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The world of documentary photography adheres to rules that borrow heavily from traditional journalism. With few exceptions, the (typically outside) observer enters a space or approaches a topic with the idea of providing as objective as possible a picture. Obviously, true objectivity cannot be had — humans aren’t robots. The smart documentarian will acknowledge as much and proceed with this inherent contradiction of her or his endeavour in mind. Conclusions and/or judgments might be offered, but even they tend to usually end up being on the cautious side.

There is much to be said for that model, as we are all learning these days as alternative hyper-partisan outlets undermine everything traditional journalism has come to stand for, to disseminate what can only be describes as blatant propaganda.

At the core of this all stands the idea of truth. Absolute truth is unattainable — this might be the only thing even the most extreme poles of human endeavour, religion and science, can agree on. In a nutshell, aiming for as much objectivity as possible is an attempt to get as close to a incontestable truth as possible, without ever being able to fully reach it. Ignoring those hyper-partisan outlets (which act in bad faith as far as the greater good is concerned), objectivity is not necessarily the only way to reach a — note: not the — truth. After all, there are many kinds of truths: human life is too complex to make do with just one.

I’m personally very interested in expanded explorations of the documentary form because I believe that insight into the human condition needs to acknowledge the main grey zones. This is not to say that I deny the value and/or validity of traditional documentary work — quite on the contrary. But I’m intrigued by having what I believe in challenged not just through facts but also through an exposure to the unexpected.

Christian van der Kooy‘s Anastasiia is a prime example of a recent book that pushes the boundaries of the documentary form. It does so by explicitly incorporating aspects that I suspect many documentarians would shy away from. On a trip to Ukraine, the location explored in the book, the photographer met a young woman who for reasons that aren’t entirely clear picked him up at some metro station. They fell in love. The developing relationship immediately becomes part of the overall narration — a long-distance relationship, sustained through the exchange of messages and through Skyping.

While the relationship plays a large part, the book does not center on it. Instead, its focus is the country, Ukraine, and its recent (and ongoing) turmoil, caused by the overthrow of a corrupt regime and the subsequent Russian invasions in Crimea and eastern provinces. Throughout the book, both the photographer and his girlfriend attempt to come to grips both with the country itself and their relationship, both providing their own voices through text (curiously, Van der Kooy’s messages to Anastasiia are absent). For the photographer, it’s an attempt to come to grips with another country that, while being part of Europe, feels alien. For the young woman, the challenges are not that dissimilar as what used to be taken for granted is now being challenged, and old ideas and norms are being replaced by new ones.

The mix of the intensely personal with what one would consider documentary material in addition to the mix of two clearly distinct voices (that also try to make sense of each other) lends the book a dimension absent from many (actually most) other documentary photobooks I know. There is a clear red thread running through the book, but it’s one of human uncertainty and of longing. It’s a book about life under specific circumstances, two people living their lives while being close to each other — mentally close when not being physically close. Can a country be understood by any one person at any moment in time? It’s doubtful. There can always be a picture painted (or written — should historians read this review), but inevitably, the picture will change.

The material in the book is presented and organized through some very basic and simple design choices, making the viewer’s/reader’s job very simple. Skype screengrab images are monochromatic — the pinkish hue that can be seen on the cover. Anastasiia’s writing and text are presented in the same colour. In contrast, Van der Rooy’s photographs are shown in full colour, and his writing is black.

I was unable to read Anastasiia in one sitting, something that would have been easily possible, simply because I didn’t want the experience of spending time with the book to end. I can only say that for very, very few photobooks that arrive at my doorstep. As much as I am tired of the seemingly endless barrage of very personal work in photoland  to give just one example: how many more family-photography projects do we need?), here I felt I was in the presence of something not only unexpected but also deeply engaging, deeply affecting.

It’s very likely that my placing of the book into the larger context of documentary photography will have a lot of people disagree. In my photobook taxonomy, I placed it under subjective documentary. But I do think there’s a time and place for an expansion of the idea of what the documentary form is and can be, in part because of the propaganda counter push by the hyper-partisan outlets: one of the most problematic aspects of the documentary form is its insistence on as objective a truth as possible. Hyper-partisan outlets have been deftly using this Achilles heel by pointing out minor inconsistencies in other people’s reporting while themselves pushing blatantly false if not outright nonsensical material. Whether or not the fight against those acting in bad faith can be won remains to be seen.

One way to disarm the partisans and professional liars might be to opt out of playing this one-sided game and to, instead, embrace forms such as the one used in Anastasiia. This not only expands ideas of the documentary to include other voices, here that of a person living in the area in question, but it also acknowledges the inherent shortcomings of the documentary form while not giving up on the quest for a larger truth anyway.

Highly recommended.

Anastasiia; photographs by Christian van der Kooy; text by Christian van der Kooy and Anastasiia [last name not given]; 160 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.2

Whispering Hope

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The road trip is one of the most basic genres of American photography. Much like the cult of street photography, there is a fair amount of machismo involved. Here is the lone-wolf photographer, driving around in his car or van, looking out for things or people that somehow are worth being photographed. The most famous historical examples have each spawned a cottage industry of photographers aiming to follow their heroes, whether it’s the view-camera crowd scouring the American West for even more bearded underprivileged folks wearing plaid shirts or whatever else. In other words, much like many other genres — think family photography, the road trip appears to have thoroughly exhausted itself as a topic that might give viewers new insight.

As Chikara Umihara demonstrates with Whispering Hope, though, it’s not impossible at all to produce such insight. The photographs in the book were all taken on numerous trip across the United States (while he was a student of the Hartford MFA Photography program that I’m a faculty member of). But the vehicle of choice was not the car or van. Instead, it was the bus. Umihara spent many days sitting on Greyhound buses, traversing the country and looking at the landscape passing by.

In many ways, bus travel in the US is not that dissimilar from domestic air travel: it’s profoundly grueling, with an overall lack of service and amenities that doesn’t necessarily betray a first-world experience. But there’s a profound difference between air travel in the US and taking the bus: even where they might be necessities for those taking them, they’re not the same kinds of necessities. A business traveler flies given that’s the fastest and easiest way to travel. A bus traveler, in contrast, often will take the bus because air travel is not an option — because of its cost or maybe because it requires a type of ID not available.

In addition, bus terminals typically are located in the dingiest parts of American cities, and they often are so run down that they make airports like Newark’s look appealing. In a society that prefers to ignore class as an issue to talk about, its modes of transportation reflect class very much. Consequently, traveling around the US by bus isn’t just any kind of road trip. Instead, it’s getting exposed to the very lowest rungs of a socioeconomic ladder that for many people has become too steep to climb.

There also is the added fact that Umihara is Japanese. Whispering Hope is a look at the US with the eyes of someone who grew up in a very different place. Fluent in English, the photographer was able to communicate with his fellow travelers — there are short text sections included in the book in which he relays either his impressions of the country or conversations he had. But the mental veneer that a US photographer would probably place over what was to be encountered is absent. This is not to single out this particular country: an insider, someone who grew up in a place, will always be unable to look at what s/he takes for granted. And this cuts both ways: the picturesque is not only the grotesque.

By construction, bus travel offers a very specific view: seated above regular eye level, the traveler gets to see the world through literally tinted glass. This effect makes many of Umihara’s pictures resemble Google Street View photographs (having seen one of their cars in real life, my guess is that in both cases the cameras are roughly at the same height). Digital compression artifacts are absent, though (the photographer’s camera of choice was a medium-format film camera); but there frequently are reflections in the frame. These artifices serve as a useful reminder of the camera’s role: a passive observer, forced to move along with the bus, its recording is detached from what is on view in ways that don’t exist for ordinary road trips. You cannot stop anywhere if you want. You will have to stop at very specific locations, whether you want to or not.

Without the little text pieces, interspersed between the photographs, the book would paint a grim picture. It’s not hard to see the neglect in the landscape, infrastructure, and in the many anonymous faces. It’s not hard to get the feeling of a country in profound spiritual (not to mention the obvious physical) disrepair. The text, pithy observations and fragments of conversations, add a sorely needed human element: there are people going about their business here, and it really is a book about them and not about the neglect. Umihara has too much of a heart to give up on what’s on view — we shouldn’t give up hope, either.

Whispering Hope; photographs and text by Chikara Umihara; 152 pages; self-published; 2017

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 2.5, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

Gold and Silver

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I’ve long thought that the catalog is a completely underrated type of photobook. To a large extent, this is because of the straightjacket catalog makers tend to put themselves in: with the overall format firmly established — a group of pictures plus at least one usually very academic essay, the intended target audience appears to be other catalog makers, in other words other academics (let’s include curators in this group). For everybody else the essay usually simply is borderline unreadable, filled with jargon and endless pages of footnotes and references. Even when well produced, photography catalogs thus often are incredibly tedious affairs, at best exit-through-the-gift-shop products that, let’s face it, nobody needs other than possibly said makers.

It doesn’t have to be that way, as is demonstrated by catalogs that break out of the mold I just described. For example, for Thomas Ruff alone there are at least four catalogs available that each are a delight for a viewer/reader: Oberflächen, Tiefen, Lichten, and the more conventional, yet truly engaging Editions 1988-2014 and the recent Whitechapel catalog. The former two use the full format of the book with their unique production choices. Possibly my favourite catalog of all times is Konrad Smolenski — Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, easily one of the visually most stimulating books in my library (Smolenski is a Polish sound artist).

But there is stiff competition for the Smolenski catalog now, provided by Gold and Silver, edited by Luce Lebart. Where in the case of the sound artist the photographs “merely” serve as tools to illustrate the art works in question (which include performances), this particular catalog deals with a photographic archive: pictures taken during the gold rush in California in the 1800s. Showcasing a set of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes could have easily served as an opportunity to produce a dreadfully boring and instantly forgettable catalog, Lebart used the opportunity provided by the source material to aim for the most attractive possible presentation of the photographs in question.

To begin with, the photographs are all reproduced without their original casings. Instead, the focus in on the pictures, on those depicted. Presented full bleed, the viewer finds her or himself face to face with these men who in some capacity were involved in the gold rush. The effect is stunning: instead of admiring the photographs as objects and as the novelty items they now are in a world where most pictures exist in fleeting form on screens, the viewer gets to see faces, gets to see characters, gets to see actual personalities. It’s a completely mesmerizing effect: as a viewer, I’m finding myself interested in these people who died long before I was born.

There still are artists working with what now are called alternative processes. But even they tend to put a large part of their focus on their craft, making sure the viewer gets to admire the object as much — or often even more — than the actual picture. Gold and Silver breaks with this convention, demonstrating how much can be gained from doing so. Obviously, back in the day, today’s alternative processes were simply what was available. So there wasn’t much of a choice what to do: if you wanted your picture taken, your choices were limited. And it’s not that I mind seeing the object: I own a few tintypes I had commissioned myself (I’m using one on my About page here).

But in this particular case, focusing on what’s in the pictures breaks through the separation that we have in our heads, namely that these people are from such a distant past that we cannot possibly relate to them. It’s true, they are: their world was much different than ours. But in some other sense, they were as human as we are. And I find it refreshing to encounter them as human beings. The effect is uncanny. For example, there are a handful of people who would not surprise me if they served me coffee in one of those totally overpriced high-maintenance coffee shops in, say, Brooklyn, San Francisco, or Portland, OR (then again, I’d probably be more surprised about finding myself in one of those places).

At the end of the book, there is an engaging essay that dives deeply into the history behind these pictures, meaning both the history of gold mining but also the history of photography. The reader learns about these types of photography and how precious metals played a major role not just in the gold mining but also in the making of these pictures (you probably know about the silver, but you might not have known about the use of gold). In addition, the casings of the photographs are shown, as are some of their other properties. For example, a daguerreotype is looked at from various angles, making the image change from a negative to a positive.

Gold and Silver thus easily is a must-buy for anyone interested in photography. It demonstrates what you can do with the catalog to vastly enhance the viewer’s experience — a viewer who might have never seen an actual daguerreotype in person. It manages to celebrate the photographs and its sitters in ways that break out of the staid and plainly boring format of most catalogs. And by the time the viewer has reached the essay, s/he probably is curious enough to learn a little bit about photography in its infancy — an infancy that resulted in photographs that can stand next to some of today’s most amazing examples.

Highly recommended.

(not rated)