Photography’s Deceit: Our Deceit

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I recently received a book in the mail that I had been trying to get for some time. It’s ひと夏 (One Summer) by Jōji (George) Hashiguchi. Up until I had the book in my hands, I had only seen selected spreads from it. There was something in those spreads that made me look for a copy.

Even before the book arrived in the mail, the friend who had helped me get a copy in Japan told me about its background. It also becomes clear from the book itself. In the texts (thankfully, there are English translations) the fact is mentioned that Hashiguchi took photograph on and near the set of a movie while it was being filmed (presumably over the course of one summer). My friend told me about the movie’s background, the memoir of artist Uchida Shungiku who had been sexually abused by her stepfather and who had produced a manga about it.

Knowing all of this had me on edge before the book arrived. Looking through the book, I don’t think the story of the movie comes across, though. I think you might be able to read something into a small number of the photographs. However, while some people are very adept at reading something they know into a photograph, I’m always a bit skeptical when this occurs, especially when that read involves a number of steps that move very far from what the picture actually shows.

When the book arrived, it wasn’t the movie’s story that had me on edge. Instead, the fact that in some ways the pictures aren’t real started to bother me. It’s straightforward to see, given that a number of characters re-appear in different pictures at different stages of their lives. Mind you, the pictures are real enough. They show real people. But what I had thought they would show — people encountered in some random fashion across a small town in Japan — is not.

All of photography is a fiction, and there is absolutely no insight to be gained from going over this fact one more time. Instead, insight might arrive from looking at our relationship to that fiction, whether as viewers or photographers.

Over the course of the past decade and a half, I have talked to a large number of photographers. I have come to realize that while photographers are very adept at understanding how photography expresses the world (people can easily see the effect of a lens), many of them are not any better at navigating the element of fiction in photography than people who don’t call themselves photographers.

Much like everybody else, photographers cling to their beliefs, the pictures be damned — even when it’s their own photographs. After all, photographers are human beings, much like everybody else.

In a nutshell, in pictures we want the world to look the way we believe it looks, even if with words we will claim something completely different. Mind you, making the world look the way be believe it looks also is one of the few things that makes photography genuinely interesting. If photography were a world that consisted only of passport-type pictures — documents following strict guidelines and devoid of any element of passion, it would only be interesting to a very small number of people.

However, the problem with photography’s deceit — showing us the world as seen by someone’s vision (let’s call it vision) — also creates a problem, especially when we buy into it too much: when we insist on the deceit being overwhelming, crowding out our other, critical facilities.

I think that a variation of this occurred when I encountered ひと夏. I wanted so much for the pictures to emerge from what we could call the real world. (Let’s not argue what the real world might be. I think we might all agree that it’s not what we encounter in movies.) Instead of focusing on the beauty of the photographs, though, I now spent all my time thinking about the artifice behind them. It is almost as if I had admired the work of Jeff Wall as snapshots, only to be told by someone that the pictures are in fact staged.

What this means is that the belief what pictures show also includes an element of how they do it. As viewers, we want to be deceived and we don’t want to be told about it. As photographers, we deceive ourselves and we don’t want to be told about that.

It’s inevitable, though, that you will be deceiving yourself when you go out into the world with your camera. You can tell yourself that you’re only going on a road trip across the US to photograph what you come across (let’s just pick this as a convenient enough example). But the reality is that you mostly only come across what you want to find. Or rather, you come across a lot of things. But the camera is a great tool to crowd out anything that doesn’t conform to your vision, and you end up with exactly the pictures that you set out to take.

Consequently, most US road-trip projects (remember, this is just an example, I could give you many others) show exactly the same thing, namely the view of the country that is entertained by a specific group, which usually consists of the relatively well-off (mostly white) men that do the road trips and the really well-off (mostly white) people that pay for pictures in commercial galleries or that sit on the boards of museums and other art organisations.

You can easily see how and why that is a problem. It’s no surprise that projects of road trips in the US all end up looking the same, featuring the same run-down locations, oversized flags, old TV sets or armchairs in ramshackle rooms, and crunchy white dudes with long beards. Of course, I’m simplifying this a little bit — but really not all that much.

When Richard Avedon photographed his version of this trope, John Szarkowski said “Avedon’s West is not the West as I know it.” I think what the curator had in mind was exactly what I talked about above. He didn’t say “Avedon’s West is not the West”, he said “the West as I know it.” (my emphasis) So there was a gap, and the famed curator wasn’t particularly happy about that.

It’s something we might encounter in our daily lives when someone takes our portrait and then shows us the result. Almost inevitably, we will tell them that we don’t look that way or that we don’t like the picture (or any variation thereof).

Obviously, no single individual can photograph the American West — or any other locale — in a way that would do it justice. Ignoring the fact that we’d have to agree on what exactly “doing justice” would mean, an all-encompassing view would probably end up in passport-picture territory. Especially if you want to create something that can be seen as art, you will have to make choices; and those choices include huge elements of omission.

Regardless of what you think about Avedon’s West, there is a merit to it, though. It’s just not that the pictures say much about the West itself. Instead, they say a lot more about its maker and, by extension, the society he was embedded in. Avedon went to where, to use an advertising slogan from the time, the flavour was. And he got the pictures that would not have been out of place in a cigarette ad, except that ads are supposed to show a promise and not actual consequences.

Photographing the things that you believe in, that you identify with, or that confirm your expectations can take many forms — much like looking at photographs itself. In my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I looked into a different example. Just like in the case of Avedon, there is merit to that kind of photography. It shows us a different aspect of the society we live in. There obviously is a very interesting and revealing overlap with what we can deduce from American road-trip photography.

For both sides, photographer and viewers, the challenge thus is to work against the impulse to flock to the familiar. The familiar is not necessarily your friend. For sure, it will stand in the way of becoming a better — a wiser, more caring — person. Unfortunately, this means that looking at photographs is work.

The same is obviously true for making photographs. There is all the work of looking for the pictures, of working on them once they have been taken. On top of that, while looking for photographs there is the added work of not fully giving in to the temptation of being attracted to what one is attracted by. Many of the good photographs — the photographs that later, but not in the moment, will be good — are those made against one’s own inclination to remain on the safe, comfortable side.

When I use the words “safe” and “comfortable”, I’m not speaking about the feelings of another person who might be involved, say when a portrait is being made. Other people should not be made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable for the sake of one’s own photographs. The person who has to be made unsafe or uncomfortable is the photographer. Please note that I’m not advocating exposure to literally unsafe situations. Instead, I mean the safety of one’s own convictions, the safety of knowing that certain pictures will play oh-so well with the audience one has already established.

Even as in the world of photography, a neglect of safety or comfort is usually outsourced — people being photographed are made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, or maybe an audience is being challenged in such a way, it is the photographer on whom that focus should be placed. I truly believe that if as a photographer you’re not challenging yourself first, then you have no right whatsoever to demand the same from your audience.

Challenging yourself first does not automatically translate into the right to challenge your audience in equal fashion. Don’t take my words as an invitation to engage in broad transgressiveness for its own sake. Instead, I’m interested in a form of transgression whose first (immediate) concern is to allow oneself to become a better person and whose second (later) concern is to have the final audience partake in that. I reject nihilistic transgressiveness, performed for its own sake and devoid of any redeeming qualities (the work of Dash Snow or Antoine d’Agata comes to mind).

As a medium, photography does everything in its power to make the task of challenging oneself difficult. In part, this is because it is easy to take a picture. You press some form of button, and you have a picture. There is the added deceit that photography shows what is “real” by making it look as if what is photographed and then presented were real (it might in fact be). Lastly, there is the consequence of these two together, which creates the invitation to stay close to what one believes in, to regurgitate one’s beliefs in visual form.

Thinking about it again, maybe what had me so confused about ひと夏 was that it simply wouldn’t conform to any of my ideas of what it should be. The work is rooted in an artifice — a movie set and its actors, which in itself derives from a different form of artifice that, however, is based in a very uncomfortable fact — the manga creator’s incredibly painful upbringing. The book brings together disjoint aspects of these, and they’re disjoint for the sole reason that they don’t conform to how I thought things would come together.

To paraphrase the title of a book by Alexei Yurchak, everything was real until it was not any longer. The real was a fake, and the fake had been set out to be real (or at least be grounded in a fair amount of reality). It was merely a strange coincidence that I had just started a new project, taking the first photographs the weekend before the book arrived. Even as I was photographing, I tried to remind myself not to only look for what I knew that I was looking for. But even that seems too simple now.

Whatever the outcome might be(come), photography is easy, too easy. We have to make it hard, impossibly hard for ourselves to have a chance to get to where it might lead the way — so that we might better know ourselves.

It is important to realise that ultimately, photography’s deceit is our own. We deceive ourselves with the very pictures we make; and we allow ourselves to be deceived by how we approach other people’s pictures.

There regularly is talk of a photographer’s intent when their work is discussed. I’ve argued for a long time that intent is completely meaningless. Once the work is out in the world, its meaning is generated by the pictures, regardless of whether or not it aligns with the original intent. In daily life, we run into problems with intent all the time. We all know that the right intentions can easily lead to undesired results, and we also know that we cannot explain those results away by insisting on our intentions. So how or why would intentions be more useful in the world of photography?

Instead of discussing a photographer’s intent — a convenient device to put the ball in the photographer’s court, so if there’s a problem, we can chastise them while keeping our own purity (note how especially on social media, such discussions often get very toxic very quickly), we ought to be discussing our own expectations a lot more.

What do we expect from photography? What do we expect to see? What do we not want to see? What do we believe in, and how does what we believe in colour what we see in other people’s (and our own) pictures? Going further: how can we understand what photographs show as reflections of the beliefs and ideologies that fueled their making?

These are the questions we need to be asking. We need to understand photographs better.

Photography is rapidly approaching its 200th birthday. And yet we often approach photographs as if we had just encountered them for the first time, buying into their artifice — and our own deceit.

On Rape

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In 2018, Laia Abril published On Abortion, the first chapter of a series entitled A History of Misogyny. For all the right reasons, the book was widely acclaimed. In the years since, though, we have witnessed major set backs for women’s reproductive rights, most notably in the form of abortion bans in both Poland and the United States through the countries’ highest courts. Given that there are no democratic majorities for abortion bans, in both cases conservatives and neofascists had to hijack the countries’ highest courts to achieve their goal.

There is a bitter irony to the fact that two out of the five US Supreme Court judges who voted to reject the legal precedent established by Roe vs. Wade had to face very credible allegations of sexual misconduct during their confirmation hearings. One of the them, a man named Brett Kavanaugh, was nominated by a president who is widely known for his misogyny (there is an extensive Wikipedia page detailing sexual misconduct).

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat outlines in her book Strongmen, misogyny and sexual violence are integral parts of the authoritarian playbook. However, authoritarians merely form the tip of the tip of the iceberg of misogyny present in most contemporary societies. Were the world any different, Abril would hardly be able to find the material for History of Misogyny.

On Rape, the second part of the project, has now been published. “I chose this topic,” Abril writes in the introduction, “when […] this local story triggered me deeply. The group of five Spanish men self-named La Manada (The Wolf Pack) who had gang raped an 18-year-old woman in 2016, were found guilty only of a lesser offense of ‘sexual abuse’ due to ‘the lack of evidence of violence’. The defense argued that 96 seconds of video footage filmed by the perpetrators — during which she was frozen and had her eyes shut — was proof of consent.”

The background of the book is rape culture. “Rape culture,” Amanda Taub wrote in 2014, “is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.”

The preceding forms a serious concern for those covering the topic. “In order to avoid feeding the systemic victim-blaming society,” Abril concludes her introduction, “I decided to switch the visual narrative from the victims to the institutions, letting this book serve as an opportunity to address transgenerational trauma and social accountability.”

On Rape closely follows the model and visual/textual strategies set out in On Abortion, combining appropriated imagery and texts with photographs and texts produced by Abril. Apart from the more recent book being considerably larger, the main difference is the absence of portraits and stories of individuals. In On Abortion, a number of women recounted their experiences. This approach would be incredibly difficult in the case of rape, in particular in light of the widely practiced victim blaming just discussed.

As is the case in the earlier book, text plays an extensive role to dive into the many elements of what one might naively assume to be a simple topic. It’s not simple at all, especially give that the institutions in question cover a very wide range. Religion plays a role, of course, as do state institutions but also many private players. Culture itself is shown to be widely enmenshed in misogyny, as was demonstrated during what came to be known as Gamergate.

Unfortunately, some of the book’s production choices don’t necessarily work in its favour. We could have a discussion whether or not the book is too large. I personally prefer the smaller size of On Abortion. More importantly, though, often white text is used on rather glossy black pages. This poses a severe strain for the reader’s eyes. Given how challenging the material at hand is, I feel that these design/production choices are not ideal.

These misgivings aside, On Rape is an essential book. If as a society we want to entertain any hope that we’re striving towards a more just and equal future, then we need to find ways to address the many problems and outrages discussed in its pages. Furthermore, given how deeply embedded misogyny is in the authoritarian and neofascist project that poses a severe threat to democracy in many Western nations, the book has a wider political meaning beyond what some people might think of as a narrow topic.

There is one aspect of rape, or rather its consequences, that has struck me the most. It is incredibly common for victims to be re-victimized multiple times over in their attempt to get justice. For example, I just listened to a podcast episode that covers Shiori Ito and the book she wrote about her experience. In this particular case, the journalist had to re-stage her experience at the police department using a life-size doll in front of only male officers (there were also photos being taken).

“Rape culture didn’t come out of nowhere,” Amanda Taub writes, “it’s the direct continuation of centuries of patriarchal power and the institutions that developed to support it. […] Because rape culture derives some of its power from unconscious biases and hidden assumptions, simply drawing attention to it is a step towards changing it.”

I see On Rape as being geared towards exactly that: it sets out to confront these unconscious biases and hidden assumptions. The institutions that still support rape culture will have to change — or come down. This is on all of us.

On Rape; photographs and text by Laia Abril; essay by Marta Gili; 228 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2022

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About Time

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For a while now, I have been looking into photography that moves away from the single-image paradigm. Per se, there is nothing inherently wrong with showing single photographs and building up larger units from those (in the form of the usual editing and sequencing). However, the approach is also oddly limited/limiting. Why should any one thing or any one person be shown with merely a single image?

I can see a number of problems with the single-picture approach, especially since it is too tempting to pick the photographically “best” picture from the source pool (whatever your definition of “best” might be). This approach, in turn, reduces depicting the world as seen through photographic gems — essentially working with the world (if it’s lucky), but usually mostly against it. Unfortunately, the model of the artist as the the brooding, singular genius still is too prevalent for the discussion of what photography is and how it can be used to open up more.

With that in mind, it’s probably no surprise that I was pleasantly surprised to see Gail Rebhan‘s About Time, a career retrospective edited by Sally Stein. The cover shows a grid of four photographs of a dish rack in various stages of its existence — empty and filled with assortments of dishes left to dry. This, we learn in the book, is a piece entitled Gail’s and Mark’s Dishrack, January 13, 14, 15, 16, 1981, taken from the very first section of photographs in the book.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about any of the individual elements of the piece; you might even argue that that’s the case for the piece itself. Were you to do so, though, you’d basically arrive at a conclusion based on your original premise, namely that photography ought to be remarkable to warrant our attention.

It’s not necessarily that I want to argue that we ought to spend our time on the unremarkable. Instead, my point is that things can be remarkable if we pay closer attention without asking for exposure to singular photographic gems; and that is the point of most of the photographs in About Time.

As Stein makes clear in her writing that goes alongside Rebhan’s photo pieces, the photographer emerged at a time when second-wave feminism was at its heyday in the US. This sets the stage for the bulk of the work. The domestic setting here plays a major role — perhaps not surprisingly, because this is the most immediate ground where many of the issues feminism centers on play out in their first, most immediate fashion. In a heterosexual relationship, the task of taking care of the children (and, as is often the case, the male adult) almost inevitably falls to the female partner. If that partner also is a photographer, that poses a challenge for her, given she now has to juggle domestic work and her own work career.

This is a theme that I have encountered speaking with numerous photographers, some of whom had to put their career on hold when their children were so little that taking care of them took up all the hours of every day. As an aside, this is also the reason why the age limits that are still in place in many European countries for competitions and prizes are so toxic: they disadvantage women photographers even further — if you need to put your career on hold for a few years, something that many (most?) male photographers can simply avoid, how can you conform to an age limit of, say, 35? I find it infuriating that there is so little awareness of this basic problem in Europe.

Coming back to Rebhan’s work, the earliest pieces employ multiple images. They are either short sequences (for a lack of a better word), or they are the kind of collections (ditto) that show the same small detail from the photographer’s domestic life at different times of the day or on different days. There is very obvious feminist critique in many of these pieces, even if it is more obvious in some than others.

From late November 1983 until mid-July 1984, Rebhan recorded the progression of a pregnancy by taking a picture every day, the camera set up in front of a mirror and the photographer standing right next to it. There are a few blank frames where apparently, the camera malfunctioned. Given that the piece itself was designed to be the set of contact sheets, no second picture was taken. In light of the previous multi-picture work, this piece is an obvious consequence of the photographer’s thinking, and it’s most effective.

Later work shows Rebhan work with images and text. While I very interested in the ideas and themes explored in those pieces, my overall impression is that most of these pieces are too reductive. In most cases, the image elements serve as illustrations of what is expressed in the often very powerful text. As a consequence, the pieces themselves feel more flat than they might have been, had there been a different relationship between the text (which here clearly is the driving force) and the images.

I felt myself wanting to be able to read the text without the distraction of the pictures. I also felt that different pictures might have served the work better, especially if they had been given the space they could have used. Cramming everything into single panels doesn’t work for me.

We should all be so lucky to have a sympathetic and deeply insightful observer such as Sally Stein look into and write about our work. If you don’t know anything about Gail Rebhan and the world she grew up in, Stein has you covered. In much the same fashion, she unearths the ideas and themes in Rebhan’s pieces.

All of this is done in elegant writing that doesn’t attempt to bamboozle the reader with unnecessary jargon. As a consequence, About Time allows easy and pleasant access to a photographer’s world that, I think (or at least hope), will serve as inspiration for others.

About Time; photography and text by Gail Rebhan; text by Sally Stein; 144 pages; MACK; 2023

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The Presence of Something Past

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“No new photographs until the old ones have been used up,” Joachim Schmid decreed in 1989. His idea was not to be taken literally — at least that is my read. Instead, Schmid implored us to look more carefully at the photography that already surrounded us, to understand what it tells us.

As I’ve argued on this site beforee, this approach also entails looking at the photographs that should surround us, the photographs taken by all those who up until now have mostly been finding themselves at the margins of the written and discussed history of photography. Geography here plays a major role in defining the margins in the world of photography — even in Europe.

In particular, once you cross what four decades ago was the demarcation provided by the so-called Iron Curtain from the West to the East, there is a sharp drop off of visibility of artists. Artists might have worked for decades, making incredible work, but the world of photography — still dominated by Western European and US American power players — is slow to embrace the incredible richness of photography practiced in countries that formerly de facto were occupied by the Soviet Union.

In my understanding as someone who grew up in West Germany, dealing with photography made in East Germany has to be done with particular care and attention. On the one hand, of course these photographers deserve their spot in the canon just as much as those from the West. They deserve to be placed into the established history, to be evaluated using the same high standards. At the same time, given that these standards and references were largely formed before the Wall came down, they are very Western-centric.

Looking through The Presence of Something Past, a career retrospective of Ulrich Wüst, drove home this particular point to me (full disclosure: the book was produced by Kerber Verlag, the publisher of my book Vaterland). What people refer to German reunification in reality was little more than a semi-hostile takeover of East Germany by West German elites. The ramifications of that takeover are likely to continue to poison Germany’s well being for many more decades. East Germans were mostly pushed aside. I don’t think their struggles to accommodate to a completely different way of life was even remotely understood by Western Germans (I’m writing this as someone for needed a couple of decades to grasp this basic fact).

Thus on the one hand, adding Wüst’s incredible pictures to what people understand as German photography is an essential task. It not only elevates the artist to the position that he deserves. It also enriches our own understanding of both German photography and East Germany itself. On the other hand, I believe that one has to be incredibly careful to give the artist’s background full consideration and to avoid insisting too much on comparisons with the usual Western photography suspects. While such comparisons can yield photographic insight, they are of limited utility when it comes to what is actually depicted in the pictures.

In actuality, though (assuming one has the mental flexibility), there is no real conflict. If you take Wüst’s Stadtbilder (translated as Cityscapes), possibly the artist’s most well known work, comparisons with artists such as Lewis Baltz, Walker Evans, and Stephen Shore are inevitable. Wüst himself took some inspiration from these Western artists (or maybe it might be better to say: Wüst felt a kinship with them).

But one needs to be careful to note the vast differences as well. These differences cover the tools used, the artists’ professional backgrounds (Wüst trained as an architect/city planner),  specificity of subject matter, and more. These Cityscapes are New Topographics in East Germany, and yet they also are not. Papering over the differences for the sake of art-historical filing runs the risk of diminishing Wüst’s achievement.

As a West German, I don’t think I will ever have a full understanding of what it meant to live and work in East Germany. There is an interview with Ulrich Wüst at the end of the book that drove this point home to me. The artist makes it clear that the kind of black-and-white understanding that a Westerner might have can only serve as a cartoonish image of his own lived reality.

One might wonder to what extent any of this might matter, given it’s the work — the photographs — we should be paying attention to. But that’s exactly the point: if you only know Wüst’s Cityscapes, then you only know a very small fraction of his work, whose breadth is fascinating in more ways than one.

For example, Wüst also used a compact 35mm rangefinder camera (an Olympus XA) to document his daily life in East Berlin, in particular in the then run-down neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg (which since reunification has been gentrified into what only can be described as oblivion). More recently, the photographer documented the state of various East German cities and areas in reunited Germany, bringing the sensibility he established decades earlier to the much changed country he is finding himself in now.

Thankfully, the extended essay by Gary Van Zante at the beginning of the book allows access to a huge number of details about this photographer’s life work — his background, motivations, ideas, but also possible references and ways to understand the work. Even as I felt that occasionally, Van Zante embraced Wüst conforming to the medium’s (and the usual suspects’) established history a bit too much (your mileage might obviously vary), the essay manages to successfully set the stage for a viewer who might not know anything about either this artist or the country he grew up in. It’s an essential piece of writing that deserves to be read widely.

Furthermore, there are introductions for the chapters that each focus on one particular body of work. If there’s anything I have to complain about it’s that I would have loved to see even more of Wüst’s work — obviously an impossible task, given that there already is plenty. Maybe there will be more books with a focus on some of the individual projects that have not yet been published. One can only hope.

One can also hope that books such as The Presence of Something Past will now be made for other artists that grew up on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Obviously, there is a rich repository of such artists not just in East Germany but also beyond.

If there is value in photography, then it can only be what allows us to grow into better versions of ourselves. Those who have gone through that process in the context of their own life work have much to offer, in particular if their life circumstances were markedly different than ours. We need to look at what they have produced not merely to acknowledge their life work, but also to be able to grow ourselves.

I would argue that in this particular case, the need to look is particularly important for West Germans, the people who allowed their leaders to crowd out East Germans on that balcony in Berlin when they celebrated “reunification” on that night that is remembered so fondly.

Highly recommended.

The Presence of Something Past; photographs by Ulrich Wüst; text by Gary Van Zante (incl. an interview with Ulrich Wüst by Ulrike Heine and Gary Van Zante); 320 pages; Kerber Verlag; 2022

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