Burgbergstrasse

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It seems hardly conceivable that a complex of buildings around a single street would encapsulate a large number of aspects of a country’s 20th and 21st Century history. And yet, that is exactly the case for the buildings at Crailsheim’s Burgbergstraße. Crailsheim is a small town in the southwest of Germany. Burgbergstraße is the name of a street that passes through an originally Nazi-era air-force base.

Since the end of World War 2, the base’s buildings have served a number of purposes that included further military use (by both American and [West] German forces) but also housing for displaced people, refugees, and migrants. The refugees that arrived in 2015 are just the latest group of people looking for a home. This is the premise for Wolfram Hahn‘s book Burgbergstrasse.

A quick side note: Readers paying attention to detail might notice two spellings, Burgbergstraße and Burgbergstrasse. For the sake of simplicity, you can treat them as being identical. In the English language, there is no equivalent of the German “ß” letter, a letter that does not have an upper-case equivalent, that often is represented by doubling the letter “s”, and that in the past was also written as “sz” (in fact, that’s how “ß” is pronounced). If you really need to know more about “ß”, this has got you covered. In a nutshell, German(y) operates following the motto “why make it simple when you can make it complicated,” and “ß” is a perfect example for that.

Burgbergstrasse makes use of both Hahn’s own photographs and found/archival pictures. The latter include photographs from institutional archives as much as people’s photo albums. The different types of images are usually (but not always) easy to tell apart. Thankfully, the book is visually not organized following a simple time line. In other words, it does not start out with the barracks’ construction and ends today. Instead, the book intermingles all the imagery, jumping back and forth in time. This is an apt choice, given that it allows the photographer to work out a number of themes.

As someone who was born in then West Germany and spent the first thirty years of his life there, I was struck by how familiar most of what I encountered in the book seemed to me. I have never been to Crailsheim (in fact, I had to look up where to find it on the map — my overall guess based on the name was correct). To begin with, encountering the buildings themselves was uncanny in the most basic (Freudian) sense of the word: I felt that I know them even if I had not encountered these specific ones.

The town I was born in had rows of similar buildings (even as those were simply apartment buildings). At the time I grew up (the 1970s and early 1980s), there was something about them that felt as if it had come from a different time, a contrast possibly enhanced by the fact that my parents lived in an apartment building that had been erected in the late 1960s and that looked different. For a lack of a better term, the older apartment buildings with their squat nature felt brutal.

But there is something else about that location, something around its atmosphere, an atmosphere that is decidedly German. If you visit Germany as a foreigner, you will not find that atmosphere unless you move to the less touristy parts. I have a hard time describing this atmosphere other than saying that to a large extent it was responsible for me looking for a different place to live.

Even if I have to come re-assess this atmosphere and now partly welcome its presence (there is some comfort in being in a familiar environment), even if that familiarity is not necessarily pleasant, to some degree I am still repelled. For me, it’s an atmosphere of a people that could be more open to the world but have decided to hold back. In part, this is why you won’t find it in touristy places with their welcoming and cool looking facade on view.

I see that atmosphere as a red thread going through this book, represented at any given time in the history on display. And I see that atmosphere as the background setting in which the people in the portraits — the book’s protagonists — have to make do.

For all its welcoming culture (the facade again), Germany has often made life difficult for those seeking shelter and protection there, especially if the colour of their skin isn’t milky white, if they’re not Christian, or if they’re from a very different culture (or any mix of these). Just now, at the time of this writing, Germany’s conservatives are grumbling again about how people have to fit in (the supposed firewall between the country’s conservatives and far-right people is about as protective as a shoji).

You’ll obviously be reading this review with someone else’s eyes, most likely as someone from outside of Germany. To what extent you’ll be sharing my impressions when looking through the book isn’t clear to me. I wager, though, that if you look carefully, you’ll pick up on aspects of what I described above, aspects of a very strange country that has partly come to terms with its terrible 20th Century past but that still refuses to learn some of the remaining lessons.

Burgbergstrasse; photographs by Wolfram Hahn; 144 pages; Vexer; 2022

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Small Myths

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There’s a photograph of Mikiko Hara that shows the artist posing with the tool of her trade, an old fold-out camera without a viewfinder that she carries on a rather short strap around her neck (you can find the photograph here, scroll down past her pictures). A few years ago, I was able to meet the photographer and came away deeply impressed by both her singular dedication to photography and her personality. Even as I only heard her words with delay and in translation, her soft spoken and thoughtful demeanor left a deep impression on me.

It is tempting to file away Hara as a street photographer, especially when one looks at the work the Getty has in its collection. Ever since I met the artist, I realized that such a filing essentially misses the point of her work. To begin with, the pictures that easily fall into the category of street photography are not remotely as interesting as the rest of her work. A recent book, Small Myths, that collects work made over the course of two and a half decades, makes this very clear. The book presents the street photographs in the context of a large number of other photographs, many of them taken within the confines of the photographer’s own home.

Hara’s photographs are the outcomes of brief encounters (of course, this much is true for a lot of photography), but it’s encounters in which the artist’s presence is essential (this is not). For a short moment, a subject and herself get to share the same space, a space that goes beyond the physical one. Unlike the regular street-photography crowd, Hara is not photographing as an outsider, someone who records what is in front of her camera for the sake of demonstrating her artistic wit. Hara also doesn’t view her subjects or subject matter merely as raw material for her pictures.

Instead, this artist experiences the richness of a moment that might bypass other people completely — a richness beyond visuals, a richness of full of feeling. The pressing of the camera’s shutter is but an attempt to capture a fraction of it in a photograph. The overall richness of the world that is experienced in this manner only unfolds once a viewer sees it not in a single image, but rather in a collection such as the one presented in the book.

This has very little, if anything, in common with the way standard street photography operates along the lines of the so-called decisive moment. With their often helter-skelter compositions (remember, the camera has no viewfinder), Hara’s photographs simply do not fit into Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea that form and content have to be perfectly resolved. Here, form isn’t necessarily resolved (at least not in an orthodox sense); and yet Hara demonstrates what can be gained from ditching what more often than not reduces photography down to a petty craft.

There are worlds between those who hunt for their pictures with expensive Leicas and this Japanese photographer with her old-timey tool that doesn’t even remotely come close to what today would be considered a good camera. Street photographers are interested in demonstrating their ability to shape the world into a picture. Mikiko Hara is interested in the world.

Where a viewer will encounter a demonstration of skill in the former, in the latter, they get to be immersed in the actual richness of the world, a richness that is based on connecting with things and people, on being in and with the world — and not on extracting pictures.

Being in and with the world means being open to its magic. Every moment might reveal such magic at any given time. Small Myths is filled with it, whether it’s a small child being basked in light in a domestic space, the interior of a fridge with a cake topped with strawberries promising some future enjoyment, dirty dishes in a sink, a woman on the phone in front of a bright blue wall, or whatever else.

In Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, one of the key images is a picture of an embrace. The photograph shows a woman’s back, with a muscular male arm exerting a very strong, violent grip around her (it’s entitled The Hug). Small Myths contains the same kind of photograph, except here, there is nothing violent about the embrace (it’s the fourth picture in the slide show for the book). The man’s hand rests on the woman’s behind, who, in turn, seems relaxed. Both pictures demonstrates their photographers’ very different visions, and I really like both photographs.

In light of the above, I think Small Myths is an absolutely essential release. The book showcases Mikiko Hara’s sensitivity and genius in ways that I have not seen in other books. It’s interesting that Chose Commune have been consistently publishing books with Japanese photographers that are very, very good (unlike the rest of their program, which I find mostly underwhelming).

Even as I don’t want to see Japanese photography as distinct from photography made elsewhere (this would be a form of exoticizing or othering), there can be different sensitivities at play when Japanese artists face the world with their cameras. It is these sensitivities that Western photographers and audiences can learn a lot from.

You can make good photographs if you follow ideas such as the decisive moment (and thus turn your picture taking into an exercise of artistic genius). But you can also forget about the strictness and inflexibility of many of those ideas and embrace looser approaches that prevent the camera from becoming the barrier between photographer and the rest of the world that it often is.

Honestly, even if you don’t care about any of what I wrote above, you still want to get yourself a copy of Small Myths: the book is filled with incredible photographs.

Very highly recommended.

Small Myths; photographs and short texts by Mikiko Hara; 104 pages; Chose Commune; 2022

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The Sleeping Island

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At the beginning of this year, it was reported that “Japan’s government is offering 1m yen ($7,500) per child to families who move out of greater Tokyo, in an attempt to reverse population decline in the regions.” Even if the desired outcome would appear to be rather modest — “The government is hoping 10,000 people will have moved from Tokyo to rural areas by 2027”, the fact that the country’s notoriously inflexible government would offer such a program hints at the scale of the problem. Japan’s rural areas are rapidly aging and losing its younger population for big cities such as Tokyo or Osaka.

Just like in the case of the deindustrialized regions in the US or Europe, this development appears to now have spawned its own photographic topos, of which Kentaro Kumon‘s Nemurushima is a recent addition. The title translates as Sleeping Island, and the island in question is Teshima, one of the many small to mid-sized islands that are part of Japan’s Inland sea, a body of water that is almost completely surrounded by the three main Japanese islands Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. Teshima is located southeast of Okayama and lies roughly halfway between Hiroshima and Osaka.

As a brief aside, the view with Google Maps reveals two locations on the island whose names make me want to pack up and visit right away. Who wouldn’t want to see the Place of Sea Dreamers or the Remains of shadowing? Deepl translates the former’s 海を夢見る人々の場所 as A Place for People Who Dream of the Sea (a piece of art apparently) and the latter’s かげたちのみる夢 as The Shadows’ Dream (a museum).

After I published the original version of this review, the photographer contacted me to tell me that I had found the wrong Teshima. There is another one that he had visited, a place that, in his own words, has “a population of about 10 people and a circumference of 7 km”. With the help of Google Maps, I had confused one Springfield for another or one Frankfurt for another (or whatever a locale might be where you live where there is more than one with the same name). In the US, you’d use the state to find the right Springfield, and Germans add the river to specify their Frankfurt.

In Japan, though, you simply have the place name itself, albeit written in Japanese characters. There’s 豊島, the Teshima I had found through Google Maps, and there’s 手島, the Teshima from the book. If you look closely, you’ll see that both places share the kanji 島 (shima: island). There are thousands such kanji in Japanese, which make a learner’s experience miserable (for more reasons than one). Ironically, though, the Teshima in the book contains two of the less than 100 kanji that I already know.

Even more ironically, when I used Street View to look for the view from which one of the pictures was taken (the ferry I’m talking about below), I was unable to find it. There was only one ferry landing, but it didn’t look right. The visual person in me should have distrusted what he found. Alas, he didn’t. Regardless, when you look up 手島 Teshima, Google Maps will show you what it calls Te Island.

In the map above, there’s a red marker on it. In that map, you can also see the other Teshima (豊島), which lies roughly 20 miles away. The photographer told me that that Teshima has seen a revival with an arts festival (hence the spots I got excited about, given their names), whereas the one in the book has remained as a quiet, lovely spot. In the following, for reasons of simplicity, I’ll refer to the island in the book as Teshima (if you’re worried about confusion just imagine seeing the kanjis 手島 right next to it). However, even though I confused the islands, what I wrote about the book can remain unchanged.

As it turns out, Teshima appears to have much in common with what was described by Donald Richie in The Inland Sea (a book that, I should note, I enjoyed a lot more when I knew a lot less about the country and its culture; I recently re-read it and found its willfully distant arrogance rather off-putting) or, more recently, by Amy Chavez in The Widow, The Priest, and The Octopus Hunter. “Teshima was famous for its navy during the Warring States period (1467-1568),” Kumon writes in his introduction, “and the islanders’ shipbuilding and shiphandling skills were highly valued in the Edo period (1603-1868). But now there are only a dozen or so inhabitants; […] and although his boat still bobs in the harbor, the island’s last fisherman died a year ago.”

In the first picture in Nemurushima, we see a ferry leaving a rather desolate looking harbour on a rainy day, which sets the stage for the remainder of the book. Please note that the end papers both feature photographs, the one at the beginning showing the very harbour from which the picture I mentioned was taken. Thus, you could argue that it’s the second and not the first picture that depicts the ferry (as always I’ll leave the nitpicking to the readers).

The leaving or arrival of the one ferry that might visit just once a day marks an important time marker for these small islands: they’re worlds onto themselves but only almost. Once the ferry is gone, you’re stuck on this particular world and the one beyond, visible in the form of other islands, feels like an eternity away. I have not been to any of these small Japanese islands, but I remember what I imagine to be a very similar feeling on a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There is a finality to seeing the ferry leave, even as that finality is obviously completely overwrought: the next day, it will be back. But for now, you’re stuck.

Nemurushima proceeds to unfold through a series of photographs of old houses, dilapidated infrastructure, and the occasional human figure — inevitably an older person. There also appear a number of interiors of traditional Japanese homes, with one showing a get together of a group of people (all elderly) sharing food and drink. The work feels very serene, and what on the computer screen’s map comes across as a rather small island appears to be larger than anticipated.

Visually, the photographs alternate between two modes, one blueish and moody, the other one cast into the warm (possibly overly so) light of the setting sun. Even as I realize that such games with colour are not uncommon in contemporary Japanese photography, there always is the risk of things becoming maybe a bit too formulaic. I get it, it’s an isolated island that has seen better days, and yet the community of those living there still is vibrant. I would probably prefer for the location to simply reveal as much, without there needing to be that visual push.

And then the ferry leaves again in the final photograph (or in the penultimate one, see my disclaimer above), this time in slightly nicer weather, with an old man on a bicycle watching. The island is going to sleep again. I know that were I to visit the island, it would present itself very differently to me. It’s not just that I’d be a foreigner; it’s also that my eyes and my life history are very different. What we’re seeing in Nemurushima is Kentaro Kumon’s view, a view that might in fact be less centered on this specific island than on what it stands for: an older Japan that now is being left behind and that its government is somewhat desperate enough to revive again.

It might be a moot point to consider to what extent there is an overlap between Japanese ideas of what is lost in places like Teshima and Westerners’. After all, there appears to be a considerable repository of Western writers who flock to Japan to discover a country that conforms to their ideas — instead of allowing the country to simply be what it is. For sure, photographers all over the world are drawn to what is getting lost or what already has been lost. There’s patina to be found, and as visual creatures, we equate patina with something that is more fulfilled than the (actually very convenient) contemporary lives we are living.

Regardless, whatever you might be making of the above, Kentaro Kumon‘s Nemurushima presents you with an important aspect of Japan, and it’s very much worth your time.

Nemurushima; photographs by Kentaro Kumon; texts by Kentaro Kumon and Matthias Harder; 96 pages; Kehrer; 2022

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Master Rituals

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The notion of the male gaze appears to have finally become well known enough in the world of photography. Consequently, there now exists an awareness of the many problems that derive from it, even as often enough, the male gaze is simply being equated with a man being behind the camera and a woman in front of it. Unfortunately, that simple approach runs the risk of reducing what ultimately is a question of power and agency down to almost a technical problem — as if non-male photographers were unable to perpetuate the many problems created by the male gaze.

But the agency of taking a picture is not necessarily the same as the agency to define how in a picture a person, or in this case, a vast part of the population is being defined. If you view the problem from this angle, subverting the male gaze requires a multi-pronged approach, in which non-male photographer being behind cameras plays a crucial, but not exclusive part.

In a nutshell, given the history of the medium new photographs not only have to contribute to establishing a countermodel to the one produced by the male gaze, the one where the world is not only seen with male eyes but in which it also unfolds through laws created in the male mind. There will also have to be photographs that subvert all those existing photographs that still make up a sizeable fraction of photography’s history.

Around the time that John Berger and Laura Mulvey introduced the male gaze, Marianne Wex produced an extensive body of work that in its English version became known as Let’s Take Back Our Space: Female and Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures. Decades before manspreading became widely discussed, Wex studied exactly that: how body language was not only being performed but also perpetuated to cement gender roles (and thus the inequality between men and women — please note that given the time Wex compiled her work, it focused on traditional gender roles).

I’ve always liked that title, Let’s Take Back Our Space, because it centers not on the photographs themselves but on the intended goal, a subversion of existing norms and a resulting shift in agency and power. Were photography’s history to remain unchallenged, we might get the former but not necessarily the latter — and I suppose it is exactly for that reason that there has been so much resistance from many male photographers to deal with their own medium’s extremely problematic history: power is almost never ceded voluntarily.

Tarrah Krajnak‘s Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes now presents another addition to this steadily growing canon of feminist photography. Using Edward Weston’s nudes as a starting point, the artist meticulously re-stages them, using her own body instead of a model’s.

Krajnak not only explicitly asserts her own agency as a woman photographer, but she also asserts her agency as the subject of the resulting photographs. This latter aspect is crucial. The resulting photographs reproduce Weston’s original closely. But through the inclusion of the studio set ups and the clear presence of the remote shutter release, her own determination to undercut the “master” becomes very clear.

The inclusion of the original photographs in the studio setup of course helps all those viewers who might not be familiar with the source material. But Weston’s photographs essentially also get to function less like artful photographs well known from the history of photography and more like illustrations from a “how to” book about photography.

This aspect alone undercuts their value while also revealing the mechanism in the background: Weston’s nudes aren’t merely innocent photographs that happen to have become famous. They’re programmatic, establishing a visual hierarchy in which the (young) female body has to perform as material for a(n older) male photographer. Krajnak explicitly rejects this model. Her pictures very powerfully proclaim that if anyone ought to be able to determine the presentation of a woman’s body, it is first and foremost the woman herself — and not some older “master” photographer working with a “muse” (possibly the yuckiest word used in the world of art history; please note that this discussion extends beyond traditional gender roles).

Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes follows the tradition established by Jemima Stehli who re-created Helmut Newton photographs using herself as the model or who invited a number of male critics, curators, and art dealers to sit in a chair while undressing in front of them, giving them the cable release so they could take the picture. If you have never read Adrian Searle’s description of his experience, you might as well now. You can see some of the photographs in this interview.

Not all photographs in Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes are re-creations. There also are a few in which a book entitled Darkroom 2 (that has one of the nudes on the cover) is given the role of a prop. Using the same strategy as in the other photographs, with these pictures Krajnak connects Weston to all of his peers, whether contemporaries or later.

Furthermore, there are photographs without any of the references, another deft choice to reach the goal of — to use Wex’s expression — taking back a space previously expropriated, the space in which the female body is governed solely by those who inhabit it — as opposed to older male strangers.

Recommended.

Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes; photographs by Tarrah Krajnak; 52 pages; TBW Books; 2022

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