Was Ray a Laugh?

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Ray, Richard Billigham’s father, is a laugh — according to the title of the book (Scalo 1996; there’s an early 2024 re-release in modified form by MACK). It says so right on the cover, which shows his blurry face.

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Richard’s description of his pictures can be found on the back cover: “This book is about my close family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew. My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”

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So it was Jason, Richard’s brother, who said that Ray was a laugh. It’s a jarring title once you start looking at the photographs.

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From 1949 until 1961, there existed a radio show on the BBC entitled Ray’s a Laugh. The star of the show was comedian Ted Ray. Ray (the comedian) was billed as a laugh. I would have to ask someone in Britain, in particular someone who experienced the mid-1990s, to find out whether the show would still have been known over three decades after it ended. Maybe it was just a convenient enough title for the book. Regardless, now Ray, the father, is a laugh.

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I felt squeamish about the cruelty in Masahisa Fukase’s Kazoku. Richard’s photographs do not leave me unaffected, either. In Fukase’s case, I have severe misgivings about the cruelty and about openly making a mockery of the family using carefully staged studio photographs. Billingham’s pictures, in contrast, are taken from real life using cheap snapshot cameras. I wouldn’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty certain that Richard did not ask his alcoholic father to sit on the floor next to a grimy toilet bowl. He saw the scene and took the picture. That’s a different kind of cruelty than Fukase’s.

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I don’t want to be slicing and dicing ideas of cruelty here, but I needed to point that out.

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Maybe when I said that Billingham and Fukase employed different kinds of cruelty, what I really meant was that their cruelty manifested in different ways. After all, in his book Memories of Father, Fukase mostly photographed the way Billingham did.

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As I said, from the photograph I have no way of knowing whether Billingham found his father sitting next to the toilet. I have no reason to believe that that’s not what happened. In the other photographs, frequent drinking is on view. Ray was an alcoholic.

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Alcoholism — now called Alcohol Use Disorder — might look and act out like a social disorder, but it’s not. It’s a disorder that requires medical attention.

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Much like Fukase presenting his frail, ailing old father like prey in front of a studio camera, Billingham’s snapshot of Ray does nothing to enhance the older man’s dignity but everything to lower it. Ray has hit rock bottom. It would seem that he hit rock bottom a long time ago, and there no way out.

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Why do I need to look at Billingham’s photographs of Ray? I have been entranced by the book ever since I first saw it. For a while, it was not easy to come by. Originally published in the 1990s, it had been out of print. It took me years to find a used copy that cost not much more than my spending limit of $100 for single books. Until the book arrived, I had seen it only in reproduction. The thrill of being able to see the actual book was immense, and I was immediately in awe of the visceral power of most of the photographs. At the same time, I also found myself even very conflicted by my admiration of these very good photographs of often very terrible scenes of domestic squalor and neglect with their strong undercurrent of emotional violence.

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“When you’re taking photos, put yourself in the position of the weakest.” Kazuo Kitai remembers that he received this piece of as advice from Ihei Kimura, one of the widely acknowledged and admired masters of Japanese photography.

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Just now, I realise that Fukase and Billingham might have seen themselves as being in the position of the weakest person. After all, they were the sons who had to deal with being their father’s offsprings. Fukase remembered in the afterword of Kazoku:“I was terrified of my father as a child. He had an extremely short temper, and he would fly into rages at the slightest thing.”

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Even as a camera gives you considerable power — you literally get to shape how other people will be seen, it is very difficult for many photographers to be mindful of it, in particular when being confronted with the power a father figure seems to exert (even if in reality that power might have now waned if not outright disappeared).

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As viewers, we pick up on being confronted with a person that Kimura would have described as the weakest. Or maybe we pick up on what a photographer decided to do with such a situation. Photography has a funny way of muddying these waters. In the case of Fukase’s and Billingham’s pictures, I’m finding myself siding with the vulnerable fathers. I’m finding myself admonishing the sons for their photographic choices.

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There’s a problem: I’m taking a side. Kimura’s advice might be good and useful when a photographer takes pictures of strangers. But in a family setting, things become infinitely more complicated: the photographer is part of the family. In the case of the sons, it was them who were first subjected to their fathers’ whims, however much or little those fathers were aware of what they were doing. The sons’ hurt is real, and it came before any of the pictures were taken. There is a cause-and-effect relationship that connects the hurt and the pictures. That relationship can never be disentangled in a satisfying manner. Thus by taking a side, even as (I think) I mean well and regardless of how spontaneous that act might be, I’m pretending (or hoping) that as an outsider I am able to disentangle a very complex situation.

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Ray’s alcoholism was an illness. But explanations aren’t excuses. In any case how would one go about connecting them? Could Ray’s alcoholism serve as an excuse for the situation his wife and sons ended up in? The brokenness of the alcoholic man’s life must not get in the way of trying to understand the brokenness of his partner’s and descendants’ lives.

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“Something I’ve come to realise,” Joanna Cresswell tells me in an email, “is that blame is sometimes unlocatable. In general, the only part I struggle with is the idea of any ‘sides’… All I really see is people hurting each other in human ways.”

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Hurting each other in human ways.

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Now, I realise that while I take sides, I also find myself wanting to differentiate between Sukezo Fukase and Ray Billingham, the two fathers, or rather the situations they found themselves in, when they faced their sons’ cameras. Sukezo’s old age simply was a part of life itself, whereas Ray’s alcoholism was an illness. I feel sorry for both of them, but in different ways.

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“But pity is an ugly emotion to stomach,” Joanna continues, “and perhaps pity in itself can be cruel.”

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Joanna’s words helped me see how conveniently easy it was for me to write that I would have wished for more forgiveness from these sons photographing their fathers. I have no emotional attachment to any of those families. I only have what is being created by and through the photographs I’m looking at. Consequently, I have to be honest with myself. If I demand more forgiveness from these sons photographing their fathers, then I have to demand the same amount of forgiveness from myself when I think about my own father. I am not better or more virtuous than these sons. We all just ran away when we could. But they went back with their cameras to take pictures. I never did. Instead, up until I made myself write down these words I preferred not to deal with anything.

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Now, I’m writing about other people’s fathers and pictures and hurt as if somehow I were able to pick things apart from afar and with the added hindsight of time having passed.

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What am I even doing here?

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“My father. Where to begin?” asks Joanna.

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My father. Where to begin?

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As I noted, my reaction to Billingham’s work of Ray is made more complicated by the sheer fact that despite their raw, gritty nature, the photographs are so compelling. There is a photograph of Ray throwing the cat. Sitting in a fold-out beach chair in his living room, the camera has caught Ray right after the cat went flying. In the picture, the animal appears to be levitating above him, harshly illuminated by the flash of the camera but not in any visible distress. The photograph possesses all the short drama of life, while capturing it in the best possible way. It looks like a snapshot, and yet it also is the perfect snapshot — the lucky moment when everything aligns as if it had been carefully laid out that way. Everything is in just the right spot.

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(I need to believe that it was a lucky shot and not the result of repeated throwing for the sake of a picture.)

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You could see the casual performance of a minor act of cruelty towards an animal that was caught in this picture as proof that Ray was indeed a laugh. It’s easy to imagine one of the sons having a beer in a pub with his mates, retelling the story, and sharing a laugh. I will have to admit, though, that even as I like the picture very much, I don’t see the act caught in it as evidence of Ray being a laugh. Instead, I feel repelled by the man or rather by the kind of man he was in that moment. Cruelty towards animals, even the seemingly inconsequential kind, is not funny.

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Looking and re-looking at all of these photographs, again and again I’m asking myself how I can cast judgment on these photographers/sons and their decisions what to do and what not to do. There is, after all, what I do and mostly not do while dealing with my own father. I am unable to say that I am particularly proud of being very curt in the occasional brief exchanges with him. But I am also unable to say that I am making an attempt to change the dynamic.

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I used to think that for a situation between two people to change, it would have to be up to both – and not just to one – to own up to their respective behaviour that had them end up where they are. Now, I’m not so sure any longer. Or rather, I have come to realise that there is one person whose behaviour I can change, and that person is me. Even if the situation will not change, I now know that bearing a grudge does nothing for my own personal good.

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Secure your own oxygen mask first, they tell you during the safety instructions on an airplane, before helping others.

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For now, the photographs I am looking at here aren’t bringing me much closer to what I want to figure out.

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There is the added complication that photographs tempt the viewer to offload all their judgment onto those involved, whether the persons in the pictures or the photographers who took them. This mechanism is particularly pronounced in the case of photographs of atrocities or similar extreme situations. For example, in 1993, Keith Carter took a photograph of a young child in (now South) Sudan who was trying to reach a United Nations feeding centre. The child looks terribly starved. Hunched over all on all fours, his head low to the ground, the scene is terrible enough, were it not for the presence of a vulture that sits nearby, eyeing the possible prey. After the photograph was published in the New York Times, the newspaper was compelled to publish a special editorial. It addressed some of the questions it had been made to face. “Many readers have asked about the fate of the girl. The photographer reports that she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away. It is not known whether she reached the center.” Much later, in 2011, it was revealed that the child actually had been a boy named Kong Nyong and that he had been taken care of. In 1994, the photograph won a Pulitzer Prize. A fierce discussion over the photograph erupted: was it right to take these kinds of pictures? Was this not, and yes, that is the term used, “poverty porn”, the photographic glorification of poverty? Four months after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Carter took his own life. Even if his photograph has nothing to do with the ones I have been look at here, all of these pictures have arisen from someone making the decision to take them. As outside viewers, we have no way of knowing what else happened in the particular situation. Photographs reduce the complexity of life (and death) down to the few traces captured in them. And as viewers, we find ourselves tempted to conclude that that’s all there was, that Billingham found Ray next to the toilet, took a picture, and walked away or that Carter found a vulture sitting next to Kong Nyong, took a picture, and walked away. We don’t really know that. Carter later revealed that he had chased the culture away. But for us viewers, we only have the pictures, which means the fact that they were taken and the facts that they visually reveal (or that we think that they reveal). I have looked at and written about photographs for a long time now. Still, I find myself making this same shortcut to what I believe to be a valid conclusion again and again.

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The violence of an image always shortcuts our critical thinking, at least initially. The violent facts depicted in it take precedence over everything else. If we’re not careful, they will drive us to the wrong conclusions.

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I envy Joanna who writes that “Billingham’s pictures broke my heart. They aren’t beautiful, and I still wince a little when I look at them, but I love them because they showed me a form of acceptance and creative redemption I had never seen before.” I wish I could see the form of acceptance she is able to see.

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Joanna also writes: “We are the ugly parts of ourselves as much as the polished ones.” What then am I having problems with in Billingham’s pictures? Is it the fact that he is airing out a laundry that part of me feels shouldn’t be made to be seen? Or is it the fact that these pictures remind me too much of the ugly parts of myself?

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Maybe it is the fact that unlike Joanna, I don’t allow the work to break my own heart?

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In other words, am I attempting to reason myself out of my corner by approaching all of these pictures as a critic — and not as a son? (As if it were possible to separate the two.)

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Richard re-created the family life depicted in his book in the form of a movie entitled Ray & Liz (2018). The internet movie site IMDB describes the film as follows: “Photographer Richard Billingham returns to the squalid council flat outside of Birmingham where he and his brother were raised, in a confrontation and reconciliation with parents Ray and Liz.” It’s easy to see how making the movie is a form of confrontation, a confrontation with facts, though, less with people, namely the facts of his life as a child and adolescent. The reconciliation aspect might be present through the act of making the movie itself — and not so much through anything shown in it.

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Whatever might be the case, it’s this aspect that is holding me back when dealing (or rather not dealing) with my own parents. I am still working on mentally reconciling the facts of my own upbringing with what I wish they should have been. Obviously, there is no way that reconciliation can ever happen until I fully accept that differences sometimes cannot and need not be overcome and that living with differences is possible. Mentally, now that I’m firmly into the sixth decade of my life, I have understood that this is the case. Emotionally, I’m not quite there, yet.

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“With the photographs I tried to make them as truthful as I could and hopefully that element overcomes any exploitative element,” Richard is quoted as saying in a long article about the movie that appeared in The Guardian two years before it was released. “I think there was a warmth to them.” I’ve looked at the photographs many times. I’m unable to pick up on that warmth.

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Often, we see in pictures not what they show but rather what we want to see.

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“I just hated growing up in that tower block,” Billingham said. “I didn’t like being unable to walk out of the door. You had to get in the lift and people would piss and shit in the lift and spit on the walls. You had to be careful never to lean on anything.” Even as the pictures don’t show the lift, I can see his visceral dislike of the living conditions in the pictures.

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Once Ray & Liz had been released to some acclaim, there was another article in The Guardian. “Up until their premature deaths about a decade later,” Tim Adams writes, “Billingham’s parents were mostly oblivious to the fact that they had generated a Turner prize nomination and global gallery fame.” I might as well ask how the parents could have possibly understood what the Turner prize means or how galleries operate (and who frequents them). I’m thinking, though, that they might have had feelings about mostly well-off people looking at the circumstances of their living and about the open depiction of Ray’s alcoholism. Of course, the moment you make art based on your own and your nearest relatives’ personal lives, there is the simple fact that a lot of strangers might not only see it but come to their own conclusions.

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“We are walking upon eggs,” T.P. Thompson wrote in 1859, “the omelet will not be made without the breaking of some.”

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“Jason [the brother] often says to me now that, statistically, we should either be in prison or dead or homeless,” Billingham tells Tim Adams.

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A life lived, whether it’s one’s own or somebody else’s, is too complex for anyone to arrive at simple conclusions. “Well, I had to look after myself, I suppose,” Billingham says,“[a]nd it’s the parents’ job, isn’t it, to look after the little one?” Yes, it is, even if, as appears to have been the case here and in much different circumstances in my own upbringing, the parents are incapable of doing it in a way that the children later deem adequate.

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I suppose it comes down to the following. It’s one thing to try to hold your parents accountable when you feel that they were insufficiently attentive to your needs when you were a child. Probably a lot of children have that feeling about their parents. There might have been material shortcomings or emotional ones, the latter maybe in the form of a lack of support. Who knows. But it’s quite another thing to make that the subject of your art when it is then supposed to go out into the world. At least that’s the thought I come back to time and again, possibly also in part because in the society I grew up in, private problems are not supposed to be aired out in public.

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Whenever being confronted with a piece of art that challenges a person, I always consider whether an artist is punching up or down. This idea introduces some relativity into my ethics of looking, a relativity that first and foremost challenges me: why would it be OK to punch in this case, when it’s not OK in that other case? Inevitably, coming to a conclusion will still leave me somewhat unsatisfied, given that I mind the fact of the punching, regardless of where it happens. Still, in the context of art, there also are the wider circumstances in which it is happening, which here means galleries or museums often frequented only by the well off, or expensive art books made for that same audience. There is an inherent violence to this aspect of class that the world of art typically prefers not to discuss. There is violence in well-off people looking at photographs of other, radically less well-off people. I find it difficult to justify exposing those who have less and who in general are also very much aware of that fact to the eyes of those who have a lot more. And it is this particular aspect that bothers me in the case of Richard’s photographs of Ray and Liz, even if I cannot and will not deny that his own coming to terms with the very situation depicted in them is important for him. After all, you could say the same thing about all of these words. So maybe my being conflicted here simply reflects that fact that the further I proceed in this investigation, the more I find myself challenging this endeavour. But I must proceed, not only because it’s possible that I am very wrong about all of this. It’s also possible that pushing through what right now looks like a solid wall might actually teach me more than I am able to imagine right now.

The above is a slightly edited excerpt from the manuscript of my unpublished book Memories of Fathers.

Claire Dederer’s Monsters

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Every once in a while (and it’s typically a long while), a book comes along that blows my mind. Typically (and maybe that’s why it’s a long while), such a book offers me more than merely cerebral insight (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Three of the four books that were able to do over the course of the past five years that were written by women. The former scientist in me knows that four books is a small data set, meaning that any conclusions arrived at from this number stand on shaky ground. And yet…

I’m not well enough informed about writing, whether the fiction or non-fiction kind, to make pronouncements that are more than hunches. As a person, I like my hunches, even often enough they are completely wrong. As a writer, I like my hunches, too, but I tend to edit them out: you want to write what you write from a position of certainty because you take your reader seriously.

That’s bad writing, though, isn’t it? Did you notice the switch from “I” to “you”? Occasionally, a “we” might pop in.

Maybe given that I never properly learned how to write — I didn’t go to any writing program and thus should be considered an abject amateur — I mustn’t assume that all writers take their readers seriously. If writers think like photographers, some of them actually might not. But that’s not my concern, because you… I have to write following my own instincts, following what is true to me, the consequences be damned.

Those consequences might then have more to do with myself — not the writer self but the person self (and no, those two are not necessarily identical at all). But I might also arrive at conclusions that have the potential to be uncomfortable for readers.

Claire Dederer decided to write a book about the people she calls monsters. In fact, we all might call them that. We all know the monsters, even if we might not apply that label. The monsters are famous artists who created widely admired pieces of art and who in their private lives engaged in terrible conduct.

The Prologue in Monsters (subtitled A Fan’s Dilemma) is entitled The Child Rapist, and the heading on top gives a name: Roman Polanski. If you had any doubt about what’s going to come in the book, that’s being brushed aside swiftly.

How does one or maybe should one deal with art made by terrible people? Can one still enjoy a movie by Roman Polanski, given all that’s known about him? Especially after the somewhat recent Me Too explosion, this topic has become widely discussed, (inevitably) leading to its own backlash. How do you deal with this?

The problem is easy to deal with when the person in question has never produced anything you enjoy. For example, I’m not into his movies, so it’s very easy for me to simply ignore Woody Allen. There’s no work that I possibly have to re-evaluate.

But I am fascinated with the work of Joseph Beuys, who now is very much tainted  (Dederer uses “stained” in her book) by all of I read in a massive biography written about him (I’m not sure it has been translated into English). It’s easy to suspect that much like Neo Rauch, were he alive today Joseph Beuys would probably seek the company of far-right people, making dark pronouncements about today’s Germany.

These would be in line with the kind of utterings produced by someone like Ernst Jünger, a far-right writer who became well known for a novel that glorified the mass slaughter during World War 1. Jünger was far to the right, but he wasn’t a Nazi. The Nazis simply were too uncouth for him (this didn’t prevent him for serving them anyway as an officer in occupied Paris). When someone told me about Jünger’s writing, I read that book in question and thought it was pretentious, unreadable nonsense. Problem solved. For me anyway.

But it’s not so easy at all to solve the problem when there is something at stake for yourself: when you like the work but dislike the person. And that’s what Dederer dives into deftly.

“We tell ourselves we’re having ethical thoughts,” Dederer writes relatively early in the book (p. 24), “when really we’re having moral feelings.” These two entities are italicized, and they provide the nexus around which large parts of the following 233 pages circle.

It’s easy… Relatively easy… Well, we can at least have some sort of discussion around ethical thoughts because by definition ethics are communal, and thoughts and speech are connected.

Morality also is communal, but here, things become a lot more complicated. I mean what’s the difference anyway: morality vs ethics? Right? But anyway, the real problem is the feelings part. We all have them, whether we admit them or not. We all have some capacity to share them, even as that capacity can be severely underdeveloped (especially if you grow up as a man in a patriarchal society).

How do you reconcile that which can be spoken of easily (even if that speaking might contain any number of actually pretty bad elements, whether bad faith, virtue signaling, or whatever else) and that which cannot be spoken of easily at all?

And how do you even go about writing a book about a problem that sits at this very intersection of thought and feeling and that deals with art, maybe the one communal source of joy we have left, now that the combination of neoliberalism and neofascism have so severely degraded our democracies and societies?

Read Monsters! That’s how you do it.

I don’t necessarily want to discuss too many of the many, many details discussed in the book. To begin with, I don’t want to take away any of your enjoyment. Yes, I said it: while the book tackles a terribly complicated subject that contains gruesome human behaviour, it is incredibly enjoyable to read. At just the right moments, Dederer manages to throw in humourous curveballs — lest you choke on the general awfulness you might have just encountered.

But there also is the enjoyment of reading things that you maybe suspected or thought, and yet never heard anyone else say or write. “Part of the reason so much attention has been trained on men like Picasso and Hemingway,” Dederer writes, “is exactly because they’re assholes. We are excited by their asshole-ness. Wasn’t that what we saw with Trump?” (p. 109) This is from the chapter on geniuses, which is worth the price of the book alone for its insight.

There is a flip side to toxic masculinity (“genius”) and patriarchy, and that’s what women have to experience if they aspire to enter the world of art. Making art requires a considerable commitment, and that commitment often comes at the expense of all those who live around the artist. In a long and searing chapter, Dederer dives into what women have to deal with, women who might or might not have children and who thus have the added commitment of motherhood. Do you become a monster when you focus on your art — instead of your children?

This is subject matter that I have no experience with whatsoever. I decided not to have children because I suspected that I would be a very bad father. Of course, now I know a lot more about myself than I knew a couple of decades ago. But at times, I still find myself thinking that were I to have a child right now, I would be a bad father, given that I’m giving preference to something that good fathers know to avoid (I’m writing this article on a Saturday morning for crying out loud!).

Obviously, being a father is different than being a mother, and I can’t tell to what extent the chapter on motherhood and art will resonate with women. I suspect, though, that it will ring many bells — much like all the other chapters as well.

I’m not going to tell you about the conclusion (if that’s the word) Dederer arrives at in the book. You’ll have to read if yourself, in part because the real insight you will gain from the book is not so much the conclusion (which is brilliantly frustrating and insightful at the same time) as the way this author leads you through this impossibly complicated maze.

As you’re reading along Claire Dederer’s exploration of ethical thoughts and moral feelings, you realize that right at those moments, you’re growing as a person. At least I thought so (but hey, maybe as usual I’m just desperately trying to kid myself).

One last thought: it would be a real shame if after reading the book someone would still come away with the idea that there are those monsters, and then there’s the rest of us. In some ways, we all are monsters, even if some monstrosity obviously is a lot worse. We need to learn how to navigate that continuum.

Given that we approach all of this with ethical thoughts and moral feelings, and given that even in situations which aren’t about monstrous people, those two usually are not being made to speak to one another, too often discussions in the world of photography fall short. Just take, for example, all those discussions around appropriation and how none of those ever go anywhere — leading them inevitably to the courts (those are not the places where art should be discussed).

In much the same fashion, terrible art can be made by OK people. And terrible people can make lousy art. We all know. (I don’t want to give any examples, because almost inevitably the fact that I mention someone and their work will overshadow everything I wrote here.) In those situations, the insight provided by Claire Dederer in Monsters can also help.

We need smarter — and by that I mean a lot more considered — discussions in the world of photography, and we’re not going to get them until people will understand and deal with the conflicts between ethical thoughts and moral feelings.

Furthermore, in the end, it’s not so much about the art in question anyway. It’s all about us.

Oh well, I gave away the conclusion after all.

What a brilliant book!

Very highly recommended.

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how shall we greet the sun

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We have to think of the photographer as her own subject in Thana Faroq’s how shall we greet the sun. For most photographers, this would be an impossible approach to take — doesn’t the camera allow hiding away your own sorrows behind that little opto-mechanical barrier that you put between yourself and your “subjects”?

While for many photographers that approach — the hiding away — is an easy and convenient cop out, this particular one does not have that option available. Having left her home land under circumstances many people will (hopefully) never have to experience and living a new life far away, in a country that while hospitable is filled not only with welcoming people but also with the likes of Geert Wilders: Neanderthalian neofascists, Faroq now faces exile in what might or might not remain a safe space.

And there are others like Faroq: women ejected from their homes, to arrive in a different environment, an environment that exchanges some problems for others. In how shall we greet the sun, we get to see some of them, some photographed against the sea, the wind blowing about their hair and clothes, some photographed in the woods. It’s very clear that theirs is a shared experience, and the women act as stand ins for the photographer herself.

There is a little envelope at the very end of the book that contains a small folded up note. “I write,” part of it reads, “because I don’t know things with absolute certainty and I often find myself in a position of digging and unburrying. [sic!]” The note saddened me a little bit because to me it came across as asking readers and viewers for permission to rely as much on text as the book does. In my experience, most photographers are reluctant to write; when they do, they often speak of their discomfort with it.

But I wish that I still had the ability to approach writing the way Thana Faroq does in this book. There is text, ample text, and for me, it’s the text that creates the book’s explosive power. The writing is raw and visceral, it’s filled with hurt, it shows someone at their most vulnerable. It’s the kind of writing that professional writers have to re-learn after years of experience with craftily putting together words for effect. It’s the real thing, and it unfolds over many pages in how shall we greet the sun, interlaced with blocks of photographs.

The above is not to intended to say that there is a problem with the photographs. No, they work very well, and their use is very effective. Towards the final third of the book, the sequence alludes to a ride back to the city at the end of the day, a day possibly spent with someone making pictures somewhere in the woods or near the ocean. As the sun sets, we enter an apartment that is solely illuminated by whatever light is still available outside.

As a viewer, you immediately feel that this is a feminine space. By that I mean that it’s a space where vulnerability and feeling are not hidden away by male bravado and denial. Instead, vulnerability and feeling infuse the space as the camera stays very close to what it intends to capture. The sense of fragility is almost too hard to bear.

But I do think that this particular section — without which the book would not even remotely work as well — has been charged up by all the words that precede it. As a writer, I’d say that there certainly are different voices (or maybe positions) in Faroq’s text. Ordinarily, seeing a writer go back and forth between different kinds of authority — the personal or professional one — would be muddying the waters. However here, the mix vastly contributes to the overall effect.

It’s one thing to be lost, and we might all know it in one way or another — even if our experiences of what it means to be lost can and will of course differ immensely. But it’s quite another to accept being lost and to make work out of it and about it. That takes courage — certainly for a photographer, because it requires to put down the camera and face yourself. Anyone can point a camera at a stranger. But to face yourself? That’s so hard!

I’m in awe of the courage it must have taken to make this book. In a world of photography that too often celebrates the supposed bravado of machismo, we desperately need a lot more work that is gentler and that does not paper over our individual and collective hurts. After all, we will only be able to attend to these hurts if we accept them and if we understand that rawness and true vulnerability are what it takes to be open to the world.

“I believe,” Faroq writes, “that the ambiguity of emotions doesn’t mean the absence of them. It just means that it’s hard to describe them.” And: “We have to put our pasts on mute mode.”

Obviously, these words specifically address the situation Faroq and the many women in the book found themselves in. But I do think that in a completely different fashion, collectively we have also become refugees from our own emotions — to the extent that larger numbers of us now project their own hurt onto others and then for the Geert Wilders types: fascist brutes who promise salvation but only deliver evil (that always comes at the expense of others).

If we want to have any chance to break this cycle of violence, then we have to bring ourselves back to our own hurt and switch off the mute mode Faroq wrote about. And in the world of photography, I see this as the best model to break the still dominant machismo with its cheap and by now very trite posturing.

Remember, “the ambiguity of emotions doesn’t mean the absence of them.” Facing ambiguity certainly pays off, as how shall we greet the sun demonstrates. Remaining in the space where ambiguity reigns brings its own rich rewards.

Highly recommended.

how shall we greet the sun; photographs and text by Thana Faroq; 168 pages; Lecturis; 2023

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Koechlin House

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The problem with taking pictures of architecture, a well known photographer once told me, is that someone else’s work (the architect’s) typically is calling too much attention to itself. Unless your target audience consists of architects or people interested in architecture I can easily see how that’s a major problem for a photographer, in particular the more idiosyncratic the building in question might be.

I know next to nothing about architecture so I might be forgiven when I write that the Koechlin House looks as if its architects had been unable to decide whether they wanted to build an air-raid shelter or an aquarium. They appear to have compromised on a mix of both, producing a building that features ample amount of concrete and large windows at the same time. How such a building could possibly be homey I have no way of knowing. Maybe one would have to have a radically different idea of what the word “homey” means to be comfortable in such a setting. Or maybe homey is too petite bourgeois a concept in this context.

Regardless, the house is indeed being lived in, as becomes clear from the photographs in Daisuke Hirabayashi‘s Koechlin House. Hirabayashi is a Japanese architect and photographer, and I’m intrigued by that combination. As a writer and photographer, I am aware of how being deeply immersed in both contains both huge potential and equally huge pitfalls. As I said, I don’t know anything about architecture. But it might be a good assumption to say that being an architect and a photographer involves similar struggles — maybe even more so, given that by construction, architecture has a large visual component to it (whereas words have not).

My attempts to learn Japanese involve cramming kanji, the characters (let’s call them that) borrowed from Chinese. There are thousands of them, and each one might involve different readings and pronunciations. But kanji also allow you access to some cultural aspects that are contained in Japanese.

In my beginners’ kanji book, number 49 is , which on its own can be read as either ie or uchi. It means house or home. You can find the character used in the word 家族 (kazoku), which means family (if you have a copy of Masahisa’s family book in your collection, you will have seen this on the cover). If you think about it, that’s interesting: the word for family contains the element of home. Or house. Well, no, because when you think about family, you wouldn’t think about the house it lives in, would you? You would think about the home.

Architects build houses, and those living in them make them their homes out of them. Koechlin House alternates between those two poles — house and home. But ultimately the photographer was more interested in the latter than the former. This manifests itself through photographs of small details such as, for example, apples laid out on a table outside, photographs of the plant life in and around the house, and photographs in which late day light bathes the building in warmth while hiding away some of its harsher features.

In contrast, the more architectural photographs at times are grim. There is a picture of what might be an entrance area that is almost entirely devoid of ornamentation. The light falls in from two directions, illuminating barren concrete walls, a light fixture that looks lost, and what might be a wooden bench with possibly a radiator underneath. I don’t think you’ll ever get the coldness out of that location, regardless of how high you turn up that radiator.

The many large windows and the presence of some interior courtyard invite photographic games that, I suppose, neither a photographer nor an architect can resist. Reflections in windows layer images on top of other images, and similar reflections also often prevent a view inside the building when it’s photographed from the outside.

Ever since I had to work in two large buildings made of concrete my senses have become aware of how the material does not age very well at all in a purely aesthetic fashion. As the various concrete air-raid bunkers in the place I grew up in demonstrate, the material is durable — so durable in fact, that tearing down those towers has not been in option in many German cities. But with time, the light grey of the material becomes darker and darker, and it attracts dark stains. You can see signs of that in parts of the building’s exterior.

How or why one would be comfortable in a home that has almost no soft surfaces escapes me. I have been looking through Koechlin House many times now. Hirabayashi does an incredible job bringing out the building’s character and how the plant life outside has created what I perceive as a refuge from its harshness. But I always end up feeling the photographs in my joints — much like how after a long day in one of the concrete buildings I mentioned above, my knees would hurt from walking on such hard surfaces for hours.

As is obvious from the above, my life experience shades how I view the building — the building more than the photographs actually. This brings me back to the well known photographer’s words, that the architecture commands so much attention. But unlike in the case of the functional architecture photography that I see every once in a while, I think here it’s Hirabayashi’s skills that  communicate the fact that this is a home more than a house, leading me to imagine how I would function and feel inside.

Whatever you might make of this particular building, Koechlin House deftly connects the separate but not independent ideas of house and home. The building feels lived in — not so much because we see that it is (there are the occasional people) but because of Hirabayashi’s focus on the aspect of home and how that aspect can be communicated with pictures.

I suppose that someone interested in architecture or someone trained in it will be able to extract something entirely different from the book. But then, they might be not so interested in all the photographs that don’t even really show the building. Who knows? Either way, Koechlin House offers a compelling look at an example of contemporary architecture and how people living in it have adjusted to life inside.

Koechlin House; photographs by Daisuke Hirabayashi; texts by Ellena Ehrl, Tibor Bielicky, Nicolas Jérôme Hünerwadel; 128 pages; MACK; 2023

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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!