Conversations about Germany: Jonas Feige

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For almost two decades, I’ve been looking into German photographers engaging with their native country’s fraught history and its repercussions for the present. This interest led me to dive into the topic photographically myself (the work is ongoing, Vaterland is merely the first installment). But I also noticed how there has been an increase in the number of photographers producing work around Germany. The following is the first in what I envision to be a series of conversations with some of these artists. I intend to dive more deeply into what it means to be a German citizen and photographer who has to navigate the mine field that is German history.

Jonas Feige recently published This Soil We Have Created For Ourselves with Kominek Books. It takes its title from a line in the play Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller. A little earlier, he published a book about an aspect of Germany’s colonial history entitled Zenker with Edition Patrick Frey. Unlike This Soil, Zenker was a collaboration with his partner Yana Wernicke. Jonas and I had had a number of in-person conversations during my most recent trips to Germany, in which we discussed what we were dealing with photographically. For this conversation, I spoke with Jonas over Zoom at the end of August this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it was translated from its original German.

Jonas Feige
I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Wall. I didn’t experience it myself. I am actually a child of the united Germany.

Jörg Colberg
I have the feeling that people who grew up in the unified Germany approach the German history differently than East or West Germans who are of my generation or older.

I think the fact that so many people are looking into the topic has to do with the return of the right-wing soup all across Europe but also in Germany. It’s simply a reaction to the fact that these things are coming back. It’s also a bit of a shock, because people grew up with the feeling that it wouldn’t be an issue any longer.

Another critical aspect is that this legacy is always passed on from generation to generation. In principle, we — that is, my generation, but even more so those who are coming next — are the first people who no longer have a direct connection at all [to the Nazi era]. My grandfather still fought in the war. The next generation has nobody to talk to who experienced the whole thing. At some stage, I read something about this in a book by Aleida Assmann. She spoke with the chairman of the Auschwitz memorial. He said that the moment will come when someone will be in charge of the memorial who has never spoken to a survivor himself. That’s totally crazy.

I think that’s where this different perspective is coming from. I experienced neither the GDR nor the immediate post-war period. I only know about it in an abstract and mediated fashion. My grandfather hardly ever talked about it. Somehow, we had to find a way to deal with it, because it won’t go away. And we now see that the topic has not disappeared.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. I only have the West German perspective. My grandfathers also fought in the war. But they both died before I was born. In my family, the topic of National Socialism was never brought up. Was it the same for you?

In principle yes. I never met my maternal grandfather, either. He died early when my mother was 12 years old. And the other one had fought on the Eastern Front. But he never really talked about it. I only know stories from my father. But there are only very few.

My grandfather was an infantry soldier, responsible for connecting the front with the units further back by cable. That’s why he always carried a large cable drum on his back. They were a small unit. They went back and forth between the front and units further back and laid cables. There is a story where a shell exploded next to him. The cable drum saved his life because it caught all the shrapnel.

But otherwise he never talked about it. I can only remember sitting in front of the news one evening. Something about the Nazi past and maybe Hitler was shown. At those occasions, my grandfather would always get really angry and start ranting. “Those bastards, they lied to us.” All I know is that he was a simple infantry soldier. That’s all you could get out of him.

My grandmother lived in a very small village. They didn’t experience the war all that much. But there was another interesting situation when we all were sitting around the table. I was 10 or 12 years old, and I had just heard about Hitler for the first time. Somehow, that had become a topic at the dinner table. Suddenly, as if in a trance, my grandmother began to recite a text. “The Führer was born…” You could tell that this was deeply ingrained inside her. It had been drilled into her at school. She could still knew it by heart in her mid-70s. That was pretty scary.

I remember that when I was relatively young — maybe 8, 9 or 10 years old — things were talked about that were not mentioned any longer later when it had become clear that I was listening and asking questions.

I remember one story. On my father’s side, my family lived on Heligoland. From what I heard, my great-grandfather was harbour master. Of course, there was a lot of military. There was this huge submarine base. The story is that he had an album in which he collected the signatures of the submarine captains. Early on, I didn’t think much of it. But later, when I asked about it, I was told that the album had somehow disappeared. And in any case, nobody had known a thing.

Maybe this is a part of generation. There was this idea that there was a secret. A secret in one’s own family but also in [West] Germany itself where many former Nazis were in office again. Did you experience this: the idea that there somehow was a secret?

No, that didn’t exist for me. Actually, I only thought about my grandfather, because all the other grandparents had not experienced things. They simply had not been involved in the war. To me, my grandfather looked more like a victim. He was 19 when he was drafted. He knew nothing about the world. I don’t know whether that really had been the case, though. I also don’t know whether my grandfather killed people. Those are things that have never been resolved.

I wouldn’t call it a secret in my family. There wasn’t the feeling that something was being hidden. Instead, it was more like a trauma. You just don’t want to talk about it. I also think that my father and my grandfather… they never had their 1968 moment. Maybe things were buried too deeply. They never had a big discussion where everything was brought to the table.

I’m certain that my parents didn’t have it, either. They just buried it completely. I think your parents are a little younger than mine. My parents grew up in ruins. They were born in 1940 and 41. Wilhelmshaven was almost completely destroyed because it was a naval base.

My grandfather comes from Silesia. So he was also a displaced person.

That never came up?

He also did not want to talk about that. At some point, my father and his brother thought about going there to visit. They suggested it to their father. But he blocked it and said “That’s over. That time doesn’t exist anymore.” That was it. He could be very strict.

How do you see the topic of “being German”? What does that mean for you?

In the course of my work, I’ve had to deal with that a lot. It has always been an open question for me. I think I still don’t have an answer. The best answer I’ve found so far, which I’ve come to accept for myself, comes from Peter Trawny’s book Was ist deutsch? (What is German?). In the book, artists’ and intellectuals’ ideas are presented. Trawny’s conclusion is that the most German quality would be to ask what it means to be German. Germans have probably always asked that question.

I don’t know if you know the idea of the delayed nation. That’s where it starts. Germans existed before Germany existed as a country. They were united by language. But in neighbouring countries, there already were great nations.

After the Second World War and Holocaust, identifying with Germany has become extremely difficult. I struggled with that as well. For me, the trigger for my work was that I had begun to look into the topic of post-nationalism. What does a world look like in which there are no nations? Where does the idea of a nation come from?

I was also a bit mad at Germany and the idea of nation. But not any longer. I don’t see it that way anymore. I have the feeling that the term nation is a bit like the term race. Somehow, it should never have been invented. But it’s out in the world, and you can’t undo it. I don’t think we’re going to get to a post-national world any time soon.

Somehow, I came to terms with being German. Actually, coming to terms is the wrong way to put it. For me, Germany means struggling with it forever. But I think that’s also good. You can’t not deal with being German. On the one hand, there is the history. On the other hand, you ask yourself what it means. Richard von Weizsäcker gave a good answer when being asked what it means to be German. It means “nothing special, but something specific.” I think that’s a cool answer. It definitely means something, because there’s the heritage and the long history. But there’s no reason to be proud of it in any way. And you are unable to say that you’ve acquired some characteristics because you’re German. I see it as a responsibility.

Originally, my work [Vaterland] also started from that same spot. For me, it centred on Poland and Germany. They’re both part of Europe. The idea behind the EU is post-national. Germans are happy that they finally they no longer have to be Germans. They can be Europeans. On the one hand, Polish people are also very happy that they can be Europeans. But on the other hand, because their country was so often chopped up and dominated by other nations, in particular Germany and Russia, the feeling of being Polish is very strong. I was really fascinated by that. You cross the border. Somehow, everything looks the same. But suddenly language and identity change. You cross from the country of perpetrators into the country of victims, and the whole idea of Europe changes.

But the topic “What is German?“… I’m still grappling with that. This is probably also because I live in the US. On the one hand, here it’s very strongly defined what being American is. But as you can see right now, it’s fought over. In German, there’s the horrible expression „Leitkultur” („dominant culture“). The idea already plays a huge role for the right and far right in the US. What is American, and what is un-American?

Fortunately, the idea of a “Leitkultur” no longer exists in Germany in this form, even if the term comes from Germany. Sometimes, I wonder… Germany plays an absolutely leading role in the EU and engages in behaviour that’s actually often hard to believe. I wonder if Germany weren’t so high up in the food chain, if we would be so happy to say “we are post-national“ or pretend we are.

If you look around in the EU, national aspirations are also becoming stronger and stronger. And there are countries that have no desire to be led around by the nose by Germany. So there is a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to this post-national feeling.

It’s also convenient. You can partly get rid of your responsibility of being German: “We are committed Europeans!” But when it really matters, that’s not the case. We saw that during the Greek debt crisis, and we’re seeing it now with Ukraine.

When you started the project This Soil — did that happen organically, taking pictures? Or did you think „I’m going to do something about the topic of Germany?“

I have always been interested in history, even in school. I’ve always read a lot about it. I’ve always wanted to do a Germany project. I felt like dealing with it. But then it ended up taking a long time to do it. Some of the pictures date back to 2012 or 2011. I needed a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to say. The process was good, and it was fun, too. I learned a lot.

In the end, when you make a book, you have to think about what you want to say with it. It took a long time taking pictures and searching for a solution, always trying different things. There were probably four or five different versions [of the book]. I took the ISSP master class with Claire Strand and Gordon MacDonald. The idea was that you’d have a book at the end. That was very motivating. But it didn’t get me there, either. I still enjoy looking at the book I did. But it wasn’t where I wanted to go.

I really only found it working with Misha [Kominek]. We talked for a long time. He really helped a lot, because he provides tough feedback. I had thousands of pictures. It then emerged that I was interested in Germany, but also in nation building. How does a nation come into being? How is a nation connected to its own ground? How is this ground formed? There’s a demarcation, you give it a name, and at some point you have a nation. And then there’s the historiography, which sits on top.

You know Zenker. That’s a completely different project. It works in a completely different way. The Germany project was the first I’ve done only using pictures. That’s why the process had to be so long. But I learned a lot that I can use in future projects. Maybe I can do them in a more targeted fashion.

That’s the interesting thing about photography, that you don’t always have full control. Whenever I see something that feels fully controlled, it’s usually not as strong as something where you realise that there was a struggle and that it wasn’t easy.

There’s usually a little something that’s unfinished, that’s unanswered.

In effect it’s like a… well, not really predetermined breaking point… But I like the idea of the term predetermined breaking point. Something isn’t right. And that’s exactly what you need to make it art. It’s not perfect. It’s finished as a book, but it leaves an aftertaste. There’s something not right about it. I find that idea very interesting. I don’t think there’s any other way to get there that than what you did.

Does this mean that you’re done with the topic of Germany?

That’s actually what I thought. When the book was done, I wondered what would happen next. I actually now have two projects going. One of them is completely non-political and non-historical. It has more to do with photography and perception.

But the second project… I read Victor Burgin’s book The Camera: Essence and Apparatus. There’s an essay included where he mentions Ettersberg, which is right outside of Weimar. [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe was there, but it’s also where the Buchenwald concentration camp was built. I was totally fascinated by that place, even though I’d actually been there before. We visited when I was at Ostkreuzschule.

In winter, I went to Weimar on a whim, thinking I’ll see what I can do here. Now it looks like it’s going to become a real project, which doesn’t have much to do with the original idea. In principle, it’s a loose visit to Weimar and Buchenwald. History plays a role, but this time there are people and portraits. The focus are groups of young people who are being bused to Weimar and Buchenwald to learn about these two sides of German history. In Weimar you have Goethe, Schiller, and then two kilometers outside of the city gates, there are the Nazis.

It’s an extension of my Germany book, but I’m also trying hard to make it something independent. At the moment I’m thinking that this will be my last project about Germany — just like I did back then. In principle, Zenker was also German history.

Zenker is interesting because of a topic that Germany does not want to deal with at all, namely its own colonial history. Recently, there was this big dispute about whether its colonial history and the Holocaust can be linked or not.

Over the course of the past five years, there was a small boom for colonial history, in part because of the discussion around the Humboldt Forum. Now, because to the Ukraine war that has mostly disappeared. Occasionally, something pops up because of the repatriation of [colonial] artefacts, in part also because because [French president] Macron is involved.

With Zenker we really noticed that Germans are not ready for the topic or our photo project. The success we had with the work was almost exclusively outside of Germany. It was a Swiss publishing house that published the book. In Germany, we ran into a lot of closed doors. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s not because of the book. It’s because of the content. No one wants to deal with it. It’s really disappointing.

How did you come across the project?

After graduating from high school, Yana [Wernicke] spent half a year in Cameroon, doing volunteer work at a monkey sanctuary. That was the first time she heard about this German family.

Many later, we met at Ostkreuzschule. She was looking for a topic for her final project and remembered it. We went to Cameroon together, still thinking that it could be Yana’s final project. We visited the family, which was really exhausting. It takes two and a half hours on a motorcycle to get to them. Yana took some pictures and took them to Ute Mahler, her advisor in her final year. They discussed the idea. Ute was taken with it. “Why don’t you do this as your final project?” But it was obvious that it was far too big a topic. It’s very complex. You have one year for your final project. It was simply not feasible.

The topic was put on hold. But we were both hooked. In 2016, we went there together for the first time. In the meantime, we had also decided that we would work on it together. We needed to be able to have the exchange with each other, because it is a complex topic. And then it took a long time. We went there three more times and always stayed for several weeks. We went back to the family, also in other parts of Cameroon and Europe. In 2019 we approached Edition Patrick Frey. After that, it took another two years to do the book. It was a long process.

Both projects — my Germany project and Zenker — took far too long. Yana and I think that with Zenker we grew up photographically. The project changed so much over time. It was really good that we did it together, even as now our work is developing in completely different directions. The new works are similar, but they’ve moved away from what Zenker was.

I Just Wanna Surf

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“I grew up biracial in Capistrano Beach,” Gabriella Angotti-Jones writes in I Just Wanna Surf, “a beach town in southern Orange County in California. […] My dad’s Black and my mom’s Italian. […] The only Black people I saw every day were my sisters, and my dad when he was home. There were no other Black families in my immediate neighborhood.” Surfing plays a large part in the area, and she became a surfer as well. But “I didn’t feel like a surfer,” Angotti-Jones notes, “because I didn’t fit the stereotype.”

I can’t claim to know anything about surfing other than that stereotype. If I Just Wanna Surf has taught me something it’s that there is a lot more than the stereotype — even as various aspects of it are quite pronounced. “There’s a macho culture in watersports,” the book tells me later, “where if you can’t do it or if you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t do it.”

Seen that way, surfing appears not to be that dissimilar than a lot of other human activities (hello, photography): “One of the reasons surfers are infamous gatekeepers is because lots of people pretend to be about the lifestyle and wholesomeness, but they really don’t respect the process or its roots.”

I Just Wanna Surf centers on more things than just one, making it one of the most unexpected recent photobook experiences for me. On top of the surfing and being Black and being a woman, there also is a mental-health struggle. It’s a lot, and it’s being navigated deftly in the book. For Angotti-Jones, this is her life and her attempt at navigating all its various aspects while trying to assert herself, embracing the frequent joy that can be had.

“I always wondered,” she writes, “if being in the ocean felt like what it’s like to be White. No worries, nothing to really think about — just vibes.”

When I first saw the book’s pictures, they were lying on a large table in the form of cheap prints. There were so many, taken with a variety of cameras. They spoke very clearly of the joy of the small community of Black women surfers that Angotti-Jones belongs to. At the time, I couldn’t quite imagine how they would form a book.

Months later, there is the book, and it works so well. It narrates the story through a number of sections (they’re not strictly delineated or separated as chapters), into which blocks of text have been set. The text serves to introduce the many aspects of the book that no picture could fully tell.

There is a picture of a group of young women walking to a beach with surfboards, two Black women in front, following by three Whites one. What they might be thinking or feeling the picture can’t convey. But the text can. In contrast, the joy and excitement felt when being on the beach or in or on the water is communicated most strongly through the pictures.

It’s this give and take between text and photographs that is being navigated deftly in I Just Wanna Surf. Bringing text and images together means having them dance together so that one won’t diminish the other. This works very well here.

It works very well because both with her camera and her words Angotti-Jones is an extremely gifted, passionate narrator. Being close to the material (terrible word, I know) of course helps. But being close also means that everything feels so much more loaded, so much more revealing. I obviously don’t know to what extent this applied in this particular case. But as someone who has struggled with depression for a long time I know that I would be rather hesitant to make it part of my work (even if I knew that omitting it would cut an important part of the story).

I can only applaud Gabriella Angotti-Jones for being willing to offer all of it to us as viewers and readers. Some stories not only need to be told because they are outside of what we take for granted. They also need to be told so that as an audience we can experience how liberating making a deeply personal photobook can be. It’s a different experience for maker and audience. But I believe that the ultimate lesson is shared: allowing oneself to be vulnerable only leads to personal strength.

Mass Books, the publisher, once again employed the help of Dutch design and production. Yet again, this has paid off handsomely. The book manages to strike that delicate balance between not being a precious art book while using all the various tricks such a book might use.

The production is impeccable and does much to help the book communicate its message. There are two paper stocks, with one being predominantly used for the bulk (but not all of) the text. The design helps to organize the material (and text) while at the same time keeping the infectious spirit of the photographs alive. I’m sure the more conservative segments of photoland will bemoan some of the choices. But a less daring book would have simply been too boring for the spirit of the work.

You could easily take I Just Wanna Surf as a prime example of what the contemporary photobook can achieve. It demonstrates the beauty of text working with photographs, it covers a variety of important cultural and societal issues all the while focusing on an individual navigating them, it shows how design and production can serve to organize and elevate the material, and it’s a huge source of joy for its viewers.

Highly recommended.

I Just Wanna Surf; photographs and text by Gabriella Angotti-Jones; 148 pages; Mass Books; 2022

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The Unassuming Photobook

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A few years ago, a wave of self publishing resulted in a very large number of photobooks produced directly by photographers themselves. Even as the wave turned into a fad, which inevitably broke, there were a few lessons to be learned. To begin with, despite the difficulties of publishing a book — it’s a lot of work and it costs a lot of money, there was a lot of excitement and passion swirling around the idea of the photobook. Unfortunately, large parts of that have now disappeared.

At the same time, in part because of the economics of it all, a lot of self published books were more modest: they often felt a little bit rougher (but in a good way), putting less focus on getting books printed in the most expensive place on the planet — and more focus on the books’ immediate impact. As you can probably imagine, the push back from the established parts of photoland ran along the lines of “there are too many books” (as if there were a way to determine the correct number of books) and “this looks like a zine”.

I’ve always struggled with the term “zine”. Interestingly, it has two uses by two distinctly different communities. In the world of subcultures, zines often are the preferred outlet, the idea being that if you’re part of that subculture, then you obviously have to make a zine (everything else would be “selling out”). I find the cliquishness of subcultures off putting. It’s actually not that different from the cliquishness of the established part of the photobook world, for whom the term “zine” is a snobbish way of dismissing other people’s work. Calling a book a “zine” is code for “this book is declassé”.

This situation doesn’t leave a lot of space for a much needed middle ground, especially given how vocal both sides are. However, I do think that there is an urgent need for more unassuming books: books that are photobooks but that also do not strive to be important art books.

There are two reasons why I think that way. First, many photobooks simply are too expensive. I understand that it’s expensive to make a book, and you have to make your money back. But especially these days where a lot of people in a lot of places are wondering how they are going to pay for a warm home this coming winter, an expensive art book might be the last thing on their minds.

Second, through its price, many photobooks attempt to telegraph their importance. This is merely another aspect of the neoliberal thinking in photoland that correlates price with quality and, by extension, with artistic merit. However, the reality is that such a correlation does not exist. It merely is psychology.

For aspiring photobook makers, this situation creates a huge conundrum. Given most photographers are part of the artistic precariat, making a photobook can result in enormous costs. Where are you going to get the money? How is it going to be feasible to make a book? Obviously, if you manage to get the costs down by opting for a simpler, more unassuming book then there are more options.

With all of this in mind, I here want to discuss a number of unassuming photobooks that recently arrived at my door step. The first two are from Craig Atkinson’s Café Royal Books imprint. I had been aware of Café Royal for a while. Given the strong focus on the UK, I haven’t been checking their publications regularly. There obviously is nothing wrong with a regional focus — quite on the contrary. As the books demonstrate, you can build a very solid and strong publishing branch that way. It’s just that I’m not British, so I’m basically not a member of their target audience.

But when J A Mortram announced that he was having two books published with them, I needed to have them: Small Town Inertia 1 & 2. Both books have 32 pages and are bound by stapling the sheets together. It’s a very economical way of making a book. Café Royal have honed down things very well: the printing is very, very nice, and the choice of paper makes the booklets more substantial than you might imagine.

As a result, these two booklets showcase Mortram’s work — possibly in ways that an elaborate coffee-table book would be unable to. Describing his subjects as living at the margins of society doesn’t sit well with me, even as I realize that that’s exactly the term used by many people. Instead, Mortram portrays the lived reality of a lot of people who for one reason or another aren’t well off enough to have a comfortable life.

The photography is stark and very affecting, something that I wouldn’t necessarily say about a lot of other photographers who train their lenses on Mortram’s subjects. I can sense the photographer’s compassion and empathy that is conveyed by these two books. Personally, that’s what I would want from this type of photography: it mustn’t use other people’s dire living circumstances to draw attention to anything other than what’s in front of the camera.

Douglas Stockdale is founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal. In many ways, it’s always good when someone who writes about photobooks is also involved in making them (whether their own or other people’s — you will note that quite obviously, I’m biased). The Flow of Light Brushes the Shadow follows the self publishing model of the photobook. To begin with, it looks and feels like many of the self published photobooks produced during the time I spoke of earlier (Stockdale does his own binding; here: a pamphlet stitch, which is similar to what’s used in the Café Royal cases, with thread replacing staples).

Because of the pandemic, I haven’t traveled since early 2020. Even as I miss traveling, I can’t say that I miss the aspect that is dominant in this book: the anonymous chain hotels that all look the same and that all exude the general neglect of very basic amenities that we otherwise take for granted. I also don’t miss airports and the hideousness of having to deal with them, let alone for hours and hours having to cram my frame (all 193cm of it) into a seat that’s made for an oversized toddler.

Given I’m a very private person, as much as I enjoy traveling, it also brings considerable stress. For me, the lack of privacy when traveling might be the worst aspect. It’s when the boundaries of my existence are defined by my own skin that I become most uncomfortable. The book immediately brought all of that back to me, even as I will have to admit that I cannot wait until I will be able to go back to Germany or Japan or wherever else.

At times, it feels as if Stockdale was trying too hard for his audience to get the idea of the book. I don’t think a statement needed to be included at the end so that people would understand the message. Furthermore, the very blurry images also are unnecessary, given that without them the idea of the book would be very clear. But now photobook aficionados can see Stockdale’s own work, which might put his own criticism in perspective (obviously, you can say the same thing about me).

Making a book is a good exercise for someone writing criticism. Seeing a book by someone writing criticism is a good way for an audience to see more of that person and where they are coming from.

This might be a generational thing. But I’m not sure Deadbeat Club is the greatest name for a publishing house. But what do I know? They sell books, coffee, and apparel. Regardless, recently I came across one of their publications that looked really interesting. I ordered myself a copy: Shiori Ikeno‘s Sado. In terms of production, the book is similar to the Café Royal titles: it’s a stapled pamphlet. It’s slightly larger, has more pages, and it’s in colour, making it slightly more expensive overall. But we’re talking about $15 vs however much £11.00 is. Neither one is very likely to break the bank.

I wasn’t familiar with this photographer’s name. The pictures were taken on one of the small islands that cluster around Japan’s four main ones. It’s called Sado Island and is located just across Niigata (which is north of Tokyo at the Sea of Japan). Many rural areas in Japan are now suffering from being populated by a heavily aging population, as young people leave or already have left for the big cities. Age and ageing loom large in Sado, with the main characters being the photographer’s grandparents.

You might say that I only know this from the publisher’s website; and yet I only know this for certain from there. The connection becomes quite apparent from the photographs. With the exception of the photograph on the back cover, which seems to be about something entirely different, the images exude a sense of quiet and of being in tune with the simple beauty of being.

In this recklessly busy world where the dominant ideology is one of “disruption” and of being constantly on the move, accepting the fact that the best parts of existence are far away from such nonsense offers solace. That is the lesson taught by this book.

Sado is simple and good, and that’s what photobooks should be: simple and good. Again, going beyond this simple format runs the risk of not doing the work any justice. Even as I could imagine maybe better choices for the paper stocks (in particular the cover feels a tad too plasticky), this understated book does all the right things.

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The Death of the Artist (or: On the Arts Economy)

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If a time machine gave me the opportunity to go back 20 years so I would be able to hand my younger self a copy of William Deresiewicz‘s The Death of the Artist, I am certain that my younger self would not continue the path that he chose and that I find myself on now. He would know that he was temperamentally unsuited for much of what’s described in the book — just like I am today.

You “can’t necessarily believe all your moods,” Maggie Nelson tells me, “You just have to keep on working. […] That’s a quote from Emerson, I might add. ‘Our moods do not believe in each other.'” Of course, that aspect of the creative process sits on top of everything spread out in full detail by Deresziewicz. I will ignore it here.

It’s widely known that the larger world of art is not supportive of its own constituents — with very few exceptions: the tiny number of artists who have found success and whose stories inevitably are being held up. “Every story we hear about artists,” Deresiewicz writes, “is a success story, and in every one, success appears to be inevitable, because it has already happened.” (p. 12, my emphasis) Of course, this is how the neoliberal casino capitalism operates that we live under.

After the Introduction, the book starts out with a chapter entitled Art and Money. It’s likely that you will know some aspects of that chapter, even as you might be uncomfortable admitting that you do. This, after all, is one of the conundrums of being an artist: you don’t talk about money. Deresiewicz lays out all the reasons why that might be the case, and he also talks about the various explanations for why that might be the case.

In the following chapter, subtitled The Techno-Utopian Narrative, the focus is the internet and its supposed promise. We’ve all heard about that as well. “I am struck, above all,” Deresiewicz notes, “by two things. First (but this is true of the techno-commentariat in general), their fatuous, hectoring smugness. Anyone who disagrees just ‘doesn’t get it,’ must be a dope or a Luddite, maybe a hand-wringing pessimist.” (p. 28) Recently, when NFT’s were all the rage in photoland, you were able to witness a lot of that smugness: anyone questioning NFT’s was subjected to a lot of it.

But just like in the case of the second chapter, there’s a lot more to dive in. Deresiewicz’s strength as a writer is to distill everything that is essential (and that you might at least in part have heard of — if not experienced) and to then question it: is this really the case? And if it’s not the case, what is a better way to think about it? The latter parts are crucial, because they allow the book to move away from what otherwise would be a mere collection of grievances towards a description of the arts in general.

Over the course of the book, Deresiewicz thus dives into a huge number of aspects behind contemporary artists’ struggle to do their work and make a living with it. It’s an impressive survey that covers parts of the history of the arts as well as specific aspects in specific industries. You’ll find input from a very large number of artists, whether they’re writers, designers, musicians, and there even is a photographer. As it turns out, what we witness in photoland isn’t in any way special.

Throughout the chapters, artists are quoted about specific aspects of what is being discussed. This is a neat device, because the large variety of voices also conveys the complexity of the topic at hand. There is no easy solution; in fact, what one person considers a problem might not be one for another. That said, though, a clear picture of the arts emerges: it’s not working well for the vast majority of artists, in particular the many, many artists stuck in the tail of the distribution (you could think of them as the 99%).

For me, The Death of the Artist ended up being an infuriating, depressing, uplifting, and inspiring read. I suppose that outcome makes the most sense when anything is discussed that deals with art and the way it’s being made, shown, distributed, or sold.

This book should be required reading for anyone who hopes to take part (or is already doing it) in what has become an unsustainable economy, whether they’re thinking about getting an MFA (there’s a chapter), or they just got an MFA (the same chapter contains aspects of what they might encounter), whether they’re happily freelancing or working for free, whether they’re thinking about getting an intern or being one, whether they’re thinking about starting a Kickstarter, whether they’re thinking about publishing a book…

But the book also has much to offer for those who are not artists but are interested in art. As Deresiewicz outlines in a lot of detail, the reality of what is described stands in stark contrast to popular ideas of what it means to be an artist.

Deresiewicz spends a considerable amount of effort on outlining the dedication that fuels the arts and that has artists do what they do despite the fact that it is so incredibly difficult. Were that aspect absent, the book would be too difficult and frustrating a read. But that is exactly what sustains (if I may) us, isn’t it? The idea that it’s all very much worthwhile, even if often enough, we question whether it really is. It’s not talent that sustains the arts, it’s artists’ passion.

At the end of the book, possible solutions are being discussed. The final chapter, Don’t Mourn, Organize, dives into what could be done. There are collectives and cooperatives created by artists who are supporting each other. “Artists also often fail to recognize their common interests,”  Deresiewicz writes, “the field is inherently competitive, plus it is highly dispersed.” (p. 310) I have been thinking about that for years. (I think years ago, I wrote something about it.)

While Deresiewicz lauds efforts initiated by artists as admirable, he notes that it can’t stop there. “The problem,” he notes, “begins with Giant Tech — with the demonitization of content and the ongoing transfer of wealth from creators to distributors.” (p. 317) Without the monopolies being broken up, he argues, a real solution will be elusive. I agree. “Yet even that would not be enough.” Here’s the kicker: “To fix the arts economy […] we need to fix the whole economy.” (p. 319)

That’s where the book ends. It’s worthwhile to quote a larger section of its final paragraph: “The devastation of the arts economy […] is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality. […] when people get a little extra money, one of the things that they spend it on is art. Money circulates within communities, but only if it’s present in the first place. We do not need the government to pay for art, or the rich with their philanthropy. We only need each other.” (p. 321, my emphasis; note that you could easily apply this to other countries as well)

Don’t mourn, organize!

William Deresiewicz — The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech; Henry Holt and Company; 2020

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