A Conversation with Lucy Levene

Article main image
Lucy Levene

Lucy Levene is one of the winners of the 2014 Conscientious Portfolio Competition. I picked her submitted body of work for the following reasons:

“I actually still haven’t quite figured out why or how The Spaghetti Tree keeps such a strong presence in my mind. That, ultimately, is the sign of good photography: it will stay with you and keep asking questions, instead of providing superficial answers. With The Spaghetti Tree, Lucy Levene not only shows her skills as an image maker, she also displays a profound understanding of photographic conventions, which, when played against each other, keep irritating the viewer, to confound expectations.”

In the following conversation, I spoke with the artist about her background and about the thinking behind the work.

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

Lucy Levene: I grew up in North West London in a predominantly middle class Jewish community. Both my parents ran their own businesses and neither were religious, however Jewish Identity was very important to my mother in particular. I came to photography through fine art, studying art and history of art at school. I loved observational, figurative work and at the time, after a foundation year at Edinburgh College of Art, photography rather than painting seemed to me to be the natural medium within which to explore this. I studied for my BA in Edinburgh and then for my MA at the Royal College of Art in London.

JC: Concerning your project The Spaghetti Tree, which was selected as one of the winners of the competition, you write “As an outsider working within this community, I became interested in the tensions between between public and private, formal and informal and in how these disparities relate to construction and accident within photography; the perfect and the imperfect image.” Could you expand on this a little bit?

LL: The Spaghetti Tree was my response to a commission from the 1000 Words Magazine Photography Award. The award was part of a larger initiative that was supported by the EU Cultural Programme. As such, the subject matter was very specific. The photographers involved were invited to make work that would contribute to an archive that explored and documented the migration that occurred in the decades after WWII, from Southern to Northern Europe. I was therefor very much led to this particular project through the specificity of the brief.

My own experience of migration is one of being a third generation Jewish immigrant (my parents’ families left Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century). I am very interested in assimilation, in particular in the absurdities and contradictions that can arise; the desire to preserve cultural individualities is often at odds with the need to assimilate. So this was my access point to this work and on a personal level, I was drawn to this community that seemed both so well integrated and yet distinctly separate.

I had previously approached the subject of assimilation through my own community and had reservations about attempting to portray this community when I have so little experience of Italian culture. These reservations became central to my working process, and I wanted to make a piece that had an honesty to it and wasn’t trying to assume a knowledge of the community that I didn’t really have. I allowed myself to be led by the people I was introduced to, photographing what was suggested to me and attending events at which I was invited to photograph. I was aware of my own assumptions about Italian culture, mostly based on film and TV stereotypes and was curious as to the extent to which some of the younger generations may have adopted the same ideas from the same sources.

My interaction with the community felt like a bit of a dance. Tensions arose between what the people within the community wanted me to record and what I hoped to achieve and there was of course a strong division between public and private. What was being shown to me was constructed, formal and public; I was attending community events that were very outward facing, rather than interior domestic spaces, predominantly. And so I began to look for private moments and moments of informality within these public displays.

Christenings and community dances can of course be very theatrical events. Like the nightclubs at which I’ve previously photographed, as participants, we are there to be looked at and, on occasion, recorded. Photographically, I was looking for gaps within the constructions, finding unexpected moments within a constructed portrait set up for example. I get frustrated with my work when it is too aesthetically clean – I feel that the viewer can slip off the surface of the images and I also hoped to disrupt this too by introducing messy and unexpected visual elements.

JC: Earlier, you speak of an “objective democracy” – what is that? I’m curious how your approach to making this work was shaped, which, it seems, at least in part appears to derive from a frustration with the medium itself.

LL: I realized that intuitively I make a lot of my visual decisions in order to eliminate perceived subjectivity. For example, I might use a very flat flash to light up every area of the scene in order to avoid the sentimentality of a more emotive lighting, and to avoid drawing the eye to one particular area. Equally my images are often taken from a central face on point of view which flattens the scene. This also contributes to an appearance of objectivity. Both of these ways of looking aim to avoid creating a hierarchy of visual importance within the image. So I am looking for a democracy within the scene, and one which has the appearance of objectivity.

JC: I’m not sure I’m following, given that your decisions to achieve these photographs are based on very subjective decisions. Maybe you can help me understand what you’re after here by telling me why you want to eliminate what you call perceived subjectivity?

LL: I think this is an approach that I take generally within my work rather than one that is specific to this project. I guess it comes down to the discussion around the photograph as ‘evidence’, documentary photography in particular. By photographing in this manner, I am looking for something that I feel is closer to the truth of the situation (rather than my truth).

In this work, rather than wanting to eliminate subjectivity, I wanted to play with elements of fact and fiction within the work; to create work with an appearance of objectivity and then undermine that by revealing elements of construction. I wanted the audience to double take – to disrupt their expectations and lead them to question the structure of what they are seeing.

JC: I’m curious: What is truth in photography for you?

LL: An exploration of ‘truth’ is central to my ethos and to my way of looking. I am becoming more and more aware of how truth is constructed by our own personal narratives; how we construct narratives to give structure to events and how different people can of course experience the same event quite differently.

And yet despite this awareness, there is still a desire to scrape back all of these layers of perception to access something ‘real’ or truthful. I find this contradiction reflected within photography. Academically, we dismiss the idea of ‘photographic truth’ and yet there is still an intuitive belief response to certain forms of photography.

In this work I wanted to play with those forms of photography, to foreground elements of construction within some but not all of the images, in order to emphasize my intervention and make the viewer question the truth value of the documentary form.

For example in one image (‘Empty Hall 1’) the subject of the image is my flash reflected in the wall. In a pair of images of orchids within the church interior, one image is taken with daylight and the same image retaken with flash. The emotional effect of each image is very different and I felt that as a pair of images, they highlight the simple artifice of photography. In some of the formal portraits, the background stands and the room behind them are visible, again emphasising the nature of our encounter.

With portraits in particular, I often feel that portraits can appear to portray a moment of intimacy between the photography and the subject, whereas the reality of the encounter can be quite different; rushed, impersonal etc. I hoped that the caught, ‘accidental’ portraits would make people question their assumptions about the more expected portraits. This combination of approaches felt like a more honest representation of what occurred.

Photobook Reviews (W08/2015)

Article main image

There are a few inevitable elements usually included in a review of Nobuyoshi Araki’s work, such as the sheer number of photobooks this particular artist has produced so far, or especially the fact that a considerable part of Araki’s portfolio consists of photographs of tied-up women. Reviewers usually get around the latter by someone obliquely pointing to an apparently established tradition of bondage in Japan, as if we, in the West, had in fact never even heard of any such thing. But now that the bestselling book Fifty Shades of Grey has resulted in the eponymous movie we can probably safely dispense with the idea of a non-Western culture being just a tad weird. And serious articles about BDSM are even making their way into Western mainstream outlets (find one here).

Much like any artist, actually given the sheer volume of his output maybe more like most artists, Araki deserves to be treated based on the merit of his work, and not on how comfortable we are with what some of that work depicts. Comfort usually makes for bad art. Of course, that doesn’t automatically result in discomfort producing good art. But the chances are a bit higher, I’d think, at least given that our discomfort might make us look a lot harder at what we take for granted.

Technically speaking, Araki‘s Marvelous Tales of Black Ink in part is a compilation of older work. In this particular case, photographs of bound Japanese women, often wearing traditional clothes and equally often being in a state of partial undress that leaves little, if anything, to the imagination, are being alternated with photographs of flowers, both in black and white. On top of the prints, the artist has drawn text in the form of Japanese Kanji characters, which, the essay in the book asserts, reference the visuals “in the most extraordinarily imaginative and intellectually sophisticated ways.”

Now that might be the case, provided you are able to actually read the text. This reviewer unfortunately is unable to do so, which deprives him of part of what the book has to offer. Then again, being able to read the text might cut both ways: you might truly enjoy the sheer wit, or you might throw your arms up in terror. Who knows? Regardless, for anyone not being able to read the text, it adds an element of design to the photographs, which itself greatly enhances them.

A marvelously lush production, Marvelous Tales of Black Ink offers an artist at the peak of his game (which, honestly, isn’t the case for a lot of the other hundreds of books produced by/around him). And you have to accept the work on the artist’s terms, because anything else would be, well, simply not art. Even if you end up rejecting the work in the end, and as much as I enjoy it I can also see a vast number of reasons for doing so, the engagement needs to at least temporarily accept where this photographer is coming from. For me, this particular book doesn’t reach the sheer visual wit of Erotos, but it nevertheless is a highlight of Araki’s most recent output. Its consistent, and it really is quite beautiful in a surprisingly large variety of ways.

Marvelous Tales of Black Ink; photographs and text by Nobuyoshi Araki; essay by Simon Baker; 108 pages; Mörel; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.9

We’re well into the 21st Century, with photography’s 200th birthday approaching in 24 years. To think of the medium as a monolithic entity would be entirely misleading. What is going to be celebrated is the general principle of photography, of capturing and fixing an image with some sort of device (that might involve a lot of chemistry or really just electricity), in some form (that might be tangible or not). The only thing that unifies all the different ideas of what constitutes photography is the steadily growing number of images already taken.

Using pre-existing images from an archive has been an accepted form of photography for a while now. Already some time ago, German artist Joachim Schmid asked people to stop photographing, given there were already enough images in the world, and we haven’t even looked at them properly. It was not to be. In fact, ever since our collective amassing of imagery has accelerated, with countless photographs made every second.

And now there is a secondary industry of artists, whose practice mostly involves doing exactly the kind of recycling Schmid proposed (there is an industry for everything in photography now, isn’t there?). Things can get interesting, but mostly they’re not (they might be entertaining). To get things interesting, the collecting has to involve careful looking, and it has to involve a vision, an attempt to shape something that while being a collection of older photographs ultimately is more than that – much like any photographic body of work that is bound to last ultimately is more than the sum of its parts.

Bryan Schutmaat knows a thing or two about photography. After producing the acclaimed Grays the Mountain Sends, a collection of his own photographs taken in the mostly desolate American West, he teamed up with Ashlyn Davis to peruse public photographic archives, looking for photographs produced by those before him, whether well- or unknown. The result of this endeavour is now available in the form of Islands of the Blest.

The book is interesting for a variety of reasons. For a start, it’s a genuinely good photobook, a proper companion to Grays. Beyond that, though, it offers a lesson to be learned about photography. My experience is that while many photographers are very aware of what is going on right now, who is hot right now and/or who has a hot book out, knowledge of the medium’s history is at best shallow (if that). Now, why would anyone look at old pictures when there is so much good work going on right now and when so many ideas used in photography in the past appear to be so outdated?

The answer is simple: the history of photography offers a treasure trove of imagery, a lot of which feels much fresher than what one would imagine. Strip away our gadgets and what we think of as those original ideas we have in our heads, and you get to the core of things, from which people have been making photographs for a long while now. There simply is a lot of great photography in the archives, photography that looks and feels as fresh as anything made today.

Islands of the Blest hits home this fact fact forcefully. Through the editing by Davis and Schutmaat, there is a clear contemporary sensibility in this book. At the same time, that contemporary sensibility is tied to the past, making one look at the past as the present, or maybe at the present as both a clear consequence and a variation of the past. It’s not quite the eternal recurrence of the same, but it has echoes of that.

Seen that way, Islands and Grays then aren’t so much companions as two sides of the same coin.

Islands of the Blest; photographs by various photographers, edited by Bryan Schutmaat and Ashlyn Davis; poem by Michael McGriff; 68 pages; Silas Finch; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 4, Production 3 – Overall 3.4

As has become obvious from the preceding two books, reissuing older photographs is quite common. As we have also seen, its forms can vary considerably. Mise au jour, featuring photographs by Johan van der Keuken,  lies somewhere in between Marvelous Tales of Black Ink and Islands of the Blest. Edited, designed, and published by Willem van Zoetendaal, the book is a compilation of previously unknown work, made between 1956 and 1982.

I’m always a bit torn about such compilations, about people digging through some photographer’s archives, looking for new material to uncover and publish. It’s just so hard to do it well. Often enough, there are reasons why previously unpublished work was in fact previously unpublished. And even where work clearly deserves to be seen more widely, it’s one thing to have the pictures, but it’s quite another to create a compelling photobook out of them.

Thankfully, Willem van Zoetendaal knows what he is doing, creating a book that does the work the best possible justice, while at the same time showcasing the artist (and not the book’s maker’s ideas), and doing all that in a package that is simple, elegant, and fitting at the same time. The presentation never gets in the way of the photographs, and the production greatly enhances the work.

If you look at the front cover of the book above, it simply presents all the photographs as thumbnail-style negatives, sorted by the locations where they were taken. Inside, chapters are then formed by those locations, with each such chapter being introduced by only its negatives. Photographs change orientation in the book, given they are printed full bleed. The viewer thus has to rotate the book, a device that used to be quite common in the past. I’m sure there will be enough people who complain about this, but it’s clearly the very best way to allow each photograph to get as much space as possible.

On top of that, the printing of the book had me touch the pages multiple times, expecting that almost velvety feel you get from older photobooks, when printing technologies produced heavy layers of ink on paper, making looking at a photobook a very tactile experience as well. You don’t get the same feel here from your finger tips, but you will certainly get it from your eyes, with the black and white being full of life, being rich in a way that makes one re-appreciate what good black-and-white printing can really.

So Mise au jour really is a visual feast, a masterful example of what the medium photobook has to offer for older, reissued work.

Mise au jour; photographs by Johan van der Keuken; 112 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2015

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.9

A Conversation with Kentaro Takahashi

Article main image
Kentaro Takahashi

Kentaro Takahashi is one of the winners of the 2014 Conscientious Portfolio Competition. About his work juror Arianna Rinaldo wrote:

“The work intrigued me from the beginning and stayed on my list until the end. I am attracted by the fact that the focus of the story seems to be just OUTSIDE the frame, not in the actual shot. There is something going on that viewer cannot participate in. There is a sense of suspension that brings me to want to see more, a sort of other dimension that will final give an answer to the somewhat surreal, unfinished gestures in the images that I am let to see.”

Over the past weeks, I conducted an interview with the photographer, to get a little insight into the project in question and his background as an artist.

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

Kentaro Takahashi: I was born in Yokohama Japan in 1989. But after that our family moved around ten times because of my father’s work, until we settled in Tokyo in 2001. Since 2001, I’ve been living in Tokyo and I have always been a soccer player (non professional though).

Photography came into my life after the big earthquake in 2011. I was just about to enter my senior year of university, and around that age for many Japanese people, we start looking for jobs. Although I was studying sociology and the use of informatics in this quickly evolving world, I didn’t know whether I wanted to do something related to that.

It was then when that big earthquake occurred, and it changed my mind completely. Even though I was in Tokyo, a magnitude 5.0 earthquake happened and I felt this enormous fear of death, which I never had experienced in my life. All the devastating information came out, and the news was completely filled with the earthquake for more than a month, like how many thousand people were still missing, how many remains were found where. That shocking video footage of the tsunami swallowing a whole city was shown on TV everywhere repeatedly.

Which made me realize that our life isn’t certain at all, and nothing can be taken for granted. Whether I wanted to or not, I had to think about what life is, why I’m living, what this world is facing, and all those questions came. No one knows what will happen the next moment, whether to yourself or to someone else, and that’s when I started to take photography seriously. I felt the need to record my life. So I bought my first digital camera.

A month later, I happened to meet Andreas Seibert, a Swiss documentary photographer who was based in Tokyo. A couple of months later, I was asked if I would be interested in going to the Tohoku area to help Andreas with communicating to the locals at the devastated area, and I said yes. So I became his assistant, which changed my life around 180 degrees. After two years of education by his side in photography and also as a human, along with my personal projects I started to take assignments, and this is where I am now.

JC: You conclude your statement for The Riverbed, selected as one of the winners of the competition, by asking “How to confront the crisis we are facing right now?” Can you speak a little about the crisis or what you see as the crisis to give a little background for those not familiar with Japan?

KT: By the term crisis in my statement what I am referring to is the lack of interest in politics among Japanese citizens in general, which does not lead to any discussions or political issues being taken to the next step. I am not sure how Japan is thought of exactly in other countries. But as a guy living in this nation, I feel this disgusting discomfort that comes from everybody being so quiet in public.

I do not want to get into too much political controversy. But as an example, the last national voting that was held last December (2014) marked the lowest voting rate of 52.66%, which made no difference to the outcome. The former prime minister Abe just came back into his seat again. But according to a public opinion survey, 48% of the people are unsatisfied with the result of the last vote. If that number of people had gone for vote, something could have changed presumably.

In Japan, there is this saying of “you should not speak about religion and politics in public” from the old days, which a lot of people follow. I have never heard anybody speak about or criticize the government in the streets, cafes, trains or however you’ll define a public space. Thanks to the internet, there may be a few people who are debating the policies. But I’d say it’s few, and even if they do, because of the anonymity it becomes less of a criticizing dispute than more of a discriminating shout match.

Maybe in Japan as a country or culturally in the system of the Japanese people’s development there is no infrastructure or education to openly speak out in public, which I am a little bit ashamed of. And there are too many problems that need to be discussed. Examples such as the use of nuclear energy, Korean comfort women from World War 2, and also the use of the Japanese Self Defense Forces which nowadays is my main concern. Off course, there are way more issues than I can write down here.

JC: Why did you pick this particular river to start photographing something related to Japan?

KT: First of all, I had always wanted to do a photo project about this country, since my nationality is Japanese and it’s the country that has this crisis. As I was going through some articles and archives related to Japanese culture after graduating from university, the “Tama River” came out in the old and famous Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai’s work. With a little more research, I realized that a lot of artists in all sorts of fields have used this river, which made me think that it was an important motif for the Japanese people in the past.

Secondly, this river goes through my hometown, but I had never actually been there since I was born. So I just thought I should go and see for myself what’s there and what kind of people live there. Then I found this whole universe of diversity through the river, which I think is somewhat typically Japanese, but which is also different from that traditional definition of “Japan”.

JC: Can you talk a little bit about how it’s different from traditional ideas of what Japan is?

KT: I cannot generalize this. But if I would explain it, it’d be like this. What I found around the Tama River is something that I hadn’t really expected or something that I would not have known before actually going to there. I realized how we or maybe just I rely too much on the media or news, which form and shape our minds into some sort of fixed ideas and stereotypes before we know it.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew that we cannot talk about Japan as a whole, and we cannot define it because the country consists of many individuals. But it’s something more than this, which is hard to explain.

Then I had another idea. When I said the Japanese people lack interest in politics, I thought that was a shame. But maybe that mindset could be good. If more Japanese people just care and think only about themselves and their surroundings and only about their neighbors and friends, and if they say no to politics, what can this kind of society bring… It’s just a thought of course, and I know that’s impossible. Although we all know how politics and the idea of a country are almost like an illusion, and nationality too, because we all know how individual people are just different from the idea of the term “country”.

On the other hand, like in the photograph I took in this project of a couple having a picnic and being close together, the differences of their facial expressions and what they are wearing could be a thought of as typical Japanese. The reason I thought that is because the girl looks more mature than the boy. People say in Japan that women are more realistic than men, especially when they are the same age.

Also, the girl is wearing stockings. She feels the need to be more secure at her age than the boy with his rough kind of clothes. And they are entering into their fourth year of university. When you look at their eyes, the girl is gazing at her future, whereas the boy is satisfied with the moment right now. Those kinds of things made me think about typical ideas we have.

All the thoughts I just said are almost all my own points of view and my opinions, against the idea of a “country”. It’s hard to put them into words. And I am not sure if I have succeeded in making my images look the way I want them to look. But maybe that ambiguity makes it possible for viewers to see my photographs more freely.

I do feel that I am still in the middle of my research, and what I have in my mind right now is filled with contradictions. I will see how it goes.

JC: Where would you place yourself in relation other Japanese photographers, whether the ones well-known (also outside of Japan) such as Araki or Moriyama, or the younger generation?

KT: That is a hard question. I think I am not the one to be judging that kind of presence. Although I am sure and I have always thought that to become a well-known photographer, the newcomers have to always try something new and different than the photographers who already have their names on the list.

Of course, I also did want to do something new, and I personally think that I failed with this project. The subject itself, with the idea of choosing to follow a river has been done by many photographers. The way I shoot is simple: portraits, stills, street-like snapshots etc. Also combining them. Japanese documentary photographers have been doing that too.

Those things considered, what I can say is that I am pretty much old fashioned. But it’s good for me, because the photographers’ work that I have always admired is the documentary photographers’ works that use this kind of style.

I do of course have in mind of doing something new. But right now, I just hope that my photographs can touch other people’s hearts – like the photographers’ works that made my heart beat and made me think about this world.

On Trends

Article main image

Trends come and go, so in principle there is nothing much to be worried about. Photography, much like any other area organized around human activities, has been experiencing trends for a long time, older ones now firmly established as important historical episodes (think “Pictorialism”). And really, given that photography can be art (not is art per se, as I’ve argued before, instead it can be art), its practitioners might decide not to worry about trends – simply because the idea behind art is not to be trendy, but to be truthful to higher ideals that almost by construction exclude the idea of trendiness.

Of course, this is much more easily said (or written) than done, especially these days. Right now, after the apparent demise of the Düsseldorf Photography trend, it’s all about the New Formalism. I’m not sure my own excitement for photography would have been triggered in much the same as it did over a decade ago if what I saw in most galleries had been those kinds of pictures – largely devoid of any real meaning (and, often, merit – but to be fair, the same can be said for any kind of photography).

This is not to say, however, that I bemoan the loss of seeing huge prints behind plastic everywhere. As much as I enjoyed the very best of them, it got a bit out of hand, if you know what I mean. Thankfully, the 2008 recession put a real end to it – even though I suspect that around that time it had already become abundantly clear that the trend had really run its course. The good news here is that now this kind of photography has become freed from its Düsseldorf hype, and it can be judged mostly on merit.

Let’s say you’re a photographer who doesn’t produce gigantic colour pictures of barren scenes or who doesn’t produce studio still lives that might or might not be awkwardly Photoshopped for reasons that only their makers and a handful of curators appreciate. Then what? As I wrote above, if you’re a real artist you probably don’t give a shit (your choice of words might differ, but you get the idea). It’s quite tough to be a real artist, however, especially these days. This is not only because of the challenges it entails. Those challenges are tough to deal with, and they require a daily struggle.

But you leave the house (or studio) with your prints, having struggled with the medium and/or your own demons for quite a while, only to find that your, let’s say, delicate black-and-white prints, lovingly hand-made in a darkroom, don’t appear to have an audience any longer. Or rather, if there’s an audience, they’re all holding their breath, counting to ten, and hoping that when they reach “ten” those god-awful pointless colour pictures of ironic still lifes will go away. But they might not. Something entirely else might, actually will pop up, and it might also not be delicate black-and-white prints, lovingly hand-made in a darkroom.

Then what?

That’s a situation a large number of photographers find themselves in. How do you go about dealing with it? You leave grad school, say, with your MFA diploma’s ink not quite dry, you take your photographs to galleries or publishers, only to be told that, well, they’re a hard sell, and if you only had a book (a gallerist might say) or an exhibition (a publisher might say), then there might be a chance (call this the post-MFA Catch 22).

And maybe, maybe, maybe you get the work onto some blog somewhere, but that little blip is going to disappear the next day anyway, while it is battling with the “NSFW” or “amazing” pictures or “pictures of the day” or whatever other hyperbolical-adjective-laden bodies of work it has to compete with that very day.

Maybe you’ll sign up for a marketing course, where someone will tell you all about social media, and how you have to be on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and you certainly have to have a mailing list, to tell the world about your photographs, and how you have to spend thousands of dollars on airfare, hotels, and entry fees for portfolio reviews and competitions you have no chance of winning.

Really, is that how this works? Is that how this should work?

It’s not that I have the magical answer for how to deal with this. If you thought you’d just keep reading and there it would be, that magical answer, I’ll have to disappoint you.

You can, of course, do all the things outlined in the previous paragraph (chances are you are doing it already, much like everybody else, contributing to a PR arms race that cannot be won, and that is, just to add that, won by entirely other means, which curiously nobody ever wants to talk about). But that still won’t guarantee anything. And regardless, it doesn’t answer the second question, whether this is in fact how it should work.

The “should” here lies entirely with each photographer her or himself. It rests on a decision nobody else can make, not this writer, not other critics or bloggers, not the social-media hype mongers, not even gallerists or publishers. All of those people certainly will have very good idea what needs to be done. But do those ideas make sense? That is the question every photographer needs to ask her or himself: does this make sense for me?

A photographer’s answers to those questions might easily be at odds with those provided by gallerists, publishers, critics, or the social-media crowd. But I think much is to be gained from resisting answers when they don’t make sense (assuming, of course, careful consideration has been applied). And it’s hard, especially these days, to do something different. Very hard.

For me, as a faculty member of a limited-residency photography MFA program, these kinds of issues tend to re-appear, whether during the course of the students’ studies or right after. Students are strongly encouraged to produce whatever work they feel they need to be making, however much – or little – it conforms to trends. Consequently, every year, there are students whose work finds itself at odds with large parts of what contemporary photography is focusing on.

It is easy finding an audience when what you are doing already is being given a lot of attention. But it is a lot harder – and a lot more challenging – to try to find an audience when that’s not the case, even when the photography in question lives up to the highest standards. That’s a tough spot to be in. But I think it’s the only spot that in the long run is worth anything. This is especially true given that there are in fact ways to get the work seen after all. It might “only” require a bit more work, or different, maybe even unorthodox, approaches.

For example, there currently exists a lot of hype around self-published photobooks, a lot of which is in dire need of a critical assessment. But the various issues of self-publishing aside, it does offer a good avenue for work that publishers simply won’t touch. Publishers, after all, are businesses, and just like any business, there are only so many risks that they want to take. A body of work might be very, very good, yet at the same time it might be a tough sell. Self-publishing then offers a way for a photographer to still get the work out into the world in book form, to get it to those people who are in fact eager to see it and enjoy it.

In other words, there are solutions for what to do with one’s work, however trendy or untrendy it might be. Finding those solutions requires a good amount of work, and creativity. But it’s worth it. And those solutions can’t necessarily come from other people, just like how solutions to creative problems need to be found, not given by other people.

What truly matters is for an artist to remain true to her or himself, and thus by extension to the work, however much resistance is going to be encountered. The quality – merit – of a body of work is not determined by how much it follows hot trends, how easy it is on the eyes, how well it can be used to serve as click-bait on some blog one day. It’s determined by what the work requires, what it needs, and thus by what it offers to those willing and eager to look.

If your photographs don’t serve well as click bait, if they require a slower engagement that results much in return – isn’t that a great spot to be in? To have work that holds up to being looked at for a little longer, that acts more like a fine red wine, maturing with age, than a piece of bread, stale the next day?

In other words, finding those willing and eager to look might be a challenge. But it’s a good challenge to have, and it can also serve as a reminder that the real reason for art to be made is not its desired success (as nice as that would be), but it being able to live up to its maker’s highest standards. Trends come and go – unlike good work, which has lasting power.

A Way of Looking, a Way of Seeing

Article main image

I know nothing about this picture, other than what it is, literally is: a photograph I found in Berlin, browsing for pictures by way of rummaging through a huge box filled with photographs taken (where not ripped) from old albums.

Found photographs provide the litmus test for photography theories, given that in pretty much all cases we have no access to their makers’ intentions, ideas, theories, PR, you name it.

A lot of photography theory sounds really good, at least on paper (assuming, of course, it’s not the usual academic drivel, with terms taken from semi-nonsensical French philosophy thrown in for good measure). The same can probably be said for a lot of what one hears from photographers or critics. But when there’s just a photograph and nothing else, a photograph tied to nothing we have access to – what do we get from that? Crucially, do the theories still apply, given the absence of any additional information? Given we don’t know who took the picture and for what purpose and where…

This particular challenge posed by found photographs has me excited about them. On top of that, it does help that found photographs are essentially the only ones I can actually afford buying. But that’s of course a different issue.

Here then is a photograph I fell in love with immediately when I first saw it. In the strictest sense, the only things that matter for a photograph are those contained within its frame. Everything else is unknown, is unknowable. And this is certainly true here.

In some sense, whatever is outside of the frame matters in some way, given that all the people here are looking at it (or him or her). The two people on the left are looking at something or someone to the right of the frame, as does the man at the right edge. That man even has to make an effort looking at whatever it is that is the focus of most of the attention here, given he has to turn his body.

But the real kicker is the one person who is not only looking at that, but who is instead looking at the camera – and by the usual mental extension we make: at us, her arms crossed. She has had it. She’s fed up.

We got ourselves a game of looking here, which we, as the viewers, are becoming a part of. Photography is never more fun than when this happens. Portraits often are intriguing in all kinds of ways. But when we are seduced into thinking that we are in fact part of whatever is going on here, when we get the feeling we are essentially in the photographer’s place, then a portrait truly shines.

I should probably add a disclaimer now, given that most portraits fall just short of that, and that’s still fine for a lot of them. Plus, we all want different things from portraits. Maybe we’d rather be entertained (in which case the portrayed essentially clown around or pose for us). Or we’d rather not be in the position where the portrayed acknowledges the photographer’s (and, by psychological extension, our) presence. That’s all fine.

Back to the picture: the photographic reality is that we don’t actually know whether or not the woman was fed up. It’s impossible to tell.

I realized what photography can do – yet again – a little while ago when a masked gunman was holding hostages in a cafe in Australia. Occasionally, people would escape, and there would be photographs (widely circulated, for example this one) and video clips. What I noticed is that the visual expressions of the people in the photographs were almost impossible to make out in the videos.

We all know that photography does that. We just usually tend to ignore it (unless, of course, we’re looking at a picture of us that someone took, in which case a lot of the things we forget about when talking about pictures suddenly become very relevant).

So we don’t know anything about the mental state of that young woman. We’re tempted to infer things from what we see, because we treat the expressions of people in photographs in much the same way as in real life, the only difference being that the photographic ones are frozen forever.

And we do more. We also tend to think that our own experiences are somehow shared with those in the pictures, projecting what we know about ourselves onto (or maybe into) those whose picture we’re looking at. Chances are everybody has those irritating family moments, and how could one not assume (yes, assume, there’s no way of knowing) that it’s just that here in this picture?

We bring all of our own baggage to pictures, whether we’re merely viewers or critics or theorists, and often enough our thoughts around a picture are then made to conform to our agenda or ideology. Susan Sontag’s On Photography, for example, really says a lot more about her ideology than about photography – which is completely fine with me, as long as students required to read the text are not only being made aware of that, but are being asked to untangle things.

There’s nothing one can do about this essential human conundrum. We all view things from where we are, from what we know and, crucially, want. That said, though, I have found that most people who engage with photography on a regular basis but who are not part of what we could call photoland are often much more perceptive about the medium and what it does than many of the theorists. There’s no agenda to support.

There are the pictures, and given there are so many pictures all around us, we all know how to process them quite well, thank you very much. The only people who tie themselves into serious knots are those trying to make sense of photography.

Vernacular photographs, of which there exist so many, could maybe serve as the reminders that there is a world out there. Whatever we decide to think about photography, whether in MFA class rooms, in white cubes, or wherever else – it has to serve all photographs, not just those in the particular environments we’re in. And given vernacular photographs come in an almost primordial form, without any theories or explanations or PR attached already, they are the ones we should be looking at first when theorizing.