Peter Puklus’ History Lesson

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Michael Schmidt‘s Ein-Heit (U-Ni-Ty) and Peter PuklusThe Epic Love Story of a Warrior share many characteristics. In both books, its makers attempt to tell history using only photographs. Their narrative strategies are elliptical and, one must add, at times oblique, requiring attentive and patient viewers. The books are unlikely to reach larger audiences beyond the world of art photography, given they require a high degree of visual literacy. They are expressions of photographs as art in its most ambitious form.

Ein-Heit relies on a combination of imagery that includes Schmidt’s own straight photographs as much as appropriated ones that were rephotographed from publications, usually with their mass-reproduction artifacts clearly visible (note that Schmidt did this over a decade before using archival imagery in photobook form became all the rage). Schmidt’s straight photograph comprise portraits, city- and landscapes, plus fairly tightly cropped photographs of interiors. The photographs are all presented in what we could call Schmidt vision, that form of black and white where the infinity of very heavy greys so powerfully communicates the sense of morbid gloom that was prevalent in West Berlin before the wall came down (in many places, it’s still there).

Puklus’ book uses different photographic strategies. To begin with, he mixes b/w and colour, with the colours being slightly desaturated and on the cooler side. Unlike in Schmidt’s case, a very large number of photographs were produced in the studio, whether they’re the various nudes (most, but not all of them, showing female bodies) or bricolage style constructions of very basic materials. In addition, there are also interiors, quite a few cityscapes, plus a smaller number of landscapes.

Both Ein-Heit and Love Story rely on insider and historical knowledge, without making a lack thereof too frustrating an experience for a viewer not familiar with what s/he is looking at. A viewer might know that the photograph on page 161 of Ein-Heit looks like it was photographed of the artist’s identity card. S/he might recognize Puklus in a striped shirt somewhere near the end of his book, or as the model for one of the busts that is depicted in various studio photographs. Beyond those pictures, a historically literate viewer might recognize, for example, West Germany’s first Chancellor in one of Schmidt’s rephotographed archival images, or s/he might be familiar enough with cultural imagery to realize Puklus re-created some of it in his studio, whether with a model or otherwise.

These are the kinds of book that typically have me receive somewhat exasperated emails from photographers for whom this all is a bit too complex. To a degree, I sympathize with their conundrum. These are difficult books, and some of us might not have the patience or time or even knowledge to deal with them. I get that. But there is only so much patience I have with this kind of complaint, given that photobooks can be more complex than the popular one-liner books. For what it’s worth, the diet of photobooks I live on does not merely consist of these elliptical ones. But I also love the challenges they pose very much.

Of course, this is not to say that any person’s personal opinion is more valid than everybody else’s  (regardless of the size of the sympathetic crowd it comes with). My point merely is that books like Ein-Heit and Love Story ultimately are accessible, provided a viewer is willing and able to do a bit more work. Look at any form of art, and you will find similar examples. To demand of each and every photobook that it be easily and readily accessible would vastly diminish what the medium has to offer.

Coming back to Ein-Heit and Love Story, there is something else that unites them, namely their attempt to deal with history on a large scale. While Schmidt tackled the newly re-united Germany, its past and identity, Puklus trains his eye on something even larger, Europe’s history, the roughly 100 years starting in 1914. Attempts such as these obviously can only be called highly ambitious, and both artists manage to pull theirs off.

It would seem that talking about history only with pictures is a problematic endeavour. It is. But this only is true if you think of history as a set of fixed events that happen one after the other. Of course, there are events that can be used as such tracers. But on larger scales, they tend not to conform to a sense of linearity so easily. In literature, the likes of Vasily Grossman and William Vollmann have explored this idea with Life and Fate and Europe Central, respectively. These books tell Europe’s history (World War 2) using literary means, and they employ a variety of tricks unavailable to historians. There clearly is the underlying basic linearity of events. Yet at the same time, the two writers focus on the lives of a larger variety of characters, fictional or real (in Grossman’s case, the main character is infused with the author’s biography; in Vollmann’s case, real people are given another fictional life, which for sure is going to confound some readers). In both cases, history powerfully unfolds as a series of personal human dramas.

A different approach was used by Walter Kempowski in Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich, which “simply” is a collection of actual writings by a large variety of people over the course of the Nazi Germany’s last four days. Kempowski acts like a somewhat disinterested historian who will present the writing of figures you’d find in your history book alongside a vast number of writing you would never hear of: letters, diary entries, and more. Just like in the case of Life and Fate and Europe Central, the result is overwhelming in the best possible sense. Do yourself a favour, and buy at least one of these books to see what I mean.

How could any of this done with photographs? Because of photography’s somewhat complicated relationship with reality, I think the Vollmannian model, the mix of the factual with the imagined, comes closest to what can be done. Straight photographs usually are descriptions of something real. At the same time, there are all those fictional elements that come in through the photographer’s decision process and through her or him making the audience see and believe in certain things. This is, I believe, what makes photography so infuriating when it’s used “shamelessly”: just like in Vollmann’s case, parts of the audience will resist seeing facts and fiction getting mixed. Dmitry Shostakovich, the famed composer, stuttering his way through a musical piece turning into sex — that’s just a step too far for many (you want to read this in Europe Central — as much as I enjoy Shostakovich’s music, to see him being given this all-too human life adds so much humanity to an otherwise unknowable human being).

This would be the model for Schmidt and especially Puklus (my own having met both artists doesn’t quite make me see the German photographer in a Vollmanian sense). As a viewer, you will have to be able to move beyond photography’s simple descriptiveness and allow for it to allude to larger things, to talk of them, or to simply parody them. Love Story is filled with all of that. There is a basic structure, provided by chapter breaks (given titles such as “The beginning of hope. 1918-1939”). Beyond that, though, you will have to pick up on what the pictures provide. As I noted above, you will be familiar with some imagery, but not necessarily with all of it.

Puklus is too smart a photographer to merely create copies or parodies of well-known imagery. His photograph of a man giving the fascist salute, for example, shows the model having an erection, clearly pointing at a larger truth about fascism (which should be pretty obvious to anyone who has ever seen Leni Riefenstahl photographs). Most of the photographs of models present them in the nude, often, but not always, striking poses one would be familiar with from statues. But the absence of clothes also removes the specificity a clothed portrait would have: these models are human beings first, standing in for a multitude of other people.

I feel some of the devices used in the book were overused, though. There’s a poem included in the book, presented as one character per page (in lieu of page numbers). And Puklus makes use of multiple versions of the same photograph, for example as in the views one would have walking around a statue. This works for a while, but a bit less of it might have made for a stronger book. Repetition is a very good device for photography, but it needs to be used carefully (Schmidt does so in Ein-Heit, but a lot more sparingly than Puklus). Finally, Love Story opens from the back. I suppose you could also look at it like a Western style book, and then you’d walk back in time. I’m torn about this as well.

These quibbles aside, while I felt mostly underwhelmed by the world of photobooks in 2016 (a few very notable exceptions aside), this year did produce Love Story, a book that, no doubt, I will have to come back to frequently over the next few months.

We are witnessing in our world right now that progress isn’t linear. Steps forward are followed by steps back. It’s hard not to despair over the ascent of neo-fascism not just in countries like Russia, but also in established Western democracies (sure, call it “authoritarianism” if you can’t stomach calling it what it is). We’ll have to remind ourselves that once established, democracy needs to be defended. Where the defenses come down, the neo-fascists win.

History in general can help us re-learn our lessons, to see what is at stake. This is true regardless of whether we read “proper” history books or novels such as Grossman’s or Vollmann’s. And it is true if we look at photobooks such as Ein-Heit or The Epic Love Story of a Warrior. This is why these books matter greatly: they attempt to speak of the kinds of larger truths that we’re in somewhat desperate need of these days.

The Epic Love Story of a Warrior; photographs by Peter Puklus; 468 pages; SPBH Editions; 2016

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 2.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 4.4

CPC 2016: The Winners

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It is time to announce the winners of this year’s Conscientious Portfolio Competition. With the help of two external judges, three emerging photographers were chosen. This year, Emma Bowkett and Felix Hoffmann very kindly agreed to participate in making a selection from the shortlist.

The competition is free to enter. I don’t believe in “pay to play.” Everybody needs to have the same fair chance. This is why the eventual winners are selected blindly, mimicking blind auditions: the judges get a set of photographs (and nothing else), with the names of the artists encrypted. I hope that this is a good way to at least attempt some of the problems plaguing contemporary photography. Including this year’s winners, there have now been 13 female and 13 male winners in seven years.

Emma picked Andrejs StrokinsCosmic Sadness:

“These peculiar pictures of the everyday with their strange colour palette have invited my curiosity. A wonderful, uneasy world, meticulously staged for the viewer to enter.”

Felix selected Gábor Arion Kudász‘s Human, writing

“The series contains different aspects of thinking. There is a documentary approach to a site where people are working with clay. There is a surrealistic approach, a reflection of the material and physicality of the objects. And there is a scientific interaction in these pictures where the viewer doesn’t know any longer why they might have been taken. The project is an interesting mixture of different directions in photography, involving us as viewers.”

I ended up settling on Katrin Koenning‘s Indefinitely:

“Pictures are more than what they are as pictures. They also are what we bring to them. Possibly my choice is in part a reflection of how I have been feeling about the state of this world since this year’s events have taken humanity back to a very dark place. Indefinitely for sure is dark and somber. Yet it contains traces of hope, of it being a dream. We don’t know, yet, whether it’s about to become a nightmare or whether it will end well.”

Many thanks again to Emma and Felix, and to all those who submitted their work. Congratulations to the winners! Conversations with them will be published over the course of the next months.

Photobook Reviews W49/2016

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In many ways, Sébastien Lifshitz‘s Amateur is a shrunken version of Eggleston’s recent Democratic Forest reissue (the multi-volume set). Instead of ten quite large books housed in a slipcase, you get four, the overall size scaled down quite a bit. Every time I pick up the set, I notice its weight first. Even though I have looked at the books quite a bit already, the set still is heftier than expected, literally heftier. There is something to the weight that seems to matter to me. I’m not quite sure what it is.

Maybe it is because I associate a certain (metaphorical) lightness with found/vernacular photographs, and the set fights that lightness in more ways than one, beginning with its physical form. But I’m slightly jumping ahead here. So Amateur comprises part of Lifshitz’s collection of found photographs, organized into four separate volumes: Superfreak, Under the Sand, Someone Was Here, and Flou.

Most collectors of found photographs (myself included) organize their treasures using categories, even often looking for specific types of photographs. I wrote about my own hangups with collecting found photographs two years ago. As much as I enjoy finding photographs, whether in the real world or online, I tend to enjoy what other people find more. In those cases because there are two different types of discovery. First, of course there are the photographs in question. Second, there is someone else’s organization or sense of discovery.

In Amateur, you very broadly get photographs of people doing extraordinary things (Superfreak), photographs of people at the beach (Under the Sand), photographs that speak of a human presence (Someone Was Here), and photographs that are either blurry or out of focus (Flou). The summaries of Superfreak and Someone Was Here might sound a bit vague, and they are. I find it a lot harder to succinctly summarize their content than in the other two cases. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m also drawn a lot more to them than to Under the Sand or Flou. There really is only so much you can get out of pictures of people at a beach or out of blurry photographs. In contrast, there is an overall sense of discovery in Superfreak and Someone Was Here that is supremely exciting, as many different types of images are being connected, are made to be seen together.

All the pictures in Amateur are presented in the same unified way. Whatever the actual photographs as objects might have looked like, that information is excluded. There are no borders visible, no drop shadows. We only get to see the images themselves. I’m a little bit torn about that. I think I might have enjoyed seeing the objects. But then it would also have been a slightly different book, a book of objects, not of images. Removing borders etc. brings the images themselves into better focus, yet at the same time it also amplifies some of the weaknesses in part of the selection. There really are only so many blurry pictures I need to look at.

In a sense, Amateur is the real “democratic forest” of photography, or rather four segments of it. Unlike the case of the one with the capitalized D and Z, this one is the vast repository of photography, assembled by all those unknown amateur photographers. This is the medium’s real democracy, with its pictures being essentially worthless in a monetary sense (quite unlike the capital D/Z ones, sold at the world’s most expensive galleries). As in Eggleston’s case, some organization would have to be performed (compare my pieces about The Democratic Forest: part 1, part 2), and this is, as I noted above, what those who collect do. Just like in Eggleston’s case, this results in mixed results, some of them profoundly rewarding, others less so.

Amateur; found photographs collected and edited by Sébastien Lifshitz; four books in slipcase; 616 pages; Steidl; 2016

(not rated)

Some stories appear to be too weird to be true. For example, there is the story of a man named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who was born in Germany, and who then moved to the US, to assume a variety of identities and to, eventually, get convicted of murder. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Gerhartsreiter at various times claimed he was “an actor, director, art collector, a physicist, a ship’s captain, a negotiator of international debt agreements, and an English aristocrat.” How you would get away with claiming to be an English aristocrat when you’re not escapes me. But to a large extent we are not who we are but who we think we are and, crucially, who or what we make others believe we are. Take me, for example. For over a decade, I have fairly convincingly conveyed being a photography critic, even though I’m really just someone with a very advanced degree in theoretical physics. But I digress.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer learned about the Gerhartsreiter case through a newspaper report, and she decided to look into it. I remember reading about it at the time as well. Any German causing any kind of commotion or attention in the US gets a lot of attention in the German press, and the Gerhartsreiter case was just to memorable. Too strange. In some ways, too un-German. A German imposter? In the US? Sure, there were Siegfried and Roy. But that’s entertainment. This case wasn’t entertainment, though. This was serious business.

Maierhofer decided to investigate the story and quickly ran into a conundrum: given all photography is fiction, how to make a fiction about another fiction, a con man’s life? The solution she picked was simple, albeit not obvious: take the ball and run with it. The result, Dear Clark,,  is not simple, certainly not obvious, but hugely rewarding (note that the book’s title does indeed include that extra comma). Originally an artist’s book in a relatively small edition, the trade edition, published by Berlin-based Drittel Books, faithfully reproduces all aspects of the earlier version. In particular, this includes tipped-in photographs (underneath, there often are hidden messages). How they did this while keeping the book’s price low I don’t know. But the book would have certainly suffered from being reduced to a version more palpable to commercial publishing.

Much like Gerhartsreiter’s life itself, the starts out in  somewhat clear and obvious manner, to then move into all kinds of directions. As can be expected, disguises and appearences feature prominently, with more than one dead end offered up. A viewer looking for a clear-cut story will probably end up being disappointed. But through the various strategies employed in the book, Maierhofer makes it clear that such a clear-cut story does in fact not exist. Or rather, there are markers that tempt the viewer to think there is such a story, a newspaper article here, a photo of Gerhardtsreiter there, but these markers don’t quite connect. Or maybe they do, and Maierhofer simply enjoyed playing the game a bit more. Either way, Dear Clark, successfully takes the form of the photobook as far as it can get right now.


Dear Clark,; photographs and text by Sara-Lena Maierhofer; essay by Marjolijn van Heemstra; 132 pages; Drittel Books; 2016

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.9

Now that photography has become almost fully disembodied, it might not be a surprise that its discarded material properties have become of interest for artists. What previously mostly was just part of the overall process, possibly of the supremely irritating process, has turned into its own fascinating object of study — in much the same way as the objects have. Whether or not this might have us reconsider aspects of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay of works of art in the era of mechanical reproduction is not clear; it certainly might be a better topic for another day, though.

Jaya Pelupessy‘s Set-Put-Run is the latest example of work around these ideas. In this case, the form and concept of the book itself is made to tie in with the work’s — as, obviously, it should, regardless of what subject matter we’re actually dealing with. But this is really no given in today’s hypersaturated photobook market, where often enough, books are produced quickly for effect (and inclusion in any of those shortlists).

Here, we needn’t worry, since the book was produced by FW:Photography, designer Hans Gremmen’s company. For me, this is one of the most inspiring photobook publishing houses these days. Gremmen’s output has been consistently challenging, even in cases, as this one, where the photographs in question might have left me cold, had I encountered them in a mere catalog or as prints on some wall. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Gremmen “in action,” as part of a workshop on photobook making. To be honest, it’s a humbling experience, given his approach and thinking about photobooks are so focused on finding the right form, while avoiding anything unnecessary.

Set-Put-Run revolves around the idea of taking photographs and of giving them a physical form (or maybe container — of which a book clearly is one example). It’s “meta” in the purest sense — this book is about photography itself. Consequently, looking at the book makes for a very cerebral experience. While I have my own preferences for what photography I might prefer, I will admit that as much as “meta” photography can irritate me quite a bit, if it’s done well I enjoy looking at it. In other words, I am open to a wide range of experiences offered by photography. This is clearly the case here.

To be more specific, I enjoy seeing the ideas behind the work unfold in front of me through the way they’re given shape and form in this book. Admittedly, part of my enjoyment might come from having looked at many books, seeing how they were put together and made. Seeing one that works well always is a bit like seeing a particularly poignant solution to a mathematical puzzle — there is an elegance to it that I can’t fail to appreciate.

Set-Put-Run; photographs by Jaya Pelupessy; essay by Simon Winchester; 128 pages; FW:Photography; 2016

Rating: Photography 2.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.4