A Certain Idea of a Natural History

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In the Western tradition, human beings first placed themselves outside of the realm of the natural world, equating themselves with lesser versions of the gods they believed in, to then proceed to study what they were surrounded with. If everything had remained at the level of studying, things would not have evolved the way they did: the studying went alongside a process of exploitation and extraction.

In fact, these processes were (and still are) so intertwined that it is not clear why they could be discussed separately. Much like technological progress has been tied to military research, exploitation and exploration are two sides of the same coin. In equal measure, the separation between what we could call hard and soft sciences does not hold either. It was the latter, filled with philosophers, “humanists”, and ideologues, that provided the justification for the exploits of the former. The idea of the enlightenment only sounds good if you keep it strictly separate from its actual consequences. Enlightened Westerners colonized vast parts of the world.

We might note that photography has played a huge part in all of this. Once it became available, it was used in service of all of the above. Seemingly only a tool to gather information, it is exactly that gathering that made the exploitation and extraction possible. Almost by construction, photography’s uncanny ability to turn everything and everyone into a visual specimen resulted in vast parts of the world being treated accordingly.

At the same time, there is something to photography that has it attract those whose main impetus is to collect (or hoard). For example, with all of the above in mind the late Bernd and Hilla Becher’s much lauded typologies — collections of photographs of industrial structures, most of which have since disappeared — could be seen as an expression of the Western mindset now ravishing its own corpse.

On the one hand, you can view the grids of water towers or gas tanks as artistic expressions that celebrate a part of human development that has now disappeared. On the other hand, I find it not hard to be struck by the pointlessness of it all: what exactly do we gain from looking how this water tower looks every so slightly different than that water tower as the consequences of centuries of exploiting the natural world are crashing down on us in the form of — and this is the new term — global boiling?

In much the same fashion, I have always been more repulsed than fascinated by the fact that natural-history museums tend to contain stuffed animals or, even worse, animals suspended in fluids in large collections of jars or other receptacles. As a child already, I found so-called dioramas — little constructed stages that contain stuffed animals in a simulation of their natural habitats — ghoulish. I could never understand why you couldn’t just leave those animals where they belonged — instead of first killing and then preserving them so that they could “inhabit” a museum.

Many years later, I struggled to understand photographers’ fascination with such dioramas. On the one hand, they make for handy pictures — someone essentially stages a picture for you; on the other hand, what exactly do you bring to the scene as a photographer? Showing the constructedness and artifice is good, but it’s also very reductive. I don’t think anyone would look at such pictures and suddenly reach a form of satori about natural-history museums (“Oh now I get it! It’s all fake! That never occurred to me!”).

Of all the books I have seen that focus on the above, João Paulo Serafim‘s A Certain Idea of a Natural History goes furthest in terms of trying to bring the various threads together. While it contains a number of photographs from natural-history museums, there are just enough hints of some of the darker aspects of the Western tradition of trying to understand in tandem with exploiting the world (I should add that these come across in the book but not so much in the web page). But I’m also thinking that the work probably could have gone even further in that quest.

In addition, I can’t help but feel that contemporary photography’s currently dominant instinct to produce a certain type of clever stylishness almost by construction keeps things at arm’s length (maybe the most extreme example of what I’m talking about is the work coming out of ECAL). Of course, acquiring such skills is good for photographers who want to move on to produce advertising photography.

But now such advertising photography seeps more and more into photographic institutions. Many young curators love it because it allows them to show work that is critical of certain broadly defined themes without offending the wealthy patrons and corporations that fund the institutions they work at.

Seen this way, this type of photography wouldn’t be neoliberal realism. Instead of propagating neoliberal capitalism, it merely engages in faint token criticism that demonstrates how, you see, libertarians are open to facing the issues (albeit in the most homeopathic fashion). (There probably is a good book to be written about this. If you’re interested in that, you know where/how you can find me.)

Coming back to A Certain Idea of a Natural History, the book might provide a good jump-off point for an artist (or maybe Serafim himself) to bring out the gruesome consequences of Western exploration/exploitation more. There is a picture of Brazil (a former Portuguese colony) with an arrow pointing towards Europe. There also is a stylish studio still life of the ornament that you can find at the front of Jaguar cars. But that picture is then immediately diluted by its placement next to another studio still life.

As an object, A Certain Idea of a Natural History is a very well made production by Hélice Press, a Portuguese publisher I had not heard of until the book arrived in the mail. In particular, I enjoy the attention to detail as far as layout and design are concerned. This works very well. Furthermore, I found the book listed for 25 Euros at an online book shop. I certainly appreciate the combination of a well made photobook that also is very much affordable.

A Certain Idea of a Natural History; photography by João Paulo Serafim; essay by António Guerreiro; 64 pages; Hélice Press, 2022

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We Stay

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When the German writer Walter Kempowski‘s first massive collection of war-time writing entitled Echolot (Sonar) was published, I couldn’t wait to read it. It centered on a few months around the battle for Stalingrad and the collapse of Nazi Germany’s 6th Army. Finally, I thought, I would be able to understand what Germans had been thinking during the Nazi era. I remember how bewildered I was reading these letters, diary entries, and other records that had been written by a collection of mostly ordinary people. Almost none of these people had anything other than the daily minutiae of their lives in mind, a large collection of what I thought were petty, irrelevant things.

It took me a while to understand that the experience of war cannot be fully communicated. Aspects of it can. But even those register differently for those who actually experienced them and those who merely read about or view them. And I’ve learned that there actually are quite a few seemingly irrelevant details that in actuality can define the difference between life and death. Take for example the patterns of tape that Ukrainians place on their windows that even when the glass shatters from an explosion will prevent it from becoming a set of dangerous projectiles.

It is one thing to make such observations from afar. It’s very much another to live in a country that is under attack. Following its playbook from Syria (where the West stayed quiet about the atrocious war crimes committed), russia has been bombing Ukraine in an indiscriminate fashion, targeting hospitals, air-raid shelters, cultural institutions, religious buildings (this past weekend, Odesa’s Transfiguration Cathedral was attacked with a missile), restaurants, and of course apartment buildings. Occupying russian forces have tortured and murdered civilians willy nilly (this article is worth your time). Furthermore, thousands of Ukrainian children have been kidnapped to russia.

At the very beginning of the war, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a short selfie video that showed him and a few members of his cabinet standing in Kyiv at night. “We are all here,” he said, dispelling notions that he would leave the country for a safer location. In the days that followed, millions of Ukrainians did leave their country, seeking refuge all over Europe. Many of them are still stranded abroad. But for many others, the option to leave did not exist; or they decided not to exercise it. Men, of course, were not allowed to leave.

Those who stayed behind have to live life under war conditions, which entails a number of challenges too difficult to imagine for those who have never experienced them. I personally grew up hearing air-raid sirens regularly; but this was every Sunday at noon when they were tested. I never got used to the sound, but I also knew that there were no actual consequences. There would be no explosions. What might it be like to have the real experience instead? I don’t know. I’m unable to imagine.

With We Stay by Lesha Berezovskiy, there now is what I think is the first photobook chronicling the earliest days of war from the perspective of people living in the war zone (if there are other books I am not aware of them). The book shows the photographer, his wife Agata, and a number of friends (plus some strangers) living their lives during the first 13 months of the war. Some of the locations known to those following the war from abroad make an appearance, such as the liberated suburbs of Kyiv and the bridges the Ukrainian army had blown up to protect the country’s capital.

But mostly, the book delivers the experience I first encountered with Kempowski’s book. If as a viewer, you’re only familiar with the news imagery coming from Ukraine, the book might confuse you at first. This is a good confusion, though. After all, photographs are not the best tools to communicate feelings and thoughts. We Stay solves this problem by adding short snippets of text to some of the photographs in the back. These read like diary entries, but they could have also been written after the fact. Either way, they strongly communicate the inner world of the photographer and his friends.

I should note that the text is available in English and in German. There’s a translator listed in the back, but it’s not clear which text actually is the translation (maybe the original was written in Ukrainian and not included?). I’m bringing this up because for some of the snippets, there is a noticeable difference between the English and German text, with the German text including parts that are not present in the English version.

The inclusion of the many portraits and of the text is crucial for the book. This in fact has been one of my recent misgivings about so much of contemporary photography. There’s nothing wrong with a collection of pictures without people. But if you want to communicate a human experience, unpeopled pictures can only do so much.

Furthermore, the book also deftly sets photographs taken outside against Tilmannsian interiors. As already noted, some of the former depict scenes that in the early days of the war made it into the news. These pictures become re-charged through their placement in the vicinity of found still lifes from the comfort of the photographer’s home.

The combined effect points to one of the main reasons why the photobook is such a powerful vehicle for visual communication. The sum of its photographs can become vastly more than the collection of its individual members simply because the pictures manage to create an added charge in each other.

Taken together, We Stay is a book that deserves to be seen widely, in particular in those parts of Europe that still live under the illusion that things on the continent will go back to normal or that enjoy the comfort of their own safety without wanting to do too much for Ukraine (it’s a Swiss publisher…).


(Please note that this article follows the convention used in the book for the spelling of the aggressor country.)

We Stay; photographs and text by Lesha Berezovskiy; 136 pages; Sturm & Drang; 2023

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Україна Yelena Yemchuk

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If you wanted to, you could divide the world into two parts. One part would contain all those people who are able to control the narrative that surrounds them and who for that reason are in charge of their own destiny. The other part contains all the rest of the people whose story is largely defined by those other people. From what I can tell a much larger fraction of the world is part of the second group. Despite (or rather because of) their enormous privilege, the first group resists changing this situation.

This basic situation plays out on a number of levels, ranging from what on a societal level is microscopic to what’s macroscopic. And it extends far beyond that as well. On the largest possible scale, entire countries are placed into one of these two categories. This fact can have gruesome consequences, as the inhabitants of countries who were or are defined by others know all too well. Colonialism would have been unthinkable without a racist definition being created around regions that were then plundered and pillaged by nations who carried the banner of their own supposed enlightenment.

The war in Ukraine entails not only a literal fight over land. A fight over the definition of what the country actually is forms an essential part of the war. Russia’s fascist dictator claims that there is no such thing as the Ukrainian nation, which somehow translates into a right for Russians to commit mass atrocities. Ukrainians, in contrast, are now struggling to not only survive but also to show the world that there actually is such a thing as a Ukrainian nation with its own very rich culture and history.

But the problem extends far beyond the two countries. More than three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Western European countries still have absolutely no understanding of the richness of culture and history between what used to be the Iron Curtain and the border of the country that replaced the Soviet Union as a major power, Russia. It’s probably more than fair to say that in the US such knowledge is even more limited.

For example, German news media still parrot Russian propaganda about Ukraine without even batting an eye. I don’t know whether they’re just clueless or they don’t care (I also don’t know whether the difference matters). And it’s not even Ukraine, whether it’s Poland, Hungary, Latvia or any of the other countries that lie between Germany and Russia — most Germans don’t care to learn more. This obviously isn’t only a German problem. But since I’m German, I prefer to get upset with my own people.

Even as art and culture have been assigned little to no value in our neoliberal world, you can still see their power by the frequent Russian attacks directed at Ukrainian art and culture. Even the most uncultured fascists know that a display of military power and might only translates into a very brittle narrative around a nation, one that topples with very little effort.

Especially if you are an artist (or writer [such as this one]) struggling to make ends meet, you want to remind yourself that there is a value to art that transcends prices realized at auction houses by a huge amount. You won’t be able to pay your bills with it, but you contribute to a larger good that cannot be assessed in financial terms.

Art can play an enormous role in building a narrative around a group of people or a country that corrects one imposed by other groups. In part, this is because good art does not make any claims regarding telling the full story. Instead, you tell your story. This leaves space for uncertainty and for discussions. That’s why such narratives are much longer lasting than those imposed by sheer power. The latter will crumble when challenged just enough. The former allow for openness and for adaptation; they are, in effect, human: full of truths and contradictions at the same time.

You will want to see УYY by Yelena Yemchuk in this context. The book was compiled from a number of previously separate projects by the artist, which include photography and painting. I think it is the intermixing of previously unrelated material that makes the book stand out. Of course, the work was related before in the sense that it was made by the same artist. But typically, separate projects are not intermingled the way it was done in and for this book.

The overall spirit of the book is one of playfulness, albeit an adult’s. Unlike children, adults know of the horrors of the world, and they can incorporate it into their playing, creating unsettling aspects.

I have no way of knowing how I would perceive the book if the war was not going on right now. On the one hand, the war adds a terrible sense of heaviness. I’m imaging the people in the pictures sitting in air-raid shelters, some might serve in the military, yet others might have found temporary homes abroad. I’d rather not imagine that some of them might have been died, say in an apartment building targeted by the war criminals in the Kremlin.

On the other hand, it’s exactly the war that amplifies the book’s overall feeling, namely that there is a rich culture, a culture beyond our simplistic Western understanding. The war lends an urgency to the book: “We are still here.”

Yemchuk’s parents emigrated when the artist was a child, meaning the book was made by someone who essentially re-discovered the country of her birth. While some people might use this fact to contest the importance of the book for Ukraine, I do think that such a discussion would be missing the real point of art. As I said, art is not defined by one truth, and it’s not clear that an insider’s view is automatically preferable over an outsider’s (or here, an outsider-insider’s).

Even as book making is incredibly difficult, given the fact that most photographers and many book makers are part of the precariat that the neoliberal world of photography has created, as a cultural artifact the book has enormous importance. УYY and earlier A Sensitive Education (find my review here) has me excited about seeing more from Départ Pour l’Image, the publisher behind these two books.

I personally am not necessarily very interested in finding the next publisher that will take over as that one hot photobook publisher. Instead, I’m more interested in the whole field expanding out steadily, with previously underrepresented regions filling in blanks in the world map of photobook publishing.

УYY; photography and paintings by Yelena Yemchuk; essay by Luca Reffo; 160 pages; Départ Pour l’Image; 2022

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Hidden under the Amstel

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One of the biggest disappointments for me as a child was the fact that the city I grew up in didn’t have much of a history. As an adult I now know that there actually was plenty of history for a place that had been founded in the late 19th Century. But children aren’t interested in, say, sailors’ mutinies that lead to revolutions. Instead, they’re interested in castles and knights. There were the remnants of a castle, at least that’s what a plaque said when you stood on top of what was a rather measly hill — both in terms of height and width. But it was said hill that constituted the remnants. The castle, said to have been occupied by pirates that ravaged the North Sea (see, that was exciting history for a young boy), had been razed to the ground centuries earlier. The first sword I saw in one of the small towns nearby barely looked like one, given it had been extracted from rather wet ground, providing me with a lesson that is still very valid for me today: in general humidity isn’t great if you’re interested in preserving things, whether swords (I don’t own any) or books.

As an adult, you’ll never shake all of what excited you as a child, especially not if you’re eager to keep some of the admittedly naive, yet ultimately creative curiosity that children tend to have. I will admit that even though I have by now seen a lot of different places, I still get most excited when I see something old, a place where there were human beings walking around centuries ago. I suppose that it might sound a little trite to write of a connection with those that came before me. But I think that there is a little bit more to it. That connection would be impossible if those human beings had not lived and worked in a community that enabled them to carry it forward (or not: visiting Pompeii left a deep impression in me). It’s possible that I’m writing these words the way I do because I now live in a country where that connection is shallow. While the small town I currently live in is proud of its community, that community pales in comparison to what I know from Europe. And it’s not necessarily a European thing at all. I know that there is a long tradition of civic community in Japan, the one non-Western society that I know more of.

It was by reading Hidden under the Amstel (subtitled — buckle up: Urban Stories of Amsterdam told through archeological finds from the North/South Line) that drove home the point to what extent I am actually not only interested in but also attached to the ideas of civic community and civic pride. If you wanted to see the book as a companion to XXX Stuff (that I reviewed here) I guess you could. That book is a visual catalog of 15,000 items that were unearthed by archeologists when the city of Amsterdam built a new metro line (such infrastructure is part of maintaining a civic community). As I wrote at the time, it’s a brilliant achievement in every way. Hidden under the Amstel is different, though. Instead of “merely” presenting the various finds in an organized fashion, in this book 31 experts (historians, archeologists, and others) present what 107 types of finds mean: how they speak of the daily life of those who owned them and, by extension, how they speak about the city itself and the country at large.

A large part of the reason why this is so fascinating is because for many of the items in question, we don’t actually know all the details. As it turns out, people’s daily lives rapidly fade into obscurity the farther we go back in time. Obviously, written history only remembers famous or important people (where, of course, determining what or who is important forms a large part of the task at hand: that’s where the writing of history becomes political). Everybody else might leave behind no trace other than the items they touched and/or produced during their life time. Hidden under the Amstel dives into this exact aspect of the city’s history: using the 107 types of items, it reveals what they were used for and what the use tells us about life and larger societal circumstances back in the day. Even as my interest in murder mysterious is limited, meaning that I might not be the right person to make the following (trite) observation, I will still make it: in many parts, the book reads like a murder mystery, albeit one where people do not lose their lives.

The many authors manage to make the details of the seemingly most mundane items interesting. For example, I now know a lot more about nails than I thought I’d ever be interested in. Furthermore, I had no idea that in the late 1400s, people would play games with little bones that they’d throw. Annemarieke Willemsen, curator of the Medieval collections at the National Museum of Antiquities  in Leiden, connects the objects with historical writing and with illustrations. For example, back in the day, it was decreed that children weren’t allowed to play with the weighted bones near a church because of the noise and the possible damage to church windows. For most of the items in the book, it’s stories like these that have them come alive again. I’m imaging the sound of animal bones weighted with lead on a cobbled city street, intermingled with the cries and laughter of the children playing with them.

As was the case for XXX StuffHidden under the Amstel was in part conceptualized and then produced by Willem van Zoetendaal. The book is an incredibly beautiful production of modest size but with over 500 pages, filled to the brim with some of the photographs from the older catalogue, with the texts, and with other illustrations from the history of Amsterdam: paintings, etchings, photographs… Reading the book feels a little bit like entering the city’s Wunderkammer, with a trusted expert telling you everything they know about any of the objects on display. It’s not necessarily a photobook in the strictest sense, but then what is a photobook anyway? Why be so insistent on some particular format? It’s true, the photographs play a supporting role here; but without the photographs of these objects (details of which are frequently referred to in the texts) the book wouldn’t work.

Highly recommended.

Hidden under the Amstel; photographs of archeological finds by Harold Strak, with numerous other images and photographs from a variety of sources; 31 authors, ed. J. Gawronski; 2023; Van Zoetendaal

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Un cuerpo escupe sol

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There’s something interesting about Risograph printing. It has some of the qualities that — if you’re old enough — you might remember from material that had been xeroxed and re-xeroxed too often: there is a definitive lack of contrast, with dark areas losing a lot of definition. On the other hand, the process’ visual rawness itself makes things look very different than, say, a poorly printed photograph on matte paper. The latter merely looks bad. But even a poorly printed Risograph image possesses grit. It feels alive, even if the life on display might not be the one typically seen in the world of photography.

In competent hands, most but crucially not all of the shortcomings of the Risograph process disappear. Because of the screen, there will always be some grit. Because the individual colours in multi-colour print runs never line up perfectly, there always will be a slightly haphazard feel to the images. Because the base colours fall outside of the standard, dominant colours might be ones that aren’t often encountered in CMYK printing. And you can do unconventional things. To get my own images close to what they look like in my book, Travis Shaffer (who produced them) printed a layer of white ink over black.

I’ve maintained for a while that colour photography has lost some of its character in the digital age. With very few exceptions, the colour inkjet prints I encountered in ten years of teaching looked interchangeable. It’s not that they didn’t have character. It’s just that they all had the same character. It wouldn’t be impossible to achieve the same effect with a Risograph machine, but you would have to work really hard on that. The machine basically forces you to consider what you want things to look like, with — and this is where it gets interesting — the high-resolution, “life-like” look that presses so much colour inkjet printing into the same uniform not being available.

I recently bought a couple of Risograph books, and I think they both work really well. Sébastien Girard produced Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits. This is a rather large publication. It’s maybe a tad too large for my taste (where and how to store it properly?). But it’s very nice. I also ordered a copy of Theo Elias’ Fåglarna, produced by Édition Bessard. I’m usually not that much into this type of photography — diaristic snapshots around traveling, but the production really makes this work shine here. You end up with an interesting mix of a photobook and a zine, with the best aspects of both coming together.

Even as the following amounts to comparing apples and oranges, my favourite recent Risograph book is Ana Lía Orézzoli‘s Un cuerpo escupe sol. Of these three books, it’s the one that embraces the format “book” the most. It’s a handmade accordion (or leporello) book that features both black-and-white printing and colour. The colours mostly fall into the same spectrum of orange, brown, yellow, and pink.

If you want to treat the individual segments of the accordion as pages (why not?), individual images might occupy any number of pages between one and four. Thus if you look at the book the way you’d look at one with separate pages, you might only see part of a photograph. Obviously, you can always unfold a larger section to take in more. Furthermore, on its verso (remember, an accordion book has two distinct sides) the book has a short piece of text unfold (in Spanish; Ana kindly sent along an English translation).

If what can make dreaming so strange it’s the fact that the logic under which it operates differs so much from what we are familiar with from being awake, then it is that type of logic that dominates the sequence of images in Un cuerpo escupe sol. Were there no logic to a dream, it would not have the potential of being unsettling. To call the book that, unsettling, isn’t quite right, though. If the word would not be so sadly overused in the world of art, I’d adopt it here: uncanny.

In the world of the photobook, there is an equivalent to the lack of character that I spoke of when I mentioned most colour inkjet prints. It’s the container-approach to book making that I mentioned here several times. This particular book provides a good example of the exact opposite. This is a book that you will remember in part for its unique character. As an artist, that’s what you want.

I should also note the fact that Ana is based in Peru. One of the beauties of the photobook is that it’s an affordable piece of art that you can make available to people all over the world. As an object, Un cuerpo escupe sol is relatively small and light, which helps keeping shipping rates down and which should help finding interested buyers far away.

Hopefully, there is no need to reiterate that the world of photography — still very much dominated by Western players — can only benefit from having more voices contribute to the conversation and share what they have made. The photobook can play an important part in that process.

All of this combines to Un cuerpo escupe sol being a book that anyone serious about the photobook might want to consider as an addition for their collection. I’m sure that Ana will be happy to send out more copies to people all over the world.

Highly recommended.

Un cuerpo escupe sol; photographs and text by Ana Lía Orézzoli; unpaginated (accordion format); self-published; 2023

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