A Life With Pictures: Yurie Nagashima’s Self-Portraits

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Photography’s emancipatory power is understood best by those who use the medium to strive for a more just, equal society. There are two aspects to this power, which now have become firmly entwined. There is the power to be seen not as others see you, but rather as you see yourself. And there is the power to create the photographs yourself.

Very early in the history of photography, Frederick Douglass recognized and used the medium’s emancipatory power. He sat for over 100 photographic-portrait sessions at a time when the production of such pictures was a lot more of an endeavour than it is today. Douglass wanted a picture of his to look the way he saw himself. This was something only the camera could offer — engravers and painters inevitably distorted the way he looked: “Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy.” (here quoted from Ernst van Alphen, Failed Images: Photography and Its Counter-Practices, Valiz, 2018, p. 70 — please refer to the book for details)

Van Alphen writes: “Douglass suggests that posing for a portrait performatively produces dignity. The image is not seen in terms of its likeness to the sitter, but as actively producing a truth about the sitter that results from his posing and other aesthetic elements of the image.” (ibid., p. 71; my emphasis) It is this very idea, the production of a truth about a sitter that is not dictated by anyone other than the sitter her or himself, that should be seen as the driving force behind self-portraiture.

It’s instructive to apply this idea to a number of well-known bodies of work that center on the idea of family (whether literally or somewhat metaphorically). Both LaToya Ruby Frazier and Nan Goldin included photographs of themselves in The Notion of Family and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, respectively. In both cases, these photographs heighten the work in incredible ways. In contrast, in Larry Sultan‘s Pictures From Home or Doug Dubois… all the days and nights, the photographers decided to remain behind their cameras: beyond dealing with basic family problems (that, let’s face it, we all have), neither Sultan nor Dubois had anything to battle with. For them, there was no need to employ photography’s emancipatory power.

The fact that the so-called selfie is so maligned in the work of photography stems not from what it actually is: a type of self-portrait. Instead, maligning the selfie ultimately is a power play by those engaged in it, especially when it’s done by someone who is a photographer: someone might have no problem with defining another person through a portrait they take of them, to express their own artistic sensibility. But when people photograph themselves, to share the picture, then that’s merely an expression of narcissism. How does this compute?

However much (actually little) I might have in common with so-called influencers who share selfies of themselves on social media, to deny that their endeavour is focused on asserting their power strikes me as possibly the worst possible approach.

I might have problems with the power in question, especially since it often ties in very deeply with consumerism. But the question should not be: why are these people so narcissistic? Instead, we should ask: why have we created a society where for many people an expression of power, an assertion of one’s self, is tied to consumerism? Have we, in other words, put too much emphasis on consumerism, while neglecting so many other aspects of what might constitute a meaningful life?

Asking this question leads us away from photography. But how good is talking about photography when all we do is to talk about the pictures and their makers as if all those connections to the world at large didn’t exist? Do we want photoland to be that solipsistic?

Yurie Nagashima — Rendez Vous (1994) from the series “Myself”

Another interesting comparison is provided by Masahisa Fukase‘s Kazoku [Family] and Yurie Nagashima‘s book of the same title (Korinsha Press, Kyoto, 1998; unfortunately, it is long out of print). In both cases, the artists appear alongside their families. But Fukase’s at times overly cynical photographic nihilism and his being a man in a very misogynistic society prevented him from understanding the emancipatory power of his medium: he had no need for it. The complete opposite is true for Nagashima. It is exactly the emancipatory power a camera can grant those who know how to use it that enabled her to powerfully talk about her own family dynamics.

Another absolutely thrilling example of how Nagashima uses the camera’s power is provided by Self-Portraits, a newly released collection of photographs. At the occasion of her retrospective at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in 2017, the photographs were shown as a 30 minute slide show with more than 600 images, spanning 24 years (1992-2016). In the book, they are distilled down to a smaller number, presented chronologically.

The earliest photograph shows a young, serious looking backpacker, her face turned to the camera, while the rest of her body is ready to walk off onto some trip. The following photographs employ a variety of approaches to the picture making that continues throughout the book: pictures of reflections in mirrors, pictures of the artist’s shadow, pictures that either used a camera’s self timer or cable release.

There’s a break from black and white to colour, and immediately, the photographs become more deliberate — deliberate in the sense that the artist appears to have started focusing on her intent. A lot of the posing now adopts conventions (if that’s the word to use) that culturally have become established as the ways young women are supposed to be photographed: as sex objects, offering themselves up to male viewers.

The very obvious control that Nagashima exerts over the photographs manages to have the viewer not fall into the trap of seeing a sex object but, instead, to think of the fact that what is presented is a convention, a convention that reduces half of the population to photographic passivity, to define them through the eyes of the other half (the sexualized male gaze).

The variety of the photographs also helps to drive home the point that what the viewer is looking at is a young woman taking back control. It is as if she was taunting viewers — “Hey, isn’t this what you want me to look like?” — while at the same time offering her own counterpoints, such as when lying on the floor of her apartment while being on the phone (possibly with a friend, as the pictures makes the viewer think).

Yurie Nagashima — Self-portrait with R and my mom (2002)

And then there are the iconic photographs, which somehow don’t even stand out that much in the book (such as the tank-girl picture). It’s testament to the photographer’s vision that everything fits together so tightly, that everything speaks so strongly of that main concern: her confrontation of a sexist society, using sexist photographs of herself just as much as pictures we could call punk ones (a Riot grrrl approach in photographs).

At some stage, the punk photographs take over, to eventually fall away, too. This is another break. Now, the viewer gets to see the first larger series of photographs that aren’t relying on some convention, whether sexist or punk. Instead, we see a young woman looking to define herself on her own terms. This is not to imply that the punk approach wasn’t her own. But it’s one thing to define oneself through a subculture, and it’s quite another doing so on one’s own terms.

And then that all ends, because there is a baby. There’s the iconic “fuck you” photograph Nagashima took while being very pregnant. Right after, there’s the baby, at first lying at the artist’s feet and then in her arms. Everything changes so much when there’s a baby. I wouldn’t know because I never had one, but here I can see it, in these pictures. Every picture now has the young son it, and every picture is about that particular relationship.

We see the young boy grow slowly, and we see the photographer making work that is as much about herself as it is about this other human being that, we notice, is always there. Young children require so much time. But the boy keeps growing, and ultimately, at a certain age, he drops from the pictures, and the artist focuses on only herself again.

When I wrote earlier about photography’s emancipatory power, that idea becomes very clear and apparent from this book. It is important to realize how broad that power can actually be. Different phases in the life of Yurie Nagashima played out very differently in the photographs. For example, the early rebellion against a sexist society gave way to an attempt to understand the role of the mother.

If you’re a member of the Japanese society, there is much to rebel against (assuming you’re the rebellious type). But I think that what is on view here will easily resonate outside of Japan, because it’s not like many other societies have reached a stage of complete equality for all its members (I actually can’t think of too many).

Yurie Nagashima — Untitled (2013) From the series “Vous me maquillez”

Looking at these photographs as a man (who grew up in a different society), I still feel a sense of kinship with an artist who is rebelling against conventions and restrictions put onto her. At the same time, I realize that the conventions and restrictions I reject are different — much smaller — than the ones Yurie Nagashima had to battle. I believe this is where photography’s emancipatory power has much to offer even for those for whom the camera does not offer that option (in a Western context, this would be heterosexual white men).

After all, true emancipation doesn’t just mean that those confined to a lesser status finally are granted the same rights de facto. True emancipation also means that those who already enjoy those rights come to a deeper understanding what it’s like not to have these rights and to realize the sheer injustice of that. It’s not a zero-sum game.

In other words, while certain members of photoland simply don’t have access to the photography’s emancipatory power, they still can benefit from it if — and only if — they’re willing to have a hard look. You can learn a lot about yourself from seeing another person’s struggle if you realize that you don’t have to deal with that struggle: examine your privilege. Realize that there exists an opportunity for growth, for becoming a better person. Again, it’s not a zero-sum game.

At the same time, the fact that a camera has emancipatory power for some people points at the fact that operating a camera means exerting power, possibly exerting control over someone. We still have to engage with this fact much more critically and deeply in photoland.

In 1996, Japanese art critic Kotaro Iizawa published a book with photographs by Yurie Nagashima and a number of her peers that presented their work as nothing but the kind of shallow photographs girls make (compare this with the kinds of pronouncements you can find in photoland about photography on social media…). If you find yourself objecting to the word “girl”, that’s the critic’s word choice when he labeled the photographs as onnanoko shashin (onnanoko is Japanese for girl(s), shashin is photograph(s)). In light of the preceding it should be clear how insulting this must have been for Nagashima: photographs that were intended as a criticism of a sexist male-centric society were used by a male critic to make a sexist case.

It’s now up to us to do better and to see and appreciate all the power contained in these photographs.

Highly recommended.

Self-Portraits; photographs by Yurie Nagashima; text and conversation with Nagashima by Lesley A. Martin; 172 pages; Dashwood Books; 2020

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Amoral Pictures

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I’ve given up on trying to understand the motivations of those German men who stormed across their country’s borders in the late 1930s and early 1940s, to invade Poland, Belgium, France, the Soviet Union, and many other countries. Given two of these men were my grandfathers, I tried for a long time. Why would they do such a thing? Why would they allow themselves to be small cogs in a machine designed for mass murder?

The search in my family’s history has not resulted in much, if any insight. The code of silence and denial was not to be broken. In all likelihood, these two men were ordinary men — much like the majority of the other soldiers (of course, I owe this term to Christopher Browning). They were following orders, and they might have told themselves that they were fighting for their country — but not for the Nazi leadership (which essentially was West Germany’s foundational lie).

It would be much more comforting to learn that all of these men were evil monsters (as some clearly were). Then, we could detest them, and we could try hard not to be like them. But if they were ordinary men that path is not available.

I’m an ordinary man — much like my grandfathers probably were. Our sharing the same trait only serves to open up an abyss between us that I have no hope of crossing in my life time.

So all I’m left with are the facts. The facts are: my maternal grandfather was shot to pieces the day his wife gave birth to their fourth child, somewhere near what is now St. Petersburg. My paternal grandfather survived the war physically but not mentally. Afflicted with what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder he eventually ended up in a pauper’s grave, disowned by the very family he had abandoned earlier.

“So it goes.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Ordinary men (and women) will easily perform a lot of actions that are not ordinary at all, once they’re being put into a uniform, provided with a gun, and given a training that teaches them that their uniform and gun and the authorities behind them amount to a license to kill other people with impunity — especially if those other people happen to belong to a group of people who are openly or tacitly deemed inferior.

The casual brutality with which Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd neck, to slowly kill him while ignoring the defenseless man’s pleas –that’s so very much in line with the casual brutality that many of the ordinary men of my grandfathers’ generation meted out all over Europe, but especially in the eastern parts.

What has always disturbed me the most about this is the casualness more than the brutality. Like I said, I can understand brutality a lot better if it comes from psychopaths (to the extent that there is something to understand; and obviously, in no way do I condone brutality). But its application in a casual manner by people who should know better, by people whose upbringing and possibly religion should have taught them the value of compassion, of empathy, of the fact that “all [persons] are created equal” (allow me to substitute the word “men” from the declaration of independence with a word that is a lot more universal) — that leaves me speechless, facing the abyss I spoke of before.

Did my grandfathers know better? I don’t know. I almost wish they didn’t because at least then they’d be monsters who deserved their fate. This wouldn’t help much with the generational trauma they passed down. But at least it would make it easier not trying to understand them.

Occam’s Razor tells me that for any given problem the simplest explanation is the one to pick. So I would have to assume that what my grandfather took part in and witnessed is very much along the lines of what has just been published as Das Auge des Krieges [The Eye of War] by Buchkunst Berlin. The photographs in the book were taken by a certain Dieter Keller, a man from a privileged background who in some capacity spent the majority of his life in the world of art.

Keller’s photographic vision had been shaped by his friendships with many New Objectivity/Bauhaus artists, including most prominently Oskar Schlemmer (whose work was included in the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition). This fact had me immediately wonder about Keller: so here he was, wearing the uniform of the regime that had suppressed and harassed his closest art friends… what did he think about that?

How can you fight for a regime that has done everything in its power to denigrate everything you believe in? (This is assuming that Keller believed in the value of the art made by his friends.)

The Wehrmacht employed its own propaganda/war photographers (remember, Das Boot tells the story of a German submarine through the eyes of one), but anyone else was not allowed to take photographs. My memory tells me that disallowing photography was not immediate, but for sure it was in place by the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union (unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate the details). So Keller’s photography was a subversive act.

But are the pictures?

This is almost an impossible question to ask, let alone to answer, because what photograph could live up to that expectation? The only ones I can think of are the Auschwitz Sonderkommando photographs, whose existence themselves triggered enormous debate (see Susie Linfield‘s The Cruel Radiance, chapter 3).

Keller’s photographs don’t look like the Sonderkommando ones. Keller’s were taken with a perpetrator’s eyes, and they were taken with that New Objectivity background, which manages to aestheticize everything. They’re so casual, so detached — unlike the Sonderkommando’s view from inside the chambers.

It’s easy to be detached and casual when it’s you walking around with a gun, isn’t it? But is it easy to be detached and casual when you’re standing in front of someone’s home set on fire by the people around you?

If anyone might have an answer about being detached and casual while cruelly taking a life if would be Derek Chauvin.  I have an inkling what he might say. He was, I’m thinking he’d say, just following orders. That, after all, was also all those Nazi soldiers’ “excuse.”

Maybe I’m passing too much judgment onto Keller — much like I possibly did with my grandfathers. I have no way of knowing how he felt or what he thought. After all, under stress or duress, some people become very calm. Or maybe photographing the pictures the way he did came so easily to Keller than their outcome was almost automatic.

But everything becoming such a good picture — and by that I mean its composition and aesthetic, not its content — disturbs me. Is this what ordinary people can do? Or will do? When faced with the most horrendous of circumstances, will they simply switch into their “auto” mode and do what they know they can do?

I suppose it is. And, again, that terrifies me. The photographs in Das Auge des Krieges [The Eye of War] look like they were made to look like good pictures, regardless of what they showed, whether it’s a woman’s corpse, a young malnourished child, a horse, foot prints in the snow, a burning house, a burned foot that has become detached from the rest of the body. It’s just all very casual, very restrained.

There is a lesson here, and I don’t know what it is teaching me. I only know that now there are even more questions for me. I’m so glad my grandfathers didn’t have cameras, because I shudder to think they might have taken these kinds of pictures.

There’s no humanity in these pictures. They’re completely amoral. That’s why they deserve to be seen widely: even though they were taken by a man who died 35 years ago they teach us something about ourselves.

Recommended (with a very heavy heart).

Das Auge des Krieges [The Eye of War]; photographs by Dieter Keller; essays by Adam Broomberg and Xiaofu Wang, Dr. Norbert Moos; 118 pages; Buchkunst Berlin, 2020

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The Print, the book, the screen

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Photographs are strange entities. Much like a chameleon can change the colour of its skin, based on their environment photographs can change some of their properties, while essentially still keeping their essence. Crucially, for the most part a photograph’s meaning derives from its use and context and from what a viewer might bring to it.

On their own, photographs have no meanings. Actually, even to talk about photographs “on their own” makes very little sense. We always see photographs in some context. We never see photographs outside of any context. One could argue that latent photographs exist “on their own”. But here, I don’t want to deal with the metaphysics of photography.

A different way of expressing the above would be to say that when we see photographs, we always see them tied to some carrier — however strongly or loosely — and surrounded by something. This is such an obvious statement that most photographers don’t think about it much. However, it deserves to not only be thought about, it actually needs to be understood.

The three carriers of a photograph are the photographic print, the book, and the screen. Approaching photographs this way simplifies things a little bit. But it’s straightforward to subsume another form that seemingly isn’t covered by these three modes into one of them (a picture in a newspaper would fall under “book” — after all, a newspaper is a form of book, a poster is a form of print, etc.).

Awoiska van der Molen — Fukushima, 2017; photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

If you think about it, the traditional photographic print is an anomaly. With inkjet printers being ubiquitous, the distinction between a photograph printed in a book or on some piece of paper with an inkjet printer isn’t that massive. But the history of the medium set up our thinking about photographs in ways that now often seem counterintuitive (and often pretty useless):  historically, there first were prints and then, decades later, there were way to mass produce photographs using ink. Actually, there first were objects that weren’t reproducible, then came prints.

So the history of photography isn’t necessarily the best guide for considerations of what form a picture might take, because it started out with extremely limited ways of producing photographs. This fact wouldn’t be so bad if something else hadn’t happened: over time people tried to make their thinking around new technologies conform to the limited earlier versions — instead of the other way around.

For example, once digital photography had become widely established, there were a lot of things you could do easily that in the analogue world were very difficult and that often carried negative connotations. A good approach would have been to simply accept the fact that digital photographs can be “manipulated” easily and in a large variety of ways — instead of sticking with photographic orthodoxy and worrying about the supposed ill effects of manipulation.

Awoiska van der Molen — Fukushima 2017; detail of the print’s surface; photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

In vast parts of photoland, the print is still being treated as this magical entity that for a lot of practitioners is the expression of what a photograph ought to look like. You can do that. But you’re also going to simply miss out on what photography’s other forms have to offer.

(Please note that in the following, I’ll be focusing on art photography. When you see the word “photography”, you will always want to add “art” in front of it.)

Obviously, it doesn’t help that the commercial world of photography — galleries and collectors — just love the idea of the unique object. If it’s not fully unique (most photographs simply aren’t — they can be made in any number), then they will have to be artificially limited: editions.

In the end, Gallerists don’t sell photographs, they sell an object that has an aura — to use Walter Benjamin’s term, and for most photographs (there are exceptions), the aura solely derives from the edition number. (Another way to describe what gallerists do would be to say they sell decorations that come with a form of prestige.)

The commerce-based world of photography exaggerates the aura even further by showing such photographs in often very expensive frames in very large spaces whose walls have been painted white. Galleries try very hard to look like museums (and not like the showrooms that actually are), because by construction (in our society) a museum comes with certain ideas attached: careful curation and a larger cultural prestige.

Obviously, both of these aspects are hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but that’s a different discussion. (In reality, museums have now become just some other part of the world of art commerce).

But you might wonder why of all forms of the print, it’s the most elitist one — the framed print in a frame in a white cube — that is the go-to guide for most artists. Why can’t posters be made and sold cheaply? Why can’t such posters be shown in more democratic settings? There are a lot of options for prints that aren’t explored at all — which says a lot about the world of photography and its inherent elitism.

Partial installation view of two of Awoiska van der Molen’s photographs at Pier 24; photograph by Pier 24

The complete opposite mode is provided by the screen, wherever it might exist. Your screen doesn’t have much, if any prestige. For sure there’s no careful curation when you scroll through, let’s say, your Instagram feed. So a photograph on a screen has no aura. It shows up for some period of time, however long or usually short this might be, and then it disappears.

Given the preceding it’s hardly surprising that most artists don’t take the screen seriously. There still are plenty of practitioners who’ll proudly proclaim they’re not on Instagram simply because — and this part is implied but not said out loud — that’s for the hoi polloi.

The book lives somewhere in between these two. In some ways, it’s similar to the photographic print — it’s literally printed, so there is an object. In other ways, it’s a lot closer to the screen, especially given its potential to exist in very large numbers.

The funny thing about books is that they can have an aura, even though they’re mass produced. That aura is being generated by a variety of factors — including its owner’s actions or even just the fact that there is or was an owner (maybe you own a book that you inherited from a loved one: it’s the same book that a lot of other people own, but for you, it’s special).

To sum up where we are so far: Photographs have no meaning on their own. They take on some meaning through the way they are produced and used. They also take on a value or aura based on what carrier they appear on. That value can comprise a lot of factors. In the world of photography, the value is almost entirely based on commerce and on a generally unspoken and widely shared sense of elitism.

Whatever you make of the preceding, it seems clear that if you want to show your photographs to someone, you will have to think about how to do that. It’s tempting to think about this as merely a presentation problem. But the reality is a lot more complex.

Detail view of Awoiska van der Molen — Sequester (FW: Books, 2014); photograph by Michael Vahrenwald, taken from Colberg — Understanding Photobooks (Focal Press, 2016)

Realistically speaking, you will want to use all three forms. That way, you can make sure your work will be as widely seen as possible. Even if you don’t want to make a photobook, some magazine might ask you for pictures so they can write you up, and then you have to think about that. Or maybe you’re really a book person, but then some curator gets in touch and says something like “Hey, I really like this book you made, and I’d love to show your work in this festival I was asked to curate.” Or someone gets in touch and says they want to show your work on their widely read journal, which, however, only exists as a website (it’s 2020).

You can always say “no, thanks, I don’t want to show my work in any other form other than what I envisioned”. In that case, people will very quickly note that you’re difficult to work with, so they will stop asking. But most photographers will embrace the challenge and produce something that can work.

Ideally, though, this is something you think about while you’re making the work: What am I trying to communicate? In what form should this exist? What is the desired context that I am going to place this work in? How could this work function in a different context?

Based on my own observations, most artists spend a lot of time thinking about only one of the three photographic modes, while either ignoring the other two or treating them like unpleasant afterthoughts. I think that’s a big mistake.

Most artists will also only contemplate the “serious” photobook (ask people what they think about “zines” and watch their faces) and the white-cube gallery. I personally think that’s another big mistake — unless you’re happy of existing in very small stratified world, with a very small audience and very few people who spend money.

The key here is not to agree with me. If that’s your world, I think that’s great (for you). But at the very least you ought to ask yourself why you think your work should only exist there — and not in other contexts.

Surface detail of page in Awoiska van der Molen — The Living Mountain (FW: Books, 2020); photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

If you’re really into your darkroom prints, you still want to think about how your photographs could be presented in a book or on a screen. The reality is that the number of people who can afford your prints is very, very small — unlike, possibly, the number of people who enjoy looking at them.

If you’re really into photobooks, you still want to think about what a photographic print might look like, given that a festival or museum might want to show them.

Now, as a book maker, you could just tell them to show the book. In 999 cases out of 1,000, this would be the absolute worst idea I could think of . A book is not a gallery (or museum), and a gallery is not a book. And how would the screen even fit into this?

Peter PuklusHandbook to the Stars provides an example where showing books in a gallery space actually worked. But in this case, the books become sculptural. And you don’t look at them as books but rather as elements of an installation. So the experiences of looking at the book in your lap and of looking at the installation are not the same at all.

Installation view of Awoiska van der Molen’s photographs at MMK Frankfurt; photograph by Axel Schneider

The experience in a gallery will always be very different than the experience you’ll have with a book, and that in turn is very different than the experience you might have with any number of screens (a phone screen is very different than a desktop screen — size wise, but also in terms of how we physically engage with them).

A gallery provides a semi-public experience, whereas a book is completely private. Regardless of however many copies there are of the book, the one you’ll be holding in your lap (or looking at on your table) is your book. It might not have been made for you alone. But if it’s done well, it will make you think that. Why would you take this crucial aspect of the book away from the book?

A screen also is private, but it typically doesn’t feel as if if were made for you. In a year or two, you’ll be trading in the phone you’re holding anyway, so it’s unlikely you’ll be as attached to it as to a book.

Another way to approach the topic would be to ask: why would anyone go to a gallery to look at books (unless it’s a show about books, and that’s not what I’m talking about here.)? What’s the point of that?  It’s a complete confusion of experiences.

So you really want to think about what you put into these different entities — print, book, screen, and how you can do it well. “Well” here means: fully adapted to the medium at hand, making most of its inherent strengths — while taking good care of its weaknesses. And all of that will have to be in service of your work.

You can pick one of them as the desired way to show your photographs (it’s possible, sometimes even likely that the work will dictate its ideal way of presentation). But like I wrote above you really have to be able to cover the other two well.

Here’s the thing: everybody can relatively easily spot a shitty print or a badly made book or a lousy website. It’s like graphic design: even if you wouldn’t know how to do it well, you can see when it’s not done well.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a gallery with shitty prints and walked straight back out, how many times I’ve picked up a badly made book and put it straight back on the table, visited a badly made website and closed the browser tab right away. It’s not that I think that “life’s too short” (it is, but that’s not a good approach for criticism).

But why should I look at something that you didn’t put the care into that the work might have demanded, that the work might have required? If you don’t care about your pictures, why would you expect anyone else to?

Awoiska van der Molen — Sequester (FW: Books, 2014); photograph by Michael Vahrenwald, taken from Colberg — Understanding Photobooks (Focal Press, 2016)

I will remember the occasions when I walked into a gallery and was just floored by the beauty of what was on display — the photographs and the production. The same is true for books, and there are even some websites that are absolutely marvelous. As a critic that’s what I’m looking for: photography that has been provided with the care it required, given its intended context and desired meaning.

Intended context and desired meaning are absolutely crucial. Otherwise, you risk falling into the production-fetish trap, where the work becomes more about what a crafty darkroom printer you are or how many layers of ink your book printer used than the actual end result itself (screen presentation still changes much too rapidly to assign one such production fetish — there always is one, but the year after, there probably is another one).

Regardless of where you’ll be coming from, there will be two main challenges: first, how can you produce the main expression of your work well, whether it’s the photographic print, the book, or whatever else? And second, how can you translate that expression into the other two modes, knowing full well that a one-to-one translation almost always is impossible?

The third challenge might be: can you think of ways of showing your work outside of the photobook (sold at photobook fairs) or expensive prints (sold in white-cube galleries)? Based on my experience teaching for a decade, I don’t expect many artists to engage with that challenge.

If your work exists as silver-gelatin prints that you spend a lot of time on in your darkroom, the images will simply never look the same in a book. A book layers ink on paper. The surfaces will look very different, and the same picture simply will not look the same. The obvious question is: why would the two modes have to look exactly identical? That’s a dogmatic approach that too often poses an impossible problem to solve.

It might help to consider the case of literature: a book in its original language isn’t the same as a translated one. In fact, there are different schools of translation, and as far as I understand it, the jury is still out what exactly is meant by the term ” a good translation”. Is it a translation that stays as close as possible to the original, even if the two languages operate quite differently? Or is it a translation that stays close to the spirit of the book, while making good use of the language it’s translated into?

How do you translate what a silver-gelatin print looks like into something that exists in a book (ink on paper)? A exact one-to-one translation is impossible (unless you want to paste in prints into a book). So you will have to go for something that expresses the spirit of the work — and that realization will then not only help you make a good book, it will also inform you more deeply about the work itself.

Awoiska van der Molen — The Living Mountain (FW: Books, 2020); photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Awoiska van der Molen very kindly provided pictures of the different modes of presentation she has been using for her work. The main focus of her work is centered on analogue prints, many of which are rather large. But she has also made books with Dutch publisher, designer, and production expert Hans Gremmen.

I don’t know to what extent the two would agree with my description of the prints and books. But I’d argue that they have completely broken the idea of the one-to-one correspondence, to instead have the books bring out the qualities of the photographs in their own unique ways. The end result are very different, but they’re very beautiful.

This collaboration between a photographer and publisher is a very good example of how as a photographer, you don’t have to solve all the problems on your own. Much like how many photographers employ other people to print work in their studio, you could work with a publisher who will help you with the translation of your photographs into the form of the book.

The key is that you know what the work should look like (and why). And then you have to be willing and able to accept that the form might stray far from the probably rather simplistic ideas you had yourself.

So you don’t have to come up with all the answers for the various problems presented to you. Consult with experts in those areas where you’re lost at sea. But for sure understand your own work — and allow it to live outside of your own personal comfort zone.

One final thought: I have the feeling that the screen has so far been underutilized. Sure, many artists have nice websites. But more often than not, they’re electronic lookbooks. As is demonstrated by the Imperial Courts site (billed as a “web documentary by [photographer] Dana Lixenberg and Eefje Blankevoort”), more definitely is possible.

I’m indebted to Awoiska van der Molen for allowing me to show her work as an example and for taking some of the photographs just for this occasion — thank you!

Also, I’ve set up a tip jar. If you’ve enjoyed this article (or site), feel free to leave a tip to support my work. Thank you!

Deveonte Joseph and the Class of 2020

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A lot has been said and written about the civil unrest that has gripped the United States at this particular moment in time, much of it smarter than anything I can hope to aspire to. But maybe I can contribute a little by giving my impressions concerning photography and its larger implications, singling out one particular photograph.

(To be honest, I don’t know if I have succeeded in expressing my thinking clearly with the following. Sometimes, what is so clear to me in my mind at the same time is very hard to be clearly put into words.)

The list of names of African-American citizens murdered in cold blood by those who drive around in cars that often spot the slogan “to protect and serve” is long. Its length is made a lot more worse by the fact that such murders usually end in an acquittal in court — assuming there even is a court case after police departments’ “internal investigations”.

It’s important to realize that for many of those on that list there isn’t just a name. There also is a video taken by someone who happened to be on the scene. We have been able to watch the murders of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and many others with our own eyes. We’ve heard their voices as they were killed: “I can’t breathe!” We’ve heard how they pleaded for their lives, which were then callously taken away.

These videos — and associated still photographs — make the talking point that trust in images has been eroded by digital media look silly. We can see with our own eyes! And we take the veracity of these images over the press statements released by police departments — and mayors who, more often than not, side with the police, regardless of what political party they belong to (systemic police violence in the US has broad bipartisan support).

A brief aside: there is an article yet to be written about how the United States’ recent history has been understood and defined through relatively short film clips, clips that for better or worse have become integral parts of the public’s visual culture. The video showing the murder of George Floyd has now been added to this library (if we want to call it that), to exist alongside those of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moment Neil Armstrong descended from his capsule onto the moon, and others.

Once protesters flooded America’s streets to yet again demand change, to once again assert the fact that Black Lives Matter, hoping that this time there will in fact be a change, a large number of additional images arrived, videos and still photographs from the many demonstrations. I was going to write about those pictures, but John Edwin Mason just did so in a stellar article that for sure you’ll want to read (if you haven’t done so already).

In his article he covered the photograph of Deveonte Joseph, taken in Minneapolis by Nathan Aguirre. The photograph was also discussed by in a very good article by Connie Wang that includes a lot of details. Read it.

This particular photograph stopped me in my track when I came across it. I think it’s extraordinary, and I feel the need to tell you why.

In their articles, Mason and Wang discuss a number of photographs made by news photographers or photojournalists. In particular, Mason discusses how these pictures work and why some of them feel problematic, despite the fact that they are all very good pictures.

Photography made of protests have a long history, and so have the various categories they can be put into, the types of things or events they show, and how they do that. Often, it is simple to project readings onto such photographs that can run counter the ideas of the actual protests.

Typically, the most dramatic pictures, the ones showing the looting or some fire burning somewhere, are being picked by editors to accompany articles about protests. I’ll have to admit that I’m weary of protest photographs because of this dramatization. Aguirre’s photograph was so interesting and mesmerizing to me because not only is it such a perfect picture, it also completely stays away from any dramatization.

In fact, it manages to be two types of pictures at the same time. When I look at this photograph, I see two stories — that typically employ very different photographic approaches — come together as one. I see protest photography, and I see the type of portrait photography done at the occasion of graduation ceremonies.

This observation itself is very obvious: that’s what this looks like. But this is not something we see running through the history of protest photography. This is not your standard news/photojournalistic ware. It’s more than that. It is a photograph of an event as much as a photograph that speaks about the larger issue.

In my mind, there’s a duckrabbit effect going on. One moment, I see a photograph of a protester. The next moment I see a young man who like all of his peers was robbed of the graduation that I’m sure he had been looking forward to for a long time. These two aspects connect, in much the same way as there is civil unrest in the US while there also is a pandemic raging (the combination, one must fear, will lead to explosion of new Covid-19 cases).

Deveonte Joseph has been robbed twice. All of his white peers were robbed of their graduation ceremonies, of being in the same room together with proud family members, to receive their well earned diplomas. The same is true for all students who are people of colour (poc).

But much like his poc peers this young black man has already been robbed of enjoying the same rights, the same privileges that his white peers get to enjoy (often without even noticing). On paper, he has the same rights, but in actuality that’s not the case — if it were so there wouldn’t be huge protests. In this photograph, he stands in for all other people of colour in this country, whether they’re students or older.

Back in (then West) Germany I didn’t graduate from high school wearing cap and gown. I have to become accustomed to their role in the United States, a role that has very little to do with the associations I originally made based on German history (where such caps and gowns had been removed to break with traditions that had not served the country well).

I don’t know to what extent Americans would see it this way (I never asked), but I see this outfit as a promise to those wearing it: you not only succeeded with your studies, you also have all the opportunities that we as a society can offer you.

Seen that way, cap and gown here remind us of the fact that all students graduate with dreams of making a good life: of going to college, getting a good job, etc. Historically speaking, we know that the promise I spoke of is usually very hollow if you’re a person of colour. With the protest background in the picture, cap and gown here ask us to consider whether we want the promise to remain hollow.

So this is a picture or a particular moment in time, a young black man in an American city in the middle of a civil unrest. But it also is a picture about the fact that behind all the names in the news, the names of all those black men and women killed by the police, there were all those aspirations and dreams killed with them.

When I first saw this picture, I felt that by posing for this picture, Deveonte Joseph was imploring us to think of the dreams and aspirations every human being has, regardless of the colour of their skin. For me, his cap and gown are the equivalent of the “I am a Man” signs held by protesters in 1968. James Douglas, a sanitation worker, spelled it out: “we were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.”

The same dignity and the same courtesy, the same rights — the call for that is in this pictures itself, much like it is the protesters’ demand.

Nathan Aguirre’s photograph of Deveon Joseph is a call for a just society that finally fulfills the promises made to all of its members.

There is a GoFundMe fundraiser for Deveonte Joseph, intended to help this young man with his next steps. I hope you’ll consider chipping in.

Oliver Chanarin’s Male Gaze

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It’s always a sorry sight when a well known artist jumps the shark (to borrow that expression from popular culture). It’s particularly disheartening to see someone do it who based on her or his earlier work you would have thought should know a lot better. Yet here we are, being presented with Oliver Chanarin’s photographs of his partner, Fiona Jane Burgess, the mother of their two children (various of the pictures can also be found on Instagram).

(If you want to see the photographs in question, please view them using the links provided above. My not showing them here will become clear in light of the following.)

I have long been an admirer of most of the work Chanarin has produced with his artistic partner Adam Broomberg (see their joint site here). A lot of their work is very political and informed by deep convictions. For example, regardless of the criticism leveled at The Day That Nobody Died, the piece is a searing indictment of the UK’s government and its muzzling of the press during the war in Afghanistan. It is offensive, and through it being offensive, it asks of the viewers to consider why they’re not considering the much larger offense, the one committed by the government.  Holy Bible also is pretty spectacular.

Consequently, I approached Chanarin’s new work with some expectations. The pictures can be described in a basic, straightforward manner: they show a young woman’s body being inspected, being scrutinized photographically from a large variety of angles. The end goal, we are told, consists of 640 such pictures (I’m not making this up), the reason being that famed German photographer August Sander (one of whose photographs served as inspiration for the endeavour) took that many pictures for his portrait of the German people between 1920 and 1930. This then is supposed to be “an “extended portrait”, “a daily and obsessive interrogation of the self” (quoted from the piece).

I’ll have to admit that one of the two major problems I have is the amount of verbiage that Chanarin is pouring onto the pictures. That verbiage isn’t entirely out of character for this particular artist, but here it does absolutely nothing to shed any further light on the pictures in question.

If we take the verbiage at face value (and why wouldn’t we, at least initially), we run into the problem that to connect Sander’s ambitions and Chanarin’s results in a colossal mismatch. Sander did take the one picture that is being used as inspiration, a portrait of Helene Abelen, whose actual title, however, is Painter’s Wife.

The title identifies Abelen not as the person she was but rather as the appendage of the man she was married to, painter (and architect) Peter Abelen (eight years younger than the photographer, he was also photographed by Sander). Given the time the picture was made and given Sander’s idea — Abelen is made to stand in for a specific human archetype, this can be understood. But in light of the achievements of feminism in the latter half of the 20th Century, identifying a woman through her husband is rather problematic.

And the reality is that you can admire Sander’s incredible skill at producing great portraits while still rejecting various parts of their premise. There is no need to have only one of the other.

Originally, Chanarin had been wanting to do a “photographic survey of Britain,” but the pandemic got in the way. Now how or why replicating Sander’s idea, which relies on categorizing people in ways that have more than just a little bit in common with what the Nazis would later employ, is a good idea today is not that clear to me. It’s well known that Sander was not a Nazi. Still, the idea of categorizing people into types or groups or classes is something we might want to stay away from today — unless you’re a sociologist or anthropologist, in which case there exists a large set of criteria for how this can be done, given the problems created by doing so uncritically in the past.

But there wasn’t going to be such a portrait of Britain by Chanarin, given the lock down; and we might as well not talk about pictures that (maybe thankfully) don’t exist. Instead, we have the ones that do, the ones in question here. If what are being told is true (we have no reason to doubt it), the couple decided that Burgess would serve as the model for Chanarin in those moments of the day when their two sons were asleep.

I find that idea very endearing. To me it speaks of the love and respect for each other between the partners. I’m talking about the idea, though, not the pictures. Even if there are love and respect between the two, this is not coming through in the photographs. They look mostly made, set up in a studio-like setting, with the camera — and by extension we viewers — ogling the young woman’s body that more often than not is engaged in all kinds of contortions.

I suppose one could say that there is a sense of a survey going on. But where Sander sampled various members of the archetypes he had identified, to have them stand for all the other ones not photographed, Chanarin’s lens surveys the surface of Burgess’ body, which cannot stand in for anything other than itself. In essence, Sander’s approach is anthropological or maybe sociological (scientifically speaking in a very loose sense), whereas Chanarin’s is… well, what?

The only comparisons I have been able to come up with where a single woman’s body is this mercilessly exposed are either the medical field or pornography. This is not to say that these photographs are pornographic. They are not. However, they are relentless in their exposure of a woman’s body.

It is this very relentlessness — it’s almost a scanning of Burgess’ body — that I find extremely problematic (to imagine that there would be 640 such pictures…). Her body is being ogled at by the high-tech camera employed, which unforgivingly presents each and every aspect, every pore, ever dimple, every hair, everything. This very descriptiveness makes the project very male, very macho. I just cannot imagine someone other than a heterosexual male taking these photographs. By definition this is the male gaze: all viewers are made to look at this woman’s body through the eyes of a relentless male.

The following might not matter. But I will have to add that I am certain that I personally would not be able to do this. I could not use my camera to scan another person’s body, to expose them this mercilessly to the world. And for sure I couldn’t use my camera to do it to a woman’s body, knowing full well about the terrible baggage that doing so would carry from the rather shameful history of photography.

This is what has me aghast: for someone seemingly as aware of the politics of photography, I just don’t understand how this very aspect of the pictures appears to have escaped Chanarin. It’s one thing for a married couple to make pictures together in lock down while their kids are asleep. That’s for them to navigate. That’s their private pleasure. But once the pictures are being made public, are supposed to be shown at one of the most respected museums in the US (SFMOMA), they cannot but be seen against the problematic history of the male gaze, which here appears to have gone haywire.

Some of the photographs are good, even very good as individual pictures. But given they’re being brought together, they speak of something very different than the love and respect that exist between photographer and wife. They speak of the power the man with the camera has, a power the model appears to be willing to submit to. The submitting to it isn’t the problem (that’s not for me to judge anyway). The problem is the reinforcing of the idea that the female body is little more than a photographic playground for photographers who operate in the tradition of the male heterosexual gaze.

Apparently, there is some fancy display technique planned (for the exhibition at SFMOMA), which somehow is modeled on Amazon distribution centers or whatever. If I sound flippant about that aspect of the work it’s because that’s what I am. I mean, if you wanted to find out which pictures people spent most time with, just put them all up on Instagram, and count the likes! Or if you’re worried IG’s censorship will ruin your project, have someone program a dedicated website for the project.

The idea of somehow finding out which of the picture viewers will spent most time with only serves to reinforce the already massive problems of the work discussed above. After all, what exactly are we to learn from all of this? What are we to learn from knowing that, let’s say, picture number 327 is the one that ends up being looked at the most?

Somehow viewers finding their favourite (as in: most ogled at) picture of all of these photographs of a very attractive mostly naked young woman in a set of 640 photographs is going to give us some  insight into “surveillance capitalism”? Give me a break!

With the above, I don’t mean to say that certain pictures are out of bounds. To decree as much would be an attempt at censorship. That can’t be the idea. Every artist has the right to take whatever pictures they want. But before any such pictures are being made public, I very strongly believe that it’s a photographer’s responsibility to check them against what already exists in the history of photography.

For some types of photography, you’re not going to find any problems. But there are many types of photography where you have to navigate possible problems. Photojournalists and news photographers (plus their editors) are increasingly being taken to task of their portrayal of, say, Africa. In much the same fashion, a male photographer photographing a woman will have to navigate the huge problems created by the male gaze.

Chanarin’s failure to do so in his new work is most disappointing.