Writing about Photography: Three New Books

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Much like a plant relies on the soil it grows in, the nutrient it consumes, and the air it breathes, art writing does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. Instead, it arises in a very similar way, with whatever seeds are made to grow being deeply informed by the conditions under which the process takes place. This fact becomes very clear once a reader strays from the milieu s/he is familiar with, which given we’re dealing with language is not as easy as ideally it would be. However many languages someone might be able to read, there are many others s/he will have no access to — and in all likelihood, there is quite a bit of good art writing available that for this reason simply is inaccessible.

This year saw the publication of three books that anyone interested in critical writing about photography might be interested in. They each drive the point I made above home very strongly. They are Tyler Green‘s Carleton Watkins, Mariko Takeuchi‘s Silence and Image, and Taco Hidde Bakker‘s The Photograph That Took the Place of a Mountain.

Carleton Watkins (subtitled Making the West American) is a long overdue biography of this particular photographer. The result of many years of painstaking research by Tyler Green (of Modern Art Notes fame) and richly illustrated, this statement will be obvious to anyone familiar with the history of photography, but perhaps quite a bit less so for those who are not.

Who was Carleton Watkins? As it turns out, it’s not that clear, given that most direct records have simply disappeared. The very first photograph in the book shows an elderly man who is being led through what looks like a city in a war zone. There was no war, but the effects of the powerful 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires had the same effect on San Francisco, reducing vast parts of the city to ruins and destroying the photographer’s workshop and archive. Unlike August Sander, who had some of his negatives stored outside of the city he was living in, thus saving them from the destruction that befell the rest when Cologne was bombed, Watkins was not so lucky. He lost all his work. What we’re left with are the prints he had made and sold and/or distributed.

Having to rely on material related to the photographer (letters, newspaper articles, and much more), Green not only reconstructs his life to the extent that this is possible, he also places the man into the cultural, societal, and political context of his time. In a nutshell, the book really is as much a biography of a particular place at a particular time as it is a biography of the photographer. It is for that very reason that Carleton Watkins should be of interest for anyone interested in photography: the pictures are made to gain in stature not just in an artistic sense, but also in a larger societal one.

All too often, biographies treat photographers as if they either existed in more or less a vacuum or as if it was them who had an effect on their surroundings. Neither can obviously be the case — what I wrote above for art writing is also valid for photographing. In parts out of necessity, in part out of what I suspect is sheer curiosity and a desire to look more deeply at his subject, Green connects Watkins to some of the dominant themes of his era, which include, for example, the Civil War or the creation of the United State’s first National Park. These connections are explored deeply, bringing a time back to life that has considerable myths attached to it.

Having said that, the book also is deeply patriotic. I’m not sure how easily apparent this fact might be for an American reader (unless s/he is Native American). But this reader, born and raised in West Germany where any hints of even mild patriotism were viewed with if not strict disapproval then for sure severe skepticism, it’s a bit much at times. Your mileage might vary. What is more, discussions of Watkins’ photographs, especially when they are compared with those of his peers, often start out with the conclusion taken for granted: Watkins’ are great (which they often are), the other ones are very bad (which they are not quite as often as the author wants us believe).

Those aspects aside, Carleton Watkins is a treasure of a book, which hopefully will bring more attention to this particular photographer’s work and achievement. With its numerous illustrations of photographs discussed by the author, in all likelihood a reader will come away with a deep sense of appreciation of both the artist in question but also his biographer. Book geeks eager to look at the inside of the dust jacket will have their curiosity rewarded — a charming detail which only hints at the effort that went into the making of this biography.

Mariko Takeuchi’s Silence and Image is a bilingual collection of essays focusing exclusively on Japanese photographers. A very recent visit to the country made me very aware of its rich photographic culture that extends far beyond what is usually being presented in the West. In addition, having listened to a handful of Japanese photographers speak about their work had me realize the different approach they take when dealing with pictures. Turns out many photographers there write extensively (instead of relying on the commonly used and very tedious excuse used by many of their Western peers that had they wanted to write they would have become writers).

In her book, Takeuchi focuses on a number of artists some of which I suspect will be unknown to a larger Western audience. Consequently, the book not only opens up a window into a different critical sensibility, it also offers a chance to discover artists that deserve more exposure outside of their native Japan. For each artist, there are two photographs included in the book — one each before the English and Japanese language text. These images are tipped in, which only adds to the overall feel of the book’s preciousness.

“In itself,” Takeuichi begins her first essay on Lieko Shiga, “living is neither beautiful nor wonderful. Life, in fact, is incomparably cruel and even love destroys us. […] The image has the potential to save the innumerable lives and loves that are ignored and forgotten. This ‘saving,’ of course, does not occur easily in our world. The image’s capacity to save is similar to a desperate prayer.” Never before have I read someone write about photography this way. In a nutshell, this is what I meant when I wrote about the different critical sensibility earlier. I have no better words to describe what I mean.

For its essay on Ken Domon and his work in Hiroshima alone the book is worth being picked up. Part of this essay’s title (… Portraying the Suffering of Others) had me think I knew where it would be going. But no, there were no Susan Sontag quotes, and many of the angles common in Western writing were absent. Instead, the author used a very different approach and in a deft move the photographer’s own words to get to what was at stake for those depicted — before arriving at a conclusion that only hints at its own very impossibility. For sure, you want to read this essay.

Much like Silence and Image Taco Hidde Bakker’s The Photograph That Took the Place of a Mountain is a collection of essays that originally appeared elsewhere, all of them revised, expanded, and translated into English. I can only recommend the book for the same reason as Takeuchi’s, even though of course this author’s sensibility and background are very different.

If I had problems describing the Japanese critic’s way of writing, I have the same problems here — other than maybe saying that Bakker is driven by a deeply informed intellectual curiosity that won’t shy away from revisiting past writing to correct or improve where such an act is deemed necessary.  Reading the essays comes close to witnessing a mind at work. While this might be said for most good writing, I still think it especially applies in these essays; and it this aspect that had me enjoy them as much as I did.

While there are various Dutch artists discussed in the book (much like in the case of Silence and Image not the usual suspects), here a wider net is cast, with the inclusion of exhibition reviews (incl. one in which the author wasn’t physically present at the location) and discussions that enter the area of the ideology of photography (in other words theory and politics). As a reader, you’re never quite sure what the next essay will center on, which makes for a delightful smorgasboard of writing.

Taken together, these three books explore the breadth of writing around photography available today. Contrary to claims often found on social media, photography writing is a lot more diverse than it would appear. As is obvious from the above, every effort should be made to make writing available in translation. I suspect we would view photography made in Japan very differently if so much of the writing produced around it (some by its own practitioners) would not remain inaccessible for anyone unable to read the language.