Photographing a Zero-Sum Game

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For the longest time, economists and politicians alike have been content with playing a curious zero-sum game: as long as the number of jobs lost is equal or smaller than the number of jobs gained, everything is fine. This makes perfect sense for someone who loses a job as, say, welder to then find employment as a welder again, or for someone who loses a job as a customer-relations manager to find the same kind of job again. I doesn’t make all that much sense for the same welder, though, if the only available replacement job is one as a customer-relations manager. Chances are s/he won’t get hired, with the often very likely consequence one of long-term unemployment, living off welfare (where available), etc.

And the places that undergo such a change often don’t do so well for a long time, either — assuming they’re lucky enough to find a second life as a hub for the so-called service industry. I’m writing this piece a little bit less than 10 miles north of the city of Holyoke, which roughly one hundred years ago was booming with its paper industry. Drive down there today, and you’re going to encounter a sight very familiar in developed countries all over the world, with parts of the city being little more than a post-industrial wasteland. Coincidentally, Holyoke is the location where Mitch Epstein‘s Family Business plays out, the story of the photographer’s father’s failing furniture story and rental businesses. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s too bad it’s out of print.

Much like Epstein, photographers have been producing work around de-industralization and its consequences for many years. The process makes for good pictures because dilapidated buildings make for good picture, given their often crazy amount of patina. It’s no surprise that the city of Detroit features prominently in such efforts, and it’s also — thankfully — no surprise that there has been critical push back against what has been termed ruin porn. If you’re interested in some reading on this, John Patrick Leary‘s Detroitism is the best place to start.

It seems clear — to me at least — that an engagement with de-industralization has to have the photographer be very aware of the danger of the patina. A good picture might be a good picture, but a collection of good pictures might pose a large variety of problems, such as simplifying or stereotyping a complex situation. Epstein solves the problem not only by essentially focusing on a single person (his father) but also by adding a variety of different elements (including his own role as the prodigal photographer son who decided to move far away).

A completely different approach would be to work as much towards documentation as you possibly could: this is what the Bechers did. Either way, you just have to do something so your photographs are not being looked at for the patina of what is depicted, because that’s likely to make people think of ruin porn.

Two recent books approach the same complex, albeit in somewhat different ways. They’re both photographed in Great Britain, and they both describe the consequences of the zero-sum-game thinking that has been the basis of Western economies for many decades. The first one is Berris Conolly‘s Sheffield Photographs 1988-1992. The other one, Paul Duke‘s No Ruined Stone, does not give away location and time through its title: it’s Edinburgh, and the photographs are more recent.

In a somewhat simplifying nutshell (that might still be of some value), Conolly’s photographs follow a New Topographics approach, with its mostly sweeping vistas, often taken from an elevated vantage point. Where people are present, they have mostly become a part of the very landscape (or scene) in front of the camera (if the two distinctly different photographs, group portraits both, had not survived the editing stage that might not have been so bad).

There’s much that can be said for and against this photographic approach. What can be said against it I think is mostly based on what certain Düsseldorf School photographers (ja, ich meine Sie, Herr Gursky) developed from it, namely an obsession with photographic practice at the cost of much — if any — insight to be gained. Conolly stays in what I would consider the sweet spot, the only one that truly deserves comparisons with older types of paintings, where individual figures aren’t reduced to being mere ants and thus still contribute as much to the photograph as the scene they find themselves in.

In contrast, Duke is physically much closer to his subject matter. The viewer can see — and feel — the surface of what is being photographed, whether it’s the brick walls suffering from general neglect or the skin of his subjects, people who have had to endure being alive under these specific circumstances. The portraits are most welcome here: without them, the depictions of facades of building would just not suffice to get a viewer engaged. This is not because they’re bad pictures — on the contrary. It’s simply because the human presence needs to be explicitly spelled out. Depictions of graffiti or whatever else just don’t have the same emotional power.

If Conolly’s approach follows the New Topographics, then I don’t know what movement to assign to Duke. But his photographs have much in common with, let’s say, Ute and Werner Mahler‘s recent Kleinstadt, for which — thankfully — there now is a second edition. Clearly, there’s a difference in both the demographic and the artistic sensibilities (which becomes most clear in the portraits). But these days, this rather understated form of subjective documentary is proving to be very strong. In parts, I suspect, its attraction might come from the world of photography having witnessed what happens when the New Topographics go awry as photographers become too obsessed with cameras and print sizes.

Both Conolly and Duke show the effects of the zero-sum-game thinking that I mentioned in the very beginning: cities are being left to decay until someone brings in the sevrices industry (or not). Meanwhile, people living in the social housing erected along the way have to make do with the increasing strain they’re subjected to as neoliberal politics focuses on funneling ever more money into the coffers of corporations instead of taking care of those most in need.

Obviously, there is only so much photographs can do to change the world. Given the time its photographs were taken, Sheffield Photographs 1988-1992 now is more valuable as a historical document than a call to action (whatever that action might be). But the connection with No Ruined Stone is interesting, because while taken in different locations, the two books cover different aspects of the same thing playing out in front of our eyes: ultimately, the victims of the political zero-sum game always are people.

The neofascist populism — inevitably tied to racism, xenophobia, and other injustices — that has been sweeping the globe has made it very difficult to engage with the topic, because a simple narrative (still used widely in the US press, here‘s an example) is too simplistic and problematic. Regardless, somehow, we will have to find a solution — not just to get the neofascists out of power but also and especially to get back to the idea of a more just society, a society that values all its members equally.

Sheffield Photographs 1988-1992; photographs by Berris Conolly; essay by Geoff Nicholson; 104 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2019

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

No Ruined Stone; photographs by Paul Duke; essay by Martin Barnes; 112 pages; Hartmann Projects; 2018

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

Camera Austria – A History

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Of late, the history of photography institutions in Europe and their role in shaping the medium there has become a topic. This is a most welcome development, given that much can be learned from looking at it. Long forgotten artists stand a chance to be re-discovered or at least re-evaluated, and the connection between European and American (or Japanese) photography also contains quite a few interesting aspects.

There are some interesting parallels between Berlin’s short lived Werkstatt für Photographie and Camera Austria, based in Graz. It’s likely the former might mostly be known in passing as an activity its founder and main teacher, Michael Schmidt, was engaged in. The latter, in contrast, is still with us, and familiarity with the name might come from the eponymous magazine.

A new book, a catalog published at the occasion of an exhibition dedicated to Camera Austria at Museum der Moderne Salzburg, now provides deep insight into what is billed as a “laboratory for photography and theory.” (Originally published in German, there now exists an English-language version. D.A.P. provide this link for the book.)

The book is organized into a number of essays that are followed by eight sections that each showcase the work of four or five artists under a general heading. These headings are Topography & Landscape, Image & Identity, Living Spaces & Representation, Composition & Deconstruction, Images & Politics, Research & Archive, Politics of the Image & Science, and Privacy & Public Images (please note that I’m working off the German version so I translated the headings).

As a general overview of the state of contemporary photography over the course of the past 40 years, the book is invaluable. Any book attempting to summarize the medium in roughly 250 pages of course will have to deal with artists to select and to exclude. The book works off the magazine’s archive, resulting in a variety of tremendously interesting inclusions (and, explicitly, exclusions). The usual suspects, of course, are present (Robert Adams, say, or William Eggleston), but so are a large number of lesser known artists. This is very refreshing.

Each of the eight sections presents an artist with their Camera Austria CV, a statement around their work (which might be a fragment from an earlier article in the magazine), a series of photographs (there’s a gatefold for every artist, which essentially adds a large number of additional pages), and reproductions of how the work was presented in the magazine. This is about as good as it can get, and it allows the reader to see the work in a variety of ways.

The highlight of the initial section of essays is a longer exchange of letters between Christine Frisinghelli (curator, author, and co-founder of the magazine) and Maren Lübbke-Tidow (author, curator, and editor). In their letters, both dive deeply into their thinking around photography and into the ins and outs of the magazine. I think a reader not familiar with the magazine will still be able to extract considerable information from the way these two authors discuss photography and the works of a variety of artists. The tone is a mix of being conversational and the kind of academic writing that strives for general comprehension (in other words, neither of the two authors attempts to dazzle the recipient — or reader — with meaningless inflated drivel just for the sake of it).

Taken together with the Werkstatt für Photographie catalog, Camera Austria allows the reader to get an understanding of how photography in Europe has been influenced by visiting artists from abroad, in particular the US but also (in the Camera Austria case) Japan. In fact, the same artists might go to Berlin first and then to Graz to do a workshop (or maybe the other way around). I feel that it is this area that will provide fodder for future books on the history of photography, especially since it will allow for the tearing down of conveniently lazy ideas concerning what, let’s say, “American” or “German” or any other kind of photography might be like.

One final comment: my review of the book would be incomplete if I were to ignore the contribution by Leipzig based publisher Spector Books. The design and production of the book raises the bar of what a good catalog can look like considerably. How they managed to produce all these gatefolds and yet charge only 36 Euros for the book escapes me (well, I have some idea: it must be a combination of clever design that knows exactly how photobook production works).

In general, this particular publisher (whose books now thankfully have a US distributor) has been demonstrating how invaluable good design in combination with high-quality content can be when it comes to photobooks. Anyone not familiar with Spector Books might want to dive into their archives to see the vast range of incredible books they’ve made (I previously reviewed, for example, The Last Image, Enghelab Street — A Revolution through Books: Iran 1979–1983 — two catalogs — or Jens Klein’s Sunset).

Highly recommended.

Camera Austria International — Laboratory for Photography and Theory; photographs by various artists; essays by Reinhard Braun, Christine Frisinghelli, Christiane Kuhlmann, Maren Lübbke-Tidow, Ito Toshiharu, Sandra Krizic Roban , Roberta Valtorta; 322 pages; Spector Books; 2019

Federico Clavarino’s Vision

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A little while ago, I found photographs by Federico Clavarino in a German magazine. They were of Italy, a place that I have visited a few times and that I have found resisting to being photographed very thoroughly. To begin with, its general infrastructure is not very attractive at all. (I suppose you could say that for pretty much any country, even though for example in the US it’s so run down and neglected that what might come across as patina becomes photogenic again.) And then the countryside and everything historic is so photogenic that it’s almost sickening — these days, maybe the best way to describe it would be to say that it’s just all instantly instagrammable: it’s very easy to make a picture that looks great, but it’s very hard to make one that offers more than that.

In his Italian photographs, Clavarino solved this problem by fragmenting the location into what I think of as slivers. All photography fragments a location, of course, but in this case I mean a very severe type of fragmentation where what is being presented is so cut off from what was around it that it takes on a very peculiar relevance. It is the Egglestonian approach, albeit without the general sense of the photographer being a tad too blasé, the sense that permeates the American photographer’s work.

There was a new book, the German magazine told me, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it. As it turned out, the new book (Hereafter) has nothing to do with the Italian photographs. Those, I realized, had been published as Italia o Italia a few years ago — in fact, I had even reviewed it (alas, my efforts to locate the book in my library failed due to a general lack of organization — so it goes). My anticipation of seeing one thing, only to then receive another, had me confused.

In theory, this is something you, the reader, probably don’t care all that much (if at all) about. And I wouldn’t mention it here if I had not spent a bit of time thinking about how when approaching an artist’s work one’s expectations might cloud what one is about to encounter. I’d like to think that as someone who regularly writes critical pieces this is something I’m immune to, but that’s clearly not the case. Even without the little episode described above, I might approach Hereafter differently, were I not familiar with the earlier work.

But this conundrum — let’s call it that — cuts both ways: an artist might produce a new body of work that looks just like the earlier ones, and as a critic you’re left to wonder how or why this could possibly be interesting for anyone, first and foremost for the artist. Or an artist might produce something radically different, and you’re left to wonder why this radical turn… I don’t think there is an ideal situation here. In any case, artists ought to do what they feel is right; and critics then should do the same.

In Hereafter, Clavarino brings his photographic approach to a variety of locations beyond Italy, places that had been part of the colonial British empire. In addition to the straight photographs, there are reproductions of vernacular photographs and documents, there are photographs of older items (still lifes of sorts), there are portraits, and there are ample short text pieces, all of them read like transcriptions of the recollections of those in the portraits.

I find those recollections unpleasant to read. With their casual descriptions of life as some form of colonial administrator, the narrators are clearly unaware of, if not uninterested in the fact that colonialism was just a label for occupying and plundering other nations, the effects of which haunt larger parts of the world today (as an aside, this form of willfully oblivious denial now animates larger parts of the Brexit camp). Maybe this is the idea of the book — to be honest, I can’t tell. Those portrayed and given voice, after all, are part of the photographer’s family. I’ve found that outside of Germany (where many descendants of Nazis have produced very harsh judgments of their predecessors) people seem to be a lot less eager to face and judge their forefathers’ and -mothers’ failings.

This unmasking of the casual cruelty that provided the base of colonialism, where a bunch of seemingly highly educated people set out to rule over those explicitly or implicitly deemed inferior, is of course most welcome — most welcome in the West, that is, because those previously lorded over are very much aware of how they still have to deal with the aftermath.

I have one concern, though, namely that Clavarino’s straight photographs and the rest of the material are at odds with each other. (And it is this realization, right here, that had me write the thoughts in the very beginning of this review.) In a nutshell, he is such a good photographer that the other material simply pales in comparison. The words are simply too off putting (for the reasons mentioned above), and the documents and archival photographs aren’t remotely interesting enough to hold their own next to Clavarino’s tender, yet forceful pictures (the still lifes fall along the lines of the documents). So for me, it’s almost like looking at two different books at the same time. Truth be told, when I look at the book, in four out of five cases I only look at the straight photographs.

Those photographs don’t tell the whole story, of course, and maybe this is me ultimately writing a review of a book I’d prefer over the one at hand. Maybe. But the fact remains that just like in the earlier Italia o Italia, as a photographer Clavarino is able to distill the essence of a place into something intriguing, something that doesn’t feel familiar. In contrast, those archival photographs and documents (even, to some extent, the narration by the colonialists) — they are all familiar.

Given I often don’t rate books that contain some or a lot of archival material, that’s helping me out of a pickle here. I don’t know how I would rate the book, given its parts work so differently for me. Even in terms of its overall construction, the book works — all these materials come together to tell their story. It’s just that I like those straight photographs so much that everything else is made to more or less disappear.

For sure it’s a recommended book — you might simply not share my misgiving, and regardless, this particular photographer’s work deserves to be seen and appreciated a lot more widely.

(not rated)

Hereafter; photographs by Federico Clavarino; 264 pages; Skinnerboox; 2019

Why I Hate Cars

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Knowing I would write this article about collage today, I asked myself yesterday whether I had any criteria to assess what constitutes good or bad collage — or maybe successful and unsuccessful collage. I realized I didn’t. Forcing myself to come up with something, I thought of this: good collage constitutes good art, whereas bad collage is more like scrapbooking. Not that there’s anything wrong with scrapbooking, it’s just not art — it’s more like a craft. And there’s nothing wrong with craft per se, except that I’m interested in art, and while craft can be art, art does not necessarily need craft: shoddily made art can still be great, whereas shoddily made craft is just bad.

Regardless, the above isn’t taking me any closer to what constitutes good collage other than making it obvious that given I’m interested in art, criteria used there might be of value here. The making aspect thus should only play a minor (if any) role in determining what’s good or bad collage. But now that I’ve already alienated the craft crowd I might as well do the same with another one and say that collage ought to be more than merely very old-school graphic design. Not that there’s anything wrong with graphic design, either (I’ll spare you going into that rabbit hole).

But I think that’s good: I personally want collage to be neither just crafty (even though it could be) and not just designy (even though my gut feeling says that good collage shouldn’t be designy at all — I’ll have to think more about that). That might not help you, the reader, to determine what good collage and bad collage are. At the very least, though, you might have some idea where I’m coming from.

Without abandoning the above completely, I think one of the reasons why collage plays such a small role in the visual arts it’s because it is being associated with a craft (and to a lesser degree with graphic design) in people’s heads. This is too bad, especially given that some of the greatest artists in the 20th Century produced amazing collages — just think of Hannah Höch, who, I believe, still isn’t get the recognition she deserves (not that I’m not interested in separating collage and montage).

There are worlds between Höch and contemporary collage makers, though, and by that I mostly mean the vastly changed visual/cultural environments. This is not to say that Höch found herself in a better — or worse — spot than we do today. For sure, the explosion of the world of visuals during the Weimar Republic cannot be compared to what we are witnessing today. Or rather, we might compare that earlier explosion with, let’s say, the one caused by the internet today. But it’s not the pictures that make the collages, it’s the artist who are perceptive to what is being presented to them. Consequently, it’s the being embedded in a culture that shapes an artist and not the source material available.

Much like in the case of all good art, in collage it is the artist’s sensibility that makes the work — not the scissors, not the glue (much like how good photography can be made with any camera). With this focus, the one on an artist’s sensibility, I do see parallels between Höch’s work and Katrien de Blauwer‘s. I have been following de Blauwer’s work for a few years now (I conducted an interview with the artist in 2015).

Quite unlike Höch’s, her approach is reductive. Just to make this very clear, I do not mean to imply a negative-value statement by using that word. Instead, I mean reductive in a strictly descriptive sense. Where Höch would assemble smaller elements with the larger whole in mind, de Blauwer’s basic elements already contain the very core of that larger whole. The end goal of these two artists, however, is very similar, namely to arrive at pieces that poignantly speak of their respective larger concerns, many of which revolve around assigned gender roles.

Why I Hate Cars, a new book by de Blauwer, collects a series of new pieces, which unlike in the case of the older work now contain added paint (to be more precise paint and/or crayons). Anyone familiar with the artist’s work will not be surprised to learn that these additions are rather minimal — parts might be very slightly overpainted, with the image still visible, or simple lines might be added. These new collages very much operate like the older ones, in other words, with the added/new elements feeling completely natural.

Much like the older work, these new pieces again center on men and women, specifically on the roles assigned to women by men. It’s a world of desire, where the desire is narrowed down to one possible avenue, in which women are passive objects of male desire and possibly mere trophies (much like cars). The reductive fragmentation I discussed above serves to amplify this aspect, allowing de Blauwer to arrive at phantastically visceral pieces, each of which dissects the male-gaze oriented visual world that still dominates so much of our culture. That the artist’s source materials all come from vintage magazines simply does not even matter.

So here then is collage at its best, collage that deserves to be seen widely, collage that has much to say about photography (from which it collects its source materials) as well.

Highly recommended.

Why I Hate Cars; collages by Katrien de Blauwer; 72 pages; Libraryman; 2019