The Enigma of Belonging

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A long time ago, I read an article online that argued that the Romans could have invented photography. Photography here has nothing to do with cameras; instead, it’s the type of photography that Anna Atkins engaged in before the invention of the daguerreotype. Obviously, the Romans did not have the required chemicals at their disposal. But they had something else that has existed all around us: plants. Using their leaves, you can produce chlorophyll prints.

Of course, a photographic concept is one thing. Marrying it to the photographs themselves — creating a meaningful connection between process and the larger idea — is quite another (this is where about 99% of all process-based photography falls short). In the case of chlorophyll prints, I find it difficult to imagine a better use than Binh Danh‘s in his Immortality: Remnants of the Vietnam and American War.

Danh arrived in the US as a refugee in the late 1970s. His family — mother, father, and three other siblings — had left their native Vietnam by boat. The exodus of Vietnamese people using rickety boats forms one of the first major news items that I remember vividly. I was just old enough to be able to take in the news on TV in a somewhat more conscious fashion. Growing up by the sea, I knew of its powers. How or why all those people would risk their lives that way my ten-year old mind was unable to comprehend. This might also have been the first time in my life that I became aware of what I would later understand as desperation.

Whatever his parents’ desperation might have been at the time, Danh was much too young to understand. Born in 1977, he arrived in the US when he was two years old. But growing up, there were early reminders of the fact that he was in fact somewhat different. In The Enigma of Belonging, he remembers fellow high-school students at school discussing a possible class trip to Mexico. “I chimed in that we just needed our green cards, and the other students burst out laughing.” (quoted from the conversation with Boreth Ly, p.157 of the white volume) Now, of course, there is the persistent anti-Asian sentiment in the country that periodically erupts into violence (more information here).

Under ordinary circumstances, you can’t bring much when you travel. When you flee your native country on a boat, you can bring even less. Maybe you’ll bring a few family photographs, such as the one of Danh shown in the book that looks like it was folded and stored near someone’s body. Photography is a way of connection with oneself and one’s biographical, cultural, and societal past — and present. If anything, that realization provides the red thread through The Enigma of Belonging.

With Immortality: Remnants of the Vietnam and American War, Danh created a unique visual record of the war that would drive him from his first home. He “etched” (if we want to call it that) photographs and parts of news-magazine reports on leaves using the chlorophyll-print technique. The outcome is more haunting than beautiful. This is not to say that the images aren’t beautiful. But whatever beauty they might have pales in comparison to the overall effect. Ever since I first saw these photographs, I had hoped they would one day find themselves printed in a book.

During the war, the US defoliated large parts of Vietnam, leaving behind a vast and terrible legacy in the country. Creating the images on leaves thus produces an immediate connection to the war. Even if these aren’t the actual leaves scattered on Vietnamese ground, you could imagine that these ghost images would have appeared at the time.

The Enigma of Belonging consists of two books in a slipcase (one has a black cover, the other one a white one). The black volume contains the images from Immortality along with another project that I will get to below. The white volume presents essays alongside what you could consider complementary material.

Most of that material centers on Danh’s family’s experience as “boat people” (that is in fact the actual term). There are family photographs and documents, there are photographs taken much later at the remnants of the refugee camp the family lived in for a while, and there are other photographs related to the Vietnam War that the artist collected. The combination of the essays and the supplementary material provides an indispensable background to Immortality and in particular to Danh’s life conundrum, which is also expressed through the publication’s title.

What does it mean to belong? Where or how does one belong? For many people, those questions are never an issue. But there are others for whom there are no simple answers — maybe even no complicated answers. Danh’s fellow students in high school had him realize that his situation was different than theirs. Back in Vietnam, though, he is — in his own words — a việt kiều, a Vietnamese foreigner.

This is an experience shared by many other people, whether in the US or elsewhere. I don’t mean to lump all of their life experiences into one. My focus here is only on the aspect of belonging. The reality is that when you stop belonging somewhere — or when you never belonged in the first place, then it’s very hard, if not impossible to get it back. I see the second major body of work in The Enigma of Belonging — daguerreotypes of US national parks — as an expression of exactly this underlying concern.

After all, what could be more American than going to, say, Yosemite, an area that has been used to express Americanness through photography (if you’re interested in finding out more about this, read Tyler Green’s Carleton: Watkins Making the West American)? But how can you portray these places in such a fashion that people will not immediately think of Ansel Adams?

This is where the daguerreotypes come in. If you have ever seen a daguerreotype in real life, you know how difficult it actually is to see the image. It sits on a polished mirror, which you have to angle just right to be able to see. In The Enigma of Belonging, the images were printed with metallic inks that sit on coated paper. This brilliantly bring the viewer close to the experience of seeing the original daguerreotypes.

The end effect, of course, is that you never see just the image. You’ll also see a lot of what’s around you reflected in the images, and if you hold the book just right, you’ll see yourself. How do you belong into these scenes? There’s no answer. There’s only the experience of it.

The Enigma of Belonging pulls all the right stops to achieve maximum effect. The books are very well produced, using a variety of different papers that each help communicate the material they’re presenting. The end result is a publication that is incredibly beautiful but in which the beauty does not distract from the haunting aspects that lie underneath the photographs: a gruesome war, a family seeking refuge in the very country that played a major part in brutalizing their home, a young son growing up and trying to figure out his own place in all of this.

Especially in these times, where so many other people are forced to leave their homes to try to find a decent life somewhere else, this publication is a landmark achievement. It should remind those with comfortable lives how important it is to be open to other people’s suffering and to other people’s attempts to also have a safe and happy life.

Highly recommended.

The Enigma of Belonging; photographs by Binh Danh; essays/interview by/with Binh Danh, Boreth Ly, Joshua Chuang, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Andrew Lam; two volumes in a slipcase with combined 276 pages; Radius Books; 2023

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Tout va bien

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Tout va bien keeps appearing in Vera Muratet’s drawings of birds and squirrels and other assorted animals. Everything is fine, all is well. All is not well in this world. But for the artist, a ten year old girl who loves animals as much as drawing them, all is well. We might as well acknowledge that for us, all is not well for reasons that are beyond this young girl’s concerns and that all-too-often should be beyond ours as well.

Tout va bien (subtitled Cahier d’animaux à Paris) showcases Vera’s drawings alongside reproduction from animal guides and photographs by her father, Myr Muratet. There is a photograph of Vera drawing, taken by the father. But careful attention has been paid by the book’s makers to give the young artist the recognition she deserves.

Aside from a drawn self-portrait, there also is an “about me” at the end of the book, in which Vera telling us what she thinks we need to know about her. “Aujourd’hui,” she writes, “je suis allée à l’école, j’ai fais des maths, du français, de l’histoire et de la lecture. Demain, je ferais des maths, du français et de l’art plastique et ensuite j’irai nager et m’amuser.” (All texts appear in French and English in the book.)

One of the most previous aspects of childhood is the ignorance of distinctions that as adults we take for granted. Unlike our own adult ignorance, which often is rooted in neglect if not malice, a child’s is innocent, devoid of second thoughts.

Seen this way, even discussing whether this book is for children or adults misses its point entirely. It’s simultaneously not for children and not for adults. The former might find the way it’s put together too complicated for reasons that aren’t clear to them. The latter might find what it presents too… well, childlike (except, of course, the proud parents).

But in reality, Tout va bien really is a book for children and for adults, and it’s the adults that can learn a lot from it. After all, even as children and (well, some) adults take great pleasure in observing the world, it is only children that are able to do it in an innocent fashion, a fashion devoid of an agenda.

You can see this in action in some of the photographs taken by Myr Muratet. There’s a great photograph of his daughter standing by a railing that has a bird sit right next to her. But there are other photographs that appear to have been made with much less effect in mind, such as the photographs of a bird’s nest that first show four eggs and then the four hatched chicks asking to be fed.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that what I’m writing makes sense to anyone but myself. What I’m after is what now commonly is called mindfulness. Unfortunately, to a large extent through sheer commercialization (and a dose of orientalism) this idea has become such a vague and shallow cliché that it’s almost useless.

If you trace it back to buddhist writing, you get a better understanding — even if understanding is exactly not the point: you want to be and take the world as it is, without projecting judgment onto it. Children are able to do it. But as they grow older and get more and more exposed to adult thinking, they lose their ability to experience the world that way, and inevitably they will adopt the cynicism that is the guiding principle of contemporary (capitalist) life.

Because Tout va bien contains traces of both — the childlike wonder and earnestness, and the adult calculation and earnestness — the book can help us remember some of what we have abandoned, traces of which we still carry with us. You couldn’t achieve the same effect by looking at books made for children. You can only do it by looking at a book that to a large extent was made by a child.

To be honest, I find it difficult to write more about this book without falling into utter despair. I suppose that I don’t have to tell you about all the violence and mayhem happening in the world right now. Where’s the way out? I don’t have a good answer — other than thinking (hoping really) that a rejection of the relentless cynicism that is underpinning our existences might provide a good beginning.

We have to re-train ourselves to see the world’s wonders again, the way children do. We have to understand that life — all life, meaning: every living being’s life — is precious, equally precious. This also means accepting that all suffering is equally horrible, and one being’s suffering must not be used to excuse another’s. If that means that we finally have to elect better leaders, then, well, we should do that, too.

Tout va bien; drawings by Vera Muratet, photographs by Myr Muratet; texts by Vera Muratet, François Chiron, Luca Reffo and Francesca Todde; 114 pages; Départ Pour l’Image; 2023

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Stills & Stones

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One of the bigger (yet inconsequential) mysteries of photography might be why analogue and digital artifacts have resulted in such different receptions. I think the world of photography’s inherent traditionalism is only partly to blame for that. In a purely aesthetic sense, analogue artifacts do tend to register beautiful, a fact that first played out on a larger scale during the era of Pictorialism.

Pictorialism was driven as much as by a desire to make photographs look like art as from the perceived coldness and unforgivingness of the latest photographic technologies at the time. The former says more about ideas concerning art. But the latter connects us with what we see today. Even as there is Hito Steyerl’s In Defense of the Poor Image, in actuality most photographers go out of their ways to stay away from exactly that: a poor digital image.

In contrast, those working with analogue materials have been embracing poor images for a long time. That embrace has happened in such a wholehearted fashion that even to speak of a poor image in this context seems wrong. Unlike digital grain — a mostly ugly conglomerate of jarring colours, film grain is widely seen as beautiful. Following the tradition established by the ideas behind Pictorialism, there have been different photographic movements that were built on equating what in principle are technical deficiencies with aesthetic value — possibly most prominently are-bure-boke from Japan.

The photographs in Mark van den Brink‘s Stills & Stones were mostly taken with a Minox camera. They’re studio still lives, and ordinarily you wouldn’t use this type of camera for such a purpose. After all, given that you have to control the light and focus, your tool should be convenient to use. Furthermore, at 8x11mm the camera’s negative is impossibly small. Assuming I did the math properly, you would need about 146 of such Minox negatives to cover the area of a 4×5″ negative.

But art making is not centered on efficiency. It is centered on someone’s vision. Consequently, that someone will have to work around the limitations of their tool, and this, of course, is where the fun and frustrations of art making lie. Van den Brink preferred the are — graininess — of his camera over what a view camera would have delivered for him. Produced by using available window light, the photographs evoke a much earlier era of photography even as they were made in the 2000s.

Most of the still lifes are set up in a simple fashion. A stone might be placed on something to support it, with a plain backdrop behind it. Often, scale is difficult to ascertain: how large the stone might be is not clear. At times, it isn’t clear what is actually depicted. Occasionally, the logic of what is on view is unclear: why are these bricks (are they bricks?) piled up the way they are?

All of the decisions behind the photographs force the viewer to engage with their aesthetic experience: the grain, the occasional wonky depth of field, the strange colours in the pictures that are not black and white.

There’s something about the work that has me think about a viewer’s relationship with the pictures. Even as photography is mass produced and thus accessible to any number of people (those who buy the book, say), looking at these pictures gives me the feeling that only I am looking at them. While this might in fact be correct, at least some of the time (who else is looking at them in this exact moment?), the literal aspect is not what I am interested in.

What I’m after might be hard to put into words. Unlike in most other cases of photography, somehow these pictures make me feel as if they were made for me — and for me only. I don’t mean the “for me” as “this writer”. This is not about me. Another person might have the exact same experience. I suppose a different way to express the idea would be to say that here, the very personal joy of making the photographs — in that Dutch studio — translates into a very personal enjoyment of looking at them.

In part, this might be because of the object I’m holding in my hands, a book made by Willem van Zoetendaal. I should probably note that Willem sends me his books, but he does not pay me to write these kinds of compliments. Still, everything about Stills & Stones is perfect: the size, the paper, the design, the printing (well, almost everything: I don’t care much for the square pictures). And you need to arrive at the perfect choices for these photographs, because the wrong package would undercut their appeal — and would probably not deliver the experience I have had with them.

Looking at photography should be enjoyable — maybe not all the time but certainly some of it. We could probably argue forever about what this means — enjoyable. Here, I mean that as a viewer, I want to feel a photographer’s enjoyment while making their work, and I also want to feel the publisher’s enjoyment while making the book. And that’s happening here.


Still & Stones; photographs by Mark van den Brink; text by Willem van Zoetendaal; 120 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

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Brief Experiments With Dall.E 3

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In the world of photography, There is a lot of talk about photo-realistic imagery created with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). There even have been some attempts to produce what we could loosely call art using AI. The efforts I have seen fall way short of what I consider meaningful art, so I’m going to simply ignore them here. But I’m interested in the general question: is it (or will it be) possible to use AI to create art?

To a large extent, the answer will depend on how you define art — or what you expect from it. In general, I prefer the latter approach to thinking about art. Trying to define art seems like the kind of futile endeavour that only serves to create ultimately end- and meaningless discussions (which, granted, fuel part of the academic discourse). Focusing instead on what one expects from art gets at whom art ultimately is made for: people with their own distinct preferences, biographies, socializations, etc.

That all said, my real interest in AI photography (let’s just call it that) originates somewhere outside the confines of art. To begin with, I have a background in the sciences (I have a doctorate in theoretical physics). I am very familiar with modeling ideas, running computer simulations, and related scientific endeavours.

Given that background, I view AI photography simply as such a project. For me, AI generated photographs are simulations of photographs that much like scientific simulations are intended to match what we could loosely call reality as closely as possible.

Computers are not sentient. When an algorithm produces what looks like a believable photograph, that’s interesting to me — at least to some extent: you can use input data (other people’s photographs) and “prompt” the machine to produce output data that mostly conforms to the conventions of the input data. I’m writing “mostly” because people typically do not have six fingers on their hands. My guess is that such problems will eventually disappear.

Attempt to re-create a photograph from my book Vaterland

But my real interest in AI photography centers on something different — even as it is related to the above. As a scientist, I know of the importance of algorithms and their input data. In a nutshell, that’s what I spent three pretty challenging years of my life on (I worked on cosmological parallel supercomputer simulations — essentially creating model universes in the computer). I know that what you put into the computer determines what comes out.

In that earlier life (if I may call it that), what came out of the simulations was being tested against what had been actually measured (by other astronomers). Inevitably, the simulations would fall short of observations, meaning we’d have to go back and run another simulation. This often involved changing input parameters, but it also meant trying to create more complex models (algorithms).

In the world of photography, the focus is the exact opposite: instead of looking at what you put in, people focus on the output — the photographs. I understand why that is the case, and I talked about that in the very beginning of this article. However, I find it a lot more interesting to study what the output might tell us about what was being put into the machine.

Unlike in the case of the work I did for my doctorate, I have limited access to the input or the model itself. The one thing I can control is the chain of words — the so-called prompt — that will have the machine make a picture for me. But that’s already interesting enough. I can’t claim to be a real expert in this. Unlike, say, Roland Meyer, I don’t spend a lot of time with AI-image generators.

My approach to such generators is very simple. In the sciences, you always prefer the simplest possible approach. If you can do something in two ways, one being a lot more complicated than the other, you pick the simpler one (the principle is called Occam’s Razor). I’m also a writer, and for pretty much all of my writing, I try to be clear and, again, simple.

Attempt to re-create a photograph from my book Vaterland

Thus, when I use AI-image generators, I work with very simple, often terse prompts. If the resulting photograph doesn’t quite look like what I thought I wanted, I usually do not change the prompt. Instead, it’s that difference that interests me: how or why does a simple, short prompt produce this picture? Obviously, I don’t know and have no way of knowing. But if I do this game often enough, I believe that I can find out about the generator itself and the input data.

In other words, I believe that the output of AI-image generators tells us something about the ideologies of both the algorithms and the input data. If this sounds too abstract for you, here’s a very simple way to understand it. If you decide to create an algorithm that produces portraits and you only feed it with photographs of white people — do you think that the output will reflect the entire population of, say, the United States? It’s easy to see how that won’t be the case.

Mind you, that’s not some generic example I came up with. That’s one of the main problems with many AI algorithms, which can have gruesome results for those whose data are absent from the input. I wrote an in-depth article for FOAM Magazine about this, so I’m going to refer to that if you’re curious to learn more (the article is called Event Horizon, and it was published in issue 56).

The other day, I found out about Microsoft/Bing’s Image Creator. It now uses Dall.E 3, the updated version of Dall.E 2. I had used Dall.E 2 in 2022 to re-create each photograph in my book Vaterland (you can read about the experiment here). In a nutshell, I found that Dall.E 2 was able to produce pretty good looking pictures (some were better than others); but when put together in a sequence, they simply didn’t work at all as a photobook.

I was curious to see how Dall.E 3 would do: Not so great actually. In fact, the outcome was so bad that I didn’t finish producing all the photographs. That’s why most of them are in their original colours here — I didn’t bother converting them into my b/w, given that this would have still not made them mine. (Given this article is not about my artistic strategies, I won’t dive more deeply into what I mean by this.)

Attempt to re-create a photograph from my book Vaterland

The first immediate problem I ran into was that unlike in the earlier version, Dall.E 3 produces images that look like they’re out of something like The Hobbit or any such Hollywood fantasy. I could have lived with that, but it got a lot worse. All of the portraits I produced looked like an assortment of hipsters.

Even worse, some of my prompts delivered what came across as a Westerners’ idea of a post-Soviet Eastern European wasteland. Parts of Vaterland had been photographed in Poland. Asking for “An empty billboard with paint markings on it in front of apartment buildings in Warsaw” delivered endless rows of brutal, desolate buildings. On Instagram, a Ukrainian photographer friend told me they reminded him of parts of the cities of Mariupol or Bakhmut (both now destroyed by the russian invaders).

In fact, none of my attempts to produce images “from Warsaw” resulted in anything credible or anything I actually saw in the various weeks I was there. When I asked the generator to produce images around the Palace of Culture and Science (the famous Stalin-era building), I ended up with some very strange cartoonish looking versions of it.

You might be tempted to tell me that I should use more complex prompts. It’s possible — I didn’t try this — that you could produce more realistic looking images of the Polish capital. However, I believe that things should work the other way around. You should have to prompt an image generator to get a cartoon — instead of having to try to get away from it.

It’s possibly too depressing an exercise to describe what exactly these cartoon images produced by Dall.E 3 represent. Roland Meyer might have more insight. But I think that this experiment can as a warning to all those who think that they can use AI-image generators and produce art. Maybe it’s art — but whose art is it? Yours — or the programmers’?

You can talk yourself into believing that you can refine your prompts until you get the desired result. But is this really the case? In a similar fashion, you could talk a different AI generator. But does that solve the actual problem at hand?

Furthermore, there are all the pictures you can’t make. For good reasons, companies restrict the possibilities of AI-image generators. Read this article if you want to find out why they have to do that. But such restrictions do not necessarily work in an artist’s favour.

If we simply stick with Vaterland, I was unable to use some of the simple prompts with Dall.E 2 because they contained words or terms that were forbidden. Mind you, my book is explicitly critical of both Germany’s culture of memory and of its neofascist AfD party. The Holocaust and World War 2 play important roles in the book. With Dall.E 2, I had to try to create some pictures without being able to say what they were.

To be honest, I don’t know how one would go about solving this particular problem. I’m probably glad that Nazis are unable to create certain images (even as the article I just liked to makes it clear that this is still a problem), even if this means that I can’t make other pictures that I use in an anti-Nazi content. Furthermore, none of this is a real problem for me, given that I make my pictures in the real world.

Whatever you want to make of the above, be aware that ultimately, AI-image generators are cliché-production machines more than anything else. The next visual cliché — informed by the many biases in the input (aka the source photographs) — is just one prompt away. So don’t focus on the spectacle — instead look at the machinations that produce it.

The Oilmen and Their Rigs

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Sometimes, the same books get made in very different eras. Almost inevitably, the books will look and feel very different, even if at their heart, they get at the same thing. Such is the case for Thomas Hollyman‘s The Oilmen and Tanja EngelbertsForgotten Seas. Both books tell their stories through a combination of photographs and texts. Both are very well made productions. To understand how these books deal with the same thing, though, you will have to ignore superficial differences.

The Oilmen was published in 1952 and is essentially a piece of corporate propaganda: “This book, telling the story of men and women at work in a great industry, was made possible by the corporation of the employees of Shell Oil Company.”

Forgotten Seas was published 71 years later. It is an art book that (in part) is being described as follows on the publisher’s website: “Forgotten Seas is a testament of seventy years of gas and oil drilling in the North Sea, an industrial landscape that is slowly disappearing.”

In these seven decades, a lot has happened with this particular industry. In a nutshell, we now live through the repercussions of its consequences by experiencing the climate catastrophe that has been long in the making. At the time of this writing, it does not appear as if we — and by that I mean the people who hold power, whether it’s derived from elections or money — are willing to do anything about that.

But a lot has also happened in the world of photography. Even as there still is the occasional lazy argument over whether the medium is art or not, for better or worse photography has entered art museums and is now being taught at art academies. The following might paint a picture with too broad a brush. But I think it’s fair to say that all in all, photography has mostly moved away from its subjects or subject matters, to instead approach them with a ten-foot pole.

You can see these differences on the books’ covers already. The Oilmen features a smiling oil worker who is photographed as if he were holding a drill bit over his head. The photographer must have placed himself on the floor of an oil rig, pointing his camera towards the top of the drill tower (all of that using a flash). The book’s title sits between the oil worker’s head and the drill bit, printed in bright red. In contrast,  the cover of Forgotten Seas shows a photograph of a sea-based oil rig that betrays signs of analogue or maybe digital artifacts. The book’s title sits at the very top of the page.

The Oilmen tells its story in what we now perceive as a very traditional reportage fashion. Differently sized pieces of text serve different purposes while sitting next to the photographs that are organized in any number of fashions across the various pages. There are captions, there are longer pieces of text, and there are what look like pull quotes, even if they are not that.

This combination is very dynamic — as are both the photographs and the various texts themselves. However you might feel about the oil business, Hollyman pulled all available photographic stops, often for incredible effect. And the text drives along, making one breathless proclamation after another. For example: “Once captured, oil never rests. These men measure it, clean it and pass it on”. Why, oil is being described as if it were a wild beast!

Much like The Oilmen, Forgotten Seas employs chapters. There are five: “Archive”, “Platform”, “Embarking”, “Horizon”, “Decommission”. Where The Oilmen focuses on the men and occasional women in the business, this book centers only on deep-sea rigs. Each of the chapters shows an aspect of their life time (as you can probably guess from the titles of the chapters).

In pretty much every fashion, the text is the complete opposite of the 1952 book. There are parts that read as follows. “twelve hour shifts / slumbering zombies // twelve hours on / twelve hours off” etc. In all fairness, some of the text is slightly livelier: “The Dutch, fresh-faced, a slight smile on their lips as if the joke is always on you. Then there are the silent Russians, the jokester Poles, the kind-hearted Norwegians.” But that’s about as exciting as it gets.

Photographs of human beings are mostly absent from the book. Instead, it’s many pictures of oil rigs; each chapter features assortments of groupings of such pictures in its spreads. There is ample repetition. However often I’ve looked at this book, the effect is quite numbing, with the turning of the pages turning into increasing tedium. Why, I wonder, am I supposed to care about any of this?

In fact, after I received Forgotten Seas in the mail I thought that there was no way that I would be able to write intelligently about it. I don’t want to claim that the book does not have a message or is not interesting. But I’m confident to write that whatever its audience might be, I am not a member of that group.

We’re now seeing an increasing number of exhibitions that focus on what appear to be very specific ideas of themes. They mostly feature photography that appears to have been made with the idea of looking as much like contemporary art as possible. And everything is tied together by some curator’s concept that is often explained in such a fashion that even after repeated reading I have absolutely no idea what they’re after. Again, I don’t think I am a member of the target audience of such exhibitions.

Truth be told, even as I am insanely critical of the way the fossil-fuel industry is actively destroying the very living conditions of this planet, The Oilmen has me a lot more engaged than Forgotten Seas. I know what the former is trying to get at, which offers me a lot of ways to respond to it, in part because the book is doing its job so well. I love the pictures and hate the message. In contrast, I have no idea what the latter is trying to get at. Oil rigs are constructed, they work, and they get disassembled? That can’t be it. But neither the pictures nor the text engage me enough that I feel compelled to dive in more.

I suppose what gets me these days is that so much of contemporary photography has such low blood pressure. At times, you don’t even know whether there’s a pulse! I want to look at photography that makes me feel something. It’s not that I mind the occasional cerebral exercise. But I find the steady stream of such exercises disheartening.

Mind you, what makes this realization even more bitter is that a lot of the photography that does not conform to this new trend merely copies old photographic strategies that are problematic for all kinds of other reasons.

I don’t know what the reasons are for what we’re observing these days. Is it all those art academies and MFA programs that are churning out “lens-based” artists? Is it the general dearth of a proper economic support system that has photographers reject more open messages, instead opting for the ten-foot pole approach?

In all likelihood, it’s just me. It’s my own fault. I want photography to be something that it mostly is not — or rather that photographers mostly decide to avoid, whatever their reasons might actually be.

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