Ordinary People

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Ordinary People, the catalogue produced at the occasion of Rob Hornstra‘s mid-career retrospective at Fotomuseum Den Haag, might feature the most atypical cover photograph. It’s slightly wonky, and it has six people pose who, this much is clear, ordinarily do not assemble in this fashion.

At the right-hand side of the group, there is a boyish looking man whose body posture betrays being tall and thus having to more or less constantly accommodate to people of more regular height. That’s Rob. There is another interloper, a man with curly hair. That’s Arnold van Bruggen, a writer and Rob’s artistic partner. Together, they have been producing some of the smartest contemporary documentary photography over the past two decades.

In many ways, presenting just Rob’s work — the pictures — without Arnold’s words is strange. Originally, I had a hard time imagining what that might look like. The title of the book (and exhibition) gives away the device used to tie together the work made in various European countries and in russia: Rob’s interest is in ordinary people.

Of course, that idea provides one of the major threads of photography’s history. Photographers love looking for ordinary people, because that way, they can — at least that;s one of art photography’s talking points — give them visibility. Richard Avedon, for example, trekked all across the American West to do this.

The reality is that Rob’s pictures have very little to do with Avedon’s crass and lurid spectacle of underprivileged strangers. For Avedon, his subjects were devices to produce pictures for his wealthy patrons: means to an end. Rob, in contrast, is genuinely interested in how the people live who end up in front of his camera. If you don’t believe it, read the text in the books that usually contain them (I reviewed many of them on this site; you can find the articles in the Archives).

The catalogue itself also makes Rob’s case. Inside, the many different locale’s are intermingled. It might have been tempting (and oh-so boring) to produce some sort of time line, with pictures made for different projects being kept strictly separated. Instead, with the help of some categories (Work, Disparity, Young, etc), photographs from different contexts are being put into new ones. And this works.

In between, you get all kinds of extra goodies: essays, presentations of outtakes, background information provided by Rob, some of the stories around the making of pictures (with, obviously, the most frightening coming from the hell hole that is russia); as always, designers Kummer and Herrman gave this all an elegant and attractive form. Rob also compiled and condensed the various interviews I did with him for the book.

What’s interesting about the book is that as the narratives from the original projects fall away, the pictures still hold up. But they do it differently than when accompanied by text. Where in the case of text next to a portrait, the text fills in a lot of what the picture is unable to show, here it’s the presence of the other pictures that does the lifting.

I wouldn’t want to say that as a viewer you compare; but for sure what initially comes across as some sort of obvious organization (the categories) ends up bringing together shared sensibilities between those portrayed. This is, after all, what you can do with photographs: their meanings are not tied down, and there is much to be gained from showing the same photographs in different contexts and configurations.

Still, with the russians portrayed in the book, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them, especially the younger ones, have by now become cannon fodder in Vladimir Putin’s genocidal war in Ukraine. For example, the young boy on page 13, photographed in an orphanage in Chelyabinsk in 2003 — two decades later, he would be of the right age to be a part of russia’s murderous war. Or maybe he now lives abroad, having fled like so many others?

If anything, the fact that brutality is often only one step away in regular human life provides one of the mostly hidden threads in the book — where it doesn’t present itself in all of its gory nastiness, such as when a group of butchers pose in front of the carcasses of animals they have killed.

Thomas Hobbes argued that without government, life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Well, with government it is the same for many people, especially if they’re of the ordinary kind.

It’s difficult to imagine the sheer amount of work then went into this mid-career retrospective. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin said, “beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

If anything, Ordinary People is testament to exactly that: a photographer’s absolutely incredible discipline and endurance, and his love for those whom he asked to pose in front of his camera.

Highly recommended.

Ordinary People; photographs by Rob Hornstra; essays and words by Lynn Berger, Willemijn van der Zwaan, Arnold van Bruggen, Rob Horrnstra; 320 pages; Lannoo Publishers; 2023

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Behold the digital Wunderkammer!

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“A mysterious, malevolent-looking mermaid mummy that was brought back to the U.S. from Japan more than 100 years ago,” a recent article noted, “appears to be a mix of fish, monkey and lizard parts that have been joined together like Frankenstein’s monster, initial scans suggest.”

It would appear that, alas, mermaids are not in fact real.”The mummy was purchased in Japan by an American naval officer who donated it to the Clark County Historical Society in Springfield, Ohio, in 1906. Documents supplied to the society with the mummy suggest it dates back to the mid-1800s.”

Lest you come to conclusions of any kind, there is nothing particularly American about that naval officer’s behaviour. In fact, Europeans had been scouring the world for treasures for centuries to fill their Wunderkammers, ideally with objects that satisfied their often morbid curiosity. Would it be able to get, say, a real unicorn? If you want to learn more about this, Lawrence Weschler wrote a fascinating book about it.

But it’s not even the so-called Enlightenment that is to blame for any of this. After all, in the Middle Ages, so-called relics were highly sought after. For example, in Cologne’s cathedral, there is a shrine that, and I’m not making this up, is supposed to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi. In Turin, there’s the famous shroud.

Common sense would tell you that someone with a good sense for business fabricated these things, to sell them to some gullible believer (obviously, religion and common sense do not necessarily intermingle well). If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus’ foreskins (again, not making this up).

It’s easy to attribute these droll stories to the follies of those that came before us. However, the contemporary museum arose out of Wunderkammers — little wonder then that today, fierce debates have erupted over all the stolen goods they contain. There’s a book about that as well: Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museum.

Step back a little bit to see the larger picture of a culture that in part was created by stealing or looting items elsewhere, to assemble them to create some sort of meaning.

None of this would have been possible without the riches assembled by the select few who bankrolled all of this. None of this would have been able without the combination of claiming to advance the world, being oblivious to various ethical aspects, and good old-fashioned gullibility.

After all, you believe what you want to believe. And if someone delivers you something that you really want to see — well, that’s a real miracle, whether religious as in the case of the bones and foreskins, or otherwise, such as in the case of the supposed mermaid. By the way, PT Barnum is said to have acquired a mermaid as well — in this nexus of Western folly, hucksters and bullshit artists are never far away.

The above might ring a bell. Even as we’re now living in 2024, isn’t there something that contains all those aforementioned ingredients, albeit in slightly different — digital — form?

Yes, there is! It’s the generative AI that currently is causing such a big splash (usually in the worst possible fashion). I can’t help but think that generative AI is little more than a variant of the Wunderkammers of old, except that now, you don’t have to enter some rich person’s dedicated cabinet of curiosities. Now, you write (“prompt”) what you want to get, and a computer far away, run and operated by some rich people, will deliver the goods for you.

Much like the aforementioned mermaid, your text and/or pictures will be stitched together from parts that never belonged together in the first place. The results typically read and/or look convincing — especially if you want them to be. “Donald Trump supporters,” the BBC wrote, “have been creating and sharing AI-generated fake images of black voters to encourage African Americans to vote Republican.”

All of this is based on taking other people’s work — their words, their images — without their permission. The looting now is fully digital, but it is looting regardless. Just look at Matt Growcoot’s re-creating famous photographs using a variety of AI image generators. “The AI,” he writes, “does not know that it is recreating a famous photo so closely yet that’s what it’s doing.”

Well, the AI is just some computer algorithm that’s not sentient. But the sentient beings behind it know exactly what they’re doing — much like the crafty person who sewed together the mermaid that that sailor brought back to the US.

If there is consolation in any of this it maybe is this one: at least the West is now essentially plundering itself. Instead of going to far-away places to look for loot or to buy something special from a trader who might or might not have got his wares in an ethical fashion, AI generators generate their wares by plundering parts of the very culture they supposedly contribute to.

It’s a contemporary variant of Saturn devouring his son, except now it’s the other way around.

Where or how this all will end is not clear. What is clear, though, is the fact that deep down in the Western psyche there’s some trigger that ends up producing multiple copies of Jesus’ foreskin, mummies of mermaids, or pictures of Donald Trump happily hanging out with Black people.

We believe in what we want to believe in, and the tools to get the goods are merely an expression of that fact. Much like the Wunderkammers, generative AI merely is a symptom of a much larger underlying problem.

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You only realize to what extent alienation drives one’s experience of city life when you travel to a distant locale where the rules of conduct differ. Transplanted to Tokyo, a Western visitor will find that certain things simply are different, even as the underlying ideas and principles of co-existing in a large city with millions of people are exactly the same. Rush-hour traffic in a subway there will subject you to a fascinating bodily brutality that shocked me even though I am familiar with commuting in Germany. At the same time, where there would be loud complaining and yelling in Germany, things evolved in almost complete silence.

The city is a moloch that can only function if there is a basic set of agreed-upon rules of conduct. If everybody does the same thing, every person will give away a minor aspect of their freedom in exchange for an altogether more convenient way to go about moving through a space with possibly many thousands of strangers. It ultimately is foolish to contrast and compare, and it certainly is foolish to draw conclusions from what is observed abroad (even as that makes for cute fodder for social media — witness the emergence of comedians that only focus on the supposed strangeness of the people in their adopted home countries).

If anything, the city amplifies the separation between the self and the outside world, the world that begins in that little sphere we all carry around us. Other people — strangers! — might intrude for no particular reason at all. And that offends us. In fact, even the possible thought of it happening charges up every trip through an urban space. We prepare ourselves accordingly, where we haven’t already acquired a mental suit of armor that we put on before we leave the house.

To encounter people means to judge them (unless, of course, you’re trained enough in Buddhism not to do so). To move through the city provides an endless stream of such judgments, and it is such judgments that form the core of Annie Ernaux‘s Exteriors, a relatively short book that is now available in truncated form, with photographs added. The latter — from now on, the title will always refer to this version — is the brainchild of Lou Stoppard, a writer and curator who assembled it during a residency at MEP in Paris.

Exteriors contains a series of relatively short vignettes, in which the narrator describes encounters with strangers in a city. In the pithy observations some judgment is implied just enough for it to become easily discernible for a reader.

In a much earlier period of my life, I spent about three or four months in Paris on a job. The job — a cheap suit among other cheap suits — involved a daily commute from some hotel to the hellscape that is the world of office buildings at La Défense. I have since had to commute in a number of other cities — Munich, Stockholm, Boston, Tokyo — but it is the Paris ones that were brought to mind when reading the book.

As should be clear from the above, I do not mean to apply any value judgment tbydescribing Exteriors as being very French. And maybe a reader who has never had my commuting experience in Paris might encounter Ernaux’s words very differently. Regardless, there is tremendous poignancy to her writing, as one brief encounter, one brief observation follows the next.

In Exteriors, the written vignettes are interspersed with photographs. As you might imagine, these photographs for the most part are part of the “street photography” genre. Some were taken by well-known photographers, but there are also others. What’s interesting is how well this works. I now cannot imagine reading the text-only version of the book (even as I’m curious about all the parts that are excluded in the image-text version) because I enjoy the interplay between the text and the images so much.

The spirit of city life, of random encounters, is communicated very well, which makes for a mesmerizing experience. That some of the photographers hail from very different locales does not matter all that much. There is the occasional shift in perspective, but that shift is entirely because of the person behind the camera: Daido Moriyama’s photographs fit in a lot better than Issei Suda’s, say. They both took their pictures in Tokyo, but they projected very different ideas onto their shared home city.

(You will note that I described Moriyama and Suda as shifting ideas onto the target of their photographs. There’s that judgment again. Photographers do not observe as if they were automatons, and neither do writers.)

Unfortunately, Exteriors includes catalogue-style captions underneath each of its photographs. This has one form of text clash with another: the functions of Ernaux’s words and the captions are completely different, which mars the overall effect of the combined text and images. If you read the book and look at the pictures, you will definitely have to force yourself to ignore the captions.

Reading and looking through Exteriors, I was left with the impression that Stoppard had not realized what she actually has produced. Even as there already is that text-only version of the work, the new one with its added photographs is a work of art in its own right. And it’s quite an impressive one, certainly one of the better examples of adding photographs to pre-existing text.

Consequently, I was very disappointed when the text-image section ended and I encountered a text by Stoppard around how she had produced the work. To some extent, I can understand the basis for the inclusion of that text. But the temptation should have been resisted. Much like artists are well advised to not explain their work, in this case reading this particular text does absolutely nothing for the absolutely amazing text that precedes it.

To be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself more and more disenchanted with the world of photo writing. This is entirely on me, of course. There is nothing wrong with regurgitating the same  ideas and sentiments (“Is that not exactly what a photograph does? Stop time.” — Stoppard) in the hope of extracting insight, however meager it usually ends up being.

Still, if photographs stop time, they only do so in the most superficially literal sense. Yes, a photograph shows what a physicist might describe as a projection in space-time: a three-dimensional space with time passing projected onto a two-dimensional plane in which only a very short and fixed period of time is contained.

But no photograph arrests time for a viewer, whoever they might be: in fact, the best photographs open up a seeming infinity of new ideas, new meanings, new possibilities — all of them propelling the viewer into an unknown and tremendously exciting future. A good photograph arrests nothing and compels us to consider our better future selves.

And what exactly does one gain from regurgitating the same trite sentiments (Garry Winogrand is quoted in the book as is Susan Sontag) in every photo text — as if they were a part of some religious ceremony?

I just don’t understand how the world of photography can insist on treating the medium like an art form — only to then mostly discuss it as if it were a petty craft, as in Stoppard’s essay at the end of Exteriors.

I don’t intend to be too critical of this curator’s work: after all, photographers struggle with the exact same challenge. At some point, you will have to realize that what you’ve made is smarter, deeper than yourself, and you have to resist the temptation to explain it or to press it into a Procrustean bed of limited meanings.

That all said, get yourself a copy of Exteriors. It’s absolutely amazing — as long as you only read Annie Ernaux’s text, and allow yourself to get fully immersed in this world that the photographs added by Lou Stoppard have created. Don’t look at how the sausage was made.

Exteriors; texts by Arnie Ernaux and Lou Stoppard; photographs by various artists, ed. Lou Stoppard; 144 pages; MACK; 2024

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Rental Person Who Does Nothing

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There is the temptation in the West to see what comes out of Japan as playful and slightly weird. A quote by Ruth Ozeki on the American cover of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman describes the book as “quirky, deadpan, poignant, and quietly profound, a gift to anyone who has ever felt at odds with the world.” Underneath, a happy looking onigiri shaped to look like a smiling girl lies on a plate that itself has been placed on a light pink cloth, against a bright blue background.

You wouldn’t know from any of this that Murata’s brilliant novel is only quirky and poignant if you ignore the sheer desperation that lies at the heart of its protagonist’s being — a woman who cannot possibly face her intended role in a rigid society that finds no place for individuality and who thus decided to stay in the kind of job typically reserved for people who in actuality will pursue something a lot more serious and ambitious the moment they can.

Why stay in a job where all you do is to stock shelves and repeat the same small set of phrases — Do you want chopsticks with this? Do you want this warmed up? Do you have a points card? — for years and years? Even the translated title does not match the Japanese original (“Convenience Store Person” — the rejection of traditional Japanese womanhood is an essential aspect in Murata’s work).

The book is not quietly profound at all: it is profound alright, but the despair of its protagonist at times is hard to bear. In fact, even the word despair does not get to the heart of the lone worker, because it implies the hope that there might be something better to attain. But no, much to the disdain of her family, Murata’s protagonist has completely abandoned the idea of fitting in and hoping for something “better”, meaning, inevitably, a better job, marriage, and children that then are to be taken of. That idea of better strikes her as infinitely worse.

There’s absolutely nothing quirky about Convenience Store Woman, and the fact that so many people in the West started reading it by mistake might just be the luckiest accident in the recent history of literature. It’s a great book, worth every moment of a reader’s attention, even if said reader might have come to it accepting something a lot sweeter (and possibly fun).

Even as Murata’s novel is quintessentially Japanese, given its specific setting, at its core lies one of the main problems of our neoliberal world, namely the fact that unfulfilled lives have become the norm in societies whose ideas of a person’s value has shifted decidedly towards the economical.

Regardless of whether you’re working at a konbini in Japan, stocking shelves at a Walmartaget somewhere in Middleofnowhereville, USA, tending to the cash register at ALDIDL in Dumpfhausen, Germany, getting by, if barely so, adds insult to the daily injury of an existence that at some stage appeared to have had a lot more promise.

What if you simply throw away the idea that you need to conform and get a radically different job? What if you decide to rent out your own time to strangers simply to do nothing, to, in effect, become a modern-day Bartleby? This would appear to be a strange idea, certainly one that would result in the kinds of reactions encountered by Sayaka Murata’s protagonist. But it’s exactly what Shoji Morimoto set out to do. Correspondingly, the book billed as his memoir is entitled Rental Person Who Does Nothing.

In fact, from the book it becomes relatively clear that Morimoto, a married father in his mid to late 30s, did not actually write the book (that would be doing something). Instead, he responded to a set of questions and a writer and editor put together the book. The writer, it is noted, “is not a particular fan of Rental Person” (it’s not clear why this piece of information is given).

It’s very important to realize that Morimoto is not any more a pointless slacker than the protagonist in Convenience Store Woman. It’s also important to realize that the Western publisher’s information was put together to sell books: “Rental Person provides a fascinating service to the lonely and socially anxious.” “A fascinating service” is exactly the kind of thinking that Morimoto more or less explicitly rejects. And only a few of his customers are lonely and/or socially anxious.

At the core of the book lies that basic idea that in principle, nobody has to accept the ways value is attached to people in today’s neoliberal societies. There is, after all, a different value, a value that is a lot more meaningful, even if that value might differ from person to person. And it is exactly that value Morimoto is after.

To begin with, on a job Morimoto does not actually do nothing. He will do quite a bit. What he will not do, though, is to offer anything that feels wrong to him for whatever reason. He might be happy to accept a job where someone tells him about something, but he will not when there is something expected in return, such as giving advice. The reasons for this are a lot more profound than you might imagine.

The occasional mention of the wife and family hint at the basic fact that Morimoto is in fact a responsible person embedded in a social structure. He is, in other words, no slacker. It’s just that having thought long and hard about life choices, he has come to the realization that what is the standard is no fit for him (this mirrors part of Convenience Store Woman). For example, and I will have to admit that this hit home pretty hard, he realized that an academic career would be pointless for him, given that he neither fits in and nor has the sense of dedication required to study models of earthquakes all day long.

There also are two siblings, or rather there were. There is an older brother who was unable to cope with Japan’s rigid way of interviewing for work and who thus never found a job. And an older sister took her own life for very similar reasons. It’s the quiet desperation conveyed here that sits at the core of Rental Person Who Does Nothing. Morimoto could have adopted a similar route, but he preferred not to.

Instead, his book centers on embracing the fact that we all suffer from any variety of things that do not serve us well but that we grin and bear regardless. Morimoto simply won’t. And he helps those who reach out to him to deal with theirs, such as when he accompanies a woman to a restaurant so that she can have a dry run for job functions. As it turns out, she has turned down all such work arrangements simply because it gives her anxiety (resulting in physical discomfort). After his job is done, Morimoto notes, she found the confidence to confide in her boss who, it turned out, eagerly provided accommodations for her.

In many ways, Morimoto’s book is the polar opposite of any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the brilliantly funny comedy that centers on people being unable and/or unwilling to conform to societal restrictions while pretending that there actually is no problem. At the core of any of Morimoto’s jobs sits the realization by another person that they have to simply admit that there is something they are unable to do on their own. So instead of pretending (Curb style) they hire Morimoto to help them, and the helping is almost entirely passive (hence the “does nothing”).

In effect, many of the encounters are dates, except that they are stripped of all expectations of a deeper — actually any emotional involvement. You need someone to sit with you under the cherry blossoms because going on your own would be too weird? Well, Morimoto will come along. In fact, at times merely asking him for the job does the trick. At some stage, someone asks him to watch them clean their kitchen (there might or might not be bugs). Morimoto rejects the job. A little later, he is being told that it was the asking for the help that nudged the person into the cleaning.

As mentioned above, there are specifically Japanese aspects to the book, whether the cherry-blossom viewing, the grueling job interviews, or whatever else. But these only sit on top of problems that are only too common: how do you deal with something you’re unable or unwilling to do? How do you build your own self of worth and value in a society that attribute these only in too narrow a fashion? How can you be a well formed person and accept the way you are if you somehow are a little bit different?

I’m worried that the perceived Japaneseness of Rental Person Who Does Nothing might make people overlook its rather universal core. Then again, maybe enough people read the book by mistake — expecting something a lot different, only to stumble upon the big holes in their lives: maybe we all could have more fulfilled lives if we collectively accepted a much wider range of what makes living life worthwhile?

Shoji Morimoto: Rental Person Who Does Nothing; translation from the original Japanese by Don Knotting; 192 pages; Hanover Square Press; Hanover Square Press; 2024