Women at Work

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On 5 February 2024, Helga Paris died at age 85. This had me think that I needed to look at her work again. Rummaging through the boxes of my books, still packed away in an unused room, would not lead me to the desired result: I knew that I did not own a book containing the photographer’s work.

I was aware of a recent book with photographs Paris took at Leipzig’s central train station some time in the 1980s. When it came out, I thought it was OK work but not something I needed in my house. It felt like the kind of work that would resonate in a rather localized fashion: with those who lived in the locale and have some form of attachment to it. This kind of photography is very common. Yo be honest, I usually find it hard to relate to, especially since books tend to lean heavily towards nostalgia.

What I was looking instead was a book with Paris’ portraits. If you look through the website of her archive, I think you will see that that the portraits are the real gems. This is not to say that the other pictures are bad; it’s just that the portraits are simply in a completely different league.

Two years ago, a book entitled Frauen bei der Arbeit (Women at Work) was published. I somehow missed it then, possibly because the publisher was not on my radar (and who has the time and patience to look through DAP’s rather messy catalogue?). I ordered myself a copy.

In many ways, the book is the perfect introduction to the East German photographer for all of those who are looking to add some of her work to their library. It contains a statement by Paris, which describes her interests and how they relate to her life circumstances in a remarkably succinct fashion. And there is an interview with the photographer that further dives into what drove her.

As someone who grew up on the other side of the Berlin Wall, to a large extent East Germany has remained a foreign country to me. For all the right and wrong reasons, East Germans who spent large parts of their lives in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) have not made it easy for outsiders to get access to their world. I don’t necessarily mean this as criticism: being extremely careful with whom you would share private information formed part of their survival strategy. Remember, one in ten East Germans informally worked for the country’s equivalent of the KGB (the infamous Stasi).

And today, it is not easy to talk about that particular past in Germany anyway. If there is anything positive being said or written, inevitably someone (often but not always from the former West) will talk about the Stasi and the dictatorship, and how dare anyone suggest that there might have been positive aspects to any of that?! Subtleties or nuances, you see, aren’t necessarily something Germans do well; and most of today’s societies have become unable to accept the existence of mutually exclusive truths that are present at the same time regardless.

As women in the GDR, Paris notes in the interview, “we demanded equal rights when necessary, and we got them. Did that happen in the West? Probably not. That’s embarrassing.” This obviously is the kind of occasion where the usual suspects would throw in the “what about the dictatorship” bit: The photographer has an important point, and it’s a point that traces through the book, a book made in a Germany where women probably have less rights than Paris and her peers enjoyed in the GDR.

It gets even more interesting if you consider the fact that the photographs in Frauen bei der Arbeit did not have to be made in a clandestine fashion. A lot of East German photographers were unable to showcase their real work because it didn’t conform with state ideology. In its most basic form, though, the photographs of women workers in a garment factory do: the GDR styled itself as the state of workers and farmers, and it is those people whom Helga Paris photographed.

The difference between official GDR photography and Paris’, of course, is that the former had to serve the state. Helga Paris was having none of that. Her interest was in the people in front of her camera. If you read the photographer’s words, she comes across as blunt and unpretentious. It’s exactly the complete lack of pretense that forms the core of what makes these photographs so good and, as I already noted, subversive.

“In photography, you need a certain empathy for the other person,” Paris says in the interview, somewhat casually mentioning what I see as the most important aspect of her (and many of her East German peers’) practice. Even if it seems clear that probably all of the women who found themselves in front of the camera were strangers, the photographer cared a whole lot about each and every one of them — except maybe one who is depicted at a much larger distance, glaring at the photographer.

The following might be a comparison too far for most, but regardless: if you want to ignore the very different circumstances under which and reasons why the pictures were made, I’m reminded of the great Lewis Hine’s child labour photographs. In both cases, the photographers went out to take photographs because they cared for those in front of their cameras — and not only for the resulting pictures. Paris and Hine wanted us to see the persons in front of their cameras and to fully acknowledge them.

There will be blank spots in the history of photography to be filled for at least as long as I’m alive. East Germany still is a rather blank spot (especially outside of Germany), and too many women photographers’ work is also still waiting to be given its due. If you want to add just one book to your library that can do a rather magical job to alleviate part of that problem, it probably should be Helga Paris’ Frauen bei der Arbeit. The fact that it’s a lovely production is an added bonus.

Highly recommended.

Frauen bei der Arbeit/Women at Work; photographs and text by Helga Paris; interview with Oliver Zybok; 120 pages; Weiss Publication; 2022

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Deutschland im Herbst

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It’s one of those amazing coincidences that in Germany a single day is the anniversary of a number of essential historical events, most of which are interconnected: 9 November. That day marked the beginning of the ill-fated Weimar Republic. It’s the day of Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch. It’s the day when in 1938 large-scale violence erupted against Jewish citizens and their property in Nazi Germany (“Kristallnacht“). And it’s the day that marks the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There are a few relatively minor other events on that day. But you can probably see how that particular day, late in those gloomy, gloomy German autumns, has particular relevance. In fact, autumn itself plays an outsized role in the German mind. Germans are gloomy, gloomy people, and the physical decay of the plant life combined with shorter and shorter hours of daylight at a time when the sun won’t peek out behind heavy clouds appears to portend something ominous to happen.

Ever since 1977, when a wave of left-wing terrorism shook West Germany, autumn itself became associated with possible political and societal doom. If you lived through that period (I did at possibly the worst possible time in my life, being old enough to understand something was seriously amiss but not only enough to be able to process it), you’ll remember what a ghastly affair that time was.

Ten years ago, a movement emerged in Germany that in the relatively short period of time since would result in what can only be viewed as a severe crisis of democracy in a number of East German states. People took to the streets to demonstrate against immigration and Islam, styling themselves after the protestors that had brought down the East German regime decades earlier.

Once the refugee crisis and the Covid pandemic hit Germany, the movement only grew, and it attracted any number of  people: fascists, extreme nationalists who aren’t fascists (I know this sounds like a weird distinction), conspiracy theorists, people on the far left of the spectrum who finally found a cause to join to voice their rather primitive anti-American instincts, and those attracted to Vladimir Putin’s fascist russia (it’s not clear where these people fit on the political spectrum, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter).

Please note that the categories aren’t even mutually exclusive. It’s not easy to wrap one’s head around where exactly someone like Sahra Wagenknecht, a politician that formerly was extremely pro-Communist but now routinely spouts fascist talking points, fits. What does matter, though, is that all of these people ultimately want to destroy Germany’s democracy and create something else (which might or might not look like Putin’s russia).

Even as many of the details here are uniquely German, the basic underlying principle is universal. You can find the same toxic mix of, say, people believing in conspiracy theories while loving Putin in parts of the Republican Party in the US. But of course, things are a little scarier in Germany, because that’s the country that started World War 2 in Europe, the country that is responsible for the Holocaust.

My country. If the above doesn’t contain reasons enough to be gloomy, I don’t know what else you’d need.

Regardless, part of the toxic mix on display by these anti-democratic forces is their open disdain of the media, where anything that even remotely might have something to do with the media — let’s say a camera — makes the holder of said device a person that virulent hatred is directed at (and open violence is often not that far away). So for Felix Adler to take his camera to photograph some of the protestors that still meet regularly is a gutsy move.

“Every Monday evening in Germany ten thousands of people demonstrate,” he writes, “mostly situated in Eastern Germany and not much noticed by the media and the rest of the people, the demonstrators seem to live in a self-affirming parallel world.” The evenings do not provide much like for a camera; but there are things you can do with a flash that carry the potential to throw things into sharp relief.

And that’s what Adler did. In his photographs from Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), people and items appear against a sea of black. Photographically, it’s a simple device.

Visually, it makes for an astonishing effect: the melange of political delusion and craziness is separated out into some of its constituent parts. Individual aspects suddenly take on special meaning, even if the mix of it all never ceases to be little more than a bunch of political lunatics attempting to destroy the very democracy that grants them the rights to protest in the first place.

Adler published the work in the form of a set of cards that comes with a booklet. The booklet contains a conversation about the work, conducted by and with a journalist, an art critic, and a writer. Unfortunately, there is no English translation in the booklet. However, I suspect that without added context, some of the details discussed by the trio might be difficult to understand for someone who is not from Germany.

In light of the glaring problems that Germany is facing right now, including especially the fact that the neofascist AfD party appears to have become the strongest political force in larger parts of East Germany, work like Felix Adler’s Deutschland im Herbst is essential, a much needed reminder that photographers can indeed play their part in trying to stem the far-right tide in their country.

With larger parts of Germany’s so-called conservative parties now openly embracing far-right talking points (“woke” etc.), Germans who have learned their lessons from their country’s past and who still believe in political decency will have to make themselves heard. It’s heartening to see many hundreds of thousands of Germans taking to the streets to protest against the neofacism in their midst.

More of Germany’s photographers might want to think about whether they can also contribute to efforts to sustain the very democracy that makes their work possible.

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Ordinary Things

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The world of contemporary art photography (photoland) lives with a very basic contradiction. On the hand, it routinely belittles all those who are not part of it as shallow when they take photographs. If you want to believe most art critics and writers, selfies and photographs of food are signs of a complete lack of sophistication and class (which, and this is implied, exists in sheer abundance in photoland [it doesn’t]).

On the other hand, photoland often goes gaga over photographs taken by outsiders, given that they are unfettered by the many unnecessary restrictions and rules photolandians live with. A good example are the photographs taken by Corita Kent, now available in book form as Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us.

Before we proceed, a couple of small notes. First, Corita Kent was born as Frances Elizabeth Kent, became a nun (Sister Mary Corita Kent), and later returned to secular life as Corita Kent or simply Corita. Second, the photographs in question were taken not only by Sister Mary Corita Kent but also by others, including (then) Sister Mary Lenore (now Lenore Dowling). There is a short essay by Olivian Cha in the book with more details. When looking at the photographs, you do not want to focus on the aspect of authorship in the strict photolandian sense all that much, because you’d be missing most of the points made by Corita Kent during her life time.

Kent, Cha explains, “did not make prints from her slides or exhibit her photographs as artworks. She described them fore most as plentiful sources, precursory, exploratory, and meant to be shared: ‘Anything can be a source, even a mistake. The sorcery or the thievery is the art of relating sources into a new solution.'” (emphases in the original) By itself, this is not necessarily a very original approach — ever since photography was invented, (non-photographic) artists have treated it as a way to create source material.

That said, there is considerable visual wit in these photographs, which makes them very interesting to look at. If you only know the photographs and know nothing about Corita Kent’s art, it might not surprise you to learn that she was a very gifted maker of screenprints. She now is seen as an important pop artist. Many of the photographs in the book indeed are very graphic in the sense that they extract snippets of the world (often signage) to amplify the basic graphic elements therein.

Furthermore, there is a vast sense of wit and play in a lot of the photographs, something that I personally do not associate with the organisation that Corita Kent was a part of (the Catholic church) — until she was pushed out by some cardinal who frankly does not deserve to get any more attention, so I will ignore his name. Kent’s best revenge — even though I think she might not have seen it that way — was to later design a US stamp with the message “love”, which was sold hundreds of millions of times.

The photographs in Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us were taken in the 1950s and 60s, and they easily tie in with the counterculture that would blossom in the later part of that period — to then come crashing down. A little over ten years later, the election of Ronald Reagan would trigger the massive counter-revolution that we now have to live with. I have no way of knowing how the photographs would have been viewed around the time they were made or when they were used by Corita Kent in workshops and lectures.

Looking back and being mindful of the atmosphere that now pervades the US, one can’t help but almost feel nostalgic for the time depicted in the photographs — even if that nostalgia is in fact completely misplaced (as nostalgia always is). This brings me to the book itself, in particular the way it was designed and put together. I don’t know how the book would have been conceived when the pictures were made. I don’t have a time machine available to find out.

That all said, what bothers me is the fact that the book has basically turned the photographs and spirit of Corita Kent’s work into something you might find at Urban Outfitters: material to be consumed by well-off hipsters.

The book is trying way too hard to create something fun out of a collection of pictures that don’t need that help. Looking through the book, at every turn of the page I almost expected someone to pop up behind me, exclaiming “Haha! Get it? Such fun!” Yes, the pictures are fun, but please don’t hit me over the head with that.

Furthermore, the pictures are actually a lot more than merely fun. Their wit and playfulness have a lot to offer: they invite introspection and a re-discovery of one’s inner child. Unfortunately, the book’s relentless over-the-top effort to be fun itself gets in the way of a deeper and more meaningful engagement with Corita Kent’s core message.

Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us; photographs by Corita Kent; texts by Corita Kent and Olivian Cha; J&L Books/Magic Hour Press; 2023

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“The works on pages 13, 17, 21, 49, 51, 47, 49, 65 and 97 were made by my daughter Laurie,” writes Thomas Manneke in the very brief afterword in the colophon of his book Zillion (yes, 49 appears twice, possibly an oversight). If I have one complaint about the book (and it is just this one), it’s the title. A book like this, a book filled with playful photographs and wonderful portraits, ought to have a better title than Zillion. Unless zillion is also a word from a language other than English, a language I am not familiar with, and in that language its meaning conveys grace, wit, and joy.

Laurie, the photographer’s collaborator, also finds herself in front of her father’s lens in a series of portraits, some of them taken in domestic settings, some of them outside. Those with good visual memory might pick up on the visual echo in the cover photograph. It evokes a classic Dutch photobook that isn’t as well known outside of the Netherlands as it should be: Johan van der Keuken and Rempo Campert’s Achter Glas.

A fun fact as an aside: when I looked on YouTube if there is a video of the book, using “achter glas keuken”, I ended up with a string of videos intended for home renovations. “Keuken,” I believe, is “kitchen” in Dutch, and “achter” means “behind”. Between the Dutch home-repair videos and the ads I didn’t have the patience to locate a video of Achter Glas (assuming there is one). I’ll make one myself once I found my copy in the many moving boxes.

Regardless, even as the 1957 book contains a very different story, there is a shared photographic sensibility. This is interesting because when Van der Keuken took his pictures, he was a teenager who, I wager, was still mentally embroiled in the transition of the world of children to the world of adults. His portraits of friends and acquaintances are very stylish, but they’re also very tender.

Somehow, Manneke, who clearly is much older (it would seem that his daughter is about to face that threshold that Van der Keuken had just passed) managed to bring the same spirit to the photographs of Laurie. That’s really impressive.

I’m writing these words not merely as a critic but also as a photographer whose portraits always end up on the slightly unsettling side, even when the people in front of the camera are not that much older than Van der Keuken was in 1957. It’s not that I mind this fact — it works well for my work around fascism, but at times I do hope that I were able to make tender portraits.

Regardless (again! so many asides!), one of the portraits of Laurie (page 47) hits the Van der Keuken note most strongly. The young girl is looking at the camera, and with her left hand she is holding a little object (a shell? a piece of wood? a stone?) against her body, just below her neck. I know absolutely nothing about Laurie, but I see someone who knows about the transformative power of the camera. She exudes — or maybe would like to do so — a sense of confidence beyond her years. It’s incredibly charming — and vulnerable in the way that you can only be at that age.

The “works” referenced by Manneke in the quote I began this article with are constructions made with the intent to be photographed. Some of them were inspired by other artists’ works. That said, not all of the objects in the book were made to be photographed. Some were simply found and then subjected to the same treatment such as, for example, some foam packing material that while discarded in the street through Manneke’s camera becomes an object of intrigue.

Art is all around us, the book says, and where there is no art it can be made out of the simplest materials: take anything — some cardboard, some metal coils, some pieces of tape, and with a playful pair of hands a piece of art can be had quickly and easily. This is, of course, the world of children, even as they are not too concerned with art, or rather our adult way of thinking of art, a thinking devoid of playfulness and filled with shallow pretense.

Sometimes, you only find out that you had been waiting for something when it actually arrives. Certainly this was the case with Zillion for me. I had been waiting for this book — or for a book that would do what this one does.

Of late, photography has become such a joyless affair, for reasons that I can only speculate about. I will not do that in public, because people tend to get upset, and I don’t need that any longer in my life. Everything about it has become joyless: the making, the distributing, even the looking. Or maybe that’s just me (entirely possible). Maybe curators that put together those shows about some abstract extremely broad subject matter enjoy what they’re doing, and maybe the photographers who get included do, too.

It’s not even that I’m looking for escapism — quite on the contrary. Escapism could be easily had, I would just have to binge watch whatever it is that people currently are obsessed with. What I’m looking for, instead, is beauty.

Creating beauty appears to be such a minor activity. I maintain that it’s one of the most political acts of these times, given that the world the fascists are angling for right now is all kinds of things, but it’s not beautiful. And the fascists have no understanding of what beauty is. If you don’t believe me, just look at and listen to them!

So this book that at first glance would appear to be rather inconsequential — what do photographs of little pieces of art and of a young girl have to set against fascism? — ends up being very consequential after all. It’s a reminder of the fact that contrary to what we are being told left and right, beauty and love are the two things that make life worthwhile. Not power, not money, not dominance.

Zillion was made with love and a fine sense for beauty, and it is filled with love and a fine sense for beauty.

Highly recommended.

Zillion; photographs by Thomas Manneke; 112 pages; van Zoetendaal; 2023

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