The Photobook as Political Art

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All art is political. I gets iffy once artists attempt to produce something explicitly political. More often than not, the result is what I would think of as agitprop: political propaganda. Why that is a problem ought to be obvious, given what politics means: there is no such thing as solipsistic politics. You can’t have a political argument with yourself. So if politics always involves other people, as art does, then adding an explicit element of persuasion to it — which usually seems to be the idea behind “political art” — tends to tilt the balance towards crude propaganda.

These days, most photographers prefer not to be openly political. It’s just easier that way to deal with the intricacies of the world of photography (and beyond): you just never know where the wind might be blowing next. Plus, if you have a vested interest in selling your photographs in commercial galleries, it takes guts to bite the (rich) hand that feeds you. So the number of artists who will be happy to discuss politics in their work is relatively small. Which is, to make this very clear, fine with me. I certainly don’t think it’s up to me to decide how overtly political a photographer needs to be. As I said, all art is political, and an interest in keeping your politics seemingly under wraps speaks just as loudly as open political commentary.

If someone asked me for the names of political artists/photographers, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin would probably be the first names that would come to my mind. I’m not sure to what extent this is based on my own ideas of what political art ought to be or do. For sure, it can’t be completely independent of them. To some degree, I’ve always tied this pair to a tradition of political art that has strong connections to ideas pursued during the heydays of the ill-fated Weimar Republic.

Arguably, this very short period of time and locale produced some of the most influential ideas and photographs, ranging from August Sander‘s portrait of the German people (which, granted, is deeply rooted in an older time, but which also would not have blossomed without the freedom accorded by the Weimar Republic) to Bertolt Brecht‘s alienation effect to Otto Dix‘s and George Grosz‘s painted challenges for photography to László Moholy-Nagy‘s exploration of and blueprint for photography to John Heartfield‘s political montages to Hannah Höch‘s groundbreaking work (my favourite parts are the collages) to Walter Benjamin‘s and Siegfried Kracauer‘s cultural criticism etc.

You have little bits and pieces of almost all of these artists and writers in Broomberg and Chanarin’s work, some more prominent than others. The maybe most obvious example would be provided by War Primer 2, their re-mix of Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 Kriegsfibel. With its collection of re-purposed (art lingo: appropriated) press images and clippings, Brecht, ever the trendsetter, was a few decades ahead of what ultimately would become a very important (and hotly contested) trend in art. War Primer 2 was originally published in an edition of 100 and and it sold out rapidly (who says you can’t produce critical political art and cater to the select few at the same time?). But there now is a softcover re-issue available.

And the book is good in the sense of being, well, good. Brecht’s original book didn’t need any improvements or updates. That said, the idea of taking contemporary imagery and adding it on top of the earlier imagery was obviously up for grabs. Beyond the appropriation aspects, though, it’s not clear to me what exactly one would learn from that exercise other than war is bad and politicians will do evil things. Brecht already told you and showed you that, and Brecht’s appropriation of imagery for me looks like a much more radical gesture than Broomberg and Chanarin’s added material. Your mileage might vary.

I think that’s one of the hidden pitfalls of political art: given so many artists are only too happy not to talk about politics, the moment you produce something overtly political that’s already a radical gesture. And discussions around whether the results are any good always get drowned out by the chatter around the politics. This must make it hard to actually produce political art these days: where and how would you get honest feedback? The couple got a Deutsche Börse Prize for the book (speak about tainted money!), but that prize appears to lately have been handed out mostly on the basis of the perceived intent rather than the actual artistic quality of the work.

Anyway, back to the Germans. I first became aware of Klaus Staeck while being in high school. I wasn’t aware of this then, but now I know that Staeck followed the tradition of George Heartfield, making political posters that were assembled from re-purposed imagery, with often pithy and biting words added. For me, there’s something quintessential West German about the artist, even though I wouldn’t know how to justify the statement other than saying that Staeck provided one pole of the visual universe that deeply embedded itself in my brain. The other, opposite, pole was seeing the “Wanted” posters for West Germany’s left-wing terrorist groups in post offices and other official buildings. Well, there’s a rabbit hole I just became aware of, namely how my visual thinking was so deeply influenced by both an artist and the government re-purposing photographs.

The full trajectory of Staeck’s career is laid out beautifully in Sand fürs Getriebe, a catalog produced at the occasion of an exhibition at Essen’s Museum Folkwang. I had never seen the woodcuts before, and the somewhat Warholian early screen prints I was only vaguely familiar with. The bulk of the book is provided by the posters, which, as I noted, bring back strong and not necessarily altogether pleasant memories of West Germany, specifically the period of time called die bleierne Zeit (the leaden time), when West Germany’s technocratic Chancellor was engaged in a stand off with said terrorists, and the early years of the Kohl era, which eventually became (mostly West) Germany’s Brezhnev years (the so-called reunification notwithstanding). The catalog is in German only. But many of Staecks’s posters would require extensive added commentary and explanations to make sense to non-Germans, much like most of Heartfield’s work as well.

In contrast, Staeck’s Pornografie doesn’t need any added commentary at all. Having read Parr/Badger, I was aware of it. But I didn’t know that in 2007 the original 1971 book had been re-released as a facsimile by Steidl. In many ways, Pornografie is Staeck’s Kriegsfibel, except there’s no added text. Whatever (little) text there is was copied from print publications, like all of the imagery itself. If you want to think of Brecht’s book as his idea of an illustrated morality play, Staeck takes that idea a step further. In a series of chapters, he presents the effects of toxic masculinity, a seemingly endless onslaught of images of violence, whether implied, directly shown, or “merely” its documented aftermath.

These days, the same toxic masculinity is under the microscope again, with one of its main proponents currently occupying the White House. At the time of this writing, no new war has been started. But the display of misogyny, racism, and deluded incompetence has already contributed much to a coarsening of the public discourse that doesn’t bode well for the next decade or two, not to mention the barely disguised presence of fascists and Nazis in both government and the right-wing media (the same is true for other countries as well, of course).

Given it’s so far removed in terms of the times it was made, Pornografie might serve as a useful jolt to all those who haven’t seen it, yet. In a nutshell, the details have changed (the dictators and government thugs, the wars), the details have remained. Plus ça change indeed. As I noted, Staeck organized the material he assembled from print publications into a series of chapters that each are a little longer than is comfortable. When as a viewer you think you got it, you won’t be released. You’ll have to make it through more and more of the same, before there’s another chapter.

The penultimate chapter (7) drives the book’s point home (chapter 8, the conclusion of sorts, comprises just one spread): here, Staeck reproduced advertizing pages from magazines. No manipulation needed, as guns alternate with tanks or anti-aircraft rifles, shaving utensils, insurance, plus the occasional utterly sexist ad that uses women as little more than props in a man’s world. It’s sickening, and it works.

Discussed in this article:

Kriegsfibel; text and appropriated images by Bertolt Brecht; 70 pages; Eulenspiegel Verlag; 1955

War Primer; text (English translation) and appropriated images by Bertolt Brecht; 112 pages; Verso; 2017

War Primer 2 [paperback]; appropriated book with added appropriated images by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin; 200 pages; MACK; 2018

Sand fürs Getriebe; images by Klaus Staeck; texts by Hans-Jürgen Lechtreck, René Grohnert, Monte Packham, Klaus Staeck, Tobias Burg, Gerhard Steidl; 256 pages; Steidl; 2018

Pornografie [facsimile reissue]; appropriated images by Klaus Staeck; 392 pages; Steidl; 2007

Waffenruhe

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Of all the photobooks that I thought needed to see a re-release, Michael Schmidt‘s Waffenruhe was clearly the one in the top spot. With a second, facsimile edition now being available, this masterpiece of a book can finally get a much wider exposure. If you want to get yourself a copy, type “Michael Schmidt Waffenruhe Walther Koenig” into a Google window and proceed from there to the book publisher’s website. Unfortunately, copying the link to use it here doesn’t work. Note that there are German and English language versions available.

Waffenruhe, plus the subsequent Ein-Heit (U-Ni-Ty in its English language edition), produced by Schmidt roughly a decade later, should be considered as the two most important photobooks made by a German photographer in the second half of the 20th century. Darren Campion recently published an in-depth article about Ein-Heit, which you can find here. What makes both Waffenruhe and Ein-Heit so interesting is not the fact that they were made by a German artist. It is that they each very ambitiously deal with larger aspects of recent German history, while somewhat quietly pushing the boundaries of the medium photography.

Of all the photobooks I know, Waffenruhe features by far the strongest and intense opening sequence. The first five photographs are more felt than seen, and they communicate this idea very strongly to their viewers. Only the sixth photograph (on page 12) is merely seen, merely descriptive: a section of the Berlin Wall, covered with graffiti, with a section of wasteland right in front. Two pictures later, Schmidt includes a photograph of a photograph (which, from the looks of it, might have been part of a display): it’s the well-known 1962 photograph of Peter Fechter who while attempting to climb across the wall was shot and who took an hour to die while neither East German forces nor (obviously) Western ones intervened.

Fechter was 18 years old when he died, and the young man on the following page is very similar in age (this man will re-appear in a later picture). Photographs of people are sparsely used by Schmidt in Waffenruhe, and where they appear they carry quite the weight. This weight in part derives from the overall feeling of dread that is being created throughout the book, a dread that a visitor to the city at the time would have felt. I remember I did. West Berlin was a strange place, clearly a part of West Germany but in many ways not. Legally, it wasn’t, and in all kinds of other ways it wasn’t, either. Wherever you were, it was straightforward to cross a corner and find yourself in some rancid wasteland. And then you would cross yet another corner, and there it was again, the Wall.

Up until German re-unification, a ceasefire — the German word is Waffenruhe — was in effect, turning the two German states into somewhat odd affairs: they each behaved as if they were normal countries, which they clearly were not. And they each relished this strange absence of normalcy, while pretending the opposite was the case. Everything was always too normal in West Germany, but almost nothing had any major consequences (I cannot speak for East Germany, given that I only visited once, for roughly a week). The things that did end up mattering consequently created almost epic confusion and an intense circling of the wagons by the establishment, whether it concerned the student revolts or left-wing terrorism.

There was a huge fence separating the two countries, on the eastern side equipped with all kinds of deadly machinery to kill those who tried to cross. But it was the enclave of West Berlin that drove home the weirdness of the whole situation: as a high-school student you inevitably had to visit West Berlin, because for reasons that were denied almost on a daily basis, somehow Berlin had a deeper meaning. And then you’d go and find this city that looked like any other West German city, except it was a bit rattier, a bit more rancid, and also a bit more alive.

And this is really what Schmidt describes photographically in the book, this somewhat shoddily and incompletely pasted over rancid city that somehow just seemed to hang in thin air and that was used by East and West Germans alike for their own causes. There was this enormous contradiction going on that I found hard to describe then, just as I find it hard to do so now. When the country was being re-united, Berlin became the capital, which was opposed vehemently by large parts of the West German establishment that were happy with being nestled in the provincial town of Bonn. Given Berlin was so rancid and ratty I thought of course it ought to be the capital: how else would the newly re-united Germany be forced to confront more of its past than the two separate parts had done before?

Strictly speaking, the term “re-unification” is not very accurate, because the resulting Germany had in that shape and form not previously existed. What I have never seen acknowledged anywhere is the fact that this is the very first united Germany that is not occupying foreign parts (like the first united Germany in 1871) or that has claims on other parts of Europe that previously had been German (like the various German states afterwards). However you feel about Germany, given its history that’s quite something.

One of the frequent devices Schmidt employs in Waffenruhe (much less so in Ein-Heit) is to very selectively describe what was in front of his camera. The focus might not be where you would expect it to be, or there might be something right in front of the camera’s lens that obfuscates what is beyond (or vice versa). This makes for very interesting material if you consider Szarkowski’s ideas from The Photographer’s Eye. Beyond photography, the device also visually gets at the West German approach to its own reality, by describing one thing very clearly while meaning another or consciously omitting another.

Published only two years before the Berlin Wall fell, Waffenruhe very clearly is not just a book about (West) Berlin. It is a book about West Germany, the strange country that struggled so mightily to transform itself into something better, while, at the same time, being so adamant about remaining in place. Only when Chancellor Kohl was finally kicked out of office in the late 1990s did that transformation finally have a chance to occur for good. Curiously, around the same time, Ein-Heit was published: with these two books Schmidt clearly was feeling the pulse of the time (it’s not clear to me if people realized).

The larger history aside, what makes this particular book so important is its visual vocabulary, this insistence of the artist to have the pictures conform to his vision, a vision that sees the world not as it is but how it feels. As I noted above, Waffenruhe is mostly more felt than seen. It is this translation, this bringing about of feeling through seeing with the help of a camera (plus copious amounts of work in the b/w darkroom) that makes the work so strong, so forceful, so emotional. This is what is lacking from the various Schmidt copycats: the photographic device minus the underlying vision becomes a mere formal exercise.

It is very likely that my West German background and my age contribute to my read. Had I been born ten years earlier, it’s likely I wouldn’t have felt so stifled by the country’s restrictions, its partly self-imposed political infantilism, and the — for me — tedium of seeing earlier attempts to break through play out. Had I been born ten years later, I don’t think I would be able to feel Schmidt’s Waffenruhe pictures the way I do now. But I’m convinced someone not born and growing up in West Germany might have a hard time seeing how Schmidt’s photographic devices go beyond nifty formal exercises, how instead they get at so much more: they describe an emotionally crippled country so well.

Picturesque Poverty: Contemporary Photography’s Ugly Game

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The poor are easy to photograph. They make for good pictures, because they wear an expression of their many hardships literally on their sleeves. Unlike the well-off, poor people often lack an awareness of what a camera might do, specifically might do to them. And crucially, the poor don’t end up as patrons of the kinds of institutions that constitute large parts of photoland. In other words, they’re excluded economically, and they remain excluded symbolically as well, the frequent noises by fine-art photographers expressing concern about their plight notwithstanding.

There is something profoundly wrong with this aspect of contemporary photography — not that the world of photography differs so much from the rest of society. After Trump won the election in 2016, reporters fanned out to Trump country to interview those who supposedly had brought about the entertainer’s victory. As studies have shown, reporters could have simply gone to any Republican household, but no, it somehow was another very specific segment of voters who had brought about this political upheaval. This approach has much in common with photographers taking to their cars or vans to find rugged subjects with beards who somehow always end up wearing tattered flannel shirts.

This approach has a long history. On the one hand it idolizes these people — “common folks” who live in “the heartland” and somehow represent “real American values”. But it others them as well: no actual attempt is being made to see what “they” have in common with us, “us” here meaning the members of photoland. At times, such discussions bubble to the surface, never to be resolved (in fact, these discussions are more like a token that we photolandians care rather than that we actually want to fix things — they’re a form of kabuki theater). When famed and wealthy advertizing photographer Richard Avedon took to his station wagon to photograph In the American West, a review noted that many of his subjects “are dirty and misshapen in ways that are often associated with degradation and depravity, but sometimes also with superior virtue, and the few who are reasonably neat, clean and good looking usually seem, at least in these pictures, to suffer from a spiritual emptiness that ranges from solemn discontent to smug complacency.” Let that sink in for a moment.

In his review, Gene Thornton continued “Avedon has, in short, brought to obscure inhabitants of the American West the same brilliant, perverse, theatrical imagination that he has previously brought to European and American artistic and political celebrities, not to mention fashion and advertising photography.”  In a sense, this observation gets Avedon slightly off the hook as far as his portrayal of the denizens In the American West is concerned: at least Avedon was a photographic equal-opportunity abuser. After all, he did photograph the wealthy and famous, often turning them into grotesque creatures. Curiously though, and this gets me back to my argument, when there are discussions around this photographer’s work, more often than not it’s his portrayal of people in the American West that gets people riled up: these people aren’t the American West! How dare he?! Meanwhile, the celebrity photographs often get ignored, as if, given their background, they aren’t really photographs to be discussed.

I think what’s really going on is not only the fact that the poor make such good photographic subjects. They’re also great subjects to project ideas onto — as all those reporters fanning out to Trumpland have been demonstrating: you go with a fixed idea in mind, and you then process what you encounter against the context of your own ideas and expectations. The poor make for very malleable material to do just that.

The history of photography is filled with instances of The Other (The Other by Ryszard Kapuściński ought to be required reading for photographers), most notably concerning the colonial gaze. Expanding discussions around The Other to those living in our midst does not diminish considerations of, let’s say, how Africa was or often still is being portrayed photographically. If anything, such an approach acknowledges the source of The Other: it’s a question of power, of money, of privilege. Put simply, the poor in our midst have neither power, nor money, nor any privileges, and vast parts of photoland treat them accordingly. Of all the things they already lack, the right not to be portrayed as a group is another one. That’s a huge problem.

It’s a problem because, as I already noted, it flies in the face of the frequent noises heard from photographers according to which they’re concerned about poor people’s plight. It’s very hard to make that argument in a white-cube gallery or art school when surrounded by only other privileged people, but I have actually been witness to such claims. Such claims don’t sit well with me. But not all photography necessarily happens in this particular environment, even though as far as I can tell, vast parts of non-art photography aims to become that, art: just look at how much documentary photography enters commercial gallery spaces or art museums, locations that are hardly known for paying more than lip service to many of the very ideas documentary photography is concerned with.

Whether or not the problem I’m discussing here is resolvable I don’t know. In a sense, it isn’t: for art to be true art it will have to exist in grey areas. As viewers we need to be able to — and willing — to be faced with something that makes us very uncomfortable. For photography, this specifically means that the act of taking a picture almost inevitably will entail an element of exploitation, an element of an unequal power dynamic where one side, the photographer, gets to call the shots (pardon the pun; also, I don’t believe in the idea of collaboration when portraits are being taken: that just makes for truly boring art). Still, though, what’s uncomfortable about seeing poor people displayed the way they typically are? Aren’t we used to that? Almost expecting it?

The key to all of this might not to have a discussion around how all photography is exploitation. Having such abstract discussions is good if — and only if — they’re tied to concrete proposals how to deal with the problem at hand (which they’re usually not). Instead, the question might be what the next step could be: given photography’s inherent qualities, how can problems that apparently are openly and widely known get solved? How do you, the photographer, resolve the problems you have created with your pictures? Can you, the photographer, even accept that your possibly good motivations notwithstanding your pictures compound the problem?

I’ve grown especially allergic to claims by photographers that their pictures of poor people somehow are a reflection of their own state of mind: as if these people whose lives are hard enough now also have to serve as stand-ins for a bunch of (usually white male) artists with privileged-people problems! Poverty is not a life style — unlike (usually) being an artist.

I don’t necessarily want to imply that this is a one-size-fits-all problem. There were and are photographers who seem to not only be aware of the problem but were and are working towards solutions. By solutions I here don’t mean the reduction, let alone elimination of poverty. While that is a very worthwhile goal it is simply too much to expect from pictures or photographers to be a part of that. At a more basic level, I’m here mostly interested in the imagery, in the portrayal, in how poor people are being treated photographically by the members of photoland. That is an aspect of this larger complex that we, the members of photoland, can control very much, and that we need to be able to openly discuss.

To begin with discussing privilege is a good starting point. Privilege here splits into a variety of aspects, whether economical, gender-based (which shouldn’t exist but still does), racial (ditto) — these are the big ones that, again, are as difficult to control as poverty itself. Obviously, as member of a society we ought to have opinions about those. And then there’s the privilege of being able to understand what pictures do and how they do it. That privilege rarely gets talked about. But I think it sits at the core of where we ought to begin a discussion. This is, after all, where we are implicated as members of photoland. This is the privilege that we all have, even as we might differ concerning the other privileges.

I have the feeling that there will be no easy solution to the whole problem. Photography inevitably will end up being exploitative. But without there being a counterpoint, an acknowledgement of what’s going on, without photographers at least attempting to counteract what they are doing with their pictures, no real progress will be made. The poor have been at the receiving end of photography’s exploitation game for too long — we owe it to them to put an end to that.