Images and Text, Text and Images

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When it comes to their own photographs, many photographers are divas, insisting on them being treated as precious entities that ought to be treated with the utmost respect. This approach works well enough for some photographs (as exasperating as it can be to see it in action), but it ultimately does photography a big disservice. Many of the various trends we still unfortunately witness in photoland can be traced back to the precious image, whether it’s the bad mouthing or outright dismissal of what so-called amateurs produce on Instagram or whatever else.

But the precious-image approach also has repercussions inside of photoland, in particular when it comes to photographs sitting next to text. Divas don’t really like anything possibly competing with their precious images. Consequently, where text is present (often for reasons of sheer necessity), it is often treated as at best secondary, as something that more often than not doesn’t work, in fact cannot work given that much like photographs text needs to be able to do operate on its own terms. The secondary-text approach works well in a variety of contexts, such as, for example, in photojournalism where often clunky and awkward reading text serves to provide the captions or the larger context, telling everything that, alas, pictures can’t show.

Having spent the better part of the last decade writing, my relationship to text is a little different than most photographers’. But I also came to photography not as a writer or blogger but as someone who enjoyed taking pictures, and I still do. Now, whether or not I am a good writer and/or photographer is really besides the point. I will, however, make the claim that I understand the perils of both photography and writing a little bit better than many who only do one or the other.

I’m not even talking so much about how to make a good picture or write a good text, I’m talking about the psychological struggle. I do understand the precious-image approach. But I not only know that (photographer’s voice) it’s so great when things just come together in a photograph, I also know that (educator’s voice) there’s always another picture, and I know that (critic’s voice) pictures can only do so much. The reality is that photographs can come alive in a variety of ways once the insistence on the precious image falls away — if anything the recent photobook boom has demonstrated just that (the presence of the many conservative gallery-show-on-paper books notwithstanding).

Of course, to understand how photographs can work with text, looking at some cases where things work very well helps. I know that many photographers are enarmoured with Larry Sultan‘s Pictures from Home. That is a good book, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the book that reaches the full pinnacle of what images and text (or text and images) can do with each other. For that, you’d have to look at books like, for example, John Berger and Jean Mohr‘s A Seventh Man or at W.G. Sebald‘s Austerlitz. The use of photography in these two books is very different, but in both cases they contribute to the overall book immensely. Crucially, while you could easily show Sultan’s pictures without any of the text, for A Seventh Man or especially Austerlitz that would just be an absurd idea.

So for images to work well with text, I want to claim that they have to fully shed their precious-picture aspect. This is not to say that they simply have to be shitty. That’s really not the point. They need to be good pictures. But the moment they come alive next to text, they cannot insist on being precious any longer. They need to be content with operating alongside text — or rather their maker has to.

A new benchmark achievement of what the combination of images and text can achieve is now being made available in the form of Alan Huck‘s I walk toward the sun which is always going down (full disclosure: I was Alan’s grad-school advisor when he worked on the book). It contains ample text, which of course will have to be read. So strictly speaking this isn’t even a photobook — it’s basically a form of literature that uses photography prominently (I’ll leave it to academics to argue over whether or not that is a photobook).

References and/or quotations abound, both in the text and in the photographs. In the writing, the quotations can be found more easily than in the images; but they are very apparent in the photographs as well. The author thus betrays his being deeply embedded in a literary and photographic tradition. In part, the book is thus a form of synthesis where all these influences are being brought together to form a meditation on what it means to take in the world on a long walk.

On the other hand, there also exists a clear voice of its own — I walk toward the sun is not merely a collage. That voice is one that I’d describe as one of resignation, even though that’s maybe too strong a word for what’s going on in the book. Maybe melancholy would describe the mood more clearly.

I’ve read the book many times (in all kinds of iterations, including its earliest ones), and I still don’t tire of it. Each repeated reading/viewing has brought out new elements, has made me see things in a different way. I can only hope that I walk toward the sun which is always going down will find the wide audience that I think it deserves. The world of books working with text and images has just become a lot richer.

Highly recommended.

I walk toward the sun which is always going down; text and photographs by Alan Huck; 144 pages; MACK; 2019

New Dutch Views

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A 1989 publication entitled Hollandse Taferelen (Dutch Scenes) by Hans Aarsman presents the authors views of his home country through a combination of photographs and text. Photographically, the book is very much a product of its time, with the view-camera images referencing more widely known bodies of work, whether (mostly in process) Joel Sternfeld‘s American Prospects or (in the spirit of the work) Joachim Brohm‘s Ruhr. Much like Brohm’s portrait of parts of Germany, Aarsman’s portrait of Holland reveals a rather unremarkable place being made utterly remarkable. In a sense, Aarsman’s views of the country are much more true to it than any tourist brochure could be (but then, they do make for very bad tourist-brochure material).

In a country as educated as the Netherlands, with its long and widely shared artistic and cultural tradition, I suspect that these 1989 scenes would have not necessarily be seen against either Sternfeld or Brohm. They would have been seen against the long history of portrayal of the country over the whole course of art history. Aarsman’s photographs are completely unlike Dutch Golden Age Landscape Paintings. But ignoring media and styles of portrayal, I think the spirit of these works is very much the same: artists celebrating this fragile part of the world which is constantly threatened by the sea not only for what it is but especially for how it reflects the lives and efforts of those living within it.

Marwan Bassiouni‘s New Dutch Views follows this tradition. To write that it does so with a twist is both correct and not correct. It is correct because the Dutch views each are part of another view, one in which the interiors walls and windows of mosques are visible. It is not correct because the inclusion of who is looking at the land might have been made explicit — but isn’t all art made from a particular view point? To insist that there’s a twist might just reinforce the very separation the book in my mind works so hard against, namely the one that divides those Dutch citizens who happen to be Muslims from all the others.

I can think of at least two immediate reads of the work. The Dutch views present the land outside of a very specific environment, the mosque. I’m alternating between reading the work as aspirational, as wanting what is inside these buildings to be an integral part of what is visible outside, and reading these photographs as an expression of a frustration, a frustration arising from the feeling that the inside and the outside might not be easily reconcilable, given societal and political circumstances.

A country like the Netherlands is embedded in a larger geographical region — Europe — that is no stranger to the persecution of religious minorities. To pretend that Islamophobia is anything other than yet another variant of any of the various religious follies that have wrecked the continent for the past two millennia is disingenuous. The various neofascists pretending they’re aiming to protect the values of whatever countries they’re from — in the Netherlands, you’d have Geert Wilders — are not doing that. Instead, they’re following a tradition that has led to the deaths of millions of people over the course of Europe’s history.

But the toothpaste has long been out of its tube anyway: Islam is a part of the Netherlands, just like it’s a part of Germany and many other European nations. This then would be the third read of the work, the read that in the ideal world that we don’t live in would be the only one, the obvious one: these pictures happen to show what the Dutch landscape looks like from the windows of mosques. The aspirational read, the frustrated read — they are caused by the politics inserted into our societies.

As is the case with most photography, it’s really the context that provides the fuel that drives a work’s power. These photographs are powerful and challenging because they assert what ought to be the case, given the constitutions of Western nations, but what is being challenged on a daily basis by neofascists and also many conservatives, namely that all people are equal, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, political orientation, or whatever else. The photographs do what they do because of what we bring to them when we see them. In other words, they make us react, and we better pay attention to how we react to them: we might learn something about ourselves.

The book contains some added text in the form of short fragments that are hidden inside the pouch pages. The pages haven’t been trimmed at the top, so the interiors of the pouch pages are easily accessible, but they don’t present themselves right away. With these fragments, Bassiouni expresses his own sentiments and ideas, covering his upbringing and identity. This adds another element to the book, a human voice that will help the viewer get a better understanding of the photographs on view.

With so many complex, narrative-driven photobooks having emerged recently, I’m enjoying seeing one that tackles a complex subject matter as simply and beautifully as New Dutch Views does. With just a few basic devices employed (also for the design and production of the book), it demonstrates the power of the photographic book.

New Dutch Views; photographs and text by Marwan Bassiouni; 64 pages; Lecturis; 2019

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.9

Photography in the Era of Digital Proliferation

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Photography can be art, but usually it is not. It is something entirely different. Where it attempts to be art, it has to conform to corresponding expectations, resulting in a type of packaging that even before the digital era was at odds with the medium’s central property, namely its ease of reproducibility, an ease that was grounded both in technology and people’s desires (exceptions to the rule, whether Daguerreotypes or Polaroids, do not invalidate the central point to be realized here).

Walter Benjamin wrote about some of the consequences arising from this fact against the background of the threat of fascism. Yet again, that threat has re-arrived, only to now play out in an era where vast parts of communication take place in the digital sphere: information is not tied to a carrier any longer in the sense that it was in the past. Instead, it arrives and disappears on screens of all kinds, in particular those we carry with us.

Those screens have become battlegrounds of information warfare, fueled by a variety of actors. Most famously, the 45th President of the United States is using his Twitter account as a daily exercise in narcissistic hate speech, whipping up ugly sentiments and inspiring domestic terrorists to kill those deemed subhuman.

The public sphere in which these developments play out has become intertwined with our most private one: we wake up, and we look at our smartphones to check for messages, emails, articles, and/or pictures. Pictures, however, have ceased to be just that, pictures. Instead, they have become essential elements of our communication, whether they’re emojis (which make the connection between pictures and communication most clear), photographs, or whatever else.

Pictures, in other words, have fully become important elements of our most basic communicative acts, given that to share them they do not require anything other than a device that can temporarily display them.

This unmooring of photographs from a photography-specific carrier (a “print”) has exposed the artificiality of the medium during the (roughly) first 150 years of its own existence, an artificiality driven ad absurdum by those operating with photographs in the art market.

Photographs demand to be seen, and for that demand to be fulfilled they needed to become data: This is the central aspect of the digital revolution (the ease with which pictures can be manipulated is relatively meaningless in comparison). Of course, photographs do not command to be seen on their own. It is us, their makers, who want them to be seen.

To share a photograph is a communicative act in which more often than not the actual picture in question is meaningless: it will be looked at for a fraction of a second, all kinds of thoughts might be triggered, but it will never re-appear. It could re-appear because the photograph will exist in some memory banks somewhere, but it will not be re-displayed.

When it will re-appear, it will often do just that because some corporation’s algorithm was designed to trigger a feeling of nostalgia in its users, to attempt to tie them more strongly to whatever platform they are engaged in. Beyond such machinations, however, the vast majority of photographs are looked at briefly, once. Consequently, there exist platforms which share pictures that disappear forever once they have been seen.

In the long run, most photographs are thus completely meaningless, however much meaning they might have possessed in the moment when they were shared and seen: there will always be another picture, another communicative act.

Photographs have thus more in common with money than with the kinds photographs money can buy in an art gallery: we all use money, whether in physical or digital form, but we only care for it thinking of its exchange value.

As noted above, our private communications are never very far away from the most public ones – they all end up on the small screens we carry around us and that we look at in a regular fashion. The public and the private have merged: we share parts of the latter with the former, and the former reaches us in a variety of ways: social media, the news, or whatever else.

These days, expressions of hate are never far away, whether in the form of a tweet by Trump (which we might see even if we don’t follow the man on Twitter, given that the news media still happily quote it) or by anyone emboldened by what can only be understood as a complete collapse of central parts of the idea of the US presidency (however flawed many of their ideas and approaches were in retrospect, it is hard to imagine the founders be willing to accept a complete moral vacuum at the very core of the country they founded), a comment left by someone angry (or someone possibly in the indirect employ of, let’s say, Russia’s president), or whatever else there might be.

Whatever else there might be – there’s a lot. These days, to partake in that public/private sphere that’s connected to our smartphones is to inevitably enter a cesspool of willful ignorance, hatred, and barely concealed violence. To be connected to the world these days means to partake in a racist reality TV show that runs on all channels — and we are not given a choice whether to watch it or not. It simply is there. Our lives have thus become invaded with violence of all sorts, and photographs play an essential part of that.

Before pictures became data, one would have been easily able to disengage from all the nastiness that has become such a dreadfully ubiquitous part of our daily lives now. Now, though, that choice is essentially gone.

It is true, you could still cut yourself off from most of it. But could you really go about a life of your own willful ignorance as Gestapo-style raids target immigrants or as any trip to the local supermarket or mall might end up on the coroner’s table?

If, in other words, you care for someone other than yourself, anyone really, how can you avoid caring for the larger good that in some form or another we’re all part of?

Can we, in yet other words, make pictures while pretending those pictures do not enter this particular environment we live in right now? Is there such a thing as an activist photographer?, Colin Pantall asked. I’d like to propose a re-phrasing of the question: when the private and the truly ugly public have become as enmeshed as they are now, can there be a photographer who is not an activist? Aren’t you an activist of some sort the moment you share a photograph and drop it into the larger public-private pool?

I am not convinced that in the era of Trump, which would have been impossible without the incessant digital proliferation of information, photography cannot be a form of activism. To deny it that status would be to deny the extent with which public ugliness and violence have entered our own private lives, in part because of our choices (nobody forced us to sign on to social media), in part because the choices available to us have become so relentlessly limited.

Activism here does not necessarily entail attempting to change the world on a larger scale. Sure, one could go about something to help solve the climate crisis, to help immigrants, to help bring about gun legislation (and thus give coroners a break), or whatever else.

But at its most atomic level, any photograph that is shared with someone else and that was made with elements of compassion, if not love, is already a form of activism, a push back against the aforementioned onslaught of outrage, anger, ugliness, and violence.

Maybe those of us who think of themselves as photographers or even artists need to realize that that is their medium now: a means of communication, maybe the means of communication, and if we want to mentally (let alone physically) survive the times we live in right now, there will have to be a collective push back against the ugliness that we have allowed to invade our public and private lives.

Enough is enough!

Make pictures and share them!

But make picture and share them with the intent of brightening other people’s days, of reminding people that the hatred and cruelty perpetuated by Trump et al. are their choice, not ours, a choice that we can and will reject!