Photography After Capitalism

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One of the problems with capitalism is that inevitably, we have to deal with it from the inside, from being thoroughly embedded in it. As denizens of photoland, we can also say the same about photography: we often don’t or can’t see its many fault lines, given that we tend to look at the world as either something that is photographable or that has already been photographed. As a consequence, looking at photography, capitalism, and the relationships between them is difficult to understand in more ways than just one.

It is no secret that I have had an interest in the topic for a long time. My approach is old-fashioned in the sense that I see photographs as manifestations of capitalism (and other ideologies): I look for how they express whatever is embedded in them, reading their codes in ways that follow the tradition of Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes, while mostly ignoring more photo-specific details. For example, in Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I argued that focusing on the photographic artifacts in the work of Annie Liebovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky is completely besides the point I was actually interested in.

But there are different ways to approach the larger subject matter, and these include expressly taking the way photographs are being made into consideration. This also includes the fact that larger parts of photography cannot really be considered in a classical sense any longer.

What is called computational photography focuses on the fact that photographs are no longer made only by the person pressing the shutter button (whether a physical one or some area on a smart-phone screen). Instead, photographs are increasingly being interpolated if not outright invented by computer algorithms that a) correct for known deficiencies of photographic equipment and b) work towards what the programming team has deemed to be the desired outcome by a target audience (I don’t agree with parts of this recent article about the latest iPhones, but it gives you a good idea of some of the topics that are being discussed).

Ben Burbridge‘s Photography After Capitalism is a recent book that looks into a larger number of such topics, with a focus on the relationship between photography and labour itself. After all, someone will have to press that shutter button (or take that screenshot) and potentially move through some space. That is a form of labour. Photographs don’t make themselves, and there are repercussions from this very fact.

What’s more, those at the other side of a camera are also part of the equation, even if this aspect is one that usually is being completely ignored by photoland. The topic came up in my conversation with Rob Hornstra who recently started to give subjects whose picture he sold to collectors a portion of the proceeds (see the interview for details). As Burbridge details in a chapter about this very idea — involving subjects in the financial aspects of picture making, selling, and/or distributing, things can get considerably more complex than in the cases discussed by Hornstra.

Possibly the most extreme case is the one of Renzo Martens whose Enjoy Poverty caused a huge stir a little over a decade ago. I got so intrigued by Burbridge’s discussion that I looked for more information about the project and its reception. I found Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, a collection of reviews, articles, and interviews made around the project. With its 370 pages, there is much to chew on.

I don’t think I have been this engrossed in a book of criticism in a long time. If you are even only remotely interested in the photojournalistic industry taking pictures in a place like Africa, for sure you will want to read the book.

Enjoy Poverty encapsulates a huge number of aspects of photography under and as a tool of capitalism, with possible ways out potentially only being provided by the most breathtaking cynicism that, however, doesn’t even work.

In a nutshell, Martens went to Congo to help local photographers make money by teaching them to take the kinds of pictures outside photojournalists sell for a lot of money. The idea didn’t work, because nobody wanted to buy the pictures: stuck in poverty and misery, there’s no way out; and of course, some white guy coming to help just adds another layer of complication.

The beauty of Photography After Capitalism is that even where Burbridge’s examples are maybe not quite as interesting as the author wants to make us believe (for example, Mishka Henner’s rather pedestrian screenshots of oil fields are hardly as insightful as they are being made out), there still is considerable insight into either what is at stake or (and this part interests me personally more) how photographs can be connected to larger issues.

One of the problems writers and critics face who are trying to understand the effects caused by recent changes in the technological landscape of photography is the following. Often, things change so rapidly that the moment a book makes it into print, an example already is at least somewhat outdated or has been superseded by something more recent. The strength of Burbridge’s writing is that it typically spans a wider range (both in scope and time), meaning that the focus always is on the undercurrent and not so much on what currently floats on top.

Whether talking about snapshots or appropriation, Burbridge deftly ties together a number of recent and older photographers/artists. As a consequence, readers learn more about artists that are already part of (for a lack of a better word) the canon and very recent ones that might operate in seemingly very different ways. This approach not only yields in a lot of depth and insight, it also ensures that Photography After Capitalism is likely to be relevant in a day and age when, say, Instagram has become what Tumblr or Flickr are now. Unlike a lot of other books (especially those written about photography and social media), I suspect that this book will age very well.

In his final chapter, Burbridge notes that “[a]rt can be an important site for politics, but only if we remain attentive to the politics of art.” This statement sits at the core of parts of what I have focused on for a while. Given how deeply embedded photography is in capitalism, in effect there cannot be a photography without politics: even as capitalism attempts to convince us it has nothing to do with politics, the reality is the complete opposite.

Obviously, a lot of photolandians would rather not have so much to do with politics or think about capitalism. Doesn’t photography (or art) provide a refuge, where dealing with things larger than petty concerns provides solace? Well, sure. That is a valid and often valuable way of thinking.

However, Photography After Capitalism demonstrates its futility. In the day and age of computational photography, it is impossible to avoid looking into the politics of labour in the world of photography, regardless of whether it concerns those far away who mine the materials cameras rely on, those far away who moderate our content on social media (whether we actually want that or not), those who develop the algorithms that make our pictures look the way they look, those we see in front of our cameras, and, of course, ourselves, the usually unpaid labourers of our own work.

This doesn’t mean that we all now need to make work around these topics. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves to become more aware of the undercurrents I spoke of earlier.

Ben Burbridge: Photography After Capitalism, 256 pages, Goldsmiths Press, 2020

Anthony Downey (ed.): Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Sternberg Press, 2019

The Beauty of the Body

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I happened to look at Anne Morgenstern‘s Macht Liebe for the first time after having spent some time on Instagram. This made for a jarring experience. Larger parts of Morgenstern’s photographs would not be able to exist on Instagram simply because they run counter to what the company euphemistically calls its “community guidelines”: essentially a framework that permits complete freedom only to straight white men, some freedom to straight white women, and very little — if any — freedom to anyone else.

Obviously, we could all just leave Instagram. But the company and its app are not any more the problem than Donald Trump was. They’re merely symptoms of an underlying culture that values one particular type of body at the expense of everybody else’s and that equates nudity with sex. If for a reason that is pretty much entirely out of your control you happen to have a body that does not conform to the widely demanded norm, then, well, you’re out of luck.

You’re not only out of luck because you will be discriminated against in a number of ways (whether on Instagram or in our larger visual culture); you’re also out of luck because as a society we’re really bad at talking about bodies and what it means to inhabit one. If you’ve lived long enough it’s not difficult to conclude that almost every person has some problems with their body, and yet almost nobody is able to vocalize them. Instead, we all bottle them up. When someone attempts to do it anyway, let’s say on Instagram, we might double tap to “like”, maybe we leave a comment in some form, and that’s about it.

Open Macht Liebe and you’ll encounter a completely different universe. Or rather a version of our world that has shed all constraints and that embraces each and every body simply the way it is. Obviously, one of the reasons why the book is so good is because the photography itself is so stellar. Where Morgenstern’s previous books were already very good — you can find my reviews listed here, this new book feels like a quantum leap forward.

The photography feels contemporary — you can tell that the artist is very much aware of the current visual discourse. At the same time the photographs don’t feel as if they were made for the academy: that cliquish group of art photographers and curators who make work only for themselves, without any regard for the larger world — even as they very much pretend to do the opposite of that. Instead, these photographs are very much alive: they breathe, they’re open, they often are playful, and yes, they’re very beautiful.

The photographs cover a variety of people and objects. There are portraits (photographed with a sense of generous tenderness that is very, very rare these days); there are details of body parts; there are still lifes; there are photographs of animals; there are photographs that evoke snapshots without losing focus of the task at hand.

And there are bodies, large numbers of them, all kinds of shapes and forms and ages and sexual orientations and gender identifications and whatever else. It is the strong sense of acceptance mixed with playfulness that prevents the work itself from being didactic. As a viewer, you’re invited to look and become a part of what is on view, even as for sure every viewer will find their own limit to how far they might be willing to go.

In addition, the object itself, the book, embraces what can be done with this particular form and elevates it beyond your regular monograph. Each spread offers space for four vertically taken photographs, even as that space is not always completely filled. For example, the book opens with a spread of three pictures, followed by four, which are then followed by two. Occasionally, there is a horizontal photograph instead of two vertical ones, so the fourth spread shows one horizontal pictures next to two vertical ones.

While this might sound confusing when described with words, the experience of the book is the complete opposite of that. The combinations of the photographs and the effect achieved through the variations creates a very powerful visual game, in which each and every photography is made to work in some form of harmony with its neighbours. This is no mean feat, given the work that must have gone into constructing this sequence of groupings that, in turn, build up through their sequence to a very powerful whole.

I can’t think of another book that employs this method as successfully. After all, one of the possible drawbacks of this type of book building is that there is the risk of things becoming just much too cerebral or too centered on the bookmakers’ cleverness — instead of on the photographs and their overall message. It is possible that these photographs themselves prevent arriving at such a conclusion; but the edit and design team — the photographer along with designer Claudio Barandun — did an incredible job.

Macht Liebe feels like a welcome addition to Hartmann Books‘ usually elegant but also maybe a bit too predictable stable of books. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of their books. But it’s wonderful to see a book break out of the usual a little bit too quiet restraint and throw something wild at you. Macht Liebe is wild — in all the best ways. Its German title is nifty. It translates as either “make love” or “the power of love” into English. As with all great books, it’s the small details that matter.

It’s impossible to know what the rest of the year will bring in terms of photobooks. It’s possible this book is just the first out of many great books this year. Or maybe it will remain that one book that at the end of the year made the biggest impression on me. Whichever it ends up being, Macht Liebe is absolutely brilliant — one of the best contemporary photobooks in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Macht Liebe; photography by Anne Morgenstern; essay by Danaé Panchaud; 192 pages; Hartmann Books; 2022

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

A Conversation with Rob Hornstra

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Ordinarily, I would have simply introduced my conversation with Rob Hornstra with his history as a photographer, most notably his work with writer Arnold van Bruggen in the Caucasus: The Sochi Project. That work entailed a large number of highly successful self-published photobooks, all of them crowdfunded at a time when such an approach was only beginning to become more widely used. It ended up getting the pair being banned from Russia. There now is a new project, The Europeans, which follows similar ideas in a different setting.

But since 24th February 2022, The Sochi Project has taken on a completely new meaning and relevance, given Putin’s attack on Ukraine has brought the brutish Russian conduct in the Caucasus with its massive human-rights violations and innumerous war crimes right into the heart of Europe (Europeans had conveniently ignored them when Russia bombed hospitals in Syria and reduced entire cities to ashes).

The following conversation was conducted three weeks before the start of the war in Ukraine and for that reason does not include a discussion of it. It has been edited for clarity and length.

After the start of the war, Rob made copies of the book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus available for sale, with all proceeds going to the Ukrainian Red Cross: “After previously selling 84 books within a week, our stock was exhausted. We donated 3,990 Euros to the Red Cross. Now our publisher Aperture has decided to supply new stock free of charge. Brilliant! The action continues! For every sold book we donate 47.50 euro to the Ukrainian Red Cross.” If you’re interested in a copy follow this link.

Jörg Colberg
The last time we spoke your partner and you had just had your first child, and you were teaching. You had also finished The Sochi Project, a massive project with crowdfunding and a lot of trips. With time passed now, looking back — how do you see that work?

Rob Hornstra
What we achieved — Arnold van Bruggen and I — is more than we expected when we started the project in 2009. Especially around the Olympic Winter Games and the months before, when we got banned from Russia, that’s when we had a tremendous number of articles and media coverage. I think the project truly managed to make an impact by shining a different light on the Olympic propaganda machine of the Russian regime. It was bigger than we ever expected. So the whole project itself… I’m still satisfied.

If you interview athletes before, let’s say, the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing they all say “it doesn’t matter if I win a gold medal, but I need to have the feeling that I did the best race of my life.” I feel that in those five years we did the best race possible. We couldn’t have done more especially when you consider the very limited financial resources we were working with. More exhibitions, more sold books, more articles, more than we expected. I don’t feel that we could have gotten more out of it.

I think at the time, and even now looking back, it was a cutting-edge way to work with photography and also an attempt to engage with an audience in ways that went beyond the usual ideas: here’s a photobook at a book fair that only photographers go to, here’s a gallery show. You tried to reach larger audiences. I want to talk about the photobook and photoland bubbles a little later. But do you think that you had a chance to at least expand that bubble a little bit or even break out of it?

We were mainly exhibiting in photo institutions, at photo festivals, not so much in contemporary art museums. From there, we also reached beyond the bubble with the help of traditional media: magazines, newspapers writing about our work, and then people being interested in looking it up. To give you an example, around the day we got banned from Russia, we had 100,000 unique visitors from Russia on our storytelling website. Alternative online news channels in Russia were reporting about it. So everybody was checking our website. That was definitely beyond art and photography circles.

Another example, Aperture published 4,500 books, and they were all sold before the Olympic Winter Games. Four thousand five hundred is quite a substantial amount of books. Now we have second edition that is running towards the end. We’re not talking about only 250 or 750 books or whatever the numbers might be these days. What helped tremendously was that the region where we worked was closed for journalists six months before the Olympics. So it was no surprise that many editors from major newspapers checked out the book and knocked on our door. When Le Monde or The Guardian publishes an article about it, then you reach far. All these big news channels in different countries were reporting about our project. And very often not in the art section, but in the foreign-affairs pages. There, you reach significantly larger numbers of readers. We always stipulated that there were references to our book or website. That helped tremendously with the visibility of our work.


And then you took a little time out. Or maybe I shouldn’t call it time out, because your old employer might get upset. But you went into teaching.

Especially during the last two trips to Sochi, I didn’t have any energy to once again approach people and have conversations. I was exhausted. So I felt that I needed to take a period off from being an active photographer. When the job offer arrived at my door step — co-head of the BA and MA Photography at the KABK Royal Academy of Art — I just decided to go for it. And it turned out to be a great experience.

Of course, this decision was also related to the fact that I just had had my first child, and the second child was coming up. I wanted to be more at home in those early years of my children’s lives. Having a steady income would be nice too for a while. The job gave me the ability to have a mortgage on a house, which is near to impossible for freelancers in the Netherlands. The moment I had a permanent contract after two years, I immediately bought a house. So there were advantages for a while. However, when I announced this temporary career switch, everybody warned me. From Martin Parr all the way to my mother saying “this is the end of your maker’s career.” I always replied: “No, I can combine it all.” But no. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible for me. Officially, I had a three-day job. But it was always double the amount of time and it made it impossible for me to sustain my maker’s career.

Anyway, I felt very privileged, I had a nice job at an ambitious academy with great students. I had permanent contract, a steady income, a mortgage and didn’t have to travel too much. I had a great life that I could continue easily like this for years. But after a couple of years, I told my colleague co-head: “It’s too bad, because being co-head absolutely is the second best job in the world. But for whatever reason I still want to be a photographer.” As a result I took an unpaid six-month leave of absence. Within a month after my return I told her: “This is not going to be half a year, this is going to be forever.” And I quit. That’s now one year ago.

It was a big step for me to find the courage to say: “Hell yeah, I’m burning down everything and I am going back to my insecure maker’s career.” But so far I’m very glad I did. Despite all the uncertainties, I think it’s just incredible to be a photographer and work on self-initiated long-term projects.

You decided to work with Arnold van Bruggen again. And you started the project The Europeans. I think the structure is very similar to The Sochi Project. But I think there are some differences. I don’t know if this is true, but I think you don’t work with galleries any longer. Can you talk about that?

I didn’t feel very comfortable working with galleries in general. You know and I know and every reader of your website knows that art fairs are hardly about content. They are about aesthetics and money. My work is humanistic and often about violations of human rights or poor living conditions. Seeing my work as a sales item at an art fair makes me feel uncomfortable. There also is the fact that the most marketable two or three works are usually displayed. I work in series — that’s why I like books so much, and if you only pull a few works out, the content gets blurred.

My students often asked me: “If you feel uncomfortable, then why are you a part of it?” The answer was very simple. Like every artist, I was hoping to make enough money to sustain independent projects. I did make money, but not so much that I felt that it was going to be the part that’s really sustaining my work. Five years ago, I decided to stay closer to myself and stop working with galleries. I know more photographers struggle with this, but few speak up about it.

Was that a smart decision? Most important, it feels good to no longer be part of this deeply conservative, capitalist art bubble. I’m not against selling work, as I also need to fund my projects, but the setting of an art fair just doesn’t feel good to me. Financially, by the way, it hasn’t turned out badly. I sell more work now than I did during my gallery times, directly to museums as well as to private buyers. Without profit sharing.

I read that, that the people in your pictures get a fraction of the money that you make from a print sale. Is that true?

Yes. What do we think about it? It’s true, but I’m still in doubt. I’ll explain after tell me what you think.

When I read this, I thought it’s actually brilliant. It solves some of the problems that I’ve had for a long time. I have a problem with the fact that a photographer goes out into the world, and often the people that are being photographed are poor people or disadvantaged people. The pictures are then sold to rich people, and the photographer makes a career out of that. That’s fine. But the people in the pictures don’t really get anything. Their pictures maybe hang in a museum, or their faces are well known. But nobody even knows their names. I’ve always wondered why they do not get anything other than an invitation to the exhibition or maybe a small print? So when I heard about your model I thought it was great. In some ways, you share responsibility for what you make. But I don’t know to what extent these thoughts were in your head when you came up with this.

Once I make a portrait of anyone and publish it in a book or in a magazine, I don’t feel uncomfortable. I see it as my calling to document the world. Including people. So making portraits is part of my profession. I honestly explain my work the best I can to everyone. People are free to participate or not, they sign a consent form afterwards. If a portrait is published, in a book, magazine or newspaper, I hardly ever make any money from it.

Once one of those portraits is being sold for a lot of money as an artwork in an edition, I become a bit uncomfortable. On the one hand, such transactions are necessary to generate enough income to continue my projects. On the other hand, I feel that is the time when the person portrayed may also benefit from the sale of work.

I never tell people in advance that they could possibly make some money from the photo. I’m afraid I’ll end up in a grey area, where people agree to cooperate because they hope to make money from it. Or that it affects their behaviour in front of the camera. In my practice, the chances of a portrait being sold as an editioned print are incredibly small, maybe one in every hundred portraits.

Out of the blue, they get a check from you in the mail?

The way this works is that 1/3 of the money goes to the person, 1/3 goes to me, and 1/3 to our project The Europeans. So yes, I contact them. It’s not a lot of money, usually just a couple of hundred euros. But people are surprised. I don’t have a lot of experience yet. The selling of editioned works from The Europeans has only just begun. I am now in the process of finalising the first transactions.

Honestly, I am a bit afraid of possible outcomes. What if this becomes more regular and more photographers are using this system? As a result, people might ask any photographer whether they get money from it. Whereas I believe that making someone’s portrait is not something that you should have to pay for. And of course, in my new system, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m only paying to someone if I sell the picture, based on the idea that sharing is an incredibly beautiful thing.

For every chapter within The Europeans, I’m portraying 300, maybe 400 people. Out of all these portraits, three, maybe four photos are sold as an editioned print. The other people don’t get anything. I don’t want to create a shady field where people are going to ask for money from photographers before they are portrayed. That’s my fear with this system. I don’t want to make it more difficult for photographers than it already is these days. Hence my doubts.

Another point of attention: What if the person in the image is — in my opinion — a really nasty person, let’s say, a Nazi guy? I don’t want to support those activities. That doesn’t feel good. Another thing, in case you portray children, you have to pay the parents. I hope that they put the money aside for later, but you never know. So I started something, and I thought I’d do good. But now I have my doubts about all these kinds of things. Actually, I really have no clue what I’m doing. But that’s always when you start something new, right?

I was just going to say that you did similar things with The Sochi Project already. You tried a lot of things just to see what happens.

Some things completely fail and other ones are successful. Fortunately for me, people generally only look at the success stories. I am seen as the photographer who has introduced new funding models for long-term photography projects and constantly questions the ‘conservative’ art and photography scene by using new forms of presentation, reaching beyond the intellectual elite. I am quite proud of that. But of course, many things I tried failed. That is less in the spotlight.

Here’s one other thing I wanted to talk about: the isolated world of the photobook and photographers staying in that bubble. I had the feeling that you have a lot of opinions about that. How do you see this whole thing?

The short answer is I share your opinion. Actually, I am always a little bit in doubt about how to talk about this. I am passionate about photobooks. I love photobooks, including photobooks that are being made without a real reason to make them. I think those books are sometimes brilliant. So it’s very difficult to be harsh towards this world where things are made with commitment, care, and passion.

But the fact is that not enough photographers think before they publish a book. Delphine Bedel, founder of META/BOOKS once asked: “Is your book worth killing a tree?” That’s a very important question. I think photographers nowadays have the obligation to think about the impact of a book. There are so many photographers producing wonderful and smart photography projects. But once they start thinking about presentation of those projects, it seems that 99% lose their capacity to creatively think. All they think of then is ‘book and exhibition’ without wondering what purpose that serves.

I really admire photographers who have the rare capacity to match the presentation of their work to the core ambition they had in mind. People like Rafał Milach, for example, making newspapers to hand out for free among protesters. To support them, to give them a voice, to make them visible to future history because the media ignores them, even to facilitate posters. Or Zoe Strauss, who presented her work under the I-95 highway to bring together different groups in Philadelphia. You really cannot find these different groups in a museum, no matter how hard they try to bring them in. Or Mark Neville who is sending out 750 complimentary copies of his new book Stop Tanks With Books to ambassadors, members of parliament and other policy makers. The aim is to put pressure on ending the war and withdrawal of Russian forces from occupied territories. These kinds of projects are far ahead of all those narcissistic photographers who would like to see their work reproduced in an expensive and beautifully printed book with their name on the cover. The annoying thing for photographers who explore new forms of presentation and appeal to different audiences is that the art world — which calls itself progressive, but in real is the opposite — often ignores such projects, while rewarding those expensive narcissistic book projects.

With your latest book, you explicitly tried not to make a posh, big book.

It is not really a book, we see it as an interim publication, an ephemeral and raw presentation to continue the local dialogue and elicit responses that are valuable for the continuation of the project.

For The Europeans, we produce work in different heartland regions. That’s where we also first want to present the work. It doesn’t have to be a presentation at an art institution. It can be a shopping mall as well. We try to connect to a broad local audience. And we have devised a strategy on how to achieve this. First of all, we work together with a local newspaper. And we create stories, portraits of local people for this newspaper. That’s working really well. We reach loads of people by publishing in a local newspaper. This is how we manage to connect local people, but increasingly also pan-European. The larger goal of our project is to counteract rising populism. We think that we will increasingly achieve this in heartland regions. Once we are finished in a region, we invite people to join us for a drink at the exhibition opening. So we collect reactions and feedback. There we also have our self-published publication, which is all about them and the region where they live and work. In those heartland regions, hardly anyone will buy a photobook that costs €39.50. So we decided that the accompanying publications cost €9.50. That’s why it’s not big and posh.

It’s not an overwhelming large book. It’s this sort of like unassuming pamphlet, which doesn’t telegraph “I’m so precious.” I think aside from the price, that’s really important.

Of course, these are not hardcover expensive books. Taking financial limitations into account and thanks to our great designers Kummer & Herrman, we think we really produced a nice publication. The selling price is a little below cost price. We solve that problem by wrapping part of the print run with a hard cover, including a print, and selling it for 120 euros. So the buyers of the hardcover edition are helping us target a broad audience with our project. And it works. That’s the nice part of it. When we have an exhibition opening, loads of locals are buying the publication. They bring it home and they really read it. And we receive feedback. It works perfectly.

So reaching a local audience works. Yet at the same time, we also try to anchor the work in the world of art and photography. Because, let’s face it, that is necessary to be able to benefit from funds and to sell work to private and institutional collections. We’re also looking towards The Europeans‘ final work, around 2030, with major exhibitions and a grand reference book that aims to still be on the shelves of libraries a hundred years from now. It is very challenging to reach both audiences — a local audience in heartland regions and a global art and photography audience.

The first problem we encountered with our super-cheap publication was that specialist booksellers were reluctant to sell the book. Simply because there is no money to be made. One famous online bookseller told me that he does not sell books under 25 euros. And frankly, I do understand. The conclusion is that if you make a financially accessible book, it will not be available in bookshops. And as a result, it becomes less accessible. We had not realized this beforehand.

We are now considering how to solve this dilemma. One option is to double the price to €19, but provide a 50% discount during local presentations, so the work still costs €9.50. Perhaps one of the readers of your blog has an idea?

All of that goes back to the original problem, doesn’t it? Of the art community being so removed from the rest of society.

In his essay The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture, Alessandro Baricco wrote about what could be described as a global shift in consciousness regarding high and low culture. The way we still largely experience art today is a relic of the Romantic era, when museums and theatres were built with entrance fees that were only meant for the elite. Within these walls — accessible only to the wealthy — art was displayed. Today, we still behave according to those unwritten rules. It is not for nothing that the vast majority of young artists want an exhibition in a renowned museum. When you have achieved that, you can honestly say that you are a real artist.

In 2006 , Baricco questioned this old-fashioned way of thinking. He argued — and I fully agree — that art will increasingly go beyond the walls of museums. Fortunately, this is already happening on an increasing scale. It was interesting to see the Turner Prize awarded to an architecture collective called Assemble in 2015. They won the UK’s most important art award for their work on the Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool. The project is a collaboration with the residents of a rundown council-housing estate to clean up the neighbourhood, paint empty houses, and establish a local market.

Reviewers and critics were in shock and stated that’s not real art. To those I would like to say: Wake up people! Things are going to change. The art world is in a major shift from the romantic era towards a new era. That’s fantastic. Why is an insanely expensive framed photograph by, say, Andreas Gursky considered more important in the art world than a free newspaper by Rafal Milach?

Buy this book. The entire amount (47.50 per book) will be donated to Red Cross Ukraine.

This is the 2nd edition of our book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2015). On the cover we used the quote ‘This is the new face of Russia, our Russia’, from a propaganda speech made by the CEO of Sochi 2014, a Putin-supporting clown, during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The book — released in first printing before the Winter Games — extensively covers the blatant human rights violations under Putin and his regime. We regularly received a frowning look, wondering if we hadn’t exaggerated things. After all, it couldn’t be that bad in Russia, could it? Again and again we explained: The Putin regime violates human rights on a large scale, is corrupt, criminal and dehumanizing. Disguised as a democracy.⁠ Read about it in this book and support the Ukrainian Red Cross at the same time!

Tokuko Ushioda’s Family Photography

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It might be a sign of a great photobook when many aspects of a viewer’s biography come together to superimpose themselves on the pictures in such a way that the work itself almost becomes secondary. Of course, it never becomes secondary — how could it? But if all art reflects some of the viewer back to her or him, great art does it particularly well. What is reflected back is a combination of the viewer’s biography, the circumstances around her or his socialization, the culture and society s/he grows up in, and an assortment of random other things or events, which under any under circumstances would never come up.

Tokuko Ushioda‘s My Husband immediately made me aware of this process the moment I picked it up to look at it. I had met the photographer and the husband in question, Shinzō Shimao, during one of my trips to Tokyo. Truth be told, even though they had both spoken about their work, it had been Shimao’s image that had stuck with me. After a presentation of his work, he had given a very underwhelming lecture about photography itself. While working on this essay, I found him being described as “a charismatic yet cynical artist”. This felt familiar.

None of that should obviously matter, given that in the end, all I have now is the book. Still, when I see Shimao glare at me in some of the pictures (well, not me, his wife’s camera and maybe, by extension, his wife herself), I see a younger incarnation of the same man who almost four decades later would deliver his thoughts around photography. I’ve tried many times to forget the impressions from that encounter. But the more you try to un-remember something, the more the opposite happens.

Interestingly, while the book (or rather books: there are two — more on this a little later) are entitled My Husband, I’m thinking that this might mislead a viewer. After all, the photographs speak a lot more of Ushioda’s own life at the time when they were made than of only the husband. In fact, Shimao is included in only a relatively small number of them.

There also is their impossibly cute daughter Maho with her big, big eyes. She is referred to as Maho-chan, where “chan” is a Japanese honorific used for people one is close to that has no equivalent in English. Maho-chan also happens to be the title of a book Shimao published in 2004. Lastly, there is the house they lived in, an old Western-style house, the living room of which featured very large windows (ideal photo light).

More often than not, family photography depicts the vibrancy of life in a group of close relatives. Where it does not — think Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home, it’s usually a combination of the tool (the camera) and the underlying conflicts that freezes things into stasis (unfortunately, this sentence would make more sense for a reader who is familiar with the book I’m currently shopping around; I’m hoping that at some future stage, my thoughts on Sultan’s work — as well as Fukase’s, Billingham’s, and Epstein’s — will be accessible for a wider audience).

Here, there is a curious absence of vibrancy. Maho-chan happens to be at an age where children are very active, but somehow she is not — at least not in the pictures. It’s the mother taking the photographs, which offers an immediate explanation: from what I’ve been told, as a photographer and mother, your choice always is to be one of them at any given time, not both. Ushioda’s choice is clear from her work.

This brings me back to the thoughts I started out with. At the end of the (first) book, there are two essays. The first was written by Yuri Mitsuda, an art critic. The author of the second essay is photographer and writer Yurie Nagashima who might be familiar to regular readers of this site. In my interview with her, Nagashima spoke in detail of the struggle of being a photographer and a mother, in particular in a country such as Japan where men traditionally don’t do any housework (it’s obviously not much better in most other countries).


There are too many details to repeat them here. Nagashima’s essay is a masterclass in learning how the background against which both Ushioda and herself had to live as mothers and photographers informs numerous details of the work. For example, the quietude of the pictures simply arises from the aforementioned fact that doing two jobs at the same time is impossible. It was the ends of the days when there was time for photography. If you look carefully, you can actually see this. There are those huge windows that allow in a lot of light. Yet in many of the pictures, available light comes from lamps or candles.

Even the camera choice might have something to say. Nagashima wonders “if her choices about the techniques and cameras she used were informed by her being a woman.” Recounting her own experiences in the 1990s, she writes that “Ushioda-san would perhaps deny this was the case, but as a woman traversing an androcentric world, photographs with a 35mm SLR would seem more likely to be dismissed for no good reason.” (p. 129; “san” is possibly the only Japanese honorific familiar to Westerners, roughly the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Ms.”)

As I already briefly mentioned, there are two books. They are divided into camera formats. The first, more expansive book (a hardcover) showcases square-format photographs taken with a Bronica S2 (source). The second book (a softcover) contains photographs taken with a 35mm SLR. As a set, the books are combined with a belly band (“obi”) that wraps around the first books’ front and second book’s back cover (obis typically advertize the books; they often include a quote by a well-known photographer).

There is considerable overlap between the two books (how could there not be?). In the second book, there are many quiet observations made when there was time, when there was rest. But this camera, the 35mm one, also left the house, and it was used in more fluid, social situations. To me, the stepping out of the zone of quiet contemplation feels somewhat welcome, even as ultimately the strength of the work lies exactly where it remains quiet.

I imagine that this aspect might have posed more than one conundrum for the editors of the book who were given access to prints and negatives that had been stored away for decades: their task was to locate the spirit of the work without having it stray too far from the person they know , Tokuko Ushioda. After all, how do you go about bringing out the artistic strength in a body of work while acknowledging the maker’s vulnerability — without having the scale tip too far into either direction?

As someone who has edited two books of photographs recently that could be situated in exactly this spot, I can only applaud the editors for having done an amazing job. The photographs sit right at that sweet spot that, and this is something we as viewers should try to keep in mind, might not quite be as sweet for the artist herself. We don’t know, and we might as well also acknowledge that we don’t have to know.

My Husband is a revelation in more ways than one. To begin with, it gives exposure to a Japanese photographer who is barely known (if that) in the West (photobook collectors and those who looked at the recent What They Saw carefully might remember the earlier Ice Box book). This is a most welcome fact, given that the Western discourse around Japanese photography is still so centered on the mostly male (and very macho) usual suspects (Rinko Kawauchi being the one notable exception). Every step towards allowing Western audiences wider access to the very rich world of photography from Japan is so important.

Furthermore, as I indicated above, these are family photographs (a rich genre) by a woman artist. But in many ways, while ostensibly centered on the home, the young child, and the husband, the photographs really focus on their maker. To some extent, this observation is a lazy truism — all photographs say at least something about their maker; and yet some photographers allow more of their own lives enter into their work than others. More often than not, a photograph speaks of Ushioda’s desire for quiet respite, especially in the first book.

For sure, I wouldn’t want to overinterpret what I take away from My Husband — I have no children, and I’m also not a woman. But I can’t help but feel that what Yasujirō Ozu centered on in many of his movies can also be found here: the impossibly quiet and fraught drama of family life.

There is something uniquely Japanese about Ozu’s movies, given the height the camera is placed at — it’s right there in that social space near the floor where people’s eyes meet when they sit together. In her own ways, Ushioda achieves a very similar effect with her photographs. Time slows down, and the small idiosyncrasies of family life as seen by a mother/photographer are brought to the fore.

Highly recommended.

My Husband; photographs by Tokuko Ushiuoda; essays by Yuri Mitsuda, Yurie Nagashima; two volumes, book 1: 122 pages, book 2: 76 pages; torch press; 2022