a Revolution through Books

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Over the course of the Iranian revolution, one repressive murderous regime was overthrown, to be replaced with what would turn out to be another, albeit different repressive murderous regime, the one that is still ruling the country. I suspect that many (if not most) of the details of the revolution will not be familiar outside of the country — and why would they? Revolutions tend to be messy, and more often than not those who end up in charge are not necessarily the ones who spoke up and took to the streets first.

As it turns out, photobooks — or books that relied to a large degree on photographs to convey their messages — played a considerable role during and after the revolution. As the Shah’s regime fell, so did its censorship, which resulted in a flurry of publications of material. But even before there had been Samizdat style publications, often produced with shoe-string budgets, which essentially pushed for a freedom of expression where the state wouldn’t have any of that.

I know all that not because I am an expert on Iran or its photobook scene but because of Hannah Darabi‘s Enghelab Street — A Revolution through Books: Iran 1979–1983 (those living in the US might want to use this link if they want to place an order). The book is one of the latest additions to the ever growing number of books about photobooks. My own thinking about such books has evolved with time, and I now think that they are most interesting where they pursue a specific angle that takes the photobooks out of the very narrow niche they are typically contained in, to address a larger idea or topic — as is clearly the case here.

Against the background of the political revolution in the country and the subsequent attack by Iraq (which led to the gruesome war that was to last eight years), Enghelab Street ends up serving multiple purposes. To begin with, it chronicles the history of the years 1979 to 1983, with copious added texts (and interviews) by Darabi and Chowra Makaremi providing much needed further insight and background information. Beyond the broader markers of that history a large variety of interesting details are being exposed.

Second, given that there was no history of the photobook in Iran before 1979, the book shows activists, photographers, and artist experiment with what a photobook could look like and how it might communicate its intended ideas or messages. This would include seemingly basic questions such as what could a documentary photobook look like? As I think we all know, this is anything but a simple question — but if there are no models to follow, dealing with it obviously poses very different challenges than, let’s say, attempting to improve upon earlier models (and avoiding their shortcomings).

Third, the publications discussed in Enghelab Street were not made for photobook fairs, nice bookshops in major cities, or the sections in museum gift shops where books are displayed. They weren’t made for fellow photographers, they were made for a larger audience that was as hungry for basic human rights as the makers of the publications themselves.

The combination of these three factors had (and has) me very interested in what the book has to offer. It seems obvious to me that especially in the West a much better understanding of Iran is needed (for reason that I hope are pretty obvious). I feel that this is something the West actually owes not just to Iran but to all the various countries it has been exploiting over the course of the past few hundred years.

Beyond that, though, I also feel that a breath of fresh air is very desperately needed in the world of photobook making. This world of which I obviously am a part appears to be very content with its walled garden: its nice bookshops and its photobook fairs (that might or might not be attached to equally walled-garden like photography fairs), its limited editions, its books a huge fraction of which are literally of basically zero interest to anyone who’s not tending to the garden. It needn’t be that way.

I firmly believe that operating in the walled garden is more a choice than a necessity. As the books in Enghelab Street demonstrate, photobooks can be made for larger audiences, and they can address larger, pressing topics. This is not to say that every photobook ought to do that. But to see the dearth of photobooks dealing with, let’s say, the assault on Western democracies by so-called populists or the assault on the rights, well-being, and dignity of some of the most vulnerable people in the world, refugees and migrants — that’s very disheartening to me.

Of course, there are a small number of such books, and every once in a while a major photography prize (funded by the very same financial institutions who are maintaining the mess we’re finding ourselves in) throws some token appreciation at one of artists responsible. But it seems to me that given the multitude and extent of the challenges we’re currently facing, there could be a lot more.

In the end, photobooks are very unlikely to change the world. Just look at Enghelab Street: the books did not prevent the re-creation of censorship and of another repressive regime in Iran. But still, I’d argue that the genie was still out of the bottle, and it still is.

Enghelab Street — A Revolution through Books: Iran 1979–1983; texts and interviews by Hannah Darabi and Chowra Makaremi; 540 pages; Le Bal/Spector; 2018

The Stasi Files

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How does one — should one, can one — approach art made by bad people? For over a year now, I have been tackling this particular subject matter while attempting to finish an article. There are two simple approaches. One, the one I personally think of as the neo-Stalinist one, would entail to tie every piece of art to its maker, thus invalidating everything that was produced by a flawed or outright terrible person. To pick an extreme, this would be treating all paintings or drawings done by Adolf Hitler as as terrible as their maker. That might work for Hitler, but it easily can get much too dogmatic under normal circumstances. The other extreme would be to assume that art has a life of its own, and even the most terrible people might produce great art, whether we like it or not. That’s just as problematic, given that it just doesn’t feel right (to me anyway) to pretend that terrible aspect can just be ignored.

The certainty of these extreme positions might provide a good basis for what counts as discourse in social media or US/UK politics. But in real life, things have a lot more nuances. So it’s absolutely not clear what is to be gained from either extreme approach. Hitler’s paintings and drawings are pretty awful, but they’re not nearly terrible as their maker. What’s more, the Hitlers of the world are — thankfully — rare, whereas the people who are a little bit terrible but are otherwise just like the rest of us are pretty common.

So there isn’t much certainty to be had. What good would art be with certainty anyway? Honestly, just look at actual Stalinist art or its contemporary equivalent — the art I refer to as Capitalist Realism. Art with certainty is at best entertainment and at worst propaganda.

The issue of certainty aside, it doesn’t feel good to be in the company of terrible people or of people who might have a terrible side. But for sure, we all have sides or done things that we’re not particularly proud of, even if we might never talk about them in public. Thus, if there’s any value to art, it might be that it can force us to confront those sides. It can, in other words, confront us with the fact that to be human means to be flawed.

Maybe this is why we have such strong convictions when it comes to art done by people who we think of as terrible: we are able to project the scorn we have for parts of ourselves, however small or large those might be, onto others, onto people who for whatever reason have been unmasked. Thus, mindlessly fully rejecting or fully accepting art made by terrible people guarantees only one thing: it will help us avoid dealing with our own baggage (while possibly scoring some cheap points on social media).

I had to think about this all again when I looked through Jens Klein‘s Sunset (readers living in the US might prefer this link if they’re interested in purchasing a copy). I don’t think you would know this from the pictures, but they were all taken by terrible people or rather by people working for a terrible organization, namely East Germany’s State Security Service (Stasi), police, and border guards (it’s probably best to leave a discussion about the possible difference between these two — terrible people vs. people working for a terrible organization — to Hannah Arendt). The moment you are being made aware of this fact (which for many readers of this site might have been a second ago) you will not be able to look at the pictures without that knowledge in mind.

If the pictures in the book were all terrible, there wouldn’t be any problem. But they’re not. In fact, a lot of the photographs are outright amazing. You can find any number of contemporary photographers referenced in the book, whether it’s the late Michael Schmidt, John Gossage, or Dirk Braeckman. Klein’s work with this archival material differs very distinctly from Arwed Messmer‘s (whose work I discussed last week) in that he does not approach the photographs as documents. In fact, the idea of the document falls completely by the way side. While the pictures did originate as documents, were explicitly produced to serve as documents, they now have become untethered from their original context and meaning to take on a very different life.

In the photographs, the books are sequenced to take the viewer from a city through a maze of tunnels and strange underground spaces to the countryside. The book is entirely devoid of people, while featuring their possessions here and there. The overall effect is haunting. As the viewer progresses through the book these often nondescript pictures create a sense of increasing dread, of something not being quite right. There is considerable variety in the photographs — some are outright beautiful, some feel as if they couldn’t possibly have had any purpose, some are quite terrible (but in a good way). All of this prevents the viewer from ever getting to the “Oh, I get it” that’s marring so much archival work.

Given the photographs were all taken to document locations where people tried to escape from East Germany to the West, I find it impossible to merely enjoy the book. That wouldn’t feel right. Of course, the word “enjoy” can entail a variety of aspects, making my enjoyment of a nice meal very different than the enjoyment of a piece of art, say. Still, I feel very conflicted about what the book does, and ultimately, this only speaks of the almost infinite malleability of photographs, which allows for them to be taken out of any context into almost any other.

Sunset demonstrates how useless even just considering a photographer’s intent is when talking about pictures. Truly, the only thing that matters is what is in the pictures and how they are being put into a particular context. But the book might also demonstrate how difficult it can be to talk about art made by terrible people. As terrible as the people — or at the very least the pictures’ original purpose — might have been, Sunset elevates the photographs beyond that, albeit without ever getting at a full disconnect. If anything, the book really drives home one point, namely that photographs are a truly terrible and awesome mindfuck.

Recommended.

Sunset; photographs from the East German state-security archives edited by Jens Klein; 220 pages; Spector Books; 2018

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Arwed Messmer: Revealing Glacial History

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Working with photographic archives has become a very established part of contemporary practice. Such archives are often tempting because while having been created with a clear purpose in mind, the photographs were intended to serve as documents, and they were made without any artistic considerations in mind. This offers tremendous opportunities for artists.

In this particular area of photography, German artist Arwed Messmer has carved out a unique niche of his own. Having worked with institutional archives over the course of the past few years, he doesn’t see the images he encounters as raw material for his own artistic imagination. Instead, his is a deeply researched based approach, and the end results tend to live in a curious space where art and historical research overlap. They aren’t only art because Messmer stays very true to the integrity of his material. But they’re also not actual historical research because he will manipulate (for a lack of a better term) the material where needed to amplify the intended message.

Messmer’s focus so far has been on post-war German history, covering aspects of both West and East Germany. His latest work, Berlin, 1966-70, focuses on one of the most pivotal eras in West German history. “[Nineteen] Sixty Eight,” Wolfgang Engler said to Jana Hensel in their marvelous Wer Wir Sind, “formed the beginning of a radical cultural modernization of the Federal Republic [West Germany]. In between the process went off the rails in the form of terrorism and violence, but the push was not being brought to a halt.” (p. 146, my translation) This pithy description of the outcome of the West German student revolt is one of the most insightful statements I have read in a while. I’m not old enough to have lived through the West German pre-1968 world. But in hindsight I recognize the shifting of things as they happened right before my own eyes.

Berlin, 1966-70 contains some of the key events that would culminate in what (West) Germans refer to as der deutsche Herbst [the German Autumn], which provided one of the most important tests of the relatively young West German democracy: how would the country engage with the double threat of domestic terrorism — a leading industrialist (previously an SS member) had been kidnapped by domestic terrorists, as had been a Lufthansa plane by Palestinian terrorists. The country passed the test, albeit not necessarily in the most glorious way (but, for example, the country did not execute terrorists in prison one at a time as had been suggested by one of the leaders of the German conservative parties). After West German security forces had stormed the plane to liberate the passengers, the industrialist was killed, and three of the four terrorists in prison committed suicide. Messmer covered this latter aspect in his earlier RAF — No Evidence, for which he was placed on the Deutsche Börse Prize shortlist in 2019 (watch the video to get an idea of his thinking).

How did the student revolts lead to a series of West German domestic terrorism that was to last until the early 1990s? Events in (West) Berlin provide the key. For Berlin, 1966-70 Messmer managed to get access to an archive of photography done by the police. Regularly, they would send a photographer (or two) to the various protests in the city. These protests arose from students, and they centered on a variety of events, including, of course, the Vietnam war, but also more specifically a visit to Berlin by the then dictator or Iran, the Shah. Protests not only included old-fashioned demonstrations, there also were so-called happenings, Dadaesque forms of protest against the stale, rigid old order, which to a large extent was simply a continuation of previous Nazi institutions.

One of the crucial events of the time was the shooting and killing of student Benno Ohnesorg by policeman Karl-Heinz Kurras on 2 June 1967 (after the Wall had come down it was found that Kurras had been an informal collaborator of the East German Stasi, even though it could not be established whether or not the killing had been ordered in East Berlin). As a consequence, terrorist organizations were being formed, one named after the date, the other one the same Rote Armee Fraktion whose first leaders would meet their own gruesome deaths during the German Autumn.

In the many photographs in Berlin, 1966-70, the viewer can find some of these future terrorists protesting in the streets. The pivotal Ohnesorg shooting is also included. For West Germans, one of the pictures of the aftermath became as iconic as, for example, the picture of the Kent State shooting would become for Americans (in both cases, a very distressed looking young woman is pictured tending to a serious wounded young man, and in both cases, student protestors were shot by the state). In the book, a different view of the scene is offered, which has strange echoes of tableau paintings or staged-narrative photography.

As is always the case with Messmer’s books, there are a lot of photographs (the book has almost 800 pages). In the past, I commented on what I felt was a need for a more strict editing of previous work — the artist has his own good reasons to disagree. Here, though, the large edit works for me: It reveals history’s glacial pace. While we tend to mostly remember dramatic events (here the Ohnesorg shooting), most of history unfolds very slowly right before our own eyes. As a result, for many events there are no specific origins, no events, no turning points. I’m not very interested in alternative-history mind games, but I’m convinced that even without the Ohnesorg shooting some of the radicalized students would have eventually formed a terrorist organization.

So what for many viewers might be a bit of a tedium looking at all of these pictures, very few of which are actually very memorable, this very tedium ought to remind us to be more vigilant with our own history, the one unfolding right before our own eyes.

Berlin, 1966-70 is a truly fascinating historical study in pictures that I think can be compared with the late Walter Kempowski’s Echolot project (as far as I know, only one book has been translated into English, the one dealing with the very end of World War 2). In both cases, a plethora of material, almost none of which has a larger significance on its own, adds up to a monumental event unfolding that would change the entire country forever.

Very highly recommended.

Berlin, 1966-70; photographs from West Berlin police archive, edited and compiled by Arwed Messmer; texts by Florian Ebner, Annett Gröschner, Uta Grundman, and Arwed Messmer; 792 pages; Hartmann Books; 2018

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