Bath in Brilliant Green

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In photography, all too often the tristesse of contemporary life is given an expression through equally sour photographs that often are devoid of a direct human presence. I can see the appeal of such photography — for a while, I was drawn to it myself. Might one not describe vast parts of the so-called Düsseldorf School as operating along those lines? Even where there literally are thousands of people in the photographs of Andreas Gursky, the effect is the opposite: it’s as if nobody is there.

I can see the point of such work, but I now view it as one of those many dead ends that the history of photography is filled with, where a photographic approach first turns into style and then into mannerism. Lest you now send me emails with your latest “street photography” – that’s not much better, merely exchanging one mannerism for another, the differences in styles notwithstanding.

Maybe that’s the struggle every photographer has to face: how to arrive at something without having that — whatever it is — exhaust itself as an ultimately empty formula. For a variety of reasons, that’s difficult, because who is happy to abandon what might have been so hard to reach? And who wants to tell their gallerists and/or publishers that more of the same just doesn’t cut it for anything other than paying the bills?

I’ve been itching more and more to see a human presence in photographs, ideally one where I can feel a real connection between the person in front of the camera and the one behind. And when I use the term “real connection” I’m explicitly excluding the macho approach to photography, which, sadly, is still all-too common (older male goes out into the world and sticks his camera plus flash into the faces of the most vulnerable — you know what I’m talking about).

I suppose what this all comes down to is that I want to look at photographs where I can sense that their maker cared about more than their own ego. Obviously, all art is rooted in the artist’s ego; but it doesn’t have to stop there. As an artist, one can — I’d say: one should — move beyond one’s own ego.

The above might read like a strange introduction to Nina Röder‘s Bath in Brilliant Green. But it is what I arrived at, thinking about what was going on the background of the work. There are, after all, plenty of photographs in the book that look like some form of collaboration between a person and the photographer. People are shown engaging with part of the land, often in the nude, or they are seen adorned with materials that stand in stark contrast to the softness of their flesh.

It is that very softness, and its rosiness, that hint at the vulnerability of the human condition that rests at the center of the work. The world is depicted as being what it is, harsh and unforgiving, and we humans have to deal with that, whether literally or figuratively.

I sense loneliness and longing in these photographs. To what extent that read is based on what I bring to these pictures I couldn’t say. In the photographs, the figures are always on their own, and for the most part their faces are being hidden or turned away. They are, in other words, nobodies. But they’re not nobodies in a social sense, they are nobodies as human beings in an environment that is hostile to them being there. This fact points at why we collectively ought to take better care of each other: there is nothing else in this world that could do that for us.

Bath in Brilliant Green mixes landscapes with still lifes with studio photographs and more, and it does that well. For sure, there is that clear thread of feeling going through the work that I spoke of above. It’s edited and designed well. However, for my taste, the book’s printing falls on the lifeless side, with shadow detail sorely lacking. This means that images dominated by dark tones lose a lot of definition, at times resulting in muddy flatness. I think that’s unfortunate.

But all in all, it is the human presence in the work that carries most of its meaning. Working with people in front of the camera is hard. It requires work, dedication, passion, empathy. And obviously the performative style of photography used in the book isn’t the only way to do it. Still, what a difference it makes to see human figures — and not just landscapes devoid of a human presence!

Bath in Brilliant Green; photographs by Nina Röder; texts by Sarah Frost, Nicolas Oxen; 144 pages; Kehrer; 2018

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 2 – Overall 3.1

Attention Servicemember

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Eighteen years after a group of terrorists attacked the United States on its own soil, there still are soldiers in Afghanistan, which served as the base of the terror organization, Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has now been defeated — or maybe not, it’s really not that clear. The moment someone suggests withdrawing the soldiers from what looks like an endless war that doesn’t appear to have any goals other than sustaining itself, someone else will claim that Al-Qaeda aren’t defeated and/or they might re-emerge. You can swap out Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan for some other group and country — there is no shortage of locations where the US is maintaining a military presence without, seemingly, making any headway beyond anything that’s purely warfare.

The world of photography has long lost interest in locations such as Afghanistan or Iraq, much like the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are still being butchered by the dozens, now often remotely through the use of drones: “A U.S. drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State (IS) hideout in Afghanistan killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields, officials said on Thursday.” “We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants,” some military spokesperson is being quoted, “and are working with local officials to determine the facts.” Yeah, right.

War is a meat grinder, and the meat that’s being ground typically is that of foreigners. But the thousands and thousands of soldiers sent abroad to do the grinding do not come home unaffected. Some lose their lives, others a limb or two, and most — maybe all of them — lose their sanity, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of their lives. I’ve now lived long enough to understand that war is not communicable in any way — you have either experienced it, or — if you’re lucky — you don’t. I’ve also come to understand that there’s a gulf in understanding between those who have experienced war and those who  have not.

One of my grandfathers came home from World War 2 as a psychological wreck. Today, we’d speak of PTSD, back in the day (it took me years to piece this together), he was just being difficult and abusive to those he returned to. And then he left again, to find his final resting place in a pauper’s grave somewhere in the city he was born, having been disavowed by my relatives. As I said, a gulf of understanding — also on my part (how could they?…).

Ben Brody went to war, happily at first. I know this because he wrote about it in his book Attention Servicemember: “I was 22 and thought the Iraq War would be the pivotal moment for my generation, as Vietnam was for my parents’ generation.” Ben, with whom — full disclosure — I worked on some of the pictures in the book when he was my student, wanted to be a photographer; having failed a photojournalism class he signed up as an Army combat photographer. This put him into the middle of things, from which you couldn’t easily extricate yourself (like a photojournalist).

Obviously, you cannot just take any pictures as a combat photographer, or rather your superiors want to see a certain thing (victory). As Ben writes in the book, this approach isn’t entirely different than how photojournalism works, it’s just somewhat different objectives. Having eventually left the military, he went back to photographing, this time as an embedded photojournalist. He ended up photographing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is a very large number if photographs from both locations in the book.

There also are photographs from until after he decided he wasn’t going back any longer, photographs in which he attempts to describe what the world at home looks like to him now: “After long periods in war zones, being shot at and blown up starts to feel normal. When you get home, you feel crazy for awhile, because no one is trying to kill you. That feeling fades quickly, but I still see the tactical geometry of any room I’m in. I also see war at the gas pump, war in the choices that people make who consider themselves peaceful, war in our drug use, war in our economic system, war in our collective anxieties.”

Attention Servicemember brings all of this together, and it might just be the photobook to describe the almost 20 years of continuous US wars in the early 21st Century. A lot of the elements don’t seem to quite fit together, but that’s apparently what war does: it reveals the insanity of the human condition that lies underneath the very thin (and currently thinning) veneer that we mistaken for our culture, for our civilization. It is the text that holds it all together and produces the impressive end result that the book is. Ben’s first-person account of his journey gets the viewer/reader as close as s/he can hope to the reality of war.

Highly recommended.

Attention Servicemember; photographs and text by Ben Brody; 304 pages; Red Hook Editions; 2019

(not rated)