A Conversation with Karolina Gembara (cont’ed)

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In the first part of my conversation with Karolina Gembara, we spoke about the massive protests in Poland that erupted when a constitutional tribunal outlawed all forms of abortion and about her part in a photographer-led collective that documents these protests. In the following, other aspects of her work are going to be talked about, including (but not limited to) the agency of photographs and migration in photography.

Jörg Colberg: You mentioned your research already. You talked about the agency of images. What have you learned by observing and being part of these protests? What have you leaned from seeing the images being distributed?

Karolina Gembara: I recently wrote a short text, where I’m trying to approach a question that I’ve been asked a lot: “do images, do pictures change the world?” I must say it’s an annoying question that requires deconstruction. When we approach this question in a very narrow sense — when we understand “photography” as a singular image, as just a picture in a newspaper or on the internet or as an object, if “the world” means literally global politics, if “change” means only improvement (because that’s how we tend to think about these things) — then it’s easy to doubt any agency.

The question should be: what is the character of agency? If you apply different culture turns like performative, pictorial, objects, or ethical turn… If you build this broad, methodological perspective, then you can really see things and especially art objects having impact or asking you to do something. It could be as nuanced as getting upset or angry, sharing, looking closer, or maybe even holding it. All of these events are agency.

When speaking about its character I mean to say that there’s a huge spectrum between oppression and emancipation. For example, oppression is when the police are taking pictures of us at a protest. They’re using the exact same tools that we do and they do it for a particular reason – to interrogate us. But when as part of the Archive of Public Protest (APP) we make a newspaper, we want people to feel equipped with the images and slogans and take to the streets and shout. We want to emancipate them. There’s so much happening in between these two positions.

For example, when the little boy Alan Kurdi died in 2015 and they found his body on the shore in Turkey a picture of him went viral. It was on every cover. The Independent said that if this image is not going to change the way we think about the refugee crisis, then nothing will. There was a lot of research about what this image has done. It has done a lot.

But in the context of the question “how does the image change the world?” it would be easiest to say it did not save the refugees. Thirteen and a half thousand people died since 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. We didn’t stop the so-called refugee crisis. People are drowning. But there are several things that did happen.

Back then, David Cameron said in response to the event that they should take in more people. Of course, you can ask why not more than he proposed. But for some people, the world has changed because they entered the UK. Scandinavian NGOs that work with refugees got massive donations back then that also probably changed the situation for many people.

On the other hand, like I said not much has changed for the refugees who are still traveling across the Mediterranean Sea. There was another image a few years later, that was very, very similar, a picture of a Rohingya refugee. It was another three or four year old boy in a very similar situation. It did not end up on newspaper covers. Last year, in September, there was an image taken by somebody in Tunisia, exactly the same situation.

So you could say that the strong images are strong because they bring something that we are not very familiar with. Somehow, they shock us. But after some time, they become weak. All of these cases are worth discussing. I would say, maybe it sounds banal but there’s always something that does happen because of an image. And there’s a lot that does not happen — sustaining the status quo is some sort of activity too.

This discussion reflects the expectations and the needs we have towards images. In my opinion, there is no doubt that we can do things with images, and they do things to us — both when they are ephemeral through sharing on the internet and as real objects. The APP newspaper is a result of such thinking.

But one of the greatest examples for me is what happened with an image taken by Activestills, the Israeli-Palestinian photo collective. Oren Ziv took a portrait of a Palestinian activist who later got shot at a protest. That picture became a poster. And that poster became a shield. They put the the images on shields when Israeli soldiers were shooting. The image was protecting them.

So there’s this whole range of things that you can notice that images do with our help. I research visual culture. But at the end of the day I would rather ask how we, as human beings, change the world?

JC: Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk about a project you did with migrants coming to Warsaw. Can you talk about this a little? I think it’s called New Varsavians?

KG: Nowi Warszawiacy Nowe Warszawianki. It started as an idea to run a workshop. This is an old idea and not my invention. It’s a participatory project with some elements of photo voice, where you approach a certain group of people, and you want to do research with them. So I thought that I would create a group of people and I’d teach them photography. Financial support was provided by the city of Warsaw, which is still relatively liberal.

As a group, we would meet regularly. We would also go to galleries. I invited people to come and teach certain topics that I’m good at but also so they would meet other professionals and talk to them. I had a very diverse group of people, diverse also when it came to their ages. Initially I didn’t want to work with kids. But it turned out that I had four people under age 18 in my group. They were from different countries, with a different levels of Polish. Through the funding, I managed to buy them cameras.

The idea was really, really simple. I wanted them to speak about themselves and reveal as much as they wanted to. We never really talked about their traumas or their stories. Some of them had just arrived in Warsaw, some of them had been there already for a couple of years. Some were integrated, some still lived in the refugee center just outside the city. They simply built their stories.

We had an Instagram account, I posted some of the images they made. At some point, we had an open studio for portraits where they were the photographers. It came from an idea that it’s very easy for photographers like me to go and photograph refugees, to enter a refugee center or look for a protagonist and portray them. You take a picture and add some story or something. You represent that person. I wanted to reverse the situation where they are the authors, the creators.

At the end, we made a newspaper together. I edited some of the photos. I proposed the selection to them. I also had a journalist working with me. She was briefed about everybody and their photos, and then she would meet everyone and and based on the meeting write a little story.

We also had an exhibition, which funnily enough was the longest exhibition last year in our gallery because of the lockdown. We had a pretty great turnout and media coverage. I decided to use that with a very specific reason in mind. The day after the the opening, we launched an online petition because one of our participants, 17 years old at the time, and her mother faced the risk of deportation at any moment. We couldn’t let that happen. Thousands of people signed the petition. The media kept this story alive for weeks. That was a situation that we created, and of course, this is beyond the typical artistic activity here. But I thought that if this project was good for something, it was good for something like this.

Recently I completed another project where photography is only a pretext. During the Nowi warszawiacy workshop one girl mentioned her family struggles with finding a flat — landlords reject them because they are refugees. So I dedicated my time to become an agent to find housing. Alija was my partner in this project. We made a list and started calling people. The conversations were difficult for me, so I cannot imagine how difficult they were for a teenager.

In refugee families, children learn the local language much quicker than parents, so they start acting as adults — when going to a doctor, a layer etc. For her, I wanted to avoid that. The whole process was recorded on video, with images and audio. I also invited experts who explained what is housing discrimination is and why we should help migrants find homes.

The visual part is just a documentation. The most important part is that the family found a flat. The visual layer is present, but the core of this project isn’t visible in a traditional way.

JC: Besides doing all these things, you’re also taking pictures yourself. There’s this project of the recovered territories, which I actually see as related to everything else. Your family came to Poland from what is now Ukraine, and they settled in an area that used to be German and then became Polish. So there is a refugee/migrant aspect to the whole work. Can you talk about this a little bit?

KG: Yes, all these things are connected. I think the first reason for the project came up when I was still in India back then in 2015. I had a phase of missing Poland, going through my family archive and making the resolution that when I come back, I’m going to explore something in my territory. Already then I must have known that I was not going to stay in India forever.

To be honest, I have to say that I do not like those sentimental, personal stories. I really wanted to avoid that and make this project as universal as possible. I spent a long time taking photographs, but also reading about history. I realized that I’m not talking only about my family here, because the journey from the east to west after the Second World War happened to millions of people.

Contrary to what Communist propaganda was saying for decades, this was a forced migration. People arrived from areas in what is today Belarus or Ukraine, and they were brought to houses that were still inhabited by German families. Those families were waiting for their turn to go to Germany because the borders of Germany also changed. So this happened not only to Poles but also to so many other nationalities.

I found out that my young great grandma and great grandfather moved in with a German family, and they lived together for a year. Happily. At first I couldn’t believe this story. At school, I had been taught something else. Back then, at the beginning of the 1990s history was still very black and white. Germans were always enemies. They were all Nazis.

So this was a revelation: “We lived here together until they had to go, and we were very sad. Then they would come every year in the summer to visit us. And we were writing each other letters.” I started exploring these unexpected parts of the story. It was easier to understand the sentiment for what had been left behind in Ukraine. But missing the Germans? This story goes all the way across nations. Obviously, the activity of the German compatriots… how do you call them in German…

JC: Vertriebene.

KG: That is a problematic aspect. But I do understand the tragedy of people who had to leave things behind.

JC: That’s the part that I knew before I learned about yours. They were always really right wing, and they had a big political influence in West Germany. I didn’t know the story until much later. And even if you read up on it now, the stories that you read are still about people in East Prussia who had to flee the Russian army. The story that you’re telling, I had actually never heard anything about.

KG: In all of these places, in all of those houses there were dramas happening. There’s a book by Magda Grzebałkowska called 1945. War and Peace. Month by month, she describes twelves stories. She says that while working on the book she discovered that 1945 was not the year of the liberation when everybody was happily going back home or taking over new places, new territories, starting new life. It was a year of death, desperation, migration, losing family, acquiring new furniture… It was crazy.

Many of those stories are about people who were from Prussia, who were chased away by the Red Army and  had to cross the frozen sea with horse carriages. The ice would break and whole families would drown. It’s an amazing book.  There were things in it that I read, and I remembered them from home: “this is not ours really” or “going back would be nice” or “what we left behind was so great”. That’s the historical part, that’s the sentimental part.

This project is not finished, yet, so I don’t know if I’m succeeding. But I’m trying to connect it with what we think of migration today. I’m trying to base my reflections on epigenetics, on how we pass on certain traumas, and how they are reflected in later generations. I see that in myself, whatever my grandma went through, her need to pack things, to be ready because “you never know”. I saw that behaviour in me when I was a child already.

I’m trying to connect all of that with migration today in the sense that I’m asking: are we able to realise that we have that migration experience in us? Again, I’m not talking about myself or people who live in the recovered territories. But almost all of us are children or grandchildren of migrants. Remembering that, even if it’s just something that we would have to wake up in our body, in our muscles — is there a chance that we are able to empathise with people who are in that situation today? I see this as a thread that is connecting the “1945”, but it’s going through generations, and it’s still in us. We should be able to realise that people who are migrating right now, who are forced to escape, are in the same situation we were in yesterday.

Maybe it’s a pathetic call for solidarity, to remember that this has happened already… I have many chapters in this project. There are images of German furniture present in our houses — what does that mean? How did we acquire them? What do we feel about them? Why are we even attached to them?

There’s a chapter about going back to Ukraine. Actually, last year, I was supposed to go to the village that my grandparents came from. Due to the pandemic I wasn’t able to go. So I made this little film, arriving through Google Earth in this village, and I’m looking around, looking for maybe the houses we see in photographs from many years ago. But it’s impossible to find them. There’s a cemetery but I cannot enter because of the limits of the technology. I’m basically so lost, and I don’t feel anything. This goes against that sentiment that was imprinted in me that there’s this paradise that we left behind. No, I don’t feel so. I feel really great in this post-German architecture in Breslau, in Berlin. Whenever I arrive in Krakow, I feel it’s abroad.

There are all these things that I adopted culturally without even knowing because we never really approached that experience. We didn’t work on it. We never really looked back at our history. We’ve been very focused on being a victim of the war, of all the oppression, and I think that’s the reason why the right wing is so strong right now.

A Conversation with Karolina Gembara

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Ever since my first trip to Warsaw in 2016, I have been following events in Poland. To begin with, the year before the far-right PiS party had won the elections, in many ways foreshadowing what the US went through in 2016.

Especially Warsaw is home to a large number of young and very active artists, writers, and curators. In many ways, the city has possibly the most underrated art scene in Europe, having preserved the can-do spirit that in a place like Berlin has largely been replaced by complacency after waves and waves of gentrification.

In addition, unlike many of their especially Western European counterparts, more often than not Polish artists, writers, and curators are politically very engaged. I can only speculate about the reasons. It might have something to do with the fact that many of them — certainly the ones old enough — experienced the fall of communism in their country as children.

Over the past few years, I have stayed in touch with many of the photographers I met. I have been following what they have been up to, in part through photobooks made in Poland. Last year, after massive protests erupted all over the country as a consequence of abortion being outlawed completely, I noticed how photography became an active part of these protests.

I decided to approach activist, researcher, and photographer Karolina Gembara, to speak with her about the protests, the role of images, plus her own photography. The following conversation was conducted over Zoom in mid January 2021. It has been edited for clarity. Given its length, it’s going to be published in two parts (with the second part coming next week).

Jörg Colberg: Poland has been ruled by a right-wing government. Late last year, the Supreme Court basically prohibited all access to abortion. Can you talk about the political background a little bit and how it affects you as a person and a photographer?

Karolina Gembara: Well, when it comes to political background, things have been very different since 2015 when the right-wing party won the elections. Back then I was already terrified. Just like when Trump won the elections in America, people were thinking “this is the end.” But you still didn’t know what was going to happen. You expect a lot of shit to happen, but you don’t know the details. I remember coming back to Poland in 2016 from India, and I asked myself, if it really was a good moment to come back. I was considering going somewhere else, maybe to Germany, because after seven years of being in India, I had seen what right-wing politics look like.

I had kept the potential of going home as something that would be liberating because in Poland I would feel safer. But that was not the case. I remember thinking in 2016, especially with the war in Ukraine, that we’re at the edge of a serious military conflict. Something really drastic might have happened. I was panicking and wanted to get out. But then things started happening to me professionally. I started my Ph.D. research which is politically engaged, I was invited to join Sputnik Photos. I became very busy with work and also became involved in some activism. So I thought that there’s so much to do here work-wise.

The Women’s Strike started in 2016 with regular Black Protests. The right-wing government proposed that abortion would be banned. We already had a very strict abortion law in in Poland because of a compromise between government and church that goes back to the beginning of 1990s. With our resistance and mass protests we managed to postpone drastic changes. But what happened last year was very surprising. It just shows how extreme it all became. This was especially surprising, also for the Catholics.

The more liberal part of society and more progressive groups always thought that the abortion compromise is something that we had to change. But at least there were these few cases when we could terminate pregnancy. But now everything was suddenly gone. think people just got so angry that this was happening, and it was happening behind our backs, without any understanding of widely supported proposals for a new bill.

A few male judges, presided over by a woman judge, decided that terminating pregnancy in the case of severe and irreversible disability of the fetus or an incurable life-threatening disease is unconstitutional… That’s when people took to the streets, organising the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of communism.

All of these demonstrations that have been happening in the last couple of decades are part of new movements, new movements that are more about values than, let’s say, labor law. For example, we have protests about climate, protests defending democracy, and so on. But in the case of Women Strike, it’s something very basic. Very quickly, this protest turned from women’s fight into a fight against the government. Many people joined because of that. This is an opportunity for them to express how angry they are.

An interesting aspect of the protest is that communication — verbal and written — became very radical. There are many “bad” or nasty words and expressions. Before this happened you would be called rude if you used them, especially if you’re a woman. You would be told “don’t express yourself this way”, you would be told not say to say “fuck off!” because nobody will take you seriously. There was an understanding that when it comes to verbal expression, we have maintain some level of civility. But something broke.

The day when the constitutional tribunal announced their decision, women already brought a huge banner. I think they had been getting ready for that. It said “Fuck off!”. There are many slogans like that. The cardboard banners that people bring to the protests are direct, vulgar, or use intimate symbols. No one is surprised to see a vagina drawn on a banner.

(Odwagi — translation: have courage)

I feel that the language was the easiest to break because it is a mode of oppression. But even liberal media get hysterical over “filthy language”. I mean really? Shouldn’t they get hysterical about real discrimination, real violence? Why is there this expectation that I have to be polite? Cursing doesn’t diminish me as a person, as an artist, as a woman, as an academic. I have to shout because asking and waiting has never increased my rights.

JC: I can’t read Polish but I saw some of these slogans or curses in the newspaper that you had a role in. I think it was made by a collective of photographers. Can you talk a little bit about this? Are you photographing? How did you contribute to the protests?

KG: Are you talking about the Archive of Public Protest?

JC: Yes. Can you talk about this a little bit and about your role?

KG: It’s called APP [Archiwum Protestów Publicznych — Archive of Public Protest]. This is Rafał Milach’s idea (my friend from Sputnik Photos). He invited other photographers who have been present in the streets since 2015 or 2016 to create an online platform where people could look at images from different places, from different protests, and use them.

I never took pictures during the protests apart from snapping something with my phone. At times, I was in a dangerous situation and I would manage to do a live stream. So I do have this rather irresponsible drive, but I never worked as a reporter.

In 2017, I enrolled at the university where I started researching the visuality of protest and how images of recent events have contributed to the way we see the protests. These public gatherings are a relatively new phenomena in Poland. It also is a good opportunity to talk about the agency of those images. Are they oppressive or emancipating? I thought that as a researcher the Archive would be a great study case for me.

But I don’t intend to contribute to it with images because the competition stresses me out. Right now, we have many great photographers, many of them women, who do a great job. I feel that I have nothing better to add.

I do go to protests, but not to all of them. I like to feel that I’m part of this amazing energy. These gatherings have become very spontaneous, they are like a street game. The police warn us that being on the street is illegal, which isn’t true. According to the constitution, even during the pandemic you cannot ban these gatherings. So they chase us and we run away. Then they cut us off somewhere. Some people have to stay, the rest is going to block the street and traffic stops…

As you probably know the police have been very brutal. They use tear gas, they beat people, attack people using undercover cops. Let’s say this is like a participatory research that I’m doing. I observe how people behave, what they do and what they say, how sometimes even the presence of the photographer changes everything. This is something I can notice because I’m not a photographer at the scene.

So I’m present or try to be present, but I’m not as present as I wish. There are people who are real activists, 90% of them are women. They are there every day. They go to the solidarity demonstrations that happen in front of the police station if somebody gets arrested. They are amazing. They devote so much time and effort to show their solidarity. I don’t do that. I wish I had more time. Maybe I wish I was less egoistic because sometimes I decide that I don’t want to go because I feel tired or depressed. Sometimes I am afraid.

Coming back to the archive, at some point Rafał invited me to join the group because he said there’s this great energy, and he would like me to contribute somehow. I was afraid he would ask me to take photographs [laughs] so I offered to write. Right after the October protests we decided to publish a zine, a newspaper, with photographs. I wrote an introduction about the possible performance through the Archive.

The Archive obviously has a structure that reflects a certain way of thinking. There also is an aspect of power and maybe even violence when you go deeper into the nuances: we show certain situations and we do not show other things. It’s selective. So we thought that the newspaper should become a performative object that can be used freely.

It’s a collection of photographs but also of slogans. It’s something that you can hold in front of yourself when you go to the protests. The slogans are taken from different banners. They’re common, and people are familiar with them. There is also the symbol of the Women’s Strike, the red flash designed by Ola Jasionowska.

My job also was to distribute the newspaper during the protests. I walked around with those big plastic IKEA bags and handed it people. They opened them at the protest, they hung them in windows and cars. We pasted them on walls at night. This happened even in Berlin where Polish girls have organised many supporting events.

We’re hoping to spread the idea of an active archive. The images of protests are not only for online contemplation. Thanks to crowdfunding, we’ve just been able to publish the second issue. The text I wrote this time focuses on the state of emergency. Giorgio Agamben describes Western democracies as pseudo-democracies where things have been organised in a way that you can always find an excuse to ban something or interrogate somebody. There’s the naked body, which can be controlled in so many ways, also biologically.

I think that in this very case this idea really applies to the bodies of women who are objectified in the name of religion, twisted tradition etc. We also included quotes from people who have been detained by the police. They talk about what they went through emotionally and how they were treated. So this issue focuses on power and authorities. It focuses on the emergency situation that we already have and on the law that does not really protect us. You avoid dealing with the police. I’m sure you can identify with this issue when it comes to events in the US.

Both newspapers have been delivered to small towns. The first issue had quotes from women who were part of the protests in very small towns. Here in Warsaw, we think of ourselves as Warsaw photographers, Warsaw activists. But we want to be able to hear other voices and include them.

The newspapers travel to places where it’s extremely difficult to protest, for example when there are roughly 50 people in the streets in a small town like my hometown. Everybody knows everybody, and people think that being engaged politically is shameful. Some people will face problems at their workplaces. It’s very different when you are a part of a crowd of 100,000 people in the middle of Warsaw.

(Part 2 of the interview)

Photography’s Table Top Joes

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It’s easy to forget this, but the Western history of the sciences is rooted in outright quackery. The separation between quackery and “serious” science is not quite as well defined as we’d like to think — even today, your science might be someone else’s quackery (or the other way around). Just look at, for example, homeopathy, relics used by the Catholic Church, “the rising tide that lifts all boats” etc.

Roughly a quarter century ago, Lawrence Wechsler wrote a charming and very entertaining book about aspects of this. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder dives into the world of museums. In particular, it traces their history to a group of powerful and/or wealthy well-meaning people (from the West) who amassed collections of stuff, based on some larger idea.

As a consequence of their actions, we ended up with nice museums. But we’ve also ended up with nice museums that house large amounts of stuff literally stolen from what now are other countries and back then were colonies or proto-colonies.

At the same time, the scientific method has now separated out things that are admissible in museums and all the rest that is not. Again, this separation is not even remotely as obvious as we would like to think. We now also know about the flawed and lopsided history of art. Now museums are scrambling to address the issue that large parts of their collections were made by Western white men (to the extent that these institutions can or want to actually scramble).

At the same time, some art is art, while some other art isn’t (at best, it’s “outsider art”). Some people are photographers (with some even calling themselves “artists”), while all the other people who take pictures are merely amateurs. Looks like a contemporary form of quackery to me. But hey, what do I know?

Given it’s a technical medium, photography has always been an attractive target for quackery — or for those playing with the belief invested by so many people in photographs. A good historical example is provided by spirit photographs. A contemporary artist exploiting the same belief is Joan Fontcuberta.

Stephen Berkman‘s Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years is a recent addition to this relatively small but very interesting niche of photography, blending Fontcuberta’s approach with one familiar from Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. The books comes with afterword by, yes, Lawrence Wechsler, which served as a reminder of the book I mentioned above (I read it about 15 years ago).

Ostensibly focusing on the work of one Shimmel Zohar, the proprietor Zohar Studios, the book presents us with photographs taken with the wet-plate collodion process. Due to the process materials’ properties and due to our own expectations of what historical photographs look like, it’s straightforward to buy into the conceit at hand: these are indeed re-discovered pictures, made by an idiosyncratic Jewish man who arrived in New York City at some stage in the 19th Century.

The form of the book (the treatment of the type etc.) and the inclusion of what looks like historical materials only serves to amplify the message. It’s all very well done, even though at times, it becomes very clear that what is on display is a photographic caper.

In some ways, I’m reminded of Mandy Barker‘s Beyond Drifting (which I reviewed here). But there are some differences. To begin with, Barker’s book ends up being closer to a historical book: it replicates large parts of an actual old book. But at the end, Baker also gives away the game to drive home the larger point.

In a variety of ways, Predicting the Past is an image-text piece. It is made to look like a regular catalogue, with the inclusion of a large section containing text about each and every image. For me, the essays provided for each photograph are where the true value of the book can be found. Through the organisation of the book, I could see how they might be seen as afterthoughts; but in actuality, the pieces are actually vastly more interesting than the pictures themselves.

In each case, the connection between the text pieces and the photographs is provided by their captions/titles. In some ways, the fact that the photographs are such one-dimensional illustrations of the many incredibly fascinating and multi-faceted ideas expressed in the text hints at the very limitations of this medium: If you want to show something in a picture, if you point at something in a picture, you’ll inevitably produce an illustration.

I actually think that if the book had centred on the text, with the photographs serving as the illustrations they are, this would have worked a lot better. For that, though, the form of the whole book would have had to be changed. As an object, it’s enormous. On Amazon, it says that it’s 11.75 x 2.5 x 16 inches, weighing 8.55 pounds (I didn’t crosscheck this); and it comes with its own reenforced cardboard container.

I’d love to hold the book in my hands or in my lap, but I can’t. Or rather, I can but not for long. It’s just too heavy, too large. I feel that through its makers’ insistence on creating such a massive tome, part of its incredible playful quirkiness dissolves into sheer showboating.

I have another concern. While I appreciate the quirky quaintness of many of the ideas in the book — there clearly are many echoes of Jewish culture and of larger 19th Century sensibilities, I’m not entirely convinced that in photography, you can easily emulate something that musician Tom Waits has made a career out of: creating vastly exaggerated characters that are as absurd as they are engrossing (for the record, I’m a big fan of much of Waits’ post-Swordfishtrombones work).

Can the odd catchiness of Waits’ tunes (listen to, for example, Table Top Joe) be compared with the equally odd, yet compelling visuals of Berkman’s photographs? In some ways, I’m led to believe they can. Does music combined with lyrics transport its message in ways similar to photographs combined with text? That I’m not convinced of. Even as there are plenty of Table Top Joes in Predicting the Past (in whatever variant), the end effect isn’t quite the same.

Or maybe it’s the fact that in some ways, Predicting the Past appears to have been made in another era. I’m not referring to the photographs but to the overall idea. At some stage last year (or maybe the one before — who has an understanding of time right now?), I watched the 1972 movie Cabaret. I was struck by how dated it felt as a movie. It’s not that it felt inappropriate to me; but I also felt queasy about its rather simplistic treatment of its subject matter.

This is not to say that I think something like Babylon Berlin is better. There’s still much to be said about its kitschified simulation of a Weimar-era Berlin in its final democratic throes. Still, when you watch Babylon Berlin, you can’t help but notice its implicit and explicit inclusion (and deliberate exclusion) of all we’ve learned since 1972. Any understanding of Weimar-era culture inevitably arises through contemporary filters: that’s why Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Alabama Song sounds so radically different when you compare a 1930 recording and, let’s say, when David Bowie sang it in 1978.

With photography now having become a central currency in the fight over what constitutes truth, I feel that there is a missed opportunity here. The book could have challenged our own sticking with often misguided beliefs in photography a lot more than it does. Making a book like Predicting the Past now feels like or speaks of a luxury: the luxury of being able to ignore the weight of how history has been playing out in photography.

It’s like Tom Waits sang: “You’re innocent when you dream” — but only when you dream.

Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years; photographs and text by Stephen Berkman; afterword by Lawrence Weschler; 368 pages; Hat & Beard Press; 2020

An Educational Archive

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In a classroom at one of the art schools I taught at a few years ago, there was a large wooden cabinet with many relatively small drawers. If you have ever been to an art school, you’ll know that with the exception of digital labs, facilities typically betray their frequent use (I’ll leave it at that). But unlike its surroundings, the cabinet was pristine. When using the classroom, I often found myself pulling out random drawers to look inside.

I knew what was inside: physical slides the types of which had been a part of the world of analogue photography before the general move to digital media. I’m old enough to remember the use of transparencies and slides in a classroom setting. As a teacher, I never used them; but when I was in school, I remember having to give presentations that involved such materials.

Inevitably, slides were iffy. Larger parts of the presentation time were spent on re-focussing the image on the screen. In retrospect, I miss the strange charm of the materials’ physical quirks: a slide would “pop” (caused by the projector’s heat), and you’d have to refocus. You also wouldn’t have to look for an adapter to connect things — maybe the time required to refocus slides has now gone into that often large chunk of time spent on looking for the correct adapter?

As time went on, the more often I found myself in that classroom, the less interested I was in looking at the cabinet. I knew what was inside. Mind you, I enjoyed the physicality of it all, and I enjoyed (and still enjoy) looking at photographs. But frankly, I found what was on display depressing: a very US centric assortment of predominantly white male photographers. This was what generations of photography students had been exposed to.

There now exists a publication that makes available a (different) full set of slides used for teaching. Entitled An Educational Archive of 2863 Slides, the book presents the images used by Dutch art historian Frido Troost who taught at Gerrit Rietveld Academie. With a few exceptions, nine slides (images) are presented per page, resulting in a 400 page book. While being fairly large, it’s printed on a relatively thin paper stock. The book handles well without being overly hefty, and the images are large enough to allow for good viewing.

In some ways, Educational Archive resembles Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (which, as far as I can tell, is now out of print). There might be an overlap in the audiences of both books: people who derive pleasure from seeing collections of images that were assembled by someone with a high degree of visual literacy. But Richter is an artist, not a historian. Maybe the Atlas to refer to would be Aby Warburg’s (full title: Mnemosyne Atlas). While I’m at it, I might as well mention Hannah Höch’s Album (sadly also out of print), compiled roughly at the same time as Warburg’s Atlas.

Educational Archive is indeed that, educational. There is an index at the end that lists the names of the artists for every slide (where such information was obtainable). The slides are organised in some fashion, but the organisation follows more loose principles. As a consequence, the viewer will end up having to make their own connections between the images, which, of course, cuts both ways: you’re not being guided, but you’re able to discover.

The scope of the imagery on display is a lot more diverse than what I encountered in the cabinet I spoke of above. As an art historian, Troost very obviously didn’t deal with only photography. But he also did not limit himself to the larger art context. The first few pages of the book show a large number of advertising: full pages from magazines showing ads for cigarettes or perfume. In fact, Troost often included more quotidian sources for his slides (as far as I can tell, the slides were made with a camera on a copy stand).

With this breadth of source imagery, Troost must have been ahead of the curve in his time. That said, in many other ways, he was not. Having seen the cigarette ads, I expected a much wider breadth of imagery in the areas dealing with photography in general. But there is ample material that runs along the lines of the male gaze or standard colonial photography.

I have no way of knowing how Troost used these materials in class. It’s possible that he discussed the male or colonial gaze critically. But I’m thinking that for such a discussion, one would need to complement the material with other images that either subvert such gazes or offer a very different way of showing the subject matter in question. Such material seems largely absent here.

This is not to say that there is no value in Educational Archive, quite on the contrary. Let’s face it, anyone dealing with aspects of visual education and/or literacy will inevitably fall short in the eyes of her or his later peers: visual literacy evolves through an increasing awareness of problems and restrictions and through changed perceptions of either what images show, what they show given a specific context, what they show based on who made them, etc. As easy as it might be to feel smug about the shortcomings of someone who came before you, always remember there will be people coming after you.

Thus, Educational Archive is a pointer of a time and place. Part of that pointing is done not only by what is stressed but especially by what is excluded. Visual literacy always includes being able to read clearly what exists and being able to read clearly what is not represented.

The breadth of what is included in the book for sure is a good starting point for many discussions. At some stage, though, these discussions would need to address what’s missing, why it’s missing, and how what’s missing can be rectified. Visual literacy is an endeavour, a practice — and not something set in stone forever.

An Educational Archive of 2863 Slides; images collected by Frido Troost; essay by David Campany; 400 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2020

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To pick up a book about stones

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As I leafed through Claudia den Boer‘s To pick up a stone, I found myself double checking whether I had in fact turned a page or missed one. It is a combination of two separate facts that led me to this: first, the low humidity in my home, which has been caused by having to run heating for the winter, as a consequence of which my hands’ skin has become dry; second, the variety of paper stocks used for this book, combined with the occasional trimming of half a page at the top or bottom, which leaves behind a smaller page.

As viewers or readers, we often do not think much of a book’s tactility, of its literal surface qualities that respond to our touch. But photobooks are visual media and they’re also objects. As objects they communicate through the various ways they respond when being held, when they’re being handled. Good photobook makers will be aware of this aspect of their craft: it doesn’t only matter what a book looks like, what it feels like is just as important.

From there, it’s but a small leap to Den Boer’s subject matter, stones. If I asked you to describe your experience with stones, their weight probably would be the first thing that comes to mind (in the UK, “stone” is still used as a unit of weight). Afterwards, there might be what they look like or what it feels like to touch them. Who hasn’t experienced finding a neatly polished stone in or near a body of water, to marvel over its shape and the smoothness of its surface? Who hasn’t picked up a stone in an unusual landscape, to marvel at how suddenly, there is the very landscape — or rather a small part of it — right in one’s own hands?

Paper is an organic material — however processed it is, it’s made from trees. Consequently, much like the fingers with which I am handling the book, a book’s pages will age (whether more or less gracefully than myself remains to be seen). Stones, in contrast, are inorganic, and they take a lot longer to change with age. I’d like to think that instinctively, we know about this. There is no connection with another person when we pick up a stone: it’s merely a small part of the otherwise uncaring universe in our hands. I can put it on my bookshelf, and someone else might pick it up only as the stone it is — and not like the book from my library (regardless of how many other libraries it might exist in).

Consequently, to make a book about stones is a lot harder than making a book about trees: in some form, the trees are in a viewer’s hands, whereas the stones simply aren’t (unless you make a very old-fashioned book in stone-tablet form — it shudders me to think of the person who comes up with that idea: this might be a very hard sell at a photobook fair even with the most hardcore photobook hipsters being present). But you can take the idea of tactility, present in both stones and trees, and bring them to the book. This is what was done here.

The book presents photographs of individual stones and of landscapes in which they might have been found. Photographically, the line between the two at times becomes blurry. A landscape filled with stones essentially is nothing more than a collection of stones. But to view it that way misses the aspect of scale: in our daily lives, there is a huge difference between being in a landscape and being in front of a single stone. This is because our own bodies provide an element of scale (and presence).

In a photograph, the absence of markers of scale (trees, human figures, etc.) can result in uncertainty over what one is actually looking at. As a consequence, if in real life there never is any confusion over whether one is dealing with a landscape or a stone taken from it, in a photograph that distinction can disappear. The book plays with the consequences of this, at times making it impossible to figure out what exactly one is looking at, or more accurately: the scale of what’s on view.

In addition, there exists a variety of photographic artefacts throughout the book. Some images very clearly betray a digital source. Others might be the result of a different process: some look as if they were taken with Polaroid-style materials, some look as if they had been run through a photocopier, etc. This makes the book center as much on what photography itself actually does as on the stones/landscapes themselves. In the book, this fact is driven home by the choice of different paper stocks (I mentioned this already).

Given I’m merely describing to you what’s going on in the book, it might come across as cerebral (which in part it is — not that that’s a bad thing per se) and tedious — the kind of photobook you expect to come out of the Netherlands where design and production play such big roles (to the point of them at times becoming self serving and thus gimmicky). But the book isn’t tedious at all. In fact, without any of the production choices it would be tedious. Here, though, the visual engagement provided by the photographs is supplanted by the tactile delight of moving through the book.

One final comment: in a day and age where so many photographers work on impossibly complex narrative-driven photobooks, I’m being asked more and more often whether this has become the norm. As To pick up a stone demonstrates it has not. A good photobook (or photo project) is not defined by the presence of narrative any more than through its sheer complexity. Here, there is a very simple idea behind the book (remember the difference between simple and simplistic), which is executed very well.

The key to any book is not how snazzy or clever or complicated it is — it’s simply how well it is done within the parameters set by its own materials. Seen that way, To pick up a stone might as well serve as a study case for photographers (and, hint hint, publishers — I’m so tired of all those Tupperware container books!) for how to make an engaging photobook that forcefully and elegantly communicates the idea of the work.

To pick up a stone; photographs by Claudia den Boer; 120 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.0