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