Fundraiser 2018

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I have been writing about photography for over a decade now, first on Conscientious and now on this site. I like writing about photography, because I like looking at photographs. Writing about photographs helps me understand them: what they are, what they do, and how they are a part of the larger world we all find ourselves in. My hope is that the resulting essays do the same for you, the reader.

But I also like writing about photography because photographs play such vast parts in our private and civic lives, so we need to understand them better. We cannot allow ourselves to be at the mercy of those who use photographs to sway us in this or that direction.

I have kept this site free from corporate sponsorship or advertising. That way, I can remain independent as a writer, without being beholden to someone whose agenda might be at odds with what contemporary criticism ought to do: ask the truly critical questions even if that challenges the various powers that be.

Access to the site was free, is free, and will always be free. Free, however, is not a widely accepted business model. I still have to pay my rent, pay my bills, pay for my groceries, pay for photobooks, pay for hosting, etc. This is why I am asking you, the reader, for your financial support: there is a fundraiser in the form of a GoFundMe page. Your contribution will help me continue doing what I have been doing.

There should be an added reward for supporters, though, and there is. After last year’s fundraising campaign, I started writing exclusive essays that supporters received in the form of emails. Roughly every three weeks, there would be something exclusive arriving.

It had been my idea to write about vernacular photography, and this is indeed what I focused on. I used my own small collection of such photographs to write about the various aspects of vernacular photography. Given I found all these photographs on eBay, the role of that site became an added aspect. Over the course of the next year, I will focus on something else.

I have come to especially enjoy this part of writing. With each essay sent out via email I felt I was able to give back to all of those who so graciously supported my work. I am really looking forward to the next round.

Thank you very much for your support! It helps me do what I do, and I cannot tell you in words how much it means to me!

RIP Hannes

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If you start looking into the world of the photobook you will encounter a large number of passionate people. In that group there are a few that stand out for even more, people who live and breathe photobooks, people who won’t tire of making them and looking at them and trying to sell them — while telling you how they’ll stop making them and looking at them and trying to sell them.

To say that Hannes Wanderer, who at the age of 60 died unexpectedly on September 9th, 2018, was one of these people is an understatement. Hannes was the driving force behind Peperoni Books, and he also ran the shop 25 Books. He was particularly adept at switching back and forth between sheer enthusiasm for a new book and telling me in elaborate detail how he would get out of it all soon. Of course, he wouldn’t. Another book had to get made.

I’d make a point of seeing Hannes in his store every time I was in Berlin, even when I knew I was too broke to buy another book. I’d never regret it. Inevitably, I’d leave even more broke, with another book or two in a bag. Only an android would not to be swayed or affected by Hannes’ enthusiasm for the books he was selling. And it made no difference to him whether the books he’d be talking up were his own or not. There was no ego involved, there was no attempting to be cool, attempting to show off — there just was this unwavering love for what ink on paper could do if it was used to reproduce pictures.

Hannes could be intense. To see him tell people about books was nothing short of miraculous, though: what easily could have been intimidating or maybe weird never was. His intensity was not just coupled with unbridled enthusiasm, there was also this overwhelming generosity that he extended to everyone who entered his orbit. In a world dominated by takers, Hannes was a true giver. He would happily share what he knew (which was a lot) without any pretense or second thought. He didn’t try to sell you books as much as make you just as excited about them as he was — even if that meant that more often than not, people would walk away and buy the book online to save a few bucks (something that he would make the topic of conversations as well).

There are two types of people in the world of the photobook: those who met Hannes and those who didn’t. You will have no trouble figuring out if someone met him: those who did would inevitably come away transformed in some strange way that I have been trying to figure out over the course of these past few days. There was something magnetic about the man. You would go to his store, and you would do that even if you had just met him elsewhere because of course there would have been some reason to go, even at a time where ordinary stores would already be closed. Hannes would somehow always have a case of beer and various soft drinks at hand (“help yourselves!”), and then it would be books, books, books.

I never walked away from his store thinking I had bought a book to be nice or wondering the next day why the hell I had bought what I had. I’d love what he sold me, because he didn’t sell me books, he sold me other people’s stories. And even those I didn’t buy — it’s the books I’d pay for, and everything else would be for free, given to me by this most generous man.

The world of the photobook (and, by extension, photography itself) would be in a much better shape if there were more Hanneses. There used to be one, and now there’s none. I still don’t know what to make of that.

Rest in peace, my friend. I’ll miss you forever.

Photography’s Macho Cult

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If you haven’t read Kainaz Amaria’s Photojournalism needs to face its #MeToo moment, yet, you might want to do that right now. There appears to be some sort of reckoning in the world of photojournalism happening even though as Amaria makes clear, the extent of that reckoning is not clear. A well-known photojournalist quietly resigned from an agency he had co-founded after a report was published “in which several women accused him of groping and intimidating a number of female colleagues.”

The agency itself — VII — let it be known that inquiries concerning the various alleged cases of sexual harassment be directed at the photographer — as if it had absolutely nothing to do with any of what is alleged to have happened in its midst. Hmm, OK. My feeling is that the bad-apple approach used here is unable to address if and how a problem might have been related to a larger context, that larger context here being VII itself and the world of photojournalism. But what do I know? Maybe that’s the plan?

Like most people, I’m not part of that world. I mostly know about it through stories that are being told and through talking to photojournalists themselves. “When an industry is so dominated by men at every level and at nearly every major institution,” Amaria writes, “a toxic culture toward women is the inevitable result.” The numbers presented in the article certainly are damning: it’s an industry dominated by men, “responsible for visually representing the world and its most vulnerable people.” (my emphasis)

Much to Amaria’s credit, the article outlines why exactly this dominance is so problematic. It’s not “merely” the fact that female photographers are systematically being disadvantaged. There also is the outcome in the form of the pictures. The following quote by Nina Berman aptly summarizes this outcome that we’re all visually so familiar with: “It’s basically an othering that comes from the belief that the man behind the camera has a privileged artistic sense, an inherent superiority despite rarely knowing the local language, or living in the region or neighborhood he’s covering, or having any sustained connection to what he’s seeing.”

It is, in other words, what makes photojournalism photojournalism: usually highly stylized pictures that more often than not are highly manipulative on an immediate emotional level, while at the same time shutting down any further, deeper insight into what is being depicted. It works (just look at the front pages of news sites or newspapers), and it doesn’t (ditto).

The conversation could easily stop right there, and that would be very convenient for all those who — like me — are not part of the world of photojournalism. But it’s really not that simple. What you see in the world of photojournalism is merely an expression (and variant) of something you can see everywhere else, something that can be summarized quite simply as a macho cult, which rewards very male aspects of photography and disadvantages the rest.

I realize this is a huge topic, and it’s very unlikely that I will be able to do it justice. Still, I want to give it a shot.

From what I hear, female and non-binary photographers are very much aware of the systemic disadvantages they have to deal with in an industry they are just as committed to as their male counterparts. These disadvantages are too numerous to list here. But you could start with, for example, this (or any previous) year’s Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, supposedly one of the most important photography festivals. A large number of artists have just published an open letter in one of France’s major newspapers, urging the festival’s director to take meaningful steps to fix the problem of a severe underrepresentation of female and non-binary photographers.

The overall problem goes further and deeper than this. I’m obviously writing this piece from the perspective of a white middle-aged male who simply does not have to deal with the challenges and obstacles faced by the people who are not part of my privileged group. I know what I know from trying to talk to as many people outside of my group as possible. That knowledge is incomplete.

But I also believe that even within my privileged group there are opportunities to witness the scales being tipped in our group’s favour. After all, the world of photography is built not just on institutions, it’s also built on a shared set of values, ideas, and assumptions, many of which have become part of what we call the history of photography. I believe that it’s not very hard to see how these values, ideas, and assumptions themselves betray a clear male bias. And that is what I want to get at in the following.

Here’s an example. Hear a group of photographers talk about Garry Winogrand, and you might imagine they’re describing a heroic firefighter who ran into a burning building to save a little child plus, magically, the child’s cat and its litter of newborn kittens. But no, it’s really just about a guy with what sounds like a bundle of issues who took pictures of people in the street in ways that most ordinary people, especially these days, would consider to be rude if not outright sketchy. Somehow that’s supposed to be cool, that you shove your camera into people’s faces and laugh off their discontent (it’s not). And the cult created around this particular photographer is mirrored by the cult created around many other of photography’s greats, the large majority of them men.

Or take the idea of the American road trip. There’s this romanticism about the lone-wolf photographer driving around in the United States with their van and 4×5, “for whom,” to quote from the the press text of a recent book about the subject, “the American road is muse” — today’s photo-world equivalent of the lone cowboy riding into the sunset. The book comes with an exhibition, with 17 artists in it (I’m counting the artistic duo as one artist here). Two of these 17 artists are women.

I’d like to make clear, though, that I don’t want to imply that there isn’t any artistic merit to either Winogrand or the road-trip book/exhibition. That’s not my point. My point is, and I could go on and on with examples: vast parts of the world of photography center on very male-centric topics, whether they’re male artists (who dominate the history of photography to a large extent because of the choices of a very small number of people — think John Szarkowski) or male ideas or approaches. And some of the most prominent examples veer into the territory that’s not merely male, it’s outright macho.

It might come as a surprise to some people that not all examples of a male-dominated world of photography are, for a lack of a better word, historical. Even relatively new developments such as, for example, Instagram are openly and explicitly biased against women. In the case of Instagram, this means its censorship concerning the depiction of the female body, whether it’s nipples or breastfeeding. Of course, these kinds of more recent examples can be directly traced back to Silicon Valley’s own huge problems with gender discrimination.

The “macho” above doesn’t mean a literal machismo — some guy swaggering in and talking as if this were a saloon (needless to say, examples of this behaviour certainly exist). Instead, I also and especially mean a widely accepted dismissal of many other and equally valid approaches to the point that we aren’t even aware of them.

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in War & Peace in the Global Village, “since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” We all are the fish, and this very male-centric, often outright macho environment of photoland is the water. It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere.

This situation is problematic for a large variety of reasons. The most extreme examples are described by Kainaz Amaria in her article. But these examples aren’t disconnected from all the rest — it’s maybe just those patches where the water is murkiest.

We have to come to a much better understanding of how much we have accepted and internalized so many ideas in photography that derive from a very male mindset. This is especially important since the rest of the world is moving ahead, and it will continue to move ahead with or without us.

The world of Winogrand — street photography — is already trying to come to terms with it: people on the street don’t want some guy stick their camera into their faces without their permission. It’s simply not acceptable any longer. In many countries in Europe it’s now outright illegal to do so. Europe’s new privacy laws treat photographs as data, and it gives its citizens the right to decide what can and cannot be done with their data. If you take a photo of someone, it’s not your data — it’s theirs. You will need their consent. Some countries have enacted legislation to make sure photographers’ rights are protected within reason.

There are two possible responses to this situation. One would be to do street photography anyway, the public be damned — what do they know about art anyway? That’s the macho approach, right in line with street photography’s inherent machismo. The other response would be to acknowledge the changed times and to come to terms with it. At the very least, that might entail a changed approach. After all, what good is photographing in the street as if it still were 1960 or 1970 anyway?

For many photographers the fall back is to basically revert to what an outsider might see as self-indulgent posturing. This solution revolves around dismissing larger concerns and insisting on one’s role as an artist, an artist who in the name of art can do anything. For me, that doesn’t cut it. I get where that’s coming from (the history of art). And I understand the idea of the freedom of art. But if your art comes at the expense of someone else — isn’t there then that other person’s (or group’s) freedom that needs to be considered, too? In general, what good is your freedom if the same freedom is explicitly or implicitly denied to others?

At the core of discussions around the many problems around photography, this encroachment of another person’s or group’s freedoms is the main topic to be considered, whether it’s photojournalists helicoptering in to make dramatic pictures for their newspaper’s front pages, female and non-binary photographers being denied the opportunities that males take for granted, the public rejecting the idea that it’s simply OK to photograph them without explicit consent, or whatever else.

Ultimately, acknowledging and solving these problems can only enrich the world of photography. It can only lead to a situation that is more and more and finally fully inclusive in all senses of the world, where, for example, 50% of photographers are female, whether it’s at Arles or in the scrums around a Supreme Court nominee. It can only lead to a world where the voices of all are being heard, and they’re not only heard but also depicted using the sensibilities of all — not just, to take the example of photojournalism — the aggressive male.

We fish have to become aware of the water we swim in. And when I say “we fish” I am mostly speaking to my Western male colleagues. I don’t mean to exclude the other fish — having talked to them I know very well about the problem. The world of photography has served us male fish well. But it must not serve us well any longer at the expense of everybody else. That has got to stop: the sooner the better. And for that to happen, we have to start looking at how some of the most basic ways we deal with and talk about photography find their origins in male thinking.

Experimental Relationship

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There’s a startling painting that, I’m sure, is fairly widely known. I had always thought it was Italian, but it’s actually French. It’s a Renaissance painting that shows two women. Lavish red curtains are drawn to reveal the scene. Both women face the viewer, and given they’re taking a bath, they’re nude. My personal focal points of this painting have always been their hands. Each of these hands is painted in the most delicate way. The left hand of the woman on the left is the one that makes this painting so memorable: with just her index finger and thumb she very gently pinches one of the other woman’s nipples.

Fontainebleau school (late 16th century) – Presumed Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister, the Duchess of Villars (c. 1594), Musée du Louvre

“The models have been identified as Gabrielle d’Estrées (1571-99), the favorite of Henry IV (1553-1610), and one of her sisters: the Duchess de Villars or Madame de Balagny” the Louvre’s website informs us: “The oddly affectionate way in which the sister is pinching Gabrielle d’Estrées’ right breast has often been taken as symbolizing the latter’s pregnancy with the illegitimate child of Henry IV. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the scene of the young woman sewing – perhaps preparing a layette for the coming child – in the background.” If you don’t remember the presence of a third woman, way in the back, you’re probably not alone (read more about the painting — whose painter is not known — and its historical background here).

Not in a million years would I have guessed, let alone known the reason for that particular gesture. Classical paintings were made to be read, not merely seen, much like today photographs are. Unless you’re an art historian or someone at least familiar with art history, you simply lack the code to do the reading, leaving you with guesses — which themselves might actually be interesting, however much removed they are from the actual ideas. I find this fact extremely interesting. Essentially, the world in which this painting originally was shown in is very much alien to us, yet we still are able to respond to its artifacts.

Pixy Liao – Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place (2008)

I would be tremendously intrigued to find out what viewers in 2418 will make of a 2008 photograph by Pixy Liao in Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017) whose title is given in the index as “Relationships work best when each partner knows their proper place”. I have no actual reason to believe that there will actually be human life left on Earth, given the rapid deterioration of the planet’s climate, but who knows? Maybe 400 years down the line — roughly the same amount of time that separates us from the painting I talked of above — there will be some humanoid life form looking at this photograph.

In the photograph, the artist, standing fully dressed on the right side and looking at the viewer, touches one of the nipples of the man beside her in a way that copies the painting’s gesture. Unlike the woman, the man is almost nude, wearing only underwear. He also holds the end of a cable release (in 400 years, some obscure technical historian might shine light on this strange black thing), and he looks at her, not the viewer. There are no curtains drawn. Instead, generic looking blinds cover all the windows behind the couple, producing a much flatter space than in the painting.

Regardless of whether a viewer has seen the painting or not, this photograph is startling. Why would the man take a picture like this? But wait, in the book it becomes clear that he is not the artist, he is playing the role of a model. Note that this particular photographic strategy can also be found in the work of Jemima Stehli. “As much as I enjoy looking, and watching her moves, I realise she’s the one in control,” writes Adrian Searle, one of the subjects in her Strip series. “I take the photograph, but she’s got me photographing myself, looking at her.” I’m not 100% sure, but based on a detail in his essay (“I notice that one of my trouser legs has ridden-up, and that somehow that look of power and confidence I wanted to present […] has managed to go awry.”) he might be the man in the right panel here.

This is all very interesting. Unlike in the case of Stehli and Searle, the man in Liao’s picture — his name is Moro — is the artist’s partner. I don’t think we have a way of knowing that from the picture. But this bit of information, along with some more, is given in the book’s introduction. We thus have the familial relationship between the two women in the painting and their gesture, one — art historians tell us — of affection. We have a feminist artist undressing for a series of men, some of them curators, some critics/writers, and giving them the “power” to determine which picture should be taken. And we have a non-Western artist combining those two in Liao’s photograph.

We have, in other words, the state of the world of art in 2018, or rather the state of those parts of the art world that have recognized the need to massively expand the narrow historical confines of the West (and by “historical” I here mean the highly selective history as written down so far). It is against this background that Pixy Liao’s work needs to be seen.

Make no mistake, though, on its own, the photographs in the book have tremendous merit. They clearly speak of a relationship between a man and a woman that appears to be built on an enormous amount of trust, a relationship in which both partners are willing to acknowledge each other’s strengths just as much as weaknesses, a relationship that does not shy away from subverting traditional ideas of how a man and a woman ought to behave with each other. It is this latter aspect where history and cultural contexts enter.

Pixy Liao – Start your day with a good breakfast together (2009)

Much like the knowledge of the gesture of affection in the painting provides crucial insight into the work itself, an awareness of the various larger cultural ideas entering this artist’s work are able to massively enrich a viewer’s experience with them. Another photograph from the book, Start your day with a good breakfast together (2009), shows Moro (who, again, is in charge of the shutter-release button) lying on a table, with what looks like half of a papaya over his genitals. The artist, a spoon in her left hand, looks into the camera.

I’m sure (well, I hope anyway) I don’t have to decode all aspects of this photograph. In an obvious way, Moro — who the short introduction in the book informs us is Japanese — is made to serve as a Nyotaimori platter, with the various fruits adding further elements of sexuality. Nyotaimori is an obviously misogynistic practice, so it would seem only fair that the tables are turned here for the two sexes (my apologies for the somewhat lame pun).

In all their various forms, the photographs in the book center on aspects of sexuality and of what can happen between a man and a woman when there is an awareness of both the flawed past and the possibly much better future. That better future is not going to arrive without any efforts and work being devoted to it. That better future will have to provide a true equality for all the various groups that for historical reason up until now have been placed in an unequal relationship (to phrase this very mildly).  Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017) demonstrates what the better future might look like.

And it’s fun. There’s a tremendous amount of joyful engagement going throughout the book, with the joke, if there is one, often but not always at the expense of the male. “The book is designed in yellow color,” writes the artist, “because I want it to be a ‘yellow book’, in Chinese ‘黄书’ means pornography book. ;)” There have only been 500 copies printed, so you probably better rush to make sure one of them will become yours.

Highly recommended.

Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017); photographs by Pixy Liao; 160 pages; Jiazazhi; 2018

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.6