Ein Dorf

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Even as the following exercise is limiting in a number of ways, it would be instructive to describe the state of German photography since the end of World War 2 as being caught between two married couples, with all partners being photographers. You would have the cerebral and cold photography produced by Bernd and Hilla Becher at one end of the spectrum. At the other end, you would find the photography made by Ute and Werner Mahler — filled with emotion and precision (a tricky mix: try achieving it!).

You could fill all kinds of interesting details into such an investigation, many of them contested and loaded with political explosiveness, West Germans and East Germans, say, or city (and by extension industrial) versus rural life. And there might be much to be gained from looking at photography that was made in the kind of negotiations that is entailed between two married partners.

As I noted, this particular exercise is limiting. Why would the partners have to be following traditional family ideas? Where are the 25% of today’s Germans who are the ones to exist with an asterisk next to their Germanness (the fact that they have “a migratory background”, as the remaining 75% define them, while enjoying the privilege of simply being German [imagine furious winking by those at the now considerable far-right end of the political spectrum])?

In the following, I do not intend to expand on the idea of the exercise. I will ignore the Bechers whose work, after all, has been talked about quite enough. Instead, I want to make the case that Ute and Werner Mahler have just released a landmark publication of photography that should be looked at and studied widely. It’s a book with the rather modest title Ein Dorf (A Village).

It would be unfair and improper to omit the third photographer involved, Ludwig Schirmer, especially since he was the one who got it all started. By trade a miller, Schirmer lived in a small village named Berka. If you imagine the map of today’s Germany, the village would be located to the northeast of its geographical center. This is where Schirmer picked up photography, to document village life for around a decade (before leaving for East Berlin to become a well known photographer there).

Schirmer had a daughter named Ute who caught the photography bug as well. Ute proceeded to marry a guy named Werner Mahler, himself a photographer. There you have it, Ein Dorf is also a family affair.

If there is one defining property of a village, regardless of where it is located in the world, it is that people with aspirations tend to leave. This is not to say that village life is unable to fulfill aspirations. But there are aspirations and aspirations, and some can only be taken care of in larger cities. Many people go back regularly to where they are from, because for them it is a magical place (a sentiment that entirely escapes this writer).

The Germans have a word for that — Heimat — and in true German fashion, they believe that it’s a term that has no equivalent anywhere else. That’s obviously nonsense, but it’s best not to argue with them over what they hold dear (even as the connection of Heimat and far-right ideology in Germany certainly is more than merely worrisome).

Ute and Werner went back to Berka at different times to take photographs. Werner went in 1977/78 and 1988, Ute went in 2021/22. You thus have three incredible photographers taken pictures of a small German village over a time span of a little over seven decades.

And that’s Germany, where the village had just emerged from World War 2 (in at least one of Schirmer’s photographs, a man missing a leg can be seen: a veteran), underwent decades of Communist rule, only to then undergo yet another transformation as the country was united into today’s hypercapitalist Germany.

In other words, in this small village, you can trace considerable aspects of recent German history through photographs. You can see the village and its people change. In itself, that would be remarkable enough.

But it’s the fact that the three photographers also were (in the case of Ute and Werner still are) incredible photographers that makes this book such an important contribution to German photography. In lesser hands, the photographs would have still allowed for the study of village life. But through the hands of these three photographers, the sociological or anthropological aspects of the work co-exist with its artistic ones.

Often, when someone writes an article about portrait photography the one name that gets mentioned is August Sander’s. Undoubtedly, Sander’s work is amazing. However, various aspects of it are typically not discussed, even as they’re very much apparent in the work. In part, this might be because of the photographer’s own organization of the work.

If you ignore that part, you can see the different German countries Sander photographed in as well. The farmers on their way to the dance originate from a completely different world than the cool secretary who is smoking her cigarette while being perched on her chair. And that latter world then got destroyed by the Nazis. Sander photographed them as well; you can also see proto-Nazis in some of the pictures.

If you now add Ludwig Schirmer’s, Ute Mahler’s, and Werner Mahler’s photograph, you have a visual record of Germany since about 1900 that traces the various ideologies that — for better or worse — shaped the country (and larger parts of Europe in a mostly very destructive fashion).

As is the case with most photography books, Ein Dorf comes with a set of essays. There’s one about photography, and that’s the least interesting one. There’s a sociological one that unpeels what we might see but not notice. There’s an essay that outlines the history of the protagonists and the village. And then there’s a literary contribution, which for me is the highlight.

If you’re at all interested in photography, you would be out of your mind if you didn’t order a copy of this book. It not only is absolutely incredible, it also is a landmark publication for photography from and about Germany, the terribly flawed country that sits right in Europe’s very center.

Ein Dorf 1950 – 2022; photographs by Ute Mahler, Werner Mahler, Ludwig Schirmer; essays by Jenny Erpenbeck, Anja Maier, Steffen Mau, Gary Van Zante; 362 pages; Hartmann Books; 2024

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Is your project merely a series of photographs?

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The other day, I found a long list of tips around how to go about writing one’s novel. I have no intention of writing one. But I read a lot about writing simply because for some reason, essays produced around writing tend to be intelligent and useful. I love good writing, and I’m constantly trying to gleam some tricks.

Looking at other forms of art other than your own — I’m also a photographer — helps develop one’s own thinking: there is a shared universality behind art making. That universality will elude all those photographers and critics who only look at photography and who have no interest in anything else (my past teaching experience tells me that’s a majority of practitioners).

Of course, lists such as the one I mentioned above are hit or miss, and that’s partly the point. If you’re looking for the ten or 100 tips that will give you everything you need to do something, whether it’s taking photographs, writing a novel, or making the perfect sushi, then you’re really not getting it.

Nobody can teach you how you can do it. You have to grow into yourself as a creative person; other people can tell you what worked for them.

As is always the case when looking at non-photo material, some of the tips can be made to apply to photography more than others. Some are solid, others… not so much. That’s good. You want to engage in this kind of sorting, because that’s your first form of engagement. It’s a little bit like walking along a brook to collect stones to take home: you pick one up, look at it, and then you decide whether or not to take it or leave it.

As I was going through the list, at number 67 I was suddenly struck with some insight. “Is your fiction merely a series of photographs?,” it started, “in other words, do your sentences catalog static images?” This, I realized, is what differentiates truly good photography from merely competent one.

With a relatively minor modification, it becomes “Is your project merely a series of photographs? In other words, do your photographs catalog static images?”

You now might wonder how there might be any insight gained from these apparently meaningless phrases. Isn’t a photography project (or book) always a series of photographs? And aren’t photographs always only static images?

Well, yes and yes — if you insist on a very literal interpretation of what photography is and does. It is that very literal interpretation that has so much writing around photography never leave the ground, to endlessly circle around aspects of craft.

While all photographs are static — once taken, they are frozen — some photographs work differently than others. There essentially are two types of photographs. The first describes what it contains. The second does the same, at least in part, but it mostly points at something outside of the frame. The former photograph is static. The latter is dynamic.

Maybe the simplest example for static photography is provided by the Bechers’ work. Their photographs of water towers, gas tanks, and other industrial structures are completely static. The idea is for the viewer to look at a water tower (gas tank etc.) and take in its characteristics. Every decision that went into the making of those pictures was intended to have the photographs arrive at this destination. The light is always even, the objects are in the center of the frame, the geometry is resolved in such a fashion that no aberrant line might provide any distraction.

There was not supposed to be any potential in the work beyond the description. As a viewer, you were not supposed to be suddenly thinking about, say, the sadness of life, kittens, or whatever else. If anything, by hanging these photographs in grids, the Bechers wanted you to compare and contrast. That’s it. Not more, not less. The work is really well done, and a lot of people love it. I love the ambition and drive behind it, but I find the complete lack of emotions behind it tedious and off-putting.

It would be tempting to think that staged-narrative photography might provide the most obvious example of pictures that are dynamic by pointing at something outside of their frames. In a very basic sense, that’s correct. That said, though, most staged-narrative photography is simply too didactic, guiding viewers into exactly that one direction that the photographer could think about.

In the context of academic photography education (in particular so-called MFA programs), part of the problem originates from how photographs are being treated there. In my own experience, pictures are mostly discussed on their own. Putting them into relationships with each other is an afterthought, with especially the older faculty treating editing as merely an exercise in selecting the best examples (whatever “best” might even mean).

It is as if photographs were these magical entities that existed on their own. Obviously, they don’t. Almost everywhere photographs operate in relationship to something else, whether it’s text (as in news media), text and cityscapes (public advertising), or whatever else.

Crucially, the meaning of a photograph… Well, that’s an ugly and misguided idea to begin with. Photographs have no meaning. What we think of as meaning is created through a combination of the photograph and our reaction to it.

That meaning can change considerably when a photograph’s context changes or when a photograph is taken from one pairing and inserted into another (which only proves my point that there is no such thing as a fixed meaning).

If you’re trained to see photographs in relationships with each other, you’re much more likely to avoid the general problem I’m discussing here in the first place: instead of viewing them as pearls (you pick the shiniest ones), you see them as puzzle pieces that connect to other pieces (those other puzzle pieces do not necessarily only have to be photographs).

However, if you’re trained to see photographs as pearls, it’s very likely that you might be able to produce a shiny pearl necklace, in which each and every member is perfectly beautiful. But the total will not be more than the sum of its parts. That works for a lot of photography. However, it’s incredibly limiting. It throws out larger parts of the medium’s full potential.

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to establish photography as Art by copying other forms of Art that lack photography’s potential. I find it difficult to blame the likes of Alfred Stieglitz who, after all, lived at a time when photography was hardly explored. But to still stick to that model is inexcusable today, especially if you’re teaching students who pay a lot of money to get the much coveted certificate that tells the world they’re “masters”.

In the list of writing tips, number 3 explains why staged-narrative photography tends to fall so flat: “Your photographs should embarrass you at least a little bit. If they don’t, you haven’t photographed anything of substance.” (As you can tell, I adapted the original to photography.) Shiny pearls tend to not embarrass their makers.

I don’t necessarily mean that embarrassment is the only kind of feeling that gets at this particular point. There are other feelings that can serve equally well. Shame is one (albeit not one based on ethical violations of people in front of the camera).

Whatever it is that has you hesitant to share photographs with others because they reveal too much about you is a good indicator that your photographs might be sitting in their sweet zone: you’re outside of your safe zone. Now, you’re not only exposing something about the world (and possibly other people). Your own head is on the chopping block.

Don’t get me wrong. If illustrating some pre-defined concept is your thing, then hey, don’t let me stop you. Occasionally, I love looking at projects that are that and only that (assuming the photographs are any good).

However, as a viewer, in some fashion I prefer to feel implicated when I look at photography. I want to feel something when I look at photographs. I want to hear the bars of my own cage rattling, reminding me of an as-of-yet unfulfilled potential.

It’s very difficult to make other people feel something when as a photographer you don’t feel anything yourself while taking your pictures. Nobody will be able to feel your pain if you don’t feel it first.

And if you don’t have any pain, please don’t try to be an artist.

In the context of The Americans, Robert Frank wrote the following: “My photographs in this book are intended to be understood as a whole. But just as in other forms of art there has to be mystery (enigmas) and uncertainty somewhere! And it does not matter where in and in which photo people will (see it) recognize it.” (I copied the quote from this book, but I forgot to write down the page number.)

That’s getting at the gist of all of the above. If your project merely is a series of photographs, there is no mystery, no uncertainty. The pictures describe, but they do not point at anything outside of their frames. Typically, the description of the whole then is supposed to be some theme or idea that “explores” any number of abstract nouns that are lined up in a desperate attempt to dress up something that will not shine on its own.

Thus (number 97), “hone your sensibility. This is obvious, but it demands patience, discipline, and a high tolerance for risk.”

Don’t shy away from that risk.

Songs in a strange land

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We are so used to handling printed matter that we do not pay much attention to its physical properties. Looking at a book requires work: you have to hold it or use a table for support, and you have to turn the pages. But we’re used to the work, so it doesn’t register. It is when a book deviates from its basic, standard form that this aspect of our engagement becomes vastly amplified. Suddenly, we notice the work that goes into our engagement with the object, and we note the details of its physicality.

In the world of the photobook, this particular physicality has the potential to become essential for a book’s experience. Take Kikuji Kawada’s The Map (I’m talking about the original). The book was assembled using a unique construction. Every other spread contains gatefolds on both sides. There is an image, and when you open up the gatefolds, there is another one (occasionally there might be two, but they’re usually so fused that they communicate as one).

You can only appreciate the construction’s effect when you handle the book yourself. Looking at the book requires considerable amounts of work. But since the unfolding and refolding of the gatefolds happens in such a regular fashion, after a short while, a routine sets in that becomes oddly mesmerizing. The act of moving your hands acquires its own significance, and the act of looking at the book takes on aspects of meditation.

As the later two-book version demonstrates, if you take that aspect away from The Map and if you organize the photographs by category, you destroy most of the work’s magic. In one case, the work is a piece of art, in the other it’s a not very interesting photography catalogue.

The Map might be an extreme example; even so it points at the essential fact that every aspect of the physicality of the book matters: the book itself, the object, can help communicate the work’s ideas and feelings. That’s why generic photobooks, books produced without spirit and feeling, are so bad. It’s what in the past I referred to as the Tupperware approach to making a photobook, where you dump the pictures into a generic container and call it a day.

Let’s say you’re a photobook maker and your task is to make a book that communicates a voyage along a river. How would you go about this? In the most basic fashion (and that’s probably the route 99% of photobook makers would take), the sequence of photographs in a book can be seen as such a voyage. That’s very pedestrian, but it works.

But let’s say that you’re a photobook maker and you’re ambitious. Is there a way to make a photobook where the physical form of the book helps drive home the point of such a voyage? Well, yes, there is.

Michelle Piergoelam‘s Songs in a strange land is a roughly letter-sized softcover book that, when opened, reveals two sides. The left side of its interior contains the book’s essay, printed on a single folded sheet of paper that is sewn into the case. If you pay careful attention, you’ll admire the precision with which the images on the outside align with the images on the cover itself.

The right side of the book reveals what at first comes across as a dark block with some text on top. You can unfold it on its left side, to encounter more darkness and more text. If you look carefully, you will see some details in the darkness — leaves. But you need to unfold the block (let’s call it that) again and again to arrive at what you could think of as pages. By now, the book has become a lot wider than its original form, and unfolding the pages doubles its width yet again.

You will realize fairly quickly that you’ll need a table to look at the book (the floor will do, too). Please note that these photographs only show very small sections.

There are four pages to turn. Four doesn’t sound like such a huge number: do you know any books with this few pages? But when engaging with the book, you’re already in a world where such considerations are mere trifles. Each of the spreads (if that’s what we want to call the unfolded sections) presents a distinct set of imagery.

The first shows a boat, a river, a person, some leaves — all of that in darkness, with dark blue tones revealing what little the eye can make out. There are four photographs of a pair of hands engaged in different gestures in the next spread. After that, the person again (it must be the same as in the first), but now you’re made to sit behind him in the boat, and there is more colour (albeit not much). The final spread shows his face three times, and there must be a song that is sung. Next to it, there are what look like photograms (leaves etc.).

Folding the book back up, you might pay more attention to the dark pages (at least that’s how I first approached the book). There’s text on them. It’s a song.

From the above, it might be clear that the act of looking at the book provides an essential part of how it works. The book is delicate, requiring careful handling (or maybe that’s just me, I don’t like to tear the pages in my books). Its meaning literally unfolds in front of your eyes.

But the object itself also is very beautiful. Those long spreads work very well purely in a visual fashion. They do what a standard book would never be able to do. This is photobook making at its finest, here through the concept/design developed by Sybren Kuiper.

Songs in a strange land uses river travel as a device to address the lives of slave under Dutch colonial rule in Suriname. Thousands of people had been abducted from their homes in various places in Africa, transported across the Atlantic under the most brutal conditions, and made to work the plantations the Dutch used to build their colonial/financial empire. In Suriname, a locale filled with rivers, river travel played an integral part of the endeavour.

Songs brought from their ancestral homelands — now far away — played an important role for those having to live under the most brutal conditions. “Dawn,” some of the text reads, “brought them hope for better lives / And their songs still echo on the rhythm of the water”. Of Surinamese descent but born in the Netherlands, Piergoelam originally knew very little of that country. Her work has centered on attempting to get closer to the lives and experiences of those whose stories she alludes to.

For all these reasons, Songs in a strange land is an absolutely essential photobook. It combines the best aspects of photobook making with a very contemporary way to tell a story that needs to be told.

Highly recommended.

Songs in a strange land; photographs by Michelle Piergoelam; essay by Alx van Stirpriaan; 36 pages*; Lecturis; 2023

*please note that given the construction of the book, the page count is rather irrelevant

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