Photobook Reviews (W31-32/2015)

Article main image

It’s summer. As has become a bit of a tradition, I’m teaching photography for a couple of weeks. Consequently, these following reviews will be up for the next two weeks, and I will be back with new programming on 10 August, 2015.

Over the course of the past few years, my thinking about photography has evolved to the point where I now think that the gesture of photography is as important as the photograph itself, if not more so. With the exception of truly “found” images, photographs usually come with gestures attached. To a large extent, we base our perceptions of what we see in photographs on the attributed gestures (while at the same time pretending not to do so at all).

Needless to say, the term “gesture” might seem fuzzy, opaque even. But most of the time you take a photograph to an end, and there is a social aspect involved: you want something, whatever that might be. You might want to assert your own presence in the flow of life (the selfie — “I photograph, therefore I am.”), you might want to teach a possible audience about some facts that you think they really ought to know (photojournalism), you want to confront a possible audience with something larger that is difficult to be put into words (art photography, following the tradition of “the sublime”), or whatever else.

What we’ll have to understand is that there’s nothing really wrong with any of these actually quite separate photographic activities (sorry, selfie haters!), as long as you don’t make one the standard by which all others have to be judged. That really is the affliction a lot of discussions around photography suffer from: someone takes the rules and ideas from one area, applies them to another, very different one, only to then get terribly upset about what essentially is an artificial problem.

Given the medium photography also possesses a history, different photographic activities each also come with their own baggage. Some of them carry a lot more baggage than others, though, in particular given that the gesture of photography has the potential to be malicious. Of course, our ideas of what’s malicious evolve with time. Some things that were acceptable 50 or 100 years ago are now considered to be problematic or even outright wrong. For example, people didn’t appear to have much of a problem with having their photographs taken in the streets in the past, but that’s now changing rapidly.

As photographers, we cannot expect the medium photography to remain unchanged (I’m not speaking of technical issues here, which are actually mostly irrelevant), while the world changes around us, towards something that is better and better as time progresses (at least that’s the hope).

What this means for anyone engaged in photography is that you need to be aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, given the history of your medium. As I said, some photographic activities are a lot less tainted by the past than others. If you find that what you are interested in is tainted, then you better find ways to work against that, to make sure that you’re not essentially engaging in something that is problematic. This is especially important given the nature of the gesture that comes with photography: you might be able to convince yourself that you have the best of intentions, and “you let the pictures speak for themselves,” but at the end of the day, it’s the gesture that matters.  Photography has long lost its innocence, now deal with it!

If that all sounds way too theoretical for you, take a look at Eric Gottesman‘s Sudden Flowers to see what I mean. Gottesman could have just traveled to Addis Ababa to make and bring back the usual photographs so many Westerners produce there. And we, as the Western audience, could have then had discussions about such abstractions as maybe “compassion fatigue” (“why don’t these photographs move me?”) or any of the other drawers we like to place photography into when we don’t realize that we’re actually not talking about the fundamental problem.

Instead, Gottesman engaged in a long-term project, in which he worked with a collective of children who lost their parents and in which he gave the children an agency that in this larger context often is just missing. The children — the Sudden Flowers — were given Polaroid cameras and audio recorders by Gottesman, to make pictures and to talk about their dreams, aspirations, and memories.

In an obvious sense, these kinds of activities are not what Western photographers usually do in Africa, especially not when they parachute in for a few days to take some dramatic pictures. The resulting book, Sudden Flowers, is as much Gottesman’s as it is the children’s. It’s a deeply moving collection of pictures and text, which does not speak of or about this group of children. Instead, it allows them to speak for themselves. It allows them to participate in the gesture of photography. And every book comes with a unique envelope, decorated by the children.

I’d like to think that we can gain so much by seeing more photography done this way, in particular in areas of photography where the medium’s history is so complicated, where it contains so many problems. This matters not only because of the subjects — these children’s voices deserve to be heard. It also matters because such large parts of photography are stuck in a Procrustean Bed, which only allows for solutions to problems that ultimately can’t work, that don’t get us any closer to what we all feel the medium should be doing.


Sudden Flowers; photographs and text by Sudden Flowers/Eric Gottesman; 144 pages; Fishbar; 2014


Publisher Oodee maintains an ongoing series of publications entitled POV Female. Each series centers on a specific city, and each contains five books showcasing the works of five different female photographers from the city in question. After London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, and Bogota, the series’ latest installment covers Beirut. POV Female Beirut comprises books by Lamia Maria Abillama, Ayla Hibri, Randa Mirza, Caroline Tabet, and Lara Tabet.

Given that large parts of photography are still so heavily dominated by white men (from North America and Europe), the series clearly aims at shaking and opening things up. There is, after all, a lot to be gained from increasing the variety of photographic voices: not only will those previously left out because they’re not white men be given a chance to contribute, but it will also expand everybody’s horizon, enriching the medium while, at the same time, expanding our collective exposure to the world as a whole. So I really only have one complaint about the series: the edition size — 100 — is way too small. The series deserves to be seen more widely.

Abillama’s main focus as a photographer centers on portraits. For Clashing Realities, she asked Lebanese women to don military fatigues and she then photographed them in their homes. While the country’s history is filled with episodes of violence, ranging from civil war to Israeli invasions, for me the portraits still fall somewhat short of making the connection between the wars and the people who have had to endure them. The photos are competent, of course, and maybe you can see in them what you’re asked to see in the statement. But the series still feels more like an illustration of an idea than an exploration of the effects of war.

Hibri’s Real Prince centers on men and their motorcycles. There’s nothing particularly new about this idea. But the resulting photographs still hold more than one surprise, in part because of the location, and in part because the photographer changes things up and is open to discoveries. There clearly is a somewhat strange dynamic going on between the photographer and her subjects, a dynamic in which the “tough guy” facade these men inevitably attempt to put up more often than not is punctured, to reveal if not a rather pathetic male but at least someone who is vulnerable.

Parallel Universes and Beirutopia by Randa Mirza comprises two separate series, which are here combined into a single body of work. As individual projects, the photographs are quite good. Parallel Universes has a lot more artistic punch than Beirutopia, though. Intermixed, the photographs from the different projects start a strange dialogue that centers on how the world’s artifice is heavily image based, whether it’s the selling of a life style or the reporting of war (which is, after all, just another business). The end result is unsettling, providing a multitude of layers for the viewer.

Photographically, Caroline Tabet’s Disintegrated Objects is not necessarily particularly noteworthy: it is “a series of photographs taken on Monday, August 14, 2006, the first day of a ceasefire that put an end to the war waged by Israel over Lebanon.” (quoted from the publisher’s site) But the book amplifies the photographs to great effect  by literally giving them more and more space on each individual spread until, at the end, a photograph of a pair of boots is shown with a small border around it. This is how a book can be more than a collection of pictures, and how layout/design can be used to great effect.

Lastly, Lara Tabet’s The Reeds focuses on a public space used for sexual encounters at night. The mixing of black and white and colour doesn’t quite work for me. Surprisingly, despite their vastly reduced palette the colour images are much more evocative than the black and white ones. That issue aside, the book successfully explores the various aspects such a place might have to offer for those venturing there.

Clashing Realities; photographs by Lamia Maria Abillama; 28 pages; Oodee; 2015

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.0

Real Prince; photographs by Ayla Hibri; 28 pages; Oodee; 2015

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

Parallel Universes and Beirutopia; photographs by Randa Mirza; 28 pages; Oodee; 2015

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

Disintegrated Objects; photographs by Caroline Tabet; 28 pages; Oodee; 2015

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

The Reeds; photographs by Lara Tabet; 28 pages; Oodee; 2015

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

Photobook Reviews (W30/2015)

Article main image

Exhibition catalogues typically are that, collections of pictures with lots of often borderline unreadable text written by academics and/or curators. As I have attempted to argue on this site before, it needn’t be that way. Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea of the old-fashioned catalogue. But chances are if you haven’t first seen the exhibition, the catalogue will leave you feel wanting more.

Lee Miller, published at the occasion of an exhibition at an exhibition at Vienna’s Albertina demonstrates how the experience of the catalogue can be vastly improved (the exhibition is going to travel to the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale later this year). Of course, there are many well-known photographs covering this still underappreciated photographer’s career, ranging from her involvement in the surrealist movement until her work during and right at the end of World War 2. But crucially, a lot of much lesser well-known images are also presented. What is more, there are reproductions of contact sheets and “outtakes” (many of which I had never seen before).

In addition, a set of very well written and informative essays brings considerable depth to the viewer’s/reader’s understanding of what s/he is looking at. As a matter of fact, I was left wanting more (which doesn’t really happen that often especially with exhibition catalogues). The only things I would not have missed are the two “visual essays” included in the book. While I can see how you’d want to make an exhibition/book as interesting as possible, thing is if the quality of the central work is very high, anything that doesn’t reach the same level will just stick out as falling short.

The concern about the added visual essays aside, Lee Miller is a must have for those interested in the history of photography, and in particular those interested in this photographer who still deserves a lot more attention.

Lee Miller; photographs Lee Miller; visual essays by Anna Artaker, Tatiana Lecomte; essays by Astrid Mahler, Anna Hanreich, Ute Wrocklage, Elissa Mailänder, Walter Moser; 160 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2015


To review Phillip Toledano‘s When I was Six is a bit of a thankless task, unless, of course, you find nothing wrong with it. If you do, however, then, well, that basically makes you a heartless bastard. I suppose someone has to do it. This is not to say that it’s a bad book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty good. But it also emotionally manipulates its viewers in ways that are entirely unnecessary, and that’s my problem with it.

Around 40 years ago, Toledano’s young sister died in an accident, and she wasn’t spoken of again. Literally. Many years later, the photographer found some possessions left behind in boxes, stashed away by his grieving mother. Photographs of some of those possessions comprise part of When I was Six. It’s hard to imagine what one must feel upon coming across such boxes. It’s hard enough to do so in the case of someone recently deceased. But someone else who died decades earlier and was never spoken of again?

Another large set of photographs in the book are images made to look like astronomical ones, mirroring the photographer’s intense interest in the science at the time his sister died. This is where this gets iffy for me, since as adults I don’t think we can attempt to understand the intellectually limited, but emotionally very much evolved world of young children. That’s a step too far for photography. Any attempt to do so, as in the book, for me reduces the pain a six-year old might have felt to, well, some sort of obviously metaphorical approximation that in reality can’t even come close to the real thing.

Toledano adds this all together using his own words, which, tersely, describe (and explain) what is on view in the book. Again, per se there is nothing wrong with these words, were it not for the fact that without all the pictures that would have been the book. But the combination of all of this attempts to cover every base, not allowing for the viewer to insert herself or himself in any other way than the prescribed one.

And that’s really my problem with the book. Photographs are strongest when they hint at something intensely emotional. But for them to do it best, you will have to allow them to do it, without prescribing the viewer’s experience. After all, in all likelihood as viewers we share the experiences of loss and grief, however much details might differ.

When I Was Six; photographs and text by Phillip Toledano; 78 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2015

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 2, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.3

At the end of World War 2, millions of Germans were forcibly expelled from land they had been living on for generations, the last of many such acts of violence during the conflagration that destroyed vast parts of Europe and laid the foundation for a new order of the continent, large parts of which are still with us. In a sense, Stalin’s ruthless redrawing of borders solved many of the problems Europe had been dealing with for a long time. Many countries that previously had sported considerable ethnic minorities now were much more uniform. But of course, for those forced to leave their homes it was a disaster, ending at worst in a frozen death on some road west, and at best as a non-ethnic minority in one’s own country.

Rosemarie Zens was born in a small town called Bad Polzin in 1945. Bad Polzin now is called Połczyn-Zdrój, and it’s part of Poland. Zens isn’t Polish, though, she is German — as a result of her mother packing up and leaving, much like many other ethnic Germans. And she went back to the land that she never got to grow up in, to see… what? What is there to be seen? To be experienced? I’m not sure anyone could comprehend. So what then is there to photograph? Well, everything and nothing.

The Sea Remembers collects what I called everything and nothing. In particular, there are photographs by Zens, many of them landscapes. In addition, there are what look like fragments of vernacular/archival photographs, which we might assume to come from the author’s family’s albums. And then there is text written by Zens, text that describes what can be describe, but that leaves everything else open, to be explored (most of it comes at the very end, after the photographs were allowed to do what they can do).

What do you lose when you lose something you don’t even really know? And how can you re-find it, assuming it’s even possible? As the viewer of the book, you’re left hanging: There is no easy answer provided. Which is, I’d argue, the only way to go about this. You’ll have to come back and look again.

The Sea Remembers; photographs and text by Rosemarie Zens; 144 pages; Kehrer; 2015

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

Photography and Criticism

Article main image

Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I do. To be more precise, I have been thinking a lot about the role of criticism in contemporary photography. What is criticism? What should it do? What do I want it to do? And what does this all mean for my own approach to it? While these question might sound like an invitation to incessant navel gazing, I don’t see them as such. After all, what I do I want to do well. And, crucially, I want it to amount to something. Given I don’t think that extracting some blurbs from a PR piece and then adding a description of the pictures amounts to criticism (your mileage might vary — those interested in the general field might want to read James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism?), what do I think is criticism? What exactly is it that I have to do?

Hardly a day goes by without some new “scandal” or outrage in the world of photography. It seems the internet has turned into an outrage machinery on steroids. Make no mistake, some of those scandals or problems are worthwhile talking about. But a lot of others really are not, for a variety of reasons. What does unite these two, though, is the fact that usually, there is never any discussion about to what end something is being done. The end doesn’t necessarily justify the means per se, of course. But seeing essentially dogmatism at the core of some scandal makes the whole exercise pointless (or rather it’s really only good to score cheap points for those raising the ruckus). And I will admit that I’m pretty frustrated about the fact that most of these scandals never really result in any kind of resolution.

Just look at World Press Photo and their Groundhog Day style yearly drama about photo manipulation. You’d imagine someone had an interest in not having the same pointless discussion every year. I’m sure, people will object to me calling these discussions pointless. It’s true, the matter of manipulation in the news matters greatly. But if you have the same discussion every year, and nothing really changes, then one might wonder what the actual point might be.

Criticism should in principle if not get to the core of a problem then at least attempt to do so. I think criticism is good when it opens up an avenue, while not necessarily delivering all the results. After all, things are way too complex for any single critic to be able to solve a problem. Occasionally, people tell me that I raise good points, but they’re missing my solutions. Well, yeah, if I had those solutions I might offer them. But I also don’t think handing down all the answers is what critics should do.

The same applies to photographs. Good photographs are those that raise questions, that open up new ways of thinking or feeling – not those that confirm something. My main question when approaching a body of work, any body of work really, is: what does this tell me that I don’t already know? Am I learning something? Am I made to confront established ways of thinking or feeling with what is placed in front of me? That’s the toughest challenge for photography, given that the moment you place your camera in front of something it’s all right there. How do you get something in there that’s somehow not in the picture? How do you photograph a feeling?

This might not surprise anyone, but the photography that I dislike the most is the one that tells me very specifically what to think. That’s the pest. For a start, I don’t like to be told what to think in the first place. You tell me to think this and that, and I will think of anything but this and that. But more importantly, you don’t gain anything by prescribing your audience’s reactions. OK, I need to be precise: in an artistic sense, you don’t gain anything. In all other senses, you might get a very popular photography project, the book of which sells very well. So that then also is where criticism needs to go, to see whether there’s an opening between commercial success and artistic success (often, there is — this is easy to see in cases like, say, Annie Leibovitz, but go deep into the world of fine-art photography, and you’ll find the same thing at play).

As much as I try to avoid throwing unrelated concepts into discussions of photography, but when it succeeds good criticism should have some hope of getting to what I believe is called satori in Zen Buddhism. In particular, I’m most fascinated by the idea of suddenly seeing it. In photography, this could be “getting it” (whatever this might be), or it could be seeing a completely different way of looking at something, a way that suddenly enriches one’s life in however minute a way. The question I posed above — what does this tell me that I don’t already know? — then transforms into something slightly different, along the lines of: do I feel these photographs might give me a chance to see the world in a different way? You can’t necessarily know this in advance (if you already know, or rather think you know, that they do, chances are the work really is just prescriptive). You need to sense it, and the task of criticism then is to try to put that into words.

A lot of my thinking has changed over the past few years, mostly gradually, but in many cases quite drastically. I’d like to think that if you engage with art, that’s really what you can hope for. What has not changed, though, is my belief that criticism has to play a vital role in the world of contemporary photography. In fact, I believe in it more than ever. And it’s really one of those almost impossible activities to be engaged in, because every new piece is like another huge, steep mountain to climb.

What you are going to make of the preceding I have no way of knowing. It’s really just an attempt to put into words where this website and all the other related activities are coming from, which might shed a little light on what the ultimate goal might be.

(French: Photographie et critique)

Unrelated: Roughly a month after I started it, my fundraiser has resulted in a humbling amount of support. Again, my sincere thanks to all of those who donated!

Also, Frédéric Lecloux offered me to translate selected pieces into French, to make them available to an audience who might not be comfortable with English. The first such piece about audience is now available as La question de public. The collection of pieces is also available under its own category page. I’m intensely thankful for Frédéric’s work — if you know anyone who might only speak French maybe point her or him to Frédéric’s site.

Lastly, there are two new photobook video reviews, Sjoerd Knibbeler’s Paper Planes and Adelaide Ivanova’s (self published) Erste Lektionen in Hydrologie. Btw, if you don’t feel like visiting another site, clicking on these links should open up the videos right here.

Marie-José Jongerius: Edges of the Experiment

Article main image

A few years ago, I wrote an article for one of this website’s earlier incarnations, lamenting the often overly conservative and thus unimaginative layout and design of most photobooks. How times have changed! Old habits die hard, of course. Some publishers still publish books that were put together in such a mind-numbingly boring way that they suck all the life out of the photographs. But the pendulum has also swung into the opposite direction, with other publishers either adding design to otherwise utterly forgettable books as essentially sales gimmicks, or by giving their designers ten cups of coffee to drink and the freedom to do whatever the hell they want. That’s really not what I was asking for back then, either. Regardless of whether you ignore what design can do for your book or you add design as an afterthought, you’re essentially doing your book a severe disservice. And this is becoming more and more obvious, given how many smart and well-designed photobooks are being produced these days.

One of the publishers that has been consistently sitting in the sweet spot of photobook design is Fw:Photography. It would be tempting to say that of course that’s the case, given it is run by a photobook designer, Hans Gremmen (find an interview I did with him in 2011 here). But that would be too simple. Fw:‘s book succeed not because of the willingness to apply cutting-edge design, but because of an awareness of what role design has to play in the process. And that’s a pretty big difference (which, typically, separates good photobooks from over- or underdesigned ones).

My feeling is that many people would not consider Marie-José JongeriusEdges of the Experiment as a photobook. A two-volume set with multiple authors, the books feature copious amounts of text, and for many people, there appears to be some threshold where “too much text” turns a photobook into… Who knows? I personally don’t have that problem at all. You could conceivably make a photobook with just one picture and hundreds of pages of text, and I’d consider it a photobook, provided the weight would be pulled by that one image. That is, after all, what makes a photobook a photobook: the pictures do most, but not necessarily all of the heavy lifting.

And there really is no recipe how to approach this, either. Just like in the case of design, you will have to figure it out for your photographs in question. That said, though, there often are different solutions available, different ways to make a photobook from a set of photographs, where one might not be better than the other. So things might then boil down to a question of taste. In other words, if you don’t like text in your photobook, that’s fine, but you can’t make that the definition of what a photobook is, because other people see this differently. That is, after all, what makes the world of photobooks so interesting (which kind of brings me back to my lament from a few years ago: how utterly dreadful to live in a world where the only accepted model for a photobook is what I called “a gallery show on paper”: blank page, picture, blank page, picture, etc., with all talk then about whether there should be — gasp! — captions or page numbers).

Given I got that out of the way, the reader could approach Edges of the Experiment like a gallery show on paper by simply just ignoring the second volume plus all the text in the first one. That first volume features a large number of photographs taken by Jongerius in the American West (mostly California, with a few other states also being represented). Of course, anyone familiar with the history of photography and photobooks knows that the American West has been and still is fertile and well-trodden territory. This is not to say that there isn’t a story to be told any longer. But the challenge also becomes how to tell whatever story it is you got.

Yet another photobook with pictures of the American West might have been, well, just another one for the pile. How do you make this more interesting? I have no way of knowing whether this is the kind of consideration behind the form behind Edges of the Experiment. But here, its makers expanded the idea of approaching the West by adding a plethora of information around Jongerius’ photographs. An expanded index runs through the first volume, in which you get additional information, written by Raymond Frenken, about whatever is depicted in the photographs (much of it centering on water, of course). In fact, if you were so inclined you could simply ignore the photographs and just read the text — it’s not only very informative, but also incredibly well written.

Volume 2 expands the general approach even further, with a variety of artists/writers looking at the land in question, the American West, using a plethora of different approaches, essentially making the final product an experiment itself: how far can you take the idea of a photobook? How far can you expand your ways of looking at a piece of land and trying to derive meaning from what you find? Quite far, as it turns out.

Given the preceding, the reader who has made it this far is probably more likely to have developed an interest in Edges of the Experiment than all those who stopped reading earlier. Maybe this set is your cup of tea, maybe not. To bring this all back to where I started from, here’s the thing about good design, though. Good design will make your engagement with a photobook a lot more pleasurable. It won’t succeed in convincing you of the exact opposite of what you believe in. But it will allow the viewer to have more of an open mind about what is being offered. And that, ultimately, really is (or at least should be) the way photobooks can be thought about: they have something to offer, a proposition for how to see something in — ideally — a slightly different light. Edges of the Experiment succeeds brilliantly doing just that.

Edges of the Experiment; photographs by Marie-José Jongerius and other artists; essays by Raymond Frenken and other writers; 2 volumes, 340 pages; Fw:Photography; 2015

Rating: Photography 3 (Jongerius’), Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.8


My sincere thanks to all of those who contributed to my fundraiser! Seeing all the contributions and the many nice words said about my work has been truly humbling.If you haven’t donated, you still can.

There are two more photobook video reviews available, Umschläge by Peter Piller, and Wealth Management by Carlos Spottorno. You can conveniently access all available video reviews via this page.