Laissez Faire

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If analogue photography has developed much of its allure from taking pictures of grimy surfaces, digital photography excels with glossy ones, especially if there is a lot of light around. I wouldn’t want to attribute any deeper meaning to that (at least for now). Over the course of the past two decades, our seeing of the world has been increasingly shaped by how digital cameras describe the world. This development has gone so far that parts of our world are now being created in such a way that they look good in digital pictures.

While in general I am not too interested in photography that seems too camera-technology specific (regardless of whether it’s analog or digital), I do get the occasional kick out of something that is really well done, something that pushes a particular technology to great effect. For me, there is a degree of guilty pleasure in this: I might have spent too much time looking at and attempting to critically write about photography to be able to just enjoy something — unless, and this is rare, the work in question is so strong that it manages by short circuit my critical abilities (this is an exceedingly rare event, given photoland’s sea of visual and conceptual sameness).

The only problem with digital photography pushing shiny surfaces and modern light is that in principle, it’s the same message that also underpins neoliberal capitalism. Your neoliberal realism is often right there, and whatever critical idea a photographer might have had in mind is being undercut by the sheer visual appeal of what often is pretty noxious.

This might be the main difference between capitalism roughly 100 years ago and now: where in the past, getting access to factories was difficult because of the resulting visuals, now, modern factories are almost always open. Neoliberal capitalists are only too eager to have consumers (or images and products) ooh and aah over how shiny robots and human beings arranged around them to present environments that look as if they were taken from some science-fiction movie.

If you think about it, this is a nifty move: we are so conditioned from popular entertainment to view certain things as fiction (or “science fiction”) that by performing that mental association, we don’t realize to what extent we are in deep, deep trouble already. The disaster has arrived, but it’s looking pretty great in pictures.

As Bertolt Brecht already noted, both one hundred years ago and now photographs won’t get at the underlying ideologies and mechanisms of exploitation. But today, workers don’t look exploited any longer — even if they are as abused as their colleagues a century ago.

If you’re a photographer, how do you avoid this problem? I have no idea. What seems clear is that individual photographs will not be able to do the job (see Andreas Gursky or, to pick another example, Edward Burtynsky’s photographs from inside factories in China). It might only be the combination of such imagery in the form of a photobook that offers a chance to create a fissure in the facade (obviously, I’m not talking about a catalogue or monograph of individual photographs here).

Cristiano Volk‘s Laissez-Faire showcases contemporay life under neoliberal capitalism in all its shiny glory where tackiness always is but a step away (if even that). “[I]t’s all about the meat baby”, a neon sign advertises in one picture (one shudders to imagine what might be on sale), while in another the names of corporate brands (Canon, Toshiba, …) tower high over municipal high rises. It’s not clear what exactly the buildings are — office or apartment towers? But it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the life experience they offer is shallow (again: if even that).

And so it goes on and on, with colourful lights being captured the way we are used to now, where everything not only is made to look good in a picture but also can be easily captured in one (given how well modern camera sensors and associated algorithms are able to work with what previously was low light). Perhaps not surprisingly, everybody is having the good time on offer, and everybody looks great (even sea life in some aquarium).

Leisure time and work life seamlessly transition into one another in the book. This makes sense, given that neoliberal jobs require being present 24/7. When we’re on our gadgets, we work for free for the makers of the various social-media and messaging apps that promise to connect us to the world.

I don’t know whether Laissez-Faire offers me anything that I don’t know already. But if photography wants to create that fissure that I spoke of before it maybe might result less from some Brechtian Verfremdung and more from relentless exposure. Maybe at some stage, we will realize how we have created an environment for ourselves that is only serving a small number of billionaires.

For sure, the book comes appropriately packaged. There is a bright yellow plastic dust jacket around the softcover, which inevitably has the book stick to my hands in ways that I want to wash off (it’s not helping that while I’m writing this, it’s 33 degrees outside, a new record in late May as the news told me). But what I really want to wash off, of course, is not so much the book but rather the way it makes me feel.

I hear neoliberal capitalism whisper into my ear: enjoy me, resistance is futile.

Laissez-Faire, photographs by Cristiano Volk; essay by Eugenie Shinkle; 216 pages; FW:Books; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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Perfect Pearl

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How people decide to live with each other forms the most hotly contested area for human beings. At the smallest and most basic scale, we typically have one person living with another person (there are other arrangements, but they’re rather rare). At the core of this arrangement sits love. It is an emotion that we all know intimately well, one of the most basic and important ones.

At no point in history have people been able to experience and enjoy love unconditionally, regardless of whether it’s romantic love or any other form of it. At first, this might sound like a strange statement. But these days, you don’t need to look very far to witness some people telling other people what they can or cannot do with each other.

In the West, we have witnessed massive progress regarding what it typically called one’s identity over the course of the past two decades. At the same time, a neofascist counter-movement has positioned itself to not only take away all current achievements (for example gay marriage), but also to roll back past ones. For that movement, some forms of love are more valid than others. It’s crazy that in 2022, this is the world we even have to live in. But here we are.

Even as many other areas on the planet are centered on very different cultural, societal, and political traditions, many of the West’s ideas have been sweeping the globe because of the dominance of neoliberal capitalism. As a consequence, in many places, traditional ideas are now competing with non-traditional, Western ones that often are known only through how they play out in terms of consumption.

A recent photobook that centers on how this can play out is Tara Fallaux‘s Perfect Pearl. The book looks at how ideas of (heterosexual) romance and love plays out for young women in China. The book is based on an artist residency in Xiamen that lasted almost half a year, giving Fallaux ample time to get to know a number of young women. In the back of the book, their names are given as Binge, Lova, Muse, and Rocy.

In many ways, focusing on a small number of people who are trying to deal with a very basic and essential conundrum is a good approach. As I already said, we all know what love is or, and (this is not necessarily the same thing) what it feels like; we also all have an idea of romance.

Furthermore, even as our individual ideas might all be a little bit (or very) different, we all are familiar with trying to figure them out, trying to deal with them: given my options and my preferences, what can I do to get to that perfect place in life that we all aspire to be at (and, let’s be realistic, mostly never get to — in part because neoliberal capitalism teaches us that we can always do better)?

Given that you cannot photograph many of the ideas around love and romance, Perfect Pearl uses text to fill in the gaps. There is a longer text by one of the young women. In addition, there are frequent short text snippets that are taken from anonymous WeChat messages. “I’ve admitted,” part of one reads, “that whatever I’m doing, it’s the little things that make me happy, as always. So I stopped looking for reasons to ne unhappy for myself to be happy enough.” Ok then, to be happy enough.

The book is produced following the binding that Hans Gremmen/FW:Books used for Andres Gonzalez’s American Origami. The idea is quite simple actually (as is pretty much always the case, the best ideas are simple). You basically produce a softcover book. Then, you fold it in half. As a consequence, when a viewer looks at the book, holding it in their hands, they only get to see the half of the pages closest to the fore-edge — unless they decide to open up the rest.

As you can imagine from this description, this construction creates two types of spaces in the book: the one you can see easily and the one that requires a little bit more work to access. Consequently, you can “hide” material in the latter part. In other words, the construction of the book creates a very nifty way to organize materials simply through the construction of the book (obviously, you could use a different construction and then have a graphic designer do the organization in other ways).

Here, the text messages are all hidden away in the book. To be able to access them, you have to fully open up the book. But unlike in American Origami, this book doesn’t follow this approach for each spread. As a consequence, you never quite know whether you will access more text or imagery that for a lack of a better word feels more intimate — or simply more of what you’ve already seen outside. I do think that this approach works in the book’s favour.

Most of the book plays out between the portraits Fallaux took of her friends and photographs of women or couples who are about the get married. There is a large beach in Xiamen which appears to serve as a frequently used backdrop for wedding photographers. There also are cityscapes, interiors, and still lifes. Especially the latter feel rather reductive, though.

Perfect Pearl deftly paints a picture of young women trying to find their place in life against the background of their culture and the various expectations placed onto them (whether by others or themselves). Even as details might differ considerably, this struggle is playing out all over the world, a struggle that, as I noted in the beginning, is not fully independent from the frameworks created by societies and political systems.

In the end, part of the question always remains to what extent one is supposed to — or maybe has to — push back against restrictions that are too tight and that only serve to define oneself in other people’s terms. There is no good answer. But we might note the choices we, and others, face.

Perfect Pearl; photographs by Tara Fallaux; texts by various authors; 60 pages; self-published; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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Photography is a force that gives us meaning

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I would love to believe that it is our intentions that determine the outcome of what we produce. In some ways, they do — if, and only if, we manage to have the outcome of our work reflect those intentions. That, however, is not a given. Often, it’s not the case.

As a viewer, how would I know about a photographer’s intentions when I only have their work? How, that is, if s/he didn’t explicitly provide a list of intentions? In the absence of such a list, I can only try to infer the intentions from the work. I might or might not be successful. Thus, I have maintained for a long time that discussions of a body of work that center on a photographer’s intentions are not very fruitful.

With that in mind I want to consider two recent photobooks: Agata by Bieke Depoorter (self-published in 2021, of which I own a copy of the second printing) and Anastasiia: She folds her memories like a parachute by Christian van der Kooy (published by The Eriskay Connection in 2018). Both books centre on the same idea, namely that the interaction between a photographer and her or his subject (another person) is considerably more complex than the traditional model of the privileged storyteller telling someone else’s story. Both books attempt to solve the problem by incorporating the subject’s voice, by giving her an opportunity to speak for herself.

We might note that both books contain a degree of fiction, the full amount of which is unknown to anyone other than their makers and, possibly, their subjects. I should note that I view the word “fiction” in a neutral manner. A fiction might arise from any number of fictional events, places, or people just as much as from omissions and other decisions made while producing a body of work.

In the strictest sense, all photographs are fictions, given their photographers’ choices. But in a number of circumstances, we can ignore this fact (even if this might decision might run the risk of falling for the very fiction whose presence we’re ignoring). In the case of these two books, there might be ample fiction. We don’t know the full extent of it. We’re well advised to keep this in the backs of heads.

I’ve read what has been written about the books. Still, it’s always a bad idea to trust photographers and photobook makers too much: trust what they’ve made, but don’t believe their spiels.

While the overall stories behind Agata and Anastasiia are different, the two books have a number of things in common (in the following, when the names are written in italics, they refer to the book). In both cases, their basis is a relationship between two people who started out as strangers. Agata Kay and Bieke Depoorter met as subject and photographer and ended up being friends, even as the extent and full character of the friendship is not fully revealed. Anastasiia (no last name given) and Christian van der Kooy met as fixer and photographer and became lovers. In both cases, the books contain an extensive amount of photographs of Agata and Anastasiia, plus their own words.

There are different production strategies employed to convey the stories in Agata and Anastasiia. The latter uses graphic-design elements to show the difference between the photographer’s and his subject’s words. They are reproduced in black and magenta, respectively. In the case of Agata, most of the young woman’s words is shown as handwritten text. The bulk of it is initially hidden inside the folds of pouch pages (this is a type of binding commonly used in traditional Asian books): a viewer/reader has to cut the (perforated) fore edge to get access to their interior, which either contains text or photographs (or occasionally simply blank pages).

Conceptually, this is a nifty game that I have seen being played in other books. Given the perforation, though, it doesn’t feel as if my — the viewer’s stakes — are quite as high as they could be. After all, the pages will come apart easily. The perforation makes me think of a zipper. Opening up the pages feels a lot less consequential than in the case where I would have had to use a knife.

There is the old belief, now mostly discarded, that a camera can steal one’s soul. This idea now strikes us as naif, even if, I maintain, some photographers are aware of the fact that something like that can actually happen. In an extreme case, a camera can become a weapon. At the very least, writing someone else’s story with a camera takes away that person’s agency.

What we thus ought to be talking about is that it’s the photographer, not the camera, who is doing the stealing. Let’s keep this in mind.

(continued…)

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Shiotani

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The standard process for making a photobook goes something like this. You take your thousands or hundreds of photographs, and you whittle them down to the few dozen strongest ones, which you then proceed to put into an order based on the idea of the work. This method is well tested, and it works well with 99% of all photography. The reason for that is that in the world of photography, the main (mostly unspoken) idea is that photographs are special entities.

If you go to art school, say, to get your very expensive MFA, that’s what you’re being taught: focus on the single picture and try to make it as brilliant as you can. As I outlined earlier, this model is based on the idea that photography is an art form. Thus, it better conform to that world’s conventions. To a large extent, the art world has let itself be defined through commerce. And art dealers prefer unique, expensively made things because that’s what rich people like to possess.

But as Lewis Bush pointed out, photography is too interesting to be treated as art. Even if you still think of yourself as an artist, you might want to consider what this means. It might have consequences for how you see photographs — especially your own. A few years ago, I wrote about what this could mean. In hindsight, I feel that the article doesn’t quite convey the importance of what it tries to get at. (I tend to have this problem with my articles. It tells me that I’m still learning: moving my own goal posts. I’ll stop writing once I find that I’ve stopped learning.)

If you ditch what I called the precious-picture problem, you’re in a different world. To begin with, you’ll have to re-consider how you make your pictures and work with them. How do you edit work when you’re not merely picking the “strongest” pictures (whatever this might even mean)? And what exactly does the work communicate? What could a book look like?

An absolutely brilliant example of such an approach is provided by Anders Edström‘s Shiotani. As an object, the book is modestly sized and relatively hefty. Once you start looking at the book, you realize where that heft is coming from: there are hundreds of pages printed on a rather thin paper stock. But the book’s real heft is what it is doing. I’d find it hard to attribute regular photobook terms to it because if you’re looking for anything that’s common in other photobooks, it’s completely absent here.

From what I know, every form of art has its outlier creators that push the boundaries of their chosen medium by essentially exploding them. If you approach their work expecting to be faced with what you’re familiar with, you’ll inevitably be disappointed. And it’s likely that you will also find yourself bored because you’re not being given your regular kick, while the work demands to be seen on its own terms.

For example, if you watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker expecting a movie that follows Hollywood standards, you’ll be in for a huge disappointment. Somehow, nothing appears to be happening. Or rather, there are a few things that are happening. But you could essentially condense that action into five to ten minutes of movie. In much the same fashion, if you listen to a classical symphony expecting it to use the conventions of pop music, you’ll also be bored out of your mind. However, if you listen to a piece of free jazz or psychedelic black metal you’ll be just aghast: how the hell is this music? Where is the structure you’re so used to?

All of these examples have in common that they unfold on different time scales and, crucially, that they need to be experienced on their own terms. This very much holds for Shiotani as well. How do you look at a photobook with hundreds of pictures, in which seemingly nothing is happening at all? Well, you just do. You allow yourself to give in to it, because the rewards are incredible.

What exactly do you encounter in the book? There is a relatively small group of people, many of them elderly, that live in what looks like a traditional Japanese house somewhere in an impossibly nondescript countryside. The location lacks any of the visual attractions that you might think of in the case of Japan. The hills look perfectly pleasant. But there are no torii gates, elaborate rock gardens, or bamboo forests. If they exist somewhere nearby, they are not shown.

Shiotani, Google Maps tells me, is a hamlet to the northwest of Kyoto. On my smartphone, it is a red marker surrounded by green. When I zoom in, the marker remains even as the rest of the map starts to fill in with details. At the smallest level, it turns into a red outline around its name, with some Ono Dam slightly to the south and a Mt. Chorogatake to the north north east. Is this the correct Shiotani? A few Google Street view pictures have me convinced that indeed it is.

My guess is that almost all photographers I know would have a hard time taking a single picture in that location. It would seem that there is nothing to take a picture of. But where are all the pictures in the book coming from? That’s where it gets interesting. In a nutshell, with very few exceptions, none of the pictures shows a moment that’s worthwhile remembering. That is the book’s brilliance.

As you start moving through the book, you’ll slowly get rid of expectations of something happening, to instead become immersed in a world that cherishes its quiet moments, its being very mundane. This is, in other words, our own world — the one we too often try to get distracted from by looking at precious pictures or whatever else. Nothing is happening: there is a meal, and then there is another meal, someone gets up to exit the room, the seasons change, and every once in a while someone dies.

There’s a movie that’s connected to the book. I haven’t seen it so I can’t say anything about it. In all likelihood, the film will be doing some things that this book cannot — and vice versa. Films do their own things — there’s the sound, and there’s the pacing that the viewer cannot control (or rather is not supposed to control; obviously in the day of Netflix and streaming sites that insert advertising that idea has long gone out of the window).

The book brings a viewer closer because it needs to placed into their immediate vicinity — on a lap, a table. It demands more of the viewer because when you close it it’s still there. I’m thinking it’s the still-being-there that would have me prefer the book over the movie (that, again, I haven’t seen — I’m writing these sentiments out of my feelings). I want its intimacy.

In Shiotani, the mundane becomes extraordinary simply because of Edström’s refusal to give in to conventions. If most photobooks are made for a specialist audience, this one really will only appeal to people deeply devoted to them. I don’t see that as a problem, given that this particular book will probably end up in that very small category of truly groundbreaking photobooks. You could place it next to Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu or Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan. That is this book’s company.

Shiotani is an immersive masterpiece that derives its beauty from its makers’ refusal to work with art photography’s most cherished conventions. Daily life in a small Japanese hamlet becomes extraordinary because every little moment, every little thing is given attention by Anders Edström. As a viewer, you find yourself in the middle of life as it is experienced by a small group of Japanese people. Coming away from the book, you can’t help but look around yourself to wonder whether paying a little more attention might not yield equally unexpected results.

Very highly recommended.

Shiotani; photographs by Anders Edström; texts by Jeff Rian, C.W. Winter; 750 pages; AKPE; 2021