same way (terror being another example).

Events like a war are not comparable to, say, an equation in physics. I can learn and understand the mathematics the equation is based on, and I can also learn and understand the physical principles behind it. That way, I can learn and understand how some mass, accelerated away from the ground at some angle, will fall back to the ground in very specific ways. But while physics governs the trajectory of a mortar grenade, what happens after an actual grenade hits the ground and explodes I can only understand to a certain degree, regardless of however many pictures of mutilated bodies you show me. A war, any war, will contains thousands and thousands of such events, and if I can’t fully understand one, I’m not even remotely going to be able to understand that war.

Elizabeth Shambelan summed up this point in a recent article that centers on Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and on war literature in general. Here is the key quote from her piece: “The crux of war is combat, and the crux of combat is terror. […] But terror is everything that resists representation — it reduces existence to brute immanence. Language should fracture into gibberish and representation should fail in the face of combat’s grotesque literalism, and war literature should be an oxymoron, a self-canceling proposition. Representation itself can take us just far enough to glimpse this fact, and to appreciate, as if from a high promontory, the incredible gulf between terror and its depiction. Anything that purports to bridge that gap is not merely distorting but corrupting what it represents. (my emphasis; Elizabeth Shambelan: Hard Corps; Bookforum Vol. 21, Issue 2, page 25f.)

There it is then: “Anything that purports to bridge that gap is not merely distorting but corrupting what it represents.” The ultimate goal of war photography is unachievable. This would seem to be a very bold statement. It’s probably straightforward to see how writing won’t be able to bridge the gap (even though this writer does not think that writing can do less than photography – usually, it’s the other way around). But photography? Isn’t photography a depiction of some facts in front of the camera? Yes, it might well be. But at the end of the day, it is merely a representation – a representation that might work differently than a written description, but regardless, it’s still only a representation. Yes, only.

So we should be concerned with the gap, to work with it (not against it) as well as we can. Photographs can only do so many things, beyond which they are utterly powerless, regardless of whether you photograph a beautiful flower or a mangled, burned body. Consequently, looking at images of war photography is not the missing ingredient that will help us understand their events fully. This would be asking for us to understand something that cannot be understood, using a tool that is unable to fulfill that role by construction.

Going briefly back to literature, there is a long canon of writing that centers on veterans coming back home from war. If you read enough of those books, you realize it doesn’t even matter that much whether the soldiers were on the winning or losing side. The gulf that separates those who experienced war from those who didn’t has always been huge, often too huge to be bridged in any meaningful way. And at the center of many of the novels about soldiers coming home often stands the resentment that slowly arises on both sides, soldiers struggling to live in a world where, seemingly, everything is so meaningless and nobody has the faintest idea what they went through, and civilians wondering how to possibly deal with any of that.

To give an example, Erich-Maria Remarque is well known for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which chronicles a soldier’s life (and death) in World War I. Quite a bit less well known, unfortunately, is The Road Back, describing in much detail the struggles faced by a group of former soldiers coming back home.

It’s not much of a stretch at all to see the conflict between returning soldiers and civilians mirrored in the reception of war photography, where both sides – photographers and viewers – are engaged in a very similar struggle. Photographers often can’t comprehend how viewers seemingly are so blase about the pictures, whereas viewers just get annoyed about being hit over the head with something that is so alien to them.

On to a) and b), the idea of censorship of war photographs, whether it’s self-imposed or not. Ultimately, this idea is the outcome of the struggle I just talked about. I will admit I have a big problem with b), because however I look at it it’s incredibly dismissive of the audience. If you claim your audience won’t deal with your photographs because they’re not pretty enough (or, to use King’s words, not sufficiently “aesthetically pleasing”), you’re basically telling everybody that you’re on a much more sophisticated level than that audience of, well, rubes, who only want to look at pretty pictures.

While it even might be true that a lot of people – this critic included – love looking at pretty pictures, maybe even of photographs of cats, to pretend that that is the reason why they might not want to look at your pictures of gore really misses quite a few points; and it throws a spanner into a discussion that we actually need to have.

Of course, photojournalists aren’t the only people engaged in this kind of game, because, as far as I can tell, the term “war porn” was created by members of the audience. In a nutshell, if you label someone’s photography “war porn,” you’re trying to use the same mechanism that I just outlined, with the roles reversed. Now it’s the audience who is much more sophisticated than the photographers who – supposedly – provide little more than visual titillation of sorts, parading pictures of gore for the sake of whatever the equivalent of watching sexual pornography might be here.

Both of these approaches to dealing with the problem at hand are incredibly counterproductive, and they lead to little more than bitterness and a festering resentment.

But it is becoming clear that the seemingly different aspects of the conundrum – why don’t we care much about war photography? – are very much closely related.

This leaves us with the aspect of censorship, whether applied by photo editors or self-applied by an audience. The selection process that goes into which photographs are being shown in the press is actually a very good topic that doesn’t get discussed enough (I’m using the word “press” here to talk about any news context, whether it’s an actual newspaper, a magazine, or anything electronic, like a website or an app). For example, has anyone noticed how Western soldiers are treated quite differently than non-Western ones? It seems that the ideas of an individual’s “privacy” or “dignity” have very different meanings for Western and non-Western people in the Western press.

Thus, the idea that photo editors select or decide not to select gruesome images on any kind of general basis is actually quite a bit too simple. And as far as I can tell, there are actually two issues here. The first is whether we need to see the photographs of, say, corpses after an explosion. This is a question about the selection itself and about what we think we need to see. I don’t think we’re talking about this nearly as much as we should.

The second issue is that the selection of photographs by any organization reflects both the societal and cultural background of that organization and the organization’s own bias or ideology.  This means that the selection of images we get to see tells us something about our society and culture and about the news organization at hand. For example, the different visual treatment of Westerners and non-Westerners in the press points to the fact that we simply don’t think they’re equal (our frequent noises about all people being equal notwithstanding). Of course, not all Westerners are treated equally, either. This is a topic that we really should be talking about much more than we do, because it directly reflects out societal and cultural biases concerning power, income, race, sex, etc.

But whether this selection has something to do with war photography is not that clear. I’m tempted to think that war photography merely is a small aspect concerning what we are made to see and what not.

Which leaves us with d), the idea that the public will always rather blame the photographers for what’s in the pictures than whoever is responsible for the actions or events depicted. It’s the “blame the messenger” syndrome. I want to think that in reality, it’s actually quite a bit more complex. For a start, in all these years of me looking at photographs, and reading and writing about them, I can’t remember actually seeing it anywhere. Maybe it exists, I won’t rule it out. But isn’t this essentially voicing the mutual resentment I spoke of earlier, pitting war photographers (who experienced war) against the public (who didn’t)? We need to move away from that because it’s not doing anybody a favour.

Thus, let’s now go back to the war photographs, and to their makers.

To begin with, I think it won’t hurt to say that it’s the role of photojournalists to bring us photographs from events that might matter to us. Obviously, I’m very flexible with the meaning of “might matter.” I have no problem with a photojournalist trying to convince me that some event I haven’t even considered is worthy of my attention. That’s great. That’s what good journalism should do.

That said, a photojournalist’s role is not to change the world any more than it is my role or your role. If some picture manages to change the world, that’s great (it’s incredibly unlikely, but hey, why not). But that’s not the idea.

I think I do understand the general impetus to go to some war to make pictures and to report on what that looks like. I personally could never do that. It’s an incredibly important part of journalism that we, the general audience, could not go without with. But this is only going to work well if we, the audience, are being given the chance to engage with the pictures however we want to or can engage with them. To expect specific reactions by the audience can only lead to the kinds of failures that then might result in the bitterness so often on display by war photographers.

Berating your audience for its inability or unwillingness to engage with a topic you have just photographed, a topic that might include copious amounts of gore, is not going to help anyone. As a matter of fact, in all likelihood it will turn off even more people.

In much the same way, berating photographers for their willingness to engage with a topic that is clearly very disturbing is not going to help anyone, either.

To get out of these mechanisms we have created to deal with war photography, we have to come back to the pictures. It all starts with the pictures. As far as these pictures are concerned, we need to view their role and what they can do more realistically.

Of course, it’s probably the most normal reaction to think that a gruesome photograph will result in much stronger reactions than a photograph of a cute cat. But the reality is that it might not; in fact, it’s very likely that a cat photo will go viral, and a photograph from, say, Syria won’t. If we step back for a second, the bitter disappointment this might cause is actually based to a large degree on what we think the pictures ought to do. A dead body resulting from a bomb explosion matters infinitely more than a cat. However, this doesn’t mean that a photograph of the dead body will automatically matter more than a photograph of a cat. It might not.

Photographs are artifacts. It’s so tempting to forget that, especially when dealing with war photography. A photograph of a dead body is not the same as a dead body, just like a photograph of a cat is not the same as a cat. This distinction really matters. I know it matters in the case of cats (I am writing this from experience). I can imagine it must matter even more in the case of a dead body caused by some bomb – in this case I am only familiar with the pictures.

The only dead body I have ever come across was lying in a street in Paris, someone on a scooter who had been run over by a bus filled with tourists. The body was covered with a tarp of sorts, and there was a line of blood running out from underneath. No photograph of this scene – provided there exists one – will ever have the same effect on me as being there in person, seeing the dead man’s hands stretching out from underneath the tarp, the blood shimmering in the sun.

I don’t know what I would have done, had a I had a camera (this was some time in 1996 or so, when I wasn’t photographing, yet). I’m certain about the following, though: whatever we feel when we’re taking photographs is usually not included in them. As a consequence, we react to photographs in very different ways than when being confronted with the real thing.

It thus poses a big problem if we try to attach an urgency or importance to photographs that they simply cannot carry (or live up to) as the artifacts they are. What this means for the case of war photography is not that it’s a futile endeavour. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, we need to be more realistic about what photographs can do, given that they are photographs. In particular, photojournalists might want to realize that the audience’s reaction is not merely based on some very simple logic, parts of which I dissected above.

If we need to start out with the pictures, and if we’re aware of what they can and – crucially – cannot do, this means we probably need to work with war photographs carefully.

Three recently published books might serve as good illustrations of how the work with war photographs can be approached. I already mentioned Christoph Bangert‘s War Porn and Robert King‘s Democratic Desert. I want to add a third book, which I reviewed earlier: Peter van Agtmael‘s Disco Night Sept 11. These three books cover the range of what can be done with photographs from war zones. Each of the books offers a very specific solution to how to present photographs taken over the course of years, to try to engage with an audience. The end results couldn’t be more different. I think it is from the comparison of the approaches that we can gain insight into how photojournalism might succeed in book form (it might be possible to extrapolate from the following how photojournalism might be used in a non-photobook context as well).

Bangert’s book, War Porn, immediately rubbed me the wrong way because of its title. The book itself strikes me as a very sincere effort by a photojournalist to deal with the challenges created by his work. But there’s no way an inflammatory and ultimately cynical term used as the book title is not going to rub off on the book and its content itself. This is most unfortunate.

I will say the following, though. The title of the book provided the impetus for the piece you’re reading here.

The second thing that had me hesitant about the book is its epilogue, which is foreshadowed in the photographer’s essay. Bangert: “My grandfather, who served the Nazi regime, chose to forget what he had seen.” This is problematic for a variety of reasons, the first one being that throwing in the Nazi reference almost immediately does the same thing as using the “war porn” title. Second, as the book’s epilogue makes clear, Bangert’s grandfather was a soldier, and Bangert is not. There is a difference between being a soldier and a photojournalist, given that the former have the guns. While they might see the same things as the latter, they’re also usually responsible for quite a few of the things the latter take pictures of. In other words, a false equivalence is created.

The title and the reference to the grandfather aside, Bangert uses a little trick to approach the presentation of the work: “There are pages in this book that are closed. You can easily open them with a knife or a letter opener. It’s up to you.” These closed pages are perforated pouch pages, and you can’t look in easily. In principle, this is a nifty idea: why not put the onus on the viewer? Let them decide whether they want to look or not! But then, once you’ve bought the book haven’t you already made that decision? Wouldn’t have made more sense to perforate the pages on the other side, so if someone doesn’t want to look at a picture, they can tear out the page?

So I’m a bit torn (please excuse the pun) about the inclusion of the pouch pages. I quite like the idea of forcing decisions on the viewer. That said, in light of what I wrote above, I think it’s a decision that places the onus too much on the viewer, mirroring the general sentiment that people might just not want to deal with the pictures because they’re too graphic or not pretty enough. That’s a problem for me.

If I were in a nasty mood, I’d write that War Porn indeed contains what it promises. There is no shortage of pictures of injured or mutilated people in the book. I have to ask: to what end are they being shown? If you want to take the term “war porn” and extract the one relevant nugget it contains, namely that “war porn” is interested in pictures of gore just for the sake of it, then I’m afraid, you could really just get that from the book. Obviously, you could argue that if someone wants to be so simplistic then let them. But isn’t it a photobook maker’s role to make sure such simple games are being subverted?

As should be clear from what I wrote above, I personally am not interested in the war-porn game. But I’m left to wonder what I learn from the book that I don’t already know? Sadly, I’m not sure. War is terrible, and people’s bodies can get destroyed in all kinds of ways. OK, that I knew already. But beyond that, what am I to make of this? What does the photographer want from me? Contrary to the earlier claim that “If we don’t allow ourselves to look at horrible images, how will we be able to remember events comprehensively” I don’t think any of these photographs has increased my comprehension level one bit. Sorry.

In his essay, Bangert also asks “How can we refuse to acknowledge a mere representation – a picture of – a horrific event, while other people are forced to live through the horrific event itself?” So let me counter-ask: given I have now acknowledged mere representations of horrific events, while other people are forced to live through them, what have I gained, and – crucially – what have those other people gained? This is, I think, what all of these debates around war photography should come down to, but never do: for war photography to have a purpose it needs to be done to some end. It can’t be done for the purpose of just the pictures.

Mind you, the purpose does exist. The role of photojournalism is to help inform people. But the moment you inflate the purpose, the problems stare right at you, especially if you don’t spell out the end the means of which your photographs are supposed to be.

Looking for the sake of looking cannot be the end goal of war photography. No, I’m going to go even further: looking for the sake of looking must not be the end goal of war photography. Looking to get informed, looking to learn more about the world, looking to maybe change your idea about your vote – now we’d be talking. But looking for the sake of looking cheapens everybody involved in the process, the photographer as much as the viewers. And crucially, it adds insult to injury of those whose mutilated bodies we’re looking at.

I don’t believe that that is what Bangert is going for with his book. From what I can tell he is certainly not alone in his desire to make people look at photographs of the result of war to inspire change – of whatever kind – in people: if we all just look at the pictures, instead of ignoring them, then they will finally do the work they were supposed to. Unfortunately, this is not going to happen for the reasons outlined above (remember the unbridgeable gap Elizabeth Shambelan spoke of).  Make no mistake, the book is a step in the right direction: it does ask why these photographs fail to do what we all might agree they should be doing. But it does that with the conclusion already determined a priori.

King’s Democratic Desert, in contrast, betrays none of Bangert’s awareness of war photography’s essential conundrum. Instead, you open the book, and you’re subjected to a barrage of hundreds of photographs taken in Syria. There’s no introduction, no essay (until later). It’s a seemingly endless stream of photographs, of crowds and explosions and people running and dead people and people wailing and people shooting, and on and on it goes, running the full gamut of contemporary photojournalism, including many of the cliches that – sadly – make parts of the genre so unappealing, rendering it so impotent.

To what end this is being done escapes me. I’ll admit I never looked at the whole book in one sitting, not even at larger sections of it.

Now you could just accuse me of not caring. But the reality is that if you use photographs to make me to care beyond the level that I do care already, you’ll have to do a bit more work than throwing the kitchen sink at me.

It might not be your job as a photographer “to aspire towards aesthetically pleasing images of war that are palatable to the public or the photographic community” (let’s ignore the fact that given what the photographic community accepts as picture, the idea of something not being “palatable” seems a bit absurd). But I do think that if you want to make a book it is your job as a photographer to do quite a bit more than to present a huge bunch of pictures, thinking they’ll do the work for you (and if they don’t, then, hey, it’s always the viewers’ fault). That’s not going to work. And it doesn’t work here.

After all, what is at stake in this book? What does this book tell us that we don’t already know? Do we need to see more burned or bloodied corpses, and if yes to what end? What are we supposed to do after having seen the photographs? Should I call my senator and ask them to pressure the president into bombing Syria? Should I call the Red Cross and donate money? What is expected of me? I know from the book that something is expected of me, but what is it?

Make no mistake, I don’t need to get this spelled out. But at least I want to get the feeling that a photobook is more than merely a collection of horrors, that there might be something else happening. I’m not necessarily speaking about hope or redemption or any of the tropes that are bandied around so often. I’m speaking about something that gives me the feeling there is a way for me to go forward as a viewer, to become a slightly different and, ideally, better person than before, a person that can hopefully contribute a little more to trying to solve the world’s ills. That’s what I’m talking about here. And sadly, this is entirely absent in Democratic Desert.

But why would a book filled with war photography be concerned with the viewers, concerned with what it does to the viewers? Isn’t it all about those whose mangled bodies are on display inside? Well, yes and no. As I outlined above, photojournalism has a very specific purpose, and I strongly believe it must follow that purpose regardless of what is in the pictures. The purpose is to inform an audience, and the purpose is so important that most photojournalists – rightly – stay out of any event they’re photographing. In addition, photojournalism is journalism. The goal of journalism is to inform an audience properly (or at least it should be – if you work for Fox News you probably disagree). The goal is not to essentially do PR for one side of a war, however much you might actually be on that side.

What can be done with war photography was just demonstrated by Peter van Agtmael in his book Disco Night Sept 11. For a start, Van Agtmael mostly skirted around the problems of photojournalism, and where he mentioned them he made them personal. As I discussed above, the problems of photojournalism have quite a bit to do with photographers and the public. But starting closest to what you know – yourself – seems like the best way to approach the topic. Much like Bangert and King, Van Agtmael went to war with a camera because he felt compelled to do so. Much like Bangert and King, Van Agtmael witnessed and photographed horrible events. But unlike King, and somewhat in line with what Bangert was trying to do, but on a much deeper level, Van Agtmael connected his photographs to the strands of life we are all connected to.

To somehow attempt to bridge the gap between those who experienced war – whether as participants or as picture-taking witnesses – and those who didn’t, you first have to acknowledge the existence of the gap and, crucially, the fact that it cannot be made to disappear by fiat (or denial).

In Disco Night Sept 11, the photographs have text added to them, which provides another dimension. Of course, the moment you add text, photography changes. The big question always is whether photographs need text or not. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. In the context of photojournalism, text can be immensely helpful – a fact that is widely known since the days of the photojournalistic essay.

In this book, the text serves a variety of larger purposes. For a start, it provides context to the pictures, and it interconnects them. At the same time, it also lifts a weight off their shoulders: the weight I spoke of earlier, when I talked about how there are all those expectations connected to gruesome photographs. Those expectations are tremendously hard to fulfill. Photographs can only do so much. What is more, a lot of what went on when the pictures were made is not in the pictures, because it cannot be. The best solution is to acknowledge that, instead of fighting a Don Quixote style struggle against it.

Text can help make things easier. Text can add a dimension to photography that the photographic medium does not possess. As I said, photographs don’t necessarily need text per se. But in the context of war photography, I’m almost tempted to think that the inclusion of text can be crucial, to avoid the struggles I outlined above.

Lastly, the text also ties our – the viewer’s – world to that of the portrayed. Van Agtmael himself is moving back and forth – the resulting struggle is beautifully explored.

If I see a picture of a corpse it will always be a picture of a corpse – unless there’s a hook that I can’t escape from. If there is a hook, then suddenly, things move away from the photograph – I might become implicated or moved. Usually, the hook will not be provided by any single picture. A combination of pictures might do the trick, added text might as well.

Most crucially, the photographs in Disco Night Sept 11 serve a larger purpose that very clearly transcends them. All of the limitations of photojournalism are present, all of the struggles a photographer going to war zones has to deal with, many of the struggles soldiers have to deal with while being at war and afterwards.

That small subsection of the country that decided to go to war is being re-made a part of part of our society again, and all the struggles are spelled out. We are, in effect, being indicted – not for not looking at gory pictures, but rather for having sent these young women and men abroad for the rather lousy wars they had to fight, and for being unable to take care of them properly now that they’re back. It’s not just their war, it’s our damn war!

Needless to say, the context of Van Agtmael’s book is different than King’s – a book about the war in Syria obviously has to deal with an external war (just for the record, while it’s bad writing to use the same word – war – over and over again, I simply refuse to gloss over what is at stake by calling it a “conflict”). In much the same way, Bangert’s collection of pictures comes from many different countries. In other words, we, the viewers, cannot be involved in the same way in these three collections of pictures, at least not as far as the events covered are concerned. But still… Van Agtmael’s book shows the way.

I have little patience for those who claim that photojournalism is dead. Photojournalism serves a very important purpose. And we should be made to look at the pictures war photographers bring home. But whatever the result might be, it has to serve an end, an end other than being made to look at gory pictures, an end that acknowledges the unbridgeable gap between those who experienced war and those who didn’t. Unbridgeable as it might be, there can still be connections made, connections that allow both sides to learn from one another, connections that allow a public to learn something, even though they weren’t there where the bombs were falling.

War Porn; photographs and essay by Christoph Bangert; 192 pages; Kehrer; 2014

Rating: Photography 2, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3, Production 3.5 – Overall 2.9

Democratic Desert; photographs by Robert King; essay by Anthony Llyod; 256 pages (incl. DVD); Schilt; 2014

Rating: Photography 1.5, Book Concept 1, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 2.0

previously reviewed:

Disco Night Sept 11; photographs and text by Peter van Agtmael; 276 pages; Red Hook Editions; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 4 – Overall 4.3


Review: Stump by Christopher Anderson

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Christopher Anderson

If there weren’t so much at stake, the spectacle of politics would be quite amusing. After all, here we have a group of people that often not only are shockingly uninformed, but that usually are very much disconnected from the reality most people have to deal with on a daily basis. The one thing politicians have come to understand very well, though, is that their image matters, resulting in a literal spectacle that once you take it apart becomes almost mind-boggling.

Journalists are supposed to inform the public about politics. In principle, this would be an easy job, if it weren’t for the fact that things are not quite so simple. For a start, you need to get the access. No access, no information. No information, no report. No report, no job. That’s a bit of a problem. Thus in reality, the relationship between journalists and politicians is quite a bit more symbiotic than what you would imagine in an ideal world. More often than not, journalism – whether by design or simply out of sheer necessity – has to if not enable then at least not subvert the spectacle that is politics. Nobody really seems to mind about this arrangement – as long as someone will occasionally fall out of favour and can then get the treatment all politicians possibly deserve.

The only occasions where the spectacle of politics might slip happen during election campaigns. There usually is so much going on during a campaign, with so many speeches to be given here and there, that even the tightest control over a campaign is unable to prevent the occasional mishap. Most of those mishaps are very minor, but they offer revealing insight into the spectacle itself. Usually, one of the mishaps is pounced upon by everybody, to then become the defining moment of the campaign.

It’s almost as if there is a gentleman’s agreement (remember, politics still is dominated by men): journalists report the spectacle faithfully, not attempting to subvert the game, but the slips are fair game.

With Stump, Christopher Anderson is having none of that. Here, those involved in the game, running for some office or otherwise participating in a campaign, are put on display in possibly the most obvious and at the same time crudest possible way. It’s almost as if the photographer is telling politicians that if they expect to be put on a pedestal, he will put them on a pedestal alright. With a few exceptions, the book is filled with portraits, all of them framed very tightly and closely, exposing whatever there possibly can be exposed in someone’s face. Let me just say that nobody looks very good when Chris Anderson trains his camera on their face this way.

So yes, that’s a very crude device, which is guaranteed to ruffle some feathers, even in circles that might consider themselves to be critical of the whole visual spectacle of politics. We aren’t really dealing with a group of saints here, though. And crucially, the book seems more like a reflection on the spectacle itself and on journalists mostly playing along, often somewhat meekly fulfilling their role.

There’s a fearlessness to the enterprise that I really appreciate. As a result, even though many of the photographs aren’t even very good photographs per se, violating possibly every rule photographers have come to accept, the whole package not only works very well, but also provides an extremely guilty pleasure. This is the spectacle we have gotten so used to, a spectacle we almost seem to be expecting. Consequently, why not have the man behind the curtain – that we are all so aware of – turn the cranks even faster, to provide us with even more spectacle – until we can’t stand it any longer?

Stump; photographs by Christopher Anderson; essay by John Heilemann; 96 pages; RM; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.6

Acacia Johnson’s Origins

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Acacia Johnson

The solitary wanderer, perched up high, overlooking the land in front of her or him, in awe of what s/he is confronted with – the sublime: photography does this just as well as painting. Isn’t the photograph above reminiscent of Casper David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer or Frau vor untergehender Sonne, with the ragged structures the man is standing on echoing those in Das Eismeer? So who says that photography, the medium so concerned with the surface, can’t speak just as forcefully about what might be happening underneath that surface, can’t speak just as forcefully about what deeply moves its maker?

That’s really why as a photographer you want to be so concerned with what is at stake in your work: if your own work doesn’t move you deeply, how is it supposed to move its intended viewers? I’m increasingly convinced that photography operates in such a way that what you put into the work you’ll eventually get back (the few – very, very rare – exceptions as always proving the case). In other words, if you have a quick idea for a project you can realize in an hour, one of those many one-liner photo projects that are currently flooding the internet, then what the viewers will get out of it is the equivalent of what you put in: a quick thrill maybe, but certainly not much more.

I often don’t read the statements photographers present alongside their projects, certainly not before looking at the pictures. As I discussed earlier this year, it is important for photographer to be able to write about their work. At the same time the pictures should be able to carry their own weight (probably with the only exception being conceptual photography). If they do, reading the statement usually just confirms what I got right away. Or it might point me into another direction, expanding what I sensed in the work already.

In the case of Acacia Johnson‘s Origins, I had no way of knowing that I was looking at the photographer’s engagement with her childhood home. I’m not even sure this matters to me. I am sure it matters for the photographer. And to say that it doesn’t matter to me does not in any way negate the original impetus behind the work. Instead, it merely drives home the point I just made: if you start out with something where there is a lot of stake for you, you will find fertile ground to make photographs.

But it doesn’t quite end there, as Origins shows.  These photographs clearly tap into something much bigger, something that allows me to find myself in them, even though I have never seen the landscape depicted in them in person.

Their allusions to the sublime aside, Johnson’s photographs, in particular her landscapes, are unashamedly beautiful and seductive, a most welcome fact in a day and age where the rule of the game “photography” appears to be producing work that is as clever as possible (I often think that many projects could be renamed “Why I am so clever”). Mind you, beautiful pictures might not be seductive (or vice versa) – in Origins, they’re usually both, hinting at the romanticism behind the work.

Who would have thought that in 2014 you could make very beautiful and seductive photographs that are filled with romanticism? And I will admit that I have a soft spot for romanticism, provided it is done well: when it’s not done for its own sake, but rather when it naturally emerges from the work, as it does here.

This is, after all, why I am still in thrall of photography. Not because there’s so much crap around (there is), but because there are photographers like Acacia Johnson showing me something I’ve never seen, photographed in a place like Alaska that I know very little of. I feel I can connect to these photographs in ways I would have never considered, while at the same time I am made to notice that they speak of something I am familiar with. That’s what good photographs do.