Outside Room 8

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It is one of the terrible ironies of modern medicine that sometimes, it has to destroy the body in order to heal it. Cancer might be the most commonly known situation to arise that typically ends up in that territory, a disease that is more common than we possibly might want to admit to ourselves. Fortunately, I have not been at the receiving end of such treatment, and I hope I never will be. But I suspect that much like anyone else, I know people — family members, friends — who have (a relative was just diagnosed with a brain tumor). Some made it through alive while others unfortunately did not.

What makes medical emergencies particularly difficult is that while suffering can be communicated, it cannot be shared. I am unable to feel your pain, and you are unable to feel mine — at least in a literal sense. This is a situation that pops up in photography all the time: while cameras are very good at recording surfaces, they are unable to depict emotions or feelings. Even as being empathic might allow a viewer to get a sense of another person’s suffering, there is a limit to that. (If there weren’t, photographs would have long stopped wars.)

Consequently, the best photography produced around suffering and illness uses metaphors instead of attempting to hammer home a point. Metaphors will only get you so far, of course. But we already know from the history of photography that pictures will not do what we want them to do if the direct route is being taken. Metaphors, in contrast, offer the promise of lighting up the imagination. They might make us think in ways that gruesome, direct depictions of violence or suffering are unable to.

In Outside Room 8 by Lotte Bronsgeest and Geert Broertjes, photographic materials are made to undergo the same treatments as the human body, specifically Broertjes’. After Broertjes had been diagnosed with colon cancer, Bronsgeest, a friend and colleague who was already working on a similar project (the two met as students at an art school), asked him whether there was a way to produce work together about what his body and mind was about to undergo.

Consequently, Bronsgeest not only photographed her friend. A number of photographic materials were also subjected to the same treatment that a human body might be subjected to during cancer treatment: radiation and toxic chemicals (“chemo”). In essence, larger parts of the project became process based. I’ve had my qualms about process-based work because typically, the process itself tends to draw a lot of attention to itself. But here, that’s exactly the point, and that fact has me very interested.

Outside Room 8 presents a large number of images made by Bronsgeest and Broertjes, which includes not only process-based pictures but also “straight” photographs and medical images. Visually, this makes for an intriguing and at times disconcerting viewing. Given that the book’s topic is established quickly, this viewer found himself being thrown back and forth between simply enjoying some of the abstract beauty and trying to make sense of it, trying to understand how human tissue might be affected when treated the same way as the photographic materials. If that was the idea of the work, it’s communicated very effectively.

Part of what makes the work interesting is the breadth of the images. Were they all uniformly distorted, the effect would quickly become predictable. Here,  it’s never clear what comes next, which helps convey a sense of uncertainty. What’s more, some of the imagery is simply beautiful.

I usually detest the triteness of the sentiment that beauty can be found everywhere because too often, it’s used to paper over suffering and preventing oneself to engage more deeply (and honestly) with a challenge. I don’t see that sentiment at work here. Instead, the unexpected beauty that can be found in the book confounds expectations and helps the viewer to engage with it more deeply.

The book incorporates some design and production choices to deliver its message. Most notably, it uses pouch pages: the paper is folded at the fore edge and bound (glued) at the spine. Of late, this type of binding has become slightly more common in the world of the photobook, given that you can include material inside the pouch itself. The makers of the book did employ that trick. I ended up being slightly confused about whether or not I am supposed to cut open the pages or not. I ended up not doing it. That aside, the production of the book is absolutely impeccable — if you pay careful attention, you’ll see selected spot varnishing, a long gatefold, and more.

All of that combines to make Outside Room 8 a really interesting book that demonstrates that process-based photography is able to tackle very profound topics in a deeply meaningful manner. A very handsome production, it showcases the beauty of what can be achieved when such work is put into the context of the contemporary photobook.

Outside Room 8; photographs by Lotte Bronsgeest and Geert Broertjes; text by Lotte Bronsgeest, Geert Broertjes, Theun van der Heijden, and Jelle Bouwhuis; 128 pages; Kehrer; 2022

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Flipping the Bird

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Placing words next to pictures creates a curious problem for many photographers. They end up being worried that the words take away attention from their photographs — as if this were a competition. But it is not. Words and pictures operate very differently. Instead of seeing their interplay as a competition it’s much more fruitful to view it as a relationships: it works best if it’s an equal give and take between (in this case) unequal partners.

Words and pictures are very specific in very different ways. At the same time, words are completely interior entities for human beings, whereas pictures are external, showing the light that is reflected off the many surfaces that create the world around us. If you view things this way, you’ll realize that if you’re a photographer, words can do amazing things for you.

That all being said, in a text-image piece one of the partners — the images or the text — will usually be in the driver’s seat, shaping the work and its intended outcome. The most important aspect to consider is not whether viewers will ooh and aah over the photographs but whether the whole works the way it is supposed to.

There is a wide spectrum for how such a construct can function, from it being very focused on photographs, with text supporting them, to it being driven by the text, with photographs adding another element. The novels written by WG Sebald provide prime examples of the latter.

In Flipping the Bird, a book of photographs by Jaap Scheeren, it is the text by Rik van den Bos that propels the narration forward. It might as well, given that the text contains the inner monologue of a narrator exploring the landscape of the dunes near/at the sea in the Netherlands (at least that’s what the landscape looks like to me; during my visits there I remember seeing such a landscape near Bergen). The narrator is on an extended walk: “You know that feeling? That you’ve walked so far into nature / it begins to pull.”

Of course, in the Netherlands you can’t really walk very far into nature, given that it’s a very small country, with large amounts of artificial land — land claimed from the sea. But nature might re-claim the land, especially the one below sea level. That threat to human life is never far, and it’s deeply ingrained in the country’s psyche after a number of natural flooding disasters. This aspect plays a role in book: “the peacefulness / the serenity / seems to turn against you instead.”

Flipping the Bird looks into the push and pull between humans and the larger landscape they live in, which includes all the other creatures present. While humans project their ideas onto the land and its inhabitants, turning sea floor into land to build on and encroaching on the spaces inhabited by wild animals (all while pretending to be interested in them), they also are single-handedly responsible for the largest carnage of natural life in centuries through global warming.

The book deals with that conflict, as the narrator walks into the land, looking for connection with something s/he starts to feel increasingly connected to, only to find that that attraction is not reciprocated. Instead, there’s a flurry of invectives being thrown at her/him. Nature, if that’s what we want to call the natural word, is not interested in the narrator’s newly found fondness for it. There’s only one way out for her/him — I don’t want to give that part away.

Scheeren’s photographs of the dunes and their flora and fauna makes them look like the sort of paradise Hieronymus Bosch might have captured, had he had a camera available instead of paint and a canvas. Scheeren seeks out anthropomorphic forms — trees that look as if they were human beings (or parts of them); and the photographs of animals shows them acting as if they were human beings as well (it would seem that a number of taxidermied animals were used — in all my years of feeding and looking at squirrels, say, I’ve never been given the finger by one).

The combination of the mostly playful photographs and the narration in the text creates a strange beast of a book that is at once fun and disturbing at the same time. In some ways, it is not too dissimilar to what you can encounter through Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, say.

If that art-historical reference is too much of a stretch for you, maybe think about some of Duane Michals’ work, for example the 1976 Real Dreams. Real Dreams is one of those underappreciated treasures from the history of the photobook. It’s an incredible collection of text-image pieces that each operate a little bit like a comic strip. While the format is rather simple, a lot of the pieces combine playfulness with a sense of profundity. I’m thinking that it is the latter that tends to get overlooked. A more recent example that falls into the same vein is Patrick Tsai’s Self-Portrait.

I don’t know what it is that has so many photolandians shy away from engaging with this kind of work. For sure, if there were more books like Michals’ Real Dreams, Tsai’s Self-Portrait, or Scheeren and Van den Bos’ Flipping the Bird the added mix of playfulness and profundity would lead to a richer experience in the world of the photobook. As much as I love photobooks, let’s face it: all-too-often the atmosphere around them is too dour (where not outright sour).

Flipping the Bird; photographs by Jaap Scheeren; text by Rik van den Bos (please note that an English and a Dutch language version are available); 216 pages; FW:Books; 2022

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Recommended Readings

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Most of the photographers I have worked with know of the importance of reading texts that are pertinent to their work: you need to know the general context and the discussions that are already happening. You will place more work into that context, and your work might become part of such discussions.

But there is more to reading than it being an acquisition of knowledge. While knowledge itself is good, it’s of limited utility until/unless it is applied. Reading texts can help photographers with their own work by indirectly shining critical light on work that has not been seen by anyone, yet. As a photographer, you can take criteria that were already applied to other people’s work and see what happens in the context of your own work. To put it simply, reading makes you a better photographer.

That said, reading texts that deal with one’s work and its context is only the absolute minimum you can do as an artist (regardless of whether you’re a photographer or writer). After all, there can be incredible discoveries made in texts around work that has absolutely no connection to one’s own interests.

This type of reading — the less directly utilitarian one — offers an enrichment of one’s own ideas and sensibilities. In a nutshell, you can kick start your own creativity in ways that you’re unable to foresee, which offers avenues towards becoming a better artist. You thus avoid becoming trapped in a bubble of your own making, where you know the discussions for your type of work well — but nothing beyond (this is a common problem).

In the following, I want to recommend a number of books that I have enjoyed over the past few years. I should note that this list is not intended to be complete. There are many more books that I like, and I will probably regret that I forgot to add some other book. In this site’s archives, there are articles about other noteworthy books; with one exception, I didn’t include any of them below.

I want to start off with a series of books called Documents of Contemporary Art. Each book in this collection contains a large number of texts that address a specific topic or theme. This is an incredible and very convenient resource. For example, if you’re a landscape photographer then you obviously want to read The Sublime. Not all of the texts in that book might be relevant for your work. But the ones that are will enrich your own understanding of it, and they might direct you to other readings (or pieces of art to look at).

For me, the real treasures in the collection have been books like Boredom or Translation. How or why could it possibly be interesting to read 225 pages of text about those topics? Well, it just is. For example, boredom itself is an incredibly rich topic that has produced a huge number of utterly fascinating writing. I had no idea. I bought the book on a whim. That’s the thing with writing: while there is no guarantee that a book will enrich your life, treating the act of reading as an investment scheme where the time spent better result in something gained or else is a terrible idea.

Next up is a book that also is a collection of texts about a specific topic. But here the topic is a piece of art that generated a huge amount of writing around it, as is evident from the title: Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. This book is essential because of the sheer breadth and depth of the discourse, with dozens of very diverse contributors.

It’s also a book that many photographers might want to look at because it deals with photojournalism and the various problematic aspects of it when it happens in Africa. And it’s a book that ultimately does not come to one fixed conclusion, which only proves that when art tackles complex issues it might not be possible to find the ideal solution.

In many ways, Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty shows what can be gained from a deeper engagement with a piece of art that addresses problematic issues. The first essays in the book are the very first published reactions to Martens’ Enjoy Poverty. Later contributions then dive more deeply into various aspects of the work, and they manage to unearth a lot of insight.

Unfortunately, in the world of photography too often discussions end at the former stage (immediate responses), or the latter stage happens only in academic circles (and thus ends up hidden behind obtuse tedious language and the paywalls of academic journals). How there can be more efforts such as this book isn’t clear to me — someone would have to commission them.

Hito Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen contains some of the artist/thinker’s most relevant essays. This includes In Defense of the Poor Image, which as a contemporary photographer you simply to read, regardless of whether you agree with its ideas or not. Intersecting art, technology, and politics, the book directly addresses a number of pressing issues that are missing from most photography-centric discussions.

In a very similar fashion, Culture Class by Martha Rosler focuses on one of the most pressing issues facing artists today, namely their role in and relationship to neoliberal capitalism: “With the market pressing in on one side and near-poverty on the other, how might artists’ long-standing tendency to identify not with their patrons but rather with the relatively voiceless in society be expressed or suppressed?” (quoted from the publisher’s website)

Twenty nineteen and 2022 saw the release of books by Mark Sealy, namely Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time and Photography: Race, Rights and Representation. While there appears to exist a more widespread awareness of the topics explored in the books, the same probably cannot yet be said for an understanding for why and how they matter. Reading Sealy will get you there.

For example, in Decolonising the Camera, a chapter entitled Violence of the Image dives deeply into how photographs can indeed inflict considerable violence. “Like powerful music,” Sealy says in a conversation in Photography, “photography must take us somewhere beyond the act of seeing.” (p. 13)

I’m still making my way through Luis Camnitzer’s One Number Is Worth One Word. The book focuses on art, its role in society, and how art can be taught in ways that solves some of the problems in traditional art education. Photographers who are not interested in teaching might not be particularly interested in this book, even as it contains quite a few nuggets to think about. But there are many photographers who make at least some of their money teaching. They might want to have a look at this book.

Lastly, Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed is a very different book than the ones mentioned above. Instead of talking about the roles of photographs, their functions, or a photographer’s responsibility, it dives into a single photography, to unearth an incredible amount of details from it: protagonists are being located, the site in question is found, and the larger circumstances of what has been termed Holocaust by Bullets is made clear. The book is a brilliant example of how the very careful reading of a single photograph can lead to tremendous insight.

Robert Capa is often quoted as having said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Many decades later, there should be an update: If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough. Reading makes you a better photographer.

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Some Say Ice

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I’m convinced that the best photographic bodies of work that center on the United States have been made by immigrants and marginalized photographers. Prime examples are Robert Frank’s The Americans or Gordon Parks’ work. I think that other American photographers simply buy too much into their own country’s myth making, thus consciously or unconsciously perpetuating it. For example, Richard Avedon went to the American West to find and share the rugged individualism that he yearned for (there is obvious classism in the resulting work, which in contemporary photography unfortunately has become par for the course; Danielle Jackson just explored how and why such classism is problematic in the context of the work of Deana Lawson).

Immigrants see their adopted home country in a different light, regardless of to what extent their views of it have shifted since they arrived. To begin with, they grew up elsewhere, which inevitably means a place that didn’t think of itself as exceptional. But they also were not deeply embedded in the various cultural and societal connotations that Americans wouldn’t necessarily think about, given they’re so familiar.  (You obviously want to keep in mind that the author of these words is an immigrant himself.) In contrast, marginalized photographers know that even though in theory they are part of the myth, in practice they are being excluded from reaping its benefits, revealing the myth for what it really is: a highly selective promise for a limited number of people.

In principle, anyone moving from one country to another as an adult will encounter the same situation as an immigrant in the US. However, possibly because of its relatively brief history and the fact that it is an artificial country, the country relies on myth making to a much larger degree than any other country I can think of. That myth might attract immigrants. But there will always remain a gap, however slight it might be, between the reality in front of their eyes and the myth itself.

It is that gap that immigrant photographers have been attracted to. And then they drive a wedge into it, cracking it wider open. There is, we might note, an aspect of settler colonialism to this endeavour, though. After all, if you come to the Americas to make a claim about the land and the people who live there — how else should this be described? In general, the telling of other people’s stories has become a topic that is hotly debated in the world of photography. Much like Danielle Jackson I don’t have a problem with it per se. Instead, I see the expanded discussions around photography as enriching the discourse. For me, the goal can always only be to include as many different voices as possible.

It is Alessandra Sanguinetti‘s new book Some Say Ice that had me think about the above. Born in New York City, at age two the photographer’s family moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where, according to her website, she “grew up, worked and lived until 2002”.  She became known for The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams, a body of work centering on two young girls and the world they inhabit, a world encountered and imagined.

There is a strong sense of make belief and magic in the photographs that show Guille and Belinda. I have often wondered about the photographer’s hand in this. I don’t mean to deny the creativity of these two. But I also know a thing or two about how photographers work, shaping their stories towards their own ends. In the end, there might have simply been a confluence, with the story being shaped by all sides. The shaping of stories is what can make photography art: if you look at The Adventures of Guille and Belinda, you’ll see what I mean.

I suppose it’s the fact that I heard Sanguinetti speak about her work a few times that informs part of the above. In each case, I left feeling better about photography. It’s not that I necessarily feel bad about about photography (well, mostly I don’t). But some artists have the uncanny ability to remind their audiences that the medium has a lot of redemptive qualities, provided it’s in the right person’s hands.

Speaking of uncanny… If there’s any one thing that can be said about Some Say Ice it’s that, uncanny. I don’t think there is a single picture that feels that way. Instead, the effect is cumulative. There is something unsettling about the locale somewhere in Wisconsin, at least the way it’s seen by Alessandra Sanguinetti.

The book mixes a number of different types of photographs, most notably portraits (some of which might or might not be staged) and photographs of animals. It is through the interplay of these two types of pictures that most of the electricity is being produced.

The photographs of people and animals tie in with Sanguinetti’s earlier work and bring along that — for a lack of a better word — magical quality, in particular where it is not clear whether a portrait — or a portrayal of people seemingly engaged in some activity — was staged for effect. I’m intrigued by those pictures because as a viewer I’m being made an accomplice: should I really watching this?

Maybe that is part of what makes the work uncanny: it is as if viewers were placed into the company of a locale that they have no business being in. But it’s also the fact that all the animals are being treated as beings that live on the same plane as humans and that are endowed with more of a consciousness than is typically attributed to them. Animals acting as if they were human — that can easily get uncanny, and it does so here.

I’m less interested in the type of photographic Americana that could have been taken by any of the photographers who have made road tripping through the country their business. I don’t need to see any more photographs of guns, say, because such pictures simply are too easy and too convenient. The same is true for the (inevitable) photograph of an old TV set.

In her afterword, the artist writes about being inspired by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. I wish that information hadn’t been included. To begin with, viewers will pick up on the uncanny nature of the book. And putting the work into the context of the earlier (and very different) book takes away some of its achievement. Mind you, it’s good to acknowledge an influence. But once you’ve moved far from it, it’s also fine not to overemphasize it.

Some Say Ice; photographs by Alessandra Sanguinetti; 148 pages; Mack; 2022

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Dall.E Vaterland

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A while ago, a piece of artificial-intelligence (AI) software called Dall.E was unveiled. The idea is simple: you provide it with a so-called prompt — a string of words that needs to make sense, and the software will generate an image from it, using a large set of pre-existing images. For a while, there existed a downscaled public and a limited-access full version. But now, access to the full version is possible for anyone interested in it.

You might have seen examples of such images. Parts of the art world went (predictably) nuts over the idea. This, or so the story goes, is the future of image making. I personally am much more skeptical, in particular given that art is a little bit more than merely taking what already exists to assemble it into something new. Consequently, while I find some of the output presented by Dall.E amusing, most of it is hardly any more interesting than the prompts themselves. For example, when I fed the limited version the prompt “Olaf Scholz eating a potato” (Scholz does look like a potato) the outcome looked as if someone attempting to imitate Francis Bacon had painted the scene. Where Dall.E results get more interesting, you typically land in the area of surrealism. This is good, but we’ve had surrealism as an art form for a long time already. There really is no new ground broken here.

Regardless, when I learned that the full version was accessible, I wondered whether it was possible to test the software on a photographic level. By this I mean that I wanted to see whether it was able to create believable images that could operate inside the context of photography I work in, fine-art photography. To that end, I decided I would have Dall.E generate its own versions of the photographs in my book Vaterland.

The idea is simple, but I also needed a few parameters. For each photograph, the prompt would consist of a simple description of the picture. I didn’t set out to necessarily reproduce the photographs in a one-to-one fashion, though. What would be the point of that? Instead, I wanted to get images that corresponded closely enough to the original photographs so that they could replace them in the book.

I realise that this description might sound a little bit vague. Look at it this way: in the book, the photographs exist not only as individual images but in particular as elements of a larger sequence. Consequently, they serve a function inside the larger whole. If you extract a photograph from the sequence, you only get part of the full function in the book. Therefore, for my experiment it was more important that the Dall.E images would get close to the functions of their corresponding images in the book than that they would look exactly like them. That said, if Dall.E handed me something that was very close to the original, I didn’t reject it.

Coming back briefly to what Dall.E does, I don’t want to approach it in a dogmatic fashion. Assuming that its output improves, I am not ruling out future use. However, I would never use it for a project such as Vaterland. Here, and in the follow-up project that I’m working on, discovery plays an important part. This discovery happens on both the photographic level — coming across photographs that I could not have imagined — and my personal, artistic level — gaining insight into aspect that I previously had not thought of.

Furthermore, I believe that I need to make myself vulnerable in my work. However uncomfortable this might be at times, it is from that spot that the most interesting results have arisen in all of my work (whether in my writing or my photography). Using tools such as Dall.E mostly precludes discoveries. Fair enough, as a photographer you don’t need to use AI to avoid discoveries. Many photographers do really well without, illustrating their pre-visualised prompts themselves. As a viewer, critic, and photographer I personally am not interested in such work.

I’m not going to reveal most of the prompts. All I will say is that they were very basic and obvious. Each one described a photograph with a brief sentence. For example, the very first picture in the book is “An empty construction site that is fenced off in front of a number of apartment buildings in Berlin”. That’s it. Because I didn’t want to try to get as close as possible to my own photographs, I didn’t feel the need to use very specific prompts.

Of the four images Dall.E offered me I picked the picture that came closest to what I needed. When two or more pictures worked, I picked the one I liked the best. This obviously is a subjective choice on my part. But a choice had to be made, and in the usual spirit of my work, I wanted to keep it simple.

Once I had made my choice, I treated the Dall.E image as if it were a raw file from my camera. I converted it to b/w and worked it over in Photoshop to make it look like my photographs. The tones of the b/w I’m using in my work are very deliberately chosen to evoke an atmosphere. If the following helps you understand this, feel free to imagine that I added a filter to the Dall.E images (unlike many — most? — photographers, I don’t have a problem with the idea of “filters”).

Once I had started, I noted that performing this processing step also helped bring the images closer together. The colours, saturations, and the way light was treated in the Dall.E images varied widely. Those differences would have made it almost impossible to have them work in sequence. In two or three cases, I also flipped an image horizontally. This was also done to have it work in the sequence it would have to operate in.

The Dall.E interface produces square pictures. My own photographs follow the 4×5 aspect ratio. I only learned that you can change the Dall.E output once I had put everything together. But I actually don’t mind the difference in formats. As I said above, I did not try to produce exactly what I had made (because, again, what’s the point?). Furthermore, as you will see below once I overlaid the Dall.E pictures on top of my own in the book, a part of the originals peeks out, reminding the viewer that there is another picture.

To add the pictures to my book I needed prints. The final step of the process involved getting them at a copy shop (fun fact: I don’t own an inkjet printer). I added these prints to a copy of own book by “tipping them in” (I used a piece of tape). Now, I have two versions of my book: the original and a Dall.E version. In the following, I want to discuss what I learned from the process and show you some examples.


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