Thoughts on AI Images: Art, Very Convincing Nonsense, and Visual Literacy

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The world of art, of which the world of photography is a minor, rather insignificant part, prefers to hype up the latest technological advancements. Thankfully, the craze over so-called NFTs died down pretty quickly after “crypto”, a form of fake money that combines libertarian thinking with old-fashioned Ponzi scheming, imploded. Just a short time later, advancements in what is called “artificial intelligence” (AI) resulted in the release of new tools that are able to produce text that reads like real text (more on this later) and pictures that look like… well, not quite real pictures, but they seem to be getting there.

So far, the talk in the art world about AI images reminds me of when artists started exploring Second Life. There was a lot of hype, a lot of rather half-baked work. And then the fad disappeared pretty quickly. I’m thinking that AI images might stay around a little longer, but I could easily be wrong.

It’s worthwhile to point out that part of the panic that erupted over the tools bears similarities to how the world of photography treated the advent of digital cameras. I do not mean to dismiss the criticism that’s leveled at AI. But some of it seems misguided to me. Maybe I will start with the latter. There is considerable merit to discussing the problem that new tools lower costs for people buying the products and that they end up replacing human workers. (Obviously, if you’re a neoliberal capitalist, these aren’t problems but features.)

While I do have thoughts about all of that, it’s a politics problem, not a photography one. As long as we don’t pressure law makers to mitigate the effects of a rampant capitalism, we’re not going to solve problems like this. Copyright — AI images use other people’s pictures — obviously is a huge problem as well. In the US, the people who can fix this problem sit in Washington, DC.

It’s useful to keep in mind, though, that in the world of photography, we’re not entirely blameless ourselves. If rates go down all the time, if there’s a race to get everything cheaper and cheaper, then the fact that someone will be willing to work for that lower rate (or even for free) is not helping the overall cause.

In much the same fashion, to pick a completely unrelated example, if the market for photobooks isn’t growing because it’s mostly photographers buying other photographers’ books, then making more books for photographers also isn’t really a solution to the problem. Like I said, these are basically questions of politics and/or community, and we might want to treat them that way.

Coming back to photography, over its relatively short history, new technologies were created at a rapid rate, leading to new tasks arising and then made unneeded at a relatively rapid rate. As far as I can tell, in photography discussions over new technologies have always involved the kinds of discussions we’re now seeing in the context of AI. But when it comes to AI I do think that there are a few things that are interesting to talk about, in particular because they have repercussions beyond photography.

I should briefly preface the rest with what I’ve seen in terms of AI images. I’ve seen a lot of them, and so far I haven’t seen anything that has a lot of substance. I also tried an AI image tool for my own work and came to the conclusion that while occasionally, there are interesting images, AI falls way short in a larger, important sense: it’s not capable of producing something that is coherently speaking of its maker’s vision. For example, the visual narration in my book Vaterland completely evaporated when I replaced my pictures with AI ones.

But I also thought that it would only be fair enough if I elaborated on my own thinking around AI images. So that’s what I want to do in the following. After all, it’s not that theoretically, I’m not interested in AI images. But for me, they have to cross a certain bar to become art.

To begin with, creating images in a computer is not new. After all, there is computer-generated imagery (CGI). This article explains why furniture maker IKEA uses CGI for their catalogues. When you use CGI, you will have to start from scratch or from what you have already set up.

AI image tools offer something completely different, in that they assemble new images from a database of already existing ones. If you use CGI and you want a photograph of a chair, you will have to tell the computer exactly what the chair is supposed to look like, how it’s lit etc. With AI, you can tell it “show me a photo of a chair” and it will produce one:

This is one of the images produced by Stable Diffusion when I prompted it with “Show me a picture of a chair” (I used the free demo version). It looks like a chair, but it’s also wonky. Somehow, the geometry isn’t quite right and neither are various constituent parts. The articles I’ve read so far about AI photographs typically run along the lines of being amazed how realistic they look (which is debatable, but such nuance is typically omitted) and how advances in technology will make the pictures look even better (which might or might not be true; we’ll see).

It’s interesting and disturbing to notice how similar a lot of these articles are to the generally uncritical and hype-prone articles you can find in the world of tech.

Regardless, the picture of the chair was produced by assembling it from existing pictures. Conceptually, that’s interesting, because for me, the first big thing I think about is the following (which is probably based on my background as a theoretical physicist). Let’s use an example. If you buy a bunch of Lego bricks, you can create all kinds of things — as long as you follow what the bricks will allow you to do. In other words, you will be restricted by the options presented by them.

It is as if an artist, let’s say Ai Weiwei, decided to make something from Lego bricks. Whatever he’d decide to do, he’s be limited by what the bricks allowed him to do. In fact, Ai Weiwei indeed just used Lego bricks to recreate (if that’s the word) a painting by Claude Monet. “By recreating this famous scene,” we are being told, “Ai Weiwei challenges our ideas of reality and beauty.” (does he, though?)

I think a good way to look at Water Lilies #1 would be to view it either in the context of art in general (which might yield too low a bar, but your mileage might vary) or in the context of this artist’s own back catalogue. Taking the latter approach, does this piece of art strike you as being in the same league as his earlier work?

By the way, that’s a Claude Monet painting made from Lego according to Dall.E 2.

The point I’m after has something to do with originality, but it’s not quite that. I personally find originality completely overrated. There are a few photographs that I admire and that were genuinely original when they were made. However, the bulk of the photographs I appreciate were completely unoriginal when they were first made, and that didn’t matter one bit. For example, people have taken millions of pictures of landscapes before, and there still are very good landscape pictures being made. The same is true for family photography or any other genre of photography.

But using the term “originality” is too misleading anyway, because mostly, great art is not necessarily appreciated for that (or that alone). To get back to what I’m thinking about: can AI create very good art out of the constituent parts of existing art in a way that moves beyond those parts?

Could AI create a Beethoven symphony out of the parts of Bach concertos? You might think that, well, yes, Beethoven and Bach used the same types of scales and some of the same instruments. But that’s not necessarily how you go from Bach to Beethoven, and it’s not how you’d get to Schoenberg (to throw in a more contemporary composer).

If you think about this on a visual level, you could ask the same question in a different context. If you look at the history of photography, could you create later photography from pieces of earlier one?

This question can get very interesting when a first, basic answer would be: yes. Take collage. For example, László Moholy-Nagy’s or Hannah Höch’s collages are made from existing photographic material in the most literal sense. But could AI really do the same job? Could an algorithm replicate the creative genius of a Moholy-Nagy or a Höch?

My current sense is that that is unlikely. But that’s the only interesting question around AI photography for me. Everything else is merely craft. There’s nothing wrong with craft, but I’m interested in art.

You might argue that AI is merely being used by someone, so it’s not the AI that makes the pictures (this is debatable, but let’s buy into this), it’s the operator. However, the problem does not disappear. It shifts: assuming that the operator possesses enough creative genius, will they be able to make AI do things on their terms — instead of getting images based on the algorithms?

It’s a bit like looking at Facebook pages. They all look the same because people can only fill pre-arranged templates. You can only work with the options provided to you. In principle, this is not a new problem for photographers: you always can only do what your tools allow you to. But with AI, you now have a new parameter: everything you can do has to be based on something that already exists (older images).

When evaluating AI photographs in an art-historical or critical sense, you have to be careful, though. Let’s use an imaginary example. It would be pretty straightforward to imagine AI being used to create the equivalent of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. If that body of work didn’t exist and if Cindy Sherman decided she wanted to create such a body of work today, she’d have to feed her own portrait into the AI system, to then produce those film stills.

However, the question is whether this would be interesting. After all, the original Untitled Film Stills existed in a specific context, the so-called Pictures Generation. They thus acquired their initial meaning in an artistic climate in which artists looked into the role and value of pictures and into how existing pictures shape our world and expectations. If you imagine an AI generation of film stills in that context (admittedly an absurd idea, given that back then AI didn’t exist), then it’s easy to see how Sherman’s AI Untitled Film Stills would have done the same job as the actual ones.

However, if you imagine Cindy Sherman producing the pictures today, far removed from the Pictures Generation and with us being now in the world of fake news etc., the idea would probably fall pretty flat. The conversation about photographs has moved far from the concerns of the Picture Generation.

If you look at the untitled film still I had Stable Diffusion produce, you can see how the AI can’t get hands right. That’s a problem, albeit not in the art-historical or critical sense I’m interested in here. In fact, you could argue that the weird hand is the only interesting element of the picture. However, it’s hard to see how this AI shortcoming translates into a form of artistic merit, especially if we demand that such merit has to be at least somewhat related to a maker’s intent.

Consequently, in an artistic context, AI photographs need to at least aspire to have artistic merit. By that I mean that their makers have to attempt to contribute to the current artistic discourse. So far, I don’t see that happening (nope). Trying to make funny pictures or trying to prove that you can get realistic looking pictures with AI — that’s too low a bar.

There is a second, very interesting and very important aspect to AI photography. In a loose sense, it centers around the intersection of veracity and believability. Something might not have to be truthful to still be believable. For example, little children believe in Santa Claus. This is the general area where the generation of material, whether visual or textual, ultimately can — and very likely will — become political.

A little while ago, I tested ChatGPT to see whether I could make it write nonsense. To be more precise, I wondered whether the AI would correct factual mistakes I included in my questions. It did not. In all fairness to ChatGPT, I just got access to Google’s Bard, and it happily served me nonsense in the same fashion. Instead, both produced what I called Very Convincing Nonsense.

Very convincing nonsense is a piece of information that looks or reads as truthful and that is convincing in form, but that is actually not accurate. This type of nonsense is great for comedy. But it’s not funny otherwise, especially not if it ends up being used by Vladimir Putin’s troll farms or any of its Western equivalents (which are largely driven to undermine our democracies).

Here, you have an actual example that was disseminated by the person it is supposed to depict, Donald Trump (I found this on the same day that I started writing this article). If you look carefully at the image, you can see at least two of the standard problems of current AI image generators. The hands aren’t right. Furthermore, kneeling with your right knee behind your left heel is very, very difficult. (I literally tried this. In general, I have very good balance. But I found it almost impossible to balance the way shown in the image.)

Essentially, you have to be able to recognize the nonsense if it is embedded in something that looks or reads as convincing. If you’re unable to detect it, then… well, you’ll just take what you see at face value. In fact, while I was working on this piece, an AI picture of the pope in some stylish white winter coat fooled a lot of people. When I saw it, I didn’t believe for a second that it was real. Apparently, a lot of people did.

On the other hand, most of the people for whom the Trump image was made probably don’t believe any more in what it shows than citizens of the Soviet Unions believed socialist-realist art. It’s hard to imagine that any of those hard-right Christians believe that Trump is religious. But in the image there’s a code that is transmitted. And that code matters, because the image serves to deliver it — instead of what it depicts in a literal fashion.

Here is a recent example of an Instagram post by a member of Germany’s neofascist AfD party (it would seem that after some discussion of the imagery, the guy pulled the image). Norbert Kleinwaechter (whose last name ironically translates into “Little Guard” in English) is vice chairman of the party’s faction in Germany’s Bundestag (the federal parliament). The text reads “No to even more refugees”. There’s nothing subtle about the image, but obviously that’s par for the course for a party that has a history of producing racism. Note that the fictional person at the leftmost edge of the frame has five fingers.

If you’re not part of the target group, it’s important to be able to read the codes. They might be blatant as in the case of the AfD image, but they can also be more subtle. The visual code often connects to an invisible code that delivers the actual message. Just like in the case of the extremely well balanced Trump, photographic veracity isn’t the actual point.

In my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I talk about codes in a different context. It’s easy to make fun of images like Trump’s or the photographs discussed in my book. But if your response ends there, you’re not performing the crucial and more important second step: understanding the codes that are being exchanged. You’re short-circuiting your critical facilities.

A good and very instructive example of detecting very convincing nonsense in AI image was recently discussed by Hiroko Yoda. Someone had AI generate a picture of a Japanese woman in a kimono (if you look at Yoda’s Twitter thread, you’ll see that the original post she referred to has now been deleted). “I’m certified as a kimono consultant in Japan,” Yoda writes, “and this triggered me in all sorts of ways.

To begin with, Yoda notes, there are some obvious craft issues. The AI showed a kimono that for a number of reasons couldn’t really be made, whether in terms of the materials or in the way it was folded. But there also is a very important cultural issue tied to it: “the biggest issue is super critical. Look closely at her white undergarment visible at collar. It’s folded right over left — used only for the dead. This is super creepy. So you have a white-faced woman wrapped in fabric scrap with odd hair accessories & funeral undergarments; if I ran into her in Kyoto’s Gion at night I would probably freak out!

I’ll be honest and admit that I would have not been able to notice any of the problems because I’m not familiar with the details of kimonos. (I can see how the chair I had AI create doesn’t make sense, though.) But I think you can easily see how what Yoda describes is very important: nobody in their right mind would wear a kimono this way in Japan. Obviously, the AI has no idea there is a problem because otherwise, we must assume, it would not have created the image this way.

What we’re left with is a visual example of very convincing nonsense: an image that does not make sense. But you would only know if, in this case, you were a kimono consultant (or, at the very least, someone who knows as much about the garment). And that is exactly the larger problem with AI images that we’re about to run into more and more. The problem is not only that images get produced to show something that didn’t happen or doesn’t exist (even though that’s bad enough).

The larger problem, at least in my view, is produced by images that convey nonsensical information even if they were supposed to be truthful and accurate, images that are so convincing that we take them at face value. I suppose you could view this problem as the equivalent of glitch artifacts. But in AI images, apart from wonky hands or other optical problems the more dangerous glitch artifacts are only visible if you have enough background knowledge to detect them.

One of the solutions we have for this problem is a vastly increased awareness of the importance of visual literacy. Specifically, by visual literacy I mean knowledge of the way of looking into how images convey their meaning. We will have to become a lot more aware of how we consume images. This would involve teaching visual literacy in schools and universities (outside of art departments or classes).

We will probably also get used to the fact that we often have to research images online. If we see an image we might have to look around and see where else it shows up, to infer something about its truth value. My guess is that verification tools will become available. It’s easy to imagine an arms race between AI image-creation and verification tools.

Whatever the outcome, now is the time to start becoming more critical of AI tools. Now is the time to start thinking about how to deal with them. AI image click bait is fun — but it’s just possible that at least some of the time is better spent on learning more about how to critically look at images.

Another world

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There’s something fascinating about how similar Japan and Germany are. In the late 19th century, both countries emerged out of a suspended state to try to catch up with the countries they perceived as their peers. This process involved trying to reconcile modernity with their own cherished and in part deeply flawed national and cultural identities. In the end, both countries failed miserably, inflicting enormous pain on their neighbours through wars and genocide.

Completely crushed in World War 2, both countries were given another chance (an unearned gift), only to emerge as economic power houses that, alas, have never quite figured out what it means to be a normal sovereign country. Starting in the 1980s, their paths started to diverge. Germany embraced neoliberal capitalism to the fullest, transforming itself into the mini-US it is now. Japan instead went through an extreme really-good-boom-and-really-bad-bust cycle, after which its ruling class doubled down on investing money to fuel the economy even as the country’s birth rate imploded.

But there remains a deeply fascinating similarity between the two countries. Deeply insecure about their own national merit, both are engaged in a fight between outside cultural values and their own, native ones. The latter contain so much fiction that it’s hard to see real differences between Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess, and a Disney character, or Richard Wagner’s Ring opera cycle and any one of the various Marvel franchises produced in Hollywood (except that the music is a lot more tedious and the acting is a lot worse in the operas). But to Japanese and German people, the differences feel very important.

Much like in any other country, the fight over Japanese or German national identities involves symbols (or signs if you’re into semiotics). For me, as someone who grew up in West Germany, I can see this struggle much more clearly in Japan than in Germany. In a rather basic sense, many elements of Japan’s visual culture make me look at least twice because they and their context are unfamiliar to me.

The huge pitfall for a Westerner of course is to immediately fall into the traps of orientalism and/or othering. If you look at things in a realistic fashion, though, a country like Japan that seems “strange” to a Westerner in fact is a lot less strange than many Western countries. As an aside, I just listened to a podcast in which two linguists, both fluent in Japanese and with years of experience living there, discuss “weird” experiences they had in Japan. At some stage, one of them says that it’s actually a lot more likely to meet a weird person in the US than in Japan.

As someone not from Japan, you don’t want to make any assumptions about what you encounter. You want to try to take things at face value. In fact, you wan to do that in any foreign country. If you do that, you will be able to see beyond what a tourist might see. Furthermore, you will start picking up on that struggle over national identity and symbols. It is that struggle that plays out in Kenta Nakamura‘s exuberant and brilliant Ginga ni umeru (Release into the Galaxy).

The book combines staged/set up photographs (mostly portraits) with snapshots in a wild mix that might ruffle some feathers both in Japan and in the West, albeit probably often for different reasons. The opening sequence alone makes it clear what will be unfolding in the book’s pages. The first spread pairs a photograph of a elderly woman dressed in a Cinderella costume enjoying some food with a photograph of a young child whose mostly blue possessions have been arranged around him.

The second spread shows two women who both wear one of those red-blue glasses used for 3D movies or pictures (see picture above; these glasses recur throughout the book). On the left, a young mother is holding her child. On the right, the woman is wearing a very formal looking white kimono while sitting on a couch (as far as I know, it’s a bridal garment).

The third spread has a brightly lit photograph of a cow’s udder against a pair of metal poles in water at what looks like sunset. This then is followed by a photograph of a dried and flattened squid against a portrait of an older Japanese man wearing a double-breasted suit.

Obviously, you would have to see the book to understand how it works. But maybe you can sense from the descriptions above that some of its meaning is created from using the contrasts between two opposing photographs, often done in a way that’s very much on the nose. In fact, a lot of the pictures are in the on-the-nose category with their bright colours, lit by flash. A lot of what you see has been visually exaggerated. But it works because many of the people posing do so in the most deadpan fashion, implying that what you perceive as weird — that’s you, the viewer, putting it on them.

There are a number of photographs from a funeral in the book, including what looks like a selfie of the photographer with the same dead relative who is later seen in her casket (following Japanese tradition, there are flowers arranged around her). The selfie itself comes with a huge emoji over the deceased person’s face (remember, the word emoji is Japanese). This might not be the most tasteful picture (then again, Masahisa Fukase took a funeral selfie, too). Yet in the context of the book, it doesn’t stick out too much. Nakamura treats everything as being worthy of satire, to poke holes into conventions, traditions, new ways of living, and the importance people place on themselves.

Even as the edit of the book is slightly uneven — there are some pictures that don’t contribute much to it, Ginga ni umeru is the most surprising and fun photobook I’ve seen in a while. The world of photography is so serious about so much. When it’s not serious it’s often too obvious and punching down (usually employing classism to do so). In contrast, this particular book does all the right things. It doesn’t distinguish between high and low culture or traditional and pop culture.

As a viewer one can’t help but connect with many of those who happen to find themselves in front of Kenta Nakamura’s camera. I don’t know why that older woman is wearing a Cinderella costume. I don’t know why the woman on the cover (who is seen again later) owns a pet turtle (that might or might not be alive). But it seems like everything is trying to make do in a society that’s filled with a a strange mix of customs.

If you manage to pull yourself back from the society you’re embedded in, you might find some of the same strangeness in the customs of your own culture. That is, I think, what you will want to keep in mind after you’ve looked at this book. You will have to avoid the easy conclusion that “Japan is a weird country”. It is not. It might look weird (and Nakamura dials this up 11) because as outsiders, we’re not familiar with what a Japanese person would take for granted. But in some fashion, every country looks weird to outsiders. You simply can’t focus on the weirdness — because it’s mostly your projection.

Seen that way, once you’ve enjoyed Ginga ni umeru you might want to start looking into how all of the same contradictions play out wherever you might be located.

Highly recommended.

Ginga ni umeru; photographs by Kenta Nakamura; 136 pages; GAP4 Publishing; 2022

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This Almost Empty Road

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I can’t say that I’m an expert in the area that Timothy Snyder described in his book Bloodlands. What I know I know from the book. If you look through the Wikipedia page, towards the bottom, the reception of the book is discussed. Some of Snyder’s points were highly contested, and part of the protest appeared to have included accusations of bias towards some of the states that occupy the region.

The latter would in part be only logical, at least as far as I understand it, given that what we see as clear-cut borders on our contemporary maps do in fact not neatly separate people quite as clearly as we might be tempted to think. Before the borders in Central and Eastern Europe were re-drawn, many of the countries in the area had sizeable minorities, with often rich local cultures that often intermingled.

Even as after World War 2 large numbers of people were literally made to move, a process that was violent and that destroyed the livelihoods of many, many people, physically moving people will not eradicate cultures, connections, and conflicts that had been established over the course of centuries. It will also not eradicate memories of oppression and mass murder at the hands of those who committed them, Germany and Russia.

As far as I understand it, there is a strong sense of solidarity between the countries that now occupy the area Snyder covered in his book. At the time of this writing, this solidarity manifests itself very strongly in the support Ukraine receives from countries such as Poland or the Baltic Republics. I don’t think in the West, people understand the reasons for that support. Even the word solidarity seems not strong enough. There is a shared history that includes culture just as much as being violently oppressed.

As far as I can tell, the above forms the basis for Monika Orpik‘s Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. I’m not trying to be coy here with my use of “as far as I can tell”. It’s very much possible that, say, Polish viewers and readers will find much easier access to the book than I did (I would have to ask people). And the book does include a number of clues what it tries to center on. But they are very difficult to find for someone who is not familiar with the location.

Let’s back up a bit. In a nutshell, the book contains a large number of photographs in a very bucolic setting. There are hints here and there that the location is somewhere in Eastern Europe: there are the occasional post-Soviet markers such as interiors of buildings, Christian-Orthodox crosses (that possibly are more widely known beyond the area now, given that so many of them are in the news from grave sites in Ukraine), or a group of priests.

I quite enjoy the overall mood that is established by these photographs. I get a feeling of a hinterland, a place that somehow has been left behind a bit. It’s not a neoliberal look at it, pointing a finger at what’s lacking, though. It’s simply observant of the land and its natural beauty.

There are three large blocks of text in English and a language that uses a Cyrillic alphabet (it’s not Russian, given that there are a few characters used that don’t exist in Russian). You’ll have to read both texts to figure out that the country in question is Belarus. The text conveys the voices of people from there talking about their experiences with the violent dictatorship in their home country. There also are four grids of similar images plus a short sequence of dark photographs of a pair of hands. What these are intended to communicate I don’t understand.

I think that one of the biggest challenges for any photographer when making a book is to realize that their audience often does not know everything you want to tell them, yet. The photobook is this curious thing where you have to slowly build up what you’re trying to get at; someone who only knows the pictures — and nothing else — will have to be able to figure it out. The inclusion of text does not change this challenge radically (unless you use text that explains what you’re after, in which case the whole thing becomes something entirely different).

Looking through Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road and thinking about what I started this article with had me think that I might simply not be a member of the book’s target audience. Maybe its target audience is exclusively located in Eastern Central Europe. My sense is that the book’s makers took a lot of information for granted, information that I simply have no access to.

And the book does make it very hard to figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s trying to be mysterious on purpose (I wouldn’t know, and in any case, it would be unfair to make this claim). But I will say that a Western audience, in fact any audience really that’s not familiar with the region and its culture and politics, will find it difficult to access the book and to find the intended meaning beyond the landscapes.

For example, outsiders are unlikely to know what OMON is (it’s the vicious riot police you see in Belarus and Russia). If you use a specific term like this in a book (you find it in the first text), you want to include a note for an audience not familiar with it. I know that this seems like a small detail, but it’s one out of many in the book.

In general, in your photobook, you want to avoid two extremes: giving too much information and giving too little. If you give too much information, access to the book will be sharply reduced to something prefabricated. If you give too little information, people are simply not going to understand what you’re trying to get at.

In the latter case, the general sentiment that I often hear about this falls along the lines of “I want this to be mysterious”. Being mysterious is good — if a sense of mystery is the overall idea. But an audience will still have to understand that. This might be the hardest aspect of photobook making.

That said, obviously not every book needs to be made for an audience outside of the region where it was photographed. I suspect that the book will resonate with people in the area. At the same time, especially in light of many Westerners being indifferent about Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine (just one of the many aspects of the region that’s not understood well — if at all), it’s exactly Western audiences that would benefit most from learning more about the region.

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road; photographs and transcribed interviews by Monika Orpik; 124 pages; Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT); 2022

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1912 – 1949 – 1978

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“I picked out these portraits from an archive of approximately 600,000 photographs,” Cai Dongdong writes in the short introduction to Left, Right. “The portraits on the right-hand page of the book were taken during the Republic of China government from 1912 to 1949; those on the left-hand page were taken after the founding of the People’s Republic of China until China’s reform and opening up, from 1949 to 1978.”

The photographs all show women, whether alone or in groups. The pairings were done based on ages, clothes, gestures, and poses (the amount of work going into whittling down 600,000 photographs into these pairings is hardly imaginable). The result is fascinating and bewildering in a number of ways.

To begin with, if there were differences in available photographic materials, they are not apparent (at least to this pair of untrained eyes). There is, in other words, no stark contrast between the two photographs, where the more recent one would look considerably more modern (such as if, for example, you paired a tintype portrait with a silver-gelatin print). While this fact might (or might not) be of interest for photography historians, for a non-specialist viewer the artifice of photography itself does not force itself in between the two pictures.

In any pair of photographs, the viewer will inevitably create connections between them, regardless of how cognizant they are of the fact that they’re doing it. When two photographs look very similar, the this-looks-like-that game will be played. Much like in one of those old-fashioned visual games you used to find in old cross-word-puzzle magazines where two images were presented, with a given number of differences to be identified, the closer two photographs look, the more even small differences become apparent.

However, when looking at portraits, this game changes, given that when we look at a picture of a person, we think that we look at the person her or himself. There always is that jump to the human face and to imagining something about the person. Two more or less random strangers (or groups of strangers) that look very similar set off any number of thoughts in a viewer’s head. That’s the game being played in Left, Right.

Of course, there is the added complication (if we want to use that word) that the two time periods in question refer to two starkly different political regimes in China. There also is the added fact that up until World War 2, colonial powers and occupiers played huge and typically very malignant roles in the country, whether it was European powers or, later, Japan with its gruesome colonial puppet state (and associated mass atrocities).

None of that is apparent in the pictures, though. Or maybe almost none. If you look carefully, you can detect a few “Mao uniforms”. But the photographs were matched to be visually similar, so the corresponding dress from the earlier period is very similar. This is a nifty device that cuts out easy and shallow interpretations of the historical periods based on the pictures at hand (if you prefer such comparisons, you will have to look at different historical material).

Instead, things always boil down to the individual herself. It’s very easy to forget this, but ordinary people have almost always led mostly ordinary lives in any period of history of any given country. There might have been the occasional very drastic period where that was not the case. For the most past, these tend to be very short lived, though, providing exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, even in such periods, history still tends to get written on a large scale, a scale that glosses over the individual.

Left, Right focuses on the individual. It focuses on the fact that once you eliminate surface layers — types of clothing, say, you get to realize that across different historical periods, people have mostly lived very similar lives, focusing on their loved ones and trying to assert themselves in the tiny societal bubbles they lived in. This possibly is our only chance to learn something from history, which, after all, is unfolding right in front of our own eyes: we have to realize that it’s individuals, human beings like us, who make history.

Anyone interested in book making might want to pick up a copy as well. The book uses traditional Asian binding, and its pages are very thin sheets of paper that are folded onto themselves. Given that the book centers on China, this is an obvious, yet very good choice. I’m personally a fan of books made this way: I enjoy how they feel even more like an object than regular books. This particular example is incredibly well made, down to the creation of information on the spine and the added back and front covers.


Left, Right; archival photographs edited by Cai Dongdong; 144 pages; La Maison de Z; 2022

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