How to Do The Flowers

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“No new pictures until the old ones are used up!” Joachim Schmid begged near the end of the 20th Century (without much success). There were to be new pictures, a lot of them actually, as photography became the currency of the internet. The futility of Schmid’s plea should not divert attention from the underlying idea, an idea that is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago: we ought to not just make photographs, we’d also be well advised to look at them — specifically to understand what they do and how they do what they do.

This approach to photography is not new. While working with other people’s (“archival” or “found” or “vernacular” or whatever else) photographs became an established part of both the larger art and the much smaller photography world (with some overlap between them), it’s worthwhile to remember how the first truly relevant attempts in that direction were worked on during Germany’s Weimar Republic. Unlike today, the people engaged in looking at photographs to understand their meaning — and this meant the meaning as derived from their use — were theorists and artists. Writers Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer were just as interested in understanding photography as artists such as László Moholy-Nagy or Aenne Biermann (both Moholy-Nagy and Biermann published books entitled 60 Fotos, the former one’s still well known, the latter one’s now being more or less forgotten).

In a day and age where artists frequently use archival materials to add to their own projects, the critical aspect of working with other people’s pictures has mostly fallen by the wayside (especially since Christian Patterson‘s Redheaded Peckerwood became a much emulated model for creating narratives in book form). Archival photographs are mostly included because of their use value and less so to focus attention on their very essence. In fact, archival materials tend to often be used when they’re extraordinary, when, in other words, beyond their patina there is a sense of strangeness or attraction to them. After all, who would want to work with mundane, if not outright boring source materials?

Well, Ruth van Beek would. There is not a single truly memorable photograph in How To Do The Flowers, yet the accumulated effect of paging through over 500 pages of banal pictures that are arranged in a large variety of montages is extraordinary.

The book has much in common with Batia Suter‘s Radical Grammar or Parallel Encyclopedia. In both cases, the authors sourced their material from a wide variety of original publications. However, unlike Suter, Van Beek eschews attempts to showcase her visual intellect. Make no mistake, that visual intellect is very much present. But it’s employed in the service of something that ultimately is completely nonsensical and that is brilliant because of it. It’s sheer Dada. In a world of photography that all-too-often is concerned with an artist’s (supposed) cleverness, Van Beek’s dry wit is most welcome.

As one might expect, many of the photographs used in How To Do The Flowers appear to have been taken from books in which photographs were supplied to visually support instructions. Photography is great for that: you want to learn how to do something (bake a cake, make a doll, take care of a cactus, …)? Well, here are the steps — inevitably, things will be reduced to a set of finite steps, and here is what the steps look like, meaning here is a person going through these steps, and here are pictures of that person — often just the hands — engaged in baking a cake, making a doll, taking care of a cactus, …

Of course, YouTube videos have largely taken over the role of such instructional books. Say whatever you want about the utility of such videos, the kind of photography not being produced any longer that Van Beek has been mining here is a tremendous loss: the most utilitarian photography is often the most amazing once it’s taken out of its original context (c.f. Sultan/Mandel’s Evidence).

How To Do The Flowers is filled with photographs of hands doing something. Since originally preceding and following images are absent and since furthermore there usually are montages that juxtapose images, the effect of looking through the book is completely arresting. This is in part because the viewer’s expectation concerning these source photographs has not become completely untethered from them. They look like they should make sense, yet out of their original context, they’re like Wile E. Coyote hovering above the inevitable abyss.

Van Beek deftly works these expectations against one another or with each other, to produce a Dadaesque cabinet of instructions: if a viewer is somehow going to learn something for the book, for sure that knowledge will be utterly useless.

So the viewer will end up having to submit to the uselessness of it all, which provides a tremendous sense of relief, given that the world of the photobook tends is filled with books that each “explore” one important or grave or very relevant topic after another. I will admit that at times, the sheer joylessness of this world frustrates me deeply. It’s certainly not that I feel the need to be entertained all the time — on the contrary. But the onslaught of often half-baked cleverness in the service of some topic that in the larger scheme of things often might not be so important is relentless.

Given Listmas, the season of endless “best of” lists is upon us, I think I’d like to conclude with one very basic personal observation. Despite the reservations I just mentioned, this past year has renewed my faith in the photobook. There have been quite a few very impressive ones — if you browse through my archives you will find many of them reviewed. I don’t know whether How To Do The Flowers is going to be the last book that I will be able to add to all those that had me enjoy this year so much. But for sure it is one of the books that I had been very much looking forward to, and I’m so delighted that it didn’t disappoint.

Highly recommended.

How To Do The Flowers; photographs collected and/or produced by Ruth van Beek; 508 pages; Art Paper Editions/Dashwood Books; 2018

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Revealing a Fishy Story

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In Stanisław Lem‘s magnificent Solaris, a scientist is being sent to a space station to look into some inexplicable irregularities. Arriving at the station, Kris Kelvin finds a very odd situation in which the other scientists have apparently gone off the rails. Here, the book and the equally magnificent movie adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky diverge. The movie centers on Kelvin and his reacting to and dealing with the appearance of someone he had not seen in a long time (in the interest of those who haven’t seen it, I will not give away the plot).

The book, however, centers more on the probable cause of the disturbances in the space station. It orbits a planet covered by an ocean that appears to be a living creature, a creature that possibly attempts to communicate with the humans in its vicinity. Or maybe not — as Kelvin explores materials compiled by other scientists he attempts to find out. The book is philosophical in a way that a movie could never be.

Our own planet isn’t fully covered by water, but there is plenty of it. The oceans — the vast mass of water is divided into separate, yet connected parts — aren’t all that well known to humanity. There are still mysterious creatures being found in their depths. What we know about their top layers mostly revolves around our own activities, whether it’s the steady warming that will make large parts of the planets uninhabitable in a few decades, the overfishing, or the various areas where our garbage has been forming our own uninhabited microcolonies of sorts.

But the oceans also form the basis for the hypercapitalist world we live in, where vast amounts of goods are being literally shipped around the world in containers: without this underlying mechanism, the cheap garments made in developing countries (to use that euphemism) would simply disappear from the Walmarts, as would be the sweatshops there, and the argument could probably be extended as to what the consequences might be for the jobs in our midst that have simply disappeared.

Unlike Lem’s ocean, our oceans do not appear to have a consciousness of their own. Much like his, however, the patterns that are ingrained onto them clearly speak of a much larger, intelligent system, a system that has profound effects on our lives.

Two recent books deal with exactly this, Allan Sekula‘s Fish Story and Natascha Libbert‘s I Went Looking for a Ship. In both cases, the artists essentially take on the role of Kris Kelvin, attempting to look into the aforementioned patterns. Fish Story is a re-issue of a book that was originally published in the 1990s, while Libbert’s book is brand new. To say that these books are in fact more or less the same is correct in a larger sense: they both attempt to deal with the connection between the larger world of the shipping industry and its connection with capitalism. The strategies the two authors employed to that end differ greatly, though.

In Sekula’s case, more than the photographs it is the deeply researched essays that drive the book. You could easily publish just these texts and essentially arrive at more of less the same result. This is an impressive achievement, given that the photographs alone also are of very high quality. In fact, you probably could publish just the photographs on their own to create a book; that book would then follow the lines of contemporary photobook making (it would be a somewhat wishy-washy book that “explores” the topic without the author wanting or being able to be specific — you know the type). But it is the combination of text and images that demonstrates what can be achieved if the two are successfully combined.

Libbert employed the same strategy, with text and images being brought together. Unlike in Sekula’s case, the bulk of the text follows the pictures, though. What is more, the visual strategies are more contemporary: where Sekula starts off from the basic conventions of classical documentary photography, the Dutch artist’s approach is clearly much less concerned with individual images, instead embracing variations of the very same picture. The second major difference is the text itself. Sekula’s is academically Marxist, while Libbert’s first-person narrative stays very close to her own photographing and working.

I couldn’t say that I would prefer one over the other. Sekula’s dense academic prose resists easy access. It demands to be studied, which in principle is fine. Here and there, however, it is an extremely tedious read. This fact vastly reduces the size of a possible audience: there are only so many people who want to subject themselves to such prose. In contrast, Libbert’s writing is easily accessible and enjoyable to read, without ever reaching any of the depth that Sekula offers. In terms of the pictures, the opposite is the case. Both artists are adept image makers, but I’m thinking that a wider audience might simply be baffled by the repetitions and also by part of the layout employed in I Went Looking for a Ship.

Whether or not there is an ideal form for what these two authors attempt to achieve is not clear to me. I might have written this before, but arriving at such an ideal form is probably a lot less important than attempting to get there. This is especially true given that the topic at hand — essentially the form of highly exploitative and toxic global capitalism currently ruling the world — needs to be explored and unmasked before its consequences will make life on this planet impossible. Let’s hope the point of no return has not in fact been reached, yet.

One last comment: very large topics are notoriously difficult to deal with photographically. As these two books demonstrate, it can be done. What they make clear is that the role and utility of text should never be neglected, dismissed, or ignored when making a photobook.

Fish Story; photographs and text by Allan Sekula; 296 pages; MACK; 2018 (reissue)

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I Went Looking for a Ship; photographs and text by Natascha Libbert; 160 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2018

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Christopher Anderson and the Joy of Seeing

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Hardly a day goes by without some photobook arriving in the mail that attempts to impress me with an overly complex and/or convoluted attempt to tell some usually quite mundane story. You know the book: pictures are all over the place, in tandem with the photographer the designer appears to have consumed way too much coffee, and the production involves all kinds of gatefolds and pages of various sizes and papers.

That approach can work when it’s done well and when it’s appropriate. I have reviewed quite a few of such books. But now you can go to workshops where such a book will be made for you, regardless of whether or not the photographs in question and the project itself actually require such an approach: that’s just formulaic, reducing what can be a very valuable way to make a photobook into a cheap gimmick, a gimmick used to attempt to dazzle the audience (which, granted, appears to be easily dazzleable).

Speak with photographers, and all you’ll hear is their interest in “narrative” (I’m placing the word in quotes because many photographers don’t really know what the words means). Mention the word “catalogue,” and you’ll get looks as if you just showed up at Count Dracula’s house with a bunch of garlic and a cross. Frankly, this is an absurd situation, which I hope won’t last much longer.

The reality is that even in the most complex narrative-driven books that I enjoy very much the quality of the photographs themselves tends to be at a high level. In other words, I personally prefer photography that is visually engaging (if not more). There’s nothing more tedious for me than to make my way through some interesting story that is told with mediocre or lousy pictures.

In the case of photography that doesn’t fall into the category of narrative-driven work, this would appear to be a widely accepted statement: you don’t want to look at lousy pictures. How or why so many photographers interested in narrative-driven work somehow appear to have forgotten this aspect of photography is not clear to me.

I’m hoping that the pendulum is now going to swing back and that renewed focus will be put on photographs, on making photographs that are visceral or beautiful or stunning or moving or whatever else they can be.

After all, at its very core photography should be about the excitement of experiencing in the medium’s particular form the end result of having truly seen something or someone. It’s not just about looking, and it’s also not about recognizing — it’s about seeing, about discovering. And that excitement, that joy can simply come from what the camera does itself, when it’s being used under the right circumstances, by the right person — the right person here the one who directly taps into her or his visual cortex.

It is repeated exposure to Christopher Anderson‘s Approximate Joy that triggered the above for me. The book is really “only” about the things a camera can do when in the hands of a gifted photographer, but, boy!, is that a lot! I have read the way the book is being described by its photographer, publisher, gallerists, and others. But honestly, I don’t buy any of that stuff. The photographs might have been taken in China, but they’re not about anything other than being made themselves, about existing as beautiful images.

You might wonder why I am so insistent about reducing them down to that. But I actually don’t think of stripping them off all the added verbal artifice as anything other than doing them — and the photographer — a service. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay entitled Why does it always have to be about something?, and I stand by that piece to this day. Beautiful photographs ought to have the right to be just that, beautiful photographs, without requiring some verbal crutches. In fact, truly beautiful photographs such as the ones in this book don’t require any such crutches: their own sublime beauty almost resists being forced into what ultimately only is a simplifying Procrustean bed.

For the most part, the photographs in Approximate Joy are tightly cropped portraits of what look like pedestrians who are illuminated by very direct, mostly artificial light. Like the crescent of the sickle moon, contours of faces are being thrown into sharp relief against an often murky background. Most of the portrayed appear unaware of the fact that they have become photographic subjects, showing their faces in the kind of state common when being in public on your own: your face’s expression is publicly private, attempting not to betray too much, if anything, of what might be going on beneath the surface.

Our — the viewer’s — gazing at these faces allows us to project our own ideas onto these faces. Mind you, we don’t have full license to do so, given the photographic choices at hand here. We are guided in specific ways. And I can’t help but feel the photographer’s own joy of making this work here. These photographs are about nothing other than seeing and about crafting beautiful images — crafting here not in the tediously joyless Ansel Adamsian sense, but rather in a much more excited intuitive way (much like the difference  between Christopher Kimball’s cooking show and Jacques Pepin’s, respectively).

Of course, you might point out that I have no way of knowing all of this. You’re right! Who knows, maybe Christopher Anderson did go to China to make some statement about the future or any of the other stuff mentioned in the verbiage around the work. Regardless of whether that’s the case, it doesn’t matter. The work itself, these sublimely beautiful pictures, demand to be taken for what they are: they are all about the joy of looking, the joy of making beautiful pictures. That’s it.

“That’s it?,” you might ask, “how can that be enough?” Well, of course it’s enough! It’s photography! It’s what we seem to have forgotten about photography, having seen all this stuff put on top of pictures, whether by photographers themselves, by editors, curators, writers, critics, educators… There is something to be gained by adding words to pictures, by talking about pictures, by putting them into context. But the adding of those words must not become the same formulaic tedium as the creation of endless amounts of narrative-driven books.

Seen that way, Approximate Joy is a radical book: its insistence on picture being allowed to be pictures should remind us of the essence of the medium and of the fact that beauty on its own is not something we should run away from. It’s something to embrace, something to cherish.

(At the time of this writing, the book is sold out. Let’s hope that there will be a second edition.)

Update (15 November 2018): There is going to be a second edition that can be ordered here.

Approximate Joy; photographs by Christopher Anderson; 120 pages; Stanley Barker; 2018

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 4.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.6

Writing about Photography: Three New Books

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Much like a plant relies on the soil it grows in, the nutrient it consumes, and the air it breathes, art writing does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. Instead, it arises in a very similar way, with whatever seeds are made to grow being deeply informed by the conditions under which the process takes place. This fact becomes very clear once a reader strays from the milieu s/he is familiar with, which given we’re dealing with language is not as easy as ideally it would be. However many languages someone might be able to read, there are many others s/he will have no access to — and in all likelihood, there is quite a bit of good art writing available that for this reason simply is inaccessible.

This year saw the publication of three books that anyone interested in critical writing about photography might be interested in. They each drive the point I made above home very strongly. They are Tyler Green‘s Carleton Watkins, Mariko Takeuchi‘s Silence and Image, and Taco Hidde Bakker‘s The Photograph That Took the Place of a Mountain.

Carleton Watkins (subtitled Making the West American) is a long overdue biography of this particular photographer. The result of many years of painstaking research by Tyler Green (of Modern Art Notes fame) and richly illustrated, this statement will be obvious to anyone familiar with the history of photography, but perhaps quite a bit less so for those who are not.

Who was Carleton Watkins? As it turns out, it’s not that clear, given that most direct records have simply disappeared. The very first photograph in the book shows an elderly man who is being led through what looks like a city in a war zone. There was no war, but the effects of the powerful 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires had the same effect on San Francisco, reducing vast parts of the city to ruins and destroying the photographer’s workshop and archive. Unlike August Sander, who had some of his negatives stored outside of the city he was living in, thus saving them from the destruction that befell the rest when Cologne was bombed, Watkins was not so lucky. He lost all his work. What we’re left with are the prints he had made and sold and/or distributed.

Having to rely on material related to the photographer (letters, newspaper articles, and much more), Green not only reconstructs his life to the extent that this is possible, he also places the man into the cultural, societal, and political context of his time. In a nutshell, the book really is as much a biography of a particular place at a particular time as it is a biography of the photographer. It is for that very reason that Carleton Watkins should be of interest for anyone interested in photography: the pictures are made to gain in stature not just in an artistic sense, but also in a larger societal one.

All too often, biographies treat photographers as if they either existed in more or less a vacuum or as if it was them who had an effect on their surroundings. Neither can obviously be the case — what I wrote above for art writing is also valid for photographing. In parts out of necessity, in part out of what I suspect is sheer curiosity and a desire to look more deeply at his subject, Green connects Watkins to some of the dominant themes of his era, which include, for example, the Civil War or the creation of the United State’s first National Park. These connections are explored deeply, bringing a time back to life that has considerable myths attached to it.

Having said that, the book also is deeply patriotic. I’m not sure how easily apparent this fact might be for an American reader (unless s/he is Native American). But this reader, born and raised in West Germany where any hints of even mild patriotism were viewed with if not strict disapproval then for sure severe skepticism, it’s a bit much at times. Your mileage might vary. What is more, discussions of Watkins’ photographs, especially when they are compared with those of his peers, often start out with the conclusion taken for granted: Watkins’ are great (which they often are), the other ones are very bad (which they are not quite as often as the author wants us believe).

Those aspects aside, Carleton Watkins is a treasure of a book, which hopefully will bring more attention to this particular photographer’s work and achievement. With its numerous illustrations of photographs discussed by the author, in all likelihood a reader will come away with a deep sense of appreciation of both the artist in question but also his biographer. Book geeks eager to look at the inside of the dust jacket will have their curiosity rewarded — a charming detail which only hints at the effort that went into the making of this biography.

Mariko Takeuchi’s Silence and Image is a bilingual collection of essays focusing exclusively on Japanese photographers. A very recent visit to the country made me very aware of its rich photographic culture that extends far beyond what is usually being presented in the West. In addition, having listened to a handful of Japanese photographers speak about their work had me realize the different approach they take when dealing with pictures. Turns out many photographers there write extensively (instead of relying on the commonly used and very tedious excuse used by many of their Western peers that had they wanted to write they would have become writers).

In her book, Takeuchi focuses on a number of artists some of which I suspect will be unknown to a larger Western audience. Consequently, the book not only opens up a window into a different critical sensibility, it also offers a chance to discover artists that deserve more exposure outside of their native Japan. For each artist, there are two photographs included in the book — one each before the English and Japanese language text. These images are tipped in, which only adds to the overall feel of the book’s preciousness.

“In itself,” Takeuichi begins her first essay on Lieko Shiga, “living is neither beautiful nor wonderful. Life, in fact, is incomparably cruel and even love destroys us. […] The image has the potential to save the innumerable lives and loves that are ignored and forgotten. This ‘saving,’ of course, does not occur easily in our world. The image’s capacity to save is similar to a desperate prayer.” Never before have I read someone write about photography this way. In a nutshell, this is what I meant when I wrote about the different critical sensibility earlier. I have no better words to describe what I mean.

For its essay on Ken Domon and his work in Hiroshima alone the book is worth being picked up. Part of this essay’s title (… Portraying the Suffering of Others) had me think I knew where it would be going. But no, there were no Susan Sontag quotes, and many of the angles common in Western writing were absent. Instead, the author used a very different approach and in a deft move the photographer’s own words to get to what was at stake for those depicted — before arriving at a conclusion that only hints at its own very impossibility. For sure, you want to read this essay.

Much like Silence and Image Taco Hidde Bakker’s The Photograph That Took the Place of a Mountain is a collection of essays that originally appeared elsewhere, all of them revised, expanded, and translated into English. I can only recommend the book for the same reason as Takeuchi’s, even though of course this author’s sensibility and background are very different.

If I had problems describing the Japanese critic’s way of writing, I have the same problems here — other than maybe saying that Bakker is driven by a deeply informed intellectual curiosity that won’t shy away from revisiting past writing to correct or improve where such an act is deemed necessary.  Reading the essays comes close to witnessing a mind at work. While this might be said for most good writing, I still think it especially applies in these essays; and it this aspect that had me enjoy them as much as I did.

While there are various Dutch artists discussed in the book (much like in the case of Silence and Image not the usual suspects), here a wider net is cast, with the inclusion of exhibition reviews (incl. one in which the author wasn’t physically present at the location) and discussions that enter the area of the ideology of photography (in other words theory and politics). As a reader, you’re never quite sure what the next essay will center on, which makes for a delightful smorgasboard of writing.

Taken together, these three books explore the breadth of writing around photography available today. Contrary to claims often found on social media, photography writing is a lot more diverse than it would appear. As is obvious from the above, every effort should be made to make writing available in translation. I suspect we would view photography made in Japan very differently if so much of the writing produced around it (some by its own practitioners) would not remain inaccessible for anyone unable to read the language.