Peter Hebeisen’s 20th Century Battlefields

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With large parts of the continent united in the form of the European Union, Europe appeared to have left behind its long history of war – until Vladimir Putin decided to invade parts of eastern Ukraine, bringing back some of the themes that made the 20th Century such a gruesome period. There currently is much talk about the supposed European weakness facing this particular threat – and others, such as the Euro currency having exactly the kinds of problems most experts expected.

It is true, in terms of its military Europe is weak. For example, it doesn’t have drones to anonymously kill people deemed terrorists in far-away places (regardless of whether they actually are terrorists or not). It appears divided, with countries pursuing their own interests, while squabbling over what might end up being European policies. Looking at Europe this way, however, essentially is based on exactly the kind of thinking that Putin employs. It’s a thinking more grounded in the 20th (or probably even 19th) Century than in the 21st Century.

A large number of eastern European countries now are members of the European Union, which, amongst other things, required them to bring their legal system up to the standards required by the Union. Whatever you want to say about it, vast parts of Europe are now subject to a universal rule of the law, prohibiting, for example, the death penalty. And, crucially, most European countries haven’t been at war with each other since 1945. This actually matters greatly, given the numbers of people who died in the 20th Century alone from war in Europe.

At some stage in the past, large parts of Europe were a battlefield. Wherever you are in Europe, the next mass grave holding the remains of either civilians or soldiers isn’t that far. In fact, you might actually be living on an actual previous battlefield in Europe, if, for example, your home is in one of the cities used as such. Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, St. Petersburg, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, … The list goes on and on. Thousands of people died in each of those cities, some of which were destroyed beyond recognition less than one hundred years ago.

The often messy peace in large parts of Europe certainly seems vastly preferable over the past the continent has left behind, for good it is to be hoped. And if Europeans have truly learned their lessons from the past, Ukraine’s future will be a lot rosier than it looks right now.

A new book by Peter Hebeisen entitled 20th Century European Battlefields appears to have come at just the right time, to remind Europeans what those lessons are based on. Quite obviously, the First and Second World War are included, as are the Spanish Civil War, the various wars after Yugoslavia disintegrated, and there is the long conflict in Northern Ireland.

In an obvious way, a book containing photographs of battlefields is centered on landscapes (one can photograph a city in such a way that it looks and feels like a landscape). The photographic landscape shares many of the characteristics of a battlefield once the fighting has long stopped: what one is looking at with a very specific background in mind can at best evoke feelings that pale in comparison to being subjected to the real thing.

A photograph of a landscape obviously is not the landscape itself. It cannot pretend to stand in for the landscape. It can hope to hint at what the actual landscape might make us feel, were we there. In very similar, amplified, ways, being in the location where a battle took place can never get close to whatever one might feel during the moment of battle.

Knowing one is in the location of a battle is unlike being in the presence of a specter hovering over the land – it is more like being in the presence of a specter one wants to hover over the land. After all, the land itself doesn’t care. The land – Nature, or whatever we want to call it – is absolutely disinterested in whatever we humans do. In fact, were we to anthropomorphize Nature, we could say that she certainly doesn’t want any of the crap left behind after a battle. Those unspent or spent shells, or the broken and crushed bones of those who died – we can have them back (read Donovan Webster’s Aftermath: The Remnants of War to learn a lot more about that).

Hebeisen’s photographs appear to have been taken with these ideas in mind. However meticulously done, a photograph simply does not have the power to convey the horror of an event such as a battle. So it might be just best to make photographs that allude to the past, resulting in landscape photographs that inevitably do not attempt to speak of anything else other than the land that was there. 20th Century European Battlefields contains the results of the photographer’s travels across Europe, pointing his camera at places where a few hundred to well over a million people died as the consequence of war.

I will admit I was a bit suspicious of the idea of the book before I had seen it. There is that temptation to make a very editorial looking set of pictures here. Much to his credit, Hebeisen deftly avoided the various pitfalls posed by the project, instead making landscape photographs that have much more in common with the history of art, the depiction of the land in painting and photography, than with the illustration of our own beliefs that we so commonly see these days. To me, the photographs don’t look like they were made with the idea to make you feel bad. Instead, they present you with tranquil, a bit somber, and usually quite beautiful photographs of landscapes (on my backlit computer screen, the pictures look quite a bit more dramatic than in the book – good to keep this in mind). This seems most appropriate.

After the set of plates, the book presents a section, an index of the pictures, in which the details of the battles are laid out with a few sentences. In addition, the number of casualties for both sides are given. The section makes for a depressing read.

As a book, an object, 20th Century European Battlefields is a treat. Hatje Cantz is one of those publishing houses where you can simply expect to see high quality. Much like most Hatje Cantz books, this one operates at the intersection of very classical photobooks and more contemporary ones employing an elegant, refined, and subtle design. As always, careful attention has been paid to the various details that are important when making a photobook. I feel compelled to point this out, because despite the quality of the photographs, it would have been very easy to make an utterly boring and unappealing photobook out of the material. I’m glad this didn’t happen.

20th Century European Battlefields; photographs by Peter Hebeisen; essays/text by Gisela Femppel, Gerhard Paul, Peter Hebeisen; 144 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2014

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

A Tale of Two Books: Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert in Haiti

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One of the mostly unacknowledged problems of contemporary photography is that most of its – tangible – products are luxury objects. The world of galleries and art fairs has long become the Circus Maximus for the rich and superrich, and we don’t even bat an eye over that any longer. There lies considerable irony in the fact that many artists are not nearly as wealthy, or are, in fact, merely getting by, paying exorbitant rent in places like Manhattan or Brooklyn simply to have a chance to if not have a crumb of the cake, then at least be able to gawk at it. Yet, their goal is to enter the very exclusive world that is keeping them out or that might admit them, however briefly.

The problem gets compounded when the photography in question revolves around the less fortunate, as is often the case in contemporary photography. The poor, the homeless, the less-well-off – that’s the Other that can be made subject of pieces of paper that sell for thousands of dollars and that, ideally, both make us reflect (but, please, not too much) and is decorative (looks great over the couch). There’s something obscene about this particular business.

One of the advantages of photobooks is that they lift the problem out of the stratosphere. Photobooks are still luxury products, but they (usually) are much more affordable than photographic prints. As a result, the audience of photobooks is much wider. Needless to say, “much wider” is somewhat relative. We’re speaking of an expansion of the audience of a handful or dozen to, at best, hundreds or thousands (interestingly enough, we don’t consider the photobooks that sell tens or hundreds of thousands of copies as real photobooks). Despite all the excess in photobook making that we appear to be witnessing right now (and that, if what I’m hearing, is to be believed, is about to at least partially deflate), a photobook simply allows for a different conversation.

That said, as I noted above most photobooks are luxury objects for a variety of reasons, price maybe not even being the most crucial one. You do need to have those extra $50 or $75 to be able to afford a photobook (if you think that isn’t much money, calculate how long you’d have to work for that if you made minimum wage). At the same time, photobooks live in an exclusive environment, in part by choice, in part by necessity. Your photobook is very unlikely to make it into, let’s say, that tiny section at your local corporate or non-corporate book shop that says “Art” or maybe even “Photography.” You don’t have a distributor, or your distributor won’t reach those places – or will simply know better not to send copies there.

Given the incessant brouhaha over social media, the one thing that truly irks me the most about it is the usually completely uncritical acceptance of any of the hype coming out of the tech companies, while  essentially none of the challenges for photography that I laid out above are being dealt with. In much the same way, when graduates from photography MFA programs talk to me, their sole focus tends to be on how to get into galleries or how to get your book published. It is almost as if there are no other options available. It is as if there is almost no imagination to challenge a system that is working OKish on the whole (a small number of photographers make a lot of money, quite a few make some, most make very little or none), a system that essentially fails to deliver the promise of contemporary photography to all those people who are not already in the know or part of the scene.

We should, of course, be making work that appeals to people in the know. But I believe we should also be making work for those who are not. In particular, if our work is about a group of people who is not included in our world, wouldn’t it be almost a logical step to invite them in? To share with them what it is that is being created around them or about them?

There are options. For example, over the course of ten years, Zoe Strauss exhibited her photography on the pillars of a highway bridge in South Philadelphia. The Sochi Project offer exhibitions that come in the form of fairly cheaply produced prints on paper that you can paste on whatever wall is available (I’ve seen these installed – they look great).

Another example is provided by Paolo Woods, about whose work I want to talk in more detail. In 2007, Woods and writer Serge Michel went to ten African countries and to China. China’s massive influx of investments and people in the Africa has now become a hot topic (see, for example, this article). Back then, the story was relatively unexplored. They made a book, which eventually appeared in eleven translations, and which also made it to China and Taiwan. The reactions were a surprise for the photographer:

“What was very interesting for me was that my work was seen and debated in, amongst other places, Washington, Paris, and Beijing. The Americans (and the Taiwanese) saw the work as the proof that the Chinese were conquering Africa, becoming a new repressive colonial power. The French saw the work as proof that they were loosing ground quickly in what is known as La Françafrique and the Chinese saw the images as glorifying their courageous pioneers to the new Wild West and almost as a DIY manual for success abroad.”

It has been long known that photographs have no fixed meanings. Here is a prime example of how meaning arises in part out of one’s cultural background and ideology. As a photographer, you have a set of options available how to deal with such a reception of your work. You can, for example, try to enforce whatever message you want to convey, trying to restrict the meaning to a very specific one. Or you can realize the medium’s freedom, the way photography operates and work with it. Woods opted for the latter:

“I saw all this as the proof that photographs are not closed things, and that their meaning depends not only on the author, on what they depict and the context, but also, very much so, on the viewer, his culture, his knowledge. It became clear for me that I did not want anymore to produce work exclusively for a western audience, whether somebody reading the book, a gallery goer or a collector, but [I] wanted to bring it back to where it came from, back to the people I had photographed and gauge their reaction to it. So we presented it to Zambian members of Parliament and to the leaders of the opposition, to African artists and intellectuals, to Chinese ambassadors and businessmen. The book was available in many African countries.”

A follow-up project with the same writer focused on Iran. After the crushed 2009 Green Movement, Woods and Michel were kicked out of the country, resulting in a loss of any official venue for the work there. But in this day and age, there still exist avenues to disseminate work:

“What we decided to do was to get the book translated in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran, and we created a PDF of the book identical as the one in French but in Persian. We did two versions. One […] with the images in low resolution that could easily be downloaded with a slow internet, and one with the images in high resolution with the photos that could be printed in bigger formats. We burned dozens of USB keys and got them in Iran. But even more important we gave the free PDF in downloadable form to all websites, blogs, individuals that we could think of and that could spread the book in Iran. We hired a young Iranian woman that had been our fixer there and lives in exile now, to make a Facebook page of the project in Farsi and to respond to the hundred of emails that poured in.”

Afterwards, feeling dissatisfied with visiting places to cover, Woods decided to relocate to Haiti, to live and work there. He teamed up with Arnaud Robert who had already spent ten years writing about the country. Haiti’s history is complex, as is its current state, a complexity that is not necessarily reflected very well at all in how the country is perceived abroad. It’s quite likely most people will only know of the massive earthquake that hit the country fairly recently or maybe, if they’re a little older, the ghoulish dictators that ruled the country. But beyond that there will be little, if any, knowledge.

A poorer country’s dysfunction usually can only be understood if internal and external factors are looked into, and this is what Woods and Robert looked into:

“We analyzed the different forces at stake: the State obviously and it’s head, the president, the love-hate relationship between the people and the power, who the people in power actually are. And then the substitutes to the dysfunctional state: the UN force based in Haiti, the NGO’s, the American Evangelicals coming to ‘save the Haitians from the devil,’ the rich Haitians and their powerful families.”

In 2013, State, the result of their work, was published. The work was premiered at the Musee de l’Elysee in Switzerland, to good reviews; and collectors started buying prints. Given that Haiti is one of the poorest states in the Western hemisphere, only the rich depicted in the book would have had a chance to visit the exhibition there, or buy photography (which was, given their reaction to the chapter dealing with their world, unlikely). Yet again Woods wanted to bring the work to a larger audience in the place he had spent so much time looking at, in fact working and living in:

“I really wanted to bring the work back home. So I started looking for funds and for a feasible way to exhibit my work in Haiti and get the book available for Haitians. I wanted to have the entire production of the book and exhibition done in Haiti.”

Getting it done posed considerable challenges such as, of course, funding, but also getting a Creole translation done, and making everything happen in Haiti despite the regular strikes, blackouts, and paper shortages – all that in way that would allow selling the book in Haiti for less than 10€. Given I own a copy of LETA, as the Haitian version is called,  I’m not sure I share the photographer’s sentiments about it:

“The book is far from perfect. It is an experiment on many levels. The cover, when you open it up is also a poster because Haitians love to put posters up in their rooms. […] The book was printed while I was putting up the exhibition, so I could not be at the printer to see what they were doing most of the time. Some of the photos are very badly printed, and the quality changes from one book to the other…”

For a start, I’ve actually seen quite a few on-demand books printed in the US that look considerably worse than LETA. The printing in my copy isn’t so bad at all. That aside, a photobook’s form needs to truly be centered on what matters the most, and not necessarily on making a perfectly collectible object. Seen this way, LETA‘s production is about as perfect as State‘s.

In addition to producing LETA, Woods decided to show the work in Haiti as well, deciding to do an open-air exhibition on the Champ de Mars, the main square in Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital:

“This is where the presidential palace is (or what is left of it after the earthquake), where the military would parade, where the protest rallies take place, where there were thousands of tents after the earthquake, and where now hundred’s of Haitians just come for a stroll, have an ice cream or buy books from the street sellers. There is a long high brick wall on the square that is the enclosure of the university of ethnology and that seemed to me the ideal place.”

The resulting exhibition featured 25 prints, each roughly 10 by 10ft, glued to the walls. Volunteer students from the university helped make it happen. It’s probably fair to say that the results surpassed all expectations:

“Hundreds of Haitians would stop and want to see the photos before we had even finished putting them up. Each new photo generated groups that got in extremely animated debates, praising me or accusing me of the worst crimes. Soon it was not about me, but about Haiti, the State, the NGO’s, the evangelicals, the Americans, etc.”

Wishing to have as many people see the work as possible, Woods organized radio and TV interviews, plus coverage in newspapers.

“But I also asked 10 of the most respected Haitian painters each to reinterpret one of my photos and we made billboards with the paintings and placed them at crucial intersections around the city. So we were really getting the art in the streets! We managed to convince the police to close the road to the car traffic the day of the opening and I got a pickup full of Prestige, the Haitian beer, that was distributed to the people that had come. It was obviously open to everybody. No VIP’s. The book was for sale with the street vendors. We had received the first copies from the printer only that morning! A female rara carnival band came and played and it was the most thrilling artistic experience of my life.”

You can find the local coverage, and some of the public’s reactions here, here, and here (these articles are all in French). This video, produced by a local newspaper, gives you an idea what things looked like (it’s also in French only; but you want to watch it even if you can’t understand the language). The images in this article are photographs taken during the production and exhibition.

With these projects Paolo Woods has shown that contemporary photography can reach out beyond the narrow confines it usually finds itself in. There is a lot to be gained from doing so for all parties involved – those in the pictures, left out from the world of photography for economic, political, or cultural reasons, and the photographers (and writers) themselves who can find new, usually welcoming audiences. Thus, it won’t hurt for many photographers to look beyond their own navels, beyond the world of galleries, photography or photobook fairs, or dedicated photobook shops to get their message out.

Today’s photography market probably is probably unsustainable: there are more and more photographers, while the numbers of collectors and galleries aren’t expanding in nearly the same way. What is more, there are too many photobooks being produced for a market that’s hardly growing. Looking for new audiences thus is essential. And while essentially spamming the internet with PR (on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) is all the rage, getting the work out there in its actual form, whether as prints and/or as books, reaching those who for obvious reasons might be interested – that is the challenge photographers might want to face.

Photobook Reviews (Week 42/2014)

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I’m imagining these must indeed be interesting times if you are Chinese, and you see your country transform so massively. The process is unlikely to happen without producing the equivalent of what in the US are called Americana.

Around a decade ago, China was “discovered” by Western photographers, with a flurry of work being made there. Our attention has now moved elsewhere, which – thankfully – has opened up ways for photographers who look more carefully to present their work around China. One of them is Zhang Xiao, whose Coastline has now been released.

As its name implies, the photographer traveled along China’s coast to essentially assemble a portrait of the country. To argue over how accurate this portrait might actually be would miss its point entirely. Instead, the book invites us to view the country with very particular eyes, eyes that have a knack for finding the slightly absurd in what initially look like often very mundane scenes.

For example, in one photograph there is a young woman sitting on the grassy banks of a river. Behind her, a bridge almost crosses the river. The last  5% or 10% of the bridge are missing – construction appears to simply have stopped. So a few rickety planks finish the job. In fact, there is a man who appears to be making a decision about whether or not to walk down that very construction.

Given that the absurdity in many of the photographs is somewhat restrained, it is unlikely to cross the reader’s mind that the photographer is making fun of anything. Zhang Xiao’s aren’t mocking observations. Instead, I sense a mix of wonder, amusement and a little exasperation at the same time.  It’s maybe the realization that this world has been moving a bit too fast and a bit too much, so things have become somewhat askew. Someone couldn’t bother, for whatever reason, to finish that bridge, or maybe there wasn’t the time, or it was simply forgotten because there was too much else to do. But someone is now paying attention, and this is what matters.

The lightness of touch with which the photographs in Coastline is presented is a most welcome counter point to the often dramatic, sweeping, overly pompous work made around China, especially by Westerners (lightness of touch providing a bit of a red thread in today’s reviews). There are a few pictures of whole cities that appear to be under construction, but there also is that woman sitting near the river, or a man in thought on a boat, a man lying on a beach glaring at the photographer, and much more. This is the China that interests me, the China I like seeing pictures of.

Coastline; photographs by Zhang Xiao; 192 pages, plus 16 folding pages; Jiazazhi Press; 2014

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

Paul Graham might be one of the few artists who have genuinely been pushing the boundaries of the medium photography in meaningful ways over the past few years, meaningful both concerning the push against photography’s restrictions and the end result. The same can be said about his publisher, MACK, maker of a flurry of exciting, if often a bit cerebral photobooks. However, this combination has now run into some serious trouble with Does Yellow Run Forever?, the latest book, which centers “upon the ephemeral question of what we seek and value in life – love, wealth, beauty, clear-eyed reality or an inner dream world?” (to use the publisher’s own words).

The book is an incredibly well packaged and produced object, as is usually the case with MACK. It’s modest, almost small, in size, fitting into the palm of a viewer’s hand. It has a soft, velvety cover. The book’s square is larger than is usually the case, leading to its pages – whose edges have a gold varnish on them – being hard to see when it’s closed (“The square of a book is the edge of its case that overhangs the text block” – source). The printing is luscious, with a glossy varnish on top of the photographs.

Unfortunately, the book’s production can’t hide the fact that its concept is, well, surprisingly weak. The publisher again: “The work weaves in and out of three groups of images: photographs of rainbows from Western Ireland, a sleeping dreamer, and gold stores in the United States.” Errm, OK, I get it. It’s just all a bit too obvious maybe, coming from an artist who has explored other themes in considerable more depth, offering more complexity.

Or maybe that’s not quite the right way to approach my problem with this book (just as an aside, I have only heard good things about the exhibition, which, alas, I haven’t seen). The problem with Does Yellow Run Forever? is that it’s trying too hard to be conceptually clever about a topic that simply does not survive being treated that way. There simply is too much weight here, too much of an attempt to make something profound for a topic that would have required an utmost lightness of touch.

If you want magic, you need to embrace that which makes magic magical. You can’t will it to happen.

I’m going to be forever in awe of a lot of this photographer’s work. But this book is a disappointment.

Does Yellow Run Forever?; photographs by Paul Graham; 96 pages; MACK; 2014

Rating: Photography 2, Book Concept 1, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 2.7

I was completely unaware of Masako Tomiya until her book Tsugaru arrived at my door step. This is not particularly unusual, since the world of Japanese photography is not very accessible to me (based on the conclusions of a panel I moderated at Unseen 2014, I should probably speak of Japanese photographers, given that one might not want to argue that there is a Japanese photography that is utterly distinct from, let’s say, Western photography). In many different ways, this is an ideal approach to photography: you don’t know anything about it, you can’t read the text that comes with it, all you have are the pictures.

At the risk of sounding simplistic and of infuriating those in the know, if you are curious what the photography looks like imagine a mix between Isssei Suda (let’s say, Waga-Tōkyō hyaku, a copy of the original 1979 version I am incredibly happy to own) and Rinko Kawauchi (let’s say, Illuminance). Much like the former, Tomiya works in black and white, focusing mostly on larger segments of the world, compared with the often myopic views presented by Kawauchi. But the photographic sensibilities on display are much closer to Kawauchi’s. There is that lightness of touch (that I have been speaking of before), a tranquility in the work that immediately grasps the viewer.

It’s a lightness with a bit of an edge, a lightness that, for me, makes me prefer these pictures over Kawauchi’s. It’s like the difference between reading a sentiment on a fortune cookie and having a genuine encounter with whatever might have been promised. You have to work hard on your photography to get to that point, where what is being described in your pictures (and there almost always is something that is being described) hints at something that cannot easily be talked about, is not being overly prescriptive.

Tsugaru mostly operates with pairs of photographs in any given spread, but not always. That’s one of my biggest beefs with Kawauchi’s Illuminance, where the simplicity of the pairings often has me exasperated. Tsugaru deftly manages to get around this challenge by offering mostly less openly resolved pairings and stand-alone images. There is none of the “this looks like that” that can make a photobook so tedious, especially when you realize that its subtitle might as well be “Why I am so clever”.

Printed beautifully, Tsugaru has become one of my favourite photobooks this year (even though it was released already in 2013).

Tsugaru; photographs by Masako Tomiya; essays by Kenji Takazawa and Masako Tomiya; 80 pages; Hakkoda; 2013

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.0

It is what it is

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Occasionally, it will take others to express in a clear and simple manner what one has been thinking – and talking – about for a while. In a recent review of a photobook for publisher Hatje Cantz’s blog, Jeffrey Ladd laid down his base criterion for photography: “a photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” That’s it! I’ll happily co-sign this. I honestly don’t even understand why I have been struggling with succinctly expressing this, for example when speaking with students. “A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” Print this out, and hang it in a place where you’ll always see it.

Needless to say, I want to discuss the criterion in the broader context of the photography this site centers on, roughly – or crudely – speaking fine-art photography. If you take a photograph for a passport, you probably have other requirements. If you document scientific processes with photography, the last thing you’d do is to make anything other than as close a photographic document as is possible. But in the fine arts… As a matter of fact, one could almost use the criterion as a definition of what “fine-art photography” means: it’s photography that transcends the subject’s obviousness.

There will be exceptions to the rule. But there will be few – as should be the case with rules and their exceptions. In many cases, one needs to look more carefully to see what’s going on, possibly even risking disagreement over whether the rule is being broken or not. What about, say, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies? At first glance, those photographs do seem to violate the rule, given that the photographs are hardly more interesting than the water towers or gas tanks or whatever else is being depicted. But wherever things look that simple, they often are not. Find yourself in front of a grid of 12 water towers in an exhibition space, and there is something interesting going on that even is very obvious, but that still works.

As is always the case with rules, there are those exceptions. Talking about the latter – trying to discredit the former – is tempting. But exceptions only make sense for rules when they are not applied out of sheer principle, in other words to assert one’s desire to brush against the grain, but when they result from a thorough understanding of what the rules mean. Such a deeper understanding can be achieved in multiple ways. One of the best ways to learn about photography is to look at other people’s pictures. With other people’s pictures, most of the blinders come off that make studying one’s own work so difficult.

I have lately spent a lot of time thinking about two of the most basic properties of a photograph, form and content. “A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” Where it is not: That is content without form, content whose photographic form has been neglected, dismissed, not thought about…

Let’s say, you see an interesting object somewhere, and you want to take a picture of it. How do you go about it? Your photograph will be a photograph of that object, in whatever form. But what will that form be?

The following might read a little bit like a digression, but I hope its connection to the above will become clear eventually. About two years ago, I bought an iPad in order to learn about what those kinds of computers could do for photography. As I learned quickly, you can install apps on an iPad that are actually made for iPhones, so I downloaded Hipstamatic, Instagram, and various other apps.

I didn’t realize until quite a bit later – when I finally caved and got an iPhone – that what I thought of as the Instagram experience was not that at all. On the iPad screen, an Instagram photograph is decently sized. On the iPhone, however, the pictures are very small. Smart phones appear to be growing in size – on a recent trip, I saw someone holding what looked like a small tablet to her ear, but they are still pretty small.

If you grew up with smart phones, then my comment that their screens are small might not make sense. If you grew up with newspapers, though, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, the pictures on the screens of smart phones are usually quite a bit smaller than photographs you can find in a newspaper (not even to speak of most photobooks or framed prints on a wall). In principle, size itself is not a very good criterion to judge a photograph. But size does have implications for what I started to discuss earlier, form and content and how “a photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.”

If you have a small screen with, as is the case for Instagram, a square frame, there really is only so much you can do about that (there are apps that will embed your non-square image in a square – adding blank borders, but that way, your original image shrinks considerably). A photograph with a complex composition and content that needs careful looking to decipher its many possible meanings in all likelihood is simply going to disappear in your Instagram stream, given all the pictures with the subject big and smack in the center, ideally in some colour that gets your attention.

As I wrote earlier, photography on sites like Instagram results from a desire to share an experience (well, ideally – of course, much like all “social-media” platforms, Instagram is becoming increasingly a PR tool). Pointing the finger at something in the form of a photograph on Instagram hardly poses a challenge for the medium itself. If anything, it enriches it makes photography a part of our lives.

That said, one still might wonder what influence apps on small smart-phone screens play in our thinking about photography, given that on those screens the cards are firmly stacked against form, favouring content (ideally simple and quick).

Why does any of this matter, though? Why should we care about any of this stuff? Why should a photograph be more interesting than the subject? As far as I am concerned, it should because I find obviousness boring. It might be amusing to look at, say, photographs of misshapen fruit once. But how many more times will you look at them? After having seen them once, what will you experience when you look again other than something like “Haha, I forgot about that one”?

Ultimately, for every photographer the question to be addressed boils down to: “How am I going to make this my own?” – whatever the “this” in question might be. And I believe that in order to find an answer, one has to realize that there is that obstacle of obviousness that, unfortunately, photography comes with. It requires hard work, a lot of looking and photographing, to overcome this obstacle, so that, ultimately, the photographs will be more interesting that their subjects, transcending their obviousness.

There will be rewards for the photographer and the viewers. The latter will encounter photographs they will feel compelled to revisit, to experience something new. And the former, the maker of the pictures, will experience a deeper, more profound engagement with the medium photography, where what was in front of the camera becomes transformed into a photograph that speaks of more than just that.

Book Reviews (W41/2014)

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There is much talk these days of “post-photography,” and I’ll happily admit I have no idea what that is supposed to be. This might be in part because I have always been reluctant to use the term “photography” so narrowly that anything done outside of a regular darkroom already isn’t photography any longer. Seen this way, the term “post-photography” might speak less of what is going on in photography itself and more of a profoundly narrow idea of the medium that finally has become untenable.

It’s a bit like only accepting T-Model Fords as automobiles and then trying to understand a Porsche Boxter. Well, we got our “post-automobile” right here.

A new book by Robert Shore entitled, you guessed it, Post-Photography now attempts to shed light onto what we might be dealing with. Reading its introductory essay didn’t help me much trying to understand “post-photography” better: “Post-photography is a moment, not a movement.” And from there it proceeds to rehash the usual talk of artists working with cameras or – gasp! – not even owning their own cameras, but still working with pictures.

Having said that, the book offers a very useful survey of a little over fifty contemporary photographers/artists. There are five larger chapters they are grouped into, “Something Borrowed, Something New,” “Layers of Reality,” “All the World Is Staged,” “Hand and Eye,” and “Post-Photojournalism.” Each of the artists is featured with a set of pictures, there is a short introduction, plus – roughly – a page of the artist’s own words, talking about parts of their practice.

Those looking for a more in-depth, critical examination of either the term “post-photography” or of any of the artists who are engaged in that practice will be disappointed. Make no mistake, it appears to have become common to let artists speak for and about their work, without much – or any – of a critical engagement. That’s fine, up to a certain extent. But I don’t think it necessarily furthers our understanding of what we’re dealing with.

Thus Post-Photography might serve as a useful – and attractively produced – survey of fifty three photographic artists whose work currently is en vogue. What this all tells us about photography itself is not all that clear.

Odd to now talk about the first book out of what promises to be a new series entitled Photographers References, given that it’s pretty much the complete opposite of Post-Photography. This first book centers exclusively on the life and work of a single photographer, David Goldblatt. Baptiste Lignel, the mastermind behind the series, conducted an extended interview with the photographer, covering a very wide range of topics, including, of course, the background of South Africa, the meaning of photographs with or without text, photobook making, and much more.

The book comes with various fold-out parts, which reference some of the photographer’s images or other material mentioned in the conversation. In addition, the book is laid out in such a way that a new question will always appear on the left-hand side, with the answer on the opposite page. Long interviews can be hard to read, but this one isn’t. I read the book in four sittings, and I didn’t feel I was missing anything, given that the book’s organization helped me stay focused (or become re-focused each time).

In the conversation, Goldblatt comes across as being very open to talking about his work, albeit at times maybe a bit dry. But as an in-depth introduction of a very relevant contemporary photographer, this first book in what I hope will be an extended series delivers everything it promises.

Coming back to “post-photography,” ultimately there’s nothing new about the general idea that somehow, at this very moment in time, we’re witnessing a new trend/movement/”moment” in photography. For example, does anyone remember when “Second Life” screenshots were all the rage, just a few years ago? Anyone remember how those screenshots were supposed to tell us something incredibly new about photography?

Mind you, this is not to dismiss these fads or trends. Without people declaring regularly that now was the moment where photography was boldly going where it had never gone before, the medium would be a lot more boring. Good for you if you’re up for pushing the boundaries (or at least attempting to)! Good for us, too!

Now there even is a reminder in the form of an anthology of many of those various trends and movements, about artists declaring what photography is or should be, in the form of Manifeste!, subtitled Eine Andere Geschichte der Fotografie [An Alternative History of Photography] (my copy of the book has translations of the various non-German texts into German; Steidl’s website indicates there is an English version).

The book is a lot more interesting and engaging than those who are suspicious of the idea of a manifesto might imagine. For a start, the facsimile reproductions of the original texts is a visual treat. What is more, the term “manifesto” is applied rather broadly, ranging from actual manifestos to texts or article around photography. (full disclosure: it wasn’t until I started writing this review that I found a piece I had written for the Böhm/Kobayashi Ant!foto Manifesto inside Manifeste!)

At over 400 pages, Manifeste! reminds us of how lively the medium photography has been defined or debated over the course of its own history. It would seem that soul searching (much like navel gazing) has always been built into the medium itself. Much recommended (the book, not the navel gazing).

PS: Photography is dead!

PPS: Long live photography!

PPPS: Let’s have a jazz funeral already!

Justin Wilkes’ Cairo Diary

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Justin Wilkes

These days, photojournalism has got to be one of the most thankless photographic practices. As a photojournalist, you’re essentially besieged by all sides with almost insurmountable challenges. For a start, the business itself has turned into the equivalent of blogging, where everybody wants something great, right now, for ideally free (everybody here – crucially – including the corporations that a few years ago would have been happy to provide decent pay). At the same time, those whose often murderous actions photojournalists are supposed to record have discovered the power of the photographs and have thus established journalists as targets, literal targets that can be shot at, bombed, or kidnapped and beheaded.

It’s not quite clear any longer why someone would risk their life to bring us photographs. On top of that it doesn’t even stop there, because these photographs have to first get filtered by editors with a completely different agenda (so you might risk your life to see your photographs not published). And when they’ve finally made it into the news circle, they have to compete with, say, the “news” of some celebrity pouring ice water over themselves or with the essentially free advertizing companies like Apple get when releasing a marginally improved new mobile phone.

If that all isn’t bad enough, there is even more. The cards are really stacked against you here: if your pictures have made it this far, meaning someone has actually looked at them, they also have to conform to that viewer’s idea of what photojournalism ought to do, concerns that are entirely based on both a cultural ideology and, usually, a somewhat profound misunderstanding of what photography actually does. For example, you can’t just show us corpses, unless they fall into the right category (ours – no, but then there might be exceptions; theirs – usually OK, but not if certain countries are involved). Your photographs have got to support the right cause, where the idea of “right” is pre-determined: the same audience that you want to educate about what or who is actually or possibly right or wrong tells you in advance what the desired answer is.

How do you deal with all of this? As far as I can tell (please keep in mind I’m just an observer who occasionally speaks with photojournalists), you often don’t because you’re an idealist, and you truly believe that we need to see the pictures. Or you do, and you get by, in whatever ways. After all, we truly need to see the pictures. Good photojournalism is part of quality journalism, and without quality journalism our democracies would be unrecognizable.

Justin Wilkes went to Egypt, some time during the brief period when the country was not ruled by a military-based authoritarian regime but by a democratically elected government. That government was toppled eventually, after a round of violent confrontations, events Wilkes was there to record. At the same time, for most people, life simply went on. It always does. Even under the most gruesome circumstances, people live their lives, and I’m almost tempted to think that it is hard to understand an event, any event, without this realization.

Almost two decades ago, German writer Walter Kempowski released the first of what was to become four volumes of books entitled Das Echolot. The set, four books with a grand total of 3,070 pages contained excerpts from letters, diaries, and other documents (official or otherwise) produced by Germans in January and February 1943, right before and after the fall of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. In my attempt to understand what had possibly moved Germans to produce the barbarity of World War 2 and the Holocaust, I bought the set, and I read it, all of it. As it turned out, life had mostly just gone on. Initially, I was shocked to see that most of those whose thoughts were accessible through the traces they had left were often concerned with what one would imagine to be sheer trifles, given what hundreds or thousands of kilometers east happened, either in concentration camps or on battlefields.

This is what came to my mind immediately when I saw Wilkes’ Cairo Diary. The project shows us the photojournalistic imagery we (hopefully) remember coming out of Egypt at that time. But it also shows us life going on for those unaffected. Those uneffected here mostly means expatriates and the photographer’s friends. It would be incredibly easy (and convenient) to dismiss Wilkes’ attempt to bring us a new – rather personal – view of that time, based on the mechanisms we have established to deal with photojournalism. I think there are very important lesson to be learned here.

For a start, those who go to places like Egypt to take the pictures we need to see have lives of their own, lives that even in the midst of events are quite uneffected by what is going on around them. Unlike the Egyptians, Wilkes was free to leave. Make no mistake, I don’t mean this as any kind of value statement. It’s part of the job. Many jobs entail being uneffected by what you’re dealing with, regardless of whether it’s your job to make decisions on unemployment benefits or drone strikes, to perform surgery, or to photograph violent events.

At the same time, given that photojournalists travel to other countries to record often violent events, they stand in for us. We, the viewers, are usually completely uneffected by what is going on. Unlike the photographers, we don’t even have to worry about whether we get paid, not to mention whether we get shot at. This directly leads to one of those arguments you hear a lot when someone tries to dismiss some concern by pointing at what appears to be a much larger problem. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. Why can we worry about whether or not Ello will replace Facebook when there are people dying in a larger of countries, whether from Ebola or from war? But one quickly encounters the usefulness of such arguments once they’re taken at face value: obviously, I would want to spend my time worrying myself sick over all the wars and diseases in the world, which probably is not a good idea. It won’t help anyone.

The photographs in Cairo Diary show us a somewhat larger view of what went on in Egypt at that time, a view that is connected to us, given Wilkes went there to take photographs for “our” news media. The resulting conflict of someone mostly uneffected by events recording them is our own conflict as well. Crucially, it’s not a conflict that can be solved or made to go away easily. It’s part of what we have to endure when we want to see photographs from conflicts like the one in Egypt. We can’t make it go away by pointing at seemingly larger issues, because that merely kicks the can further down the road. In the end, we have comfortable lives, and those in the pictures usually do not. The absolute worst solution would be to blame the messenger. I do think that large parts of the “blame the messenger” syndrome are simply based on guilt.

Photojournalism brings us views of the world that often are incredibly hard to look at. But photojournalism also reflects our own position of comfort and privilege. I’m tempted to think that this reflection is a very important part of the profession. The conflict between the horrible events we see and our comfort and privilege unfortunately cannot be resolved easily. Being aware of it, however, and trying to come to solutions that are a bit more successful than what we’ve done so far is most important. This might start with better funding for and better treatment of photojournalists. And it might continue with trying to learn some new lessons, and applying them to find new solutions. Maybe Justin Wilkes’ Cairo Diary can prod us to give it another try.