The Hotel

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I don’t know what I was thinking. When I saw the announcement for Sophie Calle‘s The Hotel, I knew that I was familiar with the work, having seen it in Double Game. But I didn’t realize that that earlier book contained the entirety of it, meaning that when I received the new book in the mail and read “originally published […] in Double Game” I felt that I could (should?) have been paying more attention. The Hotel is a handsome production. But in a number of ways, it doesn’t quite reach the quality of Double Game: the latter’s paper feels like, well, paper and not like sheets of plastic, and the overall layout and design of the work — condensed, with the photographs being rather small — works in its favour as well. Thus, if you own a copy of Double Game, you don’t need this new book.

Maybe I remembered The Hotel from the earlier book only faintly because situated next to The Chromatic Diet, The Striptease, or Suite vénitienne, The Hotel feels weak. It lacks the droll artistic wit showcased in The Chromatic Diet. Unlike in The Striptease there’s absolutely nothing at stake for its maker. Lastly, The Hotel results from removing everything that makes Suite vénitienne so interesting, to leave behind a rather uninteresting core.

At this stage, I should probably note that in general, I am a big admirer of Sophie Calle and her work. If I had to describe Calle in just a few words, I would say that unlike any other artist I know, she has managed to tie her own vulnerability to her audience’s, implicating both (!) for their respective failures to lead a more meaningful life — and this means: a life less governed by artificial, societal conventions that only serve to suppress our shared humanity.

This description points at how I view any of Calle’s books (it is the book, after all, that is this artist’s perfect medium). My description is not intended to imply that the relationship between herself and her readers is always one of equals — quite on the contrary. A larger number of the artist’s works centers on the gender imbalance between men and women. (Last year, Alice Blackhurst wrote about the problem posed by the fact that Calle’s work is centered in a very bourgeois hetereonormative setting. That is a fair and timely commentary, which points in a different direction than the one I intend to make below.)

In many of her works, Calle subverts the power dynamic between men and women, at times directly or indirectly making the male gaze her subject matter. The Striptease documents work she did as a sex worker, work almost custom made for the late John Berger’s description of the male gaze: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. […] The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (quoted from: Ways of Seeing) Suite vénitienne had Calle turn the tables by doing what (heterosexual) men typically do when they are “on the prowl”: she followed a man to Venice and tried to find out as much as possible about him. In The Address Book, she does the same with another man, albeit in a different fashion.

Referencing surrealist André Breton and the artists of the Situationist International, Stuart Jeffries writes that “traces of these avant-gardists’ loathing for bourgeois values, and their strategies to escape the tedium and uniformity capitalism imposes on those who live under it, are echoed in her work. […] Yet,” and this is where it gets interesting, “there is no sense in her work that there is a more authentic way of being. Her art is critique rather than search for utopia beyond the dystopia of today.” (quoted from: Everything, All The Time, Everwhere; Verso 2021) One might ask whether it’s an artist’s duty to do that, to “search for utopia beyond the dystopia of today.” I am more and more tempted to say that it is, but your mileage might vary.

Ignoring this aspect, there is the other major one, especially concerning The Address Book and The Hotel: privacy. “[P]rivacy itself,” Jeffries writes, “might be thought of as akin to property — a commodity amassed and defended most assiduously by the powerful, whose loss provokes the biggest outcry from those who have most invested in the existing late-capitalist order. From this perspective, which I suspect is the perspective of Calle, Proudhon was right to say property is theft, but he should have added: privacy is theft, too.” (ibid.)

When I read this against the context of Suite vénitienne and The Address Book (the context used by Jeffries), I found myself agreeing. But now that I’ve (re-)looked at The Hotel, I’m not so sure any longer. Or rather, maybe it’s the setup of this work that has me ask for something a little bit deeper. I suppose it’s one thing to have a woman artist pit herself against a man and openly violate what society has been taking for granted. Even decades after those works were made, they still feel relevant, mostly because as far as I can tell, the situation of people who are not straight men has not dramatically improved in my life time. In fact, completely new entities that didn’t exist forty years ago now replicate the very same power structures that would have been very much familiar back then (just look at how social media’s “community guidelines” cement the status of white, heterosexual men at the expense of everybody else). It is when that aspect falls away that things get iffy for the French artist.

“On Monday, February 16, 1981,” Sophie Calle writes at the beginning of The Hotel, “I was hired as a temporary chambermaid  for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. […] On the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed, through details, lives which remained unknown to me.” The book’s structure is simple. Rooms are covered for the duration of (a) guest(s) stay. This begins with room 25, February 16-19, with a man occupying the room. Calle photographs some of his belongings and reads (quotes from) his diary.

This sets the stage for the rest of the book. One room, some period of time, a guest or, frequently, a couple staying in the room, the artist rummaging through their belongings, occasionally picking up spoken words. Ignoring the ethical problem of the rifling through personal belongings for a bit, one might imagine that this would result in at least something of interest. But no, for the most part, Calle encounters the mundane. As time passes and the reader makes her or his way through the book, s/he can’t help but feel how the artist herself got disillusioned by the paucity of the assembled material. As a reader, I found myself turning the pages faster and faster. That’s never a good sign for a book.

Of course, my reaction is based on an expectation (even if I wouldn’t necessarily want to admit this to myself): obviously, I’m wanting to come across some major revelation or at least some form of excitement. But it turns out that other people’s lives are just as ordinary as mine. In fact, I suspect that if someone were to rummage through my belongings in a hotel room, they might find more interesting material: the occasional rare art book, for example, a bunch of vernacular photographs or magazines picked up at some flea market… Or maybe I’m indirectly thinking my own interests are more interesting that other people’s? Obviously, I would not want anyone to rifle through my stuff any more than, I suspect, the people who stayed at that hotel in early 1981.

Still, I like my art to be on the subversive side, regardless of whether it’s the one I look at or the one I make. But what exactly is subversive in Calle’s endeavour? Part of what bothers me about The Hotel is that its equal-opportunity subversiveness, where each room is being investigated, regardless of who occupies it. It’s questionable how subversive equal-opportunity subversiveness really is: it’s not at all the same thing, but would we call a toddler in their “no phase” subversive? I think not.

Furthermore, the blanket invasion of privacy demonstrated in The Hotel has not aged very well in light of the drastic decrease of privacy afforded to us today. If I were to imagine a Sophie Calle going about her hotel-room work today, she might find out a lot more if she were to simply monitor the guests’ social-media profiles and paid a little money to get access to data stored by data-mining companies. Obviously, this is not to defend the fact that corporations have trashed our idea of what privacy means, and it’s also not to excuse the fact that many people share more on social media about their lives than is actually healthy for them.

It’s also where Jeffries’ comment about privacy fall short, given that he notes that a person’s ability to voice her or his displeasure about a reduction of privacy (a voice that in our societies is tied to wealth and status) says something about the general populace’s approach to the topic. If poor people (literally) can’t afford access to more privacy that doesn’t mean that privacy itself is a bourgeois entity — it just means that our societies are stacked in favour of the wealthy and powerful (more often than not, this includes photographers). Furthmore, unlike property, privacy cannot actually amassed. This is one of the few, relatively minor details in his otherwise excellent book where I found myself in disagreement with the author.

If, as Jeffries wrote, Calle’s art is indeed supposed to be the “critique rather than search for utopia beyond the dystopia of today”, then I don’t think that this idea applies to The Hotel: where exactly is the critique? There’s no utopia, and there’s no critique. What is there? I’m reluctant to spell it out: Instead, what I’m left with is what I’d consider an at best minor work by an artist that I have a lot of respect for, a work that might have been better served had it not been reissued.

I suppose that some pieces of art age differently than others. This bums me out, even as I console myself with the fact that there is all of Sophie Calle’s other work that I can (and will) still enjoy.

Sophie Calle — The Hotel (Siglio, 2021)

A Conversation with Anne Schwalbe

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Anne Schwalbe is one of those photographers who have created their own niche. Where other artists’ Instagram accounts showcase prices they won or books they’ve published, Anne fills hers with photographs of gardens, information about all kinds of plants that apparently are perfectly edible, hand-sewn clothes, and living in and renovating a house that looks as if it were part of an open-air museum of traditional village life. Her photography summarizes this kind of sensibility very well, and I had wanted to talk to her about her work for a while.

In late December 2021, we connected via Zoom. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it has been translated from its original German.

Jörg Colberg
How did you get started with photography?

Anne Schwalbe
I had been interested in photography for a very long time. In sixth grade already I had a black and white course in school. During the application period for my high school diploma, I applied for a photography apprenticeship at a passport photo studio and at Lette Verein. But neither of those worked out. Afterwards, I thought I couldn’t take pictures, so I didn’t take pictures for a long time.

I then started a voluntary ecological year but dropped out because I was training to be a publishing-house clerk. I thought that would be a great and safe job, but I dropped out again because it was totally boring. Afterwards, I studied German and Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin because I still didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have the confidence to do the things I wanted to do! I finished my studies because I wanted to get my degree. But after two years, I realized that it wasn’t my thing either, because I’m not a theory person. I prefer practical work. The whole time, I had a part-time job in a flower shop. I was very happy about that because I was able to work with my hands.

I somehow got through my studies, with half a year in Belgium. During my studies, I learned black and white enlargement in a media workshop in Berlin. Starting in 1999, I had been photographing more, and I did a lot of photography in Belgium, always using black and white and 35mm film. I saw an article about the school Fotografie am Schiffbauerdamm, the predecessor of Ostkreuzschule. It had been co-founded by Arno Fischer. I applied with my black-and-white pictures, had an interview with Werner Mahler and was accepted. I can still remember the interview very clearly. Werner Mahler looked through my portfolio twice, which gave me hope. Werner Mahler then did not stay at the school and half of the class left with him. We had half a year of private lessons at Ute and Werner Mahler’s home, which was great. Soon after, the Ostkreuz School of Photography was founded, and we were the first class to graduate from it.

JC
Black-and-white 35mm film is rather different than medium format, colour. How did things change?

AS
Early on, I continued to work with 35mm black-and-white and also colour film. At some stage, Werner Mahler said, “It’s all much too perfect. Every picture is much too perfect. There’s a break missing. There are no breaks. Why don’t you try a different format?” A few people from my class looked into which good, inexpensive medium-format cameras were available. Someone found the Yashica Mat 125G, and we bought it. Since then, which was about 2004, I’ve been shooting medium-format, colour film always with that camera.

JC
And everything using colour film?

AS
Yes. The analog process in the lab is very important to me. Colour is not easy. In the end, it is quite time-consuming to get the right set of filters that you want. I know there are people who have a printer and process the image on the computer. But I’m just not that good with the computer. I could learn to do it, but it would be a completely new process. I would have to spend an insane amount of time and money to get into it. I’m simply used to the analog process.

In the lab, I deal very intensively with the image. I can decide much better whether I like it or not, how I want the colours, the brightness… I imagine this to be much more complicated on a computer with a printer next to it.

I am a member of the PS15 laboratory community in Berlin-Neukölln. We have a Colenta enlarger with 60cm inlet width and share rent, chemistry costs, etc.

JC
Personally, I find that lab prints have more atmosphere. I can’t remember any artist whose inkjet prints impressed me. They’re always so impersonal. They all look the same. On the other hand, I’m not interested in the cult around the lab.

AS
I like the end result of the process. I’m happy about that. The process itself is also exhausting. You stand in the dark lab for hours, make test strips… Then the machine doesn’t work, there’s a problem with the chemistry, something is wrong with the lens… It’s not like I stand in the lab and think, “Hooray, I’m back in the lab.” I’m mostly happy about the results. I think the process itself is very important. I also think that analog photographs have much more atmosphere. The whole process behind it is probably noticeable. But I also hang newspaper clippings on my walls.

JC
In your online store there are also cheaper prints made on cardboard, right? Maybe for people who don’t necessarily have the money to afford a large print?

AS
Yes, I thought that was a good thing to do. I have the impression that my photographs don’t appeal to people who put conceptual art into their drawers. Instead, people buy them who really want to hang them on a wall. So I thought it was good to have cheaper things to reach more people.

I had the same experience with my first book Blindschleiche und Riesenblatt, which reached a lot of people. I’m happy when the pictures hang somewhere and don’t lie in a drawer. All in all, my books are very important. I have reached many people through them, and a lot of things have happened because of my books. Currently I have ideas for five more books. I hope I can make all of them happen.

JC
You studied literature. Do you feel that has had an influence on how you see photography?

AS
I wouldn’t necessarily study it again, but somehow, it certainly helps me. After all, I spent five years writing and researching and writing and thinking about texts. It certainly has an influence, without me being able to say anything concrete. Language is still very important to me. I always think very long and hard before I write anything. I really strongly dislike platitudes and exaggerations. I’m very sensitive to that.

JC
How would you describe your photography?

AS
I find it hard to describe. I know that you say that every photographer should be able to describe their work. I’ve tried many times to find something for submissions to competitions, but I still find it complicated. At some point I came up with a few sentences that work for me: “I reduce reality to what is essential for me. This results in very calm, powerful images. I always work very intuitively, without using fully developed concepts.” I don’t think that’s all that wrong. I also photograph mainly nature.

There is a text about my work that sums it up very well: “Schwalbe photographs her surroundings intuitively, with no preconceived ideas. Compiled in a publication or hanging together in an exhibition, the photos become the lines of a poem. Anne Schwalbe visualizes stillness, providing another voice and a welcome change from the contemporary visual bombardment. With no reference to location or other narrative aspects, she reveals what has caught her notice, or the things that fascinate her. (…) each image has its own strength and tells its own story in the mind of the viewer.” (Foam Museum for Photography, Amsterdam)

JC
I thought of two things about your work. I don’t know to what extent you would say they apply. On the one hand, I see a meditative element in your work. And the images are relatively simple. I mean that in a positive manner, not at all as a criticism. They are very quiet. What do you make of that?

AS
Yes, definitely. I like simple things a lot. Simple is totally positive for me.

JC
I also find simple very beautiful. Simple is always the best. That’s one of the most difficult pieces of advice when I work with photographers: in the beginning, keep it simple. You can make it more difficult later. But simple itself is really not so easy. For you it seems relatively easy, though.

AS
When I’m taking pictures, I’m completely immersed in the process and in the picture, more concentrated than anywhere else. I am very focused on the picture. Most of the time I see the framing very quickly. I feel that this is almost like a form of communication with the object or the plant. Sometimes I take a number of frames, sometimes only a single one. For the Japan series, there often is only a single frame.

Recently, I photographed sheep on the island of Rügen. That made a lasting impression on me. I had a few hours alone, and I was fully concentrated in the company of about 400 sheep. I find the photographs incredibly calming. It makes me look forward to the process in the lab, enlarging them.

But I also think that achieving good simple things is very complicated. For example, when I wanted to make my first book, I approached designer Birgit Vogel who had done Ein Magazin Über Orte. I liked that so much. It was incredibly plain and simple, a very simple design. But that is precisely what is so complicated. I’m not a graphic designer myself. That’s why I asked her because I wanted my book to be just as simple and straightforward.

JC
Is it possible that this is where your affinity for Japan comes from? You photographed there as well.

AC
It’s possible. The Japanese have an incredible talent for simplicity… You might find the branch of a plant somewhere in some space — and it’s perfect. Anything else would be too much. I often walked through stores or spaces and asked myself, “OK, what’s different here? Why does it look the way it does? And how can they create such an atmosphere with so few things in a way that you can’t find anywhere else in the world?” Of course, there now are stores in Berlin where you can see that. But in Japan it’s much more common. There seems to be a natural talent for it there.

I was also very impressed by an open-air museum near Tokyo that has 20 to 25 old Japanese wooden houses. I’ve been to Japan twice. Both times, I went there. They have wooden houses from different areas that were rebuilt there. They’re just empty rooms. And these spaces have such great vibrancy and impact. The museum is called Japan Open Air Folk House Museum. I highly recommend visiting.

I also think that Japanese people are much more sensitive than, for example, Germans. There, no one bumps into anyone else, even when it’s really busy. They seem to have more antennas and more sensitivity. This is one of the many other aspects that I find very interesting in Japan.

JC
Speaking of wooden houses, you bought your own old house in the countryside, didn’t you?

AS
Yes, at the Elbe river, right in the middle between Berlin and Hamburg. I first came there in 2003 for an Ostkreuzschule trip. We went there as a class and immediately liked the place a lot. We were able to stay in a very nice house owned by a restorer and decided that as a class we would do a project there. We photographed for half a year, collected sponsorship money, and made an exhibition and a book. I learned an incredible amount about how to make a book, how to make an exhibition, how to raise money. Also about photographing… [laughs] That’s how I got to know this beautiful place.

JC
What I see on Instagram of course is not Japanese. But in some ways, it’s also reduced, a bit simpler. Maybe a bit like pre-modern life.

AS
The house needs to be renovated. I want and need to do a lot there this year. The foundation has to be redone. The floors all have to be insulated. Now, I’m there very often and enjoy it very much. I also take a lot of pictures there. More than half of my pictures were taken there. I often think about it.

At the moment, daily life begins with me getting up and heating the kitchen stove. Sometimes, when there’s no fire wood the very first thing I have to do is to chop wood. Then I heat water on the wood stove or sometimes with a kettle because there is no hot water in the house, yet. Sometimes, I go for a run across the meadows. When I come back, the water is hot and the kitchen is warm. Then I go and take a shower in the yard: first a bowl of hot water, then a cold shower. Cold showers are much easier outdoors than indoors! And I feel great afterwards!

Of course, sometimes I also want to have warm water available. Of course, I like taking a warm shower. I’m trying to figure it out. But I also somehow find the slow steps very pleasant. Everything falls away. Here in Berlin I also heat water, but I do it on the gas stove. Then I take a shower, which is immediately warm. There, it all falls away. Everything takes a very long time, much longer than in this “normal” life. At the same time, there’s something calming about it.

I’m a big fan of manual labor: washing dishes, chopping wood, sewing, cracking nuts… I find all of that very enjoyable. I think that’s why I like it there so much. It’s just calming. But sometimes it’s annoying. I don’t want to romanticize it. When the kitchen is cold and I don’t have hot water right away, or when I have to chop wood…

I think about what it does to you when you have these quiet, slow, elaborate processes.

JC
You also have a garden and a column in ZEIT magazine. For that, you talk to people who do garden work. I don’t want to put too much meaning on this, but somehow that has something to do with the meaning of life, doesn’t it?

AS
Yes. In this week’s edition of ZEIT magazine, there is an article about the meaning of life. What I like about my garden column is that I can photograph what I’m interested in — gardens and plants. I also enjoy the conversations with gardeners a lot. I always learn something new and get to know great people.

JC
Do you write the texts yourself?

AS
The texts are a collaboration with an author from ZEIT magazine. I call or talk to the gardeners on site, ask them questions, and then I write a draft, which the author edits. The column came about through my garden and the many other gardens along the Elbe river. Of course I also take photos in other areas. I suggested to ZEIT magazine to do the column. For a while, I had been wondering why the topic of gardens, which interests so many people, had not yet appeared in ZEIT magazine.

JC
As an artist, you’ve created an amazing niche for yourself. I can’t think of anyone else who works the way you do and whose sensibility for photography is the same in Germany. If I gave your name and said you live in Berlin, people would certainly not expect your photos to look the way they do. When you look back, how do you see your path? And what do you envision for your future?

AS
The last ten years were incredibly interesting. Before, I had been searching for my thing for ten years, and I was always dissatisfied. I remember how I felt between my 20s and 30s. I spent ages looking for something I enjoyed doing. In my early 30s, I was at a point where others are when they’re 20. So things were interesting and varied. But it wasn’t a piece of cake, either.

It was a long road that was very interesting and varied — but not easy.

JC
Should we talk about that as well?

AS
[laughs] The things that weren’t easy?

JC
We don’t have to, but no one ever talks about it. It’s an important aspect that we can talk about if you like. Photography is not easy: making ends meet, selling pictures…

AS
Yes. A few years ago, I wanted to quit photography and get a steady job. I was annoyed. I had a lot of work and little money. Too often people assume that artists work for free. It’s so much work to produce exhibitions! What carpenter would work for free to get his or her table into a good space? If you like an artist, you can always support them by buying their pictures! It’s that simple. Fortunately, my applications for a full-time job were not successful and I continued with photography.

People still ask me regularly if I can make a living from photography. I think this happens to all other photographers, too. Well, maybe not all of them. Famous people are certainly not being asked. But even for them it’s not easy. I was once told by someone who is already very well known that it is not always easy for him, either. Sometimes a year is good, sometimes a year is not good. I find the question interesting. I often ask myself what people live on and how they pay their rent, whether they have inherited money, whether they have a side job, or just do a lot of jobs.

Here in Germany we have the Künstlersozialkasse, a low-cost health insurance fund for artists. It’s quite important. Cheap housing is important. I am happy that I am in the Künstlersozialkasse and that I have a nice and cheap apartment. I think the massive and unjustified rent increases that ordinary wage earners can’t afford are criminal. They’re really criminal! They destroy so much, not only in the artistic field. People always pretend as if “the markets” are independent beings that cannot be influenced! I think “politics” has to intervene much more!

I wouldn’t even know how to do a part-time job to make money, given everything I’m doing already. Time wise, I wouldn’t be able to manage it. My impression is that there are more and better scholarships in other countries. I don’t know if I’ve heard this correctly, but in Holland there’s a scholarship for three years after graduation so that graduates can find their own way. This makes a lot of sense. In Switzerland there are many scholarships and not many artists. Someone once said that she was told, “apply, we haven’t spent the money yet.” In Belgium there is a kind of basic artist income from the state. You can apply for it if you are serious about your artistic work.

In my case, everything is made up of many different things. My online store and my own sales are actually becoming more and more important. My online store has provided important financial support, also during the pandemic.

JC
How do you advertize this? Do you use Instagram?

AS
Yes, a lot is on Instagram. This makes for a nice exchange with people. I’ve already met some interesting people in other countries. Since 2010, I’ve been going to book fairs and I’ve collected email addresses that way. That has become less common now. For over ten years, many people wrote their email addresses on my list. Three or four times a year, I send out an email. Instagram is fun for me. But every time I want to send out an email it’s… I need to work on that, but it’s difficult. I tend to think, “Oh God, now I’m going to bother people by sending an email. I’m about to get another unsubscribe email.” But a lot of good things happen because of that.

There are also people who bought a book from me years ago, and now they’re buying a photograph.

All in all, I’m happy with what I do and how varied and diverse my life is. I am very grateful for that.

Art and Politics

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Walter Benjamin‘s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is frequently evoked in the world of photography. One of its key concepts is the idea of “aura”. In a nutshell, Benjamin argues that the psychological presence of an object disappears once it’s mass produced. Benjamin focuses mostly on pieces of art, but we could easily extend the idea to any object. in light of the fetishization of certain mass-produced objects, we could ask whether this is in fact correct: it is true that, to pick two examples, an iPhone is hardly comparable to a painting. But some consumer items — whether iPhones, Leica cameras, or other luxury items — derive part of their power from what we could call their aura, even if this aura exists in mass-produced form in many thousands of identical objects. But I digress.

There is a reason why Benjamin concerned himself with what he called “aura”. He wrote his essay in exile in 1935. Having lost his home in Germany after the takeover of the Nazis in 1933, Benjamin and most of his peers (associated with the Frankfurt School) lived and worked abroad. The threat of fascism that they had lived under for many years had become very, very real. Having spent considerable time trying to figure out why communism had not taken hold in Germany (which unlike Russia had been widely seen as the most obvious location for a communist revolution), they now also tried to understand what drove fascism and, crucially, what strategies might be available to deal with it.

You could understand Benjamin’s aura as the hook he needed to get politics into art. Before mass production, he argued, pieces of art had possessed an aura, which, in turn, tied them to what he calls ritual. This idea is probably easiest to see if you imagine a painting that hangs, say, in the Vatican. Mass production had severed art’s connection to ritual:

‘[F]or the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.’

After all, in principle it’s rather difficult to assign specific value to something that exists in the form of any number of clones (Benjamin didn’t live to see the world of photography’s embrace of “editions”, let alone “NFTs”). Consequently, with ritual severed, a possibility opens up. He continues:

‘But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.’

There it is, politics. For Benjamin, photography and especially film offered enormous potential, given the way they worked and given that unlike traditional art, they relied on machines and mass production. The machines served their purpose:

‘[F]or contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.’

There are many seeds in Benjamin’s piece why the potential of art that is mass produced might end up fall short. The writer did not get to see the day when this would become abundantly clear (Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later write about what they called the Culture Industry). In 1935, photography (and film) still had potential for Benjamin. Addressing what he was witnessing in Nazi Germany (and elsewhere) and expressing the way out he wrote

‘Mankind[‘s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.’

Walter Benjamin didn’t live to see the fall of Nazi Germany. After the invasion of France, he died while trying to escape to the United States. Horkheimer had arranged for a travel visa for him, but Benjamin got stuck at the Spanish border and took his own life.

Almost 30 years later, it had become clear to Frankfurt School scholars that art would not be able to fulfill these hopes. In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse wrote

‘The two antagonistic spheres of society have always coexisted; the higher culture has always been accommodating while the reality was rarely disturbed by its ideals and its truths.’

And:

‘The works of alienation [pieces of art produced in opposition to the status quo — JMC] are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyses the prevailing state of affairs. Thus, they become commercials — they sell, comfort, or excite.’

Benjamin’s and Marcuse’s positions outline two extreme positions for art to exist in. Note that Marcuse’s position is more or less identical with what Adorno and Horkheimer had outlined earlier. The latter position appears to shut down the former: if, as Marcuse et al. believed, art ultimately will always only be commodified dissent (to adopt a more recent phrasing), then what is the point of being a political artist?

Philosophy is one thing, and one’s lived reality is quite another. I suspect that the world we live in now would look familiar to Walter Benjamin. Rampant economic inequalities, stagnating democracies, neo-fascist movements on the rise, dictators holding international partners hostage over whether or not they will invade their neighbours — he witnessed all of that during his life time. If there is one truly different aspect of the world, it’s the fact that now, we’re staring into the abyss of climate change, an abyss that — and here it’s not hard to imagine the Frankfurt scholars letting out a collective “of course!” — we have created ourselves (lest you wonder about the pandemic, Benjamin lived through one himself).

The other day, someone felt compelled to tell me on Instagram that (I’m paraphrasing) art shouldn’t be political because it should concern itself with beauty. Politics would only ruin art. It’s a thought that Benjamin addressed implicitly in his essay:

‘With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.’

This for him was the enemy, an enemy that the medium itself had the potential (he might have phrased it as: the calling) to overcome. It’s not necessarily my idea to tell photographers what to do. In the end, every photographer has to come to their own conclusion about how to go about what they do.

I can’t help but think, though, that with the number of crises we are facing, an insistence on art being “pure” is increasingly looking like a luxury position, a position of extreme privilege. There obviously is no guarantee that one’s photography will change anything on a larger scale. But is remaining silent the better alternative?

If you look at the history of photography, it’s filled with artists being political. You could start with Robert Frank’s The Americans. If you look at those photographs as merely the outcome of a set of road trips, you’re likely to miss the various points that are very clearly being made. This is not a celebration of the country. The photographer’s disdain for what he encountered — inequality, institutionalized racism, phony opportunities — drips off the book’s pages.

Or look at Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series. Its conceptual underpinning and the resulting formal structure are not intended to make you think about the table or about how people might sit at it. Instead, the specificity of the setting only points at the universality of its overall idea, which centers on domesticity, the role of women (vis-à-vis men), and Blackness.

More recently, look at, for example, Jess Dugan’s portraits. On a very surface level, Self-Portrait With Mom has a lot in common with selfies on social media. Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to show these photographs on Instagram (the site’s so-called community guidelines express the company’s politics), there is so much more in these photographs that, again, speak of the world beyond the walls in which they were taken.

Possibly with the exception of The Americans (which already has been written about ad nauseam) each one of these examples deserves a much deeper discussion than what I’m offering here. What I’m after here is to point out that many artists have already put a lot of politics into their work, and that inclusion does not diminish the value of what they have achieved. In fact, the inclusion propels the work forward, confronting us with what many of us would rather not see.

Crucially, as has been demonstrated by Poland’s Archive of Public Protests, for art to be truly effective it has to leave the white cube (I wrote about this here). This is not to diminish the achievement of these photographers at all, but the idea of making free newspapers and handing them out in the streets is not super original. I think it says much about the state of photoland that a solution as simple as that is such a radical outlier.

If as an artist you insist on not having politics enter your work that’s fine. My question would be: what exactly would it take for you to change your mind? At what state would you realize that you might be an artist, but you’re also a member of a society, a society whose openness and freedoms to a large extent underpin what you’re able to do? After all, once stormtroopers are marching down your street, it might be a tad too late to speak up, right?

Polemics aside, I’m tempted to think that as much as we all enjoy the comfort of our own existences (some people obviously a lot more than many others), the idea that in this day and age art and politics are to be kept strictly separately not only speaks of privilege. It also points at an internalization of neoliberal thinking, which places the individual and her or his freedoms at the center or everything.

I believe that more of us should feel compelled to embrace the tradition outlined by the artists I mentioned above and by of all their other peers for whom the mix of art and politics has not been an anathema. The defenders of l’art pour l’art would want us to believe that inserting politics into one’s art automatically results in clumsy agitprop with vastly diminished value. That’s a convenient claim that, however, is at odds with the sheer power of art that does not shy away from being upfront about its makers’ politics.

Yaga

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Yaga is for me a loving manifesto,” writes Agata Kalinowska, “[i]t contains my ridiculousness. Ridiculousness is a language of friendship and intimacy. Sarah Silverman […] said that there is a gap in our lives which can never be filled. […] I think we need to do brave, stupid things in order for that gap in us not to go rotten.” (from the afterword of the book)

A little further down the text, the artist adds these lines: “When the desire for autonomy, for the freedom to choose and decide about our bodies and where we are going in life, encounters barriers in the form of fixed gender templates and oppressive cultural stereotypes, we witness the appearance of combative energy and violence, including economic violence.”

I suspect that these words resonate all over the world. But in a country in Poland, held in a double chokehold by a societally very dominant branch of the Catholic Church and by a neo-fascist government one of whose recent acts was to ban abortion, no doubt there must be heightened awareness of the very unequal power balance between straight men and everybody else.

At the very beginning of Yaga, a young woman is seen as emerging from the sea. It is dark, and the water is clear and calm. With her arms being outstretched by her side, it’s hard not to think of religious imagery. Given the mastery of the book’s editing and sequencing, this cannot be a coincidence. Its makers have a story to tell, and they do it with pictures (Kalinowska co-edited the book along with Łukasz Rusznica).

Over the course of the following pages, the viewer encounters a world that initially is only inhabited by women. It’s a world that is filled with harmony, compassion, and care, even as there are a few surprising — and for some viewers possibly shocking — elements (such as, for example, a used, bloody tampon). But none of these elements actually disturb the order of things — instead, the book offers an alternative world where what now often is hidden and frowned upon simply is out in the open and accepted, where queerness is an accepted part of life.

At some stage, there is a photograph of a young woman lying on the ground who is being tended to by two others. This marks the transition into the next “chapter”, which is filled with partying and its consequences. Here, men make their first appearances, albeit only in passing here and there. The world still is overwhelmingly female, and it is uninhibited: expressions of passion and sexuality are being allowed to run their course.

This section culminates in a photograph of a naked woman who is lying in a bed that is surrounded by colourful balloons. The photograph would have been taken horizontally, but here it is used in a vertical form. As a consequence, a powerful feeling of freedom and sexual ecstasy is conveyed.

But then, upon turning the page, the viewer encounters yet another partying woman — she is pulling up her top to reveal her bra (while hiding her face). Next to here there is a man leering at her breasts while pulling up his own t-shirt to reveal a hairy belly that clearly has been nourished with too much bad food and/or beer. Thus starts a section of photographs of men and all things male, a veritable horror show of crass, unappealing, and violent types.

A bottle is smashed on someone’s head, a younger woman sits uneasily next to an older man who for possibly all the worst reasons has his sausagy fingers running over the back of her neck, and in the middle of all of this, there’s a photograph of a statue inside a church showing some male priest or saint (who knows), his hands folded in the type of fake piety that is all too common in organized religion.

It all ends with a photograph of a young woman with a black eye. Given the nature of Kalinowska’s photographs — they’re essentially snapshots, comparisons with Nan Goldin are inevitable. There are many parallels, this particular photograph being one of them. The most obvious difference I would see between the two artists is that unlike Goldin, the Polish artist does not rely on the seductiveness of her photographs.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a marvelous book. But I’ve always thought that the fact that the photographs often are visually so pleasing is maybe its biggest shortcoming. I truly love the book and its photographs, but I feel that it makes it too easy to appreciate the photographs because of their inherent beauty. In contrast, Kalinowska’s photographs look and feel a lot more like actual snapshots to me. Consequently, I personally feel the urgency of Yaga‘s message more than Ballad‘s.

The final section of Yaga circles back to its very first, and the book ends with a number of portraits of young women. Here, unlike in Ballad, the future is entirely female; and the idea that despite their many flaws, men are simply a part of the world is being negated: no, they’re not. Bravo!

In many ways, this is a spectacular book that deserves to be seen widely beyond its native Poland. I already mentioned its very masterful edit and sequence (it’s so good that educators could use it in class). There are a few other little tricks that are being used, such as, for example, photographs that would go across the gutter being cut into two separate parts (I’m obviously partial to this trick, given that I used it in my own Vaterland), or the orientation switch of the photograph I discussed above.

I’ve written this before, and I’m happy to reiterate my point: Poland currently is becoming one of the main powerhouses of contemporary photography in Europe, with a number of locations other than Warsaw being very active as well. Yaga comes out of Wrocław. If you’re at all interested in the world of photography, pay attention to photographers in Poland.

Highly recommended.

Yaga; photographs and text by Agata Kalinowska; 176 pages; BWA Wrocław Galleries of Contemporary Art; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.4

Eikoh Hosoe

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The first picture of (not by) Eikoh Hosoe in the recently released eponymous catalog of his work shows a middle-aged man one could easily mistake for a tourist who somehow had found himself in a very nerve wracking situation. The photographer is seen holding his camera tightly (and close to his chest), peeking at whatever he might be confronted with through the thick frames of his glasses, a bright cap adorning his head.

Three pages later, that same man is depicted in hot pursuit of a person in a kimono running across some field: his camera is now in front of his face, and he is being captured in mid-flight, his right leg high up in the air, as if to clear an invisible hurdle.

On the following page, the timid man is back, here in the company of some of Japan’s most celebrated photographers of the 20th Century: in a picture from c. 1974, Daido Moriyama looks like an aging hippie who is wearing a floppy hat indoors, Nobuyoshi Araki exudes his usual degree of perviness, Masahisa Fukase seems ready to get into a fist fight with the person taking the photo, Shomei Tomatsu and Noriaki Yokosuka have clearly seen it all and hide behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, and with his white shirt and dark tie (the typical salaryman’s uniform) Eikoh Hosoe looks like a bank teller or middle manager who somehow has stumbled into the company of this motley crew.

Who is this artist whose work is presented in expansive form in this groundbreaking catalog that has been edited by Yasufumi Nakamori, senior curator of international photography at Tate Modern?

Taro Okamoto, Artist, 1965

“A single bomb had killed tens of thousands of people,” Hosoe says, remembering the time when at age 12, he spent time in the countryside, to be safe from Allied bombs during World War 2, “my youthful bosom was filled with a powerful fear and hatred toward atomic bombs, with their capacity to concentrate such enormous force in a single bomb. Those feelings have remained, to this day, settling deeply in my heart. […] In 1968, I published the photobook Kamaitachi, a record of my memories from when I was evacuated during the war. That work, too, reflects at a deeply psychological level the impact of Hiroshima.” (p. 21) Who would have thought that what looks like a piece of dance-performance art in a very traditional Japanese rural setting had its roots in the photographer’s trauma, caused by World War 2?

Fittingly, Eikoh Hosoe begins with a chapter that contains the artist’s work in and around Hiroshima, showing, for example, photographs of peace demonstrations near the Atomic Bomb Dome (please note that here and in the following, the name in italics refers to the book). Hosoe’s life work would play out differently than Kikuji Kawada’s. But the beginnings speak of the shared trauma that both artists would weave into their work. In 1970, Hosoe would turn his photographs from Hiroshima into Return to Hiroshima, a book coauthored with Betty Jean Lifton. A Place Called Hiroshima followed in 1985. The books, he notes, were “written with young Americans in mind as our audience”. (p. 21)

Here, and in the following chapters in Eikoh Hosoe, the selection of the photographs evokes a somewhat different feel than the original books. In part, this is because any selection from a larger whole can only hint at how the work might function in its own context. Thus, the catalog’s viewer will arrive at a different impression of any of the different parts than when looking at the original books. I would argue that the selection and presentation in the catalog is more photographic than the books. By this I mean that more focus has been placed on the particular qualities of individual images.

Kamaitachi #14, 1965

Consequently, a very clear picture of Eikoh Hosoe as a photographer emerges that, however, somewhat obscures the impact of the photobooks, whether it’s Return to Hiroshima, Kamaitachi, or any of the other ones. I do not intend to have this observation seen as a negative criticism of the catalog, though. To begin with, photobooks cannot be accurately presented in any other form as their totality. What is more, drawing out connections between separate bodies of work by an artist often is a lot easier when working from the photographs themselves. Anyone who is more deeply interested in Hosoe would be well advised to study both the catalog and his photobooks.

After a chapter entitled Early Work that showcases photographs taken in the early 1950s — charming work that betrays a competent photographer who has not yet found his own voice, the catalog moves on to Hosoe’s first claim to fame, Man and Woman. This was the first project that involved butoh dancer and frequent collaborator Tatsumi Hijikata, the man he is depicted as chasing after in the photograph I discussed in the beginning. After meeting Hijikata, Hosoe decided to “create a photographic drama” (his words, p. 87) in his studio, involving him and a number of other dancers. “However tiny a gesture”, the artists writes, “it constituted my only transgression against the era. […] a response to the shouts of protestors heard outside the studio: ‘Down with AMPO [the US-Japan Security Treaty]!'” This seems rather implausible, maybe even to Hosoe himself. He continues that “[m]ore than anything, I was consumed with a burning desire to explore ‘sexuality.'” (p. 87)

Man and Woman #20, 1960

Roughly ten years later, Hosoe would return to the theme depicted in Man and Woman with Embrace, inspired by Bill Brandt’s Perspectives of Nudes, the appeal of which has largely escaped this writer. Where Man and Woman manages to sizzle with transgression and sexuality, Embrace is little more than a very competent exercise in form, ultimately as limp as Brandt’s nudes.

Yukio Mishima, an incredibly talented and multifaceted artist who also happened to be a rabid nationalist, wrote the Preface for Embrace, which appeared after Mishima’s suicide. Eikoh Hosoe includes it and a large number of texts written by people directly involved in the work. These added texts contribute massively to the value of this catalog.

In Hosoe’s work, Mishima detects what he calls “an undercurrent of darkness.” “This darkness,” he writes, “is a characteristic element of Hosoe’s photographic artistry, as well as an isolation born from a rejection of salvation.” (p. 123) One cannot help but think that Mishima might have in part projecting his own thoughts onto his fellow artist’s work:  could not his cartoonish pseudo-putsch and subsequent suicide in late 1970, many years after it had become obvious that Japan had embraced its democratic order, be seen as a similar rejection?

A few years earlier, Mishima had found himself in front of Hosoe’s camera for Ordeal by Roses (this is the English title used in the catalog; Killed by Roses is used just as widely). Hosoe photographed the writer in a number of settings with a large number of props, often verging into surrealist territory. “One day,” Mishima writes, “Eikoh Hosoe stopped by and whisked me away to a mysterious world. I had previously seen magical works produced by the camera, but Hosoe’s works did not suggest magic so much as they displayed a quality of mechanical wizardry, as he used this civilized instrument of precision to its utmost against civilization.” (p. 199)

Ordeal by Roses #32, 1961

Thus, the writer finds himself cast into a world that was “alien, contorted, derisive, grotesque, barbaric, and dissipated”. (p. 199) These words can serve as good criteria to divide Hosoe’s work into the artistically successful bodies of work (such as Man and Woman or Kamaitachi) and the ones that, like Embrace, while well crafted are little more than formal exercises. For me, Ordeal by Roses somehow unsteadily wobbles in between these two poles, which might be an editing problem more than anything: curiously, the more straight photographs are visually powerful, while the surrealist abstractions feel overwrought.

And then, of course, there’s the magnificent Kamaitachi, another collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata that finds both men return to the area they were from to inflict photographic mayhem on the countryside and its unsuspecting inhabitants who ended up playing along (because it was, one must assume, the polite thing to do). Mishima called the work “humerous yet also cruel” (p. 123), and it’s not hard to see why. “I had a hunch,” Hosoe writes, “that if we went to his hometown in Akita I would be able to shoot his butoh as it had never been seen before.” But the photographer also describes the photographs as “a ‘record’ of my own ‘memories,’ both nostalgic and sad, of having been evacuated as a schoolchild during WWII.” (p. 155)

For Tatsumi Hijikata and Yukio Mishima, two such incredible artists in their own rights, to not only submit to Eikoh Hosoe’s lens seemingly without doubt, to afterwards praise the resulting work in the highest terms (“Eikoh Hosoe made me famous,” Hijikata wrote in 1969, p. 351) must mean that, no doubt, this particular photographer is one of the great Japanese photographers of the 20th Century. One can only hope that this catalog will serve to establish and cement that reputation outside of Japan as well.

Highly recommended.

Eikoh Hosoe; photographs by Eikoh Hosoe, edited by Yasufumi Nakamori; essays by Yasufumi Nakamori, Christina Yang, Eikoh Hosoe, Nobuya Yoshimura, Yukio Mishima, Shuzo Takiguchi, Tatsumi Hijikata, Donald Richie, Satoru Yusawa, Mutsuo Takahashi, Mamoru Maruchi, and Kenji Hosoe; 400 pages; MACK; 2021

Full disclosure: MACK is the publisher of my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism