The Sapper

Article main image

[From 2019 until early 2023, I spent time writing a book about fathers and sons and how fraught father-son relationships can be seen and read in a number of well-known photographers’ works (incl. Larry Sultan, Masahisa Fukase, and others). It was for that reason that I was interested in Bharat Sikka’s The Sapper. After spending a few months on trying to find a publisher for my book, I’ve come to the conclusion that it will probably remain unpublished. Should I end up being mistaken, the following might make more sense — or maybe it will finds its place in a much wider context.]

Men have to learn what it means to be a man, meaning: how to engage with the world around them. For better or worse (and it often is the latter), it’s other men doing the teaching, with fathers being the first male role model for a boy in a traditional family setting.

Conservatives and other people further to the right insist that it’s the traditional family — husband plus wife plus child(ren) — that guarantees a healthy society. You only have to look around, though, to realize to what extent this idea is complete nonsense. It’s traditional families that are the breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, with a father who might have never learned anything about vulnerability or empathy from his own father now instilling these own ideas in his son(s). Inevitably, in his teenage years a son will at least temporarily stage a protest against his father, which only helps to inflame the seeds of toxic masculinity.

And so the cycle continues throughout the generations, producing emotionally crippled men who subject those around them to the “lessons” they learned, meaning: inflicting emotional and/or physical violence on their immediate families while on a societal scale perpetuating the nasty system of patriarchy.

It is against this background that a photographer taking pictures of his father has to be seen. The act of photographing differs a lot from when the same photographer approaches a stranger to take their picture. The title of Bharat Sikka‘s book, The Sapper, is apt: more often than not, the ground between a father and a son is a minefield. One wrong step and — boom! — something will go off, causing great hurt to at least one of the parties (and possibly also to familial bystanders).

Of course, Sikka’s father was an actual sapper in the Indian army. I don’t know to what extent the metaphor might have played a role when the book’s title was chosen. As in all the other cases where photographer sons took pictures of their fathers, there have been careful negotiations over their taking (if you look carefully, you’ll see that all those well-known supposed family books are essentially centered on the fathers).

As viewers, we have no access to these negotiations (unless people like Larry Sultan tell us, in which case we still have to remain vigilant, given the son’s hidden agenda). But we see the outcome, and we can come to educated conclusions about what the negotiations might have been. In The Sapper, we see an older man who appears happy to play along and who submits to the staging of a fair number of photographs. Whose idea the staging might have been, we don’t know. It actually doesn’t matter. What should concern us is the spirit conveyed by the pictures.

The staged portraits of the father are matched by a large number of other photographs that show carefully constructed scenes, such as for example a pile of chairs. Occasionally, there is more than a single photograph of a staged scene, with the stages of construction being evident in the individual pictures. Even as there are many “straight” pictures in the book, in particular landscapes, these are less prominent than they could be, given the rather heavy hand involved in the staging of the other pictures.

Looking through The Sapper, I ended up feeling that I was really meant to take away something very specific from the work. Obviously, that’s the case for any photobook. But here, the cumulative effect of the staged photographs left a heavy mark, too heavy a mark at times.

For example, late in the book, there are images of photographs seen earlier in the book, now displayed in wooden frames. I get it, parts of contemporary photography enjoy celebrating their own cerebral — if often rather simplistic — photographic wit. But I wonder to what extent a relationship between any two people, let alone the one between a father and a son, is served by dumping art-academy artifice over it?

Well, then again, the book isn’t the relationship — that’s between the father and the son. Much like his predecessors, Bharat Sikka invites us to see one — the book — as a reflection of the other — the relationship. And it’s tempting to buy into that. But as viewers, we might as well remind ourselves that the photobook, any photobook really, is its own artifice.

“This is a story of companionship,” Charlotte Cotton writes in the afterword, “where neither the patriarch nor the artist command superiority over the other.” Not so! Not so at all! Just like in the case of, say, Larry Sultan, the artist-son very clearly commands superiority in any number of choices made here, which includes the end product as much as the decisions that went into the making of all the various pictures.

I desperately want to believe that the relationship between this particular father and this particular son does not at all follow the outline in the book, one where crafty artifice sets the dominant tone.

But that might well be the case.

I have no way of knowing.

[Absent the text I wrote being available, I can’t go any further with this piece. I could add more, but it would not make sense for a reader who can’t know where it’s coming from. In any case, with the above I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad book — far from it. It’s a good book. And it contains a lot of good photographs, even if the edit could have been tighter. But as the flawed son of a flawed father (or rather simply as the son of a father) it shudders me to think that a viewer might infer more about a father-son relationship from it than what is communicated by the pictures and their staging.]

The Sapper; photographs by Bharat Sikka; essay by Charlotte Cotton; 192 pages; FW:Books; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!

The Oldest Thing

Article main image

One of the most frustrating experiences for a writer is semantic satiation. In fact, you don’t even have to be a writer to experience it; you merely have to be capable of writing: take a word, any word — let’s say “satiation” — and repeat it again and again. Suddenly it loses all meaning. It is as if there were a switch in your head somewhere that was being triggered. Why does this word look so strange? What does it mean?

Visual satiation lies at the heart of Ruth van Beek‘s The Oldest Thing, the fact that the most ordinary things can suddenly appear alien — much like words can lose their meaning. The book is filled with rather simple, at times childlike photographs of completely ordinary items alongside a number of images made by the artist. The latter can probably easiest described as either colour fields painted on top of photographs or swatches of monochromatic paper that are placed on top of other photographs.

All of these images (except the very first one) are paired. Pairing images is one of the main games in the world of photography. People go about them in all kinds of ways. For example, there is the hipsterish visual wit exemplified by Jason Fulford (furiously winking at the in crowd that will take delight at everybody’s shared cleverness). In stark contrast to that, though, Van Beek’s pairings are completely playful and entirely devoid of pretense. At times, the pairings are almost too simple; and yet they work. This really looks like that in the most basic fashion.

How does this work? Or why does it work? And why is the outcome of this game so incredibly delightful? Ever since I received the book in the mail, I have been trying to figure out how to write about it. Every time I thought I had finally figured out how to convey what I thought I had realized, some other form of satiation would strike me; and everything that had just — and finally! — made perfect sense was now dissolving in the strangeness of abstract thought.

Oh well.

I might as well note that strictly speaking, the book contains a lot of photographs that are placed sideways on the pages. As a viewer, you can obviously turn the book in such a fashion that up will be up, and down will be down. But I don’t think that you really want to do that. You want to resist that temptation because while Ruth van Beek is after the visual description of whatever item is being depicted — a table, a pillow, whatever else, it’s the one in the book that she’s interested in.

As a viewer, you always have to submit to the internal logic of a piece of art. As an artist, you have to trust your viewers to be able to do that. If they can’t or don’t want to, then, well, that’s their problem. After all, a small wooden table with plates, cups, and a tea pot on it (all of which might or might not be a miniature set) is only that when viewed “properly”. Seen rotated, all of it becomes something else, even if it’s not clear what exactly that is.

But that’s the game here: visual satiation. Of course, you could look at a photograph for such a long time until everything looks strange to you. However, those near you might start wondering about your sanity or they might suspect a medical problem, neither of which would be particularly pleasant.

Instead, you might as well take The Oldest Thing and have some of the work done for you, which comes with the added bonus that you couldn’t have thought of what you’re about to encounter.

One of the reasons why Van Beek easily manages to stay clear of the hipsterish visual wit I mentioned earlier is because the images all describe such basic, simple objects. Many of them are household items. Some look as if they had been taken from maybe a cookbook. Others might have been found in a mail-order catalogue. To locate such profound visual delight in the most mundane of settings is no mean feat.

On the back of the book, Van Beek gives away the source of her imagery: “My mother left me three binders with carefully copied recipes and pasted pictures. I never made any of these recipes. I kept them for other reasons. […] My mother died when I was fifteen. I never knew her as a woman. This has ensured that she has always remained a mother figure.”

We need to keep in mind that for all art there’s a separation between where a piece of art is coming from and what it is about (even as the two aspects typically overlap to some extent). Knowing about this part of the artist’s biography might be helpful, though, especially for those who are too puzzled by the mundane deadpanness of it all. If you’re one of those: There’s much to be gained from allowing yourself access to Ruth van Beek’s visual logic.

Highly recommended.

The Oldest Thing; images by Ruth van Beek; poems by Basje Boer; 512 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Article main image

When Katsushika Hokusai set out to produce what would become one of the most well known art works originating from Japan, a woodblock print entitled The Great Wave off Kanagawa, his ideas had nothing to do with creating a precious artifact that would hang in art museums. Of course, such museums did not exist in the 1830s in Japan. But if I’m imagining bringing the man with a time machine to see his work in such a setting, he would be bewildered. Instead, he might enjoy seeing the motif printed on, say, a t-shirt in the museum’s gift shop.

Ukiyo-e prints were produced as a form of mass entertainment, and they formed a large part of the visual culture of Japan’s Edo period (the time between the wave of wars that would result in Japan’s unification and the opening to the West). As that, they conformed to the very same principles that still dominate mass entertainment today. They were affordable — a print would cost a little bit more than a bowl of soup (according to this article), and they were mass produced. They were in no way seen as precious. In fact, some of the prints reached Europe because they had been used as wrapping paper for traded items.

Ukiyo-e prints are thus extremely interesting, because historical artifacts made for the masses — as opposed to the wealthy and powerful — often are inaccessible to us. Here, we have access to them. Furthermore, there were genuinely great artists behind their making. And lastly, the ukiyo-e industry offers insight for today’s world of photography.

It would be straightforward to argue that the photobook has some similarities to those prints. Photobooks are relatively affordable (of course, you won’t be able to buy most books for a little bit more than the price of a burger or a döner kebap). They’re mass produced (even as “mass” here is much more limited). And the way they are conceived both by their artists and publishers could be compared with how artists such as Hokusai made their series.

The Great Wave was one print out of the 36 contained in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. In fact, you might remember the print mostly for the wave that crests in such a dramatic fashion over the volcano that is set far in the back. If Mount Fuji plays a minor role in the image, so do the sailors that cling to dear life in the boats that are tossed around by the stormy sea. For a large number of reasons, the image is incredible, down to the way the turbulence of the water is rendered.

If you look through the prints that comprise Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, you obviously find the volcano in all of them. While Fine Wind, Clear Morning is a breathtaking rendering of Mount Fuji, many of the other prints focus on specific settings in Edo Japan. For example, there is an image of Nihonbashi Bridge, which depending on your travel direction formed the starting or ending point of the important Tōkaidō road.

It would be straightforward to argue that as a series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is not really centered on the volcano. Instead, it’s a depiction of a number of important, well known, and much talked about locations in Edo Japan. Mount Fuji serves as the visual device to link these images together.

But the volcano is not just some volcano. It did play an outsized role for Japanese people, and it does that today as well. To begin with, it’s stunningly beautiful, especially if the top of the very symmetric cone is covered with snow. It’s a dormant volcano. While it’s not clear when it will erupt, experts agree that it will at some stage in the future, which might in fact be near. Nobody knows. An eruption would cause considerable damage, especially given that the volcano is located only 100 km (62 mi) from Tokyo.

Much like during Hokusai’s times, you can see Mount Fuji from Tokyo, the weather and built environment permitting. What this might look like, you encounter in some of the photographs in Takashi Homma‘s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (please note that in the following, the title will always refer to this artist’s work). As the title implies, much like the Edo period woodblock artist before him, the contemporary photographer uses the volcano as a device to make work around the parts of Japan’s Honshu island that offer a view of the volcano.

But it is the differences in the approaches used by these two artists that make the new work so good. I suppose that a photographic re-creation of Hokusai’s portfolio might be interesting. Someone might seek out the locations (or possibly their contemporary equivalents) and produce photographs of the land and cityscapes with Mount Fuji somewhere in the frame.

Homma had something different in mind. He employed a range of different processes to create his photographs. The very first picture in the book centers on Mount Fuji and its iconic snow-covered top. But the volcano is shown upside down, and the depiction lacks the crisp clarity one would be able to achieve with the latest generation of cameras. Instead, the image almost dissolves into bands of colour and some texture, conveying a faint echo of a Rothko painting.

You would arrive at such an image were you to construct a camera obscura, which inverts the scene and displays it upside down. That there indeed must be similar processes at play becomes clear in the second photograph, which is black and white and comprised of three parts. Each part betrays traces of developing fluids. Thankfully, the book withholds that kind of information (sadly, too often the world of photography becomes bogged down in pointless discussions around craft and process).

The third photograph, set right next to the forth, again dissolves the landscape into bands of colour (assuming you want to accept black as one). Set far into the distance, Mount Fuji merges with the landscape, which in the light of the setting sun lacks all definition. The final remaining rays of sunlight illuminate a few clouds in a sky that appears oddly greenish-blue. The high contrast and the gaudy colours have me think of digital camera sensors.

Following this approach,  Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji moves through what it announces in its title. While Mount Fuji can be found in each image, much like in Hokusai’s case it often is not very prominent at all. However, unlike in the Edo artist’s work, the landscape itself — much like the cityscapes — often also are not clearly visible.

As a largely mechanical or photo-optical device, the camera is unable to hallucinate. But for sure the combination of all of these photographs evoke this very effect.

With Mount Fuji having such an important place in Japan’s collective consciousness and with Japan itself — what it might mean to be Japanese — still being such a contest topic, portraying the most well known and potent symbol of the country in such a hallucinatory manner opens up a new way of looking not at the volcano or the country, but at the act of looking itself (whether literally or metaphorically).

It’s probably a fair assumption to think that the work will be seen differently in Japan than in the West. But it’s also equally fair to say that challenging the way the country is seen for any number of reasons is a good idea. After all, isn’t it a contemporary artist’s task to make us see anew?

How do you see something anew that has been seen so many times before? Takashi Homma shows us.


Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji; photographs by Takashi Homma; essay by Pico Iyer; MACK; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!


Article main image

In the late 1970s, Marianne Wex published a massive set of work entitled Let’s Take Back Our Space (subtitled “Female” and “Male” Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures). It was shown in the form of panels arranged in exhibition spaces, and there also is a book. A form of visual sociology, Wex used photographs she took alongside photographs from publications and advertising plus art-historical images to talk about how male power (the patriarchal structure) expresses itself through body language — and vice versa (David Campany wrote about the piece).

What’s interesting about Wex’s work is not only its visually persuasive power: you can literally see patriarchy if you pay attention (a statement that I don’t think will surprise many — if any — female readers of this site). But there is more, given that the mix of materials — photographs made for specific purposes such as advertising, photographs made by observing everyday people in the streets and elsewhere, and art-historical artifacts — shows that the relationship between the different aspects is complex.

While it is tempting to take the title of the work literally, it carries more meanings than women merely re-claiming physical space that is being taken up by men. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. And keep in mind that Wex made and published this work decades before people started to become vocal about manspreading. Talk about visionary work!

But the re-claiming Wex was after extends beyond physical spaces into larger, non-physical ones. Reclaiming space here also (and explicitly) entails re-claiming the power over one’s own representation — a rejection of what came to be known as the male gaze around the time the artist assembled the work. Specifically, rejecting the male gaze simply by placing oneself behind the camera is no guarantee that the desired goal will actually be achieved (just look at, say, female fashion photographers who perpetuate the male gaze to this day).

This fact makes the mechanics of the male gaze — much like patriarchy itself — altogether more complex and noxious than you might imagine. Fighting it and thus re-claiming the power over how one is being represented visually thus can include any number of photographic choices. One of them entails placing one’s own body into the very circumstances from which its depiction is supposed to be liberated. This seemingly paradoxical approach was used by artists such as Jemima Stehli (if you’re curious, this interview has you covered), Yurie Nagashima (this interview is really good), and now Tarrah Krajnak in RePose, published in conjunction with an exhibition in Amsterdam.

The structure of the book is very simple. In every photograph, you see the same woman strike a pose, dressed in bright clothing that set her off against the darker backdrop. Eventually, you will notice the device that triggers the camera’s shutter. Often,  it’s in her right hand, but occasionally, it is placed elsewhere. What might be going on? I’m tempted to think that at some stage, however early or late in the book, you will recognize the pose in a photograph: it is something you have seen before.

For me, this happened a few pictures in, when I discovered a re-creation one of the well-known photographs that documented the performance of Interior Scroll by the late Carolee Schneemann. The photographs in RePose are re-creations of well-known depictions of women. At first glance, it might seem strange to discover both Schneemann’s photograph and a recreation of what I believe is known as The Wet Chair Dance from a popular 1980s movie.

I have never seen that movie; yet I am familiar with this particular scene. And that, I believe, is why the photograph from Schneemann’s decidedly feminist performance sits alongside the polar opposite of that — the male gaze on the worst type of steroids in a 1980s Hollywood movie: these images have become at least partly decontextualized and have become embedded in our larger cultural consciousness, each in their own ways defining a part of how women are to be depicted.

This is a very interesting and provocative approach that acknowledges how even after decades of feminism, there still is so much more work to be done. Patriarchy, bolstered by capitalism itself, has the capacity to appropriate even the most feminist imagery to ultimate neuter it or, even worse, to turn it around against its original goals. Hence the re-creation of the images by Krajnak in the work, hence the title of the book.

At some stage, the cycle will be broken; at some stage, the male gaze will have lost its power. Will there be the need for another book like Krajnak’s, much like there was the need for one roughly 30 years after Wex’s? I don’t know. These days, I find it especially difficult to remain optimistic. Still, at least there is the opportunity for us to look now — and then to try to attempt to understand.

RePose; photographs by Tarrah Krajnak; essay by Justine Kurland; 48 pages with multiple gatefolds; FW:Books; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!