Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. 2022-11-28T15:16:04Z Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[El juego de la madalena]]> 2022-11-28T15:16:04Z 2022-11-28T15:16:04Z

In the age of the digital photograph, pictures have no individual surfaces, given that they share the same screens we use to look at them. In the age of the print, photographs used to have surfaces even as they paled in comparison to the ones of paintings. Photographic paper had a texture that as a viewer had you feel them as much as see them — even if at the time you might have never realized that your touching of a print contributed to how you viewed it.

In Julieta Averbuj‘s El juego de la madalena, the texture of photographic paper, along with effects of its physical degradation, play an important role. The book features fragments of archival photographs. These fragments at times present what might have been merely smaller parts of larger pictures, having strands of blond hair, say, create an abstract patter that only at second glance takes on concrete meaning. On top of this photographic abstraction sits the texture of the paper that becomes more prominent, given the enlargement of the source material.

As a consequence, the viewer is presented with a game of visual riddles, a game that is enhanced further through the physical construction of the book. If you’re familiar with religious altarpieces from European churches, you know the idea of opening up a display to reveal a number of relating images. For example, the famous Isenheim Altarpiece consists of four panels, three on top (the ones you might have had in mind when reading the term) and one at the bottom.

It’s obviously not quite the same thing, but El juego de la madalena is constructed in a similar fashion. The book opens like a “regular” book to reveal two separate books on the left and right. These separate books can be opened individually, resulting at four separate “panels” (pages) from which juxtapositions of images can be created by the viewer. The book ends up being quite large so you’ll need to have access to a table to look at it. Furthermore, there is another section of material contained behind the two books of the side, which gives more material to look at. This sounds quite complicated when described in words. But it’s actually quite straight forward when you look at the book. If you’re a purely visual person and can deal with my limited sketching skills the following illustration might help:

One more element of the book should be mentioned. There are a number of vellum pages included in the book that present very short text fragments. I don’t speak Spanish. My translation app informs me that they all are textual equivalents of what pictures show: little pieces of information that are at once precise and open ended at the same time. It is up to the viewer/reader to connect everything.

There is no shortage of books that work with archival photography from family albums. Mostly, work with such photography relies on the material itself, the pictures in hand, to do the work. Often, archival photography is visually very compelling, which has many artists unable to resist the temptation to end their own work there.

There are some artists who aren’t quite so eager to get away with merely scanning photographs, as is the case here. After all, someone else’s family will always be only that: someone else’s family. Outside viewers have no access to any of the emotional ballast that is present for family members. Through her visual intervention, Averbuj moves beyond both the visual delight of the source material and its relevance for the immediate family to create visual riddles that appeal to a formerly disinterested viewer. It’s the kind of game that artists such as Katrien de Blauwer play.

As a consequence, El juego de la madalena offers a mystery that works through a layering of abstract beauty as much as through allowing a viewer to create a number of connections between separate image panels. What exactly the outcome might be does not become clear, which I think is a very smart choice by the book’s makers. In a day and age where so (too?) many books attempt to drive home their one clear point, their one clear conclusion, asking an audience to be open to uncertainty is a good idea (however risky it might be, given that the book will not satisfy those looking for clear answers).

The book comes in a slipcase that not only contains all relevant information (in the form of the colophon) but also protects the otherwise somewhat fragile construction of the book. It allows you to file the object away in your bookshelf in such a way that you’re guaranteed to find it again later. This is smart and elegant photobook making, which, alas, isn’t quite as common as it should be. I frequently have discussions with artists or publishers who want to convince me that excluding crucial information on a book’s spine is a good idea (it is not: how am I going to find a book if there’s no information on its spine?).

All of the above makes El juego de la madalena a book that you want to look out for, especially if you enjoy well-made books that offer a unique viewing experience. It’s probably easiest to acquire it directly from the publisher, Fuego Books.

El juego de la madalena; images by Julieta Averbuj; 60 pages (total); Fuego Books; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Memories like falling rain]]> 2022-11-21T15:12:38Z 2022-11-21T15:12:38Z

Imagine inheriting part of the collective trauma of a country — only to find that that very country rejects you, not seeing you as one of their own. This is what happened to David Takashi Favrod. Born to a Japanese mother and a Swiss father in Kobe (Japan), he grew up in Switzerland. With his father frequently traveling for work, he was mostly raised by his mother. “When I was 18,” he writes in the back of Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari (published by Kodoji Press), “I asked for dual nationality at the Japanese embassy, but they refused because it is only given to Japanese women who wish to acquire their husband’s nationality.”

Reading these words brought back memories of how my native country, Germany, had treated the children of so-called guest workers. Even as they grew up as Germans with parents from a different culture and background, up until very recently they were unable to obtain German citizenship. I’m also reminded of the situation of author Miri Yu. Born in Japan to Korean parents, she writes her books in Japanese and has won a number of the country’s most prestigious literature prizes. And yet, she’s a citizen of South Korea. Yu’s incredible Tokyo Ueno Station is available in English translation and you might as well read it. If you want to learn more about Zainichi Koreans in Japan, this article is a good start.

The background of the German and Japanese situations is the countries’ profoundly problematic idea of their own identity as a nation: what does it mean to be German or Japanese? At the macro level, in the middle of the 20th century both countries committed mass atrocities in neighbouring countries because of an imagined superiority. At the micro level, the level an individual such as Yu or Favrod finds her or himself in, the larger tragedy dissolves into a very personal one: who or what am I? Or, in Favrod’s case, why can’t I be Swiss and Japanese? It is from that position that Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari was created.

Of the words in the title, gaijin might be the one that’s most likely to be at least somewhat familiar to a non-Japanese person. It means “foreigner”. Depending on circumstances, you might find that it is used in a pejorative fashion in Japan (which, another parallel, is also true for the German word “Ausländer”). Originally based on a manga, omoide poroporo is the title of an animated drama from 1991 whose English title is Only Yesterday. The Japanese title translates as “memories come tumbling down” or “memories like falling rain” (the latter is given by Favrod in his book). Lastly, hikari is Japanese for “light” (the noun, not the adjective).

“This work represents my compulsion to build and shape my ow memory,” Favrod writes. “To reconstitute some facts I haven’t experienced myself, but which have unconsciously influenced me while growing up.” Since by construction, photographs can only show what is and not what is not, the artist employs a number of tricks to produce some of the images: something might be constructed or staged, something might be created using Photoshop, or something might be presented as something else entirely through the use of text.

In fact, every image in the book comes with a small snippet of text superimposed, making the book serve as a visual index of its maker’s identity. Some of these entries are explained in the back of the book. If you don’t know what “Godzilla” is, the text in the back will provide you with the necessary background to understand its relevance (hint: it’s more than merely a cheesy movie monster). However, I think that some of the texts explain too much: I don’t really need to know all the thoughts behind some of his artistic decisions. But this is a small detail that doesn’t take away from the book’s overall achievement.

Given that the imagery moves in between Switzerland and Japan and between the completely mundane and the vastly tragic, looking through the book transports its author’s struggle with his identity to a viewer who finds her or himself attempting to make sense of it all. The use of archival family photographs provides an essential element: the constructed photographs are well done and often clever (Favrod studied at ECAL), but cleverness is unable to convey emotional drama. That’s where the family snapshots come in, to powerfully deliver that element.

A review of this book would be incomplete without a few words about the object itself. I’ve long maintained that the form of a photobook should reflect the times when it’s published. There really is no reason to produce photobooks today that look as if they had been made in the 1990s. And yet, many publishers do exactly that (no need to name any names, we all know who they are). Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari stands in stark contrast to those books. It’s a book that looks and feels very contemporary with its very smart and elegant design and production choices. Some of them I hadn’t even seen before (for example the title page on the end paper). This makes for a brilliant package that helps elevate the work it showcases.

Very highly recommended.

Gaijin  Omoide Poroporo  Hikari; photographs and texts by David Favrod; 344 pages; Kodoji Press; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Holistic Method of Photography]]> 2022-11-14T14:45:53Z 2022-11-14T14:45:53Z

I have now been teaching photography for over a decade, and I have arrived at a method that for a lack of a better word I describe as holistic. I frequently receive emails from photographers who tell me that they started reading this site when they studied photography. So I thought I might as well write about the tools and methods in my approach. You will want to keep in mind that the following is mostly geared towards fine-art photographers. As far as I can tell, specialist photographers — whether they’re photographing weddings, are photojournalists, or make their money with commercial or editorial work — typically know how to go about their jobs. Consequently, for them what I describe below might be pretty obvious. Still, there might be the occasional bit of insight as well.

What do I mean by “holistic”? The principle is very simple. Especially for beginners its repercussions might appear daunting at first. In reality, though, they’re not daunting at all: they merely require a re-thinking and re-arrangement of one’s practice. Let’s start with the process of photography as you might know it. First, you go out and take photographs (please don’t take “go out” literally, if you work in the studio that’s included as well). Then, you edit the photographs. Then, you sequence them. Then, you maybe want to make a book, so you start thinking about a book. Lastly, the most dreaded part: the writing of the statement.

In my view, that’s a terrible approach to developing one’s photography. Treating these different tasks as separate and unrelated complicates what in reality should be much more organic. Crucially, it shouldn’t be a challenge at all to write a project statement after you’ve arrived at an edit (and a sequence). Working on a project should entail coming to a growing understanding of the work, from which the statement then condenses easily (let’s focus on a project, but the following also applies for photographers working on single pictures). The fact that it’s so hard for many photographers to write their statements demonstrates that they’re going about the process the wrong way.

The holistic approach intermingles and unifies the different aspects of photography. Every aspect is important at every stage of the process. Note, though, that depending on where you are in the process, some parts might be more important than others. For example, at the very beginning of a project, you don’t want to spend too much time on thinking about a book. When you’re done with a project, you don’t want to spend time on photographing more pictures. Still, throughout the process, you want to combine taking photographs with critically looking at them. You will want to edit them constantly, picking pictures that work and putting aside those that don’t. Keep in mind, though, that no edit is ever final — except for the very final one itself. A photograph that you put aside early on might come back later, just as your favourite early photographs might never make the final edit. Thus, flexibility is absolutely important. In a nutshell, while you’re working on a project you want to guide your eye towards new pictures by engaging with the ones you already made.

For that to work, you need a number of important tools. The very first and most important tool is your camera. You need to work with a camera that works for you. A huge number of problems my students have encountered arose from working with the wrong camera. The wrong camera will make your life miserable. It will have you spend enormous amounts of time (and usually money) on activities that get in the way of focusing on the most important aspects: taking and looking at your photographs. This problem doesn’t have much to do with analog versus digital. Even as analog photography now is a huge money and time sink, I have had students who struggled enormously with very expensive high-end digital cameras. Whatever camera you use, if it gets in the way of you making work, it’s the wrong camera for you. Obviously, you will have to have spent enough time with your camera to get past the initial hurdles (which are inevitable for any camera).

The reality is that the world of photography attracts a large number of people who are very interested in technical details. The problem with this often obsessive focus on usually very irrelevant technical details is that anyone who wants to merely decide on a camera or solve a technical problem will be flooded with information that’s useless for them. Camera XYZ might have the best or largest sensor, but it still might not be the right camera for someone if it works best on a tripod, say. A view camera might produce really nice negatives, but it might still not be the right camera for someone who isn’t flush with cash or needs to be very flexible. Adding 300 complicated layers in Photoshop might get you a really nice file, but for a lot of people that’s much too complicated. So as a photographer, you will get a lot of recommendations from a lot of really nice people. But you will have to make sure that you pick what works for you. As someone who has a background in the sciences, my inclination is to pick the simplest solution. Always focus on the simplest solutions for the tools you use to take your pictures and work on them. That way, you can focus exclusively on the challenges posed by your pictures.

For a lot of photographers (me included), money (aka the lack thereof) always is an issue. One mental trick I use to help me with this is to equate time with money or money with time. Let’s look at a simple example. Imagine you’re thinking about whether or not to buy an extra hard drive for backups. If you buy the drive, you will get an extra copy of your files, which means if your computer dies (which, after all, might happen eventually) you’ll be fine. This will cost you some money. If you don’t buy the drive, you will lose a lot of data if your computer dies. You will likely spend a lot of time on trying to salvage what there is to salvage. In a nutshell, you need to think about how valuable your time is. In this particular example, it’s the cost of the extra hard drive versus all that time you need to spend when your computer dies. This is a very simple and basic example, but you get the idea.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Land of Promises]]> 2022-11-07T15:54:13Z 2022-11-07T15:54:13Z

In the summer of 1994, a number of Belgian families traveled to China to adopt children there. “Six girls in total were adopted at the same orphanage, at the same time,” Youqine Lefèvre writes in the text on the back of The Land of Promises (essentially an introduction to the book). “I am one of them.” At the time, she was roughly seven months old.

As far as I can tell, any story that centers on reproductive rights never ends there. In fact, most of them appear to originate in domains that have nothing to do with the medical sciences. For example, the anti-abortion movement we’re observing in many countries right now is partly fueled by religious extremists and partly by neofascists who are trying to re-establish the supremacy of straight men over every other member of society.

In the context of China, there’s that country’s one-child policy, which possibly sounded like a good idea to rulers at the time. In reality, though, given parents were allowed to have one child only, age-old considerations about the role of men and women in society entered the equation, with consequences which in principle are too awful to think about but which, of course, unfolded all over the country. It is coincidence that in Lefèvre’s introduction, there are six girls who end up going to Belgium. Confucianism very strongly advocated a patriarchal society, large traces of which still exist in China.

In an essay at the end of the book, Joohee Bourgain considers the larger implications of international adoption. It should be considered, she notes, “as a prejudice that millions of individuals who have been permanently separated from their social and familial environments, and decultured and assimilated into a new milieu that often renders them vulnerable — notably the systemic racism of Western societies — have been subjected to.” (my emphasis) You will want to keep this in mind any time you hear about international adoption. In modified form, this also applies to the systematic kidnapping of Ukrainian children by Russian forces in occupied Ukraine (which, by the way, constitutes a war crime).

In 2017 and 2019, Lefèvre went on two trips to China to re-visit the land where she was born. She connected with people living there to find out how they were engaging with the topic of family, specifically: having children. For a large number of people encountered, there are pieces of text that read like transcripts of what they told the photographer. There is a notable variety of voices, with men and women, older and younger people, people living very traditional farm lives and people living in cities, etc. In addition, there are plenty of photographs of their surroundings in the form of land- and cityscapes, interiors, details encountered, and more.

At the beginning of the book, there is a facsimile reproduction of the original Chinese adoption documents (with translations provided — the text in the book comes in English and French). Furthermore, reproductions of snapshots taken by the Belgian families in China in 1994 form the first major section of photographs.

The combination of all of these elements make for a very successfully constructed book that dives into the many repercussions of China’s one-child policy against the background of the country’s larger traditions — and against people being people: not everybody was happy to comply with state policies.

In a number of ways, you could see The Land of Promises as an oral history of China that focuses on one specific aspect of its recent past and culture. Unlike usual oral histories, the amount of text is a lot smaller than those. But here, the added portraits and photographs flesh out parts that written oral histories mostly can’t get at.

Approaching the book as an oral history also primes the audience for the amount of work they have to do: without reading the text, only a small fraction of the content will be communicated. This makes for an intriguing model for a image-text book that I’m hoping will also be explored by other artists.

If there is one thing I personally miss from the book, though, it’s more of Lefèvre’s own voice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with what’s on display. But in many ways, it could have been made by someone who did not share the photographer’s personal history. To the extent that this is possible, I was trying to imagine being in the photographer’s position, going back to the place from which she had been adopted. What was that like?

I’ve obviously written the previous paragraph as someone who has lived outside of his native country for over two decades. It’s absolutely not the same situation — I had a choice, Lefèvre didn’t. But coming back to Germany after these two decades is like coming to country that to a considerable extent is foreign but that in other ways is completely familiar. This often makes for a strange, unsettling experience. And that’s why I was wondering about how Lefèvre own experiences.

The Land of Promises; photographs and text by Youqine Lefèvre; essay by Joohee Bourgain; 244 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Outside Room 8]]> 2022-10-31T13:53:05Z 2022-10-31T13:53:05Z

It is one of the terrible ironies of modern medicine that sometimes, it has to destroy the body in order to heal it. Cancer might be the most commonly known situation to arise that typically ends up in that territory, a disease that is more common than we possibly might want to admit to ourselves. Fortunately, I have not been at the receiving end of such treatment, and I hope I never will be. But I suspect that much like anyone else, I know people — family members, friends — who have (a relative was just diagnosed with a brain tumor). Some made it through alive while others unfortunately did not.

What makes medical emergencies particularly difficult is that while suffering can be communicated, it cannot be shared. I am unable to feel your pain, and you are unable to feel mine — at least in a literal sense. This is a situation that pops up in photography all the time: while cameras are very good at recording surfaces, they are unable to depict emotions or feelings. Even as being empathic might allow a viewer to get a sense of another person’s suffering, there is a limit to that. (If there weren’t, photographs would have long stopped wars.)

Consequently, the best photography produced around suffering and illness uses metaphors instead of attempting to hammer home a point. Metaphors will only get you so far, of course. But we already know from the history of photography that pictures will not do what we want them to do if the direct route is being taken. Metaphors, in contrast, offer the promise of lighting up the imagination. They might make us think in ways that gruesome, direct depictions of violence or suffering are unable to.

In Outside Room 8 by Lotte Bronsgeest and Geert Broertjes, photographic materials are made to undergo the same treatments as the human body, specifically Broertjes’. After Broertjes had been diagnosed with colon cancer, Bronsgeest, a friend and colleague who was already working on a similar project (the two met as students at an art school), asked him whether there was a way to produce work together about what his body and mind was about to undergo.

Consequently, Bronsgeest not only photographed her friend. A number of photographic materials were also subjected to the same treatment that a human body might be subjected to during cancer treatment: radiation and toxic chemicals (“chemo”). In essence, larger parts of the project became process based. I’ve had my qualms about process-based work because typically, the process itself tends to draw a lot of attention to itself. But here, that’s exactly the point, and that fact has me very interested.

Outside Room 8 presents a large number of images made by Bronsgeest and Broertjes, which includes not only process-based pictures but also “straight” photographs and medical images. Visually, this makes for an intriguing and at times disconcerting viewing. Given that the book’s topic is established quickly, this viewer found himself being thrown back and forth between simply enjoying some of the abstract beauty and trying to make sense of it, trying to understand how human tissue might be affected when treated the same way as the photographic materials. If that was the idea of the work, it’s communicated very effectively.

Part of what makes the work interesting is the breadth of the images. Were they all uniformly distorted, the effect would quickly become predictable. Here,  it’s never clear what comes next, which helps convey a sense of uncertainty. What’s more, some of the imagery is simply beautiful.

I usually detest the triteness of the sentiment that beauty can be found everywhere because too often, it’s used to paper over suffering and preventing oneself to engage more deeply (and honestly) with a challenge. I don’t see that sentiment at work here. Instead, the unexpected beauty that can be found in the book confounds expectations and helps the viewer to engage with it more deeply.

The book incorporates some design and production choices to deliver its message. Most notably, it uses pouch pages: the paper is folded at the fore edge and bound (glued) at the spine. Of late, this type of binding has become slightly more common in the world of the photobook, given that you can include material inside the pouch itself. The makers of the book did employ that trick. I ended up being slightly confused about whether or not I am supposed to cut open the pages or not. I ended up not doing it. That aside, the production of the book is absolutely impeccable — if you pay careful attention, you’ll see selected spot varnishing, a long gatefold, and more.

All of that combines to make Outside Room 8 a really interesting book that demonstrates that process-based photography is able to tackle very profound topics in a deeply meaningful manner. A very handsome production, it showcases the beauty of what can be achieved when such work is put into the context of the contemporary photobook.

Outside Room 8; photographs by Lotte Bronsgeest and Geert Broertjes; text by Lotte Bronsgeest, Geert Broertjes, Theun van der Heijden, and Jelle Bouwhuis; 128 pages; Kehrer; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Flipping the Bird]]> 2022-10-24T14:24:39Z 2022-10-24T14:24:39Z

Placing words next to pictures creates a curious problem for many photographers. They end up being worried that the words take away attention from their photographs — as if this were a competition. But it is not. Words and pictures operate very differently. Instead of seeing their interplay as a competition it’s much more fruitful to view it as a relationships: it works best if it’s an equal give and take between (in this case) unequal partners.

Words and pictures are very specific in very different ways. At the same time, words are completely interior entities for human beings, whereas pictures are external, showing the light that is reflected off the many surfaces that create the world around us. If you view things this way, you’ll realize that if you’re a photographer, words can do amazing things for you.

That all being said, in a text-image piece one of the partners — the images or the text — will usually be in the driver’s seat, shaping the work and its intended outcome. The most important aspect to consider is not whether viewers will ooh and aah over the photographs but whether the whole works the way it is supposed to.

There is a wide spectrum for how such a construct can function, from it being very focused on photographs, with text supporting them, to it being driven by the text, with photographs adding another element. The novels written by WG Sebald provide prime examples of the latter.

In Flipping the Bird, a book of photographs by Jaap Scheeren, it is the text by Rik van den Bos that propels the narration forward. It might as well, given that the text contains the inner monologue of a narrator exploring the landscape of the dunes near/at the sea in the Netherlands (at least that’s what the landscape looks like to me; during my visits there I remember seeing such a landscape near Bergen). The narrator is on an extended walk: “You know that feeling? That you’ve walked so far into nature / it begins to pull.”

Of course, in the Netherlands you can’t really walk very far into nature, given that it’s a very small country, with large amounts of artificial land — land claimed from the sea. But nature might re-claim the land, especially the one below sea level. That threat to human life is never far, and it’s deeply ingrained in the country’s psyche after a number of natural flooding disasters. This aspect plays a role in book: “the peacefulness / the serenity / seems to turn against you instead.”

Flipping the Bird looks into the push and pull between humans and the larger landscape they live in, which includes all the other creatures present. While humans project their ideas onto the land and its inhabitants, turning sea floor into land to build on and encroaching on the spaces inhabited by wild animals (all while pretending to be interested in them), they also are single-handedly responsible for the largest carnage of natural life in centuries through global warming.

The book deals with that conflict, as the narrator walks into the land, looking for connection with something s/he starts to feel increasingly connected to, only to find that that attraction is not reciprocated. Instead, there’s a flurry of invectives being thrown at her/him. Nature, if that’s what we want to call the natural word, is not interested in the narrator’s newly found fondness for it. There’s only one way out for her/him — I don’t want to give that part away.

Scheeren’s photographs of the dunes and their flora and fauna makes them look like the sort of paradise Hieronymus Bosch might have captured, had he had a camera available instead of paint and a canvas. Scheeren seeks out anthropomorphic forms — trees that look as if they were human beings (or parts of them); and the photographs of animals shows them acting as if they were human beings as well (it would seem that a number of taxidermied animals were used — in all my years of feeding and looking at squirrels, say, I’ve never been given the finger by one).

The combination of the mostly playful photographs and the narration in the text creates a strange beast of a book that is at once fun and disturbing at the same time. In some ways, it is not too dissimilar to what you can encounter through Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, say.

If that art-historical reference is too much of a stretch for you, maybe think about some of Duane Michals’ work, for example the 1976 Real Dreams. Real Dreams is one of those underappreciated treasures from the history of the photobook. It’s an incredible collection of text-image pieces that each operate a little bit like a comic strip. While the format is rather simple, a lot of the pieces combine playfulness with a sense of profundity. I’m thinking that it is the latter that tends to get overlooked. A more recent example that falls into the same vein is Patrick Tsai’s Self-Portrait.

I don’t know what it is that has so many photolandians shy away from engaging with this kind of work. For sure, if there were more books like Michals’ Real Dreams, Tsai’s Self-Portrait, or Scheeren and Van den Bos’ Flipping the Bird the added mix of playfulness and profundity would lead to a richer experience in the world of the photobook. As much as I love photobooks, let’s face it: all-too-often the atmosphere around them is too dour (where not outright sour).

Flipping the Bird; photographs by Jaap Scheeren; text by Rik van den Bos (please note that an English and a Dutch language version are available); 216 pages; FW:Books; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Recommended Readings]]> 2022-10-17T13:43:12Z 2022-10-17T13:42:29Z

Most of the photographers I have worked with know of the importance of reading texts that are pertinent to their work: you need to know the general context and the discussions that are already happening. You will place more work into that context, and your work might become part of such discussions.

But there is more to reading than it being an acquisition of knowledge. While knowledge itself is good, it’s of limited utility until/unless it is applied. Reading texts can help photographers with their own work by indirectly shining critical light on work that has not been seen by anyone, yet. As a photographer, you can take criteria that were already applied to other people’s work and see what happens in the context of your own work. To put it simply, reading makes you a better photographer.

That said, reading texts that deal with one’s work and its context is only the absolute minimum you can do as an artist (regardless of whether you’re a photographer or writer). After all, there can be incredible discoveries made in texts around work that has absolutely no connection to one’s own interests.

This type of reading — the less directly utilitarian one — offers an enrichment of one’s own ideas and sensibilities. In a nutshell, you can kick start your own creativity in ways that you’re unable to foresee, which offers avenues towards becoming a better artist. You thus avoid becoming trapped in a bubble of your own making, where you know the discussions for your type of work well — but nothing beyond (this is a common problem).

In the following, I want to recommend a number of books that I have enjoyed over the past few years. I should note that this list is not intended to be complete. There are many more books that I like, and I will probably regret that I forgot to add some other book. In this site’s archives, there are articles about other noteworthy books; with one exception, I didn’t include any of them below.

I want to start off with a series of books called Documents of Contemporary Art. Each book in this collection contains a large number of texts that address a specific topic or theme. This is an incredible and very convenient resource. For example, if you’re a landscape photographer then you obviously want to read The Sublime. Not all of the texts in that book might be relevant for your work. But the ones that are will enrich your own understanding of it, and they might direct you to other readings (or pieces of art to look at).

For me, the real treasures in the collection have been books like Boredom or Translation. How or why could it possibly be interesting to read 225 pages of text about those topics? Well, it just is. For example, boredom itself is an incredibly rich topic that has produced a huge number of utterly fascinating writing. I had no idea. I bought the book on a whim. That’s the thing with writing: while there is no guarantee that a book will enrich your life, treating the act of reading as an investment scheme where the time spent better result in something gained or else is a terrible idea.

Next up is a book that also is a collection of texts about a specific topic. But here the topic is a piece of art that generated a huge amount of writing around it, as is evident from the title: Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. This book is essential because of the sheer breadth and depth of the discourse, with dozens of very diverse contributors.

It’s also a book that many photographers might want to look at because it deals with photojournalism and the various problematic aspects of it when it happens in Africa. And it’s a book that ultimately does not come to one fixed conclusion, which only proves that when art tackles complex issues it might not be possible to find the ideal solution.

In many ways, Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty shows what can be gained from a deeper engagement with a piece of art that addresses problematic issues. The first essays in the book are the very first published reactions to Martens’ Enjoy Poverty. Later contributions then dive more deeply into various aspects of the work, and they manage to unearth a lot of insight.

Unfortunately, in the world of photography too often discussions end at the former stage (immediate responses), or the latter stage happens only in academic circles (and thus ends up hidden behind obtuse tedious language and the paywalls of academic journals). How there can be more efforts such as this book isn’t clear to me — someone would have to commission them.

Hito Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen contains some of the artist/thinker’s most relevant essays. This includes In Defense of the Poor Image, which as a contemporary photographer you simply to read, regardless of whether you agree with its ideas or not. Intersecting art, technology, and politics, the book directly addresses a number of pressing issues that are missing from most photography-centric discussions.

In a very similar fashion, Culture Class by Martha Rosler focuses on one of the most pressing issues facing artists today, namely their role in and relationship to neoliberal capitalism: “With the market pressing in on one side and near-poverty on the other, how might artists’ long-standing tendency to identify not with their patrons but rather with the relatively voiceless in society be expressed or suppressed?” (quoted from the publisher’s website)

Twenty nineteen and 2022 saw the release of books by Mark Sealy, namely Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time and Photography: Race, Rights and Representation. While there appears to exist a more widespread awareness of the topics explored in the books, the same probably cannot yet be said for an understanding for why and how they matter. Reading Sealy will get you there.

For example, in Decolonising the Camera, a chapter entitled Violence of the Image dives deeply into how photographs can indeed inflict considerable violence. “Like powerful music,” Sealy says in a conversation in Photography, “photography must take us somewhere beyond the act of seeing.” (p. 13)

I’m still making my way through Luis Camnitzer’s One Number Is Worth One Word. The book focuses on art, its role in society, and how art can be taught in ways that solves some of the problems in traditional art education. Photographers who are not interested in teaching might not be particularly interested in this book, even as it contains quite a few nuggets to think about. But there are many photographers who make at least some of their money teaching. They might want to have a look at this book.

Lastly, Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed is a very different book than the ones mentioned above. Instead of talking about the roles of photographs, their functions, or a photographer’s responsibility, it dives into a single photography, to unearth an incredible amount of details from it: protagonists are being located, the site in question is found, and the larger circumstances of what has been termed Holocaust by Bullets is made clear. The book is a brilliant example of how the very careful reading of a single photograph can lead to tremendous insight.

Robert Capa is often quoted as having said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Many decades later, there should be an update: If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough. Reading makes you a better photographer.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Some Say Ice]]> 2022-10-10T13:59:36Z 2022-10-10T13:59:36Z

I’m convinced that the best photographic bodies of work that center on the United States have been made by immigrants and marginalized photographers. Prime examples are Robert Frank’s The Americans or Gordon Parks’ work. I think that other American photographers simply buy too much into their own country’s myth making, thus consciously or unconsciously perpetuating it. For example, Richard Avedon went to the American West to find and share the rugged individualism that he yearned for (there is obvious classism in the resulting work, which in contemporary photography unfortunately has become par for the course; Danielle Jackson just explored how and why such classism is problematic in the context of the work of Deana Lawson).

Immigrants see their adopted home country in a different light, regardless of to what extent their views of it have shifted since they arrived. To begin with, they grew up elsewhere, which inevitably means a place that didn’t think of itself as exceptional. But they also were not deeply embedded in the various cultural and societal connotations that Americans wouldn’t necessarily think about, given they’re so familiar.  (You obviously want to keep in mind that the author of these words is an immigrant himself.) In contrast, marginalized photographers know that even though in theory they are part of the myth, in practice they are being excluded from reaping its benefits, revealing the myth for what it really is: a highly selective promise for a limited number of people.

In principle, anyone moving from one country to another as an adult will encounter the same situation as an immigrant in the US. However, possibly because of its relatively brief history and the fact that it is an artificial country, the country relies on myth making to a much larger degree than any other country I can think of. That myth might attract immigrants. But there will always remain a gap, however slight it might be, between the reality in front of their eyes and the myth itself.

It is that gap that immigrant photographers have been attracted to. And then they drive a wedge into it, cracking it wider open. There is, we might note, an aspect of settler colonialism to this endeavour, though. After all, if you come to the Americas to make a claim about the land and the people who live there — how else should this be described? In general, the telling of other people’s stories has become a topic that is hotly debated in the world of photography. Much like Danielle Jackson I don’t have a problem with it per se. Instead, I see the expanded discussions around photography as enriching the discourse. For me, the goal can always only be to include as many different voices as possible.

It is Alessandra Sanguinetti‘s new book Some Say Ice that had me think about the above. Born in New York City, at age two the photographer’s family moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where, according to her website, she “grew up, worked and lived until 2002”.  She became known for The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams, a body of work centering on two young girls and the world they inhabit, a world encountered and imagined.

There is a strong sense of make belief and magic in the photographs that show Guille and Belinda. I have often wondered about the photographer’s hand in this. I don’t mean to deny the creativity of these two. But I also know a thing or two about how photographers work, shaping their stories towards their own ends. In the end, there might have simply been a confluence, with the story being shaped by all sides. The shaping of stories is what can make photography art: if you look at The Adventures of Guille and Belinda, you’ll see what I mean.

I suppose it’s the fact that I heard Sanguinetti speak about her work a few times that informs part of the above. In each case, I left feeling better about photography. It’s not that I necessarily feel bad about about photography (well, mostly I don’t). But some artists have the uncanny ability to remind their audiences that the medium has a lot of redemptive qualities, provided it’s in the right person’s hands.

Speaking of uncanny… If there’s any one thing that can be said about Some Say Ice it’s that, uncanny. I don’t think there is a single picture that feels that way. Instead, the effect is cumulative. There is something unsettling about the locale somewhere in Wisconsin, at least the way it’s seen by Alessandra Sanguinetti.

The book mixes a number of different types of photographs, most notably portraits (some of which might or might not be staged) and photographs of animals. It is through the interplay of these two types of pictures that most of the electricity is being produced.

The photographs of people and animals tie in with Sanguinetti’s earlier work and bring along that — for a lack of a better word — magical quality, in particular where it is not clear whether a portrait — or a portrayal of people seemingly engaged in some activity — was staged for effect. I’m intrigued by those pictures because as a viewer I’m being made an accomplice: should I really watching this?

Maybe that is part of what makes the work uncanny: it is as if viewers were placed into the company of a locale that they have no business being in. But it’s also the fact that all the animals are being treated as beings that live on the same plane as humans and that are endowed with more of a consciousness than is typically attributed to them. Animals acting as if they were human — that can easily get uncanny, and it does so here.

I’m less interested in the type of photographic Americana that could have been taken by any of the photographers who have made road tripping through the country their business. I don’t need to see any more photographs of guns, say, because such pictures simply are too easy and too convenient. The same is true for the (inevitable) photograph of an old TV set.

In her afterword, the artist writes about being inspired by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. I wish that information hadn’t been included. To begin with, viewers will pick up on the uncanny nature of the book. And putting the work into the context of the earlier (and very different) book takes away some of its achievement. Mind you, it’s good to acknowledge an influence. But once you’ve moved far from it, it’s also fine not to overemphasize it.

Some Say Ice; photographs by Alessandra Sanguinetti; 148 pages; Mack; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Dall.E Vaterland]]> 2022-10-03T12:22:09Z 2022-10-03T12:22:09Z

A while ago, a piece of artificial-intelligence (AI) software called Dall.E was unveiled. The idea is simple: you provide it with a so-called prompt — a string of words that needs to make sense, and the software will generate an image from it, using a large set of pre-existing images. For a while, there existed a downscaled public and a limited-access full version. But now, access to the full version is possible for anyone interested in it.

You might have seen examples of such images. Parts of the art world went (predictably) nuts over the idea. This, or so the story goes, is the future of image making. I personally am much more skeptical, in particular given that art is a little bit more than merely taking what already exists to assemble it into something new. Consequently, while I find some of the output presented by Dall.E amusing, most of it is hardly any more interesting than the prompts themselves. For example, when I fed the limited version the prompt “Olaf Scholz eating a potato” (Scholz does look like a potato) the outcome looked as if someone attempting to imitate Francis Bacon had painted the scene. Where Dall.E results get more interesting, you typically land in the area of surrealism. This is good, but we’ve had surrealism as an art form for a long time already. There really is no new ground broken here.

Regardless, when I learned that the full version was accessible, I wondered whether it was possible to test the software on a photographic level. By this I mean that I wanted to see whether it was able to create believable images that could operate inside the context of photography I work in, fine-art photography. To that end, I decided I would have Dall.E generate its own versions of the photographs in my book Vaterland.

The idea is simple, but I also needed a few parameters. For each photograph, the prompt would consist of a simple description of the picture. I didn’t set out to necessarily reproduce the photographs in a one-to-one fashion, though. What would be the point of that? Instead, I wanted to get images that corresponded closely enough to the original photographs so that they could replace them in the book.

I realise that this description might sound a little bit vague. Look at it this way: in the book, the photographs exist not only as individual images but in particular as elements of a larger sequence. Consequently, they serve a function inside the larger whole. If you extract a photograph from the sequence, you only get part of the full function in the book. Therefore, for my experiment it was more important that the Dall.E images would get close to the functions of their corresponding images in the book than that they would look exactly like them. That said, if Dall.E handed me something that was very close to the original, I didn’t reject it.

Coming back briefly to what Dall.E does, I don’t want to approach it in a dogmatic fashion. Assuming that its output improves, I am not ruling out future use. However, I would never use it for a project such as Vaterland. Here, and in the follow-up project that I’m working on, discovery plays an important part. This discovery happens on both the photographic level — coming across photographs that I could not have imagined — and my personal, artistic level — gaining insight into aspect that I previously had not thought of.

Furthermore, I believe that I need to make myself vulnerable in my work. However uncomfortable this might be at times, it is from that spot that the most interesting results have arisen in all of my work (whether in my writing or my photography). Using tools such as Dall.E mostly precludes discoveries. Fair enough, as a photographer you don’t need to use AI to avoid discoveries. Many photographers do really well without, illustrating their pre-visualised prompts themselves. As a viewer, critic, and photographer I personally am not interested in such work.

I’m not going to reveal most of the prompts. All I will say is that they were very basic and obvious. Each one described a photograph with a brief sentence. For example, the very first picture in the book is “An empty construction site that is fenced off in front of a number of apartment buildings in Berlin”. That’s it. Because I didn’t want to try to get as close as possible to my own photographs, I didn’t feel the need to use very specific prompts.

Of the four images Dall.E offered me I picked the picture that came closest to what I needed. When two or more pictures worked, I picked the one I liked the best. This obviously is a subjective choice on my part. But a choice had to be made, and in the usual spirit of my work, I wanted to keep it simple.

Once I had made my choice, I treated the Dall.E image as if it were a raw file from my camera. I converted it to b/w and worked it over in Photoshop to make it look like my photographs. The tones of the b/w I’m using in my work are very deliberately chosen to evoke an atmosphere. If the following helps you understand this, feel free to imagine that I added a filter to the Dall.E images (unlike many — most? — photographers, I don’t have a problem with the idea of “filters”).

Once I had started, I noted that performing this processing step also helped bring the images closer together. The colours, saturations, and the way light was treated in the Dall.E images varied widely. Those differences would have made it almost impossible to have them work in sequence. In two or three cases, I also flipped an image horizontally. This was also done to have it work in the sequence it would have to operate in.

The Dall.E interface produces square pictures. My own photographs follow the 4×5 aspect ratio. I only learned that you can change the Dall.E output once I had put everything together. But I actually don’t mind the difference in formats. As I said above, I did not try to produce exactly what I had made (because, again, what’s the point?). Furthermore, as you will see below once I overlaid the Dall.E pictures on top of my own in the book, a part of the originals peeks out, reminding the viewer that there is another picture.

To add the pictures to my book I needed prints. The final step of the process involved getting them at a copy shop (fun fact: I don’t own an inkjet printer). I added these prints to a copy of own book by “tipping them in” (I used a piece of tape). Now, I have two versions of my book: the original and a Dall.E version. In the following, I want to discuss what I learned from the process and show you some examples.


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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Conversations about Germany: Jonas Feige]]> 2022-09-26T14:18:54Z 2022-09-26T13:51:38Z

For almost two decades, I’ve been looking into German photographers engaging with their native country’s fraught history and its repercussions for the present. This interest led me to dive into the topic photographically myself (the work is ongoing, Vaterland is merely the first installment). But I also noticed how there has been an increase in the number of photographers producing work around Germany. The following is the first in what I envision to be a series of conversations with some of these artists. I intend to dive more deeply into what it means to be a German citizen and photographer who has to navigate the mine field that is German history.

Jonas Feige recently published This Soil We Have Created For Ourselves with Kominek Books. It takes its title from a line in the play Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller. A little earlier, he published a book about an aspect of Germany’s colonial history entitled Zenker with Edition Patrick Frey. Unlike This Soil, Zenker was a collaboration with his partner Yana Wernicke. Jonas and I had had a number of in-person conversations during my most recent trips to Germany, in which we discussed what we were dealing with photographically. For this conversation, I spoke with Jonas over Zoom at the end of August this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it was translated from its original German.

Jonas Feige
I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Wall. I didn’t experience it myself. I am actually a child of the united Germany.

Jörg Colberg
I have the feeling that people who grew up in the unified Germany approach the German history differently than East or West Germans who are of my generation or older.

I think the fact that so many people are looking into the topic has to do with the return of the right-wing soup all across Europe but also in Germany. It’s simply a reaction to the fact that these things are coming back. It’s also a bit of a shock, because people grew up with the feeling that it wouldn’t be an issue any longer.

Another critical aspect is that this legacy is always passed on from generation to generation. In principle, we — that is, my generation, but even more so those who are coming next — are the first people who no longer have a direct connection at all [to the Nazi era]. My grandfather still fought in the war. The next generation has nobody to talk to who experienced the whole thing. At some stage, I read something about this in a book by Aleida Assmann. She spoke with the chairman of the Auschwitz memorial. He said that the moment will come when someone will be in charge of the memorial who has never spoken to a survivor himself. That’s totally crazy.

I think that’s where this different perspective is coming from. I experienced neither the GDR nor the immediate post-war period. I only know about it in an abstract and mediated fashion. My grandfather hardly ever talked about it. Somehow, we had to find a way to deal with it, because it won’t go away. And we now see that the topic has not disappeared.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. I only have the West German perspective. My grandfathers also fought in the war. But they both died before I was born. In my family, the topic of National Socialism was never brought up. Was it the same for you?

In principle yes. I never met my maternal grandfather, either. He died early when my mother was 12 years old. And the other one had fought on the Eastern Front. But he never really talked about it. I only know stories from my father. But there are only very few.

My grandfather was an infantry soldier, responsible for connecting the front with the units further back by cable. That’s why he always carried a large cable drum on his back. They were a small unit. They went back and forth between the front and units further back and laid cables. There is a story where a shell exploded next to him. The cable drum saved his life because it caught all the shrapnel.

But otherwise he never talked about it. I can only remember sitting in front of the news one evening. Something about the Nazi past and maybe Hitler was shown. At those occasions, my grandfather would always get really angry and start ranting. “Those bastards, they lied to us.” All I know is that he was a simple infantry soldier. That’s all you could get out of him.

My grandmother lived in a very small village. They didn’t experience the war all that much. But there was another interesting situation when we all were sitting around the table. I was 10 or 12 years old, and I had just heard about Hitler for the first time. Somehow, that had become a topic at the dinner table. Suddenly, as if in a trance, my grandmother began to recite a text. “The Führer was born…” You could tell that this was deeply ingrained inside her. It had been drilled into her at school. She could still knew it by heart in her mid-70s. That was pretty scary.

I remember that when I was relatively young — maybe 8, 9 or 10 years old — things were talked about that were not mentioned any longer later when it had become clear that I was listening and asking questions.

I remember one story. On my father’s side, my family lived on Heligoland. From what I heard, my great-grandfather was harbour master. Of course, there was a lot of military. There was this huge submarine base. The story is that he had an album in which he collected the signatures of the submarine captains. Early on, I didn’t think much of it. But later, when I asked about it, I was told that the album had somehow disappeared. And in any case, nobody had known a thing.

Maybe this is a part of generation. There was this idea that there was a secret. A secret in one’s own family but also in [West] Germany itself where many former Nazis were in office again. Did you experience this: the idea that there somehow was a secret?

No, that didn’t exist for me. Actually, I only thought about my grandfather, because all the other grandparents had not experienced things. They simply had not been involved in the war. To me, my grandfather looked more like a victim. He was 19 when he was drafted. He knew nothing about the world. I don’t know whether that really had been the case, though. I also don’t know whether my grandfather killed people. Those are things that have never been resolved.

I wouldn’t call it a secret in my family. There wasn’t the feeling that something was being hidden. Instead, it was more like a trauma. You just don’t want to talk about it. I also think that my father and my grandfather… they never had their 1968 moment. Maybe things were buried too deeply. They never had a big discussion where everything was brought to the table.

I’m certain that my parents didn’t have it, either. They just buried it completely. I think your parents are a little younger than mine. My parents grew up in ruins. They were born in 1940 and 41. Wilhelmshaven was almost completely destroyed because it was a naval base.

My grandfather comes from Silesia. So he was also a displaced person.

That never came up?

He also did not want to talk about that. At some point, my father and his brother thought about going there to visit. They suggested it to their father. But he blocked it and said “That’s over. That time doesn’t exist anymore.” That was it. He could be very strict.

How do you see the topic of “being German”? What does that mean for you?

In the course of my work, I’ve had to deal with that a lot. It has always been an open question for me. I think I still don’t have an answer. The best answer I’ve found so far, which I’ve come to accept for myself, comes from Peter Trawny’s book Was ist deutsch? (What is German?). In the book, artists’ and intellectuals’ ideas are presented. Trawny’s conclusion is that the most German quality would be to ask what it means to be German. Germans have probably always asked that question.

I don’t know if you know the idea of the delayed nation. That’s where it starts. Germans existed before Germany existed as a country. They were united by language. But in neighbouring countries, there already were great nations.

After the Second World War and Holocaust, identifying with Germany has become extremely difficult. I struggled with that as well. For me, the trigger for my work was that I had begun to look into the topic of post-nationalism. What does a world look like in which there are no nations? Where does the idea of a nation come from?

I was also a bit mad at Germany and the idea of nation. But not any longer. I don’t see it that way anymore. I have the feeling that the term nation is a bit like the term race. Somehow, it should never have been invented. But it’s out in the world, and you can’t undo it. I don’t think we’re going to get to a post-national world any time soon.

Somehow, I came to terms with being German. Actually, coming to terms is the wrong way to put it. For me, Germany means struggling with it forever. But I think that’s also good. You can’t not deal with being German. On the one hand, there is the history. On the other hand, you ask yourself what it means. Richard von Weizsäcker gave a good answer when being asked what it means to be German. It means “nothing special, but something specific.” I think that’s a cool answer. It definitely means something, because there’s the heritage and the long history. But there’s no reason to be proud of it in any way. And you are unable to say that you’ve acquired some characteristics because you’re German. I see it as a responsibility.

Originally, my work [Vaterland] also started from that same spot. For me, it centred on Poland and Germany. They’re both part of Europe. The idea behind the EU is post-national. Germans are happy that they finally they no longer have to be Germans. They can be Europeans. On the one hand, Polish people are also very happy that they can be Europeans. But on the other hand, because their country was so often chopped up and dominated by other nations, in particular Germany and Russia, the feeling of being Polish is very strong. I was really fascinated by that. You cross the border. Somehow, everything looks the same. But suddenly language and identity change. You cross from the country of perpetrators into the country of victims, and the whole idea of Europe changes.

But the topic “What is German?“… I’m still grappling with that. This is probably also because I live in the US. On the one hand, here it’s very strongly defined what being American is. But as you can see right now, it’s fought over. In German, there’s the horrible expression „Leitkultur” („dominant culture“). The idea already plays a huge role for the right and far right in the US. What is American, and what is un-American?

Fortunately, the idea of a “Leitkultur” no longer exists in Germany in this form, even if the term comes from Germany. Sometimes, I wonder… Germany plays an absolutely leading role in the EU and engages in behaviour that’s actually often hard to believe. I wonder if Germany weren’t so high up in the food chain, if we would be so happy to say “we are post-national“ or pretend we are.

If you look around in the EU, national aspirations are also becoming stronger and stronger. And there are countries that have no desire to be led around by the nose by Germany. So there is a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to this post-national feeling.

It’s also convenient. You can partly get rid of your responsibility of being German: “We are committed Europeans!” But when it really matters, that’s not the case. We saw that during the Greek debt crisis, and we’re seeing it now with Ukraine.

When you started the project This Soil — did that happen organically, taking pictures? Or did you think „I’m going to do something about the topic of Germany?“

I have always been interested in history, even in school. I’ve always read a lot about it. I’ve always wanted to do a Germany project. I felt like dealing with it. But then it ended up taking a long time to do it. Some of the pictures date back to 2012 or 2011. I needed a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to say. The process was good, and it was fun, too. I learned a lot.

In the end, when you make a book, you have to think about what you want to say with it. It took a long time taking pictures and searching for a solution, always trying different things. There were probably four or five different versions [of the book]. I took the ISSP master class with Claire Strand and Gordon MacDonald. The idea was that you’d have a book at the end. That was very motivating. But it didn’t get me there, either. I still enjoy looking at the book I did. But it wasn’t where I wanted to go.

I really only found it working with Misha [Kominek]. We talked for a long time. He really helped a lot, because he provides tough feedback. I had thousands of pictures. It then emerged that I was interested in Germany, but also in nation building. How does a nation come into being? How is a nation connected to its own ground? How is this ground formed? There’s a demarcation, you give it a name, and at some point you have a nation. And then there’s the historiography, which sits on top.

You know Zenker. That’s a completely different project. It works in a completely different way. The Germany project was the first I’ve done only using pictures. That’s why the process had to be so long. But I learned a lot that I can use in future projects. Maybe I can do them in a more targeted fashion.

That’s the interesting thing about photography, that you don’t always have full control. Whenever I see something that feels fully controlled, it’s usually not as strong as something where you realise that there was a struggle and that it wasn’t easy.

There’s usually a little something that’s unfinished, that’s unanswered.

In effect it’s like a… well, not really predetermined breaking point… But I like the idea of the term predetermined breaking point. Something isn’t right. And that’s exactly what you need to make it art. It’s not perfect. It’s finished as a book, but it leaves an aftertaste. There’s something not right about it. I find that idea very interesting. I don’t think there’s any other way to get there that than what you did.

Does this mean that you’re done with the topic of Germany?

That’s actually what I thought. When the book was done, I wondered what would happen next. I actually now have two projects going. One of them is completely non-political and non-historical. It has more to do with photography and perception.

But the second project… I read Victor Burgin’s book The Camera: Essence and Apparatus. There’s an essay included where he mentions Ettersberg, which is right outside of Weimar. [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe was there, but it’s also where the Buchenwald concentration camp was built. I was totally fascinated by that place, even though I’d actually been there before. We visited when I was at Ostkreuzschule.

In winter, I went to Weimar on a whim, thinking I’ll see what I can do here. Now it looks like it’s going to become a real project, which doesn’t have much to do with the original idea. In principle, it’s a loose visit to Weimar and Buchenwald. History plays a role, but this time there are people and portraits. The focus are groups of young people who are being bused to Weimar and Buchenwald to learn about these two sides of German history. In Weimar you have Goethe, Schiller, and then two kilometers outside of the city gates, there are the Nazis.

It’s an extension of my Germany book, but I’m also trying hard to make it something independent. At the moment I’m thinking that this will be my last project about Germany — just like I did back then. In principle, Zenker was also German history.

Zenker is interesting because of a topic that Germany does not want to deal with at all, namely its own colonial history. Recently, there was this big dispute about whether its colonial history and the Holocaust can be linked or not.

Over the course of the past five years, there was a small boom for colonial history, in part because of the discussion around the Humboldt Forum. Now, because to the Ukraine war that has mostly disappeared. Occasionally, something pops up because of the repatriation of [colonial] artefacts, in part also because because [French president] Macron is involved.

With Zenker we really noticed that Germans are not ready for the topic or our photo project. The success we had with the work was almost exclusively outside of Germany. It was a Swiss publishing house that published the book. In Germany, we ran into a lot of closed doors. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s not because of the book. It’s because of the content. No one wants to deal with it. It’s really disappointing.

How did you come across the project?

After graduating from high school, Yana [Wernicke] spent half a year in Cameroon, doing volunteer work at a monkey sanctuary. That was the first time she heard about this German family.

Many later, we met at Ostkreuzschule. She was looking for a topic for her final project and remembered it. We went to Cameroon together, still thinking that it could be Yana’s final project. We visited the family, which was really exhausting. It takes two and a half hours on a motorcycle to get to them. Yana took some pictures and took them to Ute Mahler, her advisor in her final year. They discussed the idea. Ute was taken with it. “Why don’t you do this as your final project?” But it was obvious that it was far too big a topic. It’s very complex. You have one year for your final project. It was simply not feasible.

The topic was put on hold. But we were both hooked. In 2016, we went there together for the first time. In the meantime, we had also decided that we would work on it together. We needed to be able to have the exchange with each other, because it is a complex topic. And then it took a long time. We went there three more times and always stayed for several weeks. We went back to the family, also in other parts of Cameroon and Europe. In 2019 we approached Edition Patrick Frey. After that, it took another two years to do the book. It was a long process.

Both projects — my Germany project and Zenker — took far too long. Yana and I think that with Zenker we grew up photographically. The project changed so much over time. It was really good that we did it together, even as now our work is developing in completely different directions. The new works are similar, but they’ve moved away from what Zenker was.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[I Just Wanna Surf]]> 2022-09-19T13:38:00Z 2022-09-19T13:38:00Z

“I grew up biracial in Capistrano Beach,” Gabriella Angotti-Jones writes in I Just Wanna Surf, “a beach town in southern Orange County in California. […] My dad’s Black and my mom’s Italian. […] The only Black people I saw every day were my sisters, and my dad when he was home. There were no other Black families in my immediate neighborhood.” Surfing plays a large part in the area, and she became a surfer as well. But “I didn’t feel like a surfer,” Angotti-Jones notes, “because I didn’t fit the stereotype.”

I can’t claim to know anything about surfing other than that stereotype. If I Just Wanna Surf has taught me something it’s that there is a lot more than the stereotype — even as various aspects of it are quite pronounced. “There’s a macho culture in watersports,” the book tells me later, “where if you can’t do it or if you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t do it.”

Seen that way, surfing appears not to be that dissimilar than a lot of other human activities (hello, photography): “One of the reasons surfers are infamous gatekeepers is because lots of people pretend to be about the lifestyle and wholesomeness, but they really don’t respect the process or its roots.”

I Just Wanna Surf centers on more things than just one, making it one of the most unexpected recent photobook experiences for me. On top of the surfing and being Black and being a woman, there also is a mental-health struggle. It’s a lot, and it’s being navigated deftly in the book. For Angotti-Jones, this is her life and her attempt at navigating all its various aspects while trying to assert herself, embracing the frequent joy that can be had.

“I always wondered,” she writes, “if being in the ocean felt like what it’s like to be White. No worries, nothing to really think about — just vibes.”

When I first saw the book’s pictures, they were lying on a large table in the form of cheap prints. There were so many, taken with a variety of cameras. They spoke very clearly of the joy of the small community of Black women surfers that Angotti-Jones belongs to. At the time, I couldn’t quite imagine how they would form a book.

Months later, there is the book, and it works so well. It narrates the story through a number of sections (they’re not strictly delineated or separated as chapters), into which blocks of text have been set. The text serves to introduce the many aspects of the book that no picture could fully tell.

There is a picture of a group of young women walking to a beach with surfboards, two Black women in front, following by three Whites one. What they might be thinking or feeling the picture can’t convey. But the text can. In contrast, the joy and excitement felt when being on the beach or in or on the water is communicated most strongly through the pictures.

It’s this give and take between text and photographs that is being navigated deftly in I Just Wanna Surf. Bringing text and images together means having them dance together so that one won’t diminish the other. This works very well here.

It works very well because both with her camera and her words Angotti-Jones is an extremely gifted, passionate narrator. Being close to the material (terrible word, I know) of course helps. But being close also means that everything feels so much more loaded, so much more revealing. I obviously don’t know to what extent this applied in this particular case. But as someone who has struggled with depression for a long time I know that I would be rather hesitant to make it part of my work (even if I knew that omitting it would cut an important part of the story).

I can only applaud Gabriella Angotti-Jones for being willing to offer all of it to us as viewers and readers. Some stories not only need to be told because they are outside of what we take for granted. They also need to be told so that as an audience we can experience how liberating making a deeply personal photobook can be. It’s a different experience for maker and audience. But I believe that the ultimate lesson is shared: allowing oneself to be vulnerable only leads to personal strength.

Mass Books, the publisher, once again employed the help of Dutch design and production. Yet again, this has paid off handsomely. The book manages to strike that delicate balance between not being a precious art book while using all the various tricks such a book might use.

The production is impeccable and does much to help the book communicate its message. There are two paper stocks, with one being predominantly used for the bulk (but not all of) the text. The design helps to organize the material (and text) while at the same time keeping the infectious spirit of the photographs alive. I’m sure the more conservative segments of photoland will bemoan some of the choices. But a less daring book would have simply been too boring for the spirit of the work.

You could easily take I Just Wanna Surf as a prime example of what the contemporary photobook can achieve. It demonstrates the beauty of text working with photographs, it covers a variety of important cultural and societal issues all the while focusing on an individual navigating them, it shows how design and production can serve to organize and elevate the material, and it’s a huge source of joy for its viewers.

Highly recommended.

I Just Wanna Surf; photographs and text by Gabriella Angotti-Jones; 148 pages; Mass Books; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Unassuming Photobook]]> 2022-09-12T16:46:19Z 2022-09-12T13:52:39Z

A few years ago, a wave of self publishing resulted in a very large number of photobooks produced directly by photographers themselves. Even as the wave turned into a fad, which inevitably broke, there were a few lessons to be learned. To begin with, despite the difficulties of publishing a book — it’s a lot of work and it costs a lot of money, there was a lot of excitement and passion swirling around the idea of the photobook. Unfortunately, large parts of that have now disappeared.

At the same time, in part because of the economics of it all, a lot of self published books were more modest: they often felt a little bit rougher (but in a good way), putting less focus on getting books printed in the most expensive place on the planet — and more focus on the books’ immediate impact. As you can probably imagine, the push back from the established parts of photoland ran along the lines of “there are too many books” (as if there were a way to determine the correct number of books) and “this looks like a zine”.

I’ve always struggled with the term “zine”. Interestingly, it has two uses by two distinctly different communities. In the world of subcultures, zines often are the preferred outlet, the idea being that if you’re part of that subculture, then you obviously have to make a zine (everything else would be “selling out”). I find the cliquishness of subcultures off putting. It’s actually not that different from the cliquishness of the established part of the photobook world, for whom the term “zine” is a snobbish way of dismissing other people’s work. Calling a book a “zine” is code for “this book is declassé”.

This situation doesn’t leave a lot of space for a much needed middle ground, especially given how vocal both sides are. However, I do think that there is an urgent need for more unassuming books: books that are photobooks but that also do not strive to be important art books.

There are two reasons why I think that way. First, many photobooks simply are too expensive. I understand that it’s expensive to make a book, and you have to make your money back. But especially these days where a lot of people in a lot of places are wondering how they are going to pay for a warm home this coming winter, an expensive art book might be the last thing on their minds.

Second, through its price, many photobooks attempt to telegraph their importance. This is merely another aspect of the neoliberal thinking in photoland that correlates price with quality and, by extension, with artistic merit. However, the reality is that such a correlation does not exist. It merely is psychology.

For aspiring photobook makers, this situation creates a huge conundrum. Given most photographers are part of the artistic precariat, making a photobook can result in enormous costs. Where are you going to get the money? How is it going to be feasible to make a book? Obviously, if you manage to get the costs down by opting for a simpler, more unassuming book then there are more options.

With all of this in mind, I here want to discuss a number of unassuming photobooks that recently arrived at my door step. The first two are from Craig Atkinson’s Café Royal Books imprint. I had been aware of Café Royal for a while. Given the strong focus on the UK, I haven’t been checking their publications regularly. There obviously is nothing wrong with a regional focus — quite on the contrary. As the books demonstrate, you can build a very solid and strong publishing branch that way. It’s just that I’m not British, so I’m basically not a member of their target audience.

But when J A Mortram announced that he was having two books published with them, I needed to have them: Small Town Inertia 1 & 2. Both books have 32 pages and are bound by stapling the sheets together. It’s a very economical way of making a book. Café Royal have honed down things very well: the printing is very, very nice, and the choice of paper makes the booklets more substantial than you might imagine.

As a result, these two booklets showcase Mortram’s work — possibly in ways that an elaborate coffee-table book would be unable to. Describing his subjects as living at the margins of society doesn’t sit well with me, even as I realize that that’s exactly the term used by many people. Instead, Mortram portrays the lived reality of a lot of people who for one reason or another aren’t well off enough to have a comfortable life.

The photography is stark and very affecting, something that I wouldn’t necessarily say about a lot of other photographers who train their lenses on Mortram’s subjects. I can sense the photographer’s compassion and empathy that is conveyed by these two books. Personally, that’s what I would want from this type of photography: it mustn’t use other people’s dire living circumstances to draw attention to anything other than what’s in front of the camera.

Douglas Stockdale is founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal. In many ways, it’s always good when someone who writes about photobooks is also involved in making them (whether their own or other people’s — you will note that quite obviously, I’m biased). The Flow of Light Brushes the Shadow follows the self publishing model of the photobook. To begin with, it looks and feels like many of the self published photobooks produced during the time I spoke of earlier (Stockdale does his own binding; here: a pamphlet stitch, which is similar to what’s used in the Café Royal cases, with thread replacing staples).

Because of the pandemic, I haven’t traveled since early 2020. Even as I miss traveling, I can’t say that I miss the aspect that is dominant in this book: the anonymous chain hotels that all look the same and that all exude the general neglect of very basic amenities that we otherwise take for granted. I also don’t miss airports and the hideousness of having to deal with them, let alone for hours and hours having to cram my frame (all 193cm of it) into a seat that’s made for an oversized toddler.

Given I’m a very private person, as much as I enjoy traveling, it also brings considerable stress. For me, the lack of privacy when traveling might be the worst aspect. It’s when the boundaries of my existence are defined by my own skin that I become most uncomfortable. The book immediately brought all of that back to me, even as I will have to admit that I cannot wait until I will be able to go back to Germany or Japan or wherever else.

At times, it feels as if Stockdale was trying too hard for his audience to get the idea of the book. I don’t think a statement needed to be included at the end so that people would understand the message. Furthermore, the very blurry images also are unnecessary, given that without them the idea of the book would be very clear. But now photobook aficionados can see Stockdale’s own work, which might put his own criticism in perspective (obviously, you can say the same thing about me).

Making a book is a good exercise for someone writing criticism. Seeing a book by someone writing criticism is a good way for an audience to see more of that person and where they are coming from.

This might be a generational thing. But I’m not sure Deadbeat Club is the greatest name for a publishing house. But what do I know? They sell books, coffee, and apparel. Regardless, recently I came across one of their publications that looked really interesting. I ordered myself a copy: Shiori Ikeno‘s Sado. In terms of production, the book is similar to the Café Royal titles: it’s a stapled pamphlet. It’s slightly larger, has more pages, and it’s in colour, making it slightly more expensive overall. But we’re talking about $15 vs however much £11.00 is. Neither one is very likely to break the bank.

I wasn’t familiar with this photographer’s name. The pictures were taken on one of the small islands that cluster around Japan’s four main ones. It’s called Sado Island and is located just across Niigata (which is north of Tokyo at the Sea of Japan). Many rural areas in Japan are now suffering from being populated by a heavily aging population, as young people leave or already have left for the big cities. Age and ageing loom large in Sado, with the main characters being the photographer’s grandparents.

You might say that I only know this from the publisher’s website; and yet I only know this for certain from there. The connection becomes quite apparent from the photographs. With the exception of the photograph on the back cover, which seems to be about something entirely different, the images exude a sense of quiet and of being in tune with the simple beauty of being.

In this recklessly busy world where the dominant ideology is one of “disruption” and of being constantly on the move, accepting the fact that the best parts of existence are far away from such nonsense offers solace. That is the lesson taught by this book.

Sado is simple and good, and that’s what photobooks should be: simple and good. Again, going beyond this simple format runs the risk of not doing the work any justice. Even as I could imagine maybe better choices for the paper stocks (in particular the cover feels a tad too plasticky), this understated book does all the right things.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Death of the Artist (or: On the Arts Economy)]]> 2022-09-06T13:32:28Z 2022-09-05T13:21:57Z

If a time machine gave me the opportunity to go back 20 years so I would be able to hand my younger self a copy of William Deresiewicz‘s The Death of the Artist, I am certain that my younger self would not continue the path that he chose and that I find myself on now. He would know that he was temperamentally unsuited for much of what’s described in the book — just like I am today.

You “can’t necessarily believe all your moods,” Maggie Nelson tells me, “You just have to keep on working. […] That’s a quote from Emerson, I might add. ‘Our moods do not believe in each other.'” Of course, that aspect of the creative process sits on top of everything spread out in full detail by Deresziewicz. I will ignore it here.

It’s widely known that the larger world of art is not supportive of its own constituents — with very few exceptions: the tiny number of artists who have found success and whose stories inevitably are being held up. “Every story we hear about artists,” Deresiewicz writes, “is a success story, and in every one, success appears to be inevitable, because it has already happened.” (p. 12, my emphasis) Of course, this is how the neoliberal casino capitalism operates that we live under.

After the Introduction, the book starts out with a chapter entitled Art and Money. It’s likely that you will know some aspects of that chapter, even as you might be uncomfortable admitting that you do. This, after all, is one of the conundrums of being an artist: you don’t talk about money. Deresiewicz lays out all the reasons why that might be the case, and he also talks about the various explanations for why that might be the case.

In the following chapter, subtitled The Techno-Utopian Narrative, the focus is the internet and its supposed promise. We’ve all heard about that as well. “I am struck, above all,” Deresiewicz notes, “by two things. First (but this is true of the techno-commentariat in general), their fatuous, hectoring smugness. Anyone who disagrees just ‘doesn’t get it,’ must be a dope or a Luddite, maybe a hand-wringing pessimist.” (p. 28) Recently, when NFT’s were all the rage in photoland, you were able to witness a lot of that smugness: anyone questioning NFT’s was subjected to a lot of it.

But just like in the case of the second chapter, there’s a lot more to dive in. Deresiewicz’s strength as a writer is to distill everything that is essential (and that you might at least in part have heard of — if not experienced) and to then question it: is this really the case? And if it’s not the case, what is a better way to think about it? The latter parts are crucial, because they allow the book to move away from what otherwise would be a mere collection of grievances towards a description of the arts in general.

Over the course of the book, Deresiewicz thus dives into a huge number of aspects behind contemporary artists’ struggle to do their work and make a living with it. It’s an impressive survey that covers parts of the history of the arts as well as specific aspects in specific industries. You’ll find input from a very large number of artists, whether they’re writers, designers, musicians, and there even is a photographer. As it turns out, what we witness in photoland isn’t in any way special.

Throughout the chapters, artists are quoted about specific aspects of what is being discussed. This is a neat device, because the large variety of voices also conveys the complexity of the topic at hand. There is no easy solution; in fact, what one person considers a problem might not be one for another. That said, though, a clear picture of the arts emerges: it’s not working well for the vast majority of artists, in particular the many, many artists stuck in the tail of the distribution (you could think of them as the 99%).

For me, The Death of the Artist ended up being an infuriating, depressing, uplifting, and inspiring read. I suppose that outcome makes the most sense when anything is discussed that deals with art and the way it’s being made, shown, distributed, or sold.

This book should be required reading for anyone who hopes to take part (or is already doing it) in what has become an unsustainable economy, whether they’re thinking about getting an MFA (there’s a chapter), or they just got an MFA (the same chapter contains aspects of what they might encounter), whether they’re happily freelancing or working for free, whether they’re thinking about getting an intern or being one, whether they’re thinking about starting a Kickstarter, whether they’re thinking about publishing a book…

But the book also has much to offer for those who are not artists but are interested in art. As Deresiewicz outlines in a lot of detail, the reality of what is described stands in stark contrast to popular ideas of what it means to be an artist.

Deresiewicz spends a considerable amount of effort on outlining the dedication that fuels the arts and that has artists do what they do despite the fact that it is so incredibly difficult. Were that aspect absent, the book would be too difficult and frustrating a read. But that is exactly what sustains (if I may) us, isn’t it? The idea that it’s all very much worthwhile, even if often enough, we question whether it really is. It’s not talent that sustains the arts, it’s artists’ passion.

At the end of the book, possible solutions are being discussed. The final chapter, Don’t Mourn, Organize, dives into what could be done. There are collectives and cooperatives created by artists who are supporting each other. “Artists also often fail to recognize their common interests,”  Deresiewicz writes, “the field is inherently competitive, plus it is highly dispersed.” (p. 310) I have been thinking about that for years. (I think years ago, I wrote something about it.)

While Deresiewicz lauds efforts initiated by artists as admirable, he notes that it can’t stop there. “The problem,” he notes, “begins with Giant Tech — with the demonitization of content and the ongoing transfer of wealth from creators to distributors.” (p. 317) Without the monopolies being broken up, he argues, a real solution will be elusive. I agree. “Yet even that would not be enough.” Here’s the kicker: “To fix the arts economy […] we need to fix the whole economy.” (p. 319)

That’s where the book ends. It’s worthwhile to quote a larger section of its final paragraph: “The devastation of the arts economy […] is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality. […] when people get a little extra money, one of the things that they spend it on is art. Money circulates within communities, but only if it’s present in the first place. We do not need the government to pay for art, or the rich with their philanthropy. We only need each other.” (p. 321, my emphasis; note that you could easily apply this to other countries as well)

Don’t mourn, organize!

William Deresiewicz — The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech; Henry Holt and Company; 2020

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Failing Forward]]> 2022-08-29T13:23:20Z 2022-08-29T13:23:20Z

One of my pet peeves is being asked to comment on an art project that purports to involve a degree of science or attempts to mimic science. As if I, a former scientist, could shed more light or (this is often implied) lend more credibility to such art projects. I know this might be difficult to understand, but I’m not very eager at all to get shoehorned into being “a former scientist” forever. I don’t see those years as the most important aspect of my professional life over the past two decades.

Furthermore, I think that artists take the sciences too seriously. By this I mean that artists are too interested in accepting everything the sciences do, and their art then somehow has to play with that. It’s fine if as an artist you want to be the equivalent of a court jester for the sciences. And I do understand that there are actual repercussions of the far right and its conservative enablers undermining scientific research. We’re not going to be able to address climate change if we live in denial, and we also won’t be able to contain the Covid pandemic if we allow misinformation about vaccines to spread as easily as it has so far.

However, as someone who has worked as a scientist and as an artist, I think that artists need to reconsider their engagement with the sciences. They either need to go a lot deeper and educate themselves about what scientists actually do (regardless of what field they want to dive in), or they need to embrace the fact that they are artists and thus are not bound by the same conventions that scientists have to follow.

My guess is that the latter is seen as running the risk of embracing exactly the kind of science denial as, say, deniers of climate change. But that strikes me as a very narrow and curiously diffident approach to what art can do. Unlike climate-change denial (which is rigid and closed), art is open and generous when it is done well — and, most importantly, it aims at the betterment of the human condition.

If anything, the following is the most important difference between art and science. For the most part, art has been playing a benign role for human beings. Even where art was or is not benign (for example, if you wanted to treat Leni Riefenstahl’s movies as art instead of the blunt propaganda they are), it tends to find itself only in a supporting role. In contrast, there is a lot of scientific research that has very directly resulted in ghastly consequences. To put in bluntly, the actions of the people who painted the markings onto the Enola Gay were magnitudes less consequential than the actions of the scientists who produced the bomb that killed tens of thousands of people.

There has been a steady flow of artistic engagements with the sciences over the past decade. Marjolein Blom‘s Failing Forward is but the latest example I have come across. The book combines the artist’s own photographs with images from the NASA Archive. The latter isn’t quite what you might imagine it is. It’s not a repository of space photographs. Instead, it collects photographs taken in any of the laboratories and workshops, resulting in the kind of imagery that would fit into Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel’s Evidence.

In fact, in an article about Evidence, Sandra Phillips writes: “Mandel and Sultan found the local offices of NASA and the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, in nearby Sunnyvale, and though they were interested in the expected beautiful pictures of space coming in across the wires, they were fascinated by the chaotic, marvelous, mournful, and funny pictures of people engulfed by a new technology no one could understand but experts.” “Evidence,” she concludes, “therefore, is a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate work of art, one that engages the loss of belief provoked by that era and an examination of the resulting ambivalent relationship of people to the new machines.”

Phillips’ perceptive description of Evidence hints at something at play in Failing Forward as well: the starting point for the artist’s endeavour is the set of contemporary conditions into which the sciences are embedded. There is a similar “loss of belief” present, albeit one caused by conspiracy theories and far-right cranks, and instead of the “examination of the resulting ambivalent relationship of people to the new machines” (which sounds very 1970s, doesn’t it?), here it is the idea of truth itself.

“The truth is,” the press text around the book claims, “that science actually is a temporary and uncertain activity, with ambiguity, curiosity and unpredictability as fundamental elements of its process.” I don’t want to dive into how and why this text hints at a profoundly misguided understanding of the scientific method. What it does, though, is to project its author’s own ideas onto the sciences — much like Sultan &  Mandel did.

Seen that way, Failing Forward doesn’t really center on the sciences and what they do. Instead, it uses an artist’s idea and toys with it — against the contemporary backdrop of fake news, QAnon, climate-change denial, etc. It asks how we make sense of the world through how we process and organize it, which in this artist’s case means: how we photograph it. In a nutshell, it is one of those books that presents a pretend world through a combination of found and made photographs.

One of the problems these kinds of books inevitably struggle with is that photographs as selected by artists from institutional archives are too interesting on their own. In part the following statement is a little bit unfair, but it’s true nevertheless: Sultan & Mandel solved that problem in part by being pioneers. The first time someone does something it for sure is a lot more amazing then when you’ve seen a lot of examples. But of course, given that they placed their focus more narrowly on the archives, the visual strangeness of the photographs — which, it is important to remember, are only strange because they were taken out of one context and placed into a very different one — added up to more.

Here, I don’t quite think that Blom’s own photographs can compete with the NASA ones. Mind you, they’re good photographs. But they were made for the context they operate in, whereas the NASA ones were not. And you can feel that difference. This is why I always caution photographers to be very, very careful with archival material (regardless of where it’s coming from): it draws a lot of attention onto itself. As an artist, you will have to steer that against with all your might.

All of that leaves me with… well, what? I’ve been trying to come to a conclusion, but I might as well admit that I am unable to. The press text describes the book as “shifting between the enigmatic and the specific, between the clear and the ambiguous”, and I think that might just ultimately be the problem. If you shift “between the clear and the ambiguous”, ultimately you’ll just be vague (but not in a good way).

I like the imagery in Failing Forward, and I like the way the book is put together. But as a viewer, I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from it.

Failing Forward; photography by Marjolein Blom with images from the NASA Archive; essays by Merel Bem and Vincent Icke; 120 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[“I was close to Americans”]]> 2022-08-22T13:53:35Z 2022-08-22T13:53:35Z

The Masterclass franchise is now offering a class entitled President George W. Bush Teaches Authentic Leadership. I’m going to assume that the class will not be of interest to readers of this site. Still, the outline of the class is a sight to behold. Part 6 of the Lesson Plan covers “Accountability Leads to Results”: “When developing a plan, leaders need to create outcomes that are measurable, and the right people need accountability.” I don’t know when Mr Bush came to that realization. For sure, it must have been after he left office because the “achievement” he will forever be known for, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, didn’t involve any accountability (and neither did the fact that under Mr Bush’s lead, people were tortured).

Thus, now the former president is enjoying a cushy retirement and a good life — unlike the thousands and thousands of people who still have to deal with the consequences of the most disastrous foreign-policy decision in our life time. These people include American service members just as much as the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter case, the hastily and poorly executed withdrawal of all foreign forces last year — initiated by the previous and carried out by the current president — resulted in a humiliating spectacle that inevitably was compared to the end of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, yet again the people of Afghanistan have to live under the very medieval regime that Mr Bush had promised to root out.

Last summer, as the withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded and image and videos of scenes of despair were flooding all screens, I thought I’d get in touch with Ben Brody, a former student and now friend whose Attention Servicemember is one of the best photobooks about the era (I reviewed it here; it’s also discussed in this article). Ben didn’t have much time to talk. He told me that he was spending all of his time trying to help people stuck on the ground in Afghanistan remotely. I would learn later that there were many people in the US and Europe trying to get people out of the country who had played important roles for the Western military — whether as translators, guides, or whatever else — and who now were being abandoned by their former allies’ governments.

In Ben’s new book 300m, a WhatsApp chat with a friend and translator is being reproduced. It follows the friend’s attempts to reach the entrance to Kabul’s airport in the frenzy that, I’m sure, you have seen somewhere on a screen. It begins 300m (900ft) from the gate, and it ends with “I saved my self and my family”, “We are inside but others are not here”, “We left the area”, and “We left out I was close to Americans”. What might have gone through Ben’s head while following his friend’s journey I have no knowledge of. Knowing him, I have an inkling. I also have an inkling what he might be thinking about Mr Bush’s Masterclass.

If you are familiar with Attention Servicemember you know that Ben was a US Army photographer first before he began working as an independent photojournalist (in Iraq and Afghanistan). The book details his own personal story. But it also attempts to break open the still too-narrow confines of photojournalistic storytelling by embracing the many options provided in the world of the contemporary photobook. It thus ends up being a unique hybrid that is able to reach the worlds of photojournalism and art, even if in both, I assume, there might be misgivings over details.

In contrast, 300m appears to look for an audience in the world of art. As it turned out, at some stage, Ben brought a 360 degree panoramic toy camera to Afghanistan, “as an ice breaker,” he writes. Why or how a plastic camera that looks a little bit like a grenade is an ice breaker escapes me — this might show how little I know about war. Then again, “one time,” Ben also writes, “a soldier thought I was detonating a grenade and dove into the dust as the camera spun around above him.” It would seem that there’s ice breaking, and there’s ice breaking.

You can probably imagine what a 360 degree panorama looks like. It’s very wide, and given the optics work, it can lead to very wonky pictures. But it’s the very wonkiness that creates the most interesting element of these pictures. As the camera spins around, it catches any number of people in its site — essentially everybody present, whether they’re posing or looking at the camera or not. More often than not, Ben himself appears in the frame somewhere, whether crouching down in a poppy field or as a shadow that holds what does like a grenade high over his head.

The book presents these pictures using the accordion format that, I continue to maintain, is underutilized in the world of contemporary photobook making. It’s a very simple format that, alas, requires careful attention in its execution. For the book, Ben teamed up with Dutch design team Kummer & Hermann again, yielding another demonstration of how a good photobook can be made.

An accordion book has two sides. Here, both are used to showcase the photographs. There are two boards at the ends of the accordion, each with a picture and the title on them. Given that an accordion has no spine and is iffy to store on a bookshelf on its own, the accordion is wrapped into a bright red cover that contains all the text (plus the colophon) on the inside. The whole construction is held together by a rubber band. As can be expected from a book produced in the Netherlands, everything is simple, effective, and beautiful (except, maybe, the rubber band, which attracts dust and will eventually dry out and break — but then, so do all book materials).

You will want to get a copy of this book simply to see that the one thing that makes for a successful and engaging photobook is not the camera someone uses, it’s not the topic, it’s not even good pictures (even as there are a lot of good ones in this book) — it simply is the book’s makers’ vision. 300m immerses the viewer in a number of situations in Afghanistan that have them see war in a different way.

This is an actual masterclass of a book. Best of all, when you get a copy your money will go to someone who actually deserves receiving it.

Highly recommended.

300m; photographs and text by Ben Brody; accordion book; Mass Books; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Klara and the Bomb]]> 2022-08-15T14:38:58Z 2022-08-15T14:38:58Z

When nuclear powers agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons, they didn’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Instead, they agreed to the ban simply because they knew that they could run tests of another kind. Ever since, powerful supercomputers have been dedicated to running simulations of nuclear weapons. In fact, some of the top spots in lists of the most powerful supercomputers are consistently occupied by such machines (here’s a list from 2018). It that’s a very sad state of affairs. Unfortunately, it’s just one aspect of the enormity of resources that major nations spend each year on entirely destructive purposes.

One might naively imagine that you need a supercomputer for very complicated scientific problems. But that’s actually not necessarily the case. It is true, some problems are very complicated and thus hard to model (in the world of astrophysical research that I did my doctorate in 25 years ago, hydrodynamics would be a good example). But there are other problems that come down to a numbers game.

If you think about a pool table, writing a program that simulates a game of pool is relatively straightforward. But if you try to imagine a three-dimensional pool table with billions of balls you can see how calculating all the different movements would require enormous effort. My doctorate revolved around such simulations. The underlying physics was very basic. But we needed to use the largest parallel supercomputers available to do it on a scale large enough to deliver useful insight.

In principle, you could do such simulations by hand — if you assembled enough people. That’s how things started out early on. Actual people performed rather basic calculations that had been carefully modeled into a more complex pattern. Once the first primitive machines became available that could take over what previously had been done by hand, the role of the people involved in the computations (they were called “computers”) changed: they would now operate the machines (which, in turn, became known as “computers”).

These people were women, one of them being a certain Klara von Neumann whose story is now being told by Crystal Bennes in Klara and the Bomb. If the name von Neumann rings a bell, it’s almost certainly because of Klara’s husband John, one of the 20th Century’s most important scientists.

John plays a major role in the book, as do a number of other aspects that were directly or indirectly linked to Klara’s work (and to a lesser extent private) life: the development of computers and Klara’s and John’s roles in them, the development of nuclear weapons in the US, the testing of these weapons at the Marshall Islands, the treatment of people from the Marshall Islands by the US (essentially a colonial story), the role and meaning of so-called Monte Carlo simulations, and photography.

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complex story, and it’s being told through large amounts of text into which sections of photographs are inserted. Many but not all of the photographs are archival. From the onset, Bennes is clear about her goals. Hers isn’t “a comprehensive history,” she writes (p. 35); instead, “it’s fragmented and partial — curbed both by my lack of access to many still-classified materials, as well as by the specific nature of my interests.”

“But it’s also a history,” she continues, “that attempts to be attentive to what Black feminist theorist bell hooks criticises as one of the key problems with more conventional interpretations of feminism: women merely aiming at equality with men under current social, political and economic structures. Instead, women must aim for a completely new system constructed around ending oppression.” (ibid.)

Interestingly, Klara von Neumann emerges from the book as a strange cipher. Even as she left an (unpublished) autobiography, many of her motivations and ideas ended up being unknown. Her husband and her were separated for long periods of time, given John von Nemann’s incessant traveling. They wrote each other letters. His were preserved. Most of hers appear to have gone missing. How or what she responded to his at times strangely hectoring missives remains unknown.

When I was still working in astrophysics, I was always somewhat proud of the uselessness of what I was working on. In scientific terms, the research was very much useful. But you couldn’t make use of what still is called dark matter to build bombs. In fact, to this date, I have been trying to understand the mindset of people who willingly work on creating weapons that are claiming the lives of people, whether in war or, as has become increasingly common in the US, in civil life.

How do you justify creating an even more efficient bullet? How would you outsource or switch off your conscience while doing that? For some people, such considerations might simply not be an issue. Some famous scientists were equally famous for being callous, anti-social people. But there also were the scientists who spoke up against nuclear weapons. Even at the level of the bullet — how can you possibly justify working on that?

For me, this was one of the most interesting aspects of the book — not that I necessarily expected (or received) an answer. John von Neumann, I suspect, would simply see the bomb as yet another “interesting problem” to work on. He would eventually die from a cancer that he probably contracted from exposure to nuclear tests. And Klara? I have no idea whatsoever. She later remarried and ended up losing her life drowning (classified as a suicide). “[A]t the end of this long research project,” Bennes writes, “I feel as if I hardly know her as a person.” (p. 335)

You could view Klara and the Bomb itself as a Monte Carlo simulation, where through a large number of very detailed vignettes you get closer to an understanding of very specific circumstances — the making of nuclear weapons in the US. But in the end, there only are new questions. In the sciences, you would conclude that you need even larger and more detailed simulations. In the arts, you realize that not all things can be fully understood, and that’s a good thing.


Klara and the Bomb; photographs and text by Crystal Bennes; 320 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Beautiful, Still.]]> 2022-08-08T14:50:07Z 2022-08-08T14:50:07Z

Photography is often used to communicate the essence of a community, the feeling of what it might be like to be immersed in it. For very good reasons, a lot of discussions have centered on this very idea. Can an outsider, someone who was and is no member of the community, arrive at what an insider, someone from the community, will be able to see? In all likelihood, the answer is no.

In the very worst cases, which more often than not can be found in photojournalism, helicoptering in an outsider will at best paint a surface picture and at worst perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This is not to say that an outsider by definition will be unable to arrive at a deeper truth of the community. But to get there, a lot of careful work will have to be done. A recent example of how this can be done masterfully would be provided by Anders Edström’s Shiotani.

Given that photography is a visual medium, the feeling of community has to be communicated visually. Unless there is added text, the sense of community has to come across through the combination of photographs: in essence, a viewer has to be able to feel that they are in the presence of a community, even as they might be experiencing things far, far away and mediated through the artifice that is the photobook.

Colby Deal‘s Beautiful, Still. provides a very good recent example of a portrait of a community made from the inside. In its second picture, which comes right after a short poem by Hakeem Furious, two Black women in bright white clothing are depicted standing in what looks like the backyard of a house. They are turned away from the camera, and the taller woman is holding the other one in a caring embrace. It’s a photograph of intimacy and care, and it sets the tone for much of what is to come in the book.

The next few pictures sketch out more of the larger environment, an environment that depicts a genericness that is very distinctly a feature of the United States, even as there are variations based on class and regions. As someone living in the Northeast, the book transports me to a locale somewhere further south.

While there are people in some of the first pictures, it is the first photograph that gives unconditional attention to a young woman that jolts the viewer, letting them know that this is a book about people forming a community rather than a description of place. The photograph shows a young woman in a white, laced dress. She’s holding her hands folded in front of herself. Her gaze is directed at the camera, projecting a combination of calmness and confidence.

A number of photographs of other people follow, a mix of more formal portraits and pictures taken while life was going on. From there on, the book develops the themes thus introduced, fleshing out life in a Black community (in the Third Ward in Houston, Texas).

For the work, a number of different cameras appear to have been used, resulting in differences in formats, with square photographs and rectangular ones being present. Different tools allow for approaches catered to different situations, enabling the photographer to mix a formal setup with a more fluid approach. This is very effective.

However, I am not sold on the inclusion of so many photographs that are technically imperfect in the book. This is not to say that I’m oppose to imperfect pictures in general. But in the context of the book, they have to work in support of the book’s overall message. A good example for that is provided by Sabelo Mlangeni‘s Isivumelwano where the use of technical imperfections is deliberate in a Brechtian sense.

Here the imperfections feel photographic only — which would be fine if the book centered on what photography is or can do. Alas, that’s not the focus of the book. As a result, the imperfections feel like too simple a device for an otherwise very sophisticated and visually beautiful body of work. In general, technical choices should not be allowed to focus the attention on themselves — instead of on the larger ideas.

The end result of this all is an impressive debut monograph by a photographer whose voice is now added to the growing canon of American photography. We ought to pay careful attention to Colby Deal, in particular given his ability to both convey what being a member of a particular community means and to have outside viewers partake in it visually.

Beautiful, Still. contains all the beauty that will forever be elusive to photographers that helicopter into some community, regardless of whether they want to “bear witness” or “paint a portrait”.

To take good pictures means to be able to feel a moment shared with others. That, and only that, is what can make photography art.

Beautiful, Still.; photographys by Colby Deal; poem by Hakeem Furious; essay by Garry Reece; 160 pages; MACK; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Let’s Talk About Our Tools]]> 2022-08-01T13:12:16Z 2022-08-01T13:12:16Z

Imagine you wanted to put a nail into the wall to hang up a framed photograph. You check the toolbox for your hammer, only to find that it has changed. It’s covered with advertising that you’re not interested in. Total strangers added graffiti. The actual head has shrunk drastically, making it unusable for the task at hand. But the hammer suddenly features all kinds of additions. The fact that it now oozes vast amounts of oil might be most troubling: your whole toolbox is filled with oil.

You decide to call the company but never make it through to a real person. You go online to check what happened to your hammer. You find a number of somewhat creepy videos in which people who might or might not have a normal social life try to convince you that they love hammers, but oil is where it’s at these days.

The above obviously is absurd. But it’s not any less absurd than what has happened on Instagram. Years ago, you could share photographs knowing that the people who followed you would see them. In turn, you would see what people shared whom you followed. That idea is long gone.

Instead, because its makers decided to copy a number of popular competitors, the app now contains any number of things that have nothing to do with photo sharing. In fact, the latest “update” (the company’s word choice) was so atrocious that even the Kardashians complained about it.

Of Instagram’s many problems for photographers (the censorship, the algorithm that doesn’t show your material to people who follow you, the “reels” nonsense, and the erratic ways in which things are constantly changed without user input), there is one that seems rather minor. But its outcome is very toxic as well. Instagram not only fuels nasty spats in its comment section, it also draws much too much attention to itself.

As a consequence, being on Instagram is a draining experience that is detrimental to one’s personal health. The other day, I noticed how draining the experience is yet again.

Having decided to phase out Instagram, I went back to Tumblr. Much like a lot of other people, I had used Tumblr years ago. It was an incredible site, but, alas, it got bought out and ruined. Now there are new owners, so it looks like a feasible option to share photographs again. I set up a new account, and I downloaded the app.

The next morning, I looked through Instagram, and then I looked through Tumblr. The difference could not have been more striking. While I was getting increasingly aggravated on Instagram, given that I had to scroll through about 90% garbage to find stuff I had actually subscribed to, on Tumblr, it was the exact opposite of that. Seeing the difference made me realize to what extent Instagram has changed over the past few years.

It also made me realize how much sheer crap I had accepted on Instagram. If anyone was to blame for the mess, it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg and his minions. It was me. After all, I had decided to continue using the app.

But I really don’t want to focus more on the garbage site that is Instagram. Even the idea of writing more words about a site that obviously doesn’t care about photographers makes my blood pressure go up.

Instead, I want to focus on something else: as photographers, why do we stick with a site that very obviously doesn’t care at all about us, that doesn’t do what we need, and that we ultimately hate?

The usual answer I hear is: there are not alternatives. I think that’s a bad answer.

I’m not particular interested in discussing the merits of alternatives, because I’m after something different. Any of these sites/app are tools. We use them because they do things for us (at least that’s the idea). They’re like hammers. If I need to get a nail into a wall, I’m going to pick a hammer. The hammer will do the job. Perfect.

I think that photographers in general are not very good at choosing the right tools that work for them. Photographers will stick with Instagram even though it’s not really a photography-sharing site any longer. Similarly, photographers will also decide to use view cameras despite the fact that they’re incredibly expensive and cumbersome. Digital cameras have long achieved a degree of quality that makes film cameras obsolete, and yet many photographers will work themselves up into a frenzy when someone dares to say this.

My point here is not to discuss the merits of film or digital or the merits of Instagram. Instead, I want to point out that we should pick the tools that are right for us. We should pick the tools that work for us — instead of the tools that make us work for them. Every photographer will have to do this on their own, assessing tools based on what they need. In order to do that, they have to do a simple cost-benefit analysis.

I have been present in many discussions around view cameras. Those never included a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, there was what came across as simple dogma mixed with a very selective focus on specific benefits that somehow were turned into the most important criteria.

That’s not a very useful approach. In fact, it’s very likely to lead you into the situation where you stick to Instagram even though you hate it, or you insist on using film even as with the money you could easily get a high-quality digital camera that would increase your productivity by huge amounts.

I’m writing this as someone who has experience with all of this. I have justified my presence on Instagram partly by thinking that as a critic, it would help me see what people are up to. But up until last week, I hadn’t asked myself whether I can and want to justify dealing with associated costs.

When I started using Tumblr, I noticed that there was a lot less to see. But the overall experience is so much better. As of now, some of the benefits offered on Instagram are absent. But the costs are much lower. That’s what I want — and need.

Using a tool such as Instagram, Tumblr, or any other social-media site should not be a drain on one’s mental health, something one dreads doing every single day. Instead, it should be a source of joy, of gratification.

Years ago, I decided to switch from a film camera that I loved very much to a digital camera. I can’t say that the camera in question (a digital SLR) is particularly attractive. But I realized that what I had stubbornly held on to (the supposed quality of film) actually created a lot of costs (in terms of money and time) that severely limited what I was able to do. With the new camera I was and am able to take pictures easily. Even as I hated figuring out how to do it, my productivity exploded. I would have never been able to produce a photobook had I stuck with that film camera.

Again, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: what are the costs, what are the benefits? And then you have to be very clear about whether the benefits really outweigh the costs, or whether you’re not tipping the scale.

While teaching, time and again I have come across photographers essentially making bad choices because they stubbornly stick to a tool that doesn’t work for them. I’ve had students stick to film cameras, as a result of which their productivity was minimal. But I’ve also had students stick to high-end digital cameras that resulted in the very same outcome. It’s not about film or digital. Instead, the question is: do you have the camera that is the right tool for you? If it is not, ditch it, and pick the one that is.

This also applies to white-cube galleries or photobooks. They’re tools to disseminate your work (and possibly make you some money if you’re lucky). Typically, photographers don’t approach them as such and, again, allow themselves to work for their tools — instead of the other way around.

If you read my recent interview with Rob Hornstra, you’ll see a photographer who has thought about this and adapted his practice to what he needs for his work. Even if your choices might be very different, I’m convinced that 90% of all photographers could learn a lot from how Rob approaches the use of his tools.

If you’re a photographer, make a cost-benefit analysis for the tools you’re using on a somewhat regular basis. If there is a tool where the costs outweigh the benefits, be prepared to make a change it — even if that means adopting a new tool that initially you might not like.

Obviously, I’m aware that we’re all just human. We all make decisions that aren’t necessarily based on what’s good for us. But we do have the capacity to check what we’re doing, which at least theoretically gives us a chance to help us make better decisions.

Ditch the tools that don’t work for you — after a careful analysis of their costs and benefits. That’s what it all comes down to.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Isivumelwano]]> 2022-07-25T14:51:46Z 2022-07-25T14:51:46Z

Weddings happen in a larger context that is defined by social, religious, and political traditions and by capitalism. As such, they express social conventions and ideologies a lot more than people might want to admit. Whatever commitment to one another the two people getting married want to celebrate, there is the contractual aspect, which is highly regulated by both states and faiths.

I will admit that I have always been repulsed by some of the traditions around marriage, such as, for example, a father “giving away” a daughter  — as if she were his property. But this is exactly part of that tradition, even if (one would hope) in modern times nobody thinks this way any longer. Property did and does play a huge role for a marriage. People might sign prenuptial agreements that secure the interests of both parties etc.

Wedding photography reflects part of that, even if the premise, of course, is that photographs taken at weddings celebrate the happy couple. Depending on the context (the society in question), wedding photography might produce different outcomes. But within a given context, the outcomes are typically so consistent that analyzing wedding photography to reveal what is being communicated is an extremely useful tool for visual-literacy classes.

Obviously, analyzing another societies’ wedding photographs often is a lot easier than one’s own. Learning to overcome one’s sense of familiarity, of ignoring what one simply takes for granted, in other words defamiliarizing the familiar (the essential Brechtian task) — that is the hardest part of becoming visually literate.

This work is not necessary for Sabelo Mlangeni‘s Isivumelwano, a collection of photographs taken at wedding in the artist’s native South Africa over the course of the past two decades. Already the very first photograph leads the viewer into uncharted territory. The upper two thirds of the picture look as if they had been covered with a veil. Only the lower third contains some information in the form of a voluminous dress touching the ground, with a pair of thin legs that end in what look like sneakers next to it (possibly a child’s legs).

The next photograph shows a column of cars that have balloons attached to them. Afterwards, we see two men holding hands, their fingers interlocked as if they were dancing. The man at the right is wearing an elegant bright suit. Of the other man we can only see a white glove on his hand and an outline of the left side of his face. His figure disappears in a dark shadow that cuts through the frame.

The fourth picture finally puts full focus on the idea of wedding. A bride is seated next to what might be her groom. But again, only parts can be made out: her veil, a big bouquet of flowers, the top of a white dress, the collar of a white shirt. All other details and faces disappear in the shadows.

With few exceptions, it would be safe to assume that were members of one of the wedding parties to receive any of the photographs in the book, they would not be particularly happy with them. What one would expect to see in wedding photographs is largely absent. Instead, there often are photographs of meaningless details. And where a bride or groom can be seen, a photograph itself might show what I described above or might be literally degraded (underexposed or scratched). Often, the “right moment” has been missed.

What’s going on here?

“In Africa, like many other parts of the world,” writes Tshepiso Mazibuko at the end of the book, “young women are raised to believe that their ultimate duty in life is to become married and to become a loyal and devoted wife. […] Knowing the inner workings of such marital agreements and the idea of it being a kind of covenant, brought out my rebelliousness.” The photographs in the book speak of a similar sense of rebelliousness, of wanting to look past the carefully planned and staged beauty of the moment, to pull back the veil of what marriage might stand for.

As someone who has never been to South Africa and who has what realistically speaking is merely surface knowledge of the country’s most recent history, there are many aspects of the book that are likely to escape me. That its title, isivumelwano, is a word from Nguni languages meaning “a contract, agreement or alliance” I learned from a text by Emmanuel Balogun in the book. The deeper meanings of the word in its original language I can’t comprehend any more than, say, those of similar words in Japanese, a language I’m currently attempting to learn.

(As a very brief aside, I should have started learning Japanese a lot earlier: learning a language so different from my own and originating in completely different society involves a lot more than cramming vocabulary and understanding grammar. Instead, I have to learn details about social conventions and traditions in ways that also allow me to see how their equivalents play out in my own context.)

Given that in the larger context of the arts, photographs also have to conform to certain conventions, when first looking at the book I was briefly confused: even as I realized the source of my confusion, I also realized how conventions in different spheres can point at similar backgrounds, at similar expectations. Unlike wedding parties, though, I can work with the Brechtian idea of the alienation effect (or whatever your preferred translation of Verfremdungseffekt might be). So I found myself looking differently at the photographs, and more carefully.

The following might read entirely like too convenient a sentiment of writing, but I do think that I was able to connect some of the irritations I wrote about at the beginning of this piece with these pictures. The pictures are irritating, and they were made with that idea in mind. Granted, if the book contained traditionally beautiful wedding photographs, I would be irritated for a different reason. In that case, however, I would hardly revisit it.

I had not expected to ever see a photobook made around wedding photography by someone consciously producing such pictures as an act of resistance, an act of wanting us to look more closely at what is going on at weddings to reveal the traditions and ideologies in the background. I also had not been expected to become engrossed in such a book.

Isivumelwano; photographs by Sabelo Mlangeni; essays by Emmanuel Balogun, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni, Tshepiso Mazibuko; 120 pages; FW:Books; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Mentoring, Workshops]]> 2022-07-18T14:39:02Z 2022-07-18T14:39:02Z

Over the past two decades, I’ve invested my energy into writing, teaching, and photographing. I will have to admit that I find it difficult to promote myself and what I have to offer. It’s not something I’m comfortable with. However, it is obvious that if I don’t tell people about it, I can’t expect them to know. Having said that:

Online workshops are the newest addition to what I have to offer. At the time of this writing, there are two workshops planned, both scheduled to begin in late August this year. You can find all relevant details on the website I created for them. Here are some teasers:

The first workshop centers on Image and Text. The idea is for participants to develop the beginnings (or possibly more) of a text-image piece: how do words next to pictures, how do words work with pictures? If you’re curious about that and you’ve always wanted to try it, this workshop will be for you. For this workshop, you will want to have some pictures already. That way, you can focus on creating the text.

The second workshop centers on Boredom. Here, we’ll look into what boredom actually means. We’ll find out why dismissing something as “boring” usually doesn’t say anything about the thing we’re talking about. In a nutshell, we’ll vastly enrich our idea of what art is and/or can do. This workshop will include some readings, and participants are going to produce a small “boring” project (which obviously won’t be boring at all). I’m really excited this workshop, because I think all-too-often, photographers struggle with making pictures of things that are mundane or maybe very familiar. Isn’t the mundane boring? Well, not at all, and we’ll find out why.

Mentoring: In late 2020, I started working with photographers on an individual basis, meeting with them online to work on what they need help with. I have a decade of experience doing such work at an MFA level. For my Mentoring, I will work with all levels, though, and we focus on what each individual photographer needs. That can be developing a project, understanding one’s photography better, developing a book, or any combination of these.

The Mentoring is set up in blocks (I call them Modules) that typically cover three or four months (it’s six meetings that happen every two to three weeks). That way, signing up doesn’t feel like such a huge commitment. With most photographers, I’ve been working for extended periods of time. It’s all very flexible, and like I said it’s completely catered to what a photographer needs. It will get you a very solid chunk of an MFA education at a fraction of the cost.

Before we start working together, I meet up with photographers interested in Mentoring to talk about their goals and about what I can do for them (the meeting is free of charge). That way, we can find out whether the commitment makes sense for them.

As part of the Mentoring, a number of photographers have developed photobooks. Given that I’m heavily invested in the world of the photobook, this outcome probably will not surprise anyone. Part of my work has included teaching people about what you have to do once you have a dummy: what do you do with this? How do you approach publishers? How do you understand whether a publisher’s offer works for you?

In a nutshell, with the Mentoring you get access to someone who has taught at an MFA level for a decade, who has been critically writing about contemporary photography for even longer, who is a photographer himself (thus knowing a lot of the struggles and challenges first hand), and who has worked on other people’s and his own photobook(s). With MFA students, I also worked on exhibitions.

There is a lot of information included in the pages I created for Workshops and Mentoring.

If you’re interested or want to sign up, please be in touch via email (

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Verdigris]]> 2022-07-11T15:15:37Z 2022-07-11T15:15:37Z

Verdigris is one of the words that is a lot less familiar than what it stands for. “A coating of verdigris forms naturally on copper and copper alloys such as brass and bronze when those metals are exposed to air,” the dictionary tells me. “Some American English speakers may find that they know it best from the greenish-blue coating that covers the copper of the Statue of Liberty.” I’m intrigued by the the word “some” in that sentence. Possibly that’s a rabbit hole that might not be in service of what I’m after here, namely to write about the new book by Harold Strak.

In a number of ways, Verdigris does not fit neatly into the current world of the photobook. It’s not topic based, and ideas of narrative are very far. Instead, it’s entirely concerned with photography itself.

Of course, there is a lot of work right now that focuses on photography itself. The vast bulk of that is what I think of as “Akademiefotografie” or “photography for the academy:” it’s made in academic settings (art schools) for academic audiences (peers and teachers, and then curators). It’s usually very good — and, at the same time, very soulless. Sometimes, I like looking at it. But mostly I don’t: photography for the academy is much too concerned with winking at those who are already in the know.

You couldn’t say this about this book and the work it showcases. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of Akademiefotografie. I have never met Harold Strak and I know nothing about him. But looking at this book I’m thinking that he really loves photography and what it does. You could cut out any of the pages from this book (not that I would encourage that) and hang it on a wall.

Obviously, you could do that with many other photobooks as well. But here, you’d look for a nice, understated frame — maybe something you’d find in a thrift shop, and you’d have something precious on your wall.

“Precious” is a very good word for the book itself as well. It’s published by Van Zoetendaal. “[P]hotography in print,” their website says, “must be optimally lithographed and printed so that it ‘becomes a new form of vintage.’” A new form of vintage — when you receive a book made by Willem van Zoetendaal in the mail, it usually feels as if you’re receiving something that has always been around, possibly to have been ignored or underappreciated until just now.

In fact, many of the objects depicted in the book were ignored and certainly underappreciated before they were photographed. Strak took pictures of 15,000 objects found during an archeological dig in Amsterdam. Those photographs made it into Amsterdam Stuff, which I reviewed here. Some of these pictures (a very small number of them, compared with the original set) are now included in Verdigris.

In addition, there are a number of pictures of Amsterdam itself: views of canals, of buildings, of trees (occasionally through what looks like a large studio window). I have been to Amsterdam a number of times, and I was struck to what extent these photographs transported me back, re-immersing me in this peculiar city’s atmosphere. Much like any of the cities that I enjoy returning to, my fondness for Amsterdam in part derives from it being attractive as a city only to some extent. It has its pretty corners, but there’s also the grime of life — the thing that makes a city interesting for me.

There’s something somewhat disconcerting about this book. There’s a difference between looking at a photobook and writing about it. But mostly, there is a convergence between those activities: to be able to write about a book, I need to look at it. During the process of writing, this looking can become almost obsessive, in particular if words fail to arrive. Books thus mostly lead me to the words.

Here, though, any time I pick up the book to get over a moment of being stuck, the photography doesn’t lead me to new words. Instead, it makes me think about something else. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of art writing that focuses on its own discontent or its own process. So I’m finding myself slightly annoyed right now about doing it myself.

But I do think that the fact that this book resists being written about by me points at something: the photographer’s enjoyment of making pictures and the publisher’s enjoyment of making an finely crafted book translate into this viewer wanting to be immersed in it without having to think too much about what it all means, let alone having to try to convey it to strangers. I suppose that’s what I was trying to get at before when I wrote that the book “does not fit neatly into the current world of the photobook”.

Verdigris is a book of exquisite beauty where you’d expect none to exist. For example, in one spread, there’s a photograph of what looks like a flattened spider encased in a web (some other spider’s?) against a black background next to a picture of an old shoe, photographed to show its sole. Given this description, it might be hard to imagine that the pairing would be beautiful. But it is. Throughout the whole book, there is a lot of that kind of beauty.

What this all comes down to is the following. If you love photobooks, you should get yourself a copy of Verdigris. It combines the best of photobook production with a much needed reminder that there is joy to be had in photography. It’s the joy of seeing what photographs can do when they’re done well.

This strange combination of photographs taken by Harold Strak takes us deep into the photographer’s mind while making us think about how we connect to what is on view.

Highly recommended.

Verdigris; photographs by Harold Strak; essay by Vrouwkje Tuinman; 120 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Politics of American Property]]> 2022-07-04T14:51:17Z 2022-07-04T14:51:17Z

Possibly the most important and symbolically potent photograph in Mitch Epstein‘s Property Rights comes at the end of the book, right before the author’s essay. It shows the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond, Virginia after protesters had adorned its base with graffiti and a number of protest placards in 2020. There are groups of Black people visible at the memorial — some posing for pictures, others taking them.

I’m struck by one person in particular, possibly the one easiest to miss. At the left edge of the frame, there is a small child looking at what is in front of her or him. The child is easily dwarfed by everything around, including the monstrosity that is this memorial that was constructed in 1890 — long after the end of the Civil War — and that was finally taken down as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that had led to its adornment.

The child could not have been cognizant of the meaning of what presented itself in this spot. At that age, the child could not have known that all over the country, its own enemies — defeated in a long and bloody war — had been honoured with these kinds of statues, all in the name of some supposed tradition that, as was clear to everyone, basically meant that if Robert Lee had been on that spot, the child and all the other Black people would not have been.

The fact that until the end of the Civil War human beings — Black people — were considered property in vast parts of the United States has remained as the heaviest unresolved burden of the country’s history, in particular since the defeat of the so-called Confederacy resulted in only a partial fulfillment of what the Declaration of Independence had announced decades earlier: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Since its very beginning, in the country that declared “that all men are created equal” and that they all were “endowed […] with certain unalienable Rights”, the lived reality of large numbers of people has been very different. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. I’m writing this article shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v. Wade, essentially decreeing that in vast parts of the country women have less bodily rights than men. Yesterday, a video emerged that showed a man named Jayland Walker being gunned down in a hail of bullets over a minor traffic violation. Only a subset of men get to enjoy the “unalienable Rights” promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, the United States arose from a number of colonies, making it not the only but certainly the most powerful and wealthy country to have emerged from a settler-colonialist background. The land was taken from those who lived here originally, Indigenous Americans. Property thus emerges as possibly the one entity that gives the United States its own identity.

You can trace pretty much every conflict seen in the US today to questions of property, or more accurately: to an in group not wanting to share the property they have amassed with others and to asserting that the rights derived from it allows them to take even more.  This is the premise of Property Rights.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with a chapter on Standing Rock, which in 2016/17 became the site of protests because of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is followed by a chapter about the US-Mexican border, crossed daily by numerous migrants in search of a better life.

Not every chapter is literally about a conflict over property. There also are others where property is one or more steps away. There is a chapter on some of the consequences of global warming: wild fires and floods. And there is a short chapter about the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Property Rights thus offers a sweeping panorama of the conflicts the United States has been dealing with over the course of the past ten years, some of them old and re-emerging time and again, some of them brand new but not any less dangerous.

The book mostly features the view-camera photography that its maker has become well known for. It must have been an incredible amount of work to create it (not to mention the resources required to do so). But I usually don’t judge books by how much effort it took to make them. As viewers, all we have are the pictures (plus, in this case, some text), and that’s what we have to go by.

The book is filled with a plethora of very good photographs. Even as I have developed severe concerns about the use of a view-camera (I’ll get to this later), when it’s used well, the results tend to be stunning — as they are here. I suppose the sheer beauty of most of the landscape photographs alone might make people look at the work who otherwise would be turned off by what they perceive of as the artifice of fine-arts photography.

And I want to give Mitch Epstein full credit for his personal investment. It’s one thing to profess one’s concern for urgent issues; but it’s quite another to travel to so many hot spots to put the one tool one knows well to as good a use as possible. Property Rights is an overtly political book by a member of a generation that has often shied away from making political work (even as they might loudly profess their admiration for books like Robert Frank’s The Americans). I think the creation of this book is a very important statement on its own.

That said, Property Rights might well be the last relevant photobook to emerge from the American view-camera craze that started in the late 20th Century and that had predominantly male photographers crisscross the country in search of photographic masterpieces. Even if there are things to be said for the format, its language has now exhausted itself.

The photographic conversation as much as larger societal topics have now moved to an extent that trekking out with some boxy camera that requires absolute stillness (and a lot of money to operate, given associated costs) simply is incapable of capturing the general energy that is in the air. In all fairness, there are some pictures in the book that get at that energy and that it would seem were taken with a different camera (for example, pictures from BLM protests). But even they remain mostly very still, very reserved.

Furthermore, in form Property Rights is almost indistinguishable from the artist’s 2003 Family Business, which I think is an absolute masterpiece. There, Epstein trained his camera on the failing furniture business his father and aunt were trying to maintain, while dealing with a number of disasters in the rental properties the father owned. At the same time, the book is a touching reflection on a fraught father-son relationship.

Property Rights now uses the same format as the book that was published almost two decades ago. But it would have benefited from a more contemporary form, using some of the newly refined tools that photobook makers have been exploring of late. The chapter structure feels too rigid, and it makes seeing similarities between them more difficult than it could have been. The book certainly would have benefited from a much tighter edit.

Crucially, an oversized coffee-table book might not be the best format for a book that is filled with criticism of property and the problems arising from it. Of course, whether it would have been possible to make something different isn’t clear, given that the publisher, Steidl, appears to have dialed in that one formula to make a book (big, thick paper and thus overly heavy, pricey), possibly thinking that a book’s physical heft automatically translates into artistic weight.

I see Property Rights as finishing something that Epstein started out with Family Business. Where the earlier book looks at a family dynamic being made almost impossible to deal with, given the failing family business, the new book now talks about what is becoming very obvious before our own eyes right now: the whole country’s dynamic is becoming more and more impossible, given an incessant placing of property rights above all else, including, crucially, the majority of the people living here.

Even as the family business disappears, Family Business ends on a good note: father and son begin to understand each other, to create that somewhat rickety, yet precious peace and understanding that can exist between previously conflicting family members of different generations. There is not such end note in Property Rights — how could there be? As viewers, we can only hope that eventually, a good end note will be reached as well and that that promise from the Declaration of Independence will finally be fulfilled for every person.

Property Rights; photographs by Mitch Epstein; text by Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell; 288 pages; Steidl; 2021

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Devil Is Leaving His Cave]]> 2022-06-27T14:47:28Z 2022-06-27T14:47:28Z

In early 2021, I spoke Karolina Gembara about her work (you can find the long conversation split up into part 1 and part 2). There was one particular aspect of the conversation that I kept coming back to in my head (it’s from part 2): “Recently I completed another project where photography is only a pretext. During the Nowi warszawiacy workshop one girl mentioned her family struggles with finding a flat — landlords reject them because they are refugees. So I dedicated my time to become an agent to find housing. […] The whole process was recorded on video, with images and audio. […] The visual part is just a documentation. The most important part is that the family found a flat. The visual layer is present, but the core of this project isn’t visible in a traditional way.” (my emphasis)

It was the conclusion of this description, the part that I emphasized, that made me think. I remember how initially, I lost interest in the project, given that it wasn’t about pictures (or visuals). But with time, I started to challenge my own assumptions, in particular once I started looking into the two books that ultimately resulted in my recent article about photographers and their idea of collaboration. Am I too attached to what Karolina called “the traditional way,” namely the idea that at the end of a photography project, the pictures ought to exist on a wall (possibly framed) or in a photobook?

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love looking at prints on a wall or in a photobook. But this particular format has its limitations. To begin with, its audience is limited. It often excludes the very people who would find themselves in the pictures. Furthermore, as I’ve argued in my article about collaboration, in the end, the real problem to be solved tends to be a photography world one — unlike in the case of Karolina Gembara’s project where the “most important part [was] that the family found a flat.”

“The art world has never known what to do with Wendy Ewald.” Abigail Winogrand writes in her essay that’s included in The Devil Is Leaving His Cave (p. 114) “Indeed, it has frequently underestimated her. […] her work remains difficult to categorize, particularly in  a market and institutional landscape still defined, financially and otherwise, by the heroic notion of the singular artistic genius.” In what follows, Winogrand nevertheless attempts to place Ewald into an artistic context. On the one hand, that’s a worthwhile endeavour: how can we understand an artist when they’re completely detached from everybody else?

On the other hand, maybe resisting the impulse might be the bolder move. After all, as the history of art has already shown, there exist artists who push what we understand as art and/or what art can do in a singular, determined fashion. Maybe we can understand Wendy Ewald this way? Especially photo and art historians might be most resistant to such a push — it’s difficult to write art history by ditching parts of one’s own frame work.

But for the rest of us, I do believe that there is ample food for thought here. After all, why should the work produced by this particular artist be made to conform to parameters that aren’t very well suited for it when doing the complete opposite — expanding the parameters — might not only lead us to a better understanding of it, possibly leading to a better way to recognize the strength of her work, but also to a collective re-understanding of what photographs can do?

Maybe this should be our task, especially when we deal with the idea of collaboration in photography: instead of having the world conform to our conventions, we might want to explore a widening of the conventions so that there is more space for the world — and, consequently, a widening of the possibilities of photography itself.

But no, photography itself does not need a widening of its possibilities. It already is very wide. Instead, it’s how we see and treat photography within confines of the art world where the narrowing is happening.

The Devil Is Leaving His Cave makes this clear. The book contains two separate bodies of work (if that’s even the right word) that are interrelated. In 1991, Ewald went to Chiapas, the southernmost province of Mexico, to lead photography classes with a number of children from local communities. Roughly three decades later, the artist worked with fifteen young Mexican Americans living in Chicago. The later part entailed a number of differences: photographic materials had changed, and there also was the (at the time of this writing ongoing) Covid-19 pandemic that required some remote teaching.

In terms of their approach, there are some differences as well. The children living in southern Mexico set out to produce a record of their daily lives that, crucially, also entailed staging photographs of dreams. This is where the book’s title originates: it’s the caption (“description”) of the picture on the cover (that can also be found inside the book). “For the Maya students,” Ewald writes in her introduction (p. 15), “dreams played as important a role in understanding the world as waking events”.

Photographically, the photographs are incredible. But they defy easy categorizations. How do straight up documentations sit next to depictions of dreams that derive their visual power in part from their own technical crudeness? Well, they do, especially if you accept the approach the Maya students would have taken: all of the photographs speak of the same thing — their lived reality.

The later workshop produced text heavier outcomes, possibly in part because its participants were a little older. Here, the concern with the aspect of immigration comes into sharp focus. “When you’re little,” workshop participant Marestela Martinez writes (p. 108), ” it’s not so hard being Mexican and American because you’re still growing. You don’t understand what people are saying. You think they’re talking just to you. But now it’s hard, because you understand.”

Next to Marestela Martinez’s large portrait and right above her testimony, there’s a photograph she took of a mural showing George Floyd. Around his head, she wrote the following text: “His daughter will grow up and see her dad’s last moments everywhere”. It’s too awful a sentiment to consider even as of course, this is exactly what’s going to happen. And it’s equally incredibly touching to see the young Mexican immigrant sympathize with George Floyd’s daughter.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that photographers have to change anything if they want to pursue their idea of collaboration. There’s nothing wrong with producing something made for and seen only by people in the world of photography. At the same time, in light of the explosion of crises we are facing right now and in light of our own governments’ reluctance to provide even a modicum of a solution for any one of them, this approach increasingly reflects the luxury position that being an artist entails.

It is work such as Wendy Ewald’s The Devil Is Leaving His Cave that has the power to point toward possibly more interactive approaches in photography where a collaboration ends up being a give and take. Ultimately, at least some of the ideas we cherish in the world of photography might have to be diluted, if not expanded (where not abandoned).

In the end, this can only lead to the world of professional photography becoming richer, as it soaks up some of the ideas that people who don’t consider themselves photographers have taken for granted for a long time. At the same time, professional photographers and artists do possess skills that have the potential to enrich the contributions made by those we ask for a  collaboration.


The Devil Is Leaving His Cave; photographs by a number of contributors including Wendy Ewald; essays by Wendy Ewald, Abigail Winogrand, Edgar Garcia; 144 pages; MACK; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Abdo Shanan’s Dry]]> 2022-06-20T14:10:42Z 2022-06-20T14:10:42Z

A few years ago, we witnessed a boom in self published photobooks. A huge number of emerging but also established photographers decided that they wanted to take on all aspects of making and publishing a photobook themselves. For me, the most exciting outcome of the boom were the widely felt senses of possibility and experimentation that the staid area of photobook publishing suddenly experienced. However, even if there now are a small number of publishers that have retained those senses (Hans Gremmen’s FW:Books is my go-to example), unfortunately since the end of the boom the world of photobook has become a bit boring again.

I am fully aware of the fact that publishing books is a very risky business. So if you have arrived at a model that works, then there’s no good (business) reason to change it. Still, I feel that a photobook produced in, let’s say, 2022 ought not to look and feel like a photobook in 2002, simply because in those two decades a few more possibilities might have opened up. Thus, mine isn’t a capitalist argument (dress up the same thing in new packaging, hoping to sell some more). Instead, I’m concerned about the book itself and what it can do for its audience. As Hans Gremmen and a few other publishers continue to show, you can make a photobook that looks and feels contemporary even when the source material is very old. That’s the way it should be.

The above will not surprise anyone who has been following this site for a while. I have insisted on not producing Tupperware style books for a long time, arguing that if you view your book as some random container, then that’s not going to help your pictures. Of course, there are all those people who will say that a photobook should be all about the picture. Nothing should be allowed to take any attention away from those. But do those people actually understand that a photobook is its own medium? You don’t read a novel, expecting to look at the words, do you? I know, these kinds of comparisons aren’t ideal; but I’m sure it is clear what I’m trying to get at.

I had to think of these aspects of the photobook again when I received Abdo Shanan‘s self published Dry in the mail. The book and an accompanying booklet are held together by a wrapper (described on the photographer’s website as “a three flaps black jacket”). There’s the black silhouette of a barren tree printed onto its black card stock. Open the first flap to encounter the words “How is it possible for an Island to exist in the middle of an Ocean?” Open the second flap to see the book itself: its outer cover is black as well. Inside the wrapper, there are three photographs (printed with silver ink), which look archival and which are hard to make out. There are a man, a woman, and a group of people (they look all male, but it’s impossible to be certain).

There are black sections at the beginning and end of the book as well. As on the wrapper, silver ink was used to print photographs on it. The viewer first encounters an interior, a stair leading down somewhere, a closed door, a gate, a cemetery, a hand reaching into some foliage, and lastly (and much bigger) what might be the edge of a jungle. It’s all very mysterious and intriguing. The first page of the following section (using white paper) contains the title page. Afterwards, the book presents a combination of black-and-white and colour photographs (answering the eternal and eternally boring question: can you combine these two types of pictures? with: of course, you can if you do it well).

I’ve looked at the book a few times, and the mix of what is being shown still surprises me. To begin with (this will satisfy the most conservative members of photoland), there are a lot of great pictures. Furthermore, the editing and sequencing has been done really, really well. You’ll have to remember: as someone who hasn’t looked at the book and who thus knows nothing about it, the book needs to reveal itself in a way that won’t make you put it away. It really does, and it does it in a way that wants you to look at it again and again.

The use of the portraits is very intriguing. More than once, the same person is shown in two different photographs — this is a technique Michael Schmidt used in Ein-Heit to great effect. It’s startling to see the same person again. At some stage, you encounter a short quote, which doesn’t tell you all that much (which only adds to the mystery). A few pages later, there are more quotes. They continue underneath the photographs, a number of portraits of people with a variety of skin tones. The first quote reveals the book’s topic. It begins with “I wouldn’t be able to live in Algeria permanently.”

The selection of short quotes centers on what that might mean — Algeria, a country with a colonial past or being Algerian. “[T]here is no such thing as a homogeneous Algeria,” the final quote in the book concludes. It is placed opposite of a portrait of a man who decided to lean outside of the frame. There merely is a sliver of his beard left.

When I first looked at the book, I didn’t read the quotes. As a bookmaker, you cannot control how people decide to encounter what you’ve made. Even though I was unable to tell where exactly the book had been photographed (I’d learn that later, reading the text), the overall idea of the book was communicated very strongly to me. You can see it. This is what I want in a photobook.

It’s not that I mind reading text (quite on the contrary). But if you can visually communicate the idea of your book — a sense of displacement in the environment that in principle you should feel completely comfortable in, then that’s great. It’s great because this sense might be shared by people in other parts of the world as well. Algeria is merely one of the many countries with a colonial past. Furthermore, questions of national identity and belonging are now also wracking the very countries that are responsible for the mess they left behind in their former colonies.

Thus, Dry is a book of and for our times. Those who want to learn more about Algeria can read the booklet. Therein, excerpts from Karima Lazali’s Colonial Trauma: A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria are reproduced. “For centuries,” part of it reads, “Algeria has been the site of many conquests and of battles fought against the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and the French. Each of these upheavals has had an impact on the habitus and languages of this land’s inhabitants for many generations.” For most Westerners, this is something that would have to be imagined. For people in many other parts of the world, this forms the background of their culture and society.

There are no other books listed on Abdo Shanan‘s website, making this a very, very impressive debut photobook. I’m hoping it will be seen and appreciated widely, given the relevance of what it covers and given how well it was produced.


Dry; photographs by Abdo Shanan; text by Karima Lazali; 104 pages; self published; 2022

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.4

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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).

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[On Quitting One’s Day Job]]> 2022-06-13T14:38:50Z 2022-06-13T14:38:50Z

There is a very telling anecdote in Robert Slifkin‘s excellent Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work. “Such was the power of Hare’s singular vision,” Slifkin writes near the end of the book (p. 215), “that […] his mother resisted having her portrait taken by him for fear that she would look like all of the other characters in his pictures.” The source for this is a tape that the photographer produced himself, a recording of a conversation he had with designer Marvin Israel around the time of his first and only exhibition at MoMA.

It is relatively easy to spot a photograph by Chauncey Hare, in particular one of the peopled interiors. Typically, one or more people are depicted in what through the use of a wide-angle lens looks like a cavernous, barren room. More often than not, the scene is harshly illuminated by a flash. At times, some of the subjects in a picture are posing for it, while other are not. Some of Hare’s sitters were unaware of the wide-angle lens so they simply assumed that they wouldn’t end up in the picture.

Today, Chauncey Hare would be a well-known name in the world of photography, much like, one suspects, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, or maybe Allan Sekula. But he is not. There were three books made during his lifetime, two of which I own. The first — Interior America — was published by Aperture at the occasion of the aforementioned MoMA exhibition in 1977. The second book — Protest Photographs — was published by Steidl in 2009. They’re both out of print. For a number of reasons, Interior America is the vastly better book. Hare’s third book — This Was Corporate America — was self published in 1984. By that time, Hare had completed his withdrawal from the world of photography almost completely.

There’s something very interesting about Hare’s photographs. You could crop parts of some of them, to arrive at a different photograph’s picture. Often, a single photograph will allow for more than one such crop. I can’t easily think of another photographer that includes, say, a Diane Arbus picture alongside a Walker Evans. This is not to diminish the quality of Hare’s work — on the contrary. I think that Hare was a more interesting photographer than (to stick with my example) both Arbus and Evans. He was able to combine an incredible skill at composition (with some very minor staging thrown in) with highly charged portraiture.

Much like in the case of Arbus, there’s a deeply unsettling aspect to Hare’s portraiture — exactly the thing his own mother picked up on when she declined to be depicted. In the photographs, people typically come across as being completely lost in the cruel and unforgiving world of their own homes, when they don’t look like Arbusian characters. It’s not clear whether Hare was aware of the fact that his portrayal of people could be seen as abusive, even as he set out to show with them how they were being abused by corporations.

I’m writing these words as someone who has long admired Hare’s work. Over the years, I have come to the realization that good photography (or maybe photography that manages to reach the level of art) does not offer a single path towards what it might mean. In good photography, there is more than one element. The combination of the different elements creates a push and pull for the viewer, having them face conflicting emotions.

(For a long time, I thought Arbus possessed this element. But now, I think the pictures merely reflect their maker’s cynicism and cruelty. There’s the push, sure. But the pull viewers end up having to construct for themselves: nobody wants to admit that much like Arbus, they’re fascinated by visually sneering at people.)

There’s an agenda behind every photographer’s work, even if some (possibly many) of them would like you to think that’s not the case. Hare was upfront about his. In fact, any time you see a photograph of his today (which is very, very rare) it comes with the disclaimer. In the list of image credits in Quitting Your Day Job, the disclaimer can be found after each of Hare’s pictures. It reads in full: “This photograph was made by Chauncey Hare to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multi-national corporations and their elite owners and manager.”

How or why this makes sense (or not) is brilliantly laid out by Robert Slifkin in Quitting Your Day Job, which might be re-setting the standard of what a photographer’s biography actually ought to look like. It balances criticism with admiration. It presents the photographer as the kind of conflicted human being that we all are. This is a much needed deviation from the hagiographic attempts of biography produced for a number of famous American photographers recently.

I suppose in many ways, Hare made this easy: he had quit the world of photography in ways that decades later left strong recollections with a great many people. In fact, it would be tempting to view Hare as a strange interloper (in my own experience, I’ve noticed how photoland loves these kinds of people — they’re part of the system but, intriguingly, they’re not). While you could certainly think about it this way, the care and attention that Slifkin devoted to Hare and his work resulted in a book that goes very deep into this man’s life work and that indirectly also comments on the world of photography itself.

Throughout the book Slifkin manages to remain accepting of Hare’s predicament, even as he details the many, many unusual events that happened during the time when Hare was considering himself a photographer. Told out of context, some of them are too strange to be true. Did Chauncey Hare actually picket an exhibition at SFMOMA that he was included in, severely damaging his prospects of future engagement with the museum? Yes, he did. But there are a lot more details here (and elsewhere) that are worthwhile knowing.

What struck me when reading the book was how Slifkin managed to strike the perfect balance between being sympathetic to Hare’s ideas and aspirations and laying out all the details of the various conundrums and problems created by a photographer who found himself at odds with the world around him more or less all the time. In a nutshell, Hare must have been an incredibly difficult person who appeared to have lacked the understanding that human relationships of any kind are impossible without a degree of compromise. I’m thinking that these are the perfect ingredients for great photographs and great trouble.

Hare had started work as an engineer for the company that is now known as Chevron (previously SOCAL), possibly the kind of job that would have set him up for a comfortable life. But he was deeply unhappy in that job and had found that photography offered him an outlet. Through sheer determination, he managed to produce photography that was so good that it easily competed with what was being fêted by John Szarkowski, the most well-known and most powerful curator at the time.

After his MoMA exhibition, Hare pursued an MFA. Attending San Francisco’s Art Institute, he studied with teachers such as Sekula, Martha Rosler, and others — even as, the book makes clear, Hare clearly didn’t think he needed to learn anything. He wanted the MFA to be able to teach. The book dives into these aspects as well, much as it covers, say, Hans Haacke’s institutional critique, which could have easily provided a framework for the direction Hare was heading in (with his inclusion of text and audio materials in exhibitions).

I’m now thinking of Hare’s photographs as the missing link between American photography as established by Walker Evans and the photographers that ended up being lumped together in the New Documents movement. As I already noted above, Hare managed to charge most of his pictures with elements of both. The combination makes the results more interesting than either the older or Hare’s contemporaries’ work. The contradiction between two impulses creates the sparks: it’s not either blank description or slightly cynical (and possibly sneering) observation at arm’s length — it’s both at the same time. What a combo!

However, as Slifkin writes (p. 127), “MoMA […] was just as much corporate entity as SOCAL (one, moreover, that had shared origins in the Rockefeller family), and the museum seemed to propagate many of the same oppressive practices that made his experience as an engineer so frustrating and at times nauseating.” In Hare’s own words (p. 126f.): “I couldn’t tell any difference between Szarkowski and some person at Chevron who is about three levels above me. The same kind of authoritarian outlook.” Within the logic of his own mind, there could only be one conclusion, one possible way to deal with the situation he had placed himself in.

“Hare’s disavowal of photography,” Slifkin observes (p. 188), “wasn’t so clearly an act of willful renunciation as much as one of disheartened resignation.” If you want to take anything away from this biography, it’s this. Hare deeply loved and cared for photography. But the world of photography was unable to love him back on the terms that he wanted.

It was, in Hare’s words (p. 159), a “playground for the rich”, filled with people who are “seeking personal recognition above any responsibility to themselves as complete human beings.” He followed through on what he believed in and eventually ended up becoming a therapist.

Hare had, in Slifkin’s words, “sought — and in many cases succeeded — in rendering the world in his photographs as an extension of his interior self.” It’s just that in his particular case, the photographer’s interior self was unable to deal with the fact that while the world of photography loved the world in his photographs, the world in his photographs was incompatible with the world of photography.

Very highly recommended.

Robert Slifkin — Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work; 242 pages; MACK; 2022

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