The Dead Sea

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Once or twice every year, I get invited to give a talk at a photography festival or university. Given there is no need to repeat what already exists online (in the form of this site), I usually discuss the state of photography today, focusing on the larger picture. After all, photography has become a medium very widely used, and there are a lot of interesting developments outside the often somewhat narrow confines of contemporary art photography. As might be extremely obvious, my presentations rely on showing photographs, many of them picked based on there being some sort of discussion around them at some stage. Discussions (or controversies) offer a chance to learn something.

One of the things I simply did not expect is that many of the photographs, which might just be a few years old, end up being new to the audiences. They either haven’t seen them before, or they cannot remember them. This would be easily understandable if I only picked obscure photographs, but I try not to do that. After all, part of the idea behind me discussing (supposedly) well-known photographs is to make new connections.

So there’s something interesting going on here. There is the idea of a flood of photographs, a relentless onslaught of images produced by all of us that we have trouble dealing with. David Campbell has been making the case that this idea is flawed, giving three reasons: first, “it renders image consumers as passive victims of a force of nature […] But image consumption is not a natural process. It involves a series of conscious decisions […] Secondly, focusing on the macro level […] hides the much smaller number of images per person. […] Finally […] While there are billions of photographs online, we do NOT actually have access to all of them all of the time. You have to decide to follow people on Instagram and then you have to decide to look.” There’s very little, if anything, to disagree with here.

You can also play a numbers game, and the vast total number of photographs produced each year dwindles down quite a bit. Campbell proposes to replace the metaphor of an image flood with that of a reservoir, the idea being that while there might be a lot of photographs, they’re not merely rushing by. Instead, they can be accessed, in whatever way, in a conscious manner. This seems like a more apt way to approach the issue.

But regardless of whether you accept the idea of a flood of images or of a reservoir that leaves you in more control, why are so many photographs hotly debated one day essentially forgotten the next (or maybe a year later)? What does that tell us? I have no actual proof that the theory of shortened attention spans is correct, and in any case it just seems a tad too simplistic and convenient to tell us much. There has got to be something else going on.

An alternative explanation would be that many of the photographs that are so hotly debated or so widely shared today simply aren’t memorable in the long run. That, again, is a bit of a convenient explanation, especially if you’re of the grouchy kind, lamenting the loss of all that photography (supposedly) had to offer in the past. It does, however, place the onus on the photographs, and not their viewers, and for that reason I am tempted to think it might offer a better way to understand how we – collectively – are dealing with all the photographs we are either making and/or sharing and/or looking at.

After all, however many (or few) photographs we end up looking at every week, they all compete for our attention. Unless you have a very good visual memory, it’s unlikely you will remember them all. Instead, there might only be that one, or maybe two, or none at all. On top of that, even if your attention span is in fact very short, what makes photography different is its instant impact. Unlike a piece of writing that requires a prolonged investment of attention, a photographs reveals itself instantly.

Given we don’t seem to remember that many photographs, especially compared to the numbers we consume on a daily basis, the idea that most photographs aren’t memorable looks sound. And, of course, your “memorable” might be quite different than mine. This would turn Campbell’s reservoir of photographs into something that resembles the Dead Sea: photographs are made (and possibly shared and looked at), but they are then essentially forgotten – as if they had in fact never existed.

A few years ago, I wrote about photographing a car on fire at a mall, concluding that the “pictures, it turns out, actually don’t always matter much – if at all. Photography might be a creative expression of the human mind, but often it is something else entirely. It might appear to be inconsequential, but it’s a statement made by the photographer, affirming her or his presence: I photograph, therefore I am.” Following this, the relevance of taking photographs would lie entirely in the process of making them. And the pictures truly don’t matter much: we can easily forget them, given they are just a spin off in this process.

Seen that way, the regular eruptions of outrage over people taking selfies in what appear to be inappropriate situations is entirely misguided: those selfies aren’t taken because their makers don’t care. It’s actually the other way around. People take selfies in such situations because they not only are there, but especially because they are affected enough to trigger the desire to affirm their presence. And the picture then gets added to the Dead Sea (with maybe a little extra life provided by some rabid newspaper or website that needs some quick outrage for clicks or sales).

The idea of the Dead Sea of photographs appears to solve one of the main problems many photographer appear to face. Given everything has been photographed already, the sentiment goes, what point is there in trying to make new work? Well, the point really is quite simple: make photographs that are memorable, photos that are that creative expression of the human mind. Not only is that not very easy at all, making it a very worthwhile endeavour, it also removes some of the self-indulgence behind so many of those complaints often heard from professional photographers.

But the Dead Sea of photographs is not just a global phenomenon, it’s also a very personal one. We all have hundreds, possibly thousands of photographs on hard drives, or somewhere in galleries on websites like Instagram or Facebook. Many of them are indeed the end result of that process of self-affirmation that I spoke of earlier. They get shared, looked at by the select few people who follow one’s feeds, “liked,” and then what? How many of those photographs will get revisited, looked at again? Do we revisit our own archives?

In the past, the process existed in a modified form, the sharing aspect removed (or rather, a bit more complicated). One would photograph, take the film to a lab, get prints, and often enough some, but not all, of those prints would end up in some sort of photo album. There are all kinds of ways one can think about photo albums, whether as a form of memory itself or as a way to support one’s memory.

Regardless of how you want to understand physical albums, it seems obvious that their digital equivalents don’t serve the same purpose at all. The aspect of selection usually is absent (or it is being replaced by a process of selection that is not aimed at oneself, but rather at those who might look at the photographs: Facebook albums are essentially a form of personal propaganda), and you simply don’t engage with a digital album in the same way as with a physical one.

What, then, has become of the kind of photographic memory we started to assemble once photography started to become a democratic medium? It would seem it’s gone. What does this tell us about how we view ourselves? How will we engage with our own past if we cannot open an album any longer, to gladly or wistfully look at those moments we deemed worthwhile remembering?

What are we going to get from staring into our own Dead Sea?

Photobook Reviews (W17/2015)

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In late March, an essay I wrote for Hyperallergic about Contemporary Photography’s Capitalist Realism was published. In the piece, I attempt to look at a fairly significant portion of contemporary photography from a different angle, investigating its position vis-à-vis capitalism itself, and placing used strategies into an actually well-known framework from art history. The term Capitalist Realism isn’t new. It was used in similar, yet somewhat different ways in the past. My own use differs a bit from previous incarnations, in that here, in the realm of contemporary photography, it is entirely devoid of irony.

Capitalist Realism almost always demands a somewhat critical position. Socialist Realism, in contrast, isn’t critical at all. Instead, its goal is openly and admittedly propagandistic, presenting a happy, pleasant world that in reality does not exist (because its underlying political/economical system is incapable and/or unwilling of producing it). But while Socialism of the Stalinist (and related) kind(s) is unwilling to deal with criticism, Capitalism does the exact opposite. In fact, if you look at the recent history of art, it’s almost as if art dealing in whatever ways with the system is only good if it is critical of that very system.

As a consequence, large parts of contemporary photography are at least on the surface openly critical of, let’s say, pollution or social injustice, and those photographs are then sold to very wealthy collectors in upscale galleries and/or auction houses, the same people who represent the system the most. This is a contradiction that I think needs to be discussed more. And it might just point to what I centered my essay on, namely that the criticism in large parts of contemporary photography actually mostly supports the system, without resulting in any meaningful change.

I focused my essay on two recent photobooks, one by Tor Seidel, entitled The Dubai. Seidel’s book is easy to understand in the context of Capitalism Realism – it really is mostly a visual celebration of one of the icons of Capitalism, the city of Dubai. The other book I discussed is Nadav Kander‘s Dust. This seemingly is a tougher nut to crack, given that unlike The Dubai it so much more critical of what it depicts, the remains of previously closed military/research sites in the former Soviet Union.

Kander’s photographs employ the aesthetics this artist has been known for. The vistas are usually sweeping, with a level of stylization that leaves everything a bit more lifeless than it maybe should be. How much to stylize such photographs is possibly the most important conundrum photographers such as Kander (but also Gursky, Burtynsky, et al.) have to face. Take things too far, and you got something that looks like like a painting, but actually too much like a painting: too removed to convincingly make the viewer think that the maker actually cares about anything else other than his technical skills (Gursky literally zoomed out of scenes until he was left with utterly pointless photographs of the planet’s oceans).

Here, Kander struggles with this problem, and he finds himself at both sides of this crucial divide. Some photographs are potent and moving, because they make the foolish pomposity behind the depicted scenes resonate with the viewer’s emotions. Other photographs are just too removed, too stylized, to achieve that goal, leaving the viewer with essentially exercises in how to make photographs of vast landscapes.

So Dust ultimately fails to make me care. I’d love to care about what I’m presented, but there aren’t enough hooks to lure me in. It is all a bit too precious, a bit too concerned with photographic form, a bit too, well, calculated.

Dust; photographs by Nadav Kander; essays by Will Self, Nadav Kander; 120 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2014

Rating: Photography 2.5, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.3

Jo Metson Scott’s The Grey Line is an odd book to include in these reviews, for a variety of reasons. For a start, it was published in 2013, which doesn’t exactly make it a too recent book. But then, unlike bread, phoobooks can be just as fresh a year (or more) after they were published.

What’s more, the book might not even strictly be a photobook for some people, given it places so much emphasis on text.  Without the text, it won’t make much sense to someone merely being interested in looking at its pictures. As far as I am concerned, that’s not necessarily a problem. I’m perfectly happy with the photographs in a book only doing some of the lifting, as long as the text doesn’t just become a crutch for an artist unable to take the pictures s/he needs. Here, that’s clearly not the case. The text supplements the pictures, telling large parts of a story that photographs cannot convey.

And somewhat oddly, The Grey Line also is a photobook that is critical of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that moves beyond the widely shared modus operandi of most work produced around them, where the lives of soldiers will be presented in – often – excruciating detail, yet the wars themselves, and especially the more than dubious rationale behind them, essentially don’t exist. Unlike during the Vietnam War, say, soldiers now can expect a lot more sympathy from those covering what we now call “conflict.” Unlike during the Vietnam War, the government doesn’t have to worry about being held accountable for what looks to many people as at least one extremely foolish adventure any longer.

A facsimile sketchbook, The Grey Line presents photographs and, crucially, the words of a number of soldiers who refused further service during the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Their reasons vary in detail, but they agree – to paraphrase a bit liberally – that these wars, either including some of their consequences or the reasoning behind them, were not what they signed up for. This hardly is a new problem, but maybe a bit surprisingly, it’s not something widely discussed.

If, for example, you find yourself appalled by your peers just for the fun of it scooping brain matter out of the skull of a man shot essentially willy-nilly, wouldn’t that qualify as a good enough reason to say “I’ve had enough of this”? (Not making this up, an episode like this is included in the book) Now, if that is no good reason to refuse further service, what would be a reason? At what stage does society allow a soldier to follow her or his conscience? This is an important question, especially for those societies that are democratic. And this is what this book centers on.

I’m tempted to think the book is not so much about the individuals discussed therein, as it is about us, about our willingness (or maybe also ability) to question authority, especially when said authority is leading us into what looks like an abyss. Any nation waging war will inevitably face this problem, given that war tends to bring out the worst in people. To merely celebrate the bravery or heroism won’t suffice. Instead, it will ignore the costs of war, and it will make future wars only more likely.

The Grey Line; photographs by Jo Metson Scott; texts by Jo Metson Scott and others; 122 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2013

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.4

The announcement of the (then upcoming) (re-)release of David Goldblatt‘s Particulars had me excited. Here was a body of work based on an extremely simply idea, which made it incredibly hard to photograph it well (this is how photography tends to work): details of the human body, produced from people encountered somewhere (thus not studio work, which would be something entirely different).

I don’t know how his happened, but I somehow convinced myself that the book would be not only a modest affair, it would in fact be quite small, maybe around the dimensions used by Gerry Johansson for most of his photographs. Have I been teaching too long? Have I spent too much time thinking about the best form for a photographic body of work? Possibly. What I clearly wasn’t prepared for was to receive a book in the mail that is in fact anything but modest and intimate. At 13.75″ (35cm) wide and high, it is, well, huge (Amazon lists it as 20″ by 20″, but, you know, that is exaggerated). Wha’ happened?

It might feel wrong to dwell on the fact that these pictures would have required a much smaller, a much more modest affair of a book. But still, it’s quite crucial. After all, here we have photographs that pay the utmost attention to the ways people shape, contort their bodies, many of them focusing on hands or feet. And that discovery needs to be shared with the viewers. The viewers ought to be given a chance to almost feel they are the ones discovering what is there to be seen, not the photographer. Instead, the photographs are so large that the energy contained therein dissipates.

(I’m going to factor the size of the book into “Book Concept.” “Production” really only refers to the technical production value of the book, which, Steidl being Steidl, is pretty much impeccable.)

There are some killer photographs in this book. It’s somewhat obvious that photography is all about looking carefully, but it’s a lot less obvious what this actually means. One of the problems with so much photography produced these days is that it replaces the careful looking with a hyper-caffeinated gawking. Now that’s fine for a little entertainment, but just like the caffeine will wear off, so will the pictures (and you’re left with, well, not much). Goldblatt is too smart a photographer to allow this to happen.

Especially the best photographs in Particulars what what can be gained from an attentiveness to the world that knows it needs to balance a desire for the perfect photographic form with the resulting pictures containing more than just that.

Particulars; photographs by David Goldblatt; 64 pages; Steidl; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 1.5, Edit 2.5, Production 5 – Overall 3.4

Roger Ballen: Outland

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It has become fairly customary to talk about an artist’s work using criteria or facts that have little, if anything, to do with it. In general, the more well-known an artist is, the higher the likelihood there will be talk of his personality or public persona, of his artistic background, or of anything else that these days is being employed to, let’s face it, sell work. While it’s completely understandable that artists will employ all kinds of means to make sure their work gets seen and sells, the critic’s role cannot, actually must not be to buy into that. The only thing that matters is, or at least should be the work in question.

Needless to say, critics focusing on just the work find themselves not only in the minority these days, they’re also fighting a losing battle in a day and age where by means of so-called social media the focus is more on an artist’s persona or on her or his entertainment value than on whether the work in question is any good. It’s tough to withstand the PR blitz, especially also given the fact that contemporary photography operates in its very own filter bubbles – much like the rest of the world. The critic’s role must be to at least try to break through those bubbles, however Don Quixote such efforts might end up being.

That said:

Roger Ballen‘s Outland is now being available in a second, expanded edition. It’s a body of work that sits closer to the beginning of the artist’s continuum of photographs than his more recent work – not just in terms of the time when it was made, but also in terms of what it shows, how the photographer employs his artifice. It would be somewhat tempting to judge the work using everything that came after it in mind. But much like a photo needs to be discussed based on its actual content (and nothing else), so does a body of work.

As a photographer, Ballen is one of those rare examples that actually isn’t served well through comparisons with other artists. Of course, connections can be made with those that came before him. One of the essays in the book attempts to establish ties to Diane Arbus (it seems once you photograph portraits that are a bit unsettling that’s the go-to reference). While Arbus generated a photographic universe of her own, so did Ballen, and whatever overlap there is teaches us less about the work than those vast areas where there is none. Joel-Peter Witkin might be another reference. But again, we would only learn so much by trying to make that connection.

I’m not sure I would want to argue that Ballen is sui generis. No artist is. But he is less of, let’s say, a planet orbiting around some star than its own star, albeit one that finds itself in a sparsely populated area. Ballen is first and foremost Ballen.

So what kind of photographer is Roger Ballen? What are we to make of this work?

For a start, the photographs in Outland hover somewhere between looking documentary (or of a documentary style) and anything but. There is a theatricality, an artifice to them that, however, manages to restrain itself at least somewhat (the same cannot be said about the photographer’s more recent work, which for this very reason does not possess the same power at all). These photographs could have been found, but they could have also been set up completely. It’s not clear from the pictures, and it also really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because here, we are presented with a world where the rules we take for granted don’t quite apply any longer.

Contrast this with Arbus’ work, just to bring back that reference, where we got a photographer who fears that we all share one world and who is trying her hardest to rebel against that. Ballen doesn’t rebel against anything. His world simply is his world, take it or leave it. Of course, many of his subjects come across as being “freaks” (to use the term so frequently employed in discussions of Arbus’ photographs). But they’re mostly that not because of who they are, but what they do. Arbus’ photographic universe makes no sense without the opposition into which it places itself concerning the world we are familiar with. Ballen’s, in contrast, doesn’t need any such opposition. It operates on its own.

(So if we really want to use those kinds of reference games, maybe we should discuss Arbus as a somewhat ineffective and one-dimensional variant of the vastly more complex Ballen.)

Outland might be the ideal Ballen universe, given it finds itself at the sweet spot between the documentary and the constructed. The tension between those poles is hard to break. Whenever there is a picture that looks more “found” (offering some sort of comfort), there is another one that looks a lot more constructed (offering a very different kind of comfort). Ultimately, it’s a most believable portrait of a strange unsettling world, where there certainly is terror, which is easy to understand, but also love, a love that we can’t quite comprehend, but that we still realize as such.

Outland also is the standard against which all of the artist’s other bodies of work have to be measured. Never before and – so far – never after did Ballen manage to strike the balance between the different types of artifice employed in such a successful way as here. It’s a book with many brilliant pictures, one of those bodies of work that deserve a more prominent role both in the libraries of those interested in photography, but also in the kinds of discussions critics, theorists, and writers are having about the medium.

There is one thing that really irks me about this second edition. I do appreciate seeing many of the previously unpublished images. But most of the pairings of photographs had me to the point of despair, given their simplicity. In many such pairings, the viewer is basically presented the same picture, not literally, but in terms of what is being shown. I’m genuinely puzzled by why there are those pairings.

That aside, the second edition of Outland delivers pretty much everything one would want from it. Highly recommended.

Outland; photographs by Roger Ballen; essays by Peter Weiermair, Elisabeth Sussman; 156 pages; Phaidon; 2015

Rating: Photography 5, Book Concept 3, Edit 2, Production 5 – Overall 4.1

Georgiou Street View

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George Georgiou

A few years after photographers started working with Google Street View (GSV), we are now at the stage where things have started to get interesting. As with every new digital photographic tool, the real question always was whether there would be more serious work after the initial wave, which was simple, one-dimensional, and thus fairly superficial (the hype being produced around it notwithstanding). Unlike in the case of “Second Life” photography (anyone remember that?), there was. Artists like, for example, Viktoria Binschtok started to engage with GSV in ways that pushed the boundaries considerably.

But much like the move towards digital photography has resulted in a strong counter-movement towards physical objects (say, in the form of photobooks), we are now also seeing examples that explicitly or implicitly push against the idea of being relatively passive consumers of robotic photography. Jim Goldberg was spotted sitting on top of an RV in New Haven, photographing people and locations. And there is George Georgiou taking the bus in London, surveying the city along its routes, and taking pictures for what has become Last Stop.

Now, whether or not GSV and Last Stop are directly connected doesn’t really matter. Given Last Stop visually operates along the lines of GSV, a connection can – and possibly should – be made. What ultimately matters the most, though, is what Last Stop tells us, and what the repercussions are for bodies of work based on GSV.

Just to be clear about this, I don’t belong to the camp that thinks photographers have to go out into the world to take pictures. It’s perfectly acceptable to gather them on your computer. But, and this is a big but, first the work has to amount to something, regardless of how you assemble it. And this is where a lot of the GSV work, especially of the earliest wave, has remarkable problems. Second, the fact that the photographer is physically absent from the scene also plays out differently for different types of work, in particular if there is overlap with documentary photography, say, whose traditions and ethics cannot simply be ignored or even thrown out (just as an aside, I often feel that artists in thrall of some new technology are too eager to have that simple fact top all concerns of their medium’s history – I find this extremely problematic).

The following always is the ultimate test for any photographic body of work: does it amount to something, to anything? It’s hard, if not impossible, to predict whether it will have lasting power. But to ponder what it amounts to helps at least understanding whether it might have lasting power, whether, in other words, it’s something worthwhile getting back to again and again.

In terms of how it was made, Last Stop – which is available in self-published book form – is simple: using London’s double-decker buses, the photographer traveled across the city, taking pictures of what presented itself to him. There are photographs of people, quite a few of them, going about their business, whatever it might have been at the moment the bus passed by. And there are a few cityscapes or fragments thereof, providing context or speaking of what people who are now absent might have done before.

The book presents the work in what might be the most obvious and certainly the most appropriate form, an accordion. This folded, long strip of paper takes the viewer along on the ride, moving her or him from London’s center to what appear to be its outskirts or at least its less crowded forms. On each side, the flow of the images is changed up twice (remember, an accordion book has two sides), with images being on the “spreads” shifted. Consequently, there are short sections that flow slightly differently, that, in fact, present small vignettes of pictures playing off one another. Producing these sections was an incredibly smart decision, given it breaks the flow a little, and it drives home the point that an accordion has its own logic (my apologies for the “driving home” picture in an article on photographs made while riding a bus).

Given one can unfold parts of the accordion at any time, the sequence is possibly even more crucial than in any regular book. The viewer can decide to see two, three, four photographs at any given time (unfolding the whole beast would require a fairly large space, though). So the sequence has to work well, but it also cannot be too simple. The sequence in Last Stop achieves this goal beautifully.

Looking through the book clearly presents a narrative of life in the city and of people interacting with other people, under a large variety of circumstances. There are sub-narratives in the work that weave in and out of each other. For example, there is a section on looking – photography effectively is a way of looking, and the section openly acknowledges this by making it a subject of the photographs.

Last Stop is a smart book, but it is more than that, given it does not aim at making its maker’s smartness one of the main aspects. The book also is very engaging, without trying to be entertaining. Not that being entertaining necessarily is wrong, but the problem with all the entertainment photography that has started to fill larger and larger segments of contemporary photography is that it’s shallow (and there’s something very wrong with being shallow). There also is no pandering to expectations (at least as far as I can see – maybe Londoners will disagree).

Instead, much like I imagine a bus trip through a city might be, the photographs reveal themselves as discoveries that, however, aren’t completely random. Now that’s a high bar to cross, and Georgiou has done it extremely well. And this then tells us something about how we can (maybe should) approach Google Street View photography.

Last Stop; photographs by George Georgiou; essay by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa; 176 pages; self-published; 2015

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.5, Edit 4, Production 4 – Overall 4.0