Alice Rose George 1944-2020

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De mortuis, a Latin saying decrees, nihil nisi bonum (Of the dead, [say] nothing but good). As if I needed to be reminded of this, remembering Alice Rose George who just left us. She was one of photoland’s many invisible hands who brought greater good to all of us.

A proud and fierce Southerner, Alice contributed all that is highly spoken of from that region — without any of that which is unspoken but all-too present. She was courteous, independent, and lively, and she knew of and acknowledged the human condition. She loved a good drink, and I have yet to meet another person able to match her incredible, yet vulnerable wit, used to great effect when telling her often marvelous stories of the people she had met and interacted with (I will not re-tell her anecdote of André Kertész encountering the work of Diane Arbus — it still makes me laugh).

Alice could make you see the beauty in a photographs that previously might have eluded you. Taste being taste, you might not end up agreeing with her regarding the overall merit of a group of pictures or book. But you had been made to see differently, finding enjoyment in the previously unenjoyable. I fondly remember our disagreements more than the agreements, given it is the former that had me realise the extent of our shared devotion to looking at and living with photographs. I’d like to think that we learned from each other, even though I’m sure that most of the learning must have happened at my end.

Alice was generous and open to new experiences in an environment that more often than not merely pays lip service to the idea. Unlike many other people I’ve met, she was just as comfortable in the company of pictures that had been deemed to belong to the canon a long time ago as when seeing photographs made by someone much younger than her and with a very different life experience. She would devote time to someone starting out, someone in need of a trained set of eyes, to help them see the way she saw, reminding us of the subtle difference in the expressions “to have time” and “to make time.”

When a group of Saudi terrorists flew airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center, Alice became instrumental in organising a communal processing of the then shared grief through exhibiting photographs, photographs taken by professionals who happened to be there as much as all those nameless others with their cameras. Here is New York, an exhibition and later book that stated: here is the multitude of all of us. We stand together. We will not be divided. A few short months later this idea was betrayed by the Bush administration.

Alice didn’t suffer fools lightly, whether in photoland or elsewhere. It shudders me to imagine her horror of seeing what the country has become under the crass real-estate developer who came out of the New York City she loved so much. Obviously, she knew the type, having lived in the city, having had jobs in the cut-throat publishing world, having worked at Magnum Photos, having dealt with wealthy art-world types. Her wit would have helped her through all of it.

Photographs don’t suffer fools lightly, either (even when they were made by them). Alice would select the good pictures out of a pile of bad ones in less time than it took me to write this sentence. A force of nature of supreme visual literacy, Alice was not “able to see”: she simply saw, making everyone feel that what they thought of an ability to be learned with difficulty was something she had been born with. Having picked the gems, however many or few she had found, she would then gently yet firmly probe their maker over her or his intentions.

Alice’s interests were not limited to photography. There was a piano in her living room; whenever we met she told me about a book she had just enjoyed, urging me to read it, too; and she wrote poetry, some of which she had published in books and magazines — this she never talked much about. What we summarise as culture or art meant a lot to her, and she saw photography as a part of it. The crassness of today’s world, the one she has now left, makes it difficult to see how believing and partaking in the value of art can make a difference. For Alice, it simply did — this might be her final lesson for us all.

Rest in peace, Alice.

Photography’s Neoliberal Realism

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Some time during this past summer, I was offered the opportunity to expand what originally had been a book review into a longer essay, to be published as part of MACK‘s DISCOURSE series. I had already planned on expanding the piece shortly after I had published it. In fact, the beginnings of what ended up as Photography’s Neoliberal Realism already existed on my computer (alongside a number of other pieces, some finished, some little more than ideas).

I have written extensively about photography, large parts of it for this site. Over the past few years, my thinking has expanded from focusing on what usually is called visual literacy to looking at photography’s superstructure: the very systems that not only maintain it, but that also shape its overall messages. In part, my interest in this has been fed and accelerated by reading writings by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer.

I have come to admire the very wide net cast by Benjamin and Kracauer more and more. They both looked a wide range of phenomena observed during the Weimar Republic, in particular its mass culture (which included photography) and how it actively and passively was tied to larger forces: the democratic republic as much as capitalism itself.

In contrast, I feel that today we look at photography as this practice that somehow manages to record what is in front of the camera without being influenced by any of the many entities it actually is completely dependent upon: the photographer’s society and culture, her or his personal background, the person or entity that hired him to take the pictures, the gallery (or publishing) system that helps her or him to sell them… The list goes on.

To insist on a photographer’s autonomy is both a feel-good exercise and an enormous deception. This is not to say that any of the entities or ideas that have a photographer take certain pictures while not taking others are bad or evil. But they can be. If they’re bad or evil, our insistence on a photographer’s autonomy cuts off a lot of discussions that could and often should be had.

Just to give one example, look at how in the area of photojournalism, it’s always the photographers who get the flak — but never the editors or the owners of the corporations that hire them. While it’s important to talk about the pictures, it’s also important to understand why and how they were taken, and why and how this person took them and not that person. Otherwise, you will not be able to fully address issues such as, for example, representation — whether it’s how how a topic is represented or who is allowed to represent whom.

If photographers are not autonomous, then the discussion of their work ought to incorporate talking about what I called the superstructure above. How do you do that, though, in particular if you only have the pictures? As Benjamin, but especially (Weimar-era) Kracauer and later Roland Barthes (Mythologies) demonstrated, you can infer a lot from pictures about the superstructure.

In a nutshell, that is the idea behind Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. In the book, I look at the work of Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky, and I argue that it can be seen as an expression of neoliberal capitalism’s core beliefs, including for example the infamous (and flawed) trickle-down theory. I could have included a large number of other photographers, but focusing on some of photoland’s biggest stars seemed like a good idea.

I had originally called the idea Capitalist Realism. While working on the book, I realised that I needed a more precise term. There already is a book by Mark Fisher with that very title (in which the term means something different than what I have in mind). But there was another, more pressing problem.

I grew up in West Germany under the country’s social market economy. Much like neoliberal capitalism, that system had relied on certain images. But these images were very different than the ones we are surrounded with now. The West German imagery was very paternalistic, which betrayed the tempering of capitalism’s forces by well-meaning people in power (obviously, the idea of a well-meaning tempering forms the core of the ideology) as much as the sexual politics at the time (people in power meant: exclusively men, except for maybe the family ministry).

West Germany’s economy was capitalist, but it was a different kind than the one we live under now. Thus, I needed to be more precise with my term to account for the differences in the two imageries. Hence the term Neoliberal Realism.

It’s not clear to me whether my biographical background is the reason why what I call Photography’s Neoliberal Realism sticks out so much to me. It might be. After all, what one is very familiar with is a lot harder to look into. Many things are simply taken for granted. In fact, I only started thinking about the imagery around West Germany’s social market economy while writing the book, realising that I had simply taken its messages for granted.

In the book I attempt to show how when you read the works by these three artists, you find expressions of neoliberal capitalist thinking expressed very clearly in the pictures. It’s all right there, hidden, so to speak, in plain sight.

After the book was published, I ran into some very interesting — and telling — reactions. Some people were openly dismissive of even looking more deeply into the work by Leibovitz. This was because, I was told, it is “just” commercial stuff anyway, the implication being that commercial photography could not possibly speak about anything other than what it depicts on a very basic level.

Other people were aghast that I had added Gursky to the mix: his work, they said, is clearly so much deeper. Well, sorry: no, it isn’t.

These reactions confirmed some of my suspicions that had me write the book in the first place: in photoland, we have established hierarchies of photographers and/or categories. One consequence of these hierarchies is that a lot of interesting discussions aren’t being held. Like I mentioned, what is there to discuss in commercial or editorial photography anyway? Quite a lot actually.

My main argument is the following: photography expresses who we think we are. If someone has a photograph made for some specific purpose, whether it’s the cover of a magazine or whatever else, there are many motivations behind that decision. Some of them are more directly tied to who or what is depicted (let’s say some magazine’s Hollywood issue). But there are larger motivations that might not even be acknowledged and that hint at larger beliefs or ideologies. Much like Benjamin, Kracauer, and Barthes did, we need to talk about these as well.


The Biggest of All Small Miracles

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Looking through Rinko Kawauchi‘s as it is, I couldn’t help but think that all of her previous work was merely a preparation for this, a book about the birth and first years of her daughter. It’s not an experience I am familiar with from my own life, but I have always imagined the birth of one’s child to be the biggest of all small miracles. This book showed me that indeed it is. It’s filled to the brim with deeply touching photographs of Kawauchi discovering a plethora of beauty in her young daughter’s discovery of the world.

For me, this artist has always shone the brightest when she used her camera to capture the world’s small miracles. That said, as much as I enjoy the earlier work (such as, say, うたたね [Utatane]), those pictures now feel cluttered compared with the incredibly reduced and deeply concentrated photographs in as it is. I could speculate whether this is due to the subject matter or the increased maturity of the artist. But such speculation would feel mostly besides the point here.

I should note that this new book thankfully follows the model of the earliest books. It’s a very nicely understated softcover book, avoiding the unnecessary pomposity with which Western publishers have treated Kawauchi’s photography too often. A coproduction between France’s Chose Commune and Japan’s torch press, the book was designed and printed in Japan, and it has the form that the photographs and subject matter ask for. This is crucial.

Photographed between 2016 and 2020, the book follows a chronological approach. The baby is born, and we witness her slowly get older. Initially being in the gentle and caring hands of those closest to her, more and more she begins to be her own little person, becoming aware of the world around her. You can see her eyes beginning to focus. While it’s impossible to know what’s going on in her mind, as viewers we can imagine: this must be the easier time from childhood that often we yearn to be able to get back to.

Kawauchi has often worked with pairings of photographs. If in the past I had any misgiving about that, it’s that often, the pairings were too simplistic, too on the nose: this looks like that. Here, the pairings are much more relaxed. They feel less self conscious. Often, they’re metaphorical, which helps to bring out the added value that can be had when two pictures are being paired.

As I already noted, the photographs also feel more reduced. It’s tempting to connect this to Japan’s embrace of simplicity and minimalism. In actuality, that embrace is more complicated than the often superficial caricature it is presented as in the West. If anything, that embrace is a mind set more than anything else. I sense it behind these photographs: the more you focus your attention on one thing, the more of the world falls aways. At the same time, the world reveals itself anew.

The soft whisper of what is left becomes clearly audible. Here, a plant’s seed caught in the young girl’s hair at the back of her head suddenly means so much, and the bud of a flower is almost too much to bear. There’s a bright green, young plant against a black background, there’s a little frog clinging to a window covered with rain drops.

The book contains a few inserts with words written by the artist. In the copy of the book I bought they’re in English and French. By chance, I discovered that the voice employed in the English and French texts is rather different. This has me wonder which one is closer to the Japanese original. But that might just be an impossible question to ask, given the differences between Japanese and English/French.

In essence, the words substitute pictures that could never be taken, and they expand what is on view in the photographs. In some of her earlier books, Kawauchi had already used text, and I’m glad that she decided to do it again.

Here I am, at the end of a year that for obvious reasons will be remembered well, yet not fondly. Two of the three photobooks that deeply affected me were made by two very different Japanese women photographers (the other one is Yurie Nagashima). As a childless middle-aged Western man I don’t share their life experiences. But through their sharing of their life experiences in the form of two photobooks, I was able to gain access to something formerly inaccessible to me.

What I gained access to was not only something they experienced and put into pictures. In addition, I was also made to look at my own life more closely, using different angles than the ones I had been so familiar with.

I can’t know this for a fact, but I think that you could have a baby and unlike Rinko Kawauchi you’d still not be aware of the world’s wonders. Hers is not only a book about having a child. I see it first and foremost as a book about what happens when you open yourself up to the world and let some more of its beauty in, a beauty that is available to all, regardless of whether you capture it in pictures or not.

This is not to deny the ugly truth of the world that has been exposed to us this year — in particular in the US, where the pandemic has revealed the systemic cruelty in the country’s very heart, its very eagerness to disregard people’s suffering and death.

Without us being able to see an alternative (an alternative that’s no just slogans that might win or lose an election), we are not going to get anywhere. Part of that alternative will have to be an open embrace of beauty. It is the arts that can show us what that might mean.

This book, as it is, is what we needed this year. It is a miracle itself.

Highly recommended.

as it is; photographs and text by Rinko Kawauchi; 144 pages (plus inserts); Chose Commune/torch press; 2020

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.8

An Attic Full of Trains Flattened in Time and Space (in which the reviewer short circuits)

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Writing entails thinking and editing as much as writing itself. Mind you, writing itself isn’t thinking. You’ll learn as much when you look at your writing and realise that somehow there’s something different than what you had envisioned. Thus, you edit. You edit depending on whether you want to accept what you wrote. After all, it didn’t come out of nowhere, or you edit based on what you thought should be on the page or screen.

Usually, editing involves a mix of these two types of work. What you write about should have some resemblance with what you set out to do — especially if someone pays you to do it (which, alas, doesn’t happen quite as often as I wish it would). Then again, what you write can be just so much more interesting than what you had in your head when you started out.

When writing a photobook review, I feel boxed in. The book(s) in question should be discussed, even though sometimes, I feel that there isn’t much to say. By that I don’t mean that the book might be bad. Rather, an intelligent and attentive viewer for sure could do the work on their own, while they might benefit from a larger framing of the work. It sometimes feels outright reductive to me to delve into a topic, only to spell out why some book deals with the subject matter well.

Still, what is a book review without the book discussed at least in some detail?

Plus, I need an angle. By that I mean some idea how to approach the book, given that I am very interested in tying a book to something else: its context or anything that helps a viewer understand and/or approach the book better. That’s the goal anyway. I can’t tell whether I’m succeeding because writing, especially online, has much in common with shouting into a void.

But sometimes, it just won’t come together. Then, you have to either give up and move on, or somehow salvage what you have. This happened to me when I tried to write a review for two recent books last weekend. After a long day of work, I was stuck with maybe 500 words that just wouldn’t get anywhere. To make matters worse, I dreaded the thought of having to salvage.

A couple of days ago, it occurred to me that I could do something very different. Why should a book review be about the books and not about the process of writing? This might actually be interesting, I thought, especially for those readers who have been following along here for a while.

The task at hand… more precisely: the task I had set myself involved two books that seemed perfect to discuss as a pair. Off we go:

The lives of two Italian men, both roughly born at the same time, both dead by now, are told through and with photographs in An Attic Full of Trains (MACK; full disclosure:MACK is also the publisher of my own Photography’s Neoliberal Realism) and Flattened in Time and Space (Witty Books), two recent photobooks that are so similar in some ways (down to their physical sizes) and so radically different in others.

I had felt so good about the idea of comparing these two books, both of which had enough overlapping aspects, that I thought the review would be a breeze. Writing is at least 80% self-delusion. After the first paragraph, I already noted I had maneuvered myself deeply into that territory. It’s not that the idea is bad. It’s just that I realized that I was running into problems. Still, I kept going:

To begin with, we might note that most viewers are very likely to feel drawn a lot more to one than the other. Attic — photographed by Alberto di Lenardo and edited by his granddaughter Carlotta di Lenardo — is going to appeal to those who are drawn to what we can think of as the standard model of art photography, in which each picture is intended to be its own exquisite self. The book is filled with good pictures, which is likely to have someone wonder whether we’re here dealing with another discovery of a previously unknown master photographer.

I don’t want to say that my own bullshit meter went off after I had written this. we might note that most viewers are very likely to feel drawn a lot more to one than the other — that’s not necessarily bullshit as much as just some pretty lame writing. Then again, there is some merit to pointing out that more often than not, personal taste is a hindrance for many people when approaching art: why spend time with something you don’t like when you could just look at what you do like?

OK, I thought. Onwards. (You might have noticed that I was basically bullshitting myself in the previous paragraph.) How do you write about art? There are many ways to do it, but a mix of description plus references plus some judgment isn’t bad:

Out of the 8,000 photographs left behind by her grandfather, Carlotta di Lenardo has very deftly edited a selection that make it tempting to come to this conclusion. Whether or not there truly was an incredibly rich archive or whether di Lenardo “merely” managed to pick the few good ones is besides the point. More often than not, what is on view is incredible, with echoes of, let’s say, Saul Leiter and occasionally William Eggleston in the work.

As it turned out, I had to add the previous paragraph when I realized that if I simply continued with the following one, I’d lose my point completely — how do you compare two things without telling people what they actually are in some detail? Having given some references, I added one to the following paragraph, which became:

In contrast, Flattened does not contain all that many masterpiece photographs. But it is this very absence and the use of other photographic strategies that make it interesting. Where Attic might evoke the spirit of Vivian Maier, this book operates along the lines of the various artist books made by Ed Ruscha in the 1960s (for example: Twentysix Gasoline Stations), albeit in a vastly expanded form. What is more, there were more than one photographer involved, Angelo Vignali plus his “mother, friends and strangers”.

Everybody compares a newly discovered archive with Maier’s; I felt I had to throw that in. Honestly, though, the spirit in Attic is very Leiterian, with Leiter’s nudes being replaced by di Lenardo being very interested in women’s behinds.

Actually, the book’s cover and very first picture both show a young woman from behind. This reminded me of a comment made in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (can’t remember which one). Some movie started out with the camera following an attractive young woman climbing up a ladder, filmed from below, and Joel yells: “Hey, they’re giving away the plot!” (it’s such a Joel comment, isn’t it?).

If anything, what I just wrote doesn’t mean all that much other than me realizing that while I enjoy the photographs di Lenardo had taken (he obviously was a very gifted photographer), there is plenty of male gaze on steroids. And I wanted to write that in my review, but I couldn’t find a way to finagle it in. Anyway, I was in the middle of discussing the other book anyway, so why would I be thinking so much about this?

Visually, the photographs betray their vernacular sources through their aesthetic such as colours that while never having been that faithful having shifted even more with time or occasional streaks and patterns caused by subpar film development. Divided into five chapters, there is ample repetition, or rather pictures taken from slightly different vantage points frequently follow each other. As a result, most chapters invoke a moving through a space (much like in, for example, Yutaka Takanashi’s Towards the City, albeit using a different aesthetic).

Some description, plus another reference that, however, felt a little bit like showboating to me. Did I really need that? At this stage I had already realized how little I was getting out of my idea for the review. But I had put hours into it already — hours because as things weren’t going anywhere, I kept checking my email to see if someone had written me (nope, there isn’t much of that on the weekend), I kept checking the news to see if something had happened (ditto), I kept checking Twitter… You get the idea.

I was really fucking stuck, and the worst part was that it was all my own fault. That’s always the case with writing: you fuck up, and it’s all your own fault. It’s not even just that you don’t want your readers to see this, it’s not that you don’t want them to read a bad piece. You also don’t want to live in those moments where you realize that writing (much like any other creative endeavour) entails constant failure. And at times that failure can be crushing.

These differences notwithstanding, …

I had a bad feeling when I wrote this. Honestly, I knew that metaphorically speaking I was basically throwing good money after bad. Oh well:

These differences notwithstanding, I’m somewhat certain that the lives of the two men who are at the centres of these books would not have been that different, their possibly different socio-economic statuses notwithstanding. Seen that way, I see these books as companion pieces, where one informs the other: however much we attempt to understand another person through photographs, whether their own or other people’s, in the end, we are left to realise the futility of that endeavour. For all we learn, there is an infinity of other aspects of their lives that will forever elude us.

Here, I’m basically refusing to let go off my original idea — hey, good idea to compare these books because they’re kinda the same. Are they, though? Well, no, they’re not the same, neither in an obvious sense, nor in a larger one. Unless, dear god, I make this whole review turn on how photography works in which case I might as well give up. Which is what I did after seeing into what sorry corner I had written myself.

Where does this leave you, the reader? Well, I do think there’s enough in the above for you to get an idea of these two books. And maybe you’re smarter than I am and can tie together their comparison. I’m also thinking that if you have been reading this site for a while, you now know well what I think about these books (my apologies to all readers who aren’t regular followers).

The reality is that writing (the outcome) is only as interesting as you can make it (the process) for yourself, the writer. I have been reviewing many books over the past decade. While I mostly enjoy doing it, maybe it was the strange combination of all kinds of factors this year that finally had me face the fact that in terms of the craft, I’m somewhat bored with it.

Don’t worry, though, I will continue to write to write reviews in a conventional manner. At times, though, I will also try to find a new way (obviously, not the one I used above because you can only do that once).

An Attic Full of Trains; photographs by Alberto di Lenardo (edited by Carlotta di Lenardo); 232 pages; MACK; 2020

Flattened in Space and Time; images by Angelo Vignali; Text by Ilaria Speri; 368 pages; Witty Books; 2020

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