The Devil Is Leaving His Cave

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In early 2021, I spoke Karolina Gembara about her work (you can find the long conversation split up into part 1 and part 2). There was one particular aspect of the conversation that I kept coming back to in my head (it’s from part 2): “Recently I completed another project where photography is only a pretext. During the Nowi warszawiacy workshop one girl mentioned her family struggles with finding a flat — landlords reject them because they are refugees. So I dedicated my time to become an agent to find housing. […] The whole process was recorded on video, with images and audio. […] The visual part is just a documentation. The most important part is that the family found a flat. The visual layer is present, but the core of this project isn’t visible in a traditional way.” (my emphasis)

It was the conclusion of this description, the part that I emphasized, that made me think. I remember how initially, I lost interest in the project, given that it wasn’t about pictures (or visuals). But with time, I started to challenge my own assumptions, in particular once I started looking into the two books that ultimately resulted in my recent article about photographers and their idea of collaboration. Am I too attached to what Karolina called “the traditional way,” namely the idea that at the end of a photography project, the pictures ought to exist on a wall (possibly framed) or in a photobook?

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love looking at prints on a wall or in a photobook. But this particular format has its limitations. To begin with, its audience is limited. It often excludes the very people who would find themselves in the pictures. Furthermore, as I’ve argued in my article about collaboration, in the end, the real problem to be solved tends to be a photography world one — unlike in the case of Karolina Gembara’s project where the “most important part [was] that the family found a flat.”

“The art world has never known what to do with Wendy Ewald.” Abigail Winogrand writes in her essay that’s included in The Devil Is Leaving His Cave (p. 114) “Indeed, it has frequently underestimated her. […] her work remains difficult to categorize, particularly in  a market and institutional landscape still defined, financially and otherwise, by the heroic notion of the singular artistic genius.” In what follows, Winogrand nevertheless attempts to place Ewald into an artistic context. On the one hand, that’s a worthwhile endeavour: how can we understand an artist when they’re completely detached from everybody else?

On the other hand, maybe resisting the impulse might be the bolder move. After all, as the history of art has already shown, there exist artists who push what we understand as art and/or what art can do in a singular, determined fashion. Maybe we can understand Wendy Ewald this way? Especially photo and art historians might be most resistant to such a push — it’s difficult to write art history by ditching parts of one’s own frame work.

But for the rest of us, I do believe that there is ample food for thought here. After all, why should the work produced by this particular artist be made to conform to parameters that aren’t very well suited for it when doing the complete opposite — expanding the parameters — might not only lead us to a better understanding of it, possibly leading to a better way to recognize the strength of her work, but also to a collective re-understanding of what photographs can do?

Maybe this should be our task, especially when we deal with the idea of collaboration in photography: instead of having the world conform to our conventions, we might want to explore a widening of the conventions so that there is more space for the world — and, consequently, a widening of the possibilities of photography itself.

But no, photography itself does not need a widening of its possibilities. It already is very wide. Instead, it’s how we see and treat photography within confines of the art world where the narrowing is happening.

The Devil Is Leaving His Cave makes this clear. The book contains two separate bodies of work (if that’s even the right word) that are interrelated. In 1991, Ewald went to Chiapas, the southernmost province of Mexico, to lead photography classes with a number of children from local communities. Roughly three decades later, the artist worked with fifteen young Mexican Americans living in Chicago. The later part entailed a number of differences: photographic materials had changed, and there also was the (at the time of this writing ongoing) Covid-19 pandemic that required some remote teaching.

In terms of their approach, there are some differences as well. The children living in southern Mexico set out to produce a record of their daily lives that, crucially, also entailed staging photographs of dreams. This is where the book’s title originates: it’s the caption (“description”) of the picture on the cover (that can also be found inside the book). “For the Maya students,” Ewald writes in her introduction (p. 15), “dreams played as important a role in understanding the world as waking events”.

Photographically, the photographs are incredible. But they defy easy categorizations. How do straight up documentations sit next to depictions of dreams that derive their visual power in part from their own technical crudeness? Well, they do, especially if you accept the approach the Maya students would have taken: all of the photographs speak of the same thing — their lived reality.

The later workshop produced text heavier outcomes, possibly in part because its participants were a little older. Here, the concern with the aspect of immigration comes into sharp focus. “When you’re little,” workshop participant Marestela Martinez writes (p. 108), ” it’s not so hard being Mexican and American because you’re still growing. You don’t understand what people are saying. You think they’re talking just to you. But now it’s hard, because you understand.”

Next to Marestela Martinez’s large portrait and right above her testimony, there’s a photograph she took of a mural showing George Floyd. Around his head, she wrote the following text: “His daughter will grow up and see her dad’s last moments everywhere”. It’s too awful a sentiment to consider even as of course, this is exactly what’s going to happen. And it’s equally incredibly touching to see the young Mexican immigrant sympathize with George Floyd’s daughter.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that photographers have to change anything if they want to pursue their idea of collaboration. There’s nothing wrong with producing something made for and seen only by people in the world of photography. At the same time, in light of the explosion of crises we are facing right now and in light of our own governments’ reluctance to provide even a modicum of a solution for any one of them, this approach increasingly reflects the luxury position that being an artist entails.

It is work such as Wendy Ewald’s The Devil Is Leaving His Cave that has the power to point toward possibly more interactive approaches in photography where a collaboration ends up being a give and take. Ultimately, at least some of the ideas we cherish in the world of photography might have to be diluted, if not expanded (where not abandoned).

In the end, this can only lead to the world of professional photography becoming richer, as it soaks up some of the ideas that people who don’t consider themselves photographers have taken for granted for a long time. At the same time, professional photographers and artists do possess skills that have the potential to enrich the contributions made by those we ask for a  collaboration.


The Devil Is Leaving His Cave; photographs by a number of contributors including Wendy Ewald; essays by Wendy Ewald, Abigail Winogrand, Edgar Garcia; 144 pages; MACK; 2022

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Abdo Shanan’s Dry

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A few years ago, we witnessed a boom in self published photobooks. A huge number of emerging but also established photographers decided that they wanted to take on all aspects of making and publishing a photobook themselves. For me, the most exciting outcome of the boom were the widely felt senses of possibility and experimentation that the staid area of photobook publishing suddenly experienced. However, even if there now are a small number of publishers that have retained those senses (Hans Gremmen’s FW:Books is my go-to example), unfortunately since the end of the boom the world of photobook has become a bit boring again.

I am fully aware of the fact that publishing books is a very risky business. So if you have arrived at a model that works, then there’s no good (business) reason to change it. Still, I feel that a photobook produced in, let’s say, 2022 ought not to look and feel like a photobook in 2002, simply because in those two decades a few more possibilities might have opened up. Thus, mine isn’t a capitalist argument (dress up the same thing in new packaging, hoping to sell some more). Instead, I’m concerned about the book itself and what it can do for its audience. As Hans Gremmen and a few other publishers continue to show, you can make a photobook that looks and feels contemporary even when the source material is very old. That’s the way it should be.

The above will not surprise anyone who has been following this site for a while. I have insisted on not producing Tupperware style books for a long time, arguing that if you view your book as some random container, then that’s not going to help your pictures. Of course, there are all those people who will say that a photobook should be all about the picture. Nothing should be allowed to take any attention away from those. But do those people actually understand that a photobook is its own medium? You don’t read a novel, expecting to look at the words, do you? I know, these kinds of comparisons aren’t ideal; but I’m sure it is clear what I’m trying to get at.

I had to think of these aspects of the photobook again when I received Abdo Shanan‘s self published Dry in the mail. The book and an accompanying booklet are held together by a wrapper (described on the photographer’s website as “a three flaps black jacket”). There’s the black silhouette of a barren tree printed onto its black card stock. Open the first flap to encounter the words “How is it possible for an Island to exist in the middle of an Ocean?” Open the second flap to see the book itself: its outer cover is black as well. Inside the wrapper, there are three photographs (printed with silver ink), which look archival and which are hard to make out. There are a man, a woman, and a group of people (they look all male, but it’s impossible to be certain).

There are black sections at the beginning and end of the book as well. As on the wrapper, silver ink was used to print photographs on it. The viewer first encounters an interior, a stair leading down somewhere, a closed door, a gate, a cemetery, a hand reaching into some foliage, and lastly (and much bigger) what might be the edge of a jungle. It’s all very mysterious and intriguing. The first page of the following section (using white paper) contains the title page. Afterwards, the book presents a combination of black-and-white and colour photographs (answering the eternal and eternally boring question: can you combine these two types of pictures? with: of course, you can if you do it well).

I’ve looked at the book a few times, and the mix of what is being shown still surprises me. To begin with (this will satisfy the most conservative members of photoland), there are a lot of great pictures. Furthermore, the editing and sequencing has been done really, really well. You’ll have to remember: as someone who hasn’t looked at the book and who thus knows nothing about it, the book needs to reveal itself in a way that won’t make you put it away. It really does, and it does it in a way that wants you to look at it again and again.

The use of the portraits is very intriguing. More than once, the same person is shown in two different photographs — this is a technique Michael Schmidt used in Ein-Heit to great effect. It’s startling to see the same person again. At some stage, you encounter a short quote, which doesn’t tell you all that much (which only adds to the mystery). A few pages later, there are more quotes. They continue underneath the photographs, a number of portraits of people with a variety of skin tones. The first quote reveals the book’s topic. It begins with “I wouldn’t be able to live in Algeria permanently.”

The selection of short quotes centers on what that might mean — Algeria, a country with a colonial past or being Algerian. “[T]here is no such thing as a homogeneous Algeria,” the final quote in the book concludes. It is placed opposite of a portrait of a man who decided to lean outside of the frame. There merely is a sliver of his beard left.

When I first looked at the book, I didn’t read the quotes. As a bookmaker, you cannot control how people decide to encounter what you’ve made. Even though I was unable to tell where exactly the book had been photographed (I’d learn that later, reading the text), the overall idea of the book was communicated very strongly to me. You can see it. This is what I want in a photobook.

It’s not that I mind reading text (quite on the contrary). But if you can visually communicate the idea of your book — a sense of displacement in the environment that in principle you should feel completely comfortable in, then that’s great. It’s great because this sense might be shared by people in other parts of the world as well. Algeria is merely one of the many countries with a colonial past. Furthermore, questions of national identity and belonging are now also wracking the very countries that are responsible for the mess they left behind in their former colonies.

Thus, Dry is a book of and for our times. Those who want to learn more about Algeria can read the booklet. Therein, excerpts from Karima Lazali’s Colonial Trauma: A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria are reproduced. “For centuries,” part of it reads, “Algeria has been the site of many conquests and of battles fought against the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and the French. Each of these upheavals has had an impact on the habitus and languages of this land’s inhabitants for many generations.” For most Westerners, this is something that would have to be imagined. For people in many other parts of the world, this forms the background of their culture and society.

There are no other books listed on Abdo Shanan‘s website, making this a very, very impressive debut photobook. I’m hoping it will be seen and appreciated widely, given the relevance of what it covers and given how well it was produced.


Dry; photographs by Abdo Shanan; text by Karima Lazali; 104 pages; self published; 2022

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

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On Quitting One’s Day Job

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There is a very telling anecdote in Robert Slifkin‘s excellent Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work. “Such was the power of Hare’s singular vision,” Slifkin writes near the end of the book (p. 215), “that […] his mother resisted having her portrait taken by him for fear that she would look like all of the other characters in his pictures.” The source for this is a tape that the photographer produced himself, a recording of a conversation he had with designer Marvin Israel around the time of his first and only exhibition at MoMA.

It is relatively easy to spot a photograph by Chauncey Hare, in particular one of the peopled interiors. Typically, one or more people are depicted in what through the use of a wide-angle lens looks like a cavernous, barren room. More often than not, the scene is harshly illuminated by a flash. At times, some of the subjects in a picture are posing for it, while other are not. Some of Hare’s sitters were unaware of the wide-angle lens so they simply assumed that they wouldn’t end up in the picture.

Today, Chauncey Hare would be a well-known name in the world of photography, much like, one suspects, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, or maybe Allan Sekula. But he is not. There were three books made during his lifetime, two of which I own. The first — Interior America — was published by Aperture at the occasion of the aforementioned MoMA exhibition in 1977. The second book — Protest Photographs — was published by Steidl in 2009. They’re both out of print. For a number of reasons, Interior America is the vastly better book. Hare’s third book — This Was Corporate America — was self published in 1984. By that time, Hare had completed his withdrawal from the world of photography almost completely.

There’s something very interesting about Hare’s photographs. You could crop parts of some of them, to arrive at a different photograph’s picture. Often, a single photograph will allow for more than one such crop. I can’t easily think of another photographer that includes, say, a Diane Arbus picture alongside a Walker Evans. This is not to diminish the quality of Hare’s work — on the contrary. I think that Hare was a more interesting photographer than (to stick with my example) both Arbus and Evans. He was able to combine an incredible skill at composition (with some very minor staging thrown in) with highly charged portraiture.

Much like in the case of Arbus, there’s a deeply unsettling aspect to Hare’s portraiture — exactly the thing his own mother picked up on when she declined to be depicted. In the photographs, people typically come across as being completely lost in the cruel and unforgiving world of their own homes, when they don’t look like Arbusian characters. It’s not clear whether Hare was aware of the fact that his portrayal of people could be seen as abusive, even as he set out to show with them how they were being abused by corporations.

I’m writing these words as someone who has long admired Hare’s work. Over the years, I have come to the realization that good photography (or maybe photography that manages to reach the level of art) does not offer a single path towards what it might mean. In good photography, there is more than one element. The combination of the different elements creates a push and pull for the viewer, having them face conflicting emotions.

(For a long time, I thought Arbus possessed this element. But now, I think the pictures merely reflect their maker’s cynicism and cruelty. There’s the push, sure. But the pull viewers end up having to construct for themselves: nobody wants to admit that much like Arbus, they’re fascinated by visually sneering at people.)

There’s an agenda behind every photographer’s work, even if some (possibly many) of them would like you to think that’s not the case. Hare was upfront about his. In fact, any time you see a photograph of his today (which is very, very rare) it comes with the disclaimer. In the list of image credits in Quitting Your Day Job, the disclaimer can be found after each of Hare’s pictures. It reads in full: “This photograph was made by Chauncey Hare to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multi-national corporations and their elite owners and manager.”

How or why this makes sense (or not) is brilliantly laid out by Robert Slifkin in Quitting Your Day Job, which might be re-setting the standard of what a photographer’s biography actually ought to look like. It balances criticism with admiration. It presents the photographer as the kind of conflicted human being that we all are. This is a much needed deviation from the hagiographic attempts of biography produced for a number of famous American photographers recently.

I suppose in many ways, Hare made this easy: he had quit the world of photography in ways that decades later left strong recollections with a great many people. In fact, it would be tempting to view Hare as a strange interloper (in my own experience, I’ve noticed how photoland loves these kinds of people — they’re part of the system but, intriguingly, they’re not). While you could certainly think about it this way, the care and attention that Slifkin devoted to Hare and his work resulted in a book that goes very deep into this man’s life work and that indirectly also comments on the world of photography itself.

Throughout the book Slifkin manages to remain accepting of Hare’s predicament, even as he details the many, many unusual events that happened during the time when Hare was considering himself a photographer. Told out of context, some of them are too strange to be true. Did Chauncey Hare actually picket an exhibition at SFMOMA that he was included in, severely damaging his prospects of future engagement with the museum? Yes, he did. But there are a lot more details here (and elsewhere) that are worthwhile knowing.

What struck me when reading the book was how Slifkin managed to strike the perfect balance between being sympathetic to Hare’s ideas and aspirations and laying out all the details of the various conundrums and problems created by a photographer who found himself at odds with the world around him more or less all the time. In a nutshell, Hare must have been an incredibly difficult person who appeared to have lacked the understanding that human relationships of any kind are impossible without a degree of compromise. I’m thinking that these are the perfect ingredients for great photographs and great trouble.

Hare had started work as an engineer for the company that is now known as Chevron (previously SOCAL), possibly the kind of job that would have set him up for a comfortable life. But he was deeply unhappy in that job and had found that photography offered him an outlet. Through sheer determination, he managed to produce photography that was so good that it easily competed with what was being fêted by John Szarkowski, the most well-known and most powerful curator at the time.

After his MoMA exhibition, Hare pursued an MFA. Attending San Francisco’s Art Institute, he studied with teachers such as Sekula, Martha Rosler, and others — even as, the book makes clear, Hare clearly didn’t think he needed to learn anything. He wanted the MFA to be able to teach. The book dives into these aspects as well, much as it covers, say, Hans Haacke’s institutional critique, which could have easily provided a framework for the direction Hare was heading in (with his inclusion of text and audio materials in exhibitions).

I’m now thinking of Hare’s photographs as the missing link between American photography as established by Walker Evans and the photographers that ended up being lumped together in the New Documents movement. As I already noted above, Hare managed to charge most of his pictures with elements of both. The combination makes the results more interesting than either the older or Hare’s contemporaries’ work. The contradiction between two impulses creates the sparks: it’s not either blank description or slightly cynical (and possibly sneering) observation at arm’s length — it’s both at the same time. What a combo!

However, as Slifkin writes (p. 127), “MoMA […] was just as much corporate entity as SOCAL (one, moreover, that had shared origins in the Rockefeller family), and the museum seemed to propagate many of the same oppressive practices that made his experience as an engineer so frustrating and at times nauseating.” In Hare’s own words (p. 126f.): “I couldn’t tell any difference between Szarkowski and some person at Chevron who is about three levels above me. The same kind of authoritarian outlook.” Within the logic of his own mind, there could only be one conclusion, one possible way to deal with the situation he had placed himself in.

“Hare’s disavowal of photography,” Slifkin observes (p. 188), “wasn’t so clearly an act of willful renunciation as much as one of disheartened resignation.” If you want to take anything away from this biography, it’s this. Hare deeply loved and cared for photography. But the world of photography was unable to love him back on the terms that he wanted.

It was, in Hare’s words (p. 159), a “playground for the rich”, filled with people who are “seeking personal recognition above any responsibility to themselves as complete human beings.” He followed through on what he believed in and eventually ended up becoming a therapist.

Hare had, in Slifkin’s words, “sought — and in many cases succeeded — in rendering the world in his photographs as an extension of his interior self.” It’s just that in his particular case, the photographer’s interior self was unable to deal with the fact that while the world of photography loved the world in his photographs, the world in his photographs was incompatible with the world of photography.

Very highly recommended.

Robert Slifkin — Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work; 242 pages; MACK; 2022

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Atelier Yamanami

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Masami Yamagiwa has been living at Atelier Yamanami since 1990. According to the Atelier’s website, he “likes his daily tasks such as cooking, washing, cleaning and collecting waste paper for recycling, at a fixed time every day. For him creating artworks is one of them. […] His most important work subject is called ‘Masami Jizo’. ( ‘Jizo’ is a small stone statue representing bodhisattva, wearing a red bib.) Masami Yamagiwa has been creating ‘Masami Jizos’ for more than 20 years, and the number of the statues he made now exceeds over several hundred thousand.”

Rinko Kawauchi encountered Yamagiwa at her first visit to the Atelier in 2018 as she details in her afterword to Yamanami (やまなみ). Upon entering, she came across his booming voice singing Happy Birthday. On top of making a huge number of ‘Jizo’ sculptures and going about his daily chores, Yamagiwa has also memorized the birthdays of every person at the Atelier, inhabitants and staff alike. On their given day, Kawauchi notes, “first thing in the morning […] he walks up to that person and sings the song.” (quoted from the afterword)

There is a photograph of some of the ‘Jizo’ in the book. There must be dozens and dozens of such figurines, but due to the camera’s limited depth of field, only perhaps three dozen of them can be seen clearly. A viewer familiar with Kawauchi’s work might detect the artist’s visual signature at play right away, with its heightening of what is being paid attention to. In this Japanese photographer’s pictures, every little detail, however significant or insignificant, becomes a little miracle.

Another photograph of some artwork at first looks like a collection of leaves from an aloe plant. But then you realize that it must be a sculpture. In the index at the end of the book, the photograph is revealed as Hideaki Yoshikawa‘s ‘Eye, Eye, Nose, Mouth’. What initially look like dots reveal themselves as tiny faces that the artist uses to cover his artworks with. There is a photograph of Yoshikawa in the book. Holding a wooden (bamboo) tool in his right hand, you can see him work on an object that bears similarity to the ones in ‘Eye, Eye, Nose, Mouth’. The tip of the tool is placed in the center of the frame; as a viewer, you can feel how all of the artist’s concentration is channeled towards what for other people might be an insignificant detail.

Most photographers are aware of the fact that taking pictures of other artist’s work creates a conundrum. A very well-known German artist once told me that he stopped taking accepting commissions by architects, given that in the photographs, so much attention would be garnered by the buildings — instead of the photographs themselves. Kawauchi clearly didn’t seem to concerned about this problem. Reading her afterword and having followed the trajectory of her career, I’m not even certain she would consider it as such. When you see her photographs you know why. They are very much her own, betraying her very specific artistic sensibility, even where they focus on artworks created by other people.

Atelier Yamanami is no ordinary shared art space. Instead, it houses almost 90 people with disabilities who are encouraged to channel their creativity into artistic outlets — much like Masami Yamagiwa and Hideaki Yoshikawa. Its website features the artworks created (with text in Japanese and English). You might want to set aside some time to look through what is being on offer.

With a little disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Kawauchi spent three years photographing at the Atelier. The outcome is nothing but magical and endearing. As a viewer, you can feel an incredible amount of tenderness at play. Thinking about the photographer’s approach, I have been imagining a fly-on-the-wall approach (what an ugly image, though): being observant, while resisting the temptation to interfere too much. But many of the photographs show a closeness to what is being shown that is not just physical but mental as well. The photographer clearly must have felt a very deep connection with what or who was in front of her camera.

In her afterword, Kawauchi conforms the suspicion a viewer might have arrived at earlier. “Laughing with the person in front of me,” she writes, “or being absorbed by the great concentration they put into working, allows me to rediscover the space within me.” If only all those other photographers supposedly collaborating with their subjects would realize the importance of this sentiment! “It is like a mirror,” Kawauchi concludes, “everyone reflects the light illuminating each other.” (For more details on the beauty of Kawauchi’s afterword, please see the article I wrote for my Patreon.)

After As It Is, a book about the birth of her child (reviewed here), the Japanese artist has now produced another stellar photobook. Kawauchi has clearly found back to the visceral strength of her early work, which has now been infused with all the insight you gain from having lived on this planet for a while. Yamanami not only proves all those people wrong who claim that photographers produce their best work early on. It is true, for many photographers their early success traps them in that narrow space where everything merely is but a weak copy of something already done.

But photography — as much as anything else that can be art — gains much from an artist’s maturity, assuming they are able to listen to the lessons provided by early success and to see the world anew every day. Of course, this can only happen if — and only if — they are paying good attention to it.

It’s hard not to see Yamanami as an absolutely essential masterpiece that I’m sure will hold a special place in Rinko Kawauchi’s career trajectory.

Highly recommended.

(Please note that I’m supplying a link not to the original publisher, but to a Japanese distributor whose site offers English text and which offers convenient and very reliable shipping to destinations outside of Japan. Please also note that the books comes with two different covers — essentially different wrappers around the hardcover, which are referred to as “A” and “B”. My copy is “B”.)

Yamanami, photographs by Rinko Kawauchi; essays by Rinko Kawauchi and Masato Yamashita; 104 pages; Shinyodo; 2022

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

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