Photography: An Insecure Craft

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“It’s hard to resist the thought,” Susie Linfield wrote, “that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.” I find it hard to disagree. As a field (or maybe practice), photography has produced a very strange set of writing around itself: there is not very much to begin with, and what exists is often oddly dismissive of what photographs can do (and, let’s face it, it’s usually also shockingly elitist).

It’s not just a problem of critics, though. Photographers themselves do not tend to take their medium as seriously as painters do, or sculptors, not even to mention writers. Or rather, they take it seriously in some ways, but they always have an eye on something else. Photographs often are described as “painterly” (whatever that is even supposed to mean); they have been compared to poems (say what?); and of late photographers have embraced the conventions of movie making, resulting in photographs that feel like an excuse: I would do real movies, but alas… (it’s a lucrative game, though, collectors and museums love buying oversized and overpriced photographs filled with shallow artifice).

You might wonder: if photographs are so often described with references to other media, what does this say about photography itself? Is this particular medium so dull that one can only make sense of it with the help of other media?

If you look at photography’s infancy, large amounts of time were spent on discussing what it might mean to take a photograph. There was the convenience. But then there also was the fact that somehow, photographs resembled reality too much. Charles Baudelaire, a poet, famously called photography the “refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies”. And photographers ate this up. In fact, I think they still do.

This resulted in a number of attempts to make photographs look more like art, spawning visual schlock such as pictorialism or, most recently, what people called New Formalism. Let’s ignore the fact that such attempts are based on a very shallow idea of what art might actually be and/or look like.

At their core, though, these attempts start out with an admission that, yes, on its own photography isn’t art, that it is the refuge that poet spoke about. So now one has to sexy up the photographs because on their own, they’re possibly as “ill-endowed” as Baudelaire claimed their makers were. That the poet’s comments might just have been some petty and rather ill-informed cattiness, emerging from Parisian art circles famous for exactly that — that thought didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

Today, photography is by far the most powerful and popular medium. And yet the field of photography is filled with insecurity regarding one’s own work and outright dismissiveness as far as popular-culture applications are concerned. Many practitioners always have at least one eye on other forms of art (in particular painting) — as if they can’t deal with the fact that like any other form of art, photography’s true power is based on its own restrictions.

Of course, part of the problem stems from the fact that photographers have embraced the commercial-gallery system with all its flaws, in particular its insistence on large, splashy pieces and editions (which can be sold for nice money to hang over some rich person’s couch). I now routinely come across websites where photographers list the dimensions of their prints and the edition sizes next to the work. I get it, selling three prints at some large size might make decent money — but what does that have to do with photography?

And there is the craftiness of it all. When I was teaching at an MFA program, I must have spent hours listening to people discussing the merits of one Mohawk superfine paper over some other. I’ve never been able to keep track of all the paper names. But I also remember that all the prints basically looked the same once they were deemed to be good. This is very curious if you think about it. You would imagine that photographers would strive for the prints to reflect their own artistic ideals. But no, there’s a sea of bland inkjet-print sameness.

It’s just a very curious situation: almost everything that makes photography photography — its endless possibilities, its limitless reproducibility — is being dismissed by the medium’s own most serious practitioners. Consequently, real advances in image making now happen outside of the narrow confines of photoland. Many social-media influencers are more adept at creating new images than artists who somehow can’t untether themselves from an art world that only produces benefits for a small number of photographers.

You would imagine that the world of the photobook is in a better shape. But the same problems play out there, albeit in slightly modified form: the elitism, the catering to the wealthy and subsequent production of luxury items, the endless repetition of utterly tired conventions. When it’s not an exhibition in some white space (ideally in one of the centers of the art world), photographers want an expensively produced photobook that they then end up selling to their friends and other photographers.

In all my years of teaching and looking at photography, I’ve seen maybe a handful of photographers or artists who attempted to break out of this tiresome model. For example, Moyra Davey printed out photographs, folded them up, and sent them out in the mail. Alas, later those pieces then end up on the walls of galleries or museums again. Zoe Strauss hung up prints under a highway overpass.

Why can’t a photograph not be printed on your $69 office inkjet printer? Why couldn’t it not be printed by a commercial printer that usually produces posters for advertising? Why do photographers stick to a framework that eliminate about 90% of the true creative potential of the medium?

I think in the end, it all circles back to the idea that photographers want to make art. For photography to be art, it has to look like art, meaning: it has to conform to conventions that were made for other art forms and that do not serve photography particularly well.

These days, NFTs are all the rage in photoland. You’ll find the very same mechanisms playing that have plagued art-photo circles for decades. Just swap out bland art-marketing speak for tech-speak gibberish, throw in some claims that might make normal people think you’re on some substance, and you got your NFT photo statement. Instead of a glitzy car dealership, you now have your Carvana.

It’s not even that I mind galleries and expensive photobooks. If you’ve followed my writing, you know how much I love books. I even like looking at exhibitions (when they’re well done).  It’s just that I’m missing a sense of experimentation. I’m missing the realization that an insistence on boring craft while dismissing photography’s true potential reduces a potentially very powerful medium to the caricature that large parts of art photography essentially have now become.

My theory is that experimentation proves to be too risky when there are only those two possible end results (gallery exhibition and expensive photobook). Obviously, there is only limited artistic freedom within those very narrow parameters. And that, in turn, has led to the stasis that we witness in today’s art photography.

Unlike the various critics mentioned by Susie Linfield I genuinely love looking at photographs. I might have my misgivings about certain things (who doesn’t?), but I love photography. I look at photographs every day, all day long.

But that looking is becoming more and more of a drag. It’s not because there are too many pictures (that’s just a silly talking point). It’s simply the sea of drab sameness, the lack of experimentation, the rejection of most of the possibilities offered by a medium that like no other reflects the world back to us.

Cut with the Blade dada through the Last Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Photoland

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Hannah Höch and Rould Hausmann, the story goes, discovered the potential of photomontage by chance — while being on vacation. “[V]isiting the town of Heidebrink on the island of Usedom […],” Maria Makela writes, “the couple encountered in homes and businesses of the residents a popular type of engraving in which photographic portraits of heads of local men away at war had been collaged atop generic, uniformed torsos. Höch and Hausmann returned to Berlin and immediately began to experiment with the medium by clipping photographic reproductions from a wide variety of illustrated sources and then mixing and matching them to create startling, often unsettling new imagery.” (Maria Makela: By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context, in: The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, ed. Janet Jenkins, Walker Art Center, 1996, p.59)

It was Höch, the sole female member of Berlin’s dada art scene and, I’d argue, the only of those artists whose thinking wasn’t mostly one dimensional ended up having the largest impact in the long run. At the time, her contributions were mostly overlooked and/or belittled by her dada collaborators (incl. Hausmann, who treated her very poorly). The large photomontage entitled Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (1919-20) is frequently taken as the first photomontage in what by now is a tradition of 100 years.

It is a possibly slightly earlier and much more modestly sized work entitled Staatshäupter (1918-20), though, that sets the tone for many of Höch’s later works. In it, German Reich President Friedrich Ebert and Defense Minister Gustav Noske find themselves on top of an iron-on embroidery pattern. At the time, Höch was employed by publisher Ullstein Verlag, producing a variety of textile designs and patterns for embroidery and other handicraft. As Makela outlines, Höch didn’t mind the work and considered craft as being on the same level as art. Ullstein produced a large variety of magazines and periodicals, including the well-known Illustrirte Zeitung that in August 1919 had featured Ebert and Noske on its cover, standing up to their knees in water at some Baltic sea resort.

Germany had just emerged from an autocracy under the Kaiser as a democracy. Seeing the country’s first democratically elected president displayed in bathing trunks caused quite the ruckus. Deftly, Höch amplified the magazine’s message with her montage, cutting the two politicians down to size. Where the massive Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser piece attempted to compete with the bombast produced by her male peers, Staatshäupter brought Höch’s genius to the fore: collage works best when its wit is not undercut by bombast, when artistic skill does not have to compete with showboating.

(Unfortunately, when it comes to photomontage/collage, puns around cutting are hard, if not impossible to prevent. The image itself is not particularly subtle; but then, there are many things in life that aren’t subtle — or rather: that cannot be properly critiqued with subtlety, given that subtlety itself often is a sign of its user’s privilege.)

“I’m coming for you with a blade,” Justine Kurland proclaims on the cover of SCUMB Manifesto. SCUMB stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books. This references the late Valerie SolanasSCUM Manifesto, a feminist piece of writing that starts out with “‘Life’ in this ‘society’ being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of ‘society’ being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Solanas famously shot Andy Warhol, which unfortunately for most people might be the sole thing they know about her.

As I noted in the introduction to my conversation with 10×10 Photobooks, the world of the photobook is overwhelmingly male. Efforts are made to rectify this situation — whether in the form of cataloguing books by women that previously have been ignored, bodies of work being published long after they were made, or whatever else. That’s all good and very much worthwhile. Yet a full reckoning will have to include talking about the books that have been celebrated so far, simply because there is no reason that each and every book that is part of the canon should retain its position or, at the very least, should continue to be treated uncritically.

Kurland’s solution is simple and radical. The artist literally cut up a large number of books from her collection and created collages from their material many of which she then attached to the books’ cases.

Strictly speaking, the world of the photobook isn’t an institution. Despite its amorphous shape and form, though, it acts like one. This fact might be a lot clearer to all those trying to get a seat at the table than those already sitting. Seen this way, you could view SCUMB Manifesto as a form of visual institutional critique.

As a writer I’m glad that I don’t have to write articles about many of the books Kurland cut up and reconfigured. What exactly can one write about, say, the book that contains Lee Friedlander’s nudes? The photography is so bad in so many ways that I’d find myself struggling to arrive at anything other than exasperation. Wielding her blade, Kurland does not have this problem. A few deft cuts and montages, and — voila! — there it is, the fantasy of what many men mistaken for a healthy heterosexual desire.

Most of the collages in SCUMB Manifesto follow the model of Höch’s Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser. They’re visually compelling and visceral, betraying their maker’s considerable artistic wit and intelligence. With plenty of nudity in the source material, Kurland’s combination of blade and glue serves to amplify the underlying lecherousness of so many of the books that were reconfigured. There is a list of the books’ titles at the end, in case as a viewer you’re curious about the source material.

While after a century of photomontage, the practice appeared to have mostly fallen by the wayside, SCUMB Manifesto demonstrates that in the right hands it has not lost its original revolutionary potential.

I personally don’t believe in an afterlife. But were it to exist, I’d imagine Hannah Höch being mightily pleased, seeing that the knife is still being put to good use: to cut down men to size.

SCUMB Manifesto; collages by Justine Kurland; essays by Marina Chao, Renee Gladman, Catherine Lord, Ariana Reines; 282 pages; MACK; 2022

Paris Nord

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As Western societies get richer and richer under neoliberal capitalism, the accumulated wealth is distributed more and more unequally. The problem isn’t just that a relatively small number of people (billionaires) are hoarding money like modern-day Crassi. The real problem is that what not so long ago was referred to as the 99% is no homogeneous block.

Just look at how what used to be social-democratic parties are now organizations devoted to preservation and betterment of the relatively well off. Beneath those, there is a growing assembly of citizens that politically and economically are not represented by anyone any longer and that have been stripped of whatever few rights and little wealth they might have been able to accrue under previous social-democratic conditions.

As a consequence, those at the very bottom of the economic ladder have become outcasts, regardless of whether they are refugees from foreign countries, stateless wanderers, or the kinds of economic losers whose presence is necessitated by the collusion of billionaires and the clients of “reformed” (“centrist”, “third way”, …), previously social-democratic parties. Those that  advocate for the vast new underclass are now usually described as “far left” by the media that are solidly devoted to “centrist” ideas, and they often lumped together with the far right, as if social justice and fascism posed equal threats to democracy.

As can be seen in a large number of countries, this situation is toxic for democracy itself. If people are given the choice between neoliberal technocrats whose main focus is “the economy” (resulting in ever shrinking social services while taxes on corporations and the rich are lowered) and neo-fascists who offer a vision, as noxious and outright dangerous it might be, then in the long run the neo-fascists can only win, leading to the likes of Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Modi,  etc.

It’s easy to see how this configuration poses a lose-lose situation for democracy. A neofascist victory typically results in the erosion of democratic norms and rules (if not their outright suspension as courts are being politicized etc.). To prevent that situation, many people feel blackmailed into voting for the “lesser evil”. But that erodes trust in the democratic process itself, given people are led to think that there is no choice whatsoever. This in turn feeds the neofascist narrative that liberal democracy is the problem.

How would one go about photographing around any of this? French photographer Myr Muratet‘s Paris Nord focuses on a number of aspect mentioned above. If I understand the publisher’s description of the book properly, the book combines a number of projects and intermingles them to arrive at a searing indictment of the very mechanisms that are driving more and more people into the margins.

(It is a coincidence that I am writing this article on the day of the first round of the French presidential elections that once again resulted in the choice between a neoliberal technocrat and a neofascist that openly supports Russian dictator Putin.)

There are a number of reasons why the book is extremely noteworthy. To begin with, it’s filled with a number of incredible, visceral photographs. Even as many of its ideas aren’t very new at all, every time I look through the book I can’t help but feel that this is a milestone of photography that shows me something I am familiar with in a new light, rattling the cage that most of us find ourselves in.

It’s strange: Photography originated in France. And yet over the past few decades, the country hardly has been at the forefront of contemporary photography, even as some of photoland’s most cherished events are happening there (Paris Photo and Les Rencontres d’Arles). These days it’s mostly artists from its central and eastern parts that are pushing the conversation forward in Europe. In some ways, France reminds me a little bit of Britain before the arrival of a new generation of photographers working in colour in the 1980s re-ignited the fire there. Will we be able to witness a similar revival in French photography now? Paris Nord for sure is a book that I hope will make its mark and stake such a new claim.

As an object — and this is something I have to get out of my system, the book isn’t particularly attractive. It’s a relatively large softcover with a clear plastic dust jacket and a paper that’s rather unattractive to the touch. It’s testament to the sheer strength of the photography that this hardly matters. Possibly, the book was made with costs in mind: on the publisher’s website, the book is listed for 25 €. That’s crazy cheap for what you get when you buy a copy. And potentially making more of a luxury object would run counter to what’s presented in the book.

Regardless, as you leaf through the book, you encounter an urban environment that is openly hostile towards at least some of the people who are trying to find a home there. Muratet is very adept at photographing Paris in such a way that the various contraptions created around its inner-city buildings designed to keep out people without homes resemble the fences and barriers around motorways or other areas that are not to be entered. The City of Love has thus become a mirror of neoliberal violence: if there’s love, it’s strictly kept from anyone who finds themselves at the margins.

There are many photographs of these people. After all, they have no choice but to try to make the city their home, regardless of whether they’re welcomed or not. Some of the most searing pictures show people sleeping in what essentially are body bags for bodies that are still warm: large sheets of plastic or maybe thin fabric that delineate the sleepers’ contours. These photographs show how much these people are worth to the French Republic in which they find themselves in.

If you find my read of these photographs too drastic, consider the case of René Robert, a Swiss photographer aged 85, who one night slipped somewhere in Paris and then spent a total of nine hours lying in the street helplessly before he died from hypothermia. Not a single Parisian bothered to check whether the main lying on the ground was OK or not. We only know of Robert’s fate because he had friends in well-off circles. If one of the people depicted in Paris Nord dies, we will never hear about it.

If it is sheer indifference that resulted in the death of René Robert, Myr Muratet’s should be seen as an act of resistance: Indifference is a choice, whether in the voting booth, on the street, or when walking around with one’s camera.

Paris Nord is an exceptionally strong photobook that you don’t want to miss.

Highly recommended.

Paris Nord; photographs by My Muratet; essay by Manuel Joseph (French only); 240 pages; Building Books; 2021

The Craft of Photography

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Stephen Shore describes Modern Instances as “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions. An impressionistic memoir” (p.10). A memoir of sorts it is. It also is “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions”, even as I feel that this description is too modest. All photography is subjective, in particular when it aspires to be art. And given how carefuly considered and thoughtful the book is, to describe it as a scrapbook might seem a tad too modest.

There is something to be said for Shore’s modesty, given that he has served as an educator for a long time. He writes “I see my role in the classroom as that of a guide—leading each student to find their voice as an artist” (p.12).

As far as I can tell, to see oneself as a guide — as opposed to, say, a drill sergeant — speaks of two things: generosity and confidence. If as a teacher you want to guide your students, you need to be generous with your advice, knowing that teaching is not a zero-sum game where you students learn from you at your own expense. At the same time, you need to possess a degree of confidence in your own abilities: a guide might lead some but not all of the way.

Having read Modern Instances, I can’t help but feel that Shore must be an excellent teacher. The two qualities I spoke of — generosity and confidence — shine through very clearly in the book.

But writing a book of this particular kind poses a pitfall for the guiding teacher, especially one with so much experience: the risk is that you mistaken your reader with a student. A reader might in fact be a student — someone eager to learn more about photography. But there might be other readers, for example someone who is curious to know more about Stephen Shore as an artist or even as a person. I have the feeling that this latter reader might not get all the answers they would be looking for.

Modern Instances is subtitled The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. In a conversation, I once was asked to compare Shore with fellow photographer Joel Sternfeld. I came up with the idea that while behind the view camera, Sternfeld looked at America whereas Shore looked at the ground glass. “Both of these pictures are based on one-point perspective,” Shore writes about a pair of photographs made in 1974 and 1975, “with the vanishing point in the center of the image. The Los Angeles image is much denser; there is more information to organize. When three-dimensional space is collapsed into a flat picture, objects in the foreground are now seen, on the surface of the photograph, in a new and precise relationship to the objects in the background.” (p. 20) All photographs are information organized in a two-dimensional plane. If any photographer has spent a lot of time thinking about this, it’s Shore.

I’ve now arrived at thinking that American Surfaces is my favourite body of work by this artist. In his memoir, Shore describes it as an exercise in seeing. But I do think that there’s a sense of playfulness and looseness in these pictures that is absent from the later work where possibly because of the use of a view-camera those aspects had to fall aside. This has me thinking that the work might have been more than merely a study in photographic seeing. Maybe my own path as someone looking at pictures is the opposite of Shore’s as someone making pictures, moving from what is measured and confined to something that is freer, looser.

In the book, Shore connects his own photographic problem solving with examples of art made before him. In a section entitled Influences and Inspirations, he lists a number of them (there are others scattered elsewhere in the book). They include Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, a number of architectural spaces, and more. And then on page 117, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera makes an appearance, which almost made me fall out of my chair. While Shore focuses especially on the lyrics, Brecht’s caustic lyrics and Weill’s helter-skelterly music to me are the complete opposite of the spirit that runs through Shore’s photographs and writing, with its polite, measured, and carefully considered delivery. I suppose this only shows that whenever you think you know something about a person, there still are ample opportunities for them to surprise you.

Shore’s artistic references are mostly male, white, and Western. This makes him a good representative of the vast majority of American artists from his (and later) generation(s). It’s probably obvious to most readers how such a set of references is limiting for a large number of contemporary practitioners. But dismissing the book for that reason would be a mistake. To begin with, Shore’s work simply is too strong and masterful to be cast aside. There are ample opportunities to learn from his work and thinking, the latter of which is laid out in full detail here. Even if as an artist you don’t see yourself as a strict formalist, Shore overarching important lesson is most important: you will have to get your craft perfect.

What is more, to understand the history of photography involves immersing oneself in a lot of material that for any number of reasons one might be tempted to dismiss as not being relevant for one’s own work. In my own experience, I have now come to realize that there is almost no photography that does not offer an opportunity to learn something about what it means to use a camera. For better or worse, the very male and white world of artists that dominates the book has something to offer; understanding how it came about and relates with itself forms an important part of moving to something more diverse.

Stephen Shore is one of the very rare cases where a person combines being an excellent, groundbreaking artist with being a generous and open teacher, and a very good writer. With Modern Instances, we now get access to that universe. This makes for a unique opportunity to get access to something that too often is hidden: how a person developed into the artist they are, given the material and people they associated themselves with.

In my own teaching, I often describe photographs as gifts: they are given to you if you’re able to spot and then take them. This book is a gift. If this (or any other) article spotted it, all that’s left for you is to take it.

Stephen Shore — Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography;224 pages; MACK; 2022