Taking Up Moholy-Nagy’s Mantle

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László Moholy-Nagy‘s Painting, Photography, Film is a remarkable book. At first sight, it feels dated. Its design betrays its modernist Bauhaus origins, its photographs speak of a time when the medium was still in its relative infancy (certainly compared with what we are used to now), and the references in the text speak of a very different time when there was considerable promise in technological developments, the equivalents of which today fill us with dread. But to engage with the book on that level will miss the most important aspect: much like how Walter Benjamin‘s famous essays still have the power to inform us today, so does this book. In particular, it’s Moholy-Nagy’s spirit that can teach us a lot.

Brief digression: The inversion I mentioned just now provides an interesting aspect when comparing Moholy-Nagy’s times and ours. Thinking about it, maybe it’s not so much an inversion as a sense of déja vu: having seen the promises of the mechanical revolution turned into environmental pollution and fascism (to give just two examples), a sizeable number of us are weary of what the digital revolution might lead to (early warning signs aren’t looking very good at all).

Moholy-Nagy was deeply invested in what photographs could do and how they would do it. His apparent belief in the medium’s role as a positive force to bring about a better world might now seem at best quaint and at worst naive. However, the necessity to explore the medium has not disappeared. In fact, it has been vastly amplified in a world driven by images. Were he alive today, Moholy-Nagy would be endlessly fascinated by the world of photographs and images we are immersed in.

In a large variety of ways, Thomas Ruff is Moholy-Nagy’s heir. If any artist is concerned with photography’s ability to render the world and our own ability to understand it, it’s Ruff. While other artists share similar sensibilities — Christopher Williams or Roe Etheridge come to mind, none comes close to the sheer breadth of Ruff’s vision and willingness to push the boundaries of photography. At the same time, there is a levity to his approach that I find lacking in his contemporaries’ works.

With Ruff, you never quite know what you’ll be getting next. You can be certain that it will be interesting, even if the results might at times leave you cold. It is exactly this spirit of inquisitiveness that carries Moholy-Nagy’s torch. There even are various direct connections, such as, for example, Ruff’s marvelous computer-generated photograms — it’s not hard to imagine Moholy-Nagy being utterly delighted were he able to see them. And it is exactly this combination of inquisitiveness and visual delight that these two artists share.

If Winogrand photographed to see what the world would look like in pictures, Ruff makes photographs to see what the photographs he imagines might look like. What would a photogram in full colour look like? What would an astronaut flying over Mars see? What do images look like that move far beyond the male gaze, to show us a much fuller spectrum of human sexuality?

Ruff usually is being talked about as a member of the Düsseldorf School. I can understand this approach — it’s true in a very obvious sense. But its real utility has now exhausted itself. Where most of his Düsseldorf peers have barely moved beyond what they were doing a decade or two ago, Ruff sped up his investigation of photography, breaking all boundaries of both what photographs are and what they can look like. This becomes apparent in Thomas Ruff, the catalog of a retrospective currently on view at London’s Whitechapel Gallery (which those unable to visit the exhibition — like me — will have to be content with).

Unlike the other Ruff catalogs I own, this particular one offers a deeper glimpse into the artist’s universe through a series of text fragments provided by the artist, which outline his intellectual approach. These fragments include a longer quote from Painting, Photography, Film — which confirmed my idea that Ruff is very much aware of the territory he is operating in, along with many other quotes from a variety of sources, some of them expected (Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes), others perhaps less so (in particular Thomas Bernhard or Michel Houellebecq).

Having met and spoken with Ruff a few times, my guess is that this is going to be the closest we will get to seeing him provide more of his background vision. There will not be his version of Moholy-Nagy’s book. However, it’s not clear what such a book might look like anyway — Moholy-Nagy’s messianic spirit would feel quite odd to me in these times where images move and change faster than anyone could describe, where photographs are everything and nothing at the same time.

One can only hope that Thomas Ruff will continue his exploration (yes, his is an actual exploration) for a long time. While our technologies have moved far beyond the ones available to Moholy-Nagy, our thinking about photography still is very much at the stage of that time — and I doubt it will ever move beyond. We still talk about pictures as if they were the fully indexical pieces of the world that they can be but usually are not. We still get mad when a picture doesn’t have the effect we wish it had. We still produce pictures at a seemingly maddening rate. As long as someone like Ruff picks up a piece that interests him, to look deeply into what it might mean, how it might work, how far it could be pushed, we should be good.

Photobook Reviews W43/2017

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There are plenty of photobooks showcasing archival materials. In fact, the use of archival materials has become common even beyond producing mere collections of them. Whatever they might be, whatever their origin, their patina creates an instant attraction for a viewer. In the Benjaminian sense, archival materials clearly possess an aura, an allure, even if they consist of mass-produced items.

Having archival materials at one’s disposal is one thing. Doing something smart with them is entirely another. Some archives don’t need any extra work. They will do all the lifting. For example, Erik Kessels has deftly and smartly worked with such materials. Of course, for every book featuring, let’s say, a wife standing in water fully dressed, there probably are many albums or collections of pictures that did not make it. In other words, Kessels is more than a publisher of intriguing archival pictures. First and foremost, he filters out all the stuff that can’t make the cut.

So there are two aspects to archival materials, their inherent quality and the ability of whoever finds them to distill them into something worthwhile — if that is possible. I feel the latter is usually being neglected in discussions of such materials. Often enough, when a photographer struggles with a project some archival materials are being added to it — as if such materials had the magical ability to do the lifting. But they don’t have that. At best, they will divert the viewer’s attention from what’s not working, an effect that is bound to last only so long.

Andrejs Strokins has been working with archival materials for a while. He is probably more well known for his own photographs, for example the idiosyncratic Cosmic Sadness. But Strokins has also been collecting photographs, some of which he used for collages (to learn more about him, read our conversation). He just published his first book featuring photographs from an archive, entitled Palladium. The archive centers on Latvian Soviet-era movie theaters.

It would be tempting to imagine the book as the end result of the kind of treatment such material often gets, especially if it’s in the hands of someone who never had to live under Soviet rule. I’m not sure how I can succinctly describe what I see as the usual approach, but it’s a mix of “isn’t this weird?” and “isn’t this somehow cool?”. It essentially is a form of othering the past of a sizeable part of the world, which not only turns a rigid dictatorship into something entertaining but which also belittles and demeans the past and present lives and experiences of those who had to live under it (mind you, in Western contemporary photography this problem isn’t confined only to using archives as Romain Mader has demonstrated).

Palladium avoids this pitfall. Given that the movie theaters in question appear to have been used for more than only showing films, the book weaves in and out between the world of movies and the larger world of a communist society with its strange rituals (which in actuality aren’t any more strange than what we witness in Western societies, but that’s a topic for a different day).

Thankfully, Strokins also brought his own unique sensibility to the edit, often picking the most stubbornly odd pictures, pictures that it would have been all-too easy to reject as failures. Consequently, there is a strong line of somewhat disturbing deadpan humour running through the book. As a counterpoint to what might be seen as “cool” or “weird” it’s a very effective device. The world of Latvian Soviet-era thus becomes a strange theater of the absurd that, for this Western viewer, breaks every expectation it sets up almost immediately.

Palladium; archival photographs edited by Andrejs Strokins; essay by Vadim Agapov; 96 pages; Talka; 2017


(not rated)

Some things are just too awful to consider, at least for people with a well developed sense of decency and compassion. But that sense can be undermined, or it can be sidelined. Joachim Fest‘s biography of Albert Speer centers on this very aspect: how was it possible that an otherwise highly cultivated and intelligent man could have made himself a very integral part of Nazi Germany’s machinery of annihilation? As Fest discovered, there is no real answer. There are only the mental mechanisms at play, which allowed Speer to think about rebuilding Berlin, while having Jewish people getting evicted from their homes slated for demolition. It’s a version of “out of sight, out of mind,” which for its victims meant a lot more than just that. And it’s the very same mechanism of institutionalized cruelty that is being applied on a daily basis in many (most?) other countries as well. Fest concludes that the likes of Speer are the ones we should truly fear, besides the Hitlers, and I think he has a point.

Once you have somehow convinced yourself that something isn’t your problem and that people at the receiving end of an injustice ultimately only have themselves to blame, you’ve placed yourself on a spectrum of awfulness. On that spectrum, you might tell yourself (and others) that poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy, that children who have never known another country should still get deported from it given they don’t have the right passport, that it’s OK to keep “evildoers” in an extraterritorial and extralegal prison, that those afflicted with mental illness should be euthanized (which also saves some money), or that entire groups of people deserve to simply die simply because of their religion or tribe or whatever else. These different examples are not equivalent. But they’re all located on that spectrum, which gets more and more and more awful, and which wouldn’t operate at all if it weren’t for the Speerian mindset that in some form we all carry within us.

The Nazis called the killing of the mentally ill Aktion T4. Thousands of people perished, with their next of kin usually being told that there had been some (made up) medical cause. Gerhard Richter painted one of these victims, his aunt Marianne. There exists a haunting book about the story of Marianne, and Richter’s coming to terms with it, which, unfortunately, is not available in English translation. If anyone ever can come to terms with something like that is not clear. And in light of the various other atrocities committed by the Nazis, Aktion T4 is one of the minor aspects of that time — minor of course only in terms of the numbers involved.

Can there be a photobook made about Aktion T4? How would one go about it? Dieter de Lathauwer attempted to do just that, with I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy). Using a combination of his own and archival photographs, the book centers on the awfulness that sits at the center of this particular mass murder. In a very strict sense, the book doesn’t really tell you anything. No photograph or group of photographs could ever convey the awfulness in question, neither could a painting, a piece of text, … But the book gets very, very close, leaving a feeling of deep dread, of pain, of something truly obscene happening in an otherwise perfectly ordinary world.


I loved my wife; photographs by Dieter de Lathauwer; essays by Joachim Naudts, Dr. Erik Thys, Dr. Herwig Czech; 120 pages; Lecturis; 2017

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.8

The Island of the Colorblind

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Sanne de Wilde

If we all saw the exact same things in photographs, the medium would be a lot less interesting than it actually is. As infuriating as disagreements over what a photograph shows can be, they also have the potential of bringing us closer to seeing the world with someone else’s eyes. In a world more and more divided into petty tribes that are at war with each other — whether literally or metaphorically, photography thus has an important role to play.

But photographs don’t just show us different things because of our interpretations. As individuals, we also don’t all see the world alike: “Neuroscientists have discovered that women are better at distinguishing among subtle distinctions in color, while men appear more sensitive to objects moving across their field of vision.” Turns out our brains process the visual information that they receive from our eyes in a surprisingly complex way. The late Oliver Sacks wrote about a painter who as a consequence of some damage to his brain lost the ability to see in colour. His world had become fully black and white. Something similar happened to Brian Ulrich, albeit temporarily, after a bike accident (see my interview with him). I have always been infinitely fascinated by these kinds of stories, simply because I am so curious about what it would be like to see the world differently.

Sacks also wrote a story about an island where colorblindness is a lot more common. Chances are you are familiar with red-green colourblindness, which is the most common form. Total colourblindness, where you only see in b/w, is rare (something like 0.0025% of all people live with it). But just like in the case of the painter, it exists. On the “island of the colorblind,” it’s a lot more common, with roughly 10% of its inhabitants living in a grey-scale world.

What makes this all interesting is an unsolvable riddle: you can imagine what it would be like to see the world differently, but you will never be able to actually get there. For me, this realization boils down to the fact that the emphatic aspect behind these kinds of stories is always a lot more interesting than the informational one. Even if you look at, say, a b/w photo knowing that that’s how a completely colorblind person would see, the world around that picture inevitably has colour (unless you’re colourblind, in which case obviously you wouldn’t need a demonstration what the world looks like if you were colourblind).

Seen that way, Sanne de Wilde‘s The Island Of The Colorblind is an exercise in futility (you’ll notice that the book’s title uses the American spelling of “colour”). But it’s great because of exactly that. There have been various bodies of work lately where artists modified the colours in their photographs for effect. For example, there is David Benjamin Sherry’s Climate Vortex Sutra, plus an assorted number of other New Formalists. Richard Mosse also has employed similar devices, raking in one photo major prize after another (see my take on Incoming here). Collectively, though, I don’t think these other projects amount to much other than visual exercises. This is why De Wilde’s work interests me so much. Unlike in any of the other cases, her subjects actually do see the world differently. There is an actual bridge to be crossed.

If all you had were De Wilde’s imagery, you might take them as another case of New Formalism. Visually, many of the photographs look that way. But the fact that there is something in the real world that it’s all connected to has me interested. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy art made for its own sake. I even enjoy photography made with the purpose of looking into the medium’s machinations. But for me, and I can only speak for me here, there needs to be more than a grad-school-style exercise. To go back to my old go-to criterion, there need to be something at stake.

And there is in De Wilde’s case. The book itself, with its inclusion of a variety of text (the interviews remind me of some of Sophie Calle‘s work), truly brings the pictures to life. Without the text, the jumble of imagery, with its various variations of colour (and lack thereof) might remain that. With the text, especially the interviews, the strange colours acquire an urgency and purpose — an urgency and purpose not rooted in the artist saying (or pretending) so, but one rooted in someone else’s experience.

The book pulls all the various stops contemporary photobooks have at their disposal. Beyond design, there are various production choices, including different types of paper and even some UV-sensitive ink printed on top of the cover. Maybe some of this could have been dialed back a bit. But all in all, I think the book showcases very well what a photobook in 2017 could (maybe should) be: an engaging object where its makers are not afraid to use its basic properties to help produce the overall engaging experience for its viewers.


The Island of the Colorblind; photographs by Sanne de Wilde; texts by Arnon Grunberg, Azu Nwagbogu, Oliver Sacks, Katharina Smets, Duncan Speakman, Roel Van Gils, Sanne de Wilde; 160 pages; Kehrer; 2017

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.1


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I’m perfectly happy buying books second hand, whether online or off, even when I’m dealing with photobooks: I don’t see the need to own pristine copies of each and every book intended for my library. A used one will do, assuming it’s in decent enough shape. At times, even this criterion, the decent enough shape, will get discarded. That’s when I’m looking for hard-to-find books, which in the case of photobooks inevitably means: expensive ones.

There is a seedy, dark side to the world of photobook collecting and owning, which hardly ever gets talked about, namely people stockpiling “out-of-print” books, to sell them off, one at a time, to collectors or people interested in getting their rare copy. Apart from the fact that I don’t have infinite funds to spend, I just don’t like the idea of literally buying into that.

If you spend enough time looking, you can find almost any book for a reasonable price eventually. Unless you’re lucky, finding some rare book for next to nothing at some used bookseller (never happens to me), there usually is a snag, namely the fact that the book might be in what many people would not consider a good enough condition.

I will not buy completely ratty or half destroyed books. But if I can get an otherwise rare photobook with a slightly damaged cover, say, then I will buy it. For example, I found a paperback copy of W. Eugene Smith’s Minimata on eBay. The listing said the book was in fine condition, but the cover had detached. I bought it ($10). There’s nothing a little glue can’t fix (also, a friend of mine is a book binder).

Over the course of the past few years, I have started a small collection of books that were discarded from public libraries. With library books, it’s easy to predict what shape they will be in. There might be all kinds of stamps and markings. But usually, they’re clean, and often enough they look as if they had gone through a fair amount of hands. But that’s not always the case.

I don’t necessarily want to know what makes libraries discard books. I have some ideas, but I’m worried that they are correct. For example, I found a copy of Ashley Gilbertson’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, discarded from a library in Telluride CO. The book is ten years old, and the consequences of the war depicted in the book are still with us. Yet the book has already been discarded from a public library. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed.

I have an almost pristine copy of Laszlo Moholo-Nagy’s Painting Film Photography (second paperback reissue from 1987) from a college’s library in Tuscon AZ. It doesn’t look as if anyone ever looked at the book. My copy of Victor Margolin’s The Struggle for Utopia, discarded from the Illinois Institute of Art, still has its original library card inside (none of the newer books have those, probably because library-wise things have gone digital). The book was taken out twice. I tip my hat to those two brave souls, but only ever so slightly: maybe they were both incredibly careful with the book, making sure it wouldn’t get even slightly bent while reading it. Maybe.

And maybe it’s snobbish for me to write all of this. Who am I to tell people which books should be read or looked at and which ones should be discarded? Then again, if one of the best books about the so-called war on terror gets discarded from a public library within a decade of its publication, when a college can’t even make its students read one of the most important modernist creeds written about photography, then that might also tell us something. I don’t know, something here feels wrong to me.

But these withdrawn books could also point to the larger set of relevance that we, inside photoland, attach to certain books, but not to others. Maybe what’s in Parr/Badger doesn’t matter that much? Or not enough for it to remain in a public library (my copy of Chauncey Hare’s Interior America comes from one in the UK). That’s possible.

Alternatively, maybe we don’t do a very good job bringing those books closer to the public, and I don’t mean that in the literal sense. A book could be in your neighourhood library, but if nobody looks at it, it’s still very far away.

Whatever it is, books don’t just tell us about our times. The way books are used, disseminated, and looked at or not used, disseminated, and looked at — that also tells us something about our times.

A Conversation with Rafał Milach

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Rafał Milach

Before I met Rafał Milach for the first time in person two years ago, I had known of him as a prolific photobook maker and one of the driving forces behind the Polish Sputnik photography collective. When I went to Warsaw for the first time last year, the US election campaign was still in full swing. Much like many other people I was convinced there was no way someone like Donald Trump actually had a chance to win — I told Rafał that such a blatantly racist and sexist person would simply not get the majority of voters. Turns out he didn’t, but he won anyway — just as Rafał predicted.

At the time, Poland was already under the rule of the authoritarian PiS party, which would bring to Poland what the US has so far been mostly spared, given Trump’s sheer incompetence: an erosion of civil liberties and of democracy in general. With Rafał’s (and Sputnik’s) work centering on the post-Soviet landscape in Eastern Europe, including the kind of politics that now broke out into the open, these types of topics have always played some role for him. We had lots of discussions about it all.

Talking with Rafał about his work for this site had long been overdue. I wish larger circumstances would be a bit better. But if there’s something said about “interesting times,” it is that they can make for interesting work.

Jörg Colberg: To start off, could you talk a little bit about your background as a photographer? How did you come to photography? Why photography and not, say, writing or something else?

Rafał Milach: Actually, I did try something else. I never planned to become a photographer. My primary education is in graphic design, and I wanted to make posters. Poland has a strong tradition in poster design that was paradoxically developed under the communist regime. Photography came as an obligatory course that I had to pass at the Academy of Fine Arts. Not a romantic start at all, right?

I used to draw and paint a lot. But when I discovered photography (mostly documentary) I fell in love with it and almost stopped doing everything else. I could finally refer to so called “real world” which was not always the case in my previous practices. With photography I learned how to observe. Ironically, most recently I started to question the boundaries of photography concerning some aspects of reality that surrounds us. My attraction to documentary photography is still strong. But I started to look for a relevant visual language that could reflect the problems I want to talk about. Strangely photography which is my primary medium seems to be insufficient. I restarted drawing and doing collages or playing with various archival materials.

JC: You’re part of the Sputnik collective. Could you talk about the ideas behind and mission of the collective?

RM: Sputnik Photos was created as a platform to comment on Eastern Europe. The collective initially started as a group of photographers. But with time we expanded our collaboration to writers, graphic designers, educators, cultural activists, visual artists, curators. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that we still refer to the region where we come from. For more than a decade we’ve been working on stories commenting on the economical, cultural, and political transition of the former East Block countries. We’ve published a dozen or so books (group and monographs) alongside the exhibitions that deal with the post Soviet legacy and other aspects. For a couple of years, we’ve also been running our educational platform (Sputnik Photos Mentoring Programme), and we are very proud of our talented students.

JC: Sputnik have been celebrating their anniversary with a series of books and exhibitions with all kinds of different formats. Somewhat unusual, at least for most collectives I know, was that you decided to mix your photographs, not listing individual names. What are the ideas behind this approach?

RM: We indeed celebrated the 10th anniversary of our collective’s activity by launching the “Lost Territories” project. It’s a complex structure which deconstructs the stories each one of us developed in former Soviet republics for the past eight years. The Lost Territories Archive (LTA) that we created doesn’t care about the authorship behind either single images or the stories. Instead, it focuses on the meaning and contexts behind the pictures. For each reading of the archive we build a different narrative for a book or an exhibition.

Reducing authorship in the field of art is nothing new. But in terms of our practice inside Sputnik it was experimental but also a natural process. On the one hand this gesture was required by the structure of the project. On the other hand it was an ultimate way of merging our pictures while working as a group.

JC: Poland has been ruled by a far-right government for two years now. In many ways, the government foreshadowed the Trump administration, with maybe the only exception that in Poland, the reality-TV aspect and the tweets are maybe missing. What has this meant for you, both as a photographer and, of course, as a citizen?

RM: Is it possible at all to separate one from the other, especially today?

We have our local political folklore here. Some of it also includes tweeting, and frankly I wouldn’t complain if it would be just that. But coming back to my position. Early on, I got interested in politics. Not that I wanted it. And I mean the daily politics – not the long term processes and their impact on society that we can explore and digest slowly. Some years ago as an editorial photographer portraying presidents, prime ministers, and politicians for magazines I had to be aware of the current political situation. Then my focus drifted in a different direction, so I was able forget about it. Two years ago everything changed, and I now have refer to our current political environment again.

JC: And then how does one deal with such a situation? What’s photography’s (or art’s) role when confronted with such a massive challenge to basic democratic institutions?

RM: It’s very simple. It has to react to that. I can’t see any other role for art (photography included) than a commenting one. Art is a tool, and we have to use it. If we use it in an intelligent way it can be powerful.

JC: If I’m correct, you had the photograph to photograph the behind-the-scenes ruler, Jaroslaw Kaczynski for a Newsweek cover. When Nadav Kander photographed Donald Trump the result was oddly — and maybe disconcertingly — non-committal (as was the photographer speaking about it). How did you go about your job?

RM: I had an opinion of this politician, and I hope it was visible in the portrait.

JC: Your newest project — and book — now are a deviation from your earlier work, and they seem to reference the situation in Poland and in some other places. Could you talk about it?

RM: “The First March of Gentlemen” I did within the Kolekcja Wrzesińska residency program is a formally abstract comment on the current situation in Poland. It can easily refer to other places as well. It’s about protest and public manifestations of opinions. It’s my vision of a civic society that in my opinion we don’t have in Poland. We have protested a lot over the past two years in Poland. But it’s still not enough, and most people are simply not interested in politics and in the ongoing processes that devastate democracy. In a way I can understand that: large parts of our society are forgotten and marginalized by people in power, so why would they care?

The series of collages I made is sort of an Arcadian space where citizens express their fears and desires publicly. Regardless of possible consequences they are active.The images contain both the idea of freedom and the oppressive apparatus. The fictional story is based on facts linked to the small Polish town of Września, famous for its children strike against German occupants at the beginning of the 20th Century. A second layer refers to Poland’s communist regime in the 1950’s.