Stand With Ukraine

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Three weeks ago, I reviewed a book of photographs taken in Eastern Ukraine from 2013 until last year. When I wrote the article, I had a bad feeling about where things might be heading in the country. However, even though I’m generally a pessimist (I’m German), I didn’t think there would actually be a large-scale war such as the one that has now erupted.

My interest in Eastern Europe is limited in scope because of where its origin. I know a quite a bit about some countries, and very little about others. As I’ve looked into the history of the country I was born in, places like Ukraine played a large role. I’d like to think that I now know historical facts relatively well, in part because of a number of books I’ve read. These books include Bloodlands by historian Timothy Snyder, which covers the swatch of land where you can find Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic Republics. Snyder has also covered more recent events in Ukraine on his mailing list.

Last week, I published an article that from what I can tell garnered some attention, with agreement as much as disagreement. As I wrote in that article, the question of photography’s role in the world has been on my mind for a while. Unlike many people, I do not see photographs as separate from people, regardless of whether it’s their photographers or their audiences. I wrote that “something can be more than one thing: a piece of art and a part of a larger societal or cultural or political context.”

The same is true for people. You can be a photographer and artist, yet at the same time, you’re a member of a society, of a cultural context, of a political context. These environments are not necessarily of your choosing (even though they can be, at least in parts). But from these environments results the necessity to figure out what you’ll do with that.

Obviously, what you decide to do depends on yourself and your environment as much as on what you’re facing. Whether it’s the pandemic, global warming, systemic racism, the war in Ukraine (or elsewhere), the onslaught of bad news has been relentless during the past decade. It feels as if all of these topics are much too large for a single person to even engage with.

What is more, neoliberal thinking has managed to put us into a very unpleasant situation. On the one had, we feel compelled to do something. On the other hand, we’re trained to see what we do as essentially futile. And then, when we decide to do something we already know that someone will point out that it’s just futile or an exercise in feeling good. I’m no psychologist, but I’m wondering if the concept of learned helplessness has already been applied to social media (a quick Google search yields a first result — there might be more).

I’m going to be honest: I don’t have a solution for this other than trying to do what feels right and just to me, knowing full well that I will be falling short and, potentially, ignoring other problems that are just as important. It’s an approach that has been fruitful in my own art making as well.

I do not share the wide-spread cynicism that anything you might do on social media is just a feel-food exercise for yourself. I can’t help but think that this criticism (if we want to call it that) is not so far from the kinds of accusations lobbed at people who take selfies. Supposedly, that’s just a vapid feel-good exercise. Until the president of Ukraine publishes selfie videos and stuns the world with their power. If you haven’t seen the first one, yet, have a look.

Whatever misgivings I have about social media, I simply don’t believe that expressions of solidarity are only one of two things: actually felt expressions of one’s feelings or exercises to project a sense of virtue. In all likelihood, they’re both at the same time. Maybe I’m a bit naive about this, but I also think that it’s up to us individually to determine where most of the weight falls.

Coming back to this site, I had a review of a book in mind for this week. Unfortunately, right now I am unable to bring up the mental energy required to do so. Furthermore, I also am unable to justify doing it. At this particular moment in time, for me normal programming doesn’t feel right. If this disappoints you, please check back here next week.

For his mailing list, Timothy Snyder wrote two emails that listed organizations to support in case you want to do something for Ukraine. He wrote “A little money, sent in the right direction, can make a meaningful difference. And it might give you a sense that you have done the right thing, at least in a small way, at the right moment.”

The first email contained a list of charities and organizations that possibly rely only on bank transfers. In the second email, Snyder listed charities and NGOs that accept credit cards. There also are a number of organizations provided in this list put together by NPR. From my own experience, I know that some organizations also accept payment systems such as Paypal (I wouldn’t know about Venmo, given that I’m not using it much).

Like I said, each and every one of the massive crises we’re now facing provides yet another opportunity to think about our place in the world. There’s no good way to approach this other than the one that’s right for each and every one of us individually. Plus, it’s like what they say in those safety messages on an airplane: put your own oxygen mask on first, before you help others.

See you back here next week.

What do we give back?

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In a post on his Instagram account, Brad Feuerhelm wrote about a book by Robert Bergman, noting that (I’m paraphrasing) he was torn about the work. I own a copy of the book, and I know exactly what Brad is talking about. Photographically, the work is very alluring; yet there is the problem that many of the people portrayed in the book are not only underprivileged, the circumstances of their lives also show very prominently. Obviously, as Brad and others note in the comments there are many other photographers who have made their careers out of taking the same kinds of pictures. Brad extracted the comments and included them in a (free) Patreon post that you can access here.

If you’ve read this site for a while, you probably know that I’m very sympathetic to talking about the ethics of photography. Even as you might not realize this when you buy a camera or a smartphone, the history of the medium comes attached to your device. The moment you take a picture, you’re tied to that history — whether you want it or not. There currently are more and more discussions around the many problems of photography’s history, discussions that have spread so far that they now have generated their own backlash (a backlash that’s curiously similar to how members of the conservative and especially far-right side of the political spectrum engage with such discussions).

Even as I think that we should be talking about specific bodies of work, there is something unsatisfactory about many of such discussions on social media. Ignoring trolling and bad-faith arguments, by their own nature, such discussions inevitably result in often dozens and dozens of subthreads that are very difficult, if not outright impossible to follow. There is a lot of energy present (which is great), but that energy then dissipates into every possible direction, leaving behind… well, what? You wouldn’t have the same problem if you simply had people in the same room and initiated a group discussion. Obviously, social-media companies live off that: making sure there’s a lot of energy (“engagement”); at the same time, there is no business incentive to allow people to channel the energy into something more productive.

Somewhere in the comments, Brad wrote something that resonated with me very much, because I have spent a lot of time thinking and occasionally writing about it. He wrote “I do believe photography often takes more than it gives back to humanity, and we then ask questions about what that relationship exerts on the world at large.” I personally would phrase this even more strongly: I absolutely believe that photography takes more than it gives back to humanity.

While I am very supportive of discussions of the merits of individual bodies of work and their possible (or very real) problems, addressing this very question — what does photography give back to humanity? — ought to be discussed as well. In many ways, the question sits on top of whether some body of work is problematic or not: after all, you need criteria with which you can evaluate what is going on.

At the same time, every photographer can — and I would argue: should — ask themselves that question before going out into the world to take pictures. You go out to take your pictures — what exactly do you give back?

You hunt your pictures (or even your subjects — this language is being used) — what about the hunted?

This is a question that every photographer can engage with on their own. Unlike in the case of ethics, there is no larger discussion to connect to. I think that the problem with discussions around ethics in the world of photography stems from the fact that many people have never thought about this aspect: if there is no larger goal or if that larger goal is very amorphous, how can you consider any of the aspects that go into the taking of photographs?

When I taught at an MFA program, I often asked my student questions what they actually wanted to achieve with their work or where they envisioned seeing it. Usually, I was baffled by the fact that the white-cube gallery and photobook were the only outlets that were considered. It’s not that I think those two options aren’t valid — they clearly are. But when they are the only options for the vast majority of photographers, then we should not be surprised that photography has arrived in exactly the position it is in now.

Large numbers of people take photographs on a daily basis with their smartphones. Interest in photography is huge. In fact, photography arguably is the main currency of the current internet. Yet art photographers or other professional photographers have a hard time getting all these people interested in their work. For example, the people who buy photobooks are mostly a small group of wealthy collectors and other photographers.

If you think about it, that’s a really baffling situation: essentially, all those people who are so interested in photography don’t think that art or professional photographers produce something that’s interesting. Even as the number of people reading literature appears to be in decline, many more people buy and read novels than photobooks. In the larger cultural consciousness, photography is everywhere — yet most of its professionals simply don’t exist. That’s crazy.

I do think that this is an entirely self inflicted wound. For too long, photographers have been too eager to make work for other photographers without considering other audiences. Instead, the question of what is being given back to the world has been turned into how to get access to the world of art.

One sad aspect of this is that the question whether photography can be art was essentially resolved once Duchamp put an inverted urinal on a pedestal. If readymades can be art (for what it’s worth, I don’t have a problem with that) then obviously anything can be art. The case for photography as art should have been closed in 1917.

And yet a little over 100 years later, too many photographers are still attempting to define themselves as artists at the expense of getting their own work out into the world, or maybe I should say: the real world. It’s not even that I have a problem with photography made in and for the academy. That’s fine. But if as I noted above, if the end goal of photography is either the white cube or the photobook (that maybe sells a few hundred copies), then the real promise of photography remains unfulfilled.

All too often, the idea of art is used as a smoke screen to avoid dealing with the consequences of one’s work. OK, fine, call your photography art and have it cater to that tiny niche crowd that you might reach, while consoling yourself with the idea that there is some greater good you’re working towards. I’m perfectly fine with that. But the moment you point your camera at, let’s say, an underprivileged person, to make a beautiful portrait (that you then hope to sell to rich people), there’s no escaping the fact that just talking about art simply doesn’t cut it.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe the idea of art is not the equivalent of a “get out of jail” card that magically absolves whatever you might be doing. If your art comes at the expense of other people — for example in the form of their dignity being diminished, then you might have created art; but there still remains the fact that it comes at other people’s expense. I really don’t think that you can just brush that aside: the justification of diminishing someone’s dignity so that art can be made often merely is an expression of privilege.

What is more, there exists plenty of art that actually engages with the larger world, even as it has a foot in the world of art. Consequently, the idea that art is only done for its own sake reduces art to only a part of itself, and it ignores the larger potential of what art can do. Contrary to what many photographers seem to believe, something can be more than one thing: a piece of art and a part of a larger societal or cultural or political context. To give one relatively recent example, some of the founding members of Pussy Riot went to jail because of that.

Another world is possible. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Poland’s Archive of Public Protests. If you ask any of those photographers what they’re giving back to the world, you’ll get a very clear and passionate answer.

This is not to say that all photographers should become overtly political and distribute free newspapers (even though I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more). But in a day and age where a global pandemic is being prolonged in part by people insisting only on their own freedoms (at the expense of everybody else’s), I think it should have become obvious what is at stake if we all individually insist on focusing only on our own private worlds and goals.

Circling back to the many discussions about problematic or abusive bodies of work, if there is no connection to the larger world other than the idea that it simply is a repository from which to take pictures, then we ought not be surprised if many of the discussions remain what they often are: academic exercises that do not actually result in any meaningful change.

As members of this hermetically sealed world of photography we have to realize what’s at stake and break it open. Otherwise, we’ll never learn how to take better pictures, pictures that tell us something that we don’t know; we’ll never learn how to move past tiresome and hurtful photographic tropes; and we’ll never move beyond exhibitions and photobooks that are only seen by our friends and family.

All of that, I would argue, starts with a very simple question: what do I give back to the world that I take my pictures from?

If you enjoyed the piece and want to support my work, you can. I maintain a Patreon page that at the time of this writing centers on photobooks. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will expand the scope of what I cover there.

For twenty years, this site has remained free and ad-free. It’s all just me: no staff, no interns, no budget. If what I’ve written has enriched the way you look at photography, please consider signing up for my Patreon. Thank you!

A Game of Photos

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There are many artists working with found/vernacular photographs. At this stage, it would probably be possible to compile a rather large book around the topic. While I enjoy looking at vernacular photography, I don’t think that most of the art produced around it is all that interesting. The main problem is that the source material already is so interesting than adding anything on top or doing something with it is really difficult. An image or two typically might look interesting — whether it’s some graphic-design exercise or some embroidery on top. However, once you’ve seen more than a handful, the “oh, I get it” factor kicks in, and whatever was layered on top of the source material turns into a shtick.

If I had to pick an artist as an example who doesn’t fall into this trap it would be Cai Dongdong. In a number of ways, the Chinese artist has more in common with, let’s say, John Baldessari than with any of the other artists working with vernacular photos who have made a name for themselves. Much like Baldessari, Dongdong is smart and often very witty in his work. Whereas other artists are content with assembling large sets of vernacular photographs, the collection of such pictures is his jump-off point. Just like in he case of Baldessari, the occasional designs that are being constructed with or on top of photograph are means to an end — and not the end itself.

There are a number of strategies employed by Dongdong. One of the most Baldessarian is to use part of a source photograph’s element and to amplify it in some fashion. For example, a photograph of a group of young men engaged in a rope-pulling contest is framed and then hung on a wall with a rope in such a way that the rope in the picture and the one in the gallery appear to connect. This example includes another element, namely the use of space and the photograph as an object. Often, the photograph’s content is made to extend out into the world (such as when in front of a photograph that shows some rocks, there is a small platform with little rocks placed on it). Alternatively, the fact that what we are looking at is a photograph is driven home in some way.

Photography as a way of looking and of creating an image is another very prominent strategy. Camera lenses appear both as added (Photoshopped) elements of photographs themselves, or they are added to a photograph. For example, one source photographs shows a naked man and woman in bed. The scene must have been photographed by the men, who is looking down towards his crotch. The woman is holding his erect penis, which has been replaced with a camera lens.

In many of his works, Dongdong essentially connects many of his photographs back to the world from which they were taken. Whoever is depicted in them is brought back into our three-dimensional world. Our and their looking are connected. Staring into that camera lens grabbed by the naked women makes for a strange experience: how can the picture (or maybe the penis) stare back at us? Or maybe observe us observing it?

In all of these cases (and much like in the case of a lot of Baldessari), it would be asking too much to read a deeper, more profound meaning into the work — a meaning beyond what the work itself gets at. The wit is the point; the amplification of what a camera does (and all of the consequences arising from that) is the point. It is not for nothing that a new catalog of the work is entitled A Game of Photos.

Much like how Baldessari played with conventions of film and photography to make us look at what we actually believe in and how we tell stories, Dongdong uses a similar approach to have us look at what photographs do on their own. The childish delight in both artists’ work appeals a lot to me. Much like children, both are not afraid to employ serious photographs for decidedly unserious means. But that is exactly the strength of these two artists, in particular given how devoid of humour the world of photography is and how seriously it takes itself.

But the interventions of looking also remove the source photographs from — for a lack of a better word — the history to which they seemingly are confined. We are used to looking at photographs as these entities that show us people or things that were and now are not any longer. Breaking this idea gives the photographs, and by extension the people in them, a strange power that ordinarily we don’t expect to run into when looking at photography.

In the Baldessarian sense, this results in the ideas and thoughts we have about photography being broken, to have us re-engage with pictures. In some strange and rather light-hearted sense, this is a form of critique, whose target is the audience — and not the original photographers (whoever they might have been). Seen that way, there is considerable profundity behind all the visual mayhem after all.

A Game of Photos; photographs and installations by Cai Dongdong; essays by Karen Smith and Cai Dongdong; 214 pages; self-published; 2021

NB: I haven’t been able to find a link for the book. I will add one if I can find one later. The book lists the artist’s studio email — if you’re interested in the book try it.

In Limbo

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The world of the photobook roughly divides into two camps. The first sees the photobook as a container for photographs whose purpose it is to showcase them. The second sees the photobook as a fully fledged medium in its own right that goes beyond what photographs on their own can do.

While both camps have existed for as long as there have been photobooks (meaning pretty much ever since photography was invented), over the course of the past two decades more attention has been paid to the second camp. There had been regional pockets of a heightened awareness of the medium photobook — Japan and the Netherlands can serve as good examples, but now most of the rest of the world has been trying to catch up.

I couldn’t say that I prefer one model over the other. Some photography is served very well by what I called a “gallery show on paper” many years ago: the container model. The format itself is — let’s be honest — really boring; but if it’s done well, the photographs command enough attention for the whole package to work.

But I think the successes of the second model have raised the stakes for the whole industry. There are now so many cutting-edge publishers that what can be achieved with a photobook has become more widely known. If you’ve spent enough time looking at photobooks, you know what a good designer can do; you know of the importance of paper and good printing; you know how the binding itself can be very important.

Consequently, even if as a publisher the container model is your go-to solution, you don’t easily get away with books any longer whose format itself is boring and that look as if they had been produced with little, if any attention being paid to what they look and feel like. Whichever model you prefer, a book produced in 2022 should look and feel contemporary — and not like something straight out of the, say, the 1990s.

I had to think of all of this when Florian Bachmeier‘s In Limbo arrived in the mail, produced and published by Buchkunst Berlin, a somewhat recent addition to the world of photobook publishing. The photographs in the book were taken in Eastern Ukraine, the region that was occupied by Russian forces that *wink wink* supposedly are independent entities. Given Russia has currently amassed large numbers of weaponry at Ukraine’s border, possibly looking for yet another attack on its neighbour, the topic has now re-attracted a lot of attention.

The photographs in In Limbo are photojournalistic in nature, and it would have been so tempting to produce a classical book along those lines. Thankfully, that’s not what happened. Instead, its makers decided to violate a number of cherished tenets of photojournalism. There are captions, but they’re all way in the back of the book, instead of underneath or near the photographs. What is more, a large number of photographs wrap around the book’s fore edge.

A little important production detail: note the hinged construction at the spine. This construction allows the spine of the text block to arch when the book is opened. Consequently, the book is easier to open, and the spine is less likely to crack (because there is less stress on it).

In addition, the book was printed on thin paper that was folded in half and then bound using perfect binding, resulting in what a bookbinder friend of mine told me he refers to as pouch pages. Maybe the most well known recent book that uses this technique is Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance (I should note that I only know the original edition and not the recent reissue).

Obviously, if you wrap photographs around the page, you essentially cut them into two pieces. This creates a problem because the two parts ideally should make at least some sense on their own. You certainly don’t want to randomly separate a photograph into two parts that each don’t work photographically. The makers of the book solved this problem very well to make sure the construct works (see the example below).

As a consequence, the viewer is taken through the book almost in a filmic way. The book propels itself forward. It’s a very effective device that creates a completely different experience than your usual photojournalistic book. In addition, the book itself — the object — is beautiful. It’s very well produced.

While Buchkunst Berlin’s books up until this one were on the very conventional side, it would seem that somehow, they decided to be a lot bolder and try something new. Good for them: the gamble is paying off handsomely.

I suspect that especially the wrapping of the photographs around the pages will cause much griping in the most conservative parts of an already pretty conservative photoland. Purists will insist on the sanctity of the photographs, claiming the device makes it impossible to see them. I would argue that the exact opposite is the case: not only does the production of In Limbo elevate the work out of that vast ocean of photojournalistic sameness, it also potentially opens up new audiences.

For sure, it had me engage with the work a lot more deeply. If this had been some generic photojournalistic book, I probably would have looked through it once. Here, I found myself coming back to the book because there is more to discover than a collection of photographic facts.

In Limbo; photographs by Florian Bachmeier; text by Kateryna Mishchenko; 180 pages; Buchkunst Berlin; 2021

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 4.0