Review: Julian Röder – World Wide Order

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In a conversation with Matthias Flügge that is part of World Wide Order, Julian Röder focuses in on his approach to photography by setting himself apart from widely held beliefs. It’s a statement worthwhile to be quoted in full:

“I don’t subscribe to the kind of dogma propagated by Robert Capa – the claim that you have to be as close as possible to what you are photographing to make good images. You don’t have to shadow some disadvantaged group or track a precarious situation just because you think that you will be able to say more that way. I think this is misguided, because as a photographer you are not one of these people or part of their situation, and you can hardly convey the conditions and contingencies of their lives. Certainly, you can depict the symptoms of a problem, but not its origins and not your own position of looking in from the outside.” (p. 104)

In principle, there is a lot to unpack in the statement, which, one can be sure, a lot of photographers will not agree with at all. That aside, especially in this day and age of click bait and of the constant need for some daily visual drama, to be looked at and shocked by today and then forgotten tomorrow, Röder’s approach puts him at a serious disadvantage.

But photography, especially of the non-electronic form, has a life span that is larger than any of the “Pictures of the Day” galleries. And it is exactly the photography made consciously with such an approach in mind – Röder’s rejection of the Capaesque drama – that can at least supplement our daily diet, if not hint at those of the medium’s possibilities that are so ill-served by the internet.

Our approach to and consumption of photographs of course mirrors the societal and cultural modes of living and working we have come to accept. Over the past decade, their extremes have dominated the news, in the form of a vague, self-perpetuating, and never-ending “war on terror,” of short-lived bursts of protests against the dominant economical order, of stock-market crashes and economical crises… This is, in effect, the World Wide Order that Röder has been photographing. This is what constitutes the basis for the seemingly so different bodies of work assembled in the eponymous book.

Of these photographs, Röder’s depictions of the economic summit protests might be most widely known. What do these photographs have to do with images from arms or trade fairs, with images of borders? Well, everything – at least that is the point made very forcefully in World Wide Order. So while at first glance the book might look like a catalogue raisonee of sorts, it isn’t one. Its aim is to tie together various aspects of a system that, it is being argued, doesn’t serve us any longer (or maybe the vast majority of us – some people are doing quite well, thank you).

World Wide Order is an ambitious and deeply political book, using photographs that at least according to the visual mores of our times appear to be anything but. In the summit pictures, the photographer adopts a Gurski-esque approach, offering sweeping vistas where whatever drama was to be had seemingly is contained by the apparent grandiosity of the scene itself. In the trade and arms fair pictures, in contrast, that approach is changed to a form of documentation that gets closer, but that, at the same time, removes all signifiers (signs, names, …). Thus the drama put on view is not necessarily a visual one. Instead, it is a structural one, one whose manifestations are depicted in photographs.

The actual work of tying things together has to be done by the viewer. Or rather, the work is tied together quite strongly, but the viewer’s mind has to come to the realization that and how they are connected in ways that extend far out from what is being photographed. It’s an ambitious, extremely well-produced book, with a lot of work that deserves to be seen more widely (especially since it doesn’t look as if the problem is going to disappear any time soon).

World Wide Order; photographs by Julian Röder; essays/interviews by Matthias Flügge, Elisabeth Giers, Sean O’Toole, Kolja Reichert; 132 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.1

A Conversation with Emine Gozde Sevim

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Emine Gozde Sevim

Emine Gozde Sevim is one of the winners of the 2014 Conscientious Portofolio Competition. Juror Thomas Weski wrote about her work:

“After much consideration I came to the point to select four group of works as my favorites, which I all find interesting because of the personal commitments of their authors showing in their photographs. But I am voting for Emine Gozde Sevim as finalist as I find her work best in its translation of a political topic into interesting images.”

In an extended conversation, I spoke with the photographer about her background and about the winning portfolio, Homeland Delirium.

Jörg Colberg: Could you give us a little background of yourself, both as a person and a photographer?

Emine Gozde Sevim: I was born in Istanbul, Turkey and came to the U.S. for high school in 2001. I went to a small boarding school called Verde Valley School in Sedona, AZ and that’s where I began taking pictures. I was on scholarship and didn’t have the funds to take the photography course, which had extra costs for paper, film, chemicals, etc. at that time.

But there was a special program called “Project Period,” where during two weeks students could focus on learning new skills. One of the courses was on large format photography, usually open to students who had previous photography experience. But the teacher, my first photography teacher, Jeff Perkins, who became my advisor after this course, let me in the course. That’s when I was first introduced to taking pictures and darkroom processing.

After high school, I went to Bard College in upstate New York where I studied Photography, Sociology, and International Relations. Since graduating from college in 2008, I have been based in New York but especially in the last three years, I’ve been spending extensive time in the Middle-East.

JC: You have worked with various Magnum photographers. I’m curious how they have helped you shape your own vision as a photographer?!

EGS: As an organization when we speak of Magnum, we speak of a diverse group of photographers and a very fundamental archive of historical narrative. The opportunity to learn in this environment, as a young individual just as much as a photographer, helped shape my vision in maintaining a conscience about the world I am living in. I think most importantly working with and being around Magnum photographers encouraged me to experience the world in the first person and to strive for finding a personal language in narrating this experience.

JC: Can you talk about what you mean by experiencing “the world in the first person”? Also, when you speak of your personal language, how did you get closer to this? I’m asking this specifically given that younger photographers and/or students struggle mightily with this
exact problem.

EGS: By experiencing the world in the first person, I mean being driven out of a sincere curiosity about the world, looking at the particular and universal values, but then finding one’s own place, seeking actively a relationship to it, engaging in an honest dialogue with it. The sincerity, I think, is what will allow any work to contribute to the larger discourse.

For me, this requires an honest confrontation with the self as an individual, as well as with the world around me and I think this dynamic curiosity is life long. This also goes hand in hand with finding a personal language. There are no final answers, final language, I believe, but only a leap one can take into it time after time.

Making photographs is a freedom of expression that is not granted but we take upon ourselves, which, I believe, in the times we are living in is all the more valuable and comes with a certain responsibility because we are living at a time where everyone is a photographer.

So, I cannot help but ask myself: why should I also take photographs, add to millions of images that are already being made. The only thing I can contribute to the discourse at large is if I am open to the personal vulnerability that experiencing the world I engage with might put me in and in my work translate this experience as honestly as possible.

JC: There’s a large focus in your work on the Middle East. Given the region is in the news on a regular basis, why did you decide to pay attention to it as well? What are your goals?

EGS: I was born in Istanbul and my family lives there so I will always have a connection to that part of the world. However, more than the region itself, I’m interested in the historical process and the way photography represents this period.

History, I believe, affects us on a personal level. My own maternal family who left Afghanistan in 1975 is the example of that for me. Arriving in the U.S. two weeks prior to 9/11 attacks only reaffirmed this for me personally.

In short, my formative years have been shaped by the post 9/11 world order. I had a personal stake in this, in that being from that region and living in the West, I strive for an understanding about these two worlds that have been in opposition to one another. Hence, I’ve just become progressively interested in what was happening in this part of the world. What I saw in the news just didn’t satisfy this curiosity for me. I wanted to see with my own eyes the course of historical events and look beyond the events and live the experience of this time.

In my work, I aim for a sincere and personal narrative that experiments with this approach. But this is a lot more unconscious when I’m actually in the experience of it all than a pre-mediated method prior to being there. In other words, the experience dictates my pictures, not the other way around. And though my motivation stems from within, from my personal quest and curiosity, I am hoping that my work will contribute to the discourse of the medium at large by offering an alternative way of looking at the way we portray history.

JC: How is the opposition you talk about playing out for you, both as a person, but then also and especially as a photographer?

EGS: Historically speaking, there have been many atrocities, and I believe we are living in the shadow of this history, which seems to leave no room for negotiation. Until recently, I actually believed that the opposition was just a political discourse. I thought on all sides, enemies, us vs. them, were categories in and of itself for politics.

With the most recent developments, I feel as though this opposition now has come down to a person to person level. Even on an individual level, I find that we are consumed with fear and hence the idea of eradicating the other. At times, this is so depressing as it feels like time is moving forward, but we, as humanity, mostly are not.

Photography, I believe, might in fact be the only hope at this time, at least for me, because at a time where most forms of expression are closing down by reinforcing the opposition, this opposition in particular, photography can actually expand our perspective through creating a shared universal experience, a room to listen to the other so to speak.

In the trenches of complex realities that are in the midst of unresolved histories, it is so clear that the world is not divided into two, it is in fact a multi-layered, non-linear experience. As I work in the documentary tradition, I look for manifestations of that in the everyday life as I feel it.

Of course, at first a photograph has to grab the attention of the viewer and this is where aesthetics come in. However, I believe, photography allows for a possibility to change perspective through a narrative that is not simply describing or giving answers about the experience, but channeling the experience for others to experience it, to relate to it in their own way as well.

JC: Let’s talk about Homeland Delirium, the body of work that was picked as a winner for the competition. Can you put the work into context, for those who are unaware of its background? What are we looking at here?

EGS: Until Gezi Park protests in 2013, the general public in Turkey was mostly dormant partially, I believe, because of the particular history the country had. Turkey had violent street unrest until the 1980’s, which in the aftermath seemed to have silenced the public. The younger generation born in the 1980’s, which I’m a part of as well, did not experience the steel-hammer response to going into the streets to protest, and Gezi, I believe, could come about a result of this. Being unheard or invisible as citizens was not a status quo and it exploded, among all the problems the country has, over a park in the center of the city.

However, though Gezi protests lasted just a little bit more than two weeks, the experience of these days resulted in a new emotional era. In Homeland Delirium, I aim to portray an authored feeling of this period, influenced by cinematic aesthetics. All the images are documentary, in that I do not set-up the shots, however, through an impressionistic approach I aim to convey a feeling that to me seems more like scenes from what could be a fiction movie than an everyday reality.

JC: What do you hope to achieve by portraying things like a “fiction movie”? Why does history have to look like a fictional movie – especially given the history in this particular part of the world is not as well known to large audiences in, say, the US?

EGS: My photographic language stems from the place I relate to the subject matter in the first place. My aesthetic choices accordingly result from the influence of the situation, which I only become fully conscious of in the aftermath of making my photographs.

Historical narratives can take different shapes of course, and photography has been instrumental in forming them. As a photographer, I remain impressionistic in my language, because the most honest place I can begin from is to admit my own humble position, and that way I can best channel what I felt. For Homeland Delirium specifically, I am from Turkey, I speak the language. So yes, intellectually I understand all that takes place on the surface. However, I think the role of photographs in contributing to the historical narrative is not merely by describing the events, which are already at our disposal through internet and other resources.

If in some years from now, through a body of photographic work, we can go into an experience of the feeling in a period surrounding a historical event, I believe there is a chance beyond information to hook our mind and stretch our perception.

Responsibility and Truth in Photography

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George W. Ackerman

When seeing a depiction of a place, I sometimes wonder what I would think if I came from there. If I came from Congo, say, what would I think or feel about Richard Mosse‘s decorative candy-coloured photographs that are such a big hit in the art world? What would I think or feel about the various claims made about those photographs supposedly posing a new way to approach war photography?

I have no way of knowing an answer to this hypothetical question. It’s true, I could simply ask people from Congo what their thoughts are. But then, is it the artist’s responsibility to render a place according to the wishes of those who live there? Is that the ultimate goal of art? To please, to placate, to make us feel good?

Given that I phrased the preceding questions the way I did, you can sense that I have an answer: No, that’s not what art, good art, should do. An artist (a photographer, painter, writer, …) has to take care of what s/he considers to be her/his own responsibility, and if that offends the people in Congo, Appalachia, or wherever else then so be it.

Of course, I just seemingly made the mistake of defining what made good art. Not quite. To remain with the depiction of a place, good art is not automatically being generated by an artist following her/his own responsibility. There is a lot more to what it takes to produce good art. But the artist remaining true to her/his responsibility is the very first step. Without it, I’m happy to argue, you can’t have good art. You will only have tourist-brochure material, or propaganda, or infomercials, or whatever else you get: bad art, art that subscribes to a larger ideology, art that lets that larger ideology dictate its flow, art that prescribes the viewer’s engagement.

Photography still finds itself in a difficult situation in this general discussion. A painter is unlikely to ever encounter any of the various arguments with which photography is often treated. A painting obviously is an artifact in the way that photography is not. You can take a photograph in such a way that even though it is a complete artifact (all photographs are), it will look like an objective depiction of whatever was in front of the camera’s lens.

This is territory that many people find hard to navigate. If a camera is a little machine that faithfully records what is in front of it and that displays just that, then obviously it’s the photographer who screws up if there is a problem. Now, a camera is not at all just some little machine that does that. It never faithfully records what was in front of it, and the many steps that lie between the pressing of the shutter’s button and the display of the resulting image (in whatever form) make the connection between reality and picture very, very difficult.

So for a start, in order to understand what good art might be in the context of photography, we first have to understand the very nature of the medium itself, the question to what extent or how it depict reality (however we want to define it) in a faithful manner (however we want to define that).

To a large extent, a photographer’s responsibility appears to then derive from her/his understanding of how the medium operates. If you believe in the camera as a tool that will faithfully record strictly what is in front of it, it’s likely that you will demand the same from its operator.

If, however, you believe that the sheer number of choices made by a photographer results in something that while having a specific relationship to what was in front of the camera at the end is an interpretation of reality, not a depiction, then you’re likely to view the topic of responsibility very differently. In this case, it’s about being truthful to the photographer’s intentions, which, ideally, are based very strongly on her/his understanding of what a camera does.

These two positions, when viewed carefully, are actually not that different at all if we remain close to the process of taking pictures itself. In both cases, it’s the photographer’s understanding of the medium that appears to inform her/his responsibilities: This is what a camera allows me to do, this is what a camera can do, and I will use it now in such a way that takes good care of things.

Where they ultimately differ is where they concern the truth. In the first case, we’re essentially dealing with a truth in the form of the Truth: the world at large, that which we all have access to and – somewhat mythologically – can all see equally, with our own eyes (even though, in reality the “machines” that operates those eyes, our brains, are all quite different). In the second case, we’re dealing with what we could call the photographer’s truth. A photographer’s truth is very different. It is essentially what the photographer wants us to see. It is, and this brings me back to why we still struggle so much with photography, the only truth available in this medium.

To bring things back to the idea of responsibility, the photographer’s truth in part derives from her/his understanding of what the medium does and how it does it. A photographer needs to understand (and master) whatever process s/he is using to make pictures, whether it is based on an 8×10 camera, a cell phone, or any of the other various devices in between – much like a painter has to understand how pigments can be put onto a canvas.

Good art is being made by competent artists, and that is always true regardless of whether or not one likes the art in question. That alone justifies the role of criticism, since someone actually has to do the job of looking at whether any piece of art is done well, meaning done perfectly according to the parameters defined by the context it is placed in. Those parameters can be very different for different types of art, and they often make it very hard for people who are not part of a given context to understand what’s going on: the idea that “my kid could do that” originates from just that, a profound mistaking of a seemingly simple form for simple art. Unfortunately for photographers, their medium is one of the “simple” ones – isn’t all you do to press one button?

What we can say about Mosse’s photographs from Congo is that they’re obviously very competently done, regardless of whether or not we like them, of whether or not we agree with whatever message they might convey. Beyond that, things get iffy, though. How, after all, do we want to define what good art actually is? Given how much paper – and electricity – people have spent trying to define it, I’m not going to get into that.

Instead, I really just want to focus on the fact that while photography is taken from the world, it is not the world. So we must not judge art photography in ways that forgets this crucial difference. We can only see a photographer’s truth, a truth grounded in all kinds of things, some of them present in front of the camera’s lens, but many others embedded in her/his mind. And that truth is what we have to engage with. It might not be our truth. It might not even be the truth of the majority.

As I noted earlier, it’s not an artist’s role to pander to her/his audience. Instead, it’s her/his responsibility to present us with a truth that will make us examine our own. After all, maybe we’re all wrong? Maybe there is a different way to see things? This still appears to be such a tough pill to swallow once photographs are involved, because the medium seemingly is so simple. But as we all know so well now, even Facebook galleries aren’t faithful depictions of people’s lives. They’re carefully curated. They’re propaganda (even though some propagandists are smarter than others).

Photographs don’t lie. To say a photograph lies is to believe that there can be such a thing as an objectively truthful photograph. There can never be. All photographs present a truth: their makers’. The issue is not whether or not that truth has any relation to the Truth. The issue is, instead, what photographs tell us about our own truths, about those beliefs that we take for so granted, that we stick to so obsessively, weighing what we see.

The photographer’s responsibility is not to present us with the Truth. Her/his responsibility instead is to present us with a truth that, crucially, will make us re-examine (not: confirm) our own. That is why or how photography can be art. And if it’s done well, then we have good photographic art. But the “good” doesn’t come out of what we want. Instead, it comes out of what we are made to experience, whether we like it or not.

(French: Responsabilité et vérité en photographie)

Photobook Reviews (W03/2015)

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As I noted last week, I’m starting the New Year by shrinking the pile of photobooks waiting for a review.  At the same time, I’m currently hoping for some inspiration – even though I publish an article (or review) every week (often two per week), inspiration does not arrive in a similar fashion. Sometimes, it comes pouring in. At other times, it’s more like going to check your (physical) mail: you open the door and check your mailbox, only to realize that, well, there isn’t going to be any mail that day. Regardless…

In the world of photography, panoramic photographs are relatively rare. They’re hard to deal with, in all kinds of ways. For a start, the panoramic format is incredibly awkward. There is a lot of horizontal space, with – relatively speaking – very little vertical one. Filling the frame smartly is tough, especially since the wider the panorama gets, the more the viewer will be inclined (or actually forced) to scan the resulting image from left to right, being unable to take everything in at once.

At the same time, making a book with panoramic photographs is straightforward, yet a little awkward. You get a very long book, which, when opened, feels even longer. Lois Conner‘s Beijing could serve as a great example of such a book. At (roughly) 8″ by 15″ (20 cm by 38 cm), it’s about as panoramic as it gets, showcasing work made with a camera that produces negatives sized 7″ by 17″ (the photographs in the book are 5.5″ by 13.5″ [14 cm by 34 cm] – so they’re actually smaller than the negatives). Occasionally, there are images across the gutter, and there are two gatefolds (if I’m counting this properly), showing you images that are 43″ (109 cm) wide.

If the book were an exercise in doing panoramic photography, it wouldn’t be all that interesting, though. Large parts of photoland are obsessed with process, often valuing process over content. But process alone is usually no guarantee for a successful body of work. Beijing easily makes this concern disappear. You have to be an expert craftsperson to successfully make photographs with a wooden box that contains  7″ by 17″ film. But you have to be an artist to make, well, art. And Conner is an artist.

Conner photographed in China over the course of almost thirty years, an impressive amount of time, with more than enough work to choose from. China has recently seen its fair share of being depicted, once contemporary photographers descended upon it to – however briefly – document its recent economic boom. The good news is that while there are traces of those kinds of pictures in Beijing, there is a lot more.

The book casts a wide net, maybe at times too wide a net. Where it is strongest is where it allows for the scene to impress itself upon its viewers, instead of relying on scenes that are easily impressive but that then fail to offer much else. I suppose with a subject matter like this, making decisions about what to include and what to exclude it a tough job.

And we all might want different things from photobooks anyway. That said, the book clearly demonstrates the power of panoramic photography, and it shows what is to be gained from an engagement with a subject matter that is counted in decades, not days.

Beijing; photographs by Lois Conner; essay by Geremie R. Barme; 144 pages; Princeton Architectural Press; 2014

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3, Edit 2, Production 4 – Overall 3.3

It is one of those coincidences that has me review Shomei Tomatsu’s Chewing Gum and Chocolate, having just finished reading Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa 1944-1953. Manga – in fact comics in general – aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, but I thought I might as well start a new year by challenging myself with something outside of my comfort zone. It’s unlikely I would have bought just any manga (or comic) book, because honestly, I’m really not all that interested in the medium. I picked up the copy of Showa simply because I found it at a local book shop browsing for a new calendar, and it was my interest in the history of Japan that got me hooked.

Showa, subtitled A History of Japan, is a series of books, and the one I bought isn’t the very first. It is, instead, the one that covers the period of time in Japanese history that provided the basis for the photography in Tomatsu’s book. Using that term, Tomatsu’s book, might be somewhat inaccurate, though, depending on where you’re coming from, depending on your ideas of authorship and editing (note to self: there’s an idea for an article right there). The photographs are Tomatsu’s, but the cover notes it was edited by Leo Rubenfien and John Junkerman.

However, according to Lesley Martin (Aperture), “Tomatsu was involved in the edit and selection of the images up until the time of his death; it’s not entirely the same as having seen it all the way through, but all the ideas, including these of his original texts and the general edit were discussed with him. In fact, there are some images we would have really loved to have used and tried hard to get him to agree, but that he felt definitively did not fit into the concept, etc. None of the images included were any he did not want to include.” (from an email, quoted with kind permission)

The question of editing and intention matters in the case of a book like Chewing Gum and Chocolate, given that large parts of the photography work against the background of the photographer’s trying to come to terms with the outcome and consequences of World War 2 in Japan, specifically the occupation and presence of US soldiers and civilians on its soil, the import of Western values and products, and those same foreign soldiers using parts of Japan as staging grounds for new wars, in particular the one in Vietnam.

There are various essays by Tomatsu included, which alone make Chewing Gum and Chocolate a must-buy for anyone interested in photography. These essays put the work itself into context, and they provide yet another example of a Japanese photographer writing about his work in ways that have much to teach. In addition to all of this, some of Tomatsu’s most well known photographs mingle with less well known ones.

In terms of the production, the book stays close to what a book made in the 1960s or 1970s would have looked like. Given neither negatives nor prints of various of the photographs were available, spreads or pages from earlier books were used instead. This makes for an inventive presentation, which doesn’t take away from the power of the images in question at all (it only made this reviewer put the photographer’s earlier books higher on his wish list).

So here then is a partial re-release of Tomatsu’s work, with a lot of material added, which, it is to be hoped, brings this particular photographer’s achievements and struggles, as an artist as well as a person, closer to where it belongs in the world of photography: center stage.

Chewing Gum and Chocolate; photographs by Shomei Tomatsu; essays by Shomei Tomatsu, Leo Rubenfien, John Junkerman; 216 pages; Aperture; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 2.5, Production 4 – Overall 3.8

If a photograph of a person, a portrait, tells us something about that person, as we all appear to believe, then a large collection of such pictures must tell us a lot. It must certainly give us insight into the portrayed, into her or his character, her or his idiosyncrasies, her or his moods. If this is true – I don’t think it is at all, but regardless: if this is true, when we ought to learn a lot about a woman named Anneke van Assendelft, who also went by the first name of Ramya, from Petra Stavast‘s book Ramya.

To admit that we don’t in fact learn much from the book would miss the point entirely. After all, much like how Thomas Ruff’s famous large-scale portraits are centered on the conflict between our beliefs what portraits do and what they really can do (very little actually), Ramya ultimately is a book centered more on everything that we tie to pictures, in this case portraits, instead of on what the pictures show (a person).

This might sound like an incredibly tedious photobook to look at – it’s anything but. That said, the book has the potential to frustrate those viewers who are looking for easy answers. Photography, the visual depiction of surfaces, does not provide easy answers. It only provides answers that are too easy.

Ramya combines photographs taken by Stavast over the course of many years with pictures made by others, Ramya included. There is text, too, in the form of conversations about Ramya. There also are reproductions of documents. I suspect that initially, the book’s edit might make some people feel there is an unwillingness or maybe an inability to edit. But there isn’t. If portraiture often comes down to picking that one photograph that expresses… well, what? But anyway, if that’s what portraiture supposedly is, then doing the opposite certainly throws down a gauntlet: Here, you think you know so well what these portraits do, so what do you get when I show you all that stuff?

All of this might come down to us humans essentially being unknowable – to ourselves certainly (how else would there so many therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists be around?), and to others. We can hope to come closer to someone through an extended personal engagement. But we can’t hope to achieve any of that through pictures, through the accumulation of materials.

Photography ultimately merely is the projection of rays of light onto a light-sensitive surface. What we make of those pictures is little more than a projection as well, our naive beliefs concerning its truthfulness notwithstanding.

Ramya; photographs by Petra Stavast and others; 224 pages; Fw:/ROMA; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4.5, Edit 3, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.5

There are subject matters that are so loaded that it’s hard, if not impossible, to do them justice in a way that will make everybody happy. If you’re an artist, there is no such obligation. What is this telling me? Instead of: Does this tell me what I want to see? This, I believe, is especially important with loaded subject matters, because those tend to come with conventions along which a possible discourse is encouraged to proceed.

Post-Apartheid South Africa is such a loaded subject matter, given its larger history and the various factors that make it a somewhat unique African country. To cover South Africa photographically means to wade into tricky territory. This is what Jason Larkin did with Tales from the City of Gold, a book about the larger Johannesburg area and its connection to mining.

What we get, in the form of photographs sandwiched between two essays, is what I see as a somewhat hesitant portrait of a harshly beautiful place that seems to offer little, if any hope for those living there. Whatever salvation is there to be had, it is brought by religion; and the only people not weighed down by the existence they find themselves in are the children depicted playing their games, enjoying their lives.

The photographs employ some of the strategies well-known from contemporary photography: Sweeping, distant vistas interact with portraits taken at mid-distance, keeping a careful balance between visual beauty and direct engagement.

I’m tempted to think that right now, in these early days of 2015, we’re just beyond the point where we’ve realized how far such a strategy will take us and where we’re craving for a little more.

I would have indeed craved for a little more here – it’s almost as if whenever the book starts to focus in on what all of this might mean, what implications there might be (however true or false those implications might be – remember, it’s art), there’s a step back. That hesitation runs like a huge red thread through large parts of contemporary photography. I wish Larkin had pushed beyond it.

That said, Tales from the City of Gold is a book that offers much to those who are willing to look, a book that has made me come back to it a lot while it was sitting somewhere in that pile of books waiting to be reviewed.

Tales from the City of Gold; photographs by Jason Larkin; essays by Mara Kardas-Nelson, Julian Rodriguez; 96 pages; Kehrer; 2013

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.3

Photobook Reviews (W02/2015)

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The pile of photobooks still be to be reviewed next to my desk has reached towering proportions. So I thought I’d start the New Year trying to decrease its height. I realize that this site has become somewhat photobook centric, but that might just reflect the fact that currently, photobooks are driving the medium’s discourse. After the gigantomania of Düsseldorf School-style photographs on the wall, it’s certainly a relief to be able to talk about something that can be enjoyed by a much larger audience in all kinds of ways. It’s not clear whether the flurry of publishing we’re currently witnessing will last, but let’s enjoy it while it does.

Like pretty much everyone I talked to, I enjoyed Simon Menner‘s Images from the Secret Stasi Archives (find my review of the book here). But, and this has become an increasingly important problem for me, while it’s fun to look at those often absurd images, their display as oddities, as if taken from a goofball comedy the likes of which Hollywood loves churning out, takes away from the fact that the organization behind them, East Germany’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (with its official abbreviation MfS and its unofficial one Stasi; translated Ministry [Agency] for State [National] Security) was not goofball at all. Quite on the contrary. So essentially having a laugh at the expense of those left to rot in Stasi prisons feels wrong, even if that’s obviously not Menner’s aim.

A more recent book, Arwed Messmer‘s Reenactment MfS, has now upped the ante considerable in multiple ways. For a start, the book centers on the role of photography, both in the Stasi context itself, as in the larger context of how we look at and/or deal with photographs. Conceptually, the book itself also pushes the boundaries. Apart from a title page, several pages in, there is no text at all, only pictures. Where those pictures might be coming from isn’t always that obvious. Some very obviously look like crime-scene photographs. Others could have come straight out of Menner’s book. Still others look like they were taken by Messmer. Violence abounds, whether in a staged or documented form, and it can be physical or psychological violence.

For those eager to get explanations, there is the Appendix in the form of a booklet to be found in a pouch at the end of the main book. In it, the sources of the images are revealed. So you learn about what it is you see in the various pictures, such as, for example, on page 77, “Reenactment of an escape attempt with escape helper (right) and escaper in the trunk of a Volkswagen K 70 L, July 17, 1972.” In other words, a person caught in an attempt to flee East Germany and arrested with his helper, was forced to crawl back into the car’s trunk so that the Stasi could take a photograph. The things you can do with pictures…

So Reenactment MfS forces its viewers not just to come to terms with the East German secret service’s utterly deplorable methods, but also with how photography itself became if not an accomplice then at least a very useful tool. Of course, if you are familiar with the history of photography, you will know that photography has always played this role, whether it was in the othering of cultures deemed primitive, in cataloguing those who would be killed right after, etc. Given that photography has been such a useful tool for such terrible purposes, this ought to tell us something about the medium. If we did not believe it to have such potent properties, we might not find the medium in these terrible parts of human history.

Seen this way, Reenactment MfS is possibly one of the most ambitious and potent ways to deal with the photographic Stasi legacy. It aims at revealing the cruelty of the organization itself, asking us to reflect on how our own agencies might be involved in similar schemes. At the same time, it points its finger at photography’s core, which would be completely hollow if it weren’t for our willingness to believe what we see, provided it is presented in specific ways. This is conceptual photography at its very best. Highly recommended.

Reenactment MfS; archival images plus photographs by Arwed Messmer; texts by Annett Gröschner, Matthias Flügge; 146 pages plus booklet; Hatje Cantz; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 5, Production 4 – Overall 4.1

Now that the Düsseldorf School craze is over, we are presented with the opportunity to evaluate its impact and, specifically, the artistic merit of its various artists. I personally never believed that there was really so much that would unite those different photographers once you moved beyond print sizes, presentation, artistic provenance, and possibly the fact that they are all German citizens. Of the Düsseldorf photographers, Thomas Ruff has long been my favourite. He was and still is one of the very few contemporary photographers intent on exploring his medium in a way that would happily throw out whatever orthodoxy there was to be (and still is) to be encountered (vast parts of contemporary photography remind me of the Vatican in their unwillingness to stray from long-established dogma that, in reality, has long stopped to make much, if any, sense).

There is no dearth of books around Thomas Ruff’s work, including various surveys. Oberflächen, Tiefen is a favourite of mine, an intensely smart and well produced book printed on newsprint. As an artist, Ruff is unusually productive, churning out new work apparently without much effort. Survey books thus rapidly become lacking in the newest work. Of course, the question is whether adding a new series or two truly justifies another survey. Turns out that the idea of the Ruff survey has not been exhausted at all, as is shown by the new Editions 1988-2014. The photographer well known for his monumental prints has been producing a plethora of much smaller prints in larger editions, often using fairly uncommon photographic printing processes. This new survey is a catalogue raisonné of those smaller editions.

Presented chronologically, Editions 1988-2014 introduces all of Ruff’s bodies of work, many of them not that well known. But the editions don’t necessarily follow the time when the work was made, so “older” images keep (re-)appearing. As a consequence, the viewer is given a chance to see seemingly very different photographs, even processes, next to each other, resulting in a much deeper understanding of what Ruff is actually after. Seen that way, the book reveals the true extent of Ruff’s photographic universe, and it makes a strong case for this artist being the possibly most relevant Düsseldorf School photographer. There really doesn’t appear to be any direction Ruff can go that would result in a dead end (compare this with Andreas Gursky’s artistic implosion after the satellite images of the planet’s oceans).

Yet again, the publisher, Hatje Cantz, have spared no expenses and have given the book the perfect form. In a day and age where there is almost a cult of self publishing (which, let’s face it, ultimately is the truest form of vanity publishing, its various merits notwithstanding), Editions 1988-2014 demonstrates what it is that publishers can do, and can do incredibly well. And as an added bonus, you get an essay about Ruff written by Thomas Weski. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

Editions 1988-2014; photographs by Thomas Ruff; texts by Thomas Weski, Valeria Liebermann; 180 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2014

Rating: Photography 5, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.7

According to its website, the project This Place “explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor, through the eyes of twelve internationally acclaimed photographers.” The complexity – that’s a rather euphemistic way of talking about an occupation that has been going on for decades and that has been violating a plethora of international laws for as long, not even to mention the horrible amount of violence that has resulted as a consequence of all of this.

The complexity. Right. So how do you show this complexity? From what I gather, a lot of people are tired of seeing the same endless scenes of violence emanating from the area – as if making the pictures of violence go away does anything to change their underlying causes. It is as if new insight somehow can be or should be gained into situation that to many observers is clear and obvious enough. But in another sense, the situation is indeed not frozen at all. The occupation of Palestinian territory is expanding with time, and the area’s occupants are, as well. Attitudes have been changing. The area’s structural and physical violence have resulted in increasing amounts of mental violence (which, in turn, has resulted in yet more physical and structural violence – a feedback loop that, among other things, is sustaining Putinesque characters in power).

One would imagine that a medium that can only depict surfaces would be unable to show mental violence. But a camera becomes a very powerful tool in the hands of a master photographer. Any single photograph is unlikely to achieve that goal, other than maybe in a superficial, if not cartoonish sense. But a collection of photographs – that’s something entirely different. Add a little text here and there, and you’re in business. In a nutshell, this is Them by Rosalind Fox Solomon, diminuitive in form, yet incredibly powerful given what it does and how it does that.

The book was one of the main photobook surprises for me last year. In a sense, the book indeed “explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank.” It brings the mental violence that has been produced to the very center of the stage. The majority of the photographs in Them are portraits of people whose names and origins aren’t revealed. Intermingled are short snippets of text, quotes maybe overheard or somehow uttered in front of the photographer.

The cumulative effect of viewing the photographs and reading the text is sobering, speaking of a situation that, in principle, simply isn’t tenable any longer, that, however, has been frozen in place and that will be frozen in place for a while it seems. If violence begets violence, as it clearly does, and cycles of violence have been going on for so long that any explanation merely amounts to ideology, then only a radical shift in thinking will be able to bring about a change for the better – the kind of change in thinking comparable maybe to the sudden enlightenment to be found in Eastern religions.

Them very forcefully calls for just that.

Them; photographs by Rosalind Fox Solomon; 144 pages; MACK; 2014

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.2

On my first trip to Italy, well over a decade ago, much like every visitor I was struck by the country’s beauty. The Italian friend I was visiting, however, appeared rather less smitten. Part of his disenchantment might be dismissible, given most people appear to have a beef or two with their own country (and those that don’t – boy, you want to stay away from them!). But in many conversations over delicious food and wine, I was told of a different Italy, one of disfunction, incompetence, and corruption, a country whose citizens have long given up doing anything other than trying to get through the maze of life without getting bothered too much.

Things got pretty cartoonish soon after in Italy, once the reign of Silvio Berlusconi became more and more absurd, bringing all the various things my friend had told me about out into the open. I’m still incredibly enchanted by Italy – how could you not be? But every time I visit I look out for signs of what I had been told about on that very first visit, signs that are actually not that hard to find.

I suppose if you are surrounded by traces from more than one glorious past, contemporary life has a hard time living up to what appear to be standards of the past that seem almost impossible to reach. Those traces are included in a great many of the photographs in Federico Clavarino‘s Italia O Italia, one of last year’s various surprise discoveries. There is an element of tunnel vision to those images. In a sense, all photography is the result of tunnel vision, depicting whatever often relatively small fraction of the world someone decided to devote her or his attention to. But Clavarino’s tunnel vision feels tighter than most people’s, bringing often very irrelevant seeming snippets into focus.

Italia O Italia is thus the equivalent of a mosaic, with the larger picture being made up of very small parts, each monochromatic (figuratively speaking, not literally). What this all adds up to is hard to say. Some sort of Italy, but certainly not the one from tourist brochures or TV travel programs. It’s closer to the Italy my friend spoke of, an Italy at constant odds with itself, and seemingly frozen into eternal stagnation (much like any of the sinner’s in the innermost circles of Dante’s Hell), in part by its inability to live up to any of its pasts.

Italia O Italia; photographs by Federico Clavarino; 136 pages; Akina; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.9

I have always wondered how long it would take before someone embraced, not rejected, the various artifacts produced by digital cameras. Film grain, after all, informs various movements in photography. Digital grain, however, is being shunned. So I was glad to see Fosi Vegue‘s XY XX, large parts of which work with the various artifacts the digital medium has to offer. The main reason why most people shun digital artifacts is because they dissolve the image in a way that requires work from the viewer. Needless to say, this is incredibly fertile territory for art.

That said, I do think that it was a mistake to give away what the images in XY XX actually are (photographs of prostitutes having sex with their clients). For a start, it’s hard to get away from Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows, which pretty much occupied this particular territory: it’s just very hard to think of what else one could possibly say with these kinds of pictures (assuming that’s the idea, to take things a bit further).

I don’t think this new attempt goes beyond Alpern’s work at all, which is a bit of a shame, because in a sense, XY XX is trying to have it both ways. There are images that are hard to make out and that clearly speak of something possibly carnal or disturbing. And there are Alpern-style images of people having sex. These two go together, but that’s really the problem here: I actually don’t want to necessarily be told what I’m looking at in the more abstract images, since they operate in my mind in very different ways than the others. The specificity of the sex images reduces the abstractions produced by the digital artifacts to essentially a game of design, and that’s too bad.

What is more, given the nature of the photographs and given it’s being spelled out so clearly here, I’d personally would want a little more than a mere depiction. Instead of repeating what I wrote earlier, the interested reader might simply read an article I published about a year ago. In a nutshell, given it’s 2015, there simply is too much politics involved in this particular topic, politics both in societal and photographic terms, and I don’t think you can run away from that so easily.

XY XX; photographs by Fosi Vegue; 108 pages; Dalpine; 2014

Rating: Photography 2, Book Concept 1, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 2.1

Ever since the Soviet Union fell apart, photographers have been touring its hinterlands (turned countries, many of them “-stans”), looking for whatever the detritus found there might say either about the former empire or about the prospects of its local predecessor. I’m currently in the process of writing a longer piece about what large parts of this might mean, so I’m reluctant to start the fireworks just yet. Ultimately, the various photography projects (and books) might end up telling us more about the medium and/or our culture than about the places in question.

There are a few bodies of work, however, that are noteworthy, Mila Teshaieva‘s Promising Waters being one of them. Photographed in Azerbaija, Kasakhstan, and Turkmenistan, the book looks into places around the Caspian Sea, for the most parts using the detached visual language so common in contemporary photography (Lewis Baltz in colour, but barely). Honestly, the book wouldn’t nearly as interesting as it is, if the photographer hadn’t broken with that language often enough.

So there are all those signs of something going on that escapes simple messages (press snippet: “The battle for control of the region’s vast oil and gas reserves and the search for a national identity have led to far-reaching changes for the population, the environment, and general social values.”) and that speaks of a life that is more complex than for it to fit into easy templates. I tend to tell my own students to avoid talking of such things as “national identity” or “general social values” in their work, because, let’s face it, outside of academia and NPR’s All Things Considered, those terms have no life whatsoever.

Promising Waters has considerable life, and the contrast between some of the photographic conventions and what is breaking through, to assert its own life, is what makes it. With short pieces of text added smartly in the flow of the photographs, the book tells us a story that is more universal that you would imagine, a story that could – and does – play itself out in other places as well.

After all, ultimately, you live your life, wherever you are, against all the odds, simply because you just do. There might not be any promise, at least promise in the form of something tied to the terms mentioned above, but that’s the real life: the promises many of us live from are those tied to something that in the grander scheme of things doesn’t really matter. That’s what makes us human.

Promising Waters; photographs by Mila Teshaieva; essays by Maya Iskenderova, Christoph Moeskes/Mila Teshaieva; 120 pages; Kehrer; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.1