What Would Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Do?

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A little while ago, I saw a review on Amazon.com, of a photobook no less, where someone had given the book three stars with the comment added “It was not exactly what I thought it would be.” In other words, someone had rated their own expectations, instead of the product in question.

I then realized that my own reaction to MoMA’s Ocean of Images was following along the same lines (watch the video only after having consumed a few cups of strong coffee first — otherwise, it’ll put you to sleep): instead of judging what was being presented, I was judging what I thought, well expected the museum’s curator to offer, to a large extent based on their department’s history. Really, my bad. Somehow, for reasons that I don’t want to publicly speculate about, they can’t or won’t do any better. Who am I to criticize that?

A few days later, after I had also criticized a show on view at the Guggenheim, a minor discussion ensued on Twitter, with Aperture’s Lesley Martin stepping in to defend these exhibitions. There was a little back and forth — again, part of it were my expectations, because my idea of “critical” seems to be different than other people’s. Ultimately, she asked “What we know as photography is always driven/disrupted by technology; why should now be any different? That’s the critical topic.”

A little aside: as I writer I try to be cognizant of what words mean and how they are being used. I can’t and won’t use the words “disrupt” or “disruption” because of the way it is employed by neo-liberal technology CEOs like Travis Kalanick. I personally refuse to adopt this kind of thinking in the arts. That’s just me.

But that aside, we all know that technologyy is playing a major role in the development of photography, and it always has. I’d be the last person to deny that (in part, because large parts of my previous career had direct;y or indirectly to do with that). Whether that fairly basic truism is a good basis for an exhibition in the photography department at the country’s most important museums is debatable. I think I could make a good point for that.

However, I would expect… Well, there we go again, my expectations. But I want to go there, because I think it’s only fair for me to finally spell out what irks me here. So I expect such exhibitions to not only put the bar somewhere high up, but also to cross it. In other words, an exhibition around changes brought to photography by technology, or around artists reacting to the plethora of photographs that now permeate essentially all parts of our daily lives, needs to acknowledge not just artists’ reactions. It also has to be critically cognizant of what’s going on in that vast part of photography outside of the artist’s studios (and curator’s offices). That is the bar to cross.

Two or three years ago, I found a Tumblr page, which unfortunately I have been unable to re-locate, despite spending considerable time on it (it might have been taken down). In it, a young woman spoke somewhat briefly about the condition from which she was suffering, making her pull out her own hair. She then proceeded to shave her own head, having asked a photographer friend to document it. I remember there being not too many words, and two or three photographs. But at the time, it was one of the most profoundly moving and touching experiences of looking at photographs for me.

The photographs made on this particular occasion clearly had a major role in the process, a large part of which was not just the young woman shaving her head, but sharing the process, using photographs and a popular website as tools. It’s very obvious how that act was clearly one of those changes brought about by new technologies.

To spell this out very clearly, because this is where my approach to the topic is coming from: this is the kind of photography, the kind of engagement with the medium, that non-artists and non-photographers have these days.  For me, any artist interested in “interrogating the medium” (add any of the other commonly used art phrases here) will have to take this young woman’s performance as a benchmark (I do in no way mean to demean or belittle the young woman’s actions by referring to it as performance art — quite on the contrary).

In other words, in a day and age where ordinary people, people who don’t view themselves as artists or photographers, use this particular medium in ways like that young woman, the bar for those of us who do view themselves as artists or photographers lies pretty damn high. Pushing a bunch of pixels around on the computer screen or creating an ironic still life in your studio doesn’t really quite cut it any longer to cross that bar. So that’s my first major problem here.

Actually, part of the reason why I’m so baffled by the constant claims of there being “too many photographs” in the world originates from me almost constantly finding images like the young woman’s: while there obviously is a lot of garbage around (online and, let’s face it, in commercial galleries, and museums), the treasures one can find are mind blowing. Often, what is at stake for their makers is frightening, and the kind of drama that some people are willing to face using pictures is astounding (the latter part really is not talking about art photography, just in case you were wondering).

As I have made clear repeatedly, I’m really not the biggest fan of the New Formalism craze. I just outlined a large part of the reasons for that. Photography has become a social medium. To basically cut off the social aspect and to see what you can get with the medium if you don’t leave your studio strikes me as… OK. OK as in “it’s an OK exercise.” But the claims made around it seem to be completely oblivious of what else is happening in the larger world of photography.

There is another aspect. The one thing I will always remember New Formalism for is that it made me engage very deeply with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. I had been more or less aware of this particular artist’s work, but I had never spent much time with it. I had known of the photographs, photograms, and montages (I have always been quite enamoured with the latter). But I had never looked at these images as anything other than ends, instead of as means towards an end.

With Moholy-Nagy, it is not that hard to find the artist’s intentions and ideas. So I set out to look for them. Eventually, I bought a paperback copy of Painting, Photography, Film, which, contrary to what I had expected, wasn’t that expensive at all (the book’s first version was published in 1925).

The first thing that struck me about the book (and most of what I found) was Moholy-Nagy’s optimism. Arguing essentially along similar, yet not the exact same lines that we hear about so much today, Moholy-Nagy was incredibly excited about photography’s potential, provided it was used properly. In the chapter on photography, he starts out saying that “nothing essentially new has been discovered in the principle and technique of photography since the process was invented.” (p. 27) That’s at odds with how people talk about photography today, in light of digital technologies.

But Moholy-Nagy then lays out how the medium’s future is bright, given that “often, however, it is a long time before the innovation is properly utilized.” (p. 27) Describing some of what he considers “proper” utilization, he then arrives at proclaiming that “in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision. […] We may say that we see the world with entirely different eyes.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis in the original)

What struck me about Moholy-Nagy’s approach was not just the optimism. It was also that photography for him was more like a means, not an end. And it was about how the medium was being used, towards very specific, affirming ends.

Where is any of that thinking when you see the pushed pixels or ironic still lives of New Formalism, a movement that unlike Moholy-Nagy is not concerned with what the medium could be used for, but rather what it is?

This is then where for me Moholy-Nagy meets what you can find on Tumblrs. I’m convinced were Laszlo Moholy-Nagy alive today, he would be writing about what people do with photographs on their Tumblrs or on Instagram.

Note that it would be simple to argue that Moholy-Nagy was engaged in a lot of formalist exercises. But they were never done for the sake of doing them. There always was the idea to have them reflect not on the medium, but on what the medium can do, how it can help us engage with the world in a more meaningful way. I’m equally convinced that he would expect more than merely an “interrogation of the medium”: to what end is this being done? What is at stake?

I know what was at stake for that young woman who documented herself shaving her own head and making it public. I have no idea what’s at stake for New Formalists, beyond minor artistic quibbles. And that’s a big problem for me.

These days, the medium photography is not driven by to what extent you can manipulate images. Instead, it is driven by how photographs are being used. The medium has finally become fully social. This is true for photobooks as much as for the many multi-faceted ways mostly non-photographers make use of their images on sites like Tumblr.

There is an ocean of images out there. Instead of dipping your toes in, though, to then talk about it in hushed tones, dive in!

J.W. Fisher + J.T. Leonard: Landmark

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As is usually the case when I decide to review a book that was published a while back, I will spend some time looking for how it was covered (or not) by other critics or writers. Criticism, while grounded in having an obligation to deal with its subject, also cannot (or I’d argue: should not) exist in a vacuum. Someone else’s opinion might help me see, might help me think, might make me reconsider what I was planning to write.

Given I tend to spend time with photobooks before reviewing them, there often exist other takes. But that’s not a given. Sometimes, I find absolutely no earlier review or even mention of a book. This could mean all kinds of things, and I tend not to make any assumptions about it. There are, after all, hundreds, if not thousands of photobooks being published every year, and there are only so many people writing about them.

I have been going back to Landmark by J.W. Fisher and J.T. Leonard for a while now. It had founds its place on top of one of my “to review” piles ever since I received it in the mail. It’s a book that resists quick and easy takes on it — something that I have come to appreciate more and more, given that so many photobooks tend to operate along one liners. So what this book is really “about” (we will have to go there) isn’t so obvious, and that’s a good thing. Whatever I found online about it, and this includes its makers’ words, didn’t help me much. And that’s a good thing, too. If there’s one thing that’s even worse than a one-liner book, it’s a one-liner book that comes with grandiose statements.

A book that defies easy classification ultimately is a promise. It presents an opportunity for its viewers to find themselves in it, in some way that is both tied to the pictures and to whatever she or he might bring to the table. Needless to say, such a book requires work on part of the viewer, and that is their challenge. That work comes with rewards for those willing to spend the time.

In the broadest sense, I would say that Landmark is more concerned with what happens if someone or something is turned into a picture than with the actual people, landscapes, or things depicted. There is quite a bit of work produced around this particular topic these days, much of it, sadly, being too concerned with its own self-importance to take the world outside into consideration (see the New Formalism craze). These photographs here do not suffer from that problem.

Instead, this particular body of work finds itself in the sweet — or maybe I should say: relevant — spot, where the photographs touch upon what is being depicted as much as on how the depiction itself, the photographic treatment, might make us think or feel something that’s coming out of both. There currently appears to be a growing awareness of this particular fact. Pictures are always first and foremost that, pictures. They are taken from the larger world, so they tell us something about that world. But they do so in a distorted or manipulated or selective way.

That distortion, manipulation, selectiveness is key for most photographs made — the only exceptions being scientific photographs. We would, I think, not be particularly interested in photographs taken by robots or machines, other than maybe in some sort of intellectual way. Photographs without human makers aren’t photographs. And photographs without human viewers aren’t photographs, either. They’re nothing. So the only thing that makes photographs interesting is the fact that all the various ways of human folly play into them, when they are made, and when they are being viewed. Photographs give us a chance to learn something about ourselves first, and about what they depict only second.

What makes Landmark particularly interesting for me is that many of its photographs are magically seductive: I want to look at them, again and again. I enjoy looking at them, even though I also know and see what they’re trying to do. They’re not New-Formalism style exercise in formal/visual cleverness. Ever where they veer a little into that territory, for the most part they don’t look as if they had been made to look like a picture. That’s a good spot to be in if you’re a photographer, when you can make pictures that don’t look like as if they were made that way (elsewhere, I probably called this “effortless”).

That’s really how this book sets itself apart from many other books that explore this topic. It’s a clever book, but I never thought it was concerned with its own cleverness. And in a few years, when we’ve moved on to the next photo fad, Landmark might be one of the very few books coming out of this particular concern of photography that still holds up, that doesn’t make us cringe and wonder what we could have been possibly thinking being so obsessed with this beautiful medium itself.

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

Landmark; photographs by J.W. Fisher and J.T. Leonard; texts by Blake Stimson and Lisa Larson Walker; 92 pages; Daylight; 2015

The Sauerkraut Files (1)

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Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed an acceleration of how information is accessed and processed, a development that to a large extent has been driven by developments on the internet. There, it appears that things being ephemeral, without a physical form, has made many people believe that what was published the day before is not worth any attention the day after.

Up until I realized the effects this could have, in its previous incarnation this website operated along those same lines. Initially driven by my own excitement over what I was able to find, I published multiple posts every day, most of them simply links — a kind of proto-Twitter.

Given that to a large extent my own view was geared towards the compilation of what I hoped might be a useful database of photographers my approach seemed to make sense. But it also helped create the idea that there would always be something new, and much like the weather in certain parts of the world if you just wait five minutes, it’ll arrive.

That’s not how good art functions, though. Art, well good art anyway, often is more like sauerkraut, kimchi, or wine: it will have to sit for a while, and you’d be a fool to mistake the gas emitted while things are ripening for the end result. Online, however, all too often we act like those fools.

A little while ago, I had the idea of trying to subvert the relentless consumption of writing online. I thought I’d set up a big virtual barrel of sorts and dump in articles I’d find, to let it sit for a while. I was wondering what would happen if I came back to them later, after some time. Would they still hold up? Would they still be interesting, worthwhile one’s time? Or would their content be that flash in the pan that, it seems, so much writing online has become now?

So I thought I’d start linking to old pieces, where “old” here really only is that if you adopt internet time scales. It’s a bit of an experiment, and we’ll see how it goes.

It’s November 2015. Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, and is helping his ally Assad bomb the opposition. A prominent member of the Russian opposition was killed a little while ago, and nobody believes Putin had nothing to do with it.

Anyone remember Pussy Riot, though? Back before all that happened, they were the focus of large parts of the West’s coverage of Russia. In early 2014, TIME published a picture feature on Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who had been just out of their respective prison camps.

Back then, I found that piece a bit weird, knowing about these two young women’s politics: “Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova go shopping in Moscow four days after their release from a Russian prison.” (picture four) Really? That would be their concern? That’s what we needed to see?

Now, almost two years later, if you had no idea who they were, you’d know… Well, what? That they were really curious about “remodeled Gorky Park and new-generation smartphones”? Very strange, to say the least. Maybe we shouldn’t project what we are obsessed with onto other people so easily.

“Egyptian Aliaa Elmahdy became an icon of the Arab Spring after she posted a nude photo of herself online.” And then what? For me, there’s something profoundly heartbreaking about this particular aspect of our new social-media obsessed world, where one day, you can be a local or even global icon, and then a year or two later, many people won’t remember you.

A year and a half after the Spiegel article was published, Hyperallergic covered the Egyptian activist’s protest against Isis (hashtag “NSFW”).

And I really don’t mean to deny the importance of these forms of protest at all — on the contrary. What I’m wondering is whether the hype and attention generated through protest fueled by social media really support their underlying causes on longer time scales, time scales on which actual change might happen.

I’m not sure. It certainly is not a given.

The preceding, of course, has repercussions for anyone engaging with a possible audience on social media. Even if you merely want to build and engage with an audience: you’ll need to be in it for the long haul.

It would seem like this piece really argues along the lines adopted above: “Unfortunately, Snapchat rewards those very practices of rapid looking and reading that have so impaired our attention spans and hermeneutic dexterity in the Internet age.” Believe it or not, I have no opinion about Snapchat. I don’t even really know in detail what it is, nor do I care much. Someone talked me into downloading it this past summer, and I gave it a try for about five minutes (talk about impaired attention spans!).

For what it’s worth, assuming I understand Snapchat properly (which might or might not be the case), it’s really not all that different than any other engagement we have with photography online: who, after all, goes back to old pictures?

In fact, maybe Snapchat really helps us deal with photography. If we’re not going back to all those old pictures that we have on our hard drives, why not simply have them deleted for us after a short period of time? Saves us the headache of having to create backups.

And who can find old pictures online anyway? The other day, I tried to find something I hadn’t saved, and even though I’m pretty damn good at finding pictures online, I wasn’t successful.

So this then made me think that our engagement with images online is one thing, and it might be good or bad. But what’s really more interesting are the consequences of that: I’m not convinced our attention spans really have shortened so much (feel free to send me research that shows they have or not).

I am also not convinced our relationship with images online can be easily put at a very specific location on a spectrum that has “good” or “bad” (or “meaningful” or “shallow”) as its end points. It might be a lot more mixed, and I’m quite curious about that.

It would seem like we process pictures very fast now. But again, when we look at time scales what does this amount to?

Maybe related, and this is from the other day: “Google can make you think you’re smarter than you actually are, study shows”.

The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel

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If you want to understand photography, all you have to do is to go online and look at how people use it. This means you will have to see past what the pictures look like, whether, in other words, they are any good or not. We all know well what a good picture looks like (for us – this is all mostly subjective), but we don’t know nearly as well what these pictures do that we deem good or bad.

Having written about this for a while now, I’ll admit that fatigue has set in at this keyboard: there are only so many times that you want to write an article about picture “manipulation” and photojournalism, say, before you realize that it’s futile for more reasons than one. For a start, people love sticking with absurd ideas about what photographs are and what constitutes “manipulation”. But even worse is the fact that people love pretending that the use of photographs has nothing to do with how they are perceived when in fact it’s the complete opposite: photographs have almost no meanings without them being used for something (whatever that something might be).

Seen that way, what I wrote in the beginning only is the logical consequence: to a large extent photographs need to be judged not only through their form and content (which, mind you, are important enough), but also through how and where they are being used. Photographs can become good or bad through their use. Good photographs can become bad, or bad photographs can become good once the viewer understands what is at stake.

A variant of this argument is provided by The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel. If the press text is to be believed, “from his studio in Zurich, Kurt Caviezel has been monitoring 15,000 publicly accessible webcams located all over the world.” It makes me shudder to think about going through 15, let alone 15,000 webcams, to look for what might present itself. But then, I’m doing the exact same thing on a large variety of Tumblrs and Instagram accounts. So maybe I’m just as obsessed.

Regardless, Caviezel compiled “an archive of more than 3 million images, categorizing them for recurring patterns and subjects,” and the book is the result of this endeavour.  What it does is straightforward: there is a large list of entries, starting with “airport,” and then continuing through obvious (“bus stop”) and not obvious (“C.D. Friedrich”) ones, to finally arrive at “zoo.” For each entry, there are webcam pictures. The viewer gets 38 images of airports, say. “Costa Concordia” only contains images from one source, but the collection shows the salvage operation of the stricken ship in time.

In its simplicity and maybe degree of obviousness, The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel might strike especially those embedded in academic forms of photography (curators or photography academics) as not worthy of much, if any, attention. But much like maligning the selfie as merely being an embodiment of narcissism, this would be a grave mistake (not that academics won’t happily make mistakes, while attempting to masquerade their ignorance with high-falutin jargon). The book makes a more complex use of how the use of photography determines their meaning than one might realize at first, given that webcams are usually used for evidentiary, not encyclopedic purposes (they are in effect publicly available surveillance cameras).

There is much to be said for a better, meaning: more profound engagement with those forms of photography that aren’t fully accepted into the canon. Ultimately, the selfie is to photography today what colour photography was for “art photography” before John Szarkowski busted that silly barrier down with his William Eggleston exhibition at MoMA.

The usual argument that “there are too many pictures” today, and they’re all bad (or whatever you’ll hear from bored photographers who prefer to think of themselves as “artists”) holds no water for a large variety of reasons. For a start, if your imagination is so poor that the presence of all those photographs will prevent you from taking pictures, maybe you should look for another way to spend your time. And as The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel demonstrates, to deny oneself of the sheer enjoyment that can be had so easily from engaging with the crazy world of photography generated by essentially all of us strikes me as, well, nuts. If you just start looking at what you can see in pictures, and what people do with them these days, you will be amazed.

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.0

The Encyclopedia of Kurt Caviezel; photographs by Kurt Caviezel; essay by Joachim Schmid; 414 pages; Rorhof; 2015

Photobook Reviews (W45/2015)

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You don’t really have to read the news to find out whether the stock market is tanking or not. You just need to look whether or not there are the usual photographs of distraught looking traders in the news. In much the same fashion, you can tell it’s election season in the US when you see photos of politicians pointing at people, or you see them giving speeches without a tie, their shirt sleeves rolled up. The media love a good cliché photograph. But when we think of the stock market, there is an underlying problem, namely the fact that what’s crashing cannot be photographed. All those transactions now happen inside computers, and many of the entities being traded are completely virtual anyway. A stock might have some value, which you could visualize as the equivalent amount of paper money. But futures or derivatives are entirely different beasts.

In part this might be the reason why so little photography has been done around the causes of the recent Great Recession. It’s easy to photograph empty homes, say, and it’s easy to photograph people who just lost their home, but it’s a bit harder to photograph any of the root causes. How do you photograph, let alone understand, a subprime mortgage? How do you photograph greed? Of course, the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done. A brilliant case in point is provided by The Heavens, a photobook centering on tax havens (there’s a website dedicated to it as well). The book was made by photographers Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti, in collaboration with Nicholas Shaxson who wrote an in-depth essay that gives the insight photographs simply cannot produce.

The photographs in The Heavens center mostly on some of the players, plus on what one could think of the symptoms. There are images of very wealthy people, of, let’s say, post-office boxes on the Cayman islands, of buildings built but never occupied, there even is a photograph of an art collector who just bought a painting (reminding the world of art photography that it is not entirely innocent here). For every such image, an accompanying caption provides information of what the viewer is looking at (and why this actually matters). Combined with Shaxson’s essay and a series of smart and engaging infographics, the photographs become part of a larger whole that demonstrates that photography can indeed cover complex topics, topics that don’t lend themselves to easy (or cliché) pictures.

As a book, The Heavens shows how and why documentary photography can still play a vital role, especially once it utilizes all the tricks that can be employed in book form. And we do need to see work like this, for all the reasons that I outlined above — unless, of course, we’d rather not look and know where some of the money is coming from that is being funneled into the art world, where and how corporations hide their money so they don’t have to pay taxes for the services that we would like to enjoy, what kind of shadow world exists in plain view, a shadow world that time and again has severe repercussions for our own lives, whether it’s a crashing stock market, or interest rates going up or down etc.

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.9

The Heavens; photographs by Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti; essay by Nicholas Shaxson; 218 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2015

One of photography’s most glaring weaknesses can be its strength at the same time: it’s just so unbelievably straight. There’s this thing or situation, you point your camera at it, press the shutter button, and that’s the picture then, of that thing or situation. Daniel Stier makes good use of this mechanism in Ways of Knowing, a two-part publication that combines images taken in a variety of scientific environments with an assortment of essentially New Formalism-esque still lifes.

As much as I’m infinitely tired of the mostly lame tropes of New Formalism, in the context of this particular book they actually make sense. Where most New Formalism work centers on its own navel, lacking any sense of a world outside of the narrow confines of institutional photography, Stier’s pictures make use of exactly that: they’re being embedded into the context of the human quest to make sense of the world. They thus gain a faux relevance that undermines their pictorial seriousness, much like the deadpan photographs of people strapped into absurd-looking contraptions for the sake of scientific research that are shown in the other part.

Ways of Knowing isn’t as visually subversive as Andreas Meichsner‘s The Beauty of Serious Work. Instead, it’s serious and free of a sense of irony, let alone snark. But the book pulls it off regardless, in part because in this day and age, the serious often cannot run from the absurd. As insightful as the photographed situations in the scientific labs might be for their maker scientists, beyond that room things are just, well, absurd.

Whether it was a good idea to keep these two sets of photographs separate I don’t know. It was an obvious solution, for sure. Things are being made easy for the viewer. But I did find myself looking at the laboratory photographs at an increasing pace, given that seeing one after another after another etc. does get a bit, well, repetitive. So I probably would have preferred a single book, with these photographs intermixed. Of course, I’ve got to review the book I got, not the one I’d want. But I do think the one I’d want would be slightly better.

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 2, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.2

Ways of Knowing; photographs by Daniel Stier; essays by Pedro Ferreira and Daniel Jewesbury; 168 pages; Yes; 2015

I noted above how the media love a good cliché photograph. Needless to say, you might disagree. How can news photography possibly be clichéd if the events they depict have never happened before and are unlikely to happen again? This is where we could start talking about form and content, about what a photograph describes in a visual manner and how it does that.

David Shields has just done that job, the job of looking at pictures, specifically war photographs used on the front page of The New York Times, classifying them not according to what they show, but how they do it. The result is War Is Beautiful, whose subtitle The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict gives you an idea of what to expect. I’m sure you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see war portrayed in a glamourous way on the front page of what is widely seen as the United States’ most relevant newspaper. Can there be such a thing, especially given the photographs in question were taken by a wide selection of photojournalism’s finest practitioners? The answer is not only affirmative, it is also deeply troubling, given the consequences.

The photographs in War Is Beautiful all center on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (in the latter case, the newspaper played a considerable role in the country’s rush to war). Shields organized them around themes or topics, in part based on what they show, in part based on how they do it. Seen in these categories, the viewer is in for a shock. What at first might look like almost bizarre categories — “Nature” or “Playground” or “Beauty” — quickly make a lot of sense. And organized this way, the selection mechanisms that made these particular photographs front-page worthy indeed is being revealed.

Given we love to ignore the many different invisible hands that handle photographs before we see them in the media, War Is Beautiful shows us what those hands do. They show us what many photographers know, namely that it’s one thing to bring the pictures, but it’s quite another to get them published, especially if what is depicted (or how it is depicted) won’t sit well with those who do the publishing. While the book singles out The New York Times, making it clear how the paper is anything but the disinterested entity it loves to pretend it is, the same exercise could be done for many other news organizations.

Photographs don’t come with meanings, we give them meaning through their use. For us to be better “consumers” of the visual diet we are being served, we need to acquire the skills that Shields displays here. For any visual-literacy class, War Is Beautiful could serve as a textbook. And those not going to school any longer might still want to have a peek.

(not rated)

War Is Beautiful; photographs by various photographers; assembled by David Shields; essay by Dave Hickey; 112 pages; Powerhouse; 2015