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Every country’s past is contested to some extent. But there might be no country as extreme as Germany. To begin with, there is history that is largely uncontestable: World War 2 and especially the Holocaust. I added “largely” in that sentence because the contesting does happen, albeit at a different level (for example, members of the neo-fascist AfD party have been talking it down, claiming it doesn’t matter as much in the context of German history as a whole). But the basic facts stand, and denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offense.

This uncontestable history is embedded in a large set of highly contestable circumstances that, again, I don’t think you can find so easily anywhere else. After all, today’s Germany was formed recently through the admission of East Germany into the West German political system, a process described as re-unification.

There were some discussions about whether the government of the newly formed country should simply remain in Bonn (where I lived at the time). The options basically were to either keep everything as is and show very openly what German reunification was all about (West Germans taking over the East), or to move things to Berlin, the seat of a number of previous governments, and create a seat if government there. By a narrower margin than you might imagine the latter option was picked.

There were some smart decisions made. The Reichstag was to be the seat of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament (it’s the lower chamber, but unlike in the now dysfunctional US system, Germany’s upper chamber plays almost no role). It had been before, but its history had been complex.

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were granted permission to wrap it first, which created a spectacular display (this fact might say something about the fluidity of the situation at the time more than about German officials caring too much for the arts). Architect Norman Foster was tasked with producing a contemporary update to the Reichstag building, which he did (I think it has aged well so far). Graffiti left over by victorious Soviet soldiers was preserved.

Even as at the time of this writing, the far-right AfD constitutes the largest opposition party, sitting under Foster’s luminous structure while spouting racist and neo-fascist nonsense that evokes a very different time, the Bundestag and Germany’s democratic structure as a whole have so far held up OK under the pressure of populism and the re-emergence of nasty nationalism.

Not all that far from the Reichstag, there had been another parliamentary building, the seat of East Germany’s parliament, the Volkskammer. The Palace of the Republic had been built in the early 1970s at the exact site where the Prussian king’s castle had stood. Given it had suffered extensive damage during the second World War, the castle had been dynamited by the East German (communist) government.

Due to contamination with asbestos, one of the final acts of the Volkskammer had been to close the building. It was completely stripped, and in 2003, the Bundestag decided to have it torn down — against the objections of the majority of East Germans. In its place, it was decided, the castle would be re-constructed. There would be some modifications, and it would also get a palatable name, Humboldt-Forum.

Obviously, slapping the name of two widely admired German polymaths on a structure that’s a reconstruction of a castle that had been used by the Prussian kings doesn’t solve the actual problem. It also doesn’t help the cause when the Ethnological Museum is housed in the new building — a gigantic collection of looted artefacts from the country’s colonial past. The discussions over the Benin Bronzes are just the beginning of what inevitably will be a long-lasting mess.

Consequently, in Berlin — as in many other places in the world — the battle over memory is a battle over stones. Eiko Grimberg‘s Rückschaufehler (Kodoji Press) depicts those stones and the way they were and are used to express state ideology.

The word Rückschaufehler is one of those compound words the German language allows to be constructed so easily. German relies heavily on nouns (hence the compound words), where English focuses so much more on verbs (so everything can be turned into a verb easily). With that in mind I’d translate Rückschaufehler as “looking back in error”.

The book is filled with a large number of marvellous photographs, many of which I wish I had taken for my own Vaterland — even as Grimberg is after something different than I was.

There’s a telling fragment in a photograph that comes very late in the book and that reveals the flawed ideology behind what Berlin has been made to look like. On page 109, a photograph shows what looks like a printed tarp over metal fencing. It’s an advertisement, showcasing some neoliberal architecture — sandstone coloured angular buildings for people who spend the majority of their time on improving their productivity, plus a young very German looking couple from the back.

This is, of course, the new Germany: it’s all sleek and clean, and people value their careers (even as earlier welfare reforms have impoverished larger numbers of people and — what do you know, karma is a bitch after all — all but destroyed the country’s previously proud social-democratic party responsible for them, reducing it to little more than a bunch of snivelling bureaucrats who cater to the urban well off). But the makers of that advert felt compelled to add these words: Von Preußen nach Europa, and right underneath in English the translation from Prussia to Europe.

I think they honestly believed that was a good slogan, not realizing its revelatory power: there’s no way you can reconcile an imperial past with a technocratic, somewhat democratic superstructure. For sure you can’t leapfrog your way over the fascist episode that resulted in the deaths of millions and the most infamous genocide the world has seen, the Holocaust.

How or why this doesn’t work is demonstrated by Grimberg visually, using photographs of facades and stones and surfaces and statues and animals. The animals at the zoo are perhaps the most surprising element in the book. But they each are mirrored by their own representation in the service of state ideology.

One of my favourite pictures comes right on page 1: it’s an oversized bronze eagle with extensive damage to its body, sitting in some storage facility. Not quite two dozen pages later, there’s an actual eagle in the zoo. Much like the US and various other countries, Germany employs a type of eagle as a symbol for its power.

Without symbolism, architecture would be unable to express ideologies. Grimberg zeroes in on the symbolism, to get at the underlying connections and their connective tissues. It’s simple to go to Berlin and to be in awe of what’s on display. It’s a different awe than the one you’d feel in Paris, say. Grimberg invites us to replace that awe with whatever we might be feeling once we pay closer attention to the surfaces and their symbols: what ideology is being expressed here?

You want to look at this because wherever you are in Berlin, a few kilometers away there is an actual fight over ideology happening in the Bundestag, with what had been stashed away by German conservatives for decades now having erupted back into the open: ugly, racist nationalism, combined with antisemitism spread through codes (the codes are universal — you can see them in the US, too).

As is always the case in history, it’s bodies that bear the brunt of the fight — Germans that don’t look German enough (whatever that might even mean) being subject to racist attacks, asylum seekers seeing their homes torched, Germans of Jewish faith subjected to increasing numbers of attacks. These attacks have become so common that they rarely make it beyond local news.

It’s buildings that speak of past fights and ideologies — and of present ones. Even if when you come to Berlin you might not witness an actual physical or verbal attack, the stones are right there for you to see.

Isn’t it interesting that photography can be at its most political when it pretends to focus on mute stones and animals?

Highly recommended.

Rückschaufehler; photographs by Eiko Grimberg; short texts by a number of authors; 116 pages; Kodoji Press; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.6

The Shabbiness of Beauty

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Peter Hujar is one of the most underappreciated American photographers of the late 20th Century — certainly when compared with those pushed by MoMA’s John Szarkowski, whose by now often stale wares are still being frequently exhibited. Hujar’s world isn’t governed by tiresome machismo. Instead, it’s infused with tremendous sensitivity to who or whatever might have been in front of his camera’s lens.

If someone asked me about an artist who is or was good at photographing animals, my immediate first choice would be Hujar. Photographing animals is a little bit like making a collage: it’s very easy to do it in an OK fashion, but it’s very hard to do it very poorly or, and this is what I’m interested in, very, very well.

I don’t think you can photograph an animal if you’re not very much aware of the presence of another living being in front of you, a living being that deserves to be treated with dignity and respect — and with love. But this is just the first step. You’ll also have to approach your subject with the recognition of its own uniqueness — a form of compassion if you will.

As a brief aside, this is why I will neither look at nor review photographs or photobooks that showcase cruelty against animals, such as, for example, bodies of work that deal with hunting: the lack of compassion is an abyss I’d rather not look into (I think as a photographer, you’re deceiving yourself when you think that photographing hunters with their trophies is entirely disconnected from their activities).

My outline of photographing animals contains the same aspects as when dealing with portraits of people (something Hujar also excelled in). But here things are being complicated by the presence of reciprocity: why should someone like Donald Trump be treated with dignity and respect, given he has never shown any in his dealings with other people?

Peter Hujar might have had an answer to this question. Given he is not with us any longer, we will never know what he would have said.

The Shabbiness of Beauty places Hujar’s pictures next to Moyra Davey‘s. It was Davey who made the selections and who developed the sequence of the book. In other words, here we have a collaboration of sorts between two unique artists, one living, one dead.

Before talking more about the photographs, I feel that Eileen Myles needs to be acknowledged as the other major contributor. Right at the beginning of the book, there is an extended meditation about the photographs that the poet wrote while engaging with them. You can read the full piece here. It’s a marvellous piece of writing that I’ve had to read several times to be able to fully grasp all of its nuances. The book’s title is taken from it.

After the essay, there are the photographs. At first sight it’s not clear which ones are Hujar’s and which ones are Davey’s: there are no captions. There’s are two lists at the end of the book that provide the information. This solution was the right thing to do: captions or a reveal in situ would have destroyed parts of the dialogue.

Having looked at them many times now, I think I can tell the difference. But it’s possible that I’m deceiving myself here and there. Davey is able to approach the world with a sensitivity that is in tune with Hujar’s, even where pictures were made to correspond with his.

There are slight differences, and for the most part I couldn’t know what they are (Davey’s animal photographs aren’t as felt as Hujar’s). These differences don’t take away from the book. Instead, they serve to remind the viewer that this is a conversation. I’m interested in these differences, because they hint at the richness of photography that exists in the worlds of these two artists.

I’d love to see more of these kinds of projects, where a fellow artist dives into an archive — instead of curators or people intending to tell a story we already know. This is not to say that curators are unable to connect with an artist’s sensibility (many of them are); but they lack access to the anxiety and occasional terrors that come with the process of creation.

Moyra Davey brings what feels like endless generosity to the endeavour of putting together her pictures alongside Hujar’s. That’s not a given, either. All-too-often, encounters between artists end up being driven less by openness toward the partner and more by a sense of competition, of unvoiced rivalry.

I suppose it’s a little bit easier to approach someone’s work if they’re dead and are thus unable to push against ideas. But I don’t think that’s the case here. That’s not why this is working so well.

To some extent, my looking at the photographs is informed by the fact that I have read Davey’s Index Cards, a collection of the artist’s most recent writing. While I found the collection to be a bit uneven, its best pieces betray an artist whose looking at the world always comes with ample looking at herself (it is this aspect that’s almost entirely absent from Szarkowski’s photo-macho crowd).

Maybe this is what makes a great artist: someone who knows that looking at the world always also entails looking at herself, that taking a picture from the world means including an aspect of herself, that making a picture without a large amount of generosity can lead to good, but rarely to great results.

Highly recommended.

The Shabbiness of Beauty; photographs by Peter Hujar and Moyra Davey, edited by Moyra Davey; essays by Eileen Miles and Moyra Davey; 128 pages; MACK; 2021

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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Kosuke Okahara’s Dreams

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Photographs are taken from this world by machines that are operated by the people we call photographers. Despite the fact that there exists considerable artifice in a photograph, causing a rift between what it shows (and how it does that) and the world itself, as viewers we instinctively jump from the picture to the world, coming to conclusions that often (if this were a different essay I’d use “usually”) have nothing to do with the world and everything with us.

By “us” I mean both photographers and viewers. The second major simplification that is commonly made is that somehow, photographers and their viewers are members of distinct, non-overlapping communities. It is true, many photographers, whether they’re photojournalists or the people who call themselves artists, cherish that idea. But the reality is that while photographers take the pictures, their mental (political, societal, …) processing is done by a larger community that they cannot untether themselves from, their frequent noises notwithstanding.

Photographs, in other words, are opinions that might have occasional truth value. For sure, they often don’t reflect our lives reality any more faithfully than the spoken word. We have agreed to suspend this basic fact under certain circumstances. For example, there is an agreement that the photographs used in ID cards are accurate depictions, and people usually don’t argue with the doctors over whether or not a leg is broken when an Xray image shows as much. But look at the worlds of photojournalism and documentary photography to see areas where this suspension is heavily contested.

Things have now obviously got a lot worse as the far right in Western (and other societies) has begun to undermine the idea of truth, to replace it with belief: something is not true because it’s true (meaning: there exists evidence for it), it’s true because dogma (or some leader) decrees it to be true (even if there is ample evidence to the contrary). Thus, global warming isn’t real (it very much is), the US presidential election was stolen (it absolutely wasn’t), COVID is a myth (it very much isn’t), etc.

Kosuke Okahara is a Japanese photographer who originates from the very traditional model of documentary photography, with his work covering larger social issues. Much like many of his peers, his work has taken him to Okinawa, which is Japan’s Hawaii of sorts (for more details, see my review of the Mao Ishikawa catalog).

I suppose when you go to Okinawa as a photographer from mainland Japan, the first question might be: what exactly can you say or do that hasn’t been done many times before? What else is there left to say about the place if you’re an outsider and if you’re possibly wondering about the possibilities and limitations of documentary photography?

In Japan, the idea that ours is just one world, with another one (or maybe more) existing in parallel is never far away. For example, one of the country’s most important holidays centres on the Obon Festival, when families gather and the spirits of their ancestors return briefly on that occasion. I can’t think of a Western equivalent, given that spirits (or maybe ghosts) are not part of our regular culture and now mostly exist as characters in horror movies. The festival is Buddhist. Shinto features a variety of similar ideas, with other types of spirits inhabiting objects.

Whatever you want to make of this, regardless of whether you believe in a world existing in parallel to our own, at their very core such beliefs address the questions of what is real, what is the truth, what can we know? As a documentary photographer, you can’t really ask yourself this question easily because how can you even document something if you can’t be sure that you can arrive at a truth?

Blue Affair, which exists as a video piece and a photobook, could have easily become your run-of-the-mill documentary-photography project. Instead, Okahara presents the photographs in a very different fashion. The structure of the video and the book is very similar. Given the differences in the media, they play out slightly differently. Still, they’re similar enough for me to describe them in the same way in the following.

To begin with, there are various encounters with people in Koza, the town in Okinawa Okahara took pictures in. It’s not clear what the connections between the photographer and the people in front of his camera are. For example, there is a couple who, we are told, asks him to come over. When he does, he finds them in the middle of having sex. Why or how this happens we are not told — are they strangers (what kind of strangers call up a photographer to be depicted in the act?), are they friends (same question basically)? We don’t know.

In another brief episode, Okahara meets up with a woman in a dingy hotel room. There, she proceeds to tell him some stories about her life that aren’t revealed. She’s married, she has children. Why or how she would meet the photographer and what else might have happened we are not told.

Other episodes are found, such as when there are a number of people sleeping in the streets, possibly because they’re too drunk to go home (an occurrence so common in Japan that I got used to seeing it during my two trips there). There’s a cock fight somewhere, a woman walks into the ocean, a heavily tattooed woman on psychiatric medication talks about her life…

Each and every of these episodes is introduced in the same fashion, with the photographer saying (in the book, it’s written) “I have the same dream”. Given everything appears to be happening at night, it’s a succession of dreamlike episodes that are clear enough for them to make(at least some) sense. But there are no details, no names, no explanations who people are and/or why the photographer might be dealing with them in the first place. It’s very intriguing.

Kosuke Okahara set out to move beyond the restrictions of documentary photography, and he ended up far away. Both in book and video form, Blue Affair demonstrates how the limitations of photography become a lot more interesting not when you try to fix them (something documentary photographers have to do) but when you embrace them.

Looking at the video and at the book, I feel the heat of the place depicted: it’s hot and humid, and it makes people do things they might regret the day after.

Blue Affair; photographs and text by Kosuke Okahara; text by Tatsuya Ishikawa; 192 pages; self-published; 2020

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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Encampment, Wyoming

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In 1899, on her sixteenth birthday, Lora Webb Nichols received her first camera from a man who was courting her. Two years later, they got married and had two children. Unlike her love of photography, the marriage didn’t last and neither did the local economy. She remarried, had four more children, and opened the Rocky Mountain Studio to make some money for the family. In 1935, after her mother had died, Webb Nichols moved out to California, only to return to Encampment, the small Wyoming town she grew up in, twenty years later.

We know all of this because Lora Webb Nichols kept a diary. The diary and 24,000 of her images survived the passage of time and made it into the archive named after the photographer. Interestingly, Webb Nichols included other people’s photographs in her collection as well: clients, family members, employees. A selection from the archive has now been compiled by Nicole Jean Hill and published as Encampment, Wyoming by FW:Books (yet another incredibly handsome production by this publisher).

These days, it is almost inevitable that in any book that contains portraits, there is talk of German photographer August Sander. I find this unfortunate. To begin with, in nine out of ten cases, the similarity between Sander and the other photographer literally is just the fact that both took portraits. Beyond that aspect, though, it’s really not that clear what is actually being gained from using Sander as the yard stick for portrait photography. Thus, let’s forget about Sander here. The pictures in this book for sure do not have much, if anything, to do with his work.

If we wanted to compare these pictures with anything, I’d suggest the photographs coming out of the Latvian studio in the small town of Strenči that were published as a very similar collection, Glass Strenči (which was sold out when I reviewed it, but there now is a second print run). In their own ways and despite their vast differences, Strenči and Encampment were border towns that were inhabited by a large variety of colourful characters and that happened to have very talented photographers in their midst.

For me, this is the real appeal of these books: to accept the fact that they were border towns means to implicitly reject the idea that whatever imagery might arise from them would have to follow the conventions of major industrial cities. Many of the pictures in Encampment, Wyoming are playful and endearing in a way that August Sander was never able to get at, to a large extent because he was after something completely different.

I can’t help but come back to Sander because the frequency with which he is being referenced hints at the hierarchy that very unfortunately has been established in photography. Photographers, photo curators, and writers desperately wanted their beloved medium to be accepted as an art form. The price they were willing to pay to achieve that goal was for photography becoming established in a very truncated fashion. There now are the serious photographers (many of them white, male, privileged) who serve as the goal posts, and there is the sorry rest of the world of photography who will have to conform to those ideas.

This is a very reductive approach to photography. It will prevent people from understanding the beauty and merit of the photographs made by Lora Webb Nichols (and the other photographers in her archive). That beauty and merit arises from the pictures themselves. As viewers, we will have to engage with them on their terms only.

Most of the photographs in the book are portraits, and they’re simply incredible. In part, they derive their charm from what you encounter in almost any old photograph that you can buy on eBay: you see that someone tried to make a meaningful, deeply felt picture of another person, without being too concerned with learned conventions. It would be too simplistic to call this approach naive, even though in many ways it is. But the naiveté immediately removes the layer of artifice that especially in that era would have been created in a city studio.

Unlike most of the pictures you can buy on eBay, the vast majority of these pictures is a notch better. They’re more considered, because here you had someone with a good eye and deep immersion in the medium taking pictures. I wish there were a good term for this type of photography that has a foot in the vernacular and one foot in the arts.

In many ways, the pictures in Encampment, Wyoming are very American, especially in the sense that would appeal to all of those who now yearn back to “the good old days”, with their rugged frontier spirit — and the exclusion of anything and anyone that isn’t white. I don’t think there is a way where a read of this book could exclude this aspect.

After all, regardless of when the pictures were made, they are now being viewed under very specific circumstances. Wyoming has two senators and one representative in the House (the latter of which currently is in the news). Washington, DC, which has a larger population, has no senators (this fact has also been in the news).

It seem clear that these two things exist in parallel: an accurate photographic depiction of a place and its (settler-colonial) people in the past and a nativist fever dream of the country’s far right — one of its two main parties — in the present.

Even if photographs take a place and people from its time and preserve them, they can and often will have very strong repercussions for another (or here: the same larger) place and people today. This is why photography, unlike painting, can have such potent, urgent power.

I’m hoping that at some stage, there will be a smart exhibition (or book) that brings together photographs made in Encampment, Wyoming with those made in Strenči and in all those other places where such images were created. Ideally, this exhibition would not be one of those “outsider artist” ones, which use the artificial standards that are so commonly used to treat photography in museum contexts.

Instead, Lora Webb Nichols’ pictures speak of a very different sensibility as far as photography is concerned. It’s photography that’s closer to its subjects, a closeness that throws the sociopolitical circumstances in which is was made into sharp relief. I’m hoping that there will be such an exhibition because this would force us as viewers to engage more deeply with what is on view and with how what we’re looking at reflects our own times.

It’s fine to admire the high arts; but it’s also too easy to walk away from it (through the exit in the gift shop). Lora Webb Nichols’ photographs don’t allow us to walk away so easily.

Highly recommended.

Encampment, Wyoming; photographs by Lora Webb Nichols (and others); edited by Nicole Jean Hill; texts by Nancy F. Anderson, Nicole Jean Hill; 208 pages; FW:Books; 2020

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: longer, in-depth essays about books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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Dawoud Bey’s Street Portraits

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I’m looking at the picture of a young boy. He is sitting on what might be the front step of a house: to his left, there’s a screen door that he’s holding open with his knee. The young boy’s arms are crossed, resting on his knees. Maybe it’s the pressure from the screen door that has him slightly tense, maybe it’s the fact that there’s a stranger with a camera in front of him, to take his picture. There’s defiance in his look, the kind of defiance that boys his age often share: they’ve discovered the fact that they’re their own people in this world, a world that they need to push against. Eventually, they will be men, and as a young boy you become very conscious of the role of men and the way they appear to have to act.

I’m looking at the picture of a young women. I am slightly undecided whether I should call her a girl or a young woman because I can’t tell her age. But there’s enough for me in the picture to decide that “girl” is the wrong word. Much like the boy, she is physically constrained by her environment. At first, I thought it was another door. But now I see that she is leaning against the frame of a shop window (given what I can see, it looks like a deli to me). Much like the boy, she meets my gaze (or rather the camera’s, but of course I’m bypassing that detail) while holding her right arm in front of her, pressing it against the shop window’s timber frame. I can’t help but see a slight hesitancy in the way she looks at the camera: she knows something that I will never know.

As I’m making my way through Dawoud Bey‘s Street Portraits, I’m looking at a lot of boys and girls, young women and men, older women and men. Almost all of them look back at me, which has me curious about them and their life experiences. Some smile, many more are serious. A lot of them must have thought about how they wanted to present themselves to the photographer’s camera, while others look like they were just happy to be in the picture. Where all-too-often, art photography falls on the serious side — people tend not to smile, here the pictures are not that. They’re serious, but I’m sensing that the photographer was more interested in his subjects being themselves than in shaping them for his pictures.

I couldn’t take these pictures. To begin with, I’m usually too timid to ask strangers whether I might photograph them. But I’m also someone different in more ways than one. All the portraits in Street Portraits show African American people, and I’m a white German guy. There’s more than one world between the people in the pictures and me. There’s the world that’s between me and any person who was born and grew up in this country (I’m an immigrant; legal lingo: resident alien). And there’s everything that over the course of the past few years has been brought to the forefront by writers such as Ibram X. Kendi or Ta-Nehisi Coates. I am, to use Michael Rothberg‘s term, an implicated subject — like many people in more ways than just one.

The camera is a terrifying tool. Simply by pressing its shutter button when taking a picture of another person, a photographer will place her or his subject somewhere on the spectrum that has the Other at one extreme end and whatever the complete opposite of the Other is at the other. It’s tempting to think that this is a big problem only for photographers. But as Maggie Nelson makes clear in The Art of Cruelty, it’s too easy for an audience to place the onus only on the maker. “As Susan Sontag has justly observed […],” she writes, “focusing on the question of whether or not an image retains the capacity to produce a strong emotion sidesteps the problem that having a strong emotion is not the same as taking an action.”

Over the past few years especially, as I’ve seen a great many discussions about photographs play out on social media (obviously not the greatest environment for such discourse: you can and usually will have strong emotions, but what or where are the actions?), I’ve ventured more and more into the territory explored by Nelson when approaching photography in general (not just when dealing with what I perceive as cruelty). Photography is a great tool to work with if you want to engage with the world as an implicated subject: its visual immediacy can force you to strongly challenge your beliefs (even if occasionally you end up confirming them later). If the act of photographing can make a person vulnerable (because they’re in front of a camera), the same is true for the act of looking at photographs (albeit in different ways).

It is the sheer humanity on display in Bey’s Street Portraits that has had a profound effect on me. I remember feeling the same way when, for example, first encountering Ernest Withers’ photographs from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike that would later be echoed by some of the imagery coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even without a person holding a sign that says “I am a man” (as in the 1968 strike) or “I am a woman”, “I am a human being”, photography can remind us of the fact that by depicting a person’s face and body in a picture we, as viewers, are facing another human being whom we might be indebted to in however indirect a fashion.

After all these years of looking at pictures, of making them, of teaching others to look at them or make them, I still couldn’t say with certainty why people fall where they fall on that spectrum that I spoke of earlier. I have a good idea what you have to do to other people. But how to avoid that, or rather what to do to avoid it — it’s not clear cut. Good intentions, for example, help, but they don’t guarantee anything.

Maybe, and this is the possibly most useless explanation I could offer, it’s the feeling of a shared humanity beyond the very broad one that we all have in common. There will have to be something that has the photographer connect very deeply with the people s/he is photographing. The quote by Maggie Nelson continues as follows: “‘You do not necessarily feel [compassion],’ Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa once warned a student who was worrying about how to act compassionately without feeling it first. ‘You are it.'” I’m not a Buddhist, but this makes perfect sense to me.

This is the essence of what I see in Dawoud Bey’s photographs, and it is what the photographer shares with all of us. We ought to be very grateful for that.


Street Portraits; photographs by Dawoud Bey; essay by Greg Tate; 120 pages; MACK; 2021

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: longer, in-depth essays about books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.