El juego de la madalena

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In the age of the digital photograph, pictures have no individual surfaces, given that they share the same screens we use to look at them. In the age of the print, photographs used to have surfaces even as they paled in comparison to the ones of paintings. Photographic paper had a texture that as a viewer had you feel them as much as see them — even if at the time you might have never realized that your touching of a print contributed to how you viewed it.

In Julieta Averbuj‘s El juego de la madalena, the texture of photographic paper, along with effects of its physical degradation, play an important role. The book features fragments of archival photographs. These fragments at times present what might have been merely smaller parts of larger pictures, having strands of blond hair, say, create an abstract patter that only at second glance takes on concrete meaning. On top of this photographic abstraction sits the texture of the paper that becomes more prominent, given the enlargement of the source material.

As a consequence, the viewer is presented with a game of visual riddles, a game that is enhanced further through the physical construction of the book. If you’re familiar with religious altarpieces from European churches, you know the idea of opening up a display to reveal a number of relating images. For example, the famous Isenheim Altarpiece consists of four panels, three on top (the ones you might have had in mind when reading the term) and one at the bottom.

It’s obviously not quite the same thing, but El juego de la madalena is constructed in a similar fashion. The book opens like a “regular” book to reveal two separate books on the left and right. These separate books can be opened individually, resulting at four separate “panels” (pages) from which juxtapositions of images can be created by the viewer. The book ends up being quite large so you’ll need to have access to a table to look at it. Furthermore, there is another section of material contained behind the two books of the side, which gives more material to look at. This sounds quite complicated when described in words. But it’s actually quite straight forward when you look at the book. If you’re a purely visual person and can deal with my limited sketching skills the following illustration might help:

One more element of the book should be mentioned. There are a number of vellum pages included in the book that present very short text fragments. I don’t speak Spanish. My translation app informs me that they all are textual equivalents of what pictures show: little pieces of information that are at once precise and open ended at the same time. It is up to the viewer/reader to connect everything.

There is no shortage of books that work with archival photography from family albums. Mostly, work with such photography relies on the material itself, the pictures in hand, to do the work. Often, archival photography is visually very compelling, which has many artists unable to resist the temptation to end their own work there.

There are some artists who aren’t quite so eager to get away with merely scanning photographs, as is the case here. After all, someone else’s family will always be only that: someone else’s family. Outside viewers have no access to any of the emotional ballast that is present for family members. Through her visual intervention, Averbuj moves beyond both the visual delight of the source material and its relevance for the immediate family to create visual riddles that appeal to a formerly disinterested viewer. It’s the kind of game that artists such as Katrien de Blauwer play.

As a consequence, El juego de la madalena offers a mystery that works through a layering of abstract beauty as much as through allowing a viewer to create a number of connections between separate image panels. What exactly the outcome might be does not become clear, which I think is a very smart choice by the book’s makers. In a day and age where so (too?) many books attempt to drive home their one clear point, their one clear conclusion, asking an audience to be open to uncertainty is a good idea (however risky it might be, given that the book will not satisfy those looking for clear answers).

The book comes in a slipcase that not only contains all relevant information (in the form of the colophon) but also protects the otherwise somewhat fragile construction of the book. It allows you to file the object away in your bookshelf in such a way that you’re guaranteed to find it again later. This is smart and elegant photobook making, which, alas, isn’t quite as common as it should be. I frequently have discussions with artists or publishers who want to convince me that excluding crucial information on a book’s spine is a good idea (it is not: how am I going to find a book if there’s no information on its spine?).

All of the above makes El juego de la madalena a book that you want to look out for, especially if you enjoy well-made books that offer a unique viewing experience. It’s probably easiest to acquire it directly from the publisher, Fuego Books.

El juego de la madalena; images by Julieta Averbuj; 60 pages (total); Fuego Books; 2022

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Memories like falling rain

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Imagine inheriting part of the collective trauma of a country — only to find that that very country rejects you, not seeing you as one of their own. This is what happened to David Takashi Favrod. Born to a Japanese mother and a Swiss father in Kobe (Japan), he grew up in Switzerland. With his father frequently traveling for work, he was mostly raised by his mother. “When I was 18,” he writes in the back of Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari (published by Kodoji Press), “I asked for dual nationality at the Japanese embassy, but they refused because it is only given to Japanese women who wish to acquire their husband’s nationality.”

Reading these words brought back memories of how my native country, Germany, had treated the children of so-called guest workers. Even as they grew up as Germans with parents from a different culture and background, up until very recently they were unable to obtain German citizenship. I’m also reminded of the situation of author Miri Yu. Born in Japan to Korean parents, she writes her books in Japanese and has won a number of the country’s most prestigious literature prizes. And yet, she’s a citizen of South Korea. Yu’s incredible Tokyo Ueno Station is available in English translation and you might as well read it. If you want to learn more about Zainichi Koreans in Japan, this article is a good start.

The background of the German and Japanese situations is the countries’ profoundly problematic idea of their own identity as a nation: what does it mean to be German or Japanese? At the macro level, in the middle of the 20th century both countries committed mass atrocities in neighbouring countries because of an imagined superiority. At the micro level, the level an individual such as Yu or Favrod finds her or himself in, the larger tragedy dissolves into a very personal one: who or what am I? Or, in Favrod’s case, why can’t I be Swiss and Japanese? It is from that position that Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari was created.

Of the words in the title, gaijin might be the one that’s most likely to be at least somewhat familiar to a non-Japanese person. It means “foreigner”. Depending on circumstances, you might find that it is used in a pejorative fashion in Japan (which, another parallel, is also true for the German word “Ausländer”). Originally based on a manga, omoide poroporo is the title of an animated drama from 1991 whose English title is Only Yesterday. The Japanese title translates as “memories come tumbling down” or “memories like falling rain” (the latter is given by Favrod in his book). Lastly, hikari is Japanese for “light” (the noun, not the adjective).

“This work represents my compulsion to build and shape my ow memory,” Favrod writes. “To reconstitute some facts I haven’t experienced myself, but which have unconsciously influenced me while growing up.” Since by construction, photographs can only show what is and not what is not, the artist employs a number of tricks to produce some of the images: something might be constructed or staged, something might be created using Photoshop, or something might be presented as something else entirely through the use of text.

In fact, every image in the book comes with a small snippet of text superimposed, making the book serve as a visual index of its maker’s identity. Some of these entries are explained in the back of the book. If you don’t know what “Godzilla” is, the text in the back will provide you with the necessary background to understand its relevance (hint: it’s more than merely a cheesy movie monster). However, I think that some of the texts explain too much: I don’t really need to know all the thoughts behind some of his artistic decisions. But this is a small detail that doesn’t take away from the book’s overall achievement.

Given that the imagery moves in between Switzerland and Japan and between the completely mundane and the vastly tragic, looking through the book transports its author’s struggle with his identity to a viewer who finds her or himself attempting to make sense of it all. The use of archival family photographs provides an essential element: the constructed photographs are well done and often clever (Favrod studied at ECAL), but cleverness is unable to convey emotional drama. That’s where the family snapshots come in, to powerfully deliver that element.

A review of this book would be incomplete without a few words about the object itself. I’ve long maintained that the form of a photobook should reflect the times when it’s published. There really is no reason to produce photobooks today that look as if they had been made in the 1990s. And yet, many publishers do exactly that (no need to name any names, we all know who they are). Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari stands in stark contrast to those books. It’s a book that looks and feels very contemporary with its very smart and elegant design and production choices. Some of them I hadn’t even seen before (for example the title page on the end paper). This makes for a brilliant package that helps elevate the work it showcases.

Very highly recommended.

Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari; photographs and texts by David Favrod; 344 pages; Kodoji Press; 2022

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The Holistic Method of Photography

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I have now been teaching photography for over a decade, and I have arrived at a method that for a lack of a better word I describe as holistic. I frequently receive emails from photographers who tell me that they started reading this site when they studied photography. So I thought I might as well write about the tools and methods in my approach. You will want to keep in mind that the following is mostly geared towards fine-art photographers. As far as I can tell, specialist photographers — whether they’re photographing weddings, are photojournalists, or make their money with commercial or editorial work — typically know how to go about their jobs. Consequently, for them what I describe below might be pretty obvious. Still, there might be the occasional bit of insight as well.

What do I mean by “holistic”? The principle is very simple. Especially for beginners its repercussions might appear daunting at first. In reality, though, they’re not daunting at all: they merely require a re-thinking and re-arrangement of one’s practice. Let’s start with the process of photography as you might know it. First, you go out and take photographs (please don’t take “go out” literally, if you work in the studio that’s included as well). Then, you edit the photographs. Then, you sequence them. Then, you maybe want to make a book, so you start thinking about a book. Lastly, the most dreaded part: the writing of the statement.

In my view, that’s a terrible approach to developing one’s photography. Treating these different tasks as separate and unrelated complicates what in reality should be much more organic. Crucially, it shouldn’t be a challenge at all to write a project statement after you’ve arrived at an edit (and a sequence). Working on a project should entail coming to a growing understanding of the work, from which the statement then condenses easily (let’s focus on a project, but the following also applies for photographers working on single pictures). The fact that it’s so hard for many photographers to write their statements demonstrates that they’re going about the process the wrong way.

The holistic approach intermingles and unifies the different aspects of photography. Every aspect is important at every stage of the process. Note, though, that depending on where you are in the process, some parts might be more important than others. For example, at the very beginning of a project, you don’t want to spend too much time on thinking about a book. When you’re done with a project, you don’t want to spend time on photographing more pictures. Still, throughout the process, you want to combine taking photographs with critically looking at them. You will want to edit them constantly, picking pictures that work and putting aside those that don’t. Keep in mind, though, that no edit is ever final — except for the very final one itself. A photograph that you put aside early on might come back later, just as your favourite early photographs might never make the final edit. Thus, flexibility is absolutely important. In a nutshell, while you’re working on a project you want to guide your eye towards new pictures by engaging with the ones you already made.

For that to work, you need a number of important tools. The very first and most important tool is your camera. You need to work with a camera that works for you. A huge number of problems my students have encountered arose from working with the wrong camera. The wrong camera will make your life miserable. It will have you spend enormous amounts of time (and usually money) on activities that get in the way of focusing on the most important aspects: taking and looking at your photographs. This problem doesn’t have much to do with analog versus digital. Even as analog photography now is a huge money and time sink, I have had students who struggled enormously with very expensive high-end digital cameras. Whatever camera you use, if it gets in the way of you making work, it’s the wrong camera for you. Obviously, you will have to have spent enough time with your camera to get past the initial hurdles (which are inevitable for any camera).

The reality is that the world of photography attracts a large number of people who are very interested in technical details. The problem with this often obsessive focus on usually very irrelevant technical details is that anyone who wants to merely decide on a camera or solve a technical problem will be flooded with information that’s useless for them. Camera XYZ might have the best or largest sensor, but it still might not be the right camera for someone if it works best on a tripod, say. A view camera might produce really nice negatives, but it might still not be the right camera for someone who isn’t flush with cash or needs to be very flexible. Adding 300 complicated layers in Photoshop might get you a really nice file, but for a lot of people that’s much too complicated. So as a photographer, you will get a lot of recommendations from a lot of really nice people. But you will have to make sure that you pick what works for you. As someone who has a background in the sciences, my inclination is to pick the simplest solution. Always focus on the simplest solutions for the tools you use to take your pictures and work on them. That way, you can focus exclusively on the challenges posed by your pictures.

For a lot of photographers (me included), money (aka the lack thereof) always is an issue. One mental trick I use to help me with this is to equate time with money or money with time. Let’s look at a simple example. Imagine you’re thinking about whether or not to buy an extra hard drive for backups. If you buy the drive, you will get an extra copy of your files, which means if your computer dies (which, after all, might happen eventually) you’ll be fine. This will cost you some money. If you don’t buy the drive, you will lose a lot of data if your computer dies. You will likely spend a lot of time on trying to salvage what there is to salvage. In a nutshell, you need to think about how valuable your time is. In this particular example, it’s the cost of the extra hard drive versus all that time you need to spend when your computer dies. This is a very simple and basic example, but you get the idea.

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The Land of Promises

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In the summer of 1994, a number of Belgian families traveled to China to adopt children there. “Six girls in total were adopted at the same orphanage, at the same time,” Youqine Lefèvre writes in the text on the back of The Land of Promises (essentially an introduction to the book). “I am one of them.” At the time, she was roughly seven months old.

As far as I can tell, any story that centers on reproductive rights never ends there. In fact, most of them appear to originate in domains that have nothing to do with the medical sciences. For example, the anti-abortion movement we’re observing in many countries right now is partly fueled by religious extremists and partly by neofascists who are trying to re-establish the supremacy of straight men over every other member of society.

In the context of China, there’s that country’s one-child policy, which possibly sounded like a good idea to rulers at the time. In reality, though, given parents were allowed to have one child only, age-old considerations about the role of men and women in society entered the equation, with consequences which in principle are too awful to think about but which, of course, unfolded all over the country. It is coincidence that in Lefèvre’s introduction, there are six girls who end up going to Belgium. Confucianism very strongly advocated a patriarchal society, large traces of which still exist in China.

In an essay at the end of the book, Joohee Bourgain considers the larger implications of international adoption. It should be considered, she notes, “as a prejudice that millions of individuals who have been permanently separated from their social and familial environments, and decultured and assimilated into a new milieu that often renders them vulnerable — notably the systemic racism of Western societies — have been subjected to.” (my emphasis) You will want to keep this in mind any time you hear about international adoption. In modified form, this also applies to the systematic kidnapping of Ukrainian children by Russian forces in occupied Ukraine (which, by the way, constitutes a war crime).

In 2017 and 2019, Lefèvre went on two trips to China to re-visit the land where she was born. She connected with people living there to find out how they were engaging with the topic of family, specifically: having children. For a large number of people encountered, there are pieces of text that read like transcripts of what they told the photographer. There is a notable variety of voices, with men and women, older and younger people, people living very traditional farm lives and people living in cities, etc. In addition, there are plenty of photographs of their surroundings in the form of land- and cityscapes, interiors, details encountered, and more.

At the beginning of the book, there is a facsimile reproduction of the original Chinese adoption documents (with translations provided — the text in the book comes in English and French). Furthermore, reproductions of snapshots taken by the Belgian families in China in 1994 form the first major section of photographs.

The combination of all of these elements make for a very successfully constructed book that dives into the many repercussions of China’s one-child policy against the background of the country’s larger traditions — and against people being people: not everybody was happy to comply with state policies.

In a number of ways, you could see The Land of Promises as an oral history of China that focuses on one specific aspect of its recent past and culture. Unlike usual oral histories, the amount of text is a lot smaller than those. But here, the added portraits and photographs flesh out parts that written oral histories mostly can’t get at.

Approaching the book as an oral history also primes the audience for the amount of work they have to do: without reading the text, only a small fraction of the content will be communicated. This makes for an intriguing model for a image-text book that I’m hoping will also be explored by other artists.

If there is one thing I personally miss from the book, though, it’s more of Lefèvre’s own voice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with what’s on display. But in many ways, it could have been made by someone who did not share the photographer’s personal history. To the extent that this is possible, I was trying to imagine being in the photographer’s position, going back to the place from which she had been adopted. What was that like?

I’ve obviously written the previous paragraph as someone who has lived outside of his native country for over two decades. It’s absolutely not the same situation — I had a choice, Lefèvre didn’t. But coming back to Germany after these two decades is like coming to country that to a considerable extent is foreign but that in other ways is completely familiar. This often makes for a strange, unsettling experience. And that’s why I was wondering about how Lefèvre own experiences.

The Land of Promises; photographs and text by Youqine Lefèvre; essay by Joohee Bourgain; 244 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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