Rinko Kawauchi’s World of Wonders

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If anything makes photography art, it’s not its ability to capture what is in front of a camera at some point in time, and it’s not the camera operator’s ability to produce a large piece of paper with that information on it. Instead, it’s a photographer’s possibility to make us look at the world anew, to have us be in awe of something that might have happened right before our eyes but that we simply would have missed. That’s what the best art photographers do: they re-create the world as a world of wonders for us.

If any living artist fits that description, it’s Rinko Kawauchi. For me it is her earliest books that most strongly convey her strengths as a contemporary photographer, in particular the sublime 2001 うたたね (Utatane). To describe the photographs in the book is to engage in an ill-fated exercise which is doomed to fall far short of the beauty of the photographs. But I might as well do so anyway.

Vast parts of Kawauchi’s early work was done with a square-format camera, a Rolleiflex. うたたね is filled with such pictures. The square is a much maligned format in certain parts of photoland (including, sadly, many art schools). It is true, the square tempts a photographer to place the object of interest into the center, but how or why this would automatically make for a bad photo is not clear (as an aside, square-weighted pictures are a lot worse in the much wider 35mm aspect ratio).

The second immediately prominent aspect of these photographs is their palette. Kawauchi’s treatment of her colour is very deliberate, shifting everything towards pastel tones, with a light blueish tint being very prominent in many of the photographs (this type of choice of palette isn’t necessarily unique for a Japanese colour photographer, especially of her generation).

Almost everything almost looks as if it were being dreamed. Even a flock of seagulls against what must have been a bright blue sky is transformed: it’s simply impossible to imagine the birds’ screeching while looking at the photographs. In much the same fashion, a crying baby also doesn’t appear as such.

Everything in front of this Rolleiflex camera ended up being transformed into its own piece of wonder, to be looked at and contemplated after it had been taken out of our otherwise noisy and messy world. There is a strong feel of serenity pervading this work, a serenity that makes the viewer forget about her or his own world and about all the incessant noise generated by it. As much as I usually detest photographs being described as dreamlike, these truly are in the best possible way.

A little while ago, I heard my former student Ward Long describe his own work as attempting to bring tenderness to them. This way of speaking about his work immediately made sense for me when I thought of his photographs, and this description also easily applies here. Rinko Kawauchi’s photographs are tender. They’re gentle. They don’t try to tell you something, they don’t try to impress you. They just are. Contrast this with the overwrought pomposity that pervades such large parts of photoland!

The majority of photographs in うたたね exist in pairs (Kawauchi’s website shows some of them). Two photographs being paired is akin to a dance; and much to her credit, Kawauchi deftly created a large variety of such dances. If you think you might be waltzing through the book (pardon the pun, couldn’t resist), you won’t: some pairs operate formally, some based on the photograph’s content, while others work with oppositions.

In other words, the attentive viewer is not reduced to having to figure out why this picture lives next to that picture — the simplistic where’s-Waldo approach to making pairs. Instead, s/he will experience something else arising from the pairing: an amplification of something, a pointing at something not contained in either picture, or whatever else.

The form of the book itself also contributes to conveying its photographs’ overall lightness: its a modest softcover book that makes it easy and convenient for the viewer to look at it. Contrast this with the overly large later books produced outside of Japan — heavy hardcovers with too many pictures that furthermore attempt to dazzle a viewer with unnecessary production choices. Such productions do nothing to enhance the quiet beauty of this artist’s work. If anything, they only add a completely unnecessary pomposity.

Much like the best photobooks, うたたね invites many repeated viewings. I take it from my shelf regularly to immerse myself in it. It’s a little bit shocking that the book itself is almost 20 years old by now. The photographs don’t betray their age. There are no markers of time I can make out. With each repeated viewing I’m not entering a rapidly disappearing world that has little to do with mine; instead, I’m being brought back to a state of timeless wonder again.

This really is the best one can hope for in a photobook. In particular at a time filled with anxiety and, let’s face it, outright terror, books like うたたね can bring a levity and enjoyment to our lives that, sadly, all-too-often is absent in what’s coming out of the world of photography.

うたたね (Utatane), photographs by Rinko Kawauchi; 64 pages; Little More; 2001

Support Photobook Shops!

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Given the covid-19 pandemic, it’s going to be difficult to write the introduction of this article without it being out of date by the time it’s published. I started thinking about this article yesterday, to wake up to the news that Germany’s government decided to close all non-essential shops. Where this hasn’t happened, yet, it’s very safe to assume that it’s only a question of time. Other countries, such as Italy and Spain, are already under quarantine.

The best you can do for yourself right now is to follow the advice of actual health experts. Depending on where you live, this might entail engaging in what’s called social distancing. What this means and why this is useful is explained in this article by the Washington Post. If that’s too much text, you can start by looking at those animations. Those will give you a pretty good and quick idea of why social distancing is so important.

Obviously, social distancing comes at a price. In the following, I’m just going to be focusing on everything related to photography.  There are a lot of other, more important concerns, and you can read up on them elsewhere (I’m not qualified to write about labour or any other concerns).

If you’re mostly confined to your home, you’ll have to stay busy with whatever it is that you like to do. This is where photography might come in. It’s not essential for your survival — for that you need food etc., but it might help you stimulate or distract your mind.

With galleries and museums closed (or closing), now more than ever is the time of the photobook. If you’re already interested in photobooks and you might even own a small collection, you can now spend more time with them. And if you’ve never paid much attention to them, this is a good time to see what they have to offer (assuming you don’t want to read other books, binge watch some shows, play games, or whatever else).

However, you won’t be able to go to a photobook shop to buy them because in all likelihood if there’s one where you live it’s going to be closed (or closing very soon). To get new books you will have to shop online (obviously, if there are no photobook shops where you live you’ve been doing this already). It’s extremely important that you buy directly from either publishers, dedicated photobook shops, or artists. Here’s why.

Photobook making and selling is an incredibly difficult business. The target audience is very small and fragmented, and there is almost no way to get photobooks in front of a larger audience (there are exceptions). This means that photobook makers — aka the people who pay the money to produce them — rely on earning all the money they can. The reality is that most books don’t even sell the full edition, so sustaining a photobook business over a long period of time is very difficult.

Let’s say you’re interested in a photobook whose list price is $69.95, and you see it on Amazon for $44.61 (actual example, doesn’t matter which one it is; please note I’m talking about new books here, not second-hand ones). That looks like a great deal, doesn’t it? You’ll be able to save $25.34. If you buy the book on Amazon, you’ll thus save that amount of money — but it’s $25.34 not going into the photobook ecosystem.

You might find it odd that I’m talking about an ecosystem here. Isn’t this all just business? Well, sure it is. But someone is not going to get these $25.34. That might be a publisher who if this happens might not be able to publish more books, leaving a few artists stranded. Or it might be a photobook shop who might not be able to pay rent, forcing it to close down.

(Just as an aside, if you’re a photographer who self published a book and you’re selling it online for less than it costs in a photobook shop, you’re also damaging the photobook ecosystem.)

Publishers and photobook shops actually are the unsung heroes of the world of the photobook. You typically don’t see them described this way (it’s more like you’ll hear the completely misguided complaint that publishers are gatekeepers that somehow prevent all these great books from being made — not so!). But without publishers there obviously wouldn’t be all that many photobooks. And without specialty bookshops photobooks wouldn’t nearly get the exposure that they have now. Amazon aren’t going to have a book signing (where would this happen anyway? in a warehouse?), they’re not going to go to a book fair at some festival to show books.

So it’s absolutely essential now that if you want to buy a photobook (or two) to help you deal with social distancing and to bring the richness of all that these kinds of books have to offer into your own home that you do that either directly from a publisher, a photobook shop, or an artist (who will not give you a discount because that undercuts book shops).

(Btw, just now, while writing this article I received an email from a photobook shop that’s going to be closed until the end of the month.)

If you don’t know where to buy, below is a list of photobook shops that will fulfill your mail orders. All of these shops fulfill a vital function for the photobook ecosystem. Some have branched out into publishing, many have regular events (signings or workshops), and they’re all run by incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate people. When you’re buying from them, you’re not only helping them sustain their businesses, you’re also helping publishers and artists.

This list isn’t complete and final — I’ll update it over the course of the next few days. Send me an email if a shop is missing, and I’ll add it (as long as the shop is selling online):

Ampersand (Portland)

Andrew Cahan (Akron; second-hand books)

L’Ascenseur Végétal (Bordeaux)

Beyond Words (UK)

Bildband Berlin

Book of Days (Osaka)

Bookoff (Poland)

Dashwood Books (New York)

Datz Press (Seoul)

Micamera (Milan)

Kominek Books (Berlin)

Leporello Books (Rome)

Perimeter Books (Melbourne)

Photo Book Store (UK)

Photobook Corner (Lisbon)

Photo-Eye (Sanfa Fe)

PhotoQ Bookshop (Amsterdam)

RRB Photobooks (Bristol)

Tipi Bookshop (Brussels)

Unobtanium (Bandung)

Vacilando Bookshop (Bangkok)

Zen Foto (Tokyo)

Now is the time that we all look out for one another. When it comes to photobooks, this is how to do it.

Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph

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Some time in 2017, I was contacted by Odette England concerning what she called the Winter Garden Photograph Project. The project was designed to be “a photographic reflection on Roland Barthes’ unpublished snapshot of his mother, Henriette, aged five, referred to in ‘Camera Lucida'” (I’m quoting from the letter she sent me). The seminal and still widely read book was due to mark its 40th anniversary this year, and I understood that the project was going to be a collective tribute to it.

The criteria for a submission were loose enough to leave ample space for interpretation. England asked for something “photographic and physical” that “in some way echoes, suggests or reflects on the Winter Garden Photograph.” The project’s overall idea and its framing intrigued me very much. To begin with, I have always considered collective photography projects as very interesting even though a variety of the more well known ones ended up being so exceptionally weak and lackluster. For example, Magnum’s Postcards from America absolutely didn’t betray the presence of a large number of very gifted photographers behind it.

In 2017, my head space as a photographer was very different than what I have arrived at now — I was in the beginning stages of what would end up being a radical departure from the kind of photography I had taken before; but I immediately knew the photograph I would contribute. Two years earlier, I had found a set of photographs at a flea market in Budapest. The photographs came as a small stack, held together by a rubber band, and they were small (around 2.5″ / 6cm on each side). The images themselves were all rectangular, and they were quite a bit smaller than the paper they were printed on.

After I had brought them home (roughly two years before I received England’s invitation), I had scanned the photographs and gently worked them over on the computer. There’s no need to describe the changes I made — most were minor, some less so; I will just say that all of the changes were made to enhance what I already perceived in these photographs. One of them ended up sticking with me more than all the others. It showed a woman posing in a snowy landscape, and in the background there was this haunting spectral apparition — at least that’s what it looked like. It was immediately clear to me that this would have to be my contribution to the Winter Garden Project. I had a digital silver-gelatin print made and sent it in.

Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph has now been published. I will admit that I had had certain trepidations concerning what it might end up being, and I’m incredibly happy to report that the book surpassed my expectations easily. To begin with, in form, the book successfully marries a very traditional approach with a rather contemporary one. Occasionally, a different paper stock and size is being used, which not only helps to organize the material — all text appear on these smaller pages, but also to make the experience of looking at the book more engaging.

Making a 300+ book with over 200 photographs by different makers engaging is no mean feat — there are only so many pictures anyone can look at. But the combination of smart design/layout and production choices does everything to help a viewer with what is a wealth of material. In addition, while the information who sent in which picture(s) is provided, it comes at the very end, leaving the viewer mostly with just the pictures themselves. Some artists couldn’t help themselves and sent in an image that’s very obviously just their regular work, but the bulk of the book thankfully is not that.

Instead, the book is an extended, somewhat melancholic meditation on desire, or rather a more specific desire tied to family and especially motherhood. The overall effect really is quite touching — not quite what I would have remotely expected to see. And I’m thinking that it’s the book that probably conveys this more than an exhibition could (for a variety of reasons, some of which might have nothing to do with the material at hand).

So it is possible in photoland to make a collective project that ends up having a lot of meaning. If anyone deserves credit for it then it’s first and foremost Odette England who has done an amazing job putting this all together.

 

Given I contributed a photograph to the book, this obviously is no review. I’m no disinterested person in this case. But for sure I’d highly recommend this book — not so you can see my picture (we got that covered: it’s right up here), but instead so you can enjoy the collective response to a seminal piece of writing.

Highly recommended.

Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph; images by various artists, edited by Odette England; essays/texts by various authors; 320 pages; Schilt Publishing; 2020


PS: If you haven’t heard, yet, I started a Mailing List. If you sign up, you’ll receive an email roughly every two weeks with additional writing. You can check the archives to get a feel for what these emails might include.

Glass Strenči

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Maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe we participants in the world of contemporary fine-art photography — and by extensions all other photo professionals: photoland — maybe we are the weirdos. Maybe we are the ones engaged in the equivalent of Kabuki Theater. For sure, what we do more often than not is heavily stylized (see, we have our reasons), and there always is plenty of drama (ditto). But the world at large is mostly not interested (in our white-cube exhibitions and our photobook fairs), and where it is interested we don’t manage to hold their attention for too long. Much like Kabuki Theater, our own might just be too weird to watch.

Exhibit A: “Basically, I wanted to take screwy pictures, but intentionally screwy pictures.” — Stephen Shore. Now if that’s not Kabuki Theater then I don’t know what is.

This would explain why all in all the world of contemporary photography is such an joyless affair. The joy that is being had is the joy of people trying to be intentionally joyful. You know, I like that world. Also, I’m German, so what do I know about joy? Still, I’ve peeked beyond the curtain, and I’ve seen the joy they’re having outside of photoland.

Take Stikla Strenči, for example (the book is now sold out, but I’m hoping that with this article and the — ideally — subsequent international interest in the book, they’ll reprint it). When I received the book in the mail (kindly sent to me by one of its editors, Anna Volkova), that was basically the end of my work day. The rest of the day I spent looking at the book in a very rare state of enjoyment and wonder. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re ever sent me a book, I love your book. But to be honest, I don’t love it as much as I love this one.

I had never heard of the Latvian town of Strenči before. These days, Wikipedia informs me, there appear to be 1,614 people living there. Between the First and Second World War, the time period covered in the book, there maybe were 100 less. A local photo studio operated by a variety of people produced around 13,000 pictures there, meaning that, as Kirill Kobrin points out in the afterword, it is likely that most people in the town were photographed more than once and thus are in more than one picture. Now this already is an intriguing idea, namely that every inhabitant of a town would be photographed and could thus be found in a visual archive.

What’s even more mind boggling, though, is the quality of these photographs. They all look like view-camera pictures with relatively slow materials (which would make perfect sense, given the era). Their resolution in very high, while there is the occasional motion blur of people who didn’t hold still for long enough (in this particular picture, the woman on the very left is slightly blurry). So here then are these collectors aiming for a rather fake mushroom that despite their best efforts appears to resist being plucked from the ground (please note that the book is large (it’s 13.25″ / 33.5cm tall), so you’ll have to imagine seeing this picture rather large in front of you).

Or take this picture of these young women in a creek (btw, if we take the number of 1,500 inhabitants at the time, you’re looking at 0.8% of the entire population right there). There’s no clowning around going on here, but each and every face asks to be looked at, in particular the one of the woman in front of the group. In fact, they all look a bit miffed, which has me wonder why they decided to step into the creek in the first place.

Here’s the town’s more official side, and while this must have been a serious affair, the seriousness translates only in parts. To be honest, the whole scene strikes me as a bit ridiculous (that little table?), and it’s that being ridiculous that has me think of my own times’ official events. Given how grim these times currently are, maybe the realization that we’re being made part of essentially a circus helps us get closer to a better understanding of what’s going on. After all, a circus only exists because there’s an audience for it, doesn’t it? And it’s just a bit too easy to say that we’re all completely unwilling participants.

I don’t know the story behind this picture, but I wish these two were my grandparants (or great grandparents) instead of the ones I actually had.

I could go on. Of course, you might wonder how showing photographs from a book and briefly writing about them is a critical review. But then if I were to use the criteria that work so well in the world of my Kabuki Theater and applied them here — what exactly would I be gaining from that? I’m not sure.

To use Stephen Shore’s term, most of the photographs in the book are “screwy” in a variety of ways. But they’re all great not because they’re “intentionally screwy” (that idea makes no sense once you start thinking about it), but because someone wasn’t trying to make something “screwy” while clearly not being aware of and/or not caring for the kinds of conventions that have created a creative straight jacket for Mr Shore and the rest of photoland. And that makes for great photography.

All too often, I run into photographers who need to really think about their next picture, who need to agonize over whether their idea might work or not (oh, the horror, when it doesn’t work!) — instead of going out to simply make it, consequences be damned. The photographers in this little Latvian town didn’t have the luxury to think about this. Civic events were to be photographed. People wanted to have their portraits taken (with masks — why not?). There was life, and that life demanded to be captured in pictures. And the results are nothing short of amazing, at least in this edit produced by Anna Volkova and Vladimir Svetlov.

One thing I know for sure: any time I’m feeling down on photoland and the sheer tedium of its Kabuki Theater I’ll pull out this book, to look at photographs that remind me of what a truly wonderful and joyful medium photography can be. This really is one of the best photobooks I’ve seen in a long time.

Very highly recommended.

Glass Strenči; photographs by various artists; edited by Anna Volkova and Vladimir Svetlow; essay by Kirill Kobrin; 204 pages; Talka; 2019

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