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Weddings happen in a larger context that is defined by social, religious, and political traditions and by capitalism. As such, they express social conventions and ideologies a lot more than people might want to admit. Whatever commitment to one another the two people getting married want to celebrate, there is the contractual aspect, which is highly regulated by both states and faiths.

I will admit that I have always been repulsed by some of the traditions around marriage, such as, for example, a father “giving away” a daughter  — as if she were his property. But this is exactly part of that tradition, even if (one would hope) in modern times nobody thinks this way any longer. Property did and does play a huge role for a marriage. People might sign prenuptial agreements that secure the interests of both parties etc.

Wedding photography reflects part of that, even if the premise, of course, is that photographs taken at weddings celebrate the happy couple. Depending on the context (the society in question), wedding photography might produce different outcomes. But within a given context, the outcomes are typically so consistent that analyzing wedding photography to reveal what is being communicated is an extremely useful tool for visual-literacy classes.

Obviously, analyzing another societies’ wedding photographs often is a lot easier than one’s own. Learning to overcome one’s sense of familiarity, of ignoring what one simply takes for granted, in other words defamiliarizing the familiar (the essential Brechtian task) — that is the hardest part of becoming visually literate.

This work is not necessary for Sabelo Mlangeni‘s Isivumelwano, a collection of photographs taken at wedding in the artist’s native South Africa over the course of the past two decades. Already the very first photograph leads the viewer into uncharted territory. The upper two thirds of the picture look as if they had been covered with a veil. Only the lower third contains some information in the form of a voluminous dress touching the ground, with a pair of thin legs that end in what look like sneakers next to it (possibly a child’s legs).

The next photograph shows a column of cars that have balloons attached to them. Afterwards, we see two men holding hands, their fingers interlocked as if they were dancing. The man at the right is wearing an elegant bright suit. Of the other man we can only see a white glove on his hand and an outline of the left side of his face. His figure disappears in a dark shadow that cuts through the frame.

The fourth picture finally puts full focus on the idea of wedding. A bride is seated next to what might be her groom. But again, only parts can be made out: her veil, a big bouquet of flowers, the top of a white dress, the collar of a white shirt. All other details and faces disappear in the shadows.

With few exceptions, it would be safe to assume that were members of one of the wedding parties to receive any of the photographs in the book, they would not be particularly happy with them. What one would expect to see in wedding photographs is largely absent. Instead, there often are photographs of meaningless details. And where a bride or groom can be seen, a photograph itself might show what I described above or might be literally degraded (underexposed or scratched). Often, the “right moment” has been missed.

What’s going on here?

“In Africa, like many other parts of the world,” writes Tshepiso Mazibuko at the end of the book, “young women are raised to believe that their ultimate duty in life is to become married and to become a loyal and devoted wife. […] Knowing the inner workings of such marital agreements and the idea of it being a kind of covenant, brought out my rebelliousness.” The photographs in the book speak of a similar sense of rebelliousness, of wanting to look past the carefully planned and staged beauty of the moment, to pull back the veil of what marriage might stand for.

As someone who has never been to South Africa and who has what realistically speaking is merely surface knowledge of the country’s most recent history, there are many aspects of the book that are likely to escape me. That its title, isivumelwano, is a word from Nguni languages meaning “a contract, agreement or alliance” I learned from a text by Emmanuel Balogun in the book. The deeper meanings of the word in its original language I can’t comprehend any more than, say, those of similar words in Japanese, a language I’m currently attempting to learn.

(As a very brief aside, I should have started learning Japanese a lot earlier: learning a language so different from my own and originating in completely different society involves a lot more than cramming vocabulary and understanding grammar. Instead, I have to learn details about social conventions and traditions in ways that also allow me to see how their equivalents play out in my own context.)

Given that in the larger context of the arts, photographs also have to conform to certain conventions, when first looking at the book I was briefly confused: even as I realized the source of my confusion, I also realized how conventions in different spheres can point at similar backgrounds, at similar expectations. Unlike wedding parties, though, I can work with the Brechtian idea of the alienation effect (or whatever your preferred translation of Verfremdungseffekt might be). So I found myself looking differently at the photographs, and more carefully.

The following might read entirely like too convenient a sentiment of writing, but I do think that I was able to connect some of the irritations I wrote about at the beginning of this piece with these pictures. The pictures are irritating, and they were made with that idea in mind. Granted, if the book contained traditionally beautiful wedding photographs, I would be irritated for a different reason. In that case, however, I would hardly revisit it.

I had not expected to ever see a photobook made around wedding photography by someone consciously producing such pictures as an act of resistance, an act of wanting us to look more closely at what is going on at weddings to reveal the traditions and ideologies in the background. I also had not been expected to become engrossed in such a book.

Isivumelwano; photographs by Sabelo Mlangeni; essays by Emmanuel Balogun, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni, Tshepiso Mazibuko; 120 pages; FW:Books; 2022

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Mentoring, Workshops

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Over the past two decades, I’ve invested my energy into writing, teaching, and photographing. I will have to admit that I find it difficult to promote myself and what I have to offer. It’s not something I’m comfortable with. However, it is obvious that if I don’t tell people about it, I can’t expect them to know. Having said that:

Online workshops are the newest addition to what I have to offer. At the time of this writing, there are two workshops planned, both scheduled to begin in late August this year. You can find all relevant details on the website I created for them. Here are some teasers:

The first workshop centers on Image and Text. The idea is for participants to develop the beginnings (or possibly more) of a text-image piece: how do words next to pictures, how do words work with pictures? If you’re curious about that and you’ve always wanted to try it, this workshop will be for you. For this workshop, you will want to have some pictures already. That way, you can focus on creating the text.

The second workshop centers on Boredom. Here, we’ll look into what boredom actually means. We’ll find out why dismissing something as “boring” usually doesn’t say anything about the thing we’re talking about. In a nutshell, we’ll vastly enrich our idea of what art is and/or can do. This workshop will include some readings, and participants are going to produce a small “boring” project (which obviously won’t be boring at all). I’m really excited this workshop, because I think all-too-often, photographers struggle with making pictures of things that are mundane or maybe very familiar. Isn’t the mundane boring? Well, not at all, and we’ll find out why.

Mentoring: In late 2020, I started working with photographers on an individual basis, meeting with them online to work on what they need help with. I have a decade of experience doing such work at an MFA level. For my Mentoring, I will work with all levels, though, and we focus on what each individual photographer needs. That can be developing a project, understanding one’s photography better, developing a book, or any combination of these.

The Mentoring is set up in blocks (I call them Modules) that typically cover three or four months (it’s six meetings that happen every two to three weeks). That way, signing up doesn’t feel like such a huge commitment. With most photographers, I’ve been working for extended periods of time. It’s all very flexible, and like I said it’s completely catered to what a photographer needs. It will get you a very solid chunk of an MFA education at a fraction of the cost.

Before we start working together, I meet up with photographers interested in Mentoring to talk about their goals and about what I can do for them (the meeting is free of charge). That way, we can find out whether the commitment makes sense for them.

As part of the Mentoring, a number of photographers have developed photobooks. Given that I’m heavily invested in the world of the photobook, this outcome probably will not surprise anyone. Part of my work has included teaching people about what you have to do once you have a dummy: what do you do with this? How do you approach publishers? How do you understand whether a publisher’s offer works for you?

In a nutshell, with the Mentoring you get access to someone who has taught at an MFA level for a decade, who has been critically writing about contemporary photography for even longer, who is a photographer himself (thus knowing a lot of the struggles and challenges first hand), and who has worked on other people’s and his own photobook(s). With MFA students, I also worked on exhibitions.

There is a lot of information included in the pages I created for Workshops and Mentoring.

If you’re interested or want to sign up, please be in touch via email (


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Verdigris is one of the words that is a lot less familiar than what it stands for. “A coating of verdigris forms naturally on copper and copper alloys such as brass and bronze when those metals are exposed to air,” the dictionary tells me. “Some American English speakers may find that they know it best from the greenish-blue coating that covers the copper of the Statue of Liberty.” I’m intrigued by the the word “some” in that sentence. Possibly that’s a rabbit hole that might not be in service of what I’m after here, namely to write about the new book by Harold Strak.

In a number of ways, Verdigris does not fit neatly into the current world of the photobook. It’s not topic based, and ideas of narrative are very far. Instead, it’s entirely concerned with photography itself.

Of course, there is a lot of work right now that focuses on photography itself. The vast bulk of that is what I think of as “Akademiefotografie” or “photography for the academy:” it’s made in academic settings (art schools) for academic audiences (peers and teachers, and then curators). It’s usually very good — and, at the same time, very soulless. Sometimes, I like looking at it. But mostly I don’t: photography for the academy is much too concerned with winking at those who are already in the know.

You couldn’t say this about this book and the work it showcases. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of Akademiefotografie. I have never met Harold Strak and I know nothing about him. But looking at this book I’m thinking that he really loves photography and what it does. You could cut out any of the pages from this book (not that I would encourage that) and hang it on a wall.

Obviously, you could do that with many other photobooks as well. But here, you’d look for a nice, understated frame — maybe something you’d find in a thrift shop, and you’d have something precious on your wall.

“Precious” is a very good word for the book itself as well. It’s published by Van Zoetendaal. “[P]hotography in print,” their website says, “must be optimally lithographed and printed so that it ‘becomes a new form of vintage.’” A new form of vintage — when you receive a book made by Willem van Zoetendaal in the mail, it usually feels as if you’re receiving something that has always been around, possibly to have been ignored or underappreciated until just now.

In fact, many of the objects depicted in the book were ignored and certainly underappreciated before they were photographed. Strak took pictures of 15,000 objects found during an archeological dig in Amsterdam. Those photographs made it into Amsterdam Stuff, which I reviewed here. Some of these pictures (a very small number of them, compared with the original set) are now included in Verdigris.

In addition, there are a number of pictures of Amsterdam itself: views of canals, of buildings, of trees (occasionally through what looks like a large studio window). I have been to Amsterdam a number of times, and I was struck to what extent these photographs transported me back, re-immersing me in this peculiar city’s atmosphere. Much like any of the cities that I enjoy returning to, my fondness for Amsterdam in part derives from it being attractive as a city only to some extent. It has its pretty corners, but there’s also the grime of life — the thing that makes a city interesting for me.

There’s something somewhat disconcerting about this book. There’s a difference between looking at a photobook and writing about it. But mostly, there is a convergence between those activities: to be able to write about a book, I need to look at it. During the process of writing, this looking can become almost obsessive, in particular if words fail to arrive. Books thus mostly lead me to the words.

Here, though, any time I pick up the book to get over a moment of being stuck, the photography doesn’t lead me to new words. Instead, it makes me think about something else. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of art writing that focuses on its own discontent or its own process. So I’m finding myself slightly annoyed right now about doing it myself.

But I do think that the fact that this book resists being written about by me points at something: the photographer’s enjoyment of making pictures and the publisher’s enjoyment of making an finely crafted book translate into this viewer wanting to be immersed in it without having to think too much about what it all means, let alone having to try to convey it to strangers. I suppose that’s what I was trying to get at before when I wrote that the book “does not fit neatly into the current world of the photobook”.

Verdigris is a book of exquisite beauty where you’d expect none to exist. For example, in one spread, there’s a photograph of what looks like a flattened spider encased in a web (some other spider’s?) against a black background next to a picture of an old shoe, photographed to show its sole. Given this description, it might be hard to imagine that the pairing would be beautiful. But it is. Throughout the whole book, there is a lot of that kind of beauty.

What this all comes down to is the following. If you love photobooks, you should get yourself a copy of Verdigris. It combines the best of photobook production with a much needed reminder that there is joy to be had in photography. It’s the joy of seeing what photographs can do when they’re done well.

This strange combination of photographs taken by Harold Strak takes us deep into the photographer’s mind while making us think about how we connect to what is on view.

Highly recommended.

Verdigris; photographs by Harold Strak; essay by Vrouwkje Tuinman; 120 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2022

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!

The Politics of American Property

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Possibly the most important and symbolically potent photograph in Mitch Epstein‘s Property Rights comes at the end of the book, right before the author’s essay. It shows the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond, Virginia after protesters had adorned its base with graffiti and a number of protest placards in 2020. There are groups of Black people visible at the memorial — some posing for pictures, others taking them.

I’m struck by one person in particular, possibly the one easiest to miss. At the left edge of the frame, there is a small child looking at what is in front of her or him. The child is easily dwarfed by everything around, including the monstrosity that is this memorial that was constructed in 1890 — long after the end of the Civil War — and that was finally taken down as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that had led to its adornment.

The child could not have been cognizant of the meaning of what presented itself in this spot. At that age, the child could not have known that all over the country, its own enemies — defeated in a long and bloody war — had been honoured with these kinds of statues, all in the name of some supposed tradition that, as was clear to everyone, basically meant that if Robert Lee had been on that spot, the child and all the other Black people would not have been.

The fact that until the end of the Civil War human beings — Black people — were considered property in vast parts of the United States has remained as the heaviest unresolved burden of the country’s history, in particular since the defeat of the so-called Confederacy resulted in only a partial fulfillment of what the Declaration of Independence had announced decades earlier: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Since its very beginning, in the country that declared “that all men are created equal” and that they all were “endowed […] with certain unalienable Rights”, the lived reality of large numbers of people has been very different. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. I’m writing this article shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v. Wade, essentially decreeing that in vast parts of the country women have less bodily rights than men. Yesterday, a video emerged that showed a man named Jayland Walker being gunned down in a hail of bullets over a minor traffic violation. Only a subset of men get to enjoy the “unalienable Rights” promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, the United States arose from a number of colonies, making it not the only but certainly the most powerful and wealthy country to have emerged from a settler-colonialist background. The land was taken from those who lived here originally, Indigenous Americans. Property thus emerges as possibly the one entity that gives the United States its own identity.

You can trace pretty much every conflict seen in the US today to questions of property, or more accurately: to an in group not wanting to share the property they have amassed with others and to asserting that the rights derived from it allows them to take even more.  This is the premise of Property Rights.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with a chapter on Standing Rock, which in 2016/17 became the site of protests because of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is followed by a chapter about the US-Mexican border, crossed daily by numerous migrants in search of a better life.

Not every chapter is literally about a conflict over property. There also are others where property is one or more steps away. There is a chapter on some of the consequences of global warming: wild fires and floods. And there is a short chapter about the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Property Rights thus offers a sweeping panorama of the conflicts the United States has been dealing with over the course of the past ten years, some of them old and re-emerging time and again, some of them brand new but not any less dangerous.

The book mostly features the view-camera photography that its maker has become well known for. It must have been an incredible amount of work to create it (not to mention the resources required to do so). But I usually don’t judge books by how much effort it took to make them. As viewers, all we have are the pictures (plus, in this case, some text), and that’s what we have to go by.

The book is filled with a plethora of very good photographs. Even as I have developed severe concerns about the use of a view-camera (I’ll get to this later), when it’s used well, the results tend to be stunning — as they are here. I suppose the sheer beauty of most of the landscape photographs alone might make people look at the work who otherwise would be turned off by what they perceive of as the artifice of fine-arts photography.

And I want to give Mitch Epstein full credit for his personal investment. It’s one thing to profess one’s concern for urgent issues; but it’s quite another to travel to so many hot spots to put the one tool one knows well to as good a use as possible. Property Rights is an overtly political book by a member of a generation that has often shied away from making political work (even as they might loudly profess their admiration for books like Robert Frank’s The Americans). I think the creation of this book is a very important statement on its own.

That said, Property Rights might well be the last relevant photobook to emerge from the American view-camera craze that started in the late 20th Century and that had predominantly male photographers crisscross the country in search of photographic masterpieces. Even if there are things to be said for the format, its language has now exhausted itself.

The photographic conversation as much as larger societal topics have now moved to an extent that trekking out with some boxy camera that requires absolute stillness (and a lot of money to operate, given associated costs) simply is incapable of capturing the general energy that is in the air. In all fairness, there are some pictures in the book that get at that energy and that it would seem were taken with a different camera (for example, pictures from BLM protests). But even they remain mostly very still, very reserved.

Furthermore, in form Property Rights is almost indistinguishable from the artist’s 2003 Family Business, which I think is an absolute masterpiece. There, Epstein trained his camera on the failing furniture business his father and aunt were trying to maintain, while dealing with a number of disasters in the rental properties the father owned. At the same time, the book is a touching reflection on a fraught father-son relationship.

Property Rights now uses the same format as the book that was published almost two decades ago. But it would have benefited from a more contemporary form, using some of the newly refined tools that photobook makers have been exploring of late. The chapter structure feels too rigid, and it makes seeing similarities between them more difficult than it could have been. The book certainly would have benefited from a much tighter edit.

Crucially, an oversized coffee-table book might not be the best format for a book that is filled with criticism of property and the problems arising from it. Of course, whether it would have been possible to make something different isn’t clear, given that the publisher, Steidl, appears to have dialed in that one formula to make a book (big, thick paper and thus overly heavy, pricey), possibly thinking that a book’s physical heft automatically translates into artistic weight.

I see Property Rights as finishing something that Epstein started out with Family Business. Where the earlier book looks at a family dynamic being made almost impossible to deal with, given the failing family business, the new book now talks about what is becoming very obvious before our own eyes right now: the whole country’s dynamic is becoming more and more impossible, given an incessant placing of property rights above all else, including, crucially, the majority of the people living here.

Even as the family business disappears, Family Business ends on a good note: father and son begin to understand each other, to create that somewhat rickety, yet precious peace and understanding that can exist between previously conflicting family members of different generations. There is not such end note in Property Rights — how could there be? As viewers, we can only hope that eventually, a good end note will be reached as well and that that promise from the Declaration of Independence will finally be fulfilled for every person.

Property Rights; photographs by Mitch Epstein; text by Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell; 288 pages; Steidl; 2021

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!