Dietrich, Riefenstahl, Arbus

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Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and Diane Arbus are subjects of two books I recently read back to back. The two German artists are subjects of a joint biography by Karin Wieland, entitled Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (I read the book in its original German version, so I cannot comment on the English translation). Arbus’ life was newly dissected by Arthur Lubow in Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer. Reading these books one after the other was coincidental. But it was a furtuitous coincidence, given it had me dive deeply into the lives of three very important female artists of the 20th Century.

The books do their subjects justice, in the sense that a biography can do that. Biographies offer a person’s history, and history is not just a collection of facts. It’s also a collection of interpretations, opinions, and projections. It is for that reason that biographies are inevitably flawed in some ways. Some interpretation, opinion, or projection might be going into the wrong direction. This is something we, the readers, want to keep in mind. But this is also something that applies to the one life we have full access to, our own. Even in this case, it’s anything but clear what a history might look like. We constantly tell ourselves (or others) things about our own biographies that are questionable, that are a bit too good to be true, or that are outright false. This is part of our human nature.

I will admit that I would not have read separate biographies of Leni Reifenstahl or Marlene Dietrich. To begin with, my interest in movies is minimal. I also know enough about Leni Riefenstahl’s life to be aware of the fact that she provided the Nazi regime’s visual underpinnings, making her not just a talented female artist who happened to work in the wrong time, at the wrong place, but rather an equivalent of Albert Speer. Both Speer and Riefenstahl got off very lightly after World War 2, even though they both would have deserved to go to the gallows alongside the likes of Julius Streicher.

Somewhat more surprisingly, after World War 2 both Speer and Riefenstahl bamboozled an international audience into believing their lies about their past, creating quite the success stories. Riefenstahl was warmly received in the United States when she brought her fascist visual sensibilities to tribes in Africa. It is much to her credit that Susan Sontag publicly eviscerated Riefenstahl’s mid-1970s efforts in an article entitled Fascinating Fascism. If you have never read it, you should now.

Reading a discussion of Riefenstahl’s life in parallel to Dietrich’s intrigued me, though. After all, they both were two very talented and forceful women, who both made their careers at exactly the same time, under exactly the same circumstances, having grown up under the Kaiser and then trying to make it in the ill-fated, yet culturally incredibly fruitful conditions provided by the Weimar Republic. They didn’t just know of each other, they also knew each other, and they might even have lived in the same house for a while, albeit in different apartments.

Crucially, in their own ways, Dietrich and Riefenstahl worked against it each, with the actress leaving Germany and eventually becoming a US citizen, to return home to her then defeated former homeland in her new country’s uniform — while the dancer turned actress turned film maker was hiding out somewhere in the German south, hoping to finish her last movie, for which she had furiously lobbied Nazi officials even while the country was imploding rapidly.

It’s all about the choices you make, that much is clear. And while Arbus’ life has little, if anything, to do with either Riefenstahl’s or Dietrich’s, this also applies here. It’s circumstances and choices, and you either grasp opportunities, or you don’t. But opportunities aren’t just opportunities, they will also require judgment (refusing to judge in itself is a form of judgment).

Maybe it is because I read Dietrich & Riefenstahl first before moving on to Diane Arbus that the themes of opportunities, judgments, and choices stuck so firmly in my head. For sure, the Weimar Republic would appear to invite this way of looking at things, given the outcome is widely known, as is the outcome of what came after it, first the destruction of a civil society, and then its happy descent into utter barbarism, resulting in large-scale mass murder and war.

So there is a larger scale rupture in the lives of Dietrich and Riefenstahl that is absent from Arbus’. Of course, we have no advance way of knowing what larger ruptures we might be presented with (even though the fact that an utterly unqualified, openly racist real-estate developer is one of the two presidential candidates right now might give us an inkling).

In a very obvious way, Diane Arbus suffers from the fact that the artist’s estate wouldn’t allow the reproduction of any photographs. This is an absurd situation for any biographer to find themselves in. Should an estate be allowed this level of, let’s face it, censorship? I don’t think so. The reader certainly would have gained much from being able to see especially the lesser known photographs (I’m writing this as someone who knows quite a few of the pictures, so I cannot imagine how someone might feel who maybe only knows a a handful). Lubow works around the restriction well, though; and the absence of photographs ultimately speaks volumes about the estate in ways that words couldn’t.

While larger ruptures are absent from the Arbus biography, it is closer to its subject, making it clearer why — possibly – she could have made some of the decisions she did make. The three women each had their fair share of personal ruptures, all of which are laid out in detail — to the point of parts of both books becoming a bit too much like slightly better written sections of People magazine. That possibly is something we need to endure as spectators  — much like there often is nothing we can do to prevent parts of our own lives becoming a bit more lurid or seedy than we would hope.

Then again, maybe this obsession with gossip is a sign of our celebrity obsessed times, where we obsess over what someone had for breakfast while ignoring the bigger, more important things. To give an example from one of the books, once Marlene Dietrich has made it as a respected artist, large parts of her biography do read indeed like a well written People piece. There are only so many letters written to or from the various lovers you want to read before you realize what little is to be gained from doing that.

Lives being led are lives that might have their brush with, for a lack of a better word, the gutter, with what we’d rather not deal with. It is easy to cast judgment on others based on that, and it would be easy to do it in each individual case here. I personally couldn’t do that for a variety of reasons. To assume that those who excel in their arts are saints as persons, that they not only aspire but also conform to ideals we connect with a saint — that’s just absurd. For sure, there are things I would rather not have known about either Marlene Dietrich or Diane Arbus (I will emit Leni Riefenstahl here, because there simply are no redeeming qualities in her life).

Gossipy aspects aside, what this points to is the fact that neither of these three women makes it easy to write a gushing, obsequious biography where in pages and pages a genius is laid bare, with possibly some minor flaws that reflect this time’s ideologies more than anything else (think any of the biographies written around the so-called Founding Fathers). In their respective ways, these three artists made it to the top of their professions as the complex characters they were, and the biographies make very little effort to paint a beautiful picture. Given they each had to work against very male dominated environments, and given they each did it successfully, there are a lot of lessons here.

Maybe a different way to phrase the immediately preceding would be to say that as a reader, you are being made to get to know someone who you might have wanted to know better, but who, at the same time, is someone who doesn’t make exactly that so easy.

I believe biographies only can provide us with true insight if we do a bit more work after we’re done with them. In each case, we need to reflect back and think about our own lives. The question how we would have behaved, given the same circumstances, is interesting but futile. Of course, I would want to think we all would have bravely resisted the Nazis, say, when in fact it’s likely most of us might not. Who knows?

It’s not so much Riefenstahl’s work for the Nazis that I hold against her (even though that’s reprehensible enough), it’s the fact that she then went on denying everything, pretending she had nothing to do with it — as if she had not shaped a large part of the success of the murderous regime she supposedly had nothing to do with. Riefenstahl’s lies are unmasked in the book, whether it’s her claim that Hitler hit on her and she resisted (various people actually saw the complete opposite happening), or any of the claims about her work under the Nazis. So it’s not so much about living up to very high standards, even though that’s something we might want to all aspire to. It’s also about owning one’s past, something these three women did in very different ways.

Eminently readable, both Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives and Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer have much to offer for our times. They help us understand the specific respective environments Dietrich, Riefenstahl, and Arbus found themselves excelling in, and they speak of the human condition, of choices made and not made. Good art doesn’t arise out of a vacuum. As these two biographies make clear, it is produced by people who are as perfect and imperfect as we all are. High art can be made by good people, and it can be made by evil people.

Conscientious Portfolio Competition 2016

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I’m excited to announce this year’s Conscientious Portfolio Competition. The winners will have their work featured on this site, in the form of an extended conversation.

As always, the Conscientious Portfolio Competition (CPC) is free to enter. There are no costs involved for you other than the time it takes to make a decision to participate and to then send in your work.

CPC is aimed at emerging photographers. Photographers not represented by a gallery will get preferential treatment. Needless to say, the quality of the work itself plays the most important role.

There are two guest judges joining me this year to determine the winners, Emma Bowkett and Felix Hoffmann:

Emma Bowkett is the Director of Photography of the Financial Times Weekend Magazine and PORT magazine.

Felix Hoffmann is an art historian and theorist, and currently Head Curator of the C/O Berlin Foundation. He worked at the Folkwang Museum/ Essen, the Printing Collection/ Dresden and the Photomuseum/ Munich as fellow of the Krupp Foundation. The C/O Berlin’s Talents program for young photographers and art critics was co-established by him, and has curated many international exhibitions – on Nan Goldin, Robert Frank (both 2006), Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Lindbergh (both 2011) and Larry Clark (2012) among others – and group shows, including The Uncanny Familiar: Images of Terror (2011). He is the author of numerous texts.

CPC happens in a two-stage process. The first stage – where we are now – is the submission stage. Photographers are asked to send in their application via email in the following form:

email address
website URL (a proper website; strictly no blogs, no Flickr/Tumblr/Instagram accounts)
name of the portfolio/body of work

Please do not forget this last part: which portfolio – surprisingly often, photographers forget to mention which project they’re submitting. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to get in touch to inquire about missing information.

Send your email to review at (you’ll have to replace the “at” with @ and remove the spaces for this to work, of course), subject line “CPC 2016”. One submission per photographer. Please do not submit images or pdfs directly by appending them to the email.

The deadline is 31 October 2016, 11:59pm ET.

If you need a statement for your work, it should be on the website. Your website should have a bio/CV, of course. If you don’t have a website, you will not be able to enter the competition. This might strike you as unfair, but every serious photographer should have her/his own dedicated website.

From the pool of submissions, 25 candidates will be picked for the second round. The photographers in this pool will receive an email, and they will have to send in ten jpeg images, in a uniform format (size etc.).

This is where Emma and Felix will enter. They will each pick their personal favourite from the pool of 25. I will pick one, too. Here’s the twist: There might be three or two winners, or maybe just one, if a photographer is picked more than once.

Having a second round is based on the idea of making everything as equal as possible. With uniform file sizes, fancy websites won’t be able to beat out simple ones. With a special naming convention for the jpegs (which will hide the full names), the winner(s) will be solely chosen based on the quality of the work.

The winners of the competition will have their work featured on this website, in the form of an extended conversation.

Good luck!

The Facebook Problem

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One of the most dangerous beliefs centering on photography is that pictures have agency, that, in other words, there is a picture, and it, and only it, will then determine everything that might follow. This is very obviously not the case. As I have argued before, our viewing of pictures determines what we make of them. We view pictures not as scientists study specimen. Instead, we look at them to mostly get our suspicions or ideas or stereotypes confirmed.

Beyond that there are more aspects to the lives of pictures, though. A single week, number 36 in 2016, featured a variety of important examples, all of which are critically important for our understanding of what pictures do and how they do it — provided they are in fact given a chance to do so. Two of these examples centered on Facebook, the social-media behemoth, whose influence and power has now come to create major problems for the world of photography.

The company had deleted one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century, Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War image of children fleeing a napalm attack, from the page of a large Norwegian newspaper. The newspaper would have none of it, though, and responded with a front-page letter to Facebook’s CEO. Norway’s prime minister then posted the photo on her page, only to have Facebook remove it there as well.

You really want to wrap your head around this. A company decides it has the right to openly censor a newspaper and the head of government of a democratic country, removing one of the most well-known and historically relevant photographs made over the course of the past 100 years. Just to put this a little into a larger perspective, in 2016, Norway was ranked third in the World Press Freedom Index. Norwegians know a thing or two about press freedom. In that same Index, you can find the US, home of Facebook, at position 41.

Facebook ended up reversing their position eventually, perhaps not surprisingly, given that its decision had resulted in what could only be described as a major PR fiasco. But its reversal really wasn’t as much an acknowledgment of the underlying problem as an attempt to make the problem go away.

“It all comes down to algorithms,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor. But an uncharacteristically scathing in-depth report by NPR found that it wasn’t algorithms, but people who were responsible for the removal: “in this instance, it was a human who flagged the post and a human inside the company who decided to hit the delete button.” The good news is that according to the report, humans are tasked to do the job “because of the problem of context.” (emphasis in the original) Algorithms are unable to understand context. The bad news is that those humans tasked with removing photographs were unable to identify this particular photograph.

There are very obvious alarm bells that should be going off now, not just in the offices of media corporations that are increasingly relying on Facebook to reach their audiences. Alarm bells should be going off in the heads of not only every person who uses Facebook actively, but also of those that don’t (I’m not on Facebook, for a variety of reasons, including this kind of censorship, but also the blatant privacy violations). If Facebook is symptomatic for the state of tech companies then we are in deep, deep trouble.

If the people tasked with monitoring photographs at Facebook can’t even identify one of the most iconic photographs in history, what confidence should we have in their overall qualifications? Are those the kinds of people who should be the most important editors in the world of photography? Given even Facebook appear to be aware of how algorithms fall short when it comes to dealing with photographs, any which way you want to think about this, there’s a huge problem.

If Facebook decides to remove one of your photographs, in all likelihood you’re not going to have a newspaper to raise a big stink, and you might not have your country’s head of government interfere for you. In all likelihood, you’ll merely get an automated message, and that’ll be it.

And will we see tomorrow’s next iconic photograph, the one that shows us the outcome of some horrible event somewhere? Who is to say a picture that possibly could shake us to the core in much the same way as Ut’s will make it past Facebook’s algorithms or censors?

Would Nick Ut’s picture have become iconic, had Facebook been around in 1972? I actually don’t think so. A chilling thought, isn’t it?

These are very deeply troubling considerations, and we, the general public, are absolutely powerless. Unlike a government in a democratic country, which is accountable for its actions (however long that might at times take), Facebook is a privately owned corporation, and there is no such oversight.

When it comes to photography, Facebook can basically do whatever they want. We don’t get to see all the pictures that are out there. We get to see the pictures that make it past flawed algorithms or people who are very clearly not qualified at all to make the kinds of decisions veteran news-photography editors are used to making.

However, the Facebook problem gets worse. On the one had, there is the censorship of images. This goes beyond the depiction of naked children (for which there are very valid and obvious concerns, given the problem of child pornography). For example, Facebook owns Instagram, and you cannot show a female nipple there, for reasons that are too absurd and puritanical to even take seriously.

What you can show without any major problems, however, are depictions of, say, gruesome violence. In fact, as long as your photographs get by Facebook’s censors or algorithms, you’re good to show anything.

The same week Nick Ut’s picture didn’t make it, the small town East Liverpool (Ohio) posted two photographs of a couple that had overdosed in their car, with a small child sitting right behind them. Addiction experts were quick to point out that public shaming would very likely be counter productive. In this case, it was reported, “a Facebook spokesperson said the photos did not violate the company’s community standards.”

As in the case of Ut’s picture, the decision over whether or not to publicly share photographs like the two East Liverpool ones ought to be in the hands of highly trained photo editors, people who not only have the knowledge to understand the “news value” of the photographs, but who have also wrestled with the different underlying ethical problems.

However much any editor’s decisions might be flawed at times, at the very least we can be certain that they have thought about the underlying problems, that, in other words, we’re looking at the end result of an educated process (regardless of whether or not we end up agreeing with it or not). The world of Facebook does away with this.

Instead, it leaves many crucial decisions about whether or not photographs can or should be shown in the hands of people unqualified to properly make educated decisions or, even worse, to algorithms. And as long as those pictures then work along some “community standards” that are very narrowly defined (for example, American and European ideas of what constitutes acceptable amounts of nudity are very different), you’re good to go. Frankly, that’s absurd.

You could argue that, well, at least we get to have a discussion of whether or not the photographs from East Liverpool should be shown or not. But here’s the thing: once these photographs are out there, there’s no way back. Even if they got taken down, they’ll live forever in some form on the internet.

Given its reach, given that media corporations are eager to work with Facebook, there now exists a tremendous problem: news organizations have essentially lost full control over what they can show. There are always “community standards” plus algorithms or undereducated editors who might decide that that news photograph cannot be shown. At the same time, anything that makes it past the company’s “standards” is fine, whether it’s the public shaming of people who suffer from addiction or anything else.

The reality is that we won’t get the toothpaste back into the tube. The only solution I can think of is to try to raise the overall level of visual literacy, to, in other words, discuss more what pictures do and how they do that, so that a larger segment of people has a chance to understand what is going on. That’s why we desperately need to discuss photography more, in wider contexts, and we need to discuss it more deeply. It’s crucially important.

And news organizations better figure out a way to deal with Facebook’s censorship.


Photography and Ideology

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We tend to read things into pictures that aren’t really there, and we then criticize either their makers, those depicted, or the context in which they can be found for their flaws, without considering our own role. However valid that criticism might be, unless it explicitly is aware of and acknowledges its own position, in other words where it is coming from as in: what assumptions are being made, what things are being taken for granted, what is being projected — unless any of this is being considered criticism will simply fall short.

We all cling to our belief systems, to the many positions we hold dear, the many things we believe in — our personal ideology. It is very hard to look at a photograph without bringing it to the table, and we consider what is in front of our eyes using this very specific angle. This is, after all, what it means to be human. We have opinions.

Photographs are a lot less than what we make them to be. They are tokens of the world, taken from the world in some way by possibly someone else. They deceive because they exclude and frame and in general do all those things that photographs do. At the same time, they are truthful to what they show, however much or little we personally might agree with that truth (there is no such thing as The Truth, unless you want to engage in metaphysics or religion).

Unlike paintings or most other forms of art (let’s assume that photography is a form of art, which it sometimes, but certainly not always, is) photographs tend not to give away their makers’ choices, certainly not given how we view them (we now have become used to seeing even heavily “filtered” images on photography-sharing apps simply as photographs). There are no brush strokes, no surfaces. Quite like performances, most photographs now appear briefly, to be then transferred to the realm of memory. Unlike performance, however, digital photographs can be easily re-seen (provided they can be located, which is not necessarily a given).

Thus in form, photographs have come to resemble our own lives, our own seeing the world. I went to a baseball game a few days ago, and now that game and most things around it have become memories. I have a few photographs on my smartphone, and they remind me of my experiences, given they look somewhat like what I saw (my eyes don’t have wide-angle lenses, though). Through these photographs — and other mental images that I am convinced I have proper access to — I can connect my self today with that day’s. But unlike in those photographs, my own mental images also vividly recall being recall being stuck in traffic for a while, or listening to a ten-year old boy who just wouldn’t stop talking all day long.

These photographs on my phone ground the experience of going to the baseball game for me, because they provide visual anchors, even though they are also flawed. For example, the netting in front of the section I was seated in has now been transformed into a strange visual interference pattern on the screen. But the grounding is not based on anything these photographs are or do, it’s based on what I want.

And my viewing of these photographs now is also based on what I believe in. That large, somewhat cavernous space, with thousands of spectators and those men in their strange looking uniforms who mostly unsuccessfully tried to hit a little ball — all of that has been transformed into something very different, something that I not only view trying to recall that particular day, but also with my writer’s mind, with my foreigner’s mind (because even after 17 years in this country, many of its habits are still foreign to me).

I can’t look at these photographs without having own ideology interfere.

None of us can. But this need not be a problem. In fact, of all forms of art (see previous disclaimer), photography is the one that allows its viewers to identify their own biases and stereotypes and prejudices and dear beliefs a lot more easily than any of the others, simply because it’s so deceptive. Even though it isn’t, it looks like the world, the world we would see. Usually, it’s not.

I feel that this aspect of photography is not only the most overlooked, it’s also the most precious. I have argued in the past that photography is mostly a social activity, where the taking of a photograph and the subsequent sharing have now clearly become more important than the photograph itself. I still firmly believe that’s true. That is how photography matters for the makers.

For viewers, photography matters in much the same way — it provides access to something someone else wants us to see. We get to connect with someone. But we can’t connect without all those mental filters I discussed earlier. So photography can allow us to examine those filters. In fact, in certain contexts it should force us to examine those filters, because they, and not what’s in the picture or who took it or where it’s shown, tell us about what we could, maybe should do.

All we’d need to do is to first ask whether what we’re talking about when we discuss a picture actually is depicted, literally depicted therein. If it’s not in the picture, which often is the case, then we need to ask ourselves how it ended up in it for us. What made us read this into the picture? What knowledge or assumptions or stereotype or belief caused us to see what is not actually shown? And then comes the crucial last step, the one that offers us the most, where we can ask ourselves what this all says about ourselves. What does it mean that we see these things that aren’t there?

Note that such a way to approach to photographs does not necessarily negate all those conclusions we come to when we look at pictures. That’s not really the point. But it might negate or put into doubt some of the certainty we had concerning some pictures, and that’s really the point.

There are obvious cases where we gain so much by being visually more literate, where being able to understand why we see things in pictures that aren’t really there helps us. Photography used in advertizing of course is mostly a massive lie. But it’s a lie made with us in minds. It wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a hook inside us.

To some degree, the same is true when we look at news photography. Here, of course, the stakes can be higher, and I’m sure many news photographers would vehemently fight my assertion. But if you look at how formulaic and cliched large parts of photojournalism are, there needn’t even really be a debate. Those photographs are made for us and not for those depicted, to get us moving (or not) in some ways. None of that would be attempted in these particular ways because of the hooks we have so readily available (for example, part of our collective Western ideology is that in public we profess to care about misery or suffering).

In this day and age of filter bubbles, I believe we need to force ourselves to engage more deeply with photography for that very reason: not to examine what our ideologies do with pictures is the safest and best way to remain stuck in the bubbles we are so comfortable in. However valid our belief systems might be, they can only weaken from not being challenged time and time again. They are also not permanent. A lot of the things I believed in with a vengeance twenty years ago I now see somewhat differently, or maybe with a more forgiving eye.

We can discuss photography as if we still haven’t moved much past the often very superficial and flawed arguments brought forth by Susan Sontag — much like any piece of criticism, hers are exercises in ideology. But photography itself has evolved and changed in a large variety of ways, and our thinking about it ought to as well.

If there’s ideology in photographs, it’s because we put it there, less so because someone else did.

(French: Photographie et idéologie)