Merit and Exclusion

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In the wake of the recent college-admissions scandal in the US (if you haven’t followed it: a bunch of rich people bought their children access to elite universities in non-standard ways), a comment re-appeared frequently in my Twitter time line: what was demonstrated here, people wrote, was how absurd the idea of meritocracy is in the US. In light of colleges preferring the offspring of wealthy parents even without them cheating it’s not clear to me how the scandal changed anything. Or maybe those cheating parents’ sin was not to have cheated but rather to have inadvertently exposed something that was widely known but that people preferred to think didn’t exist.

I will admit that I truly believe in the idea of merit, and possibly the biggest disappointment in my adult life has so far been the realization that merit tends to usually be a lousy indicator for recognition or success. A meritocracy would be nice to have, given it would be closely tied to ideas of fairness. But life isn’t fair, I have been told countless times. Now, I could just get over it — but then what kind of critic gets over things? Isn’t good criticism tied to not getting over things?

(Disclaimer: With this essay, I’m attempting to scratch an itch. Maybe there is some insight to be gained. I’m not sure. Regular programming resumes next week.)

It’s a coincidence that while the college-admissions scandal broke, Japanese photographer Issei Suda died. To say that he wasn’t widely known in the West is pretty obvious. In fact, I only heard about his death through a single post on Instagram, and I had to ask a colleague in Japan to confirm the news. Another colleague whom I had emailed then sent me the link to a very touching obituary that you might want to read (it’s in English).

If you Google the man, you’ll find that his work has been covered in the West under headlines such as — buckle up! — Japanese Swordsman With a Camera. This might make you wonder how much justice you can do a person when in the headline you’ll invoke some stereotype about their culture? (Then again, at the New York Times, they clearly had no problem with it.)

Issei Suda’s 1979 Waga Tōkyō hyaku (わが東京100) is one of the treasures in my personal collection of photobooks. It’s not a widely known book (outside of Japan). I hadn’t heard of it until one of my colleagues sent it to me as a gift a few years ago. It’s the kind of book I get lost in every time I look at it. There maybe are ten books in my collection that are able to do that.

I’ve wondered about how or why this photographer was not more widely known in the West ever since I saw the book. There probably is no single reason. During a recent visit to Japan (my first), I realized how vast parts of the photography made there are basically completely unknown in the West. The same thing is true for Poland, another country I managed to learn more about in a series of recent visits.

This brings me back to the college-admissions scandal. Obviously, artistic merit is a lot harder to determine than academic merit. You can figure out fairly easily whether someone is good at math, history, or whatever else, but how do you evaluate whether someone is a good photographer? Still, I can’t escape the feeling that when we collectively tell ourselves that artistic success (meaning here gallery or museum exhibitions, book sales, or stuff like that) is tied to artistic merit we’re deceiving ourselves just as much as when we pretend that getting into a elite US university is tied to merit (and not to connections and money).

Why, after all, was Issei Suda a more or less unknown quantity in the Western parts of photoland when he died? The unfairness of that struck me. (See, I told you, I’m not over it.)

Obviously, you could make the point that not everybody can be widely known, and sadly, this also applies to very good artists. Sure, valid point. Maybe. But there is an increasing awareness that the history of photography has been omitting a large variety of voices, many of them being either female or from non-Western countries (or both). These voices need to be added so that the medium’s history (as written) not only more properly reflects what actually existed, but also so that when we read the history we are exposed to a wider range of material, which, in turn, helps increase our understanding of the world.

Artistic merit can — I’d argue: should — be one of the guiding principles of how the history of photography is revised. This will entail adding voices such as Issei Suda’s (or Zofia Rydet’s or Marianne Wex’s or …) as much as it means reducing the weight placed on others (in the Japanese context, for a variety of reasons Nobuyoshi Araki is overdue for a serious re-assessment — if you’re interested in this, reading Hiroko Hagiwara’s Representation, Distribution, and Formulation of Sexuality in the Photography of Araki Nobuyoshi provides some good material from which to start), if not outright removing them.

This endeavour is made more difficult not just through biases already established in the current history of photography but also, and this isn’t necessarily a completely independent point, through how the world of photography now essentially prefers to reward those who are already well known, whether through more exhibitions or more articles written about them.

The argument I’ve encountered here is that people will not read an article about someone they don’t know, but they’ll happily read something about [add famous photographer’s name here] (this is typically measured through how many people click on links to articles and similar metrics). Again, this is a valid point — especially if you subscribe to the neoliberal thinking that the existence of an art magazine or website should be entirely determined by economics. Obviously, such an approach very seriously hampers anyone’s efforts to expand the canon beyond the usual suspects (who more often than not are male, white, and Western).

I don’t know the magical solution for all of this. What I do know is that we owe it to ourselves to expand our understanding of photography, both how it was practiced in the past as it is now. Photography’s history just as much as what is being widely viewed now is only partially tied to artistic merit. There still are too many back or side doors through which some artists can enter while other more deserving ones remain excluded.


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How can pictures and text interact? How do they function sitting next to each other, sitting with each other? These are complex questions for which some answers already exist. For example, there’s the standard photojournalistic model in which short factual text supports a picture in the form of a caption. This model, and the somewhat more relaxed one used for documentary photography, accepts the shortcomings of both text and pictures, and it has them each operate within their own boundaries.

And then, of course, there’s the struggle between text and pictures, which more often than not is perceived as a competition, if not a conflict. Many photographers don’t like working with text because they are afraid it might take something away from their pictures. To some extent, I understand what this might be getting at; but at the end of the day, the form a piece of art can take should not be driven by one’s hang ups or insecurities, should it?

Consequently, if you want to use text next to photographs, you will have to understand what both do — can do as much as cannot do. This requires a solid understanding of both — text and pictures. You understand pictures by looking at as many as you can with an open mind and a sensitivity for what is being conveyed (and how). The same is true for text: you understand text by reading a lot of it, again with an open mind and with a sensitivity for what is being conveyed (and how).

In many ways, Anne Goldaz‘s Corbeau (which was already published in 2017 and which has been lying right next to me ever since I received it) should serve as one of the prime examples of how text and images can interact very successfully. In a nutshell, the book centers on familial obligations, here in the form of a family farm that is to be passed down from one generation to the next (more accurately from a father to a son).

To be perfectly honest, I grew tired of seeing family projects probably already a decade ago. We all have families, and all families have problems. OK, fine. I also have no problem with anyone working through their family history and/or problems photographically. That’s cool. The main question for me is where or how any family project becomes art — that, after all, is not a given. Most family projects remain basic descriptions of situations thousands of people find themselves in, and I personally don’t look at art to have my expectations fulfilled.

So I was a bit reluctant to engage with Corbeau when I received it. To pretend otherwise would simply be disingenuous on my part. The book won me over — this was actually a slow process — not just because it is done so well. It’s mostly because while ostensibly centering on family, its real focus is the universal struggle to make sense of one’s life in light of the various forces that keep pulling one into different directions. How does one deal with that?

Obviously, there is no simple one-size-fits-all answer here other than paying careful attention to one’s own needs as much as to others’. And that’s not much of an answer, it’s more like the very first step in a process that has many more, with none of the following ones being provided. So it’s like art or rather good art. Good art doesn’t provide answers, it might not even provide solace. All it can do is to make one more aware of one’s own fallibilities, of one’s own being fragile and vulnerable, to then nudge one to make a move.

In Corbeau, this is done through a smart combination of images and text. Both come in a variety of forms — there are different types of images (photographs, drawings), there are different types of photographs (archival and more recent ones), there are different types of text (poems, brief short-form essays, text messages, etc.). Given the variety of the source material, it actually shows the vision and strength of its maker that the book succeeds so well.

But, as I noted above, as a viewer/reader, you’re not going to fully understand the book in one sitting. With picture-only books, this typically is seen as just the way most of those go. With text added, I think there is the expectation that one ought to get it in one go — after all, that’s exactly why and how text was and still is used in many books of such type: the text is intended to make the whole palatable and easily understandable (c.f. pretty much all classic photojournalistic books).

Given that the text here does not merely play the role of supporting cast, this expectation needs to be dropped. The book works so well because it unfolds with time, allowing the viewer/reader to dive deeper and deeper into its layers. It’s a complex book, but it’s also an emotional, felt book. In fact, that might actually be the most important achievement here, namely that the viewer is made to feel something.

Highly recommended.

Corbeau; photographs, drawings, and text by Anne Golaz; text by Antoine Jaccoud; 196 pages; MACK; 2017

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


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Today, it is hard to imagine that a housing complex such as Naples’ Vele di Scampia was built with good intentions in mind. In hindsight, it seems obvious that such buildings, which might look attractive as architectural models, can only lead to the kinds of consequences observed there (and elsewhere): the Sails (as they were known) “have come to be known worldwide as a hotbed for drugs, prostitution, and the mafia. However, many disadvantaged families are forced to live there because they can’t afford decent housing. Therefore, the Sails are not only a symbol of the Camorra but of the government’s failure to provide meaningful development in the area.” (source)

How would one be able to do such a situation any justice using photography? An obvious solution might be to show up with a view camera, to produce what in a different context was termed concrete clickbait in the context of an article by Owen Hatherley (for Calvert Journal): photography is very good at describing form, but very bad at containing background information. Consequently, the aestheticization that the medium is so good at not only risks short circuiting a viewer’s critical facilities, it also invites coming to exactly the wrong conclusions. After all, can — or maybe should — it be a photographer’s task to turn something awful into awesome pictures?

With vast parts of art photography being dominated by essentially camera-club thinking (at the time of this writing, I’m noting a resurgence of view-camera photography), this basic conundrum is only being amplified. Of course, one could argue over whether any of this is a problem. Why shouldn’t photographs of even the most awful things look awesome? But the aestheticization of — in this case — brutalist architecture that reflects and sustains human misery essentially only serves to never get to a point where said misery can be considered. Instead, we’re basically back to the level of architectural models, only that now a photographic abstraction (that glosses over relevant details) has replaced an architectural one (ditto).

Photography is very good at describing form, but very bad at containing background information. Consequently, the aestheticization that the medium is so good at not only risks short circuiting a viewer’s critical facilities, it also invites coming to exactly the wrong conclusions.

This consideration applies to large parts of contemporary photography, and it being mostly ignored concerns me. Make no mistake, I’m no fan of the kind of agitprop churned out by, let’s say, “concerned photographers”. Much like brutalist architects, they started out with good intentions but fell way short of what they intended to achieve, leaving us with pictures that now mostly reek of a Family of Man style sentimentality. In general, I firmly believe that photography that is agitprop simply cannot be art (because by construction art precludes agitprop’s prescriptiveness).

Maybe there isn’t even a real solution here, other than a photographer’s interest in not falling into the trap of aestheticizing something at the expense of someone who also — conveniently — happens not to be part of the eventual discourse (don’t get me started on the road-trip crowd that photographs sad looking underprivileged bearded strangers in the American West).

In a nutshell, I don’t think someone else’s misery should be the subject of your own personal/artistic enrichment as a photographer (I don’t mean enrichment in a mostly economical sense here). It just shouldn’t. That feels very wrong to me. (Obviously, your mileage might vary.)

With all that said, how would one go about photographing Vele di Scampia? One possible solution is provided by Tobias Zielony‘s Vele. The book was already released in 2014. But over the past years it has exerted an ever increasing pull on me, especially in light of some of the recent developments that have preoccupied vast parts of photoland. Vast parts of this photographer’s work center on subjects who are stuck in anonymous looking, run down wastelands. More often than not, these subjects tend to be young.

Unlike many other artists working on the larger theme of youth, Zielony does not cater to ideas of lifestyle, though. In a sense, if Ryan McGinley‘s fashionably vapid depiction of the glory of youth is one side of the coin, Zielony’s is the other — much more interesting — one. Where many of McGinley’s photographs look like they’re advertizing a life style more than anything, Zielony’s pull back the curtain to reveal the utter shallowness of that endeavour.

Consequently, when I look at these two photographer’s pictures, Zielony’s subjects strike me as the ones having a life, however unfulfilling or miserable it might be. There is a reality to this photographer’s work that in part derives from his rejection of the slick artifice that McGinley layers on his work. McGinley’s subjects strike me as miserable exactly because they’re not even aware of what’s going on, mistaking an empty spectacle for an actual lived life. In his 1924 essay Boredom, Siegfried Kracauer put it this way: “One forgets oneself in the process of gawking, and the huge dark hole is animated with the illusion of a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone.”

Zielony doesn’t want to sell me anything. He doesn’t want me as the viewer to be excited for what is shown and stir my desire to be a part of it. On the other hand, he also does not aestheticize his subjects for his own purposes, to essentially other them. They are shown the way they are encountered and seen. This entails a variety of imagery that is as far from a camera-club aesthetic as possible. Scenes aren’t lit artificially. They simply are, with harsh neon or other artificial lights casting unpleasant colour casts.

Vele pushes this approach to its extreme with its 287 photographs (I’m going to believe the publisher’s description is accurate). If the book feels like a vast selection of film stills, then that’s because it is more or less exactly that. You can watch the stop-motion video here, even though I have to say that I prefer the book. The video makes things too convenient, and it oddly mediates the experience in ways that the book doesn’t (by this I mean that when watching the video I never felt thrown into the location the way I was when going through the book).

Photographed at night, with harsh lights providing only an uneven modicum of light, Vele di Scampia is revealed as a nightmarish contraption that shouldn’t house human beings, even though it does. The viewer gets to approach the building very slowly, and the “walk” feels endless. As a viewer, you will have to be prepared to give in to the experience (much like you would also have to give in to, let’s say, the pace of Tarkovsky‘s Stalker). Your rewards will be manifold. For example, I have never been as relieved about encountering a human presence as in the book, many pages in.

That relief is short-lived, though, because inevitably, as a viewer, you will realize that what you are looking at is a depiction of their reality, the way they have to live. No party involved ends up being ennobled in any way, neither the subjects who aren’t aestheticized, nor the viewer.

The idea of the photographer as witness can be problematic: the photographer intending to act as advocate of others tends to speak for them while excluding their voices. Here Zielony does act like a witness, but there’s no advocacy, and for sure there’s no speaking for others. Instead, the viewer is made to encounter a location and people living in that location.

I’m not sure there’s another book in my library that comes close to what Vele is doing and how it’s doing it. Each consecutive exposure to the book has drawn me in closer. It’s a hefty book with many pictures, so it really asks a lot of its viewers. The viewer might get bored. “If, however,” as Kracauer wrote in the aforementioned essay, “one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.” And this photobook delivers exactly that.

Vele; photographs by Tobias Zielony; 576 pages; Spector; 2014

Futerał: The Ideologies of Architecture

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During one of my recent trips to Warsaw (Poland), I walked around the area of the Old Town, which had been reconstructed after its complete destruction by German occupying forces during World War 2 (actually, most of Warsaw suffered the same fate, the sole exception being parts east of the Vistula river). The Royal Castle was destroyed more than once. First it was shelled by advancing German troops in 1939. Then, Hitler ordered it blown up. Finally, after the failed 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the Castle’s ruins were blown up yet again. There’s something fantastically absurd about these acts, which speak of the utter barbarity of Hitler, his regime, and all his willing followers (and executioners — to use Daniel Goldhagen’s term).

But in part these acts also speak of buildings getting to essentially stand in for ideologies. As a consequence, you can attempt to stamp out aspects of the past by simply destroying a building, much as you can attempt to bring it back by re-building it. Berlin’s burned-out Stadtschloss was demolished by East Germany’s communist rulers in 1950, and now there’s a campaign to re-build it. To that end, the building the communist government had erected in the Schloss’ place, the so-called Palace of the Republic, had to be torn down. Meanwhile, in Poland, there had been debates to tear down the so-called Palace of Culture and Science, which to me looks a lot more interesting than some of the tacky skyscrapers erected around it over the past decades.

Of course, there’s also the aspect of what you actually do with a building once it’s there. What are you going to do with a feudal building (or its reconstruction)? A friend of mine told me that Warsaw’s Royal Castle is mostly devoid of its original contents because it had been either plundered by the Nazis, destroyed, or lost. And what do you do with a Stadtschloss in Berlin when so many aspects of the city’s past revolve around confronting the nation’s very ugly past in hopes of getting to a better place?

Using a building for a purpose other than its original one isn’t necessarily such a bad idea. But with buildings as symbolic as castles or estate houses built for the nobility, that symbolism tends to always shine through. Even in supposedly advanced democratic societies, there exists an expectation that castles be treated like castles even if their former owners were the most horrible of people. Maybe this is connected to the reason why many democracies are so inherently fragile: it’s very difficult to create and maintain the idea of a larger, somewhat independent head of state without the very absurd theater provided by royalty and their castles (actual news headline this week: “Queen grants Prince Edward title of Earl of Forfar”).

Anna Orłowska‘s Futerał centers on these very ideas. The book presents photographs from inside a variety of castles in Poland that served all kinds of purposes over the past 100 years. Visually, the photographer approaches the spaces in three distinct ways. There are, first, austere b/w photographs of details of architectural interiors that hardly betray their origins (staircases, narrow corridors, …). The second approach shows the general expectation of what one might find in castles — mostly very colourful images of gigantic bouquets of flowers set somewhere in these spaces. In the final set, interiors are shown in colour, which depending on how one were to view them are either misused, disused, abused, or simply used.

I personally don’t know why there shouldn’t be a gym or cafe in a castle, because that sounds a lot more appealing to me than the original alternatives that are at odds with the ideas of a modern democracy. But clearly, there is something to be gained from using castles as museums, because however one feels about the nobility, they do form part of many countries’ past (and in some cases even their present).

Ultimately, architecture creates power more than it creates culture — architecture typically expresses the ideology of its time (hence the struggles over particular buildings in many societies, especially in those that recently experienced a change in their overarching ideologies). In this, it has much in common with photography itself.

This is why this book is ultimately interesting to me, because it has the potential to have the viewer confront her or his expectations regarding entities that usually are taken for granted. Castles might simply be the most convenient buildings for an examination of how we collectively view buildings and what they mean.

Given the nationalist/populist onslaught on many democratic societies such an examination seems timely. This obviously includes Poland, which is currently governed by a party that attempts to create illiberal, at best semi-democratic one-party rule and that very selectively uses aspects of the country’s history as its guiding principles.

Futerał; photographs and text by Anna Orłowska; additional texts by Agnieszka Tarasiuk, Katarzyna Wąs; 120 pages; Wschód Gallery/The Polish National FilmTelevision and Theatre School in Łódź; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.0

42 Orte, 35 Personen

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There’s something refreshingly faux disingenuous about printing the basic description of a book, those few summarizing words that tend to come under a press release or review, on the cover of a photobook. This is what Tobias Kruse did with Material, a book that according to said summary has 216 pages, with 137 colour images showing 42 locations and 35 people (I did not verify these numbers).

There also is something refreshing about publishing a book that at first glance doesn’t differ all that much from a well curated Instagram stream of a visually very adept photographer, especially in light of the book’s materials being rather basic — the paper almost has a newsprint quality to it, and the softcover is barely protected by a dust jacket printed on a very light paper stock.

This all has me think that these choices are getting at something: first, a rejection of the importance that often is communicated with choices of materials and presentation — you, dear viewer, are holding a precious piece of art in your hands — and second, a rejection of most photographers’ attempts to very clearly distinguish their images from those taken by the (much, much larger) rest of the world.

Material essentially is a very good collection of very good snapshots, and from the preceding it’s probably clear that no attempt has been made to conceal this basic fact. It’s a chronicle of the photographer’s life, with many close friends, children, and loved ones making frequent appearances. I personally know the photographer and some of the people depicted in the book, but I don’t think such knowledge is needed for such an observation. It’s easily apparent from the pictures themselves.

But there’s something else that easily apparent, namely the photographer’s sheer enjoyment of taking pictures, of converting little moments or observations into photographs. I’m not sure any of the moments or observations captured in the book are in any sense consequential — but that might in fact be the real reason to photograph: it’s not to look for the consequential (even though there are contexts in which that might matter), but to simply engage with a moment deeply, and one of the ways of doing that is to take a picture (ignore those that claim that photographing something takes away the actual experience — they merely apply their own limited view of things and attempt to claim universality).

In a sense, Material thus is almost the exact opposite of Daido Moriyama’s Shashin yo sayounara (Farewell, Photography!), a book in which the Japanese photographer pushed photographic artifice to its (then) extreme while taking pictures of equally inconsequential moments and observations, an unabating rage against the photographic machine and the things you could do with it. Assuming you wanted to, you maybe couldn’t make such a book any longer. But the real question, especially now that photography has essentially become a social tool more than a technological practice, is why you’d want to.

After all, now that photography has lost its status as a mostly elite entity, controlled and produced by highly specialized people who could always outperform everybody else, instead of bemoaning the state of the photographic world (“too many pictures”, “everybody *gasp!* is a photographer”, “everything *sigh* has been photographed”) photographers (here meaning the members of photoland) might as well make the best of  what at least to me looks and feels like an incredibly exciting time.

Maybe these considerations are overloading Material with a meaning and importance that it was never supposed to have — knowing the photographer, I have an inkling how he might react to reading this. Still, often enough the pretend or actual weight of so many photobooks leaves me wanting for less — less drama, less pretense, less preciousness — and more — more beauty, more lightness, more enjoyment.

Seriously: why is so much of what is produced in photoland so fucking joyless?

So this book brought a sense of all of what I have been craving, and it was a welcome and much-needed relief from all the rest. This is not to say that I dislike all the rest, on the contrary. But without there being counterpoints the weight I was speaking of above becomes too much in more ways than just one. In particular, it runs the risk of coming across as a weight for its own reason.

Material presents me with a world that I want to be a part of — not necessarily the one depicted (even though for sure I enjoy spending time with the various people I know), but one in which the small moments in life, however inconsequential they might be, become heightened through someone paying attention — whether it’s me or someone else who will then proceed to show me.

Material; photographs by Tobias Kruse; 216 pages; Kerber; 2019

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.9