Were it not for the nightmares.

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The simplest way I could describe Michael Ashkin‘s Were It Not For is to compare it to the music by British post-punk group The Fall, in particular the one produced from roughly 1979 until early 1983. Mostly devoid of actual melodies, the songs all begin and end, without much happening in between: a short phrase or even just a single note is repeated seemingly endlessly, with a cantankerous man (who might or might not have suffered from some form of mental disorder) spewing out cryptic words — an assorted variety of non sequiturs — on top of it all. Most music, of course, lives from repetition, but The Fall would drive the concept to its logical conclusion. Consequently, one of their earliest songs is entitled Repetition.

Their longest songs from that period, whether Winter or Tempo House or The NWRA or Hip Priest, drove home the actual point strongest, and they are the ones I revisit first whenever I decide to give the group another listen (if you want to try only one of them make it The NWRA). Much like in all good art, there is a world created, a world that is shockingly bleak and grim, a brutal world. If you’re in search of consolation, The Fall is probably not your cup of tea.

Were It Not For lives in this kind of territory. The book is easy to describe: a large number of photographs are paired up with phrases that all begin with the words (you guessed it) “were it not for.” Occasionally, such a phrase might be displayed on its own; in addition, there are longer lists of phrases on the book’s cover and before and after the section that contains the image. The photographs are all black and white, and they look like they were taken somewhere in California in an area that is bleak and grim.

Much like in the case of The Fall, to fully appreciate the book you will have to cast aside your expectations of what a photobook will do. This might be my personal read, but the idea of the memorable photograph is completely irrelevant here. None of the photographs are memorable, and many don’t offer much, if anything, to study. Just to be clear, I don’t intend this to read as a form of negative criticism — quite the opposite actually. Looking through the book, I found myself preferring some photographs over others, only to realize that that approach was completely besides the point: much like one doesn’t listen to The Fall for lovely melodies (there aren’t any), you don’t want to look at this book expecting precious pictures (ditto).

(Obviously, your mileage might vary, and you might consider these pictures as precious. OK, well, this won’t change any of the conclusions I’ll be coming to.)

Much as I could dive into the history of photography and dig out some references (for the photographs), I don’t think this would be very enlightening. In the end, the book is the book, and if anything one would need to refer to other books that achieve a similar effect. I can’t think of any. Leafing through the book, the viewer/reader is faced with a large number of photographs and short phrases that are all very similar and that build up to a portrayal of a place that has reached its nadir, without there being any way out in sight.

Wherever you look, whatever you hear, it’s all the same hopeless mess: a lived environment that more often than not looks like a garbage dump, with soulless anonymous architecture everywhere, and a cultural/societal environment filled with endless violence, dread, and despair.

Of course, that place is the United States of America.

Were it not for the nightmares.

I have been wondering when there would be a photobook about the Age of Trump. Here it is. As grim as it is, it is nothing but brilliant.

Along with Alan Huck’s I Walk Toward the Sun Which Is Always Going Down, Were It Not For provides a model forward for what can be done in/with photobooks. In both cases, text plays a very strong role; but it does it in a way that short circuits the kinds of anxieties that has most photographers stay clear of using words. In both cases, the text does not compete with the pictures (and it also is not used in a supporting role).

My hope is that more photographers will realize what can in fact be done with text. At the same time, these two books demonstrate that the form of the photobook is not exhausted at all. There still is ample room for a step in a direction not explored, yet. As someone who has been looking at photobooks for quite a while now, it is enormously heartening to see such experimentation and to see it done so successfully.

Highly recommended.

Were It Not For; photographs and text by Michael Ashkin; 256 pages; FW:Books; 2019

my rating system doesn’t take text into account (yet) so: not rated

You Haven’t Seen Their Faces: Contemporary Photography’s Stylish Muteness

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The other day, I received a photobook by an up-and-coming photographer in the mail. Produced by one of those smart new publishers, it featured elegant, yet understated design in an altogether very charming and contemporary package. The inside, the pictures, could be described in just the same manner. The topic was one that a few years ago no photographer would have thought of or bothered photographing, and the pictures betrayed the photographer’s education at one of those cutting-edge European masters programs, with abundant colours everywhere and very stylish (and, of course, somewhat ironic) still lifes featured prominently throughout the book.

And yet! And yet!

Turns out it was just another book that I would put aside somewhat grouchily in the end. Something was missing. Something very specific was missing, yet again.

You see, ordinarily I’m no grouch. I’m merely employing the term because there is no equivalent of “hangry” for this case. (OK, OK, one is a noun and the other one an adjective. I know. But this is a blog, and you’re reading this for free. So you’ll have to excuse some stylistic freedom or sloppiness [your pick] here.) Or rather I would use the word “hangry” only for occasions when one is in fact in need of actual food. (I’m no grouch, but you don’t want to meet me when I’m hangry.)

But the sentiment I’m after is the same: In the book that explored its topic over pages and pages of stylish pictures there wasn’t a single human face to be seen, despite the fact that it actually dealt with a very human subject matter. And with time, having seen dozens and dozens of photographers venture out to make work and to then produce these kinds of books that lack a human presence (bar maybe someone’s hand in some ironic still life) I have simply become hangry: I’m (metaphorically) hungry for the depiction of human faces when human subject matters are being photographed, and I’m, well, exasperated by the fact that so many artists think that’s not necessary. It’s just baffling!

There were two reasons why I didn’t provide details of which book I received above. To begin with, I’m usually hesitant to be too critical of up-and-coming photographers, especially when it’s their first book (if the book ends up on some well known list the gloves will come off, though). And second, singling out one photographer would have been unfair — there are all the peers who’re guilty of the very same sin.

Those in the know will recognize the title of a 1937 photobook by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White in this article’s header: You Have Seen Their Faces. I just snuck in a “not” for contemporary photography; I did the same in my admittedly somewhat sloppy Photoshop job — the picture above does not show the actual cover of the book. If you were to remove all the photographs of people from the book — or maybe all the pictures showing a face — you’d be left with precious little, a picture of a dilapidated shack here, some grimy soil there.

Right at the beginning, there’s a very interesting disclaimer that (in part) reads “No person, place, or episode in this book is fictitious, but names and places have been changed to avoid unnecessary individualization […] The legends under the pictures are intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons.” In a nutshell, this is how larger parts of contemporary photography operate.

Someone might be photographed not to stand for him or herself as this or that specific person, but rather to be one of the many individuals that find themselves in some specific situation. This approach isn’t acceptable in documentary photography any longer, but for sure it’s very common in the larger world of art photography. And it’s a very good approach because if we, as human beings, connect with anything, it’s first and foremost the human face.

All of this makes the absence of human faces in so many contemporary photobooks all the more puzzling. Having taught photography for about a decade, I’m familiar with the kinds of explanations that might be offered. But, no, frankly none of those are going to cut it. The reality is that the absence of human faces in all those stylish books only makes for a grating effect: it is as if that absence was designed to demonstrate how mute even the most stylish photographs can be when an artist is not willing or able to do the final step.

Honestly, just put your camera in front of some faces (having obtained consent first), deal with the discomfort that might entail, make some good pictures, and then let us, the audience, see these faces in your quest to dive into whatever very human topic it is that in your newsletter you will probably describe as being “explored”!

You don’t even need to have that many faces in your body of work. But having them makes all the difference. Take the case of one of the finest photobooks produced over the past decade, Gábor Arion KudászHuman. The book could have easily become one of the many books that triggered this piece, but it didn’t.

Concerned with how the built environment reflects some very basic aspects of human anatomy, the artist included a few photographs of human beings. He presents not just their hands or limbs against the types of bricks they deal with, human figures are also shown for scale and, crucially, as the very human beings they are. The book thus easily isn’t some cerebral photographic exercise around the idea of human scales, it instead dives deeply into our shared desire for a home.

This is not to say that every photography project about human topics necessarily needs a human presence. As an artist, you might be able to convince yourself that yours doesn’t. But at some stage during the process you might want to confront yourself and question your thinking critically: do you really not need any pictures of human beings, or are you merely buying your own bullshit?

The thing is that the presence of human beings in your pictures that focus on a human topic might make all the difference. And btw, photographing people but not showing their faces — I have plenty of such books, too, where everybody is always conveniently turned away — just amplifies the problem.

Mari Katayama’s Gift

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Mari Katayama‘s art cannot be easily separated from her biography, specifically the fact that she was born with tibial hemimelia, which resulted in her decision to have her lower legs amputated at age nine. As much of the work is about the artist’s body, thinking about it as originating from there strikes me as a fruitful approach. After all, in the strictest sense, most of the photographs are not of a documentary nature (even though some are); and the center of the work is not the artist’s body but, rather, what we all share, regardless of what our bodies look like: aspirations and dreams.

A recent survey entitled Gift now makes this work more widely available, and it allows for a deeper engagement with an artist whose most well known photographs cover only some aspects of her larger concerns. To begin with, Katayama is not just a photographer. She also produces a variety of objects that are either used as props in her own tableaux, as objects to displayed alongside the photographs, or as objects for use in her own daily life.

If most artists’ work can be understood as emanating from the inside of their studios to the outside world, here the beginning is originally the inverse of that approach. For example, the elaborate ornamentation of prostheses was made for daily life, and only later did it become a focal point to be displayed in photographs.

I often yearn for photography to be more than merely pictures on a wall and this provides one of the reasons why this book (and obviously work) is one of the most impressive bodies of work I have seen in a long time. Often enough, however, photographers’ attempts to supplement their picture with something else, be it film or sculpture or whatever else, ends up being clumsy and bit sad. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but most photographers know only about their medium — they are trained in it and only it.

In contrast, photography is a tool for Katayama much like sewing is. This artist produces photographs not to be a photographer but rather to create something that will express an idea just as much as a hand-made sewn artificial body or body part might (which, in turn, might show up in a photograph). What one might think of as props are anything but, and this is what separates the Japanese artist from, let’s say, Cindy Sherman who also places herself into her picture and who does work with props: Sherman embodies someone else, expressing their desires; Katayama embodies herself, expressing her own desires.

Another difference is the scope of the work. In many of the works, the Japanese brings together a variety of threads, including, of course, a preoccupation with the body and its possible limitations, but also ideas of femininity and of societal expectations of how both the body and femininity ought to be presented. Given the artist is female, these expectations obviously overlap very much.

Another aspect that I personally can only vaguely understand is the artist’s place in her home country, Japan, which — as far as I understand it — places very restrictive rules concerning conformity upon its people and especially on women. Japan is not a country known for its high level of gender equality. This fact makes Katayama’s work more political than it might seem.

Gift presents all of these aspects through a survey of Katayama’s work that — thankfully — is not organized chronologically. Instead, after a brief introductory section (that includes an essay by Simon Baker), the first colour images mostly focus on objects — painted prostheses and the various handmade objects that play a role for the artist. I feel that this is a deft and good choice.

After all, in light of the preceding it might be clear that the tableaux photographs — in all likelihood the pictures a viewer might know this artist for — are important, but they need to be seen in their wider context. Those photographs are attention grabbing and good for this day and age of viral imagery. But they are so seductive that they might tempt a viewer to ignore some of the details at the expense of others.

Ultimately, Mari Katayama’s work centers on what it means to be alive, to be a human being in this world where few people can easily be who they want to be, and the rest of us have to work with what we got and assert ourselves. Given both her home land and the biological aspects of her biography, the artist’s task obviously is a lot harder than most other people’s.

I’m tempted to think that the breadth of Katayama’s approach in part derives from the larger media environment available now. After all, social media are filled with people who are shaping their own self through the presentation of images. However vapid many of those attempts on social media might be (the celebrity aspect for sure appears to be the most prominent one), Katayama makes it clear that there is more to the idea than just celebrities or influencers. Seen that way, these photographs are not merely an expression of her self, they also are an assertion of it.

“The world is a big place,” Katayama writes in her essay, “and we can do anything in it, but it is all mapped out, and we are all going to die one day. So here I am, spending another day between endlessness and limitations, against a backdrop that never changes.”

If I had to pick one photobook as my favourite this year, it would be this one — for all the reasons outlined above and all the other ones I still cannot put into words.

Highly recommended.

Gift; photographs by Mari Katayama; essays by Mari Katayama and Simon Baker; 136 pages; United Vagabonds; 2019

(not rated)

Making Pictures With Migrants

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In the world of photography, those portrayed are almost never given much (if any) agency, regardless however much is at stake for them. This basic fact constitutes a well-known problem that usually is ignored. Why, after all, should those in front of the camera be given a voice if the general idea of the photographer as genius artist/maker (or truth teller) is so predominant?

Photographers know what to do with their cameras, and they — plus their assorted hangers-on (editors, curators, critics, …) — define what a good picture is. That works for a large variety of contexts, but as has become obvious for many people — more often than not originating from groups that previously were at the receiving end of what can be done with a camera — it’s lacking in so many ways.

If we consider the ongoing migrant crisis playing out in large parts of the world, the aforementioned situation is directly comparable to how migrant issues are being discussed in countries that attract them: discussions focus on migrants, while mostly not giving them a voice at all — as if they had nothing to say whatsoever.

Somewhat related, this week I read a longer essay in a respected German liberal weekly in which an author professed her problems with what she described as political correctness. Again, those at the receiving end of derogatory language (minorities, migrants, etc.) were almost completely absent from the essay. The wronged ones, it was argued, were those using said language (whether out of ignorance or indifference) who’d then be sanctioned. That’s a crazy approach to the whole topic, and seeing it prominently featured in a liberal weekly made it all the more depressing.

In all of these cases, the absence of those that are being talked about — those for whom is most at stake — can only have a chilling effect on the resulting impoverished debate, for the most part enabling and benefiting those arguing for repression or rather: more repression, given how repressive migrants’ incredibly wealthy target countries already are when it comes to accepting those most in need of help and support.

Breaking away from the one-way-model of photography inevitably will mean breaking away from established modes of thinking about and evaluating images. As photoland’s ongoing agonizing engagement with pictures on social media demonstrates, old habits die hard. It’s a lot easier to decry the (supposed) lack of visual sophistication of those millions of people uploading their selfies, cat photographs, etc. than to try to understand the meaning and actual merit of those images in the first place. In a nutshell, what a good picture looks like is very different outside of the incredibly narrow confines of photoland than inside, as is the question how or why this matters.

Interestingly, there already exist other modes of engagement with photography by artists such as, for example, Wendy Ewald or Jim Goldberg. A recent example that directly deals with Europe’s migrant crisis is provided by Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez‘s Here, Waiting. The duo spent an extended amount of time in a Belgian asylum seekers’ center, the kind of administrative limbo that is so common all over Europe (well, in those countries accepting asylum seekers; various countries have been refusing to fulfill their legal and moral obligations out of sheer xenophobia, if not outright racism).

In the center, Prignot and Alvarez not only became acquainted with the center’s inhabitants, to document them and their living conditions, they also produced a series of workshops. The workshops were image centric. Photographs were made and printed to then be drawn on or modified by the subjects. A xerox machine, still a frequent bureaucratic tool, was used to make images like a scanner. Photographs were xeroxed and then drawn on. You get the idea. Whatever you want to say about photography having become a digital medium, the possible tangible nature of the medium played one of the most important roles in the process.

Here, Waiting is a compilation of some of the resulting images, in effect a mix of how the photographers came to see their subjects and how the subjects saw themselves — or maybe more accurately: wanted to be represented visually.

There are two dominant and very distinct strands of imagery that stand out. First, there are the many images of and by children that were drawn or drawn on and that at least right now provide possibly the only way for migrants to reach audiences in their target countries. While their collective plight has been amply pictured, typically only pictures of children make a (temporary) dent in the West’s callousness, whether it’s Alan Kurdi’s dead body, Yanela Sanchez crying at the border, or others. The second major group of images centers on young men, who are often depicted playing sports or being in the gym.

It’s doubtful that the book will change anything in Belgium or beyond. Those famous pictures of the children barely did. But to demand so much from photographs (or books) really is only an extension of the thinking that sees photographers as genius makers or truth tellers — after all, with such geniuses or truth tellers behind pictures isn’t it logical to consequently expect big changes as an outcome?

An alternative — I would argue much better — approach is the one that acknowledges that photographers’ subjects can be given an active role and that moves away from determining the validity and/or value solely based on the actually rather narrow ideas that are predominant given the established history of photography. Photographs can be precious in all kinds of ways — not just the ones that derive from photoland.

It is exactly that preciousness, plus the actual engagement Prignot and Alvarez brought directly to those trapped in Belgium’s bureaucratic limbo, that alludes to photography’s power. Photography is a way to recognize someone, especially if there is a deeper engagement, an engagement not merely based on passive consent but on active collaboration. In a very obvious way, the workshops provided a creative outlet for its participants. Beyond that, though, there was a direct exchange between two groups of people held apart by the state.

Even where the cruelty is not the point (such as when migrant children are separated from their parents and then held in cages), the bureaucratic procedures set up by modern nation states to “process” asylum seekers ultimately are inherently cruel. The mere depiction of fences and those fenced in will not change anything; but a direct interaction between the two sides of the fence will, whether it’s these workshops (or similar workshops held elsewhere such as in Warsaw), migrants and locals preparing meals together, or whatever else.

To stick to photography, it’s not the pictures that change the world, it’s the joint making of pictures that does.

Here, Waiting; images by Maroussia Prignot, Valerio Alvarez, and unnamed collaborators; essays by Julián Barón and Nicolas Prignot; 144 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2019

(not rated)