Sally Mann: Hold Still

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The subtitle of Sally Mann‘s Hold Still is given as A Memoir with Photographs, which it well might be, depending on how you flexible you want to be with the term “memoir.” I’d say that the book is in part that, a memoir, and in other parts, it’s clearly not. Your enjoyment of the book will depend on how closely you will stick to the idea of memoir. Another part of your enjoyment will probably be determined by how closely you’d like the book to remain to what is probably going to get many, if not most people interested in the book in the first place, Mann’s photographs.

I feel compelled to preface this review with the above because I didn’t really think too much about any of it before reading the book, and I ended up feeling I got more than I probably subconsciously asked for, and less. I’ve been trying to find out whether the more outweighs the less (I don’t think it does for me), and I’ve also been trying to find out whether that’s just based on my own expectations (it’s very possible).

It’s rather safe to say that Sally Mann is one of the United States’ preeminent photographers. As those reading the book will find out, she also is an immensely gifted writer, which certainly is not a given at all when one deals with photographers. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have the feeling that Mann would scoff at the idea that as a photographer, you simply can’t write, an idea that, sadly, is being peddled way too ubiquitously. Between Robert Adams and, now, Sally Mann, it might be time to retire this idea.

Hold Still clearly is a memoir as far as parts of Mann’s life are concerned. The reader is given ample insight into her childhood and adolescence up until the point of marriage. Beyond that, however, I’m not sure the word memoir applies all that well. What happened during the making of those photographs that made Mann famous (her family work), say, is largely left out of the book, a few crumbs here and there notwithstanding.

Instead, the reader is provided with a lot of detail of the author’s family, going back generations. As someone writing a memoir is wont to be doing, Mann detects traces of her own personality in those that came before her. There also is a larger chapter on race, which uses an African-American woman employed by Mann’s father as a nanny as the spring board. Of course, this chapter plays off against the overall background of the American South, which in itself features prominently in the book.

What I was mostly interested in, I realized after having finished reading the book, was whether or not it helped me see Mann’s photographs more closely. I’m not sure it did. Three larger sections stuck in my mind. While the family photographs are clearly acknowledged, their making for the most part remains in the dark (there is a short discussion of one of the pictures, including outtakes, though). But considerable space is given to a description of Mann’s reaction to the reception of the work in the early 1990s.

I very much do appreciate that the photographer would defend her work as forcefully as she does in the book. There is not much more you can ask than the following: “How can a sentient person of the modern age mistake photography for reality?” (p. 151) But then, that’s what people do. Your task — the photographer’s, the author’s, the critic’s, … — is to help people see how and why that is in fact not the case, how photographs are an reality (their own), but not the reality of what they purport to depict.

I think Mann could have bolstered her case by discussing the making in more detail other than, for example, talking about the great light in one picture. She is too smart a photographer to have me even remotely believe all she’s interested in is the light. What is more, later in the book she does talk about portraiture in ways that make it sound as if she did in fact herself mistake photography for reality. This is not to say that I don’t buy her defense — I do; but I also feel if anyone could have made a unique, stronger case, it is her.

There is another large section on the photographs that became Deep South, which, full disclosure, I think are the weakest pictures in Mann’s otherwise impressive oevre. The prose in Hold Still largely is very eloquent and witty. But in the sections on the South (and its photographs), things get a bit too baroque for this north German turned New Englander. At times, I found myself wishing the editor would have firmly put both feet on the brakes, given some of the metaphors in the chapter on the South are running amok, and not necessarily in a good way. What we love the most, we ought to love the most. I know that very well. But when expressing with words what we love the most, restraint, but not reckless abandon, makes for a wise companion.

Another larger section deals with the photographs at a body farm, which those who watched the documentary What Remains will be familiar with.

While some of the well-known male peers in Mann’s age group have made careers out of sticking a camera into people’s faces while roaming the streets or shallowly mocking the obvious in oversaturated ways, this particular photographer has demonstrated why and how a photographer can indeed become an artist: by embracing the possibility of failure, yet pushing her own vision forward, and by not being content with what can be easily had. Ultimately, it’s about the “what could be,” which in equal amounts is the expression of a deeper instinct (which all the prose in the book notwithstanding is inexpressible) and of an openness to seeing what can be found.

Hold Still deserves to be read widely in photography circles, given it offers new facets of a photographer who has been relentlessly pushing her work for decades.  Much like Mann’s photographs themselves, the book is very good, at times brilliant, at times a bit flawed. This is, after all, what makes good art good: it is made by human beings.

Sally Mann: Hold Still (A Memoir with Photographs); 496 pages; Little, Brown and Company; 2015

Photobook Reviews (W21/2015)

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Are there too many photobooks? Is the current production rate with which photobooks are being churned out into the market sustainable? I don’t know. From what I hear, most people seem to think it’s not. The medium photobook is great for photography, but it seems that somehow a combination of hype and maybe too dramatically lowered barriers of entry have resulted in too many photobooks being made. This is not to say that photographers shouldn’t make photobooks – quite on the contrary. But much like a few years ago, when photographers thought they all needed a blog (to be successful), now it’s a photobook (to be successful). And if some publisher won’t publish it, then it’s got to be self published (so you can be happy and successful – it’s a win-win situation).

As much as I appreciate self-publishing, given that if in doubt, I will always side with the iconoclasts, there just is this one detail: if you self-publish, you really want to think about beating publishers at their game – and not somehow convince yourself that somehow, they’ll be interested in beating you at your game. What I mean by that is that whatever you want to say about publishers (insert the usual populist sentiments about gatekeepers here), they know what they’re doing (some more than others, of course). There are quite a few publishers where as a critic/viewer/consumer/collector I know exactly what I’ll get, in terms of their commitment to the medium photobook (which then translates into the various quality aspects). As a self-publisher, you can bring that same commitment to your book, but more often than not it’s not happening.

I don’t quite know why I felt like prefacing this week’s set of book reviews with the above, other than maybe that long mental hangover from being in Berlin and looking at many books in many stores. My goal was not to buy too many (to avoid both the breaking of the bank and the literal breaking of my back), and I succeeded (for once!). Or maybe it’s discovering a few more books about photobooks just yesterday. Makes me wonder how long it’ll take before there will be The 50 Most Groundbreaking North-Eastern Lithuanian Photobooks. Well, anyway, this week’s reviews:

There’s a lot of talk of narrative in photobook circles today, almost to the point of making one wonder what happened to the idea of the book that is simply a collection of photographs. Regardless of whether you want to call this type of book a catalogue or not, it seems obvious that for a lot of work this format is exactly what is needed. A wonderful example is provided by Marco Breuer‘s Col• or.

For years now, Breuer has been working with photo paper, treating it in all the kinds of ways that artists attempting to produce a “proper” photograph on it would definitely try to avoid: scratching it, folding it up, burning it, etc. The results of this kind of process are all unique, both as objects themselves, but also in terms of how they’re positioned in the world of contemporary photography. Ever since I first saw these pictures, I have been mentally connecting it with some of Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Their support, the paper, makes them photographic. As unique objects, firmly subjected to their maker’s touch, they live in Richter’s world.

What would or could possibly be gained from examining whether Breuer’s pictures are indeed photographs or not I don’t know (if they’re not photographs, then what else are they?). I do see them as photographs simply because they point at how flexible the medium actually can be, at how wide a mode of expression it allows for. With the New Formalism exploring how the photograph as an image and artifact is being dissolved by both what we know about it and by basic computer technologies, Breuer sits at the opposite spectrum, destroying the very carrier photographs used to be fixed upon.

As a book, Col• or does the work the kind of justice it requires. The images are reproduced at full scale, bringing the viewer as close to seeing the originals as is possible with reproductions. In book form, the viewer’s engagement with the work differs from seeing it on the wall, allowing for the repeated exposure that it ultimately demands.

Col• or; photographs by Marco Breuer; essays by Isabelle Dervaux, Mary-Kay Lombino, Jeffrey DeShell; 160 pages; Black Dog Publishing; 2015

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

Reviewing Kikuji Kawada‘s The Last Cosmology is a fiendishly difficult task for me, given that Chizu (The Map) is my favourite photobook by a mile (I own the Nazraeli reprint from about a decade ago). How can I not compare? How can I not have that killer book in mind, looking at this new one? Well, I can certainly try.

I also used to be an actual cosmologist before I came to photography. What does The Last Cosmology have with this part of astrophysics? Nothing. Nothing, and everything.

Much like Chizu, The Last Cosmology relies on the juxtaposition of images that at first appear to have little to do with each other. There are frequent photographs of celestial objects, against which images taken from the world we are more familiar with are juxtaposed. Unlike in Chizu, though, Kawada plays less with abstractions. Instead, he pushes things more into a level of descriptiveness that at first might confound the viewer.

Crucially, blank space is kept white, which for me perhaps created the biggest contrast with the earlier book. Both Chizu and The Last Cosmology are deeply introspective, but the overall darkness and menace of the former keeps the book closed and claustrophobic, while the visual space provided by the latter has the viewer’s mind attempt to expand beyond its own confines.

Looking through this new book requires considerable mental energy from the viewer. It at first appears to present us with what we might expect, to then show us how little we actually gain from encountering it. It’s a cosmology that cannot be fully understood, that presents more riddles for every one that just got solved – much like the kind of cosmology I used to work in.

The Last Cosmology; photographs by Kikuji Kawada; 80 pages; MACK; 2015

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.7

The cover of Iran. Interrupted by Beatrice Minda shows a seemingly insurmountable wall that has some fencing on top for good measure. The image can serve as a metaphor for a country whose mores differ so much from our, but maybe more so as one of our own mental approach to it. For the past decades, the West has been happy to shut itself off from Iran, whose cultures dates back to times when there wasn’t all that much going on in large parts of the Western world. While extremist hardliners are furiously attempting to torpedo a possible deal over Iran’s nuclear program, there now appears to be a chance that re-engagement will finally be possible.

Iran. Interrupted offers merely a glimpse, but what more could photographs possibly do anyway? There are no depictions of people. Instead, the viewer is faced with the kinds of deadpan photographs of building interiors and exteriors that have come to dominate large parts of contemporary photography. So it is up to the viewer to respond, or at least to react. Say whatever you want about deadpan photography, but it does its job well. As a viewer, you need to look carefully, and you cannot expect to be served easy, simple solutions or answers. We’ve had too many easy answers about Iran over the past few decades anyway.

But there also is a block of text at the end of the book that provides welcome insight into what is actually depicted in these photographs. Details in photographs that at first little have to offer are filled with meaning, such as, for example, a book on a stand, which reveals the fact that the Qur’an in this particular household might be frequently used (hence the stand). A disused swimming pool ends up as being disused not because it has lost its purpose, but rather because it is visible from the outside. Etc.

Iran. Interrupted was made with all the right attention to detail, letting its photographs do their work, while, at the same time, enhancing the viewer’s experience through all those little details that in books so often get unnoticed.

Iran. Interrupted; photographs by Beatrice Minda; essays by Ashgar Farhadi, Shahrnush Parsipur, Pooya Ghoddousi; 152 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2015

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

A Game of Expectations

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A few weeks ago, I listened as a photographer described his work. It had something to do with the financial markets and how they operated, specifically how there was an ever accelerating trend towards financial transactions to be done by computers, while, at the same time, the equally accelerating trend towards embracing neoliberal policies was essentially gutting the kind of society large parts of us (those who are older than, say, 30) have been taking for granted. It essentially was that Sisyphean task, attempting to talk about something that does not exist in a tangible form, but that holds immense power, using pictures.

I was struck by a question the photographer was asked by another audience member. The person asked whether the photographer was also interested in providing answers or solutions to the problems he was pointing at. I remember my reaction being quite visceral. It took all my effort not to start laughing. As if it wasn’t hard enough to photograph computer trading and the effect of a complete loss of job security for people, there was the idea that the photographer might be in a position to offer solutions to problems that even some experts in the field, such as economists, are having a hard time with! And this then had me start to think about what we have come to expect both from photographs and from their makers.

As important as photographs might be for us, at the end of the day they’re just pictures. They used to have some form of paper support, whether as prints or as pictures in a book or newspaper, and some of them are still in that position. But for the most part, they now exist in the same form as those financial transactions that run through the supercomputers of banks. They’re bit and bytes, made visible temporarily.

Given how much power over the human imagination photographs have been having, there is something totemistic about them. We laugh or dismiss what we call “primitive” attempts by seemingly less sophisticated cultures to deal with our cosmos, with life and death. Yet when we encounter photographs, we essentially embrace the same primitivism, staring at a piece of paper or a pattern temporarily formed on a computer screen as if we were faced with what is depicted therein. It’s remarkable.

We attribute to those pictures all kinds of things, such as the supposed power to change something. Photographs, we are told when we’re not telling it ourselves, change this or that, whatever this or that might actually be. In reality, such claims hardly ever hold up to even halfhearted scrutiny, whether it’s photographs ending war or whatever else.

Calling photographs totemistic is just another way of saying that we have come to tie enormous expectations to photographs, and by extension their makers, expectations that they simply cannot fulfill. A photographer won’t be able to portray the ills of neoliberal capitalism and provide all the solutions on the side as well. A war photographer won’t be able to bring us those pictures we profess we need to see and stop that same war as well. It’s just not going to happen.

Photographs really are just pictures. Not more and not less. It is not their task to change anything. It might be ours, and whatever might us make or contribute to change can in part be contained in a photograph. But that’s about as far as it goes. Yet, we constantly demand that photographs do more. Whatever important event happens, we are not content unless there exists an iconic photograph that can serve as, let’s say, the event’s ambassador. That iconic photograph then stands for the event, essentially simplifying the complexity of something down to a simple picture. What do we gain from such a behaviour other than simplifying what probably is quite complex down to something so utterly simple and simplistic, a picture?

In much the same way, the makers of photographs also often attribute a lot more to their photographs than either what is actually contained in the pictures or what those pictures will be able to do. Talk to any MFA student or any war photojournalist to be confronted with often outright absurd expectations of the power of photographs.

The reality is that photography can only fulfill its proper role if we, the audience, accept our part. Instead of proclaiming that photographs change this or that, it’s a much better approach to accept that photographs only have power if we allow them to. The power we attribute to photographs is not contained in the photographs, nor does it come magically along with the photographs. Instead, it is us giving photographs power, often considerable amounts. We see in photographs more than what they actually convey.

When we voice our exasperation over photographs not doing what we expect them to be doing, we’d be much better off scolding ourselves over having unrealistic or absurd expectations. And the same is true when we confront photographers over something their pictures supposedly do (or don’t do). Large parts of photography are still being produced around the idea that there is a picture, which gets seen by a viewer, and that picture then magically makes the viewer do something. Most of the time, that simply doesn’t happen.

Just to give you one example, we’ve all seen the horrible pictures coming out of Guantanamo Bay. Guess what, the facility is still open.

Digital technologies have revolutionized the ways of image making, yet our own thinking hasn’t moved much beyond where we were in the 19th Century. The real revolution in photography will happen when our thinking catches up to what photographs do, and to how we try to make them do things. Seen this way, all those debates about, let’s say, staged photography are really just side shows. Whether a photograph is staged or not really doesn’t matter as long as we don’t understand the expectations that drive our often visceral reactions.

Lastly, I will profess that maybe the main reason why I’m mostly interested in what you could call art photography is because it’s the area closest to not only working with viewer expectations, but also being aware of them. Say whatever you will about the arts, but when it comes to photography, many of its practitioners really are at the forefront of the medium, investigating ideas of truth in photography and exploring what the medium can really do once expectations tied to it are acknowledged.

(French: Dialectique des attentes)

Photobook Reviews (W20/2015)

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After four weeks of Germany, three of which spent teaching (with one day off), I’m back home, trying to re-adjust to a more normal life. Traveling from Europe to the US on a plane is easier as far as jet lag is concerned than going in the opposite direction. But it’s still a bit rough. Just today, I was able to start writing again (some thoughts on, again, money and art appeared here).

The articles I published here over the past four weeks had all been written in advance. There was one spot that I just didn’t have the time to fill, this week’s – the one that was supposed to appear this Monday. I thought I might have it in me to write it right after coming back. Didn’t happen. So these following book reviews will fill in for this week, and I’m hoping to be back with my regular schedule next week.

In Berlin, I discovered Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer‘s Passengers in a discount book shop, albeit at what I think was full price. I think I had been aware of the body of work. I certainly was a bit apprehensive even looking at the book, because, after all, how many more photography series about people on a bus or subway do we need? None of the ones I had seen so far appealed to me. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of the topic, especially if you’re after something that’s not essentially a collection of simple and easy photographic one liners (which, of course, makes for photobooks that are just that as well, simple and easy – and forgettable).

But Passengers is anything but just simple and easy. Maybe it’s simple, given the idea. But the execution of both the photography and the book clearly lift this one out of the field, by a mile. For a start, there is a lot of what looks like gloom and doom, the kind you’ll find if you take a bus pretty much anywhere at a time of day when most people snuggle up on their couches, doing whatever it is you do when you’re on your couch. So there’s an atmosphere, and it’s cold, and lonely.

There also is considerable abstraction, in that the people photographed through the buses’ windows aren’t turned into specimen to be gawked at and laughed at because of their physical and/or mental discomfort. They’re observed, to the extent that that was possible. There are reflections, there is ice on the windows, or maybe there’s water. Some people are looking back at the camera. Others are caught in what might be mid-thought (or in what you often get on a bus, that absence of all thought that we associate with waiting). Still others do not want to be seen. Added to those portraits are photographs of the bus station’s environs.

These photographs are combined in the book to great effect, which is no mean feat, given that essentially it’s a book filled with photographs that are quite similar, photographs that maybe only hit a couple of notes, possibly with a third one added. It’s really a wonderful book, albeit a somber, maybe even depressing one. But it sustains the viewer’s interest over its 166 pages. It’s a meditation of sort, one that begins right somewhere in the middle and that ends there as well.

Passengers; photographs by Dagmar Keller and Martin Wittwer; 166 pages; Spector Books; 2013

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

I’ll admit some of the photography I enjoy the most is the one that has me most bewildered. If you think about it, photography really is a dumb medium. It can only show surfaces, yet we all want it to show so much more. And so much effort goes into showing more, or rather into implicitly showing more even though explicitly there isn’t more. Contrast that with Paul Kooiker‘s Nude Animal Cigar, which shows exactly what it says on the cover (you can also order it using the publisher’s site). To be precise, there 63 photographs each of a nude, an animal, and a cigar, in exactly that order: nude, animal, cigar, nude, animal, cigar, nude, animal, cigar, etc.

Now who wants to look at that? How can that possibly be interesting? More precisely, how can you make a book that has a grand total of 189 photographs covering exactly three subjects and get away with it? Well, you can if you’re Paul Kooiker. Once I got the book in the mail, I dared myself to look at as much as I possibly could, thinking – foolishly, as it turns out – that there would be no way I’d be able to go through a book like this in one sitting. Turns out it not only was quite simple actually, it was even a delight.

I’ve seen Kooiker being referred to as a conceptual photographer, which he might indeed be, if by “conceptual photographer” you mean someone whose visual focus is so singular and outright strange that there just has to be some concept behind it. Given I’m a writer I know how this game works. Vague things can often be most easily written about by sticking labels to them that pretend to hide the author’s inability to couch them in more precise terms. OK then, Paul Kooiker is a conceptual photographer.

But, you know, to think of Nude Animal Cigar as a book of conceptual photographs really leads you nowhere. It’s not that at all. Instead, it’s a book filled with photographs of nudes, animals, and cigars, each of them a toned black-and-white. Not more, not less. As a viewer, it’s probably best to take the book for exactly what it is.

In an obvious sense, nobody will look at photographs of nudes, animals, and cigars in exactly the same way, and this is part of how this book operates. These photographs are presented  on an equal level, and if we accept that they are in fact the same (which, in reality, of course they are, since much like all photography, they’re really just pictures), then we might be presented with the best chance to truly enjoy the book.

The reality is that I’ve been tying myself into this knot with my writing mostly because I’ve been trying to write about the book in my jet-lagged state of mind (let me just entertain the foolish idea that this all is just the jet lag writing). Thing is I have been enjoying the book a great deal merely looking at it, taking in the photographs, many of which are actually quite amazing.

So maybe some photography really is just conceptual because it asks us to do the one thing we really ought to be doing a bit more: looking at photographs as, well, pictures. Not more, not less.

Nude Animal Cigar; photographs by Pal Kooiker; 384 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2015

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

Photobook Reviews (W19/2015)

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Trine Søndergaard‘s Stasis serves as a catalog for two exhibitions in late 2013/early 2014. An elaborate affair that is likely to make those eager to see beautifully produced photobooks swoon, it only has one problem: I wish budgetary restrictions had only allowed for including half the photographs (I know photobook budgets don’t necessarily work along these simple lines, but let’s just pretend they do). But maybe first things first.

Stasis combines photographs of austere interiors with very restrained portraits of young women wearing folk dresses. On the artist’s website, these portraits are separated into two sections, Strude and Guldnakke, the former usually offering some form of facial recognition, the latter none. Given their formal similarities, their differences are brought into a stark contrast: these photographs make the viewer look carefully. Through the attention brought to the photographs what separates them, what makes them stand apart, is brought into focus – where it exists, that is. The smaller the differences, the more those differences beg to be noticed, the more those differences speak – or fail to do so.

Both Strude and Guldnakke contain photographs that are highly sensual, and they both contain photographs that are anything but. There are descriptive photographs, photographs that look like they’re made to look like photographs, and there are photographs that use their content as springboards for the viewer’s imagination. Dividing up these seemingly so similar photographs into such categories might strike some viewers as over the top, if not obsessive, but this is photography for you: the more minimal it gets, the more intensity there is (it’s the difference between yelling “I hate you,” and whispering it).

And all that can be said simply should be said accordingly. I truly believe that, especially in a field like photography, which – presumably – does the exact opposite through it giving attention to everything in the field of view. It doesn’t. It simply does not do that. If you think it does, you really need to look a lot more carefully.

There’s a quietness to the best photographs in Stasis, in both the interiors and the portraits, that is inviting as much as it is disturbing. There’s tension, which is not waiting to get resolved. Instead, it begs to be borne, to be lived with. While showing moments forever frozen in time, the photographs actually speak of everything that came before – and after.

But, and this is a very big but, this tension is taken away through the inclusion of too many photographs that fail to do that. It’s not only that there are too many photographs – a book of maybe 15 to 20 photographs might have been a killer, it’s also that they’re not all even remotely equal in any kind of way (other than by employing superficial formal aspects).

This makes Stasis a bit frustrating for this reviewer. But the best photographs – they are allowed to shine in a lush, beautiful production, which does everything right: the size, the production… I wish more publishers would pay this much attention to making beautiful photobooks.

Stasis; photographs by Trine Søndergaard; essay by Mieke Bal; 156 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 1, Production 5 – Overall 3.6

Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so radically different that it makes me re-think what I take for granted. Such was/is the case with Yuanyuan Yang‘s 10 Days in Krakow. The book threw me off right away, by mixing still images from a Japanese anime film called The Sky Crawlers with photographs presumably taken by the book’s artist. For good measure, there are all kinds of other types of imagery thrown in, including vernacular photographs, archival ones, photographs sourced from what looks like the web… And all that centering on, roughly in this order, air war, the Krakow ghetto and Auschwitz, tourism related to those, contemporary Poland, a young woman who grows up and has a baby, a Russian actress who looks like that young woman, another Russian woman, and images of Polish airmail stamps.

My first instinct was, as is probably not surprising, to throw my hands up in exasperation over the mix of all of these things. But then, if we are to accept the inclusion of what is commonly called vernacular or found images in contemporary photography, why would this have to focus only on old photographs? What is it that makes screenshots from a Japanese anime film unsuitable? In much the same fashion, why should mixing all these different topics be taboo, given that in order to understand a subject matter might benefit from putting it into a larger context, especially one not prescribed with already existing and widely accepted meaning?

After all, if art is supposed to if not teach us something, then at least help us get closer to a better understanding of the world, we will have to accept it doing things we are not familiar with, things we do not take for granted. Don’t large parts of contemporary photography suffer from exactly this problem, that instead of being open to suggestions, they are prescriptive around agreed upon ideas?

I’m not sure whether 10 Days in Krakow does what it intends to be doing successfully (this assuming that I understand what that is, which might not be a given). It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking that maybe can only mostly fail. But success in the sense of getting something that is completely clear might not be what one should be after here. Instead, the book opens up new avenues for approaching narration in photography.

Maybe it’s not necessarily a surprise the book is a product of an artist who was not born in the West. What we have to gain from exposure to a wider range of ideas and work is not only seeing faces other than the familiar ones (which in the art-photography world predominantly tend to be white). We all need that. But we also and especially get to be exposed to ways of thinking that are different in the sense of their personal and/or political/societal/cultural backgrounds, but that are the same in terms of their desire to have us all learn a little more about ourselves. Diversity enriches us all.

10 Days in Krakow; photographs, in part appropriated, by Yuanyuan Yang; text, in part appropriated, by Yuanyuan Yang; 168 pages; Jiazazhi; 2014

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

Apparently, Prince Harry spoke out against being part of a selfie a little while ago, which had The Guardian‘s art critic Jonathan Jones declare that the selfie time (“a global cultural obsession”) was over. Well, that settles that then, if some minor royal has that sort of power (“minor royal” here courtesy of David Campbell), and an art critic for an otherwise respected newspaper follows.

To tell you the truth, the more people like Jones (or the minor royal) rail against the selfie, the more I’m for it. I’m completely serious. I even bought a selfie stick a little while ago out of sheer spite (it’s true; haven’t had time to use it, though).

However much I want to agree with the idea that selfies ultimately are the symbol of this time’s collective narcissism, that explanation is much too convenient to be holding huge amounts of water. I don’t want to repeat what I wrote about last week, so I’m just going to refer the interested reader to that piece.

Part of the reason why knee-jerk reactions to the selfie phenomenon are terribly shortsighted are given by #Selfie, edited by Christian Rodriguez, a little book that contains a fairly wide selection of such photographs, sourced from the internet. Lest you wonder, the sources of the images are provided at the end of the book. So there are, for example, Kelly Nash who almost got hit in the head by a rogue baseball, Dasha Ria sitting in a car with very short hair and a long scar on her skull (hashtags include “#cancer #operación”), or Kay Kulkarni, one of the people who take selfies after climbing atop a skyscraper (this one‘s not in the book, but you get the idea).

For every picture that supports your narcissism theory there’s another one that blows a hole into it. For every picture that supports your idea that people are just callous there’s another that blows a hole into that. And there’s quite a bit of sexual imagery, of a surprisingly large variety. We produce selfies for all kinds of reasons, and as silly as some of them clearly are, as serious are others.

So #Selfie tells us something about what we think photography can do for us when we put ourselves into the picture. They transcend photography in a multitude of ways, covering the silly and the serious, the callous and the deeply caring; and maybe they’re one of the most honest types of photography.

Of course, selfies are self-curated and thus a form of propaganda. But despite that restriction, a lot of our own filters appear to drop, and we risk a degree of vulnerability that is rare in photography – not necessarily in every selfie, but in enough to make the phenomenon a lot more interesting that minor royalty or art critics might want to have it.

In case you want to get a copy of the book, maybe just write to the publisher. I bought the book at a zine fair in Brazil, and I don’t know how else to buy it.

#Selfie; edited by Christian Rodriguez; 62 pages; Vibrant Editora; 2014

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