Springs and Wells

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Between 1897 and 1903, James Reuel Smith traversed Manhattan and the Bronx to documents its disappearing springs and wells. His documentation included taking photographs and ample notes, the latter of which often extended beyond mere descriptions of the sources of water. For example, part of an entry from 16 October 1897 reads: “This spring is some four hundred feet south of the slate-colored building that the Volunteer Army maintains as a home for discharged convicts until suitable employment can be obtained for them. There are now thirty of these men in the home, which is rented from Mr. Shay.”

A little over a century later, Stanley Greenberg followed in Smith’s footsteps to photograph the locations he had detailed. Now, with the exception of Central Park and a few other locations, all of Manhattan and the Bronx is covered with concrete, asphalt, and houses, leaving very little if anything of the land’s original state. Unlike Smith Greenberg didn’t take any notes.

It’s tempting to look at Smith’s photographs as reminders of what was, of what, in other words, has been covered up with layers and layers of materials. This approach would make for a grim exercise, given how transparently unattractive Manhattan’s and the Bronx’s lived environment actually is (as documented by Greenberg in his photographs). Of course, one could say the same about any modern city that has grown rapidly over the course of a single century (a little while ago, I watched a documentary about all the now hidden rivers underneath contemporary Tokyo).

After all, the changes in these 100 years are too vast to allow for the kind of comparisons that can be made when locations are re-photographed that retain enough elements to show a world in flux. Here, in Manhattan and the Bronx, the flux has been too fast — the points in time are spaced too far apart. If someone were to look at the book that has now resulted from Greenberg’s endeavour — it’s entitled Springs and Wells (yet again, a very handsome production by FW:Books), they might be tempted to conclude that two completely different locations are being described (which, in a sense, is true, albeit not in a geographical one).

For me, it is Smith’s texts that offer most insight (if that’s even the right word). More often than not, there will be a number of details in them that open up a glimpse of a different time as much as an openness to observe beyond the purely geographic task at hand. The taste of water at a number of springs and wells is described. You’d imagine that in such a small area there would not be any variations but you’re mistaken. Also: yes, water has a taste (of sorts).

Furthermore, there are all those little idiosyncrasies of life that Smith manages to sneak into his text. Names are given even as the people behind them don’t play a role: for example, there’s the Mr. Shay who has rented out his property. All of these descriptions go beyond the photographic, and they hint at photography being seen differently (if not used differently) at the time when Smith compiled his collections of springs and wells. I’m thinking that he bemoaned not only the disappearance of these sources of water but also the increasing inability of those around him to see more of the world than an area to build on.

But there is another aspect of the book, something that I have been thinking about on and off. Photography appears to be particularly attractive for obsessive people, doesn’t it? There’s something about a camera that invites its users to produce not merely a sampling of something. No, it has to be a complete, exhaustive (-ing) collection of material: things, locations, people — whether it’s water towers or gas tanks or other industrial buildings, the German people, gas stations, springs and wells in Manhattan and the Bronx…

What is it with us photo people being these kinds of creatures?

I’m obviously unable to approach this particular subject matter as an outsider. I not only take my own pictures, I also observe other people’s picture making (and the books and exhibitions that result from them) from the inside, from that place known as photoland. Consequently, I don’t know what this might look like from the outside.

I have not compiled evidence that would hold up to scientific scrutiny. So far, conversations with non-photolandians tend to support my observation. In fact, those outside of our own niche seem to view what I outlined with even more suspicion that I do. We are obsessive people, out to collect our visual treasures in such a way that no detail or no example may be omitted — often at the expense of exactly the lightness of touch that makes so much art art.

Maybe this is what had me connect so much with Smith’s texts and those seemingly irrelevant observations around the springs and wells. Strictly speaking, they’re not relevant — why would have to know the name of a man who rents out some property that’s near a well? But what if the name is the actual point — and not so much the water itself?

I’m not sure, yet, where this would leave me. For sure, it would create an opening in the book that would ask me as a viewer and reader to become mindful of all the things that are excluded when something is done in just an exhaustive photographic fashion.

It seems obvious that this particular consideration is besides the point here. Springs and Wells wasn’t made to have people think about the role of photography. To make this clear, I do not intend my considerations as a criticism of the book. Instead, I want to speak of the opportunity provided by any piece of art, namely that it can trigger a discussion that’s expressly outside of its own bounds.

That, after all, is something else that I see as connected with the obsessiveness and quest for completeness that we witness in photoland so often: I perceive a lack of flexibility, an inability or unwillingness to allow for a discussion to go sideways (I wouldn’t want to necessarily imply a moral statement out of this, so feel free to pick whether you see this as an inability or unwillingness), to dig up Mr. Shay and give him a small and completely irrelevant part of the story.

Maybe we can all learn a thing or two from James Reuel Smith and look out for the Mr. Shays — or someone else, regardless of who he or she or they might do.

Springs and Wells, Manhattan and the Bronx; photographs by James Reuel Smith and Stanley Greenberg; text by James Reuel Smith; 496 pages; FW:Books; 2021


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Course of the Empire?

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“I wanted to show America what an empire in decline looks like.” writes Ken Light in the afterword of his new book Course of the Empire. Let’s unpack this.

To begin with, if you make a photobook you’re not going to reach America. You’re making a book for the tiny sliver of the population that looks at photobooks. Don’t get me wrong, I love photobooks. But not for a second do I believe that the people who look at photobooks (let alone buy them) are in any way representative of the countries or societies they live in.

Furthermore, a hefty coffee-table book is a luxury item. In fact, I’d be happy to argue that most photobooks are luxury items (mine included). Nobody needs a photobook in their life if their basic needs — shelter, general sustenance — aren’t met. In fact, I wager that the majority of people depicted in Course of the Empire wouldn’t be willing or able to buy the book that purports to focus on their lives.

Of course, in an ideal world, photobooks would occupy the same places that other cultural items exist in (novels, movies, etc.). But they don’t. Consequently, I need to focus on the world we have, not the one I want. I don’t necessarily want to get into a discussion of luxury items, given that a discussion might not be as clear cut as you might imagine. But in some ways I like that photobooks are luxury items, and here’s why.

In our world, for many people it’s an investment to buy a photobook. I don’t mean that in the neoliberal way (the way wealthy collectors think about it). Instead, I mean that with limited resources, someone will have to make a decision whether to buy this book or that book. The way I see it, from this fact arises a responsibility for photobook makers: you will have to make something that justifies someone’s investment, that gives the people who buy your book something to chew on.

I suppose you could say: “no, I don’t think people need something to chew on. I think it’s fine to entertain people.” Fair enough. I’ll admit that’s not my line of thinking. But I think it’s obvious from Course of the Empire that it’s not intended to entertain. It’s intended to shake people. I know this because I’ve read the afterword: “Surely we’ve hit bottom,” Light writes, “a nation drunk and stumbling.”

Does the book offer something to chew on, though? In some sense, it does, if  you come from its maker’s place: “THIS IS NOT THE AMERICA I GREW UP IN.” — that’s the title of the afterword (including the all caps). And this brings me back to the quote I started this article with. “I wanted to show America what an empire in decline looks like.” If you start out with your conclusion, how will you be able to arrive at anything other than that, which you already know? What are you going to learn? What are you chewing on?

I’m writing this article on 11 September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the infamous terrorist attacks. You’ll have to believe me that that’s just a coincidence. In fact, had I paid more attention to the calendar instead of merely scheduling my articles by week, I would have done this differently.

I’m also writing this article as someone who was born in another country (I arrived here when I was in my early 30s). If there’s one thing that strikes me about the United States, something that I just don’t see in any other country I know, it is this: the country is completely enthralled with its own rhetoric, a rhetoric that’s hard to reconcile it with actual facts.

For example, NBC Nightly News end each day with a segment entitled Inspiring America. Whatever might happen on a given day, the last thing viewers see is some uplifting piece where you know that in thousands and thousands of households people are reaching for their tissues. Where in Germany the news might end with some report about a dog reunited with its owner, some little story that becomes meaningful because in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t mean anything, here, a little story is used as proof of the ultimate goodness of “the nation”. Everything in the news might have been terrible, but “the nation” still stands tall. That’s agitprop.

But the rhetoric sounds so good, doesn’t it? If you read the declaration of independence, for example, there is a lot of uplifting material in it. It’s written very well. It’s simple to see how one would cling to it as proof of the goodness of the country.

At the time the declaration was written, though, those words actually didn’t apply to many people. If “all men are created equal” how come some of them were slaves? Fast forward to today: former president George W. Bush (responsible for the wars that just ended) decried that “[w]hen it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own.” Need we dive into the reality of that unity, let alone into how Bush was responsible for undermining it a lot further?

Light’s sentiments are the opposite of Bush’s. His afterword also starts out with some ideal times (in this case, the short Kennedy era). From then on, the narrative goes, it all went downhill. But the general lament is the same. It’s the American lament, that, by the way, really only makes sense for white people. “In comparison with a future we don’t want to inhabit,” Maria Stepanova writes, “what has already happened feels domesticated — practically bearable.”

Here’s the thing: You never live in the country you grew up in. It just doesn’t happen. Heraclitus already noted that you can’t step into the same river twice. Things change, ideally (but not always) for the better. What is more, the actual reality of the beauty of past “unity” that Bush invoked (a sentiment that’s frequently mirrored by the current president) and of Light’s Kennedy era doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

In fact, it’s deeply reactionary to long for some supposedly better in the past (regardless of where you might fall on the political spectrum). If you look at the course of history, that approach has mostly been used by the wrong people, often with disastrous consequences.

What I’m after here is the following: if you set yourself up with a problem or challenge, and you pre-program the desired solution to it, then it’s very unlikely that you’re going to learn something, let alone achieve what you’re after. Instead, you’re guaranteed to chronicle your discontent.

For his book, Light crisscrossed the US, to photograph homeless people in a lot of places, county fairs in the so-called heart land, fashion week and a private club in New York City, futures traders in Chicago, various demonstrations in a number of places, congressional hearings, the US-Mexico border, and much more.

I’m reminded of how US news organisations operate. For example, whenever they want to get some input from “real people”, they seek out some diner in the so-called heart land. Apparently, that’s where you can find “real people”. This approach has become so common that it has now resulted in a small industry of critical articles about it (if you’re curious, here’s one: Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia).

The problem with Course of the Empire isn’t that what it depicts isn’t real. The problem is that it remains self contained. In much the same fashion as the photographer didn’t challenge his own thinking while photographing, the resulting book doesn’t challenge the conversation. It’s a book for people who know they want their ideas confirmed, who want to look at art that tells them what they already know.

This is a reflection of a nation that believes in its own rhetoric instead of challenging itself to live up to it.

Photographers have been documenting, say, the homeless for a long time. For sure, homelessness is a pressing issue. And yet, nothing ever changes. You could retreat now and say “but photographs don’t have the capacity to change”. We’d probably agree on that. But it seems to me that the next immediate step would be to ask: why then continue photographing homeless people if the pictures don’t help them one bit? Maybe there are other ways to help (assuming there is a genuine interest in doing so)? Maybe photographic strategies need to change?

I wish I could stop believing in photography’s power. I wish that photography’s power extended beyond the private. In private settings, photography is enormously powerful — just look at how people use picture on social media to talk about their lives (whether or not those pictures are truthful is another matter and also besides the point). But the moment photographs arrive at the larger societal sphere, the power dissipates.

In part, Course of the Empire demonstrates the reason. That reason is not that dissimilar than, say, media outlets desperately trying to get their Saigon helicopter picture in Kabul. Instead of seeing the world for what it was, to make attempts to understand it later, they wanted to see it a certain way, to not even trying to understand anything later (and that’s exactly what has happened since, a few exceptions notwithstanding — make sure to read this article about Afghan women in the countryside).

Whatever you’re trying to look at with your camera, you want to be prepared for the possibility that the world offers something up to you that you couldn’t have foreseen — even (and especially) if what you encounter challenges you to the core. That, and I would argue: only that, is what defines an artist.

If you don’t do that, the risk is to produce something like Course of the Empire, a really well-made book that is sure to satisfy the people who believe in everything inside before they’ve had a look.

Course of the Empire; photographs and text by Ken Light; 276 pages; Steidl; 2021


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Billable Hours in 6-minute increments

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The United States isn’t a country governed by laws. It’s a country governed by lawyers. It would seem that this is a nonsensical statement: aren’t lawyers bound by laws? Well, yes, in theory. In practice, things are very different. In the US, it’s not laws that govern the civic space. It’s the lawyers you can afford to hire (or if you’re a politician, the judges you can install so they do your bidding — just look at what just happened at the US Supreme Court when it let Texas’ insane anti-abortion law stand). Consequently, wealthy individuals or large corporations are at an advantage.

Just take an example: Facebook. The company managed to shut down research into its own practices recently: “the researchers ultimately chose to shut down the project, believing they would face legal action from the company if it continued. Reached for comment, a Facebook representative confirmed the meeting, but denied threatening to sue the project, saying the company was open to find privacy-preserving ways to continue the research.” They don’t even have to threaten to sue. But, *wink wink*, of course everybody knows what’s going on.

Unless you’re a lawyer yourself, you probably don’t know much about their dealings. You might know that there are powerful law firms, and maybe you’ve seen ads on TV where local personal-injury lawyers offer their services. Every once in a while, you might receive some weird looking postcard or email where you’re being informed that you can become part of a class-action suit because of something you bought or used in the past.

Robin Dahlberg, a former lawyer who is married to a lawyer, has firsthand knowledge of the world of law firms. As a consequence, she managed to gain access to this world. Other photographers with enough skill and perseverance might have achieved that as well. But access alone doesn’t make for insight, for knowing what’s going on. For that you need the insider knowledge and experiences you gain from having worked in such an environment.

Billable Hours in 6-minute increments had been making the rounds in its artist-book form for a few years. Now, there is a trade edition (published by Daylight Books). The book presents what’s going on in a law firm following a fictionalized day, using a mix of staged and candid photographs (in a number of the pictures, Dahlberg used herself as a model — see an example above).

The viewer is made to enter the building and the day then unfolds in all of its strange glory, the glory being that these people are getting paid a lot of money to talk to other people who do the same thing, and their clients foot the bill (and live with the consequences). The environment looks incredibly corporate and clean, with the exception of huge, messy piles of paper that pop up in places.

It’s also a very white world, and it’s a world dominated by men. Women are shown as having subaltern roles. For the most part they are depicted as following the men’s leads. Two essays at the end of the book make it very clear how much change is still needed in the world of law firms to increase its diversity (you could obviously say the very same thing about photoland).

What makes the book so interesting is the fact that somehow, Dahlberg was able to inject a sense of humour into the work. There are some echoes of Florian van Roekel‘s How Terry Likes His Coffee where the depiction of the most unremarkable office settings creates a sense of absurdist humour. The crucial difference is that while the Dutch artist presents what looks observed, Dahlberg was willing — and able — to shape photographs where needed.

In other words, there is a clear opinion that forces its way out. And that opinion ties in seamlessly with what was observed, leading to a book where it’s not always clear what was found and what was made. It’s a very convincing fiction, albeit one that accurately reflects the reality of a law firm, as seen by Dahlberg.

If you’re not very interested in what’s going on in a law firm, another way to think about Billable Hours in 6-minute increments is to see it as a visual primer that focuses on power and hierarchies. Almost every photograph in the book speaks to that.

One of my favourite pictures shows five lawyers engaged in a conversation. It’s not clear what they’re talking about, and it doesn’t really matter. What becomes very clear is the sense of power that each one of these men has. They each know their spot in the hierarchy in the law firm — and outside. I look at these men, and I’m convinced I know how they’d behave if I encountered them in real life (whether individually or as a group). If you’ve lived long enough and paid enough attention to how the world is run, you know what I mean.

Lastly, given the relative dearth of photographers shining a light on the rich and powerful, Billable Hours in 6-minute increments is a more than overdue and welcome book. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, the rich and powerful not only bankroll larger parts of photoland (which in very obvious ways mostly shields them from becoming subject matter — what art organization would want to offend the people it stages elaborate fundraising galas for?), they also have the means and power to control whether they are going to be depicted and how.

Recommended.

Billable Hours in 6-minute increments; photographs by Robin Dahlberg; essays by Eleanor Fox and Leigh Gilmore; 96 pages; Daylight Books; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.6